The high point of our trip to Peru started the evening of Sept 21st when we met Marco, our guide from the trekking company, Llama Path, and the 8 other people who would join us on the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Marco's parting instructions that night were clear, 'Be at the meeting spot the next day at 4:30 am sharp'. So much for a good night's sleep.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we chose Llama Path because of their commitment to the local community and their efforts to improve the lives of porters working in Peru. Check them out if you are planning a trip to Peru, you won't be disappointed.
Day 1: Kilometer 82 to Ayapata (10,829 ft)
After everyone arrived at the meeting spot, we boarded the bus for a 2+ hour drive to a restaurant where we enjoyed breakfast and the opportunity to pick up any last minute supplies. We drove for another 30 minutes to the village of Piscachuco. It was time for everyone including the porters to unload and conduct a final check of the equipment and supplies before setting off for 4 days.
After a short walk we arrived at the checkpoint where we presented our passports & hiking permit. Concern about overuse and erosion has led the Peruvian government to limit the number of people hiking the Inca trail each season. As a result, a maximum of 500 people are allowed on the trail each day which includes trekkers, guides, assistant guides, cooks and porters. Of this 500 persons, it is estimated that only about 220 persons are actual trekkers.
We passed through the checkpoint, walked over the bridge, and stood at Kilometer 82, the official start of the Inca Trail. Our group picture is below; starting left to right: Gerry, Larson, Lydia, Peter, Catriona, Steve, Dave, Eve, George, and Karlie.
The start of first day was designed to help us settle in to the trek and establish a comfortable pace. The plan was to cover about 10 miles. We hiked a few hours down the Urubamba canyon through several small farms. It gave us a chance to chat with each of the people in our group - sort of a moving meet and greet experience. Then the uphills started.
Our first stop was on a hilltop overlooking Patallacta. This Inca complex, which some believe was an fortress and agricultural complex, sits at an altitude of 9,318 feet. It's located at the intersection of three valleys so it forced travelers naturally through its gates. Patallacta contained large terraces and hundreds of housing structures. During the Inca Emperor Manco's retreat from Cusco in 1536, he burned this site and others along the Inca road system to discourage the Spanish pursuit. Due in part to his efforts, the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
By the middle of the first day, it became clear that George and Karlie were hiking at about the same pace as us and we continued hiking with them for the next few days.
Our hearts were pumping and lungs working extra hard as we climbed in elevation up the Cusichaca Valley, but the incredible view of the Andes kept us motivated.
Time for lunch! This was the scene that greeted us every time we stopped for food. The porters were always well in front of us so when we arrived, the mess tent was set-up and food was being prepared. In addition, wash clothes and basins with water were laid out so we could freshen up before eating. After a filling meal, we'd have a brief siesta before getting ready for the next stretch of trail.
After lunch the trail became a steady (15-25˚) uphill trek. As the trail became more challenging, the group began to spread out over a larger area. We didn't need to hike as a group since Marco had described for us the Day 1 camp site. Peter and Catriona were in the front with George, Karlie, Dave, and I in the next group. We stopped occasionally to catch our breath, drink water and munch on some coca leaves or snacks.
It was steeper than it looks in the picture. In addition we were tired from lack of sleep over the last 24 hours and hiking at an altitude greater than 10,000 feet was tough.
A brief science & medical lesson: At high altitudes, the lower air pressure makes it more difficult for oxygen to enter the blood stream which results in a decrease in the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Although air contains 20.9% oxygen at all altitudes, at higher altitudes it feels like there is a lower percentage of oxygen. With every breath, less oxygen than normal reaches your blood so your body works harder to get the oxygen it needs. Your body copes by breathing harder, deeper, and faster and your heart rate increases.
Location & Altitude Effective Oxygen Levels
Lima (sea level) 20.9%
Kilometer 82 (8,900 ft) 14.8%
Day 1 Camping Site (10,800 ft) 13.7%
Day 2 Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 ft) 12.0%
Machu Picchu (7,970 ft) 15.4%
If your body is adjusting to these high altitude changes, when you walk your heart beats faster and your breathing becomes deeper and quicker; however, when you stop moving, your heart rate starts returning to normal and the shortness of breath you experience begins to quickly resolve.
To prepare for the high altitude experience I began taking acetazolamide 1-2 days before the flight to Lima to help avoid altitude sickness symptoms while Dave who is allergic to this class of drugs began taking ginko biloba, a natural supplement that is reported to help prevent altitude sickness. Acetazolamide works by causing an increase in urine production and an increase in renal excretion of bicarbonate. These changes , cause the pH in blood and tissue to become more acidic which in turn increases respiratory rate (improving oxygenation). Fortunately for both of us, we seemed to be adjusting to the high altitude. Now back to the Inca Trail.
As we continued hiking, Mt Veronica (16,830 ft), which had been completely hidden by clouds, began to peak through.
The higher we went the better the views became. The rugged peaks of the Andes piercing the clouds.
About 3 hours after leaving the lunch spot, we reached our campsite and took a well-deserved rest. We camped at Ayapata (10,829 ft) which is a little further along the trail than most groups go. Marco's plan was that by hiking the extra distance on Day 1, we'd be that much closer to Dead Woman's Pass, our biggest challenge on Day 2.
When we arrived, the incredible porters had already set-up our tents, the kitchen tent as well as the mess tent, tables and chairs.
Quarters were a little tight but it encouraged a social and talkative meal with everyone sharing stories about their day and the meal ended with Marco's reviewing the next day's schedule.
There is no way to describe how incredible the food tasted, especially when you consider everything was cooked on a portable propane stove. Meals always included a variety of teas and coffee, multiple servings of rice, quinoa, potatoes, popcorn, fresh vegetables, eggs, breads, cheese and either fish or beef. It was a high calorie and carb loaded meal plan. We never ran out of food at a meal and we all ate a lot.
The evening ended with each porter introducing themselves. This is a long video but it's a tribute these extraordinary individuals.
Our bedtime view from the tent.