Fifth in a series about the Inca Trail
We had lunch at Chaquicocha, a campsite about 20 minutes’ hike from the last ruins we’d passed, Qunchamarka. Our cook, Milton, outdid himself with this meal (by far the best of the hike).
The meal started with soup just like every other lunch and dinner. The soup always hit the spot after a long day on the trail. The main course was shredded chicken and vegetables, quinoa, and what I think was a potato pancake. (I’m afraid I kept very poor notes on the trail.) Potatoes were first cultivated in present day Peru and Bolivia and were common in our meals on the trail. On the other hand, we were usually served rice instead of quinoa. As I understand it, quinoa, an Andean pseudocereal, is a staple in local diets but in recent years has also experienced growing attention and popularity in developed countries.
Aside from our guides, Percy and Yaneth, we’d had limited interaction with the Peru Treks support staff (primarily made up of porters). We were supposed to be introduced during lunch on Day Three. However, when the mealtime came, our guides advised that this wouldn’t be possible. We’d gotten a late start in the morning and were now running almost an hour behind schedule. This was a major problem on the longest day of the hike. The planned arrival at our campground for the night (if everything went according to plan) was 4:30-5:00pm. Now we were running late and I was acutely aware that sundown was around 5:45pm!
Although the introductions didn’t take place, our guides did arrange everyone for a group picture with all the hikers and porters. We geared up and began hiking towards the third and final mountain pass around 1pm.
Our guides described the terrain here as “Andean Flats.” Rachel and I still chuckle at this term. By no means could the trail be described as “flat.” In fact, the trail was constantly up or down, with no more than a few meters at a time being level. The route was “flat” only in that the ups and downs largely cancelled out one another. Indeed, the third pass was only about 115 m (377′) higher than or lunch spot, Chaquicocha.
The terrain during this section was quite different than what we’d encountered thus far. It was quite lush with dense, tropical looking foliage and plenty of flowers. Percy had said this was the edge of the Amazon rainforest. In places, water seemed to seep from rock rocks, nourishing strange looking plants or moss.
To our left, the trail dropped off steeply. The valley was densely forested, and there was a pretty waterfall on the far side. Distant snowcapped mountains peeked from behind clouds in the distance.
At one point, the trail entered a tunnel. Alexander Stewart describes it in his book The Inca Trail: “This 16m long corridor exploits a fault in the seemingly sheer cliff that blocks the way ahead.”
We arrived at the third pass (elevation about 3,690 m or 12,106′) around 2:30pm. The pass contains sweeping views of several ranges of mountains, the town of Aguas Calientes (Machupicchu city), and the back side of Machu Picchu Mountain. Remember, the original Incan names of all the ruins on the Inca Trail are unknown. What we refer to as Machu Picchu (Incan city) is actually named after the mountain it is built upon. In the distance, the tall terraces of Wiñay Wayna were visible. These ruins were located near our campsite, but seemed quite far away.
Just below the pass is Puyupatamarca (Phuyu Pata Marca, translating as “city above the clouds” or “cloud level town”), a beautiful ruin with multiple terraces and staircases. At the risk of being a broken record, the story is the same as every other ruin along the Inca Trail: Archaeologists can only speculate as to their purpose. The ruin may have had a religious purpose for the Incans. Stewart describes the site this way:
“To one side are six ‘Inca baths’ (five ceremonial baths and one principal one) that were probably not actually used to wash in, but are more likely to have been used in conjunction with the ritual worship of water.”
Yaneth warned us at the pass that we were about to begin what previous groups of trekkers had nicknamed “The Gringo Killer”. I want to say they told us it was about 2,500 steps (Wikipedia says 1,500) carved out of the mountain. Either way, it was a descent of a vertical kilometer (my GPS data said it was 1,012 m or 3,320′) from the third pass to our campsite. Although that doesn’t sound as bad as climbing Dead Woman Pass, it was actually quite torturous. The steps are very irregular in shape. I found in many cases it was impossible to step down to the next step (as I would a normal staircase) without first bringing the trailing foot alongside the front foot. That made for slow going. It was also very hard on the knees. Rachel still jokes that, “If the Incas had built the trail up Mt. Whitney, the 99 Switchbacks would have been 30 switchbacks consisting of stone stairs going straight up the mountain!” She may also have called the Incas “sadists” once or twice…I wasn’t overly sympathetic, considering she’d gotten us into this mess in the first place!
Interestingly, Stewart writes that the Incan stairs were rediscovered only in the 1980s; before that time, Inca Trail trekkers took an alternate, roundabout route to Wiñay Wayna. The older route is no longer maintained or passible.
Although Rachel is usually faster than me hiking downhill, the stairs were a different game. I had to wait for her several times and we took a few breaks. At one point she even began cracking up.
The reason was a sort of optical illusion in which a couple ahead of us on the trail were quite close but looked like they were standing about 10 vertical meters below us with no apparent way of getting down (it was because the trail curved to the right and then back in front of us). Amusingly, a local was coming up the stairs and had just stepped to the side to let us pass. Rachel was paralyzed with laughter, so this man was just standing there looking uncomfortable. He shot me a sidelong glance as if to ask, “What is wrong with this crazy person?”
At the pass, Yaneth told us that if we had time, we could walk through the Incan ruins at Wiñay Wayna (Huiñay Huayna, translating as “forever young” but named after an orchid by that name found at the site). If not, we’d have to take a shortcut to the campsite, also known as Wiñay Wayna. It was clear that we would have no choice but to take the shortcut, but I became increasingly worried that we wouldn’t make it before dark (which, of course, we didn’t). Even with the urgency, it was very difficult to increase our pace given the irregular steps. (I was not taking many photographs at this point, and would only pause a few seconds when I did.)
Yaneth was waiting for us at the fork in the trail when we arrived around 5:30pm, 15 minutes before sunset. We were clearly the last ones from the group. Rachel’s knees were in really bad shape by this point and I could feel that the Molefoam was not having the desired effect any longer on my feet but there was no time to reapply it.
Yaneth told us the shortcut would take 20-30 minutes, but it actually took 45. The shortcut was a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. The soil was soft, which was more comfortable to walk on than the Incan stone, but it was actually rather slippery in places. I almost fell a few times. Rachel actually slipped and fell on her butt and damaged her hiking pole in the process. (She says no trek is complete for her without a fall!) It was quite dark by the time we approached the campsite.
Maybe 10 or 15 minutes before arrival, two Peru Treks porters came up. “Mochilla?” one asked me. He was offering to take my backpack! I was embarrassed enough about us being dead last in the group. I had no intention of surrendering my backpack (and my dignity) for the last little bit of hiking that remained.
“No, gracias,” I replied. Rachel kept her backpack as well. Even when we came to the campground, there were still a few minutes of hiking to go, as various groups were camped on different levels, which appeared to be terraces. Our group was on a low level, no doubt a coveted spot due to its proximity to the checkpoint. We arrived at our campsite just before 6:15pm. The Molefoam I’d applied at Sayacmarca had slid off the hot spots on my big toes. It wasn’t surprising given how sweaty my feet were, but I now had two huge and painful blisters. Rachel was practically hobbling due to knee pain.
There was a surprise with dinner. Milton had somehow managed to bake a cake in camp! Percy said Milton went down to Aguas Calientes for the ingredients earlier. I’d seen that they cooked using a cylinder of compressed gas to generate heat, but I have no idea what he used for an oven! Although we really hadn’t gotten a chance to interact with the porters, Percy taught us how to thank them and say goodbye in Quechua. Rachel and another hiker who spoke Spanish delivered statements thanking them for their help, and we presented them and Milton with our tips. The hikers lined up and the porters came down the line, shaking our hands as we thanked them.
Date: Friday, August 21, 2015
Distance: 15 km (9.3 miles)
Steps recorded for the day: 32,297
Equipment: Kelty external frame backpack, Wolverine hiking boots, Eastern Mountain Sports trekking pole
Duration: About 11 hours (about 7-7.5 hours of that hiking)
Series on the Inca Trail (Camino Inka)
Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (background)
Introduction (Cusco to Ollantaytambo by Bus)
Day One (Piscacucho to Wayllabamba)
12 km (7.5 miles) distance, +300 m (984′) elevation
Day Two (Wayllabamba to Pacamayo)
11 km (6.8 miles) distance, +1,200 m (3,937′)/-600 m (1,969′) elevation
Day Three (Part I, Pacamayo to Qunchamarka AND Part II, Chaquicocha to Wiñay Wayna)
15 km (9.3 miles) distance, +350 m (1148′)/-1300 m (4,265′) elevation
Day Four (Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu)
5 km (3.1 miles) distance, +40 m (131′)/-265 m (869′) elevation