Breaking Down the Inca Trail: Days 3 & 4

Continued. Read the first part here.

Day 3
The rain that started the minute we got into our tents last night hasn’t let up by morning despite my numerous pleas to whatever gods will hear me, so we crawl out of our warm sleeping bags into a cold, wet day at 5:00 a.m. We have 15 km to cover, rain or shine. Behind us, Dead Woman’s Pass is covered in snow.

Ahead of us another pass waits, the Trail’s second, which we must climb 450 meters to reach. We begin the ascent, taking one short break in the rain to check out the ruins of Runkuracay, a resting spot for Machu Picchu pilgrims.

Through the pass, we descend to about the same elevation we started the day at and then climb again to the third pass. On our way, we pass through the first of two Inca Tunnels, magnificent passageways chiseled from enormous rock slabs, and walk again though cloud forest.

We also pass more Inca ruins, the most intact and impressive along the path. Lunch comes early today, and with it, the end of the rain. It’s been a wet morning, but as it is the wet season, we’ve been remarkably lucky that this is all we have encountered. Though I had my fingers crossed, I half expected to walk in the rain all day every day. Blue skies and sunshine roll in for the afternoon, which is fortunate as the hardest part of the day’s hike awaits us: the Gringo Killer. For over 2.5 hours, we must go down. Someone says there are over 2,000 stairs. I don’t count. I just know there are a lot. By the time we make camp at Winay Wayna, just before dinner, all of our knees are screaming. Since the porters are leaving us after breakfast the next morning, we have a short thank you ceremony for them, and then we all fall, literally, into our tents, absolutely exhausted.

Day 4
The benefit of yesterday’s long day is that we are as close to Machu Picchu as anyone on the Inca Trail can be. Trail regulations keep anyone from hiking before 5:30 a.m., but as soon as the clock turns, we are off, racing to the Sun Gate to get our first view of Machu Picchu. Though it’s barely dawn, the day looks clear. We can only hope it lasts as we speedwalk a couple of miles through more “Inca Flats.” As with the whole trail, it’s “no pain, no gain,” so we must make a good climb before reaching the Sun Gate. We haul ourselves up and then gape down at Machu Picchu, spread out before us.

Though many others (including plenty of people who went in the dry season) told us to expect rain, mist, or at minimum clouds covering the site, we are blessed with blue skies and sunshine.  Our view is clear. A few thin clouds pass by but we have a perfect view down on the amazingly well-preserved ruins of Machu Picchu.

After snapping lots of photos, we continue down to the site for close exploration. For two hours, our guide leads us to some of the more significant sites. We then spend a few more hours exploring on our own, marveling at the perfect stonework of the temples, admiring the ingenuity of the fountains and water systems, wondering just how they managed to carve the terraces into the steepness of the mountainside, and just enjoying what truly is one of the wonders of the world.