Let me preface this post by saying that I AM NOT A CAMPER…not even a little bit (I like warmth, comfort and some luxury). I thought I could (and I did), but man, likely never again (unless I have full memory loss and decide that camping is the best thing in the world)!
Figuring out which trek to do, for how many days and with what company was a decision made back in August as one has to book Machu Picchu pretty far in advance as there are limited number of passes available per day (only 500 people are allowed on the trails and only 200 of those are actual trekkers, everyone else are guides, porters, cooks, etc.). After much research, we decided to go with Alpaca Expeditions – a fairly new company, but with great reviews on tripadvisor. December is considered a “wet season”, but we lucked out as it never rained during the day and turns out, hiking for 11 hours in 65 degree weather is much better than in 85 degrees.
Saturday, December 13th
At 6pm, on Saturday, we went in for our orientation with Aplaca and to meet our fellow hikers. There were 10 of us in the group (a couple from San Francisco, Colorado, Columbia, Switzerland and St. Louis), plus 16 porters and 2 tour guides (Ruben aka “Ruben Sandwich” and Joaquin aka “Fuquin”).
During the orientation, we were given our duffel bags which we were allowed to fill up with about 15lbs of our needs for the next 4 days; 4 of those lbs were already used by the sleeping bag. These duffel bags would then be carried by our hired porters (for $25, you can hire someone to carry your stuff and boy, am I glad we did)! Side note: porters are the sweetest most timid guys from the local villages who in the past would carry limitless amount of stuff for tourists for barely any money. However, most recently, the government in Peru has set limits regarding how much a porter can carry for their protection and safety.
That night, we went to Jack’s Cafe (as we did every night) for a light meal and then we were off to pack our duffels and our personal backpacks (daypack) in which we would carry things that we would need through out the day (as we did not have access to the duffel bags until the end of each day when we were at the camp site).
Packing included the following for me: day pack, rain gear, down jacket, thermal clothes, hat, gloves, hiking socks, hiking shoes, change of shoes at night (highly recommended), toilet paper, wet wipes, face wipes, deodorant, underwear, sport bras, medications, headlamp (a must), sunblock, walking sticks, bug repellant, garbage bags, kindle and a battery pack (I took pictures with my iphone, so it was a must to recharge it on nightly basis). Thank you Jeff and Cat for this awesome and thoughtful gift!
Sunday, December 14th – Day 1:
We were picked up by the Alpaca team at 4:45am on Sunday morning (I did not sleep that night as I was trying to rationalize exactly what it is that I signed myself up for). Once picked up, we were off to Piskacucho (about a 2 hour bumpy ride from Cusco). We got out of the van and watched the 16 awesome porters set up a dining area, a kitchen and make us scrambled eggs, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, fruits, cakes, etc. Side note: You would think that when you hike 26 miles at high altitude you would be losing weight; but nooooooooo, not with what felt like 11 delicious meals a day. But I digress….
Once the breakfast was consumed, we were off to start the trek (elevation: 8,923 feet).
Day 1 is a moderate difficulty trek day (about 8.5 miles or 5.5 hours) with a lovely lunch break and reaching the camp site (Ayapata) at around 5pm (elevation: 10,829 feet). The nice thing about Alpaca (besides the great food) is that they actually set up a bathroom tent for you with a real toilet which you actually flush (and yes, there is someone in charge of this toilet and this porter carries it on his back all day, every day). Camping night 1 was ok (a bit chilly, but not bad); being that my bladder is the size of a pea (no pun intended), I hated that I had to go out to the bathroom in the pouring rain in the middle of the night (in that moment, I may have dreamt of the Four Seasons). Side note: headlamps are sooooo important for this reason alone!
Monday, December 15th – Day 2:
Day 2 is considered to be the most difficult day (about 10 miles and 11 hours of hiking – 6 hours uphill and 5 hours downhill, wake up time at 4:30am), reaching the altitude of 13,779 feet and camping at around 11,800 feet. Day 2 is when I lost my shit (figuratively speaking) as I walked downhill. What I learned about my hiking skills is that I am AWESOME at walking uphill but I REALLY REALLY suck at walking downhill especially when the steps are tiny and slippery and going down at an 80 degree angle and all I can think about is falling on my face and not being able to call my dentist (shout out to Shervin) to fix the teeth that I may have knocked out on my way down.
There may have been a tear or two shed (but that could have been due to hunger too). After lunch, we raged on for another 5 hours (and by raged, I mean I crawled slowly down hill). I was the first to get to the camp site as I decided to skip one of the ruins site (mainly because at my rate of downhill crawling, I thought I would never make it there otherwise).
Night two was freezing, as in snow falling out of the sky and luckily, the porters were able to make me two hot water bottles which I really appreciated and ended up sleeping like a baby (baby llama as Ruben Sandwich would say). Tip: if you have a bladder the size of a pea, stop drinking all liquids around 6:30pm so you are not stuck going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Tuesday, December 16th – Day 3:
On Day 3, we got to sleep in until 5am (woohoo) and this was considered an “easy day”. As I learned from Day 2, walking downhill is my worst nightmare and Day 3 was all about that – 5 hours worth and approximately 6 miles (just because it is downhill, it don’t make it “easy”). It was stunning, I think, I don’t remember ever looking up.
Intipata, was a gorgeous site of ruins where we stopped for a while before arriving to our camp site and it was simply spectacular.
This day, we got to the camp site around 1pm (a short day for us) which allowed us the opportunity to go check out the nearby ruins called Winay Huayna and to take a cold shower (I passed on this opportunity as I figured one more day of stinky is not going to hurt me at this point). To be honest, I thought Winay Huayna was far more beautiful than Machu Picchu because it was so incredibly private (it felt like a sanctuary). We hung out, chased Alpaca’s, took pictures and meditated – it was beautiful.
Wednesday, December 17 – Day 4:
The next day, the wake up call was at 3:30am as we had to line up to hike up to Machu Picchu (about 2500 tourists are allowed into Machu Picchu site on daily basis). This is where Alpaca Expeditions and I ended up disagreeing on the proper way of conducting business.
The tour guides told us to be up at 3:30am and that we would be leaving the camp site at 4:30am to line up with all the other hikers on the trail for Machu Picchu.
Unfortunately, a few of our group campers decided to show up about 25 minutes late for breakfast, thus putting the whole group behind and putting us at the end of the line (I am disappointed that Alpaca wasn’t more strict about being on time). Being behind, meant that we were at the end of the line, which meant that we would be stuck behind many other people and thus it would take forever to get to the “Sun Gate” (the entrance to Machu Picchu).
When the doors to Machu Picchu hike opened up at 5:30am, we were the last in line and our tour guides, wanting us so badly to get the best possible experience, decided that it would be a good idea to run for 45 minutes (uphill and downhill the slippery road) and to cut in front of other groups.
Look, to all who know me are aware that I am by no means a “goody two shoes” (Side note: I adore cutting in lines at Disneyland just to give Anita and Kieran an anxiety attack); however, when people have stood in line since 2:00 in the morning and our group showed up late, does not mean that cutting ahead of other people is the way to go – no bueno, Alpaca! By the time we got to the “Sun Gate” (the entrance to Machu Picchu), a few of us were so out of breath that we couldn’t even see where we were walking into (not to mention a few times that some of the group members fell down the stairs (surprisingly, not me).
At this point, in my normal angry/Russian/lawyer fashion, I let lose! I went off on the guides right in the middle of the “Sacred Valley” and told them that the trip advisor rating was about to go down to 1 star (I may have said zero, although not possible). Honestly, getting through the Sun Gate is the moment that we have been waiting for for four days (plus 4 months) and I simply did not appreciate the way things were handled (showing up at the Sun Gate 10-15 minutes later and not running like chickens with our heads cut off, cutting people off who stood in line in the middle of the night, wouldn’t have changed anything as we already missed the sunrise).
The rest of the hike down Machu Picchu may have been a blur as the blood was boiling and to be completely honest, Machu Picchu, although absolutely stunning, is not all it is cut out to be when you throw 2,500 tourists in the mix (there are much prettier ruin sites along the way).
We were given a few hours to hang out while some folks in the group went to hike Wayna Picchu (another 2 hour hike which you had to pre-purchase a pass for – Kieran was one of the people who bought one of these passes). I, on the other hand, took out my kindle, and enjoyed the view with my book.
At around 12:30pm (we have been up for already 9 hours at this point), we took the bus down to Aquas Calientes (a small town where the group would meet up for our final lunch together).
At lunch, both tour guides profusely apologized to me about how the whole thing was handled, which I did appreciate. From Aquas, we then took the train back to our starting point and from there, another few hour ride in the van back to Cusco.
When we were dropped off at our hotel (7pm at night – now awake for 19 or so hours), a very nice guy helped us with our bags (he was in the van the entire ride back – 1.5 hours). Turns out, he was the owner of Alpaca Expeditions and when he heard about what happened on the way to the Sun Gate, he wanted to mend the situation (which is why he came to pick us up in the first place it seems). He was very nice and understood completely where the guides took the wrong turn regarding handling the situation. He felt so bad about the whole thing that he ordered us a cab for 5am the next day and paid for it as we were taking off for Buenos Aires.
He really did try and he was super gracious about it! A message to Alpaca Expeditions: if campers are not showing up on time for breakfast (unless it is an emergency), don’t make the rest of us pay for it; make it a priority that everyone is ready at the same time!
To summarize: although the destination (Machu Picchu) is one of a kind, it was the journey that I was in awe with and will forever remember and cherish!
p.s. I am sure Kieran’s story of babysitting my cranky self will be very different.