You may be athletic, ran multiple marathons, a gym freak or may be in great shape but remember
this, altitude sickness is a bitch. There is no worse feeling than grasping for air to breathe.
The challenges were certainly there. I have hiked a lot of mountains, camped out in the wild but never at such altitudes. This was a 4 day, 46 KM hike across the andes with an average altitude at 12,000 feet and the highest pass at about 15,000 feet, camping with only basic facilities. Our guide met us the night before and told us that the hike is more mental than physical. I spent only a night at Cusco which is where all hikes begin and it was not enough to get used to the altitude.
The people at our hostel told us to avoid alcohol and I promptly did, partly because I was sick
with cold and the lack of oxygen made it even worse. I woke up the next day feeling a little
drowsy but excited to go on an adventure with 14 other random people in our group. The guide
came to pick us up from the hotel at 6:30 AM and we spent the next couple of hours picking
people up from their hotels. I was sitting in the front seat trying to see who else borded the
mini van. Interestingly, we had a mix of people from different countries and age groups. I
never knew how close I would get to all of them by the end of our adventure.
Our first stop was at Ollantaytambo where we bought supplies for the trip, water, snacks and ponchos. A bunch of porters joined us here and they carried our tents, mattress pads and food for the journey. From there we took a terrible mountain road to the trail head at KM 82. I say terrible because of how dangerous it was to drive on that road with no guard rails on the road and a steep 1000 feet fall into a river.
Day 1: Km. 82 to Huayllabamba
Altitude at Start: 2600m/8528 ft.
Elevation: +400m (1312 ft.)
Altitude at End : 3000m/9840 ft.
Distance: 12 km
Approximate Time taken: 5:30 hours
The trail began with a passport verification at the checkpoint and then we were off, immediately crossing a rope suspension bridge across the raging Urubamba river. I had an interesting conversation with one of the guides. He was 15 and seemed to enjoy this hike every time he does it. He has done this hike since he was 13 and has been a guide for about 100 trips so far. We stopped for lunch just after we got to Llactapata which had majestic ruins of the incas.
After our lunch, the elevation picked up and continued its steady climb on the other side. After initially spotting the peak of Mount Veronica, we kept looking over our backs for the rest of the day at the stunning panorama of the snow covered peaks rising over the V shaped valley. At the end of our hike on day 1, we reached a small village called Huayllabamba.
Our porters set up the tents for us and made us dinner. This was the best night for us to socalize with the rest of the group as we were all excited to get to know each other and what they do. After our dinner, I talked to everyone in the group, we played cards that night and I went star gazing before I went to sleep. I have never seen the southern sky before in my life and I was thrilled to see some of the constellation that I have never seen before. I felt great after the day’s hike even though I was sick with cold and flu.
Day 2: Huayllabamba to Pacamayo
Altitude at Start: 3000m/9840 ft.
Altitude at End : 3500m/11,480 ft.
Elevation: +1200m (3936 ft.) to Dead Woman’s Pass. Then -700m (2296 ft.) to Pacamayo campsite
Distance: 11 km
Approximate Time taken: 7:30 hours
We were warned before the hike that day 2 was going to be strenous with steep hikes and rapid descent. We knew this part, but we were unprepared for the altitude sickness. We chewed coco leaves for some remedy but it wasn’t enough.
We began our hike at 7:30 AM after having tea and breakfast. Day 2 was interesting because we had to cross thick forest cover and it started raining pretty heavy as well. We took at break at Llulluchapampa camp site for some tea and light lunch. The ascent to Dead women’s pass was brutal. I volunteered to carry Vick’s bag as he was sick. Biggest mistake ever :). Carrying a 40 pound bag at 14,000 elevation on a rainy day with severe headache from altitude sickeness made this the worst day in my life. I still remember Marshall from our group, who crossed the pass and went back for his mom and helped her cross it again. I have no idea how he did it. He has my respect forever!
At the top of the pass, we took some pictures and looked at the panaroma. It was gorgeous but I
wanted to hurry up and start the descent as it was freezing on top. This was as much a challenge as the ascent due to the precariously arranged stones, the steep steps and the pressure on the knees and ankles. The stick I tore off a tree provided a huge boost. Once I got to the camp site, I warmed up with hot tea and passed out for a bit. The conversation at the dinner was just about how terrible the weather was and how sick we all were. There were no proper toilets so we had to pee and poop in the wild. It wasn’t a problem for the dude’s but women folk had some issues.
You have to really appreciate the guides and porters because they clean up after you start your hike in the morning, pack the tents and food for the rest of the trip, cross us along the hike and set up everything before we even get there. I mean that is AMAZING….
Day 3: Pacamayo to Huinay Huayna
Altitude at Start: 3500m/11,480 ft.
Altitude at End : 2650m/8692 ft.
Elevation: +400m (1312 ft.) to Second Pass. Then -400m (1312 ft.) down to Concha Marca. Then
+150m (492 ft.) to Third Pass. Then -1000m (3280 ft.) down to Huinay Huayna.
Distance: 16 km
Approximate Time taken: 8 hours
Day 3 was interesting as our legs were pretty sore from the previous day and it started off with a steep 400m ascent to reach the second pass. The scenery during the hike was pretty awesome. You pass through different ecosystems as you change elevations. There were a lot more inca ruins and inca sites along the trail. You can spot the Inca ruin of Sayac Marca from a distance. The trail descends steeply before you reach the portal to Sayac Marca. We took loads of pictures here and rested for a bit.
After this portion, the trail was pretty flat and it goes through a thick forest. I remember our guide Huan showing us drug plants like Ayahuasca, Marijuana, Mescalito, Salvia and other hallucinogenic plants just along the trail:). Man, no wonder south americans are the happiest people in the world.
We stopped for rest at an inca site called Phuyupata Marca where we filled some water. It is advisable to use water purification tablets as the stream water is not potable. We were on the final stretch for the day and we took the scenic route to the basecamp as opposed to the shorter but less scenic one. You could actually see the Machu picchu mountain as you are descending to the camp site.
Day 3 of the campsite had proper bathrooms, showers and a canteen where you could get beers. We
drank some with the guides and rejoiced for a bit and we felt a deeper connection for the rest of the hikers and the guides. We decided to skip the showers as we wanted to walk with the stink to Machu Picchu the next day.
Day 4: Huinay Huayna to Machu Picchu
Altitude at Start: 2650m/8692 ft.
Altitude at End : 2400/7872 ft.
Elevation: -250m (820 ft.) with ups and downs.
Distance: 6 km.
Approximate Time taken: 2:30 hours
We were woken up at around 4 in the morning so we could start early and be there for the sunrise at Intipunku which is called as sun gate and it is one of the entrances to Machu Picchu. We knew that we had to do this one last time and we didn’t want to give up here. After hiking for a bit, the steps became steeper and dangerous with us hauling heavy bags and walking through a lot of foot traffic.
Finally we reached Intipunku (The Sun Gate) and now we had to coax our tired legs to perform a final dramatic burst of climbing. Might as well let it rip. And on reaching the summit, we saw panaroma of mountain range. The visibility was limited because it was foggy. We were not dissapointed though. Our goal was to reach the sacred city. This is the culmination of days of walking (well, not quite, there was still another half-hour’s descent into the city itself); You’ve arrived at Machu Picchu as the Incas did 500 years ago.
After a short hike for about 30 minutes, we reached the lost city(Machu Picchu). we took a lot of pictures whenever the clouds cleared. The main thing you notice once you get there is the big mountain adjacent to machu picchu called Huayna picchu. Apparently, they offer climbing permits to that mountain as well, but its limited.
We spent about 2 hours walking around the city with our guide, Huan, who earnestly described the various sections. The picture postcards make the place appear very small but it is quite a task to move from place to place, particularly if it involves ascent. The most important parts are the Intihuatana (Hitching post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun (the only circular wall in the entire complex), The Tomb of the Princess (beneath the Sun Temple), the Fountains, the Temple of the Condor.
The Temple of the Sun appears to be an astronomical observatory. It features a wall with three adjacent rectangular holes which are perfectly aligned with the Sun’s angle on the 2 Solstices and Equinox at a certain time of day early in the morning.
We were just happy to be there even though we were exhausted. It was freezing and it started to rain constantly but we just did not give a damn. The beauty of the ruins were simply too good to skip or rush through them. You could also see some alpacas grazing on the grass between the ruins. We went around and explored each and every single structure. All these buildings were craft fully built and were astronomically aligned.
After playing hide and seek in the ruins with the rest of the hikers, we all met for one last time and headed down to Agus Calientes which is just below the mountain. We all had one last lunch at Aguas Calientes before catching a train to Ollyantambo. From here, a pick up was arranged and we were taken to our respective hotels.
Guess what the first thing i did? Yep, Took a 45 minute shower, relaxed for a bit and went to a local cafe and had dinner with some friends from the trip.
Overall, this was one of the strenous hikes I have ever done. There were a lot of challenges, the wind, cold, rain lack of oxygen, running out of water on day 2, lack of basic facilities like showers, toilets were only some of the things we faced. The magnificent scenery of the mountains, the cloud forests, the stunning ruins of Llactapata, Runku Racay, Sayac Marca, Phuyupatamarka and Intipata are unforgettable. All in all I made 14 new friends from our hiking group!
Things you need for this 4 day hike
Water (almost 2 gallons)
Water Purifying tablets
Warm Clothes (including thermals)
First aid kit
Flash light, batteries
Snacks, nuts and jerky
Good pair of hiking shoes
60 gallon backpack