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Camino Inka

January 2015

We were about doing anything in Peru, but the Inca Trail. But dropping in by chance was the best thing that could happen – as this four day hike is an amazing way to discover the Peruvian nature and culture while pushing your own boundaries a little bit further.

Lima

Lima was way more relaxed than expected. Despite or because of the steep coast line, it is perfect place for surfing and paragliding. And the food… probably no other place in South America offers such an amazing cuisine.
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Cuzco

A frightening taxi ride with an either overtired, drunk or stoned driver to the airport, a turned back flight, a wonderful night in the crowded, brightly lit food court of Lima's airport and another early morning flight later we eventually made our way to Cusco. But the old Inca capital was worth all the effort – with an laid back atmosphere, that only proud cultural centers get away with.
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Off-the-cuff Decision

We had absolutely no intention of doing the Inca Trail. As everyone told us, it is fully booked months ahead anyway, we didn't even consider it in our plans for Peru. Then we went to a friend's aunt, who runs a small travel agency in Cusco, just to say hello and ask for some tips in and around the town – when she asked: 'Why don't you hike the Inca trail? You can start the day after tomorrow, if you want!' So well, we gave it some thoughts, compared some offers – and went on the Inca trail two days later.

Day One: Piscacucho to Wayllabamba

The first day starts easy. From Cusco we took the bus to Piscacucho, where we met our cook and porters. These guys do an unbelievable job, but more on that later. We got our passports ready for the first control gate – as only 500 people including the guides, cooks and porters, are allowed to start on the trail per day – and there we went. We followed the Urubamba river and the railway tracks between Cusco and Aguas Calientes for a few kilometers, before turning left into the mountains.
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First Night

In Wayllabamba we set up our tents – or to our shame, the porters set up our tents – in the backyard of a Quechua family. The first amazing three course dinner from our cook Santos, the first day without a shower, the first night at 3.000 meters altitude, the first stage finished and very excited about what was still to come.
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Day Two: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

The second day is the hardest, as you start climbing for 1.200 meters right after leaving the little village of Wayllabamba. Sun and rain kept alternating frequently from that day on, sometimes within minutes. Clouds were hanging deep in the mountains above and underneath us, magical moments for us visitors. For the porters, cooks and guides, that are mandatory part of hiking the Inca Trail, it was just another day at work. Our guide, Edwin, a Cusco born local of Quechua-origin and in his early twenties, did the Inca Trail approximately 50 times – and he is frequently doing others tours as well. Our cook and porters stopped counting long time ago.
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Warmi Wañusqa

The Dead Woman's Pass is the highest point of the Inca Trail at 4.215 meters. 300 meters below is the last chance to buy whatever you might need for the following two days: Candy, water or maybe some liquor? An ice-cold hailstorm on top of Warmi Wañusqa shortened our stay to a few minutes, before descending 600 meters over endless rocky steps to this nights camp site at Pacamayo.
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3.600 m

We spent our second night in Pacamayo, a public campground for the dozens of tours hiking the Inca Trail every day. Located at 3.600 m altitude, it was the highest place I have slept so far. It was also the time to finally get to know our team a little better. The cooks and porters are the true heroes of this whole thing. While carrying up to 20 kg of gear, often just wearing slippers, they leave the camps last and will always be first at the next lunch or camp site.
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Day Three: Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna

Other groups already climbed the last 4.000 m pass while we were still having our healthy breakfast. But day 3 is not hard because of its climbs, it is hard because of its descends. More than a thousand meters down all on rocky steps raised the question: Why did these relatively short Incas built such huge steps? An open Inca secret are coca leaves. Make sure you won't run out of these, as they will really help you through the hardest parts of the trail.
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Inca Ruins

As the third day, by kilometers and time, is the longest day of the tour, it is also close to an Inca site overkill. Every half an hour you will discover another massive terrace and settlement structure in the most forbidding places. The Inca architects did not even hesitate to built tunnels in this 45 kilometers long trek, that most likely only served for religious purposes.
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Wiñay Wayna

The last and largest Inca site before Machu Picchu, Wiñay Wayna is just an impressive construction. Hundreds of meters above the Urubamba River, built into a steep hillside in the middle of a forest, this place was a settlement and supposedly even a testing ground for agriculture. And once more the question occurred, why anyone would make this insane effort to build such structures just a few kilometers away from wide and fertile valleys and plains.
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Day Four: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu

The last day started early: The alarm rang at 3 in the morning, as our porters had to catch their train back to Piscacucho. Unfortunately everyone else is not allowed to leave the camp site before 5:30 - so we spent a rather weird hour waiting in a former discotheque (!) next to camp. The building now is in miserable condition and only used by a park ranger, who was kind enough to let us hide from cold and rain before we started on our last stage.
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Machu Picchu

What should I say? When we finally reached the last pass with its famous sun gate – the place to see Machu Picchu for the first time when arriving from the Inca Trail – we saw… nothing. Absolutely nothing, but fog and clouds. A rather sobering experience, especially after catching a glimpse of sunlight just minutes before. Weather is crazy in the rainy season, that's for sure. But after descending the very last kilometers of our four day trek, we finally saw what it was all good for: Machu Picchu. We were not the first visitors there, as the early buses from Aguas Calientes arrive at the same time we left Wiñay Wayna, but probably the happiest. And Machu Picchu itself? Well, after passing dozens of large and small Inca ruins, famous Machu Picchu is just the largest one of them all. While you share the others with a handful of people - or nobody at all - Machu Picchu is crowded with hundreds of tourists. It is still a great place, but the much greater experience were the days before. 'The journey is the reward' fits pretty well for the Inca Trail!
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To the Bolivian Border

Back to Cusco by train and bus, our route went on to Puno, Lake Titicaca and finally Bolivia. Out of the bus window we got our first impression of the Altiplano, the great Andean Plateau surrounded by massive volcanoes in the west and the Cordillera Real mountain range in the east. In this relatively poor area of Peru, agriculture is still manual labour – at an altitude of roughly 4.000 m.
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Puno

Puno is the largest city in the Northern Altiplano and not particularly beautiful, but with its very own charm. The three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks and countless street food stalls even offer sort of an buzzing Asian atmosphere – just a little bit colder.
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Lago Titicaca

When approaching this incredibly huge Titicaca Lake in Puno, it gets pretty clear why a German newspaper once called it "dumphole in the Andes". Taking into account, that the bigger part of pollution might not even be visible at first sight and how vulnerable ecosystems in such extreme climates are, makes it even worse. Nevertheless the lake and its surrounding area are so amazingly beautiful, that we should stay some more days on the Bolivian "Isla del Sol" – to finally recover from this impressive Camino Inka experience.
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© 2017 Benedikt Altschuh