“My eyes homed into the step below as I figured out where to plant, first the trekking poles, then my feet. One misstep and there would be no way to stop the fall. Broken bones for sure, although death was not out of the question.”
This is Part 2 of Emily Kelting’s tale of her recent hike to Machu Picchu the hard (Inca) way, to celebrate her 60th Birthday. Her next trek: Mt. Kilimanjaro in February. —Ed.
Tentside “room service” at the break of dawn.
It was Day 2, the day we’d have to hike over 13,000-foot-high Dead Woman’s Pass. We were woken up with “room service” at 5:30—that is, coffee and tea delivered right to our tent. Before breaking camp, our guide, Percy, showed us how to place seven or eight coca leaves on top of each other, roll them up, put them in our cheeks, and then slowly chew them—10 chews per minute. We would swallow coca-infused saliva, which helped ward off altitude sickness as we eventually climbed up to Dead Woman’s Pass.
I hired a porter-for-a-day for my son, Ted, and his girlfriend, Hannah, since Hannah was carrying—among everything else—her sleeping bag and pad, and was dwarfed by her giant backpack. Ted was carrying some of my gear that I had stuffed into a compression sack. They were so grateful to be relieved of their 35-pound packs that they almost danced into the dining tent for breakfast.
In the morning, we walked through a thick forest of red-bark Polylepis trees, which grow only in the high elevations of the Andes. I felt as if I had stumbled into an enchanted forest. The feeling ebbed as the trail turned steep and scrabbly, and I slip-slided over the loose gravel and scrambled between large boulders.
After lunch, the really tough part began. As the trail went higher and higher, Ted, Hannah, and I huffed and puffed, stopped often to rest, and chomped on coca leaves. We were exposed to the Andean elements—first, scorching sun, and then, closer to the top of the pass, freezing winds. Ted, Hannah, and I were among the first of our group to reach the summit, where everyone rejoiced. No one got altitude sickness, and we had all made it! And I was among the first!
Kelting jumping for joy at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.
Then we had a long, steep walk down the other side to a campground by the Pacamayo River. The toilet facilities here were particularly yucky, and the night was very, very cold. The sleeping bags we had rented from Peru Treks were supposedly rated to minus 15 degrees, but it must have been Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.
Despite the freezing temperature, and the fact that we were camped on uneven ground and my sleeping bag kept sliding to the front of the tent, I did catch a few hours of good sleep. I was getting used to my new little home.
On Day 3, the wakeup was even earlier, because we had to traverse 11 difficult miles. I would be walking all day (and, as it turned out, into the night), ascending two more 13,000-foot mountain passes, and descending into the verdant cloud forest. We immediately started climbing uphill, and visited a circular tambo, called Runca Ruccay, which during the Inca Empire had seven permanent residents and was the resting place for messengers, each of whom had a 24-hour journey to convey a message to the messenger waiting at the next tambo. In this way, messages could be relayed 2,400 miles over the high mountain passes of the Andes—from Ecuador to Chile.
We then climbed up to the Second Pass (13,000-plus feet), where Percy had us join him atop a high crag. “The Incas held three animals as sacred,” he explained. “The snake, which slithers on the ground; the puma, which roams the earth as we humans do; and the condor, which flies overhead and transports human souls to the afterlife.” He kissed three coca leaves and then blew them into the wind. We all went to lay down our stones (collected in the Pacamayo River the night before), putting them down “intentionally”—that is, with love and forgiveness in our hearts.
It was incredibly moving to be on this mountain peak—with great views of snow-capped Mt. Pumasillo (19,915 feet) and the Vilcabamba range. It is no wonder that Percy and other Quechans still worship Pachamama—Mother Earth—as their Incan ancestors had done. While up on this peak, I contemplated the Inca Empire, which spanned only 100 years, and yet the Incas secured a domain of 300,000 square miles, as vast as the Roman Empire. In every plaza of every town, there seemed to be a statue of Pachacutec, the great Inca king, who, along with his son, expanded the empire up and over these mountains.
Kelting at the Inca Tunnel.
This long, long day we passed through the Inca Tunnel and visited two other Inca ruins at Sayac Marca (“Inaccessible Town”) and Phuyupatamarca (“Town in the Clouds”). After Phuyupatamarca and Pass No. 3, the Inca steps—which our guide Ernesto called the “gringo killers”—began. Made of uneven stones pieced together to form a four- to five-foot path, they extended over a mile down a mountainside. Some were so narrow and steep that our feet wouldn’t fit on the treads, and we had to side-step. If only these steps had come at the beginning of the long day, rather than at the end when I was already exhausted! If only I had trained on a StairMaster!
My eyes homed into the step below as I figured out where to plant, first the trekking poles, then my feet. One misstep and there would be no way to stop the fall. Broken bones for sure, although death was not out of the question. While some in the group scampered down, seemingly oblivious to the risks, I stayed with the pharmacists, who were taking it slow and steady. My legs suddenly stiffened and began shaking. No commands from my head could get them to stop, though the ibuprophen, dispensed by the pharmacists, certainly helped. As a full moon was rising above the back side of Machu Picchu, we pulled out our headlamps and descended the stairs between the terraces, safely making our way to the campsite.
After dinner, Percy gave us our marching orders for the morning. We would be getting up at 3:30 a.m. and getting in line, the fifth of 21 groups, at the Wiñay Wayna gate, which opened at 5:30. Two hours later, we navigated the final 14 crazily steep “Monkey Steps”—I had to get down on all fours to climb up them—and arrived at the Sun Gate. The breathtaking city of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains spread out below, ethereal in the soft morning light.
The trekkers (Kelting center, bottom row, in light blue) above Machu Picchu
Four days of walking the same way the Incas had come, passing small villages, sleeping in tents as the Incas had rested at the tambos, Percy conducting a religious rite at a high mountain pass—it all added up to an almost overwhelming feeling of respect for the Incas and their love of Pachamama—Mother Earth. They built the trail and these vast cities (at one point, 1,000 people lived at Machu Picchu) in improbably lofty places, using only llama fat and clay for mortar in their buildings. (The joints in the walls of the sacred temples and royal residences are so tight that a razor blade can’t fit though them, which is why they have withstood all the earthquakes throughout the centuries.)
Every place on earth has a spirit, and this one, amidst such grand scenery, is truly magical. On the Inca Trail, I was drunk—not with the complimentary Pisco Sour that I would enjoy that night at the El MaPi Hotel in Aguas Calientes—but with the magic of this place, where the sun and stars seemed within arm’s reach.
“Machu Picchu will always be with you,” Percy told us, pointing to his heart. As sappy as that sounds, I believe it.