How can you make a four-day uphill hike to the beautiful Machu Picchu even more challenging? How about taking your kids?
The four day walk to Machu Picchu must rank as one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. However, please let me put the achievement of our children into context.
The four day version of the Inca Trail is 45km of hard walking. In a recent SMH article a celebrity chef described the second day of the Inca trail as the most difficult achievement of his life. From the campsites in the Llullucha valley, the Inca Trail struggles up above the tree line to cross the first and highest of the mountain passes between Llactapata and Machu Picchu. On the second day the trail rises over 1200m to ¨dead woman´s pass” at an altitude of 4200m in a single morning.
As Phoebe ascended this section she was singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” while passing adults who were literally in tears of pain. When Phoebe, Holden and Austin reached the pass in good spirits without being carried one inch, fellow walkers waiting at the top in exhaustion burst into spontaneous applause when they saw the kids strolling by.
By the end of the walk the kids had become minor celebrities on the trail and we were being approached by strangers wanting to photograph the amazing kids who had walked the trail. All the children walked the whole trail without being carried and without complaint and I am so proud of them.
The Inca Trail between the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River and the mysterious abandoned citadel of Machu Picchu is one of the world’s classic treks. Climbing out of the river valley, crossing rugged mountain passes over 13,000 ft high, the trail winds through the Andes, passing numerous significant Inca ruins en route before descending through the Sun Gate to the silent stone city of Machu Picchu.
But the Inca Trail is much more than a great hike. It is one small portion of an incredible network of such trails crossing high stony mountain ranges, bleak deserts, and raging Andean rivers, tying the Inca Empire together. At its peak expansion, Tahuantinsuyo—”The Four Corners”, as the empire was known—extended from what is now southern Columbia in the north, to central Chile in the south, a distance of about 5500 km.
To rule such a vast domain, the emperor, or Inca, forged a remarkable communications system of approximately 30,000 km of trails, paved through much its length, stepped where need be, through tunnels where necessary, and using gossamer suspension bridges built of straw ropes to cross rivers unfordable in the wet season. The roads served to move the conquering Inca armies, and were generally wide enough for a minimum of two warriors to travel abreast. A system of runners stationed at rest houses known as tambos sped messages along the roadways, much like the Pony Express mail of the old American West. The Inca in his empire’s capital at Cusco could receive news from far away Quito as rapidly as a letter crosses between the two cities in today’s mail.
Most Inca Trail treks begin at either Km. 88 on the railroad to Machu Picchu, or the village of Chilca, which lies in the Urubamba Valley downstream from Ollantaytambo, to which it is connected by a dirt road.
At “Dead Woman Pass”, the trail reaches an elevation of 4198 m (13,772 ft). It’s a heart-pounder for most, but the reward is a stunning view back down the Llullucha valley to snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a preview of the ups and downs ahead on the trail to Runkurakay.
From Dead Woman Pass the descent to the small stream known as the Río Pacamayo requires an hour or more. A short distance below the pass the trail passes through the first tunnel, under and between giant boulders. From the Río Pacamayo a new ascent ensues, which brings one to the small ruin of Runkurakay. This name, translated variously as “oval hut” or “egg hut” is the smallest and most enigmatic of the ruins along the hike. Perhaps it was a watchtower? Or perhaps a small tambo for messenger relays. In any case, hard by the ruin is a pleasant campsite. The distance from Llulluchapampa to Runkurakay is only about six km, but getting up and over the pass is strenuous.
The trail itself is incredibly beautiful, with the 500 year old cobbled track winding its way through the Andes connecting increasingly impressive Incan ruins. Machu Picchu is almost beyond description in its stunning location, extraordinary engineering and unique religious significance. We also became very used to having an army of porters to spoil us, making camp before we arrived, providing extraordinary meals and waking us with cocoa tea in our tents at the beginning of each day. The only way to camp.
Just above Runkurakay, the Inca Trail becomes paved with stones and assumes the more engineered nature for which it is justly famed, and which characterizes it from here to Machu Picchu.
After passing through the third pass (4000 m, 13,125 ft) and some of the wildest rugged scenery imaginable, the trail reaches Phuyupatamarca (“town above the clouds”), approximately nine km and two- to three hours hike from Sayacmarca. The ruin is reached by descending a long flight of stairs, and near the entry the trekker finds a series of six flowing liturgical fountains or “baths”, illustrating the Incas’ love of sparkling, splashing water and engineering ability to play with it. Near Phuyupatamarca is a popular campsite, and if the weather is clear, from a ridgecrest above the ruin a spectacular view can be had of mighty Salcantay (6271 m, 20,694 ft), a sacred mountain to the Incas. Altogether, the town above the clouds is a most intriguing site.
The remaining distance to Machu Picchu is around ten km, including a short side trip to Wiñay Wayna ruins, and mainly downhill, dropping from around 3650 m (11,975 ft) to a mere 2400 m (7875 ft) at Machu Picchu.
After a two to two-and-a-half hour hike, the somewhat surprisingly located and intrusive Trekker Hotel is reached. Beds, floorspace for sleeping bags, hot showers, meals and drinks may be had here. And here a side trail takes off a half a kilometer to Wiñay Wayna (“forever young”, named after an orchid species). This lovely ruin is considered by some to be more beautiful than Machu Picchu, if not as dramatic. It consists of an upper ceremonial section, and a lower living section, connected by a long set of steps paralleling a beautiful series of ten liturgical fountains. Both sections are flanked by an enormous sweeping ampitheatre of agricultural terraces, and the entire scene is set off by a waterfall in the forested backdrop. This site alone would justify the entire Inca Trail hike (if it needed justifying)!
From the Trekker Hotel, a two hour hike, the trail passing through densely forested mountain slopes, brings one to the Intipunku or Sun Gate, and a first, unforgettable view of the ultimate goal: Machu Picchu. And from here it is just a 30 minute hike along the broad, flagstone-paved trail to reach the Watchman’s Hut in the upper part of the Machu Picchu’s Agricultural Sector. But savor the shifting panoramas as you hike this final segment of the Inca Trail: the shear bromeliad-studded cliffs to the right of the trail; what look like toy trains and tracks far below in the sinuous gorge of the Urubamba; the drama of Huayna Picchu peak rising like a stone juggernaut out of Pachamama’s breast; and the mysterious grey stone city mounted like a gem in a setting of cliffs and canyons. There is no other place comparable!
By Tiffany Hutton