The Inca trail was steep, hot and beautiful. The short Inca trail is an alternative to the traditional 4 or 5 day Inca Trail for those with neither the time nor energy to complete the longer hike. Advertised as a two-day trek, it is really a long day hike followed by a tour of Machu Picchu the following day. From the viewpoint of a less experiences hiker it offers a couple of advantages. First, it is a chance to experience the Inca Trail as a day hike – without the need to camp out. Second, it climbs to only 2750m (9000 ft) as opposed to the traditional Inca Trail which reaches 4200m (13,775 ft) at Dead Woman’s Pass.
The trail was initially supposed to be a male bonding experience with my brother Scott and I. We considered the longer trek, but as the trip expanded to include Mike and MaryLou we decided to go with the short version. Even then we expected the hike to be just the two of us, or just the guys, with the others joining us in Aguas Calientes. Unexpectedly the women decided they wanted to join us. Scott was skeptical about any of us being fit enough to manage the hike, but I told him that with several months to prepare we could get ourselves in shape.
As we booked the trip I decided I wanted a private guide. I knew our group would be slow and I didn’t want to feel that we were slowing down a larger group. I decided to arrange the guide through our hotel (actually B&B) in Cuzco. I sent a note with our ages and a candid assessment of our physical condition as wanted them to know what to expect. At this point I should have followed up. As a private tour I expected some correspondence on our needs, expectations, etc. but never followed through trusting the guide to know what he was doing. It dawned on me a week before our trip that I had never heard from our guide, didn’t know his name, and wasn’t sure of any of the details. A quick e-mail and I was informed that Juan Carlos would meet us at the El Albergue at 8:30 Tuesday morning. I responded that 8:30 was later than I had expected to start, but got no reply before we left.
The late start would prove our downfall. Our guide, Juan Carlos, met us at the hotel at 8:30. We boarded the train about 9:30am and were let off at km104 about 10:40 to begin out trek.
We started with high energy and expectations, took the obligatory photo at the trailhead and crossed the bridge over the Urubamba river to the checkpoint. Only 500 hikers a day are allowed on the Inca Trail. Access is by permit only, which you have to book months in advance. A warden checked our passports against their list and we were allowed to proceed.
Almost immediately we reached the site of Chachabamba, a 15th century Inca outpost and religious center. It lay hidden in the brush even when the railroad on the other side of the river was constructed and was only “discovered” in 1940.
The trail began to climb through a patch of forest that had several varieties of wild orchids. Mike and MaryLou were having difficulty with the heat and altitude so we moved very slow. We were not the only ones. We pretty much kept company with a group of English hikers and a couple of women from Belgium. The early part of the hike climbs steadily across an exposed slope and is exhausting in the direct sunshine and thin air. Eventually we were rewarded with good views of Huinay Huana across the side canyon and Choquesuysuy far below. It was about here that Juan Carlos first told us that we needed to be to Machu Picchu by 5:30pm to catch the last bus off the mountain. I wasn’t overly concerned. Surely this thing must happen all the time. I figured there had to be a back-up plan. Couldn’t we catch a taxi down the mountain?
The narrow path finally dipped into some shade and we came to a beautiful waterfall where we had lunch at almost 3pm.
After lunch is was a short shaded hike to the foot of Huinay Huayna. We climbed the 392 stairs of this incredibly impressive site. It is composed of agricultural terraces spread out over the mountain side. The sweeping terraces lead around to a group of buildings, the staircase and a series of 10 stone baths that were likely involved in the ritual worship of water.
At the top we turned left and made our way to the Trekker’s Hotel which is really more of a campground with water and toilet facilities. The theoretically it was downhill after this since the Trekker’s Hotel is the highpoint of the trail, but there were plenty of ups and downs to come including the infamous Monkey Stairs which we climbed on all fours. The trail was indeed flatter, but we were so exhausted by this time that it didn’t sem to matter.
We arrived at IntiPunku, the SunGate, just as the sun was setting and got our first view of Machu Picchu.
To make a long story short it was dark before we got off the mountain and arrived at Machu Picchu, so unfortunately we couldn’t see what we came to see. Worse – the last bus down the mountain had indeed left for the day and we were told it would be a 3 hour walk down the road in the dark. Here we found the downside of not being with a group as the English tour group managed to get a bus to come get them, but “regulations” wouldn’t let them give us a lift. Our guide managed to arrange a ride with a group of workers leaving for the day, but when their “bus” came it was a pick-up truck with no room for us. We convinced the driver to return for us after an hour round trip. Mike and MaryLou hopped in the cab while I climbed in back with our guide. We finally managed to get to our hotel about 10:30 by which time we had of course missed dinner.
A few lessons learned:
- Know what you are getting into
- Insist on communication with your guide beforehand
- Know if there is a deadline to finish and the consequences
- Don’t assume the guide has in all under control
- Private doesn’t always equal better