With 500 people a day allowed on the Trail (including guides, porters and cooks) and literally thousands more showing up to Machu Picchu each day from Cusco or nearby Aguas Calientes, the experience is a far cry from the scene in The Motorcycle Diaries where Che Guevara and his horny friend have the archaeological site all to themselves, but we knew that was coming. What I didn't expect along the way was/were: the long, liberating streches of time when our group was allowed to hike at its own pace and where we encountered almost no other hikers; the quality of the secondary Inca sites we visited, each with its own sense of purpose and where we were given time to explore without roped-off sections or other tourists at every turn; and the feeling that the Trail itself, and literally following in the footsteps of a civilization with so much importance to the local population, could be more magical than the final destination. For some, arriving to Machu Picchu from the Trail is truly a spiritual experience; for others, reaching the end is anticlimactic. I can only say that I found reaching Hiram Bingham's "Lost City of the Incas" satisfying in a way that pure climbing hikes/treks never could be, and I am so grateful to have been able to share the journey with Kristin. And for the record, I thought the ruins were very impressive and that area surrounding Machu Picchu could not have been more spectacular.
For four days and three nights we made the pilgrimage with as good of a group as one could hope for, and the people made the experience even more memorable. Our group of "tremendous hikers", as our guide repeatedly called us, featured a family of four from California (with two sons around our age), a young couple from Denver, a young couple from England (most recently living in Perth), two English girls, one Irish girl, our guide, our assistant guide and ourselves. Some random group highlights for me included: watching a guide/trekkers love triangle develop (which we hadn't seen since our Lost City Trek) and gossiping about it each night with the others before dinner; talking with the California brothers about the size of their giant calf muscles (one of them had calf muscle reduction surgery, I shit you not), which I can definitely relate to...(ahem)
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that we were supported along the way by our cook and a group of eighteen porters - the Llama Path "Red Army". It's a tough sounding name for an incredibly hard-working and friendly group of people. I think that multi-day trekking would be a lot more popular worldwide if (i) it always involved being provided with a warm meal three times a day that you felt no obligation to help prepare and (ii) you were given a standing ovation every time you arrived at a rest stop. That was part of the Red Army experience. I have suggested to Kristin that she could continue the tradition of giving me a standing ovation whenever I accomplish something moderately difficult. She didn't say anything, so I imagine she is still mulling it over.
As always, my Inca Trail experience by the numbers...
Average wake-up time for the four days of the trek: 4:37 a.m.
Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: 1 - this time with significantly more painful consequences
Number of times I thought I was going to die: 1 - the first time I saw (smelled) the toilets in the Inca Trail campsites
Number of times I was scolded by crusty, old ladies: Twice - once on the Trail when I apparently lingered too long where somebody wanted to take a photo, and once on a major set of steps right outside of Machu Picchu when I suggested to a large tour group coming the other way that if they walked single file then people could probably move in both directions
Number of times I regretted not paying for a porter to carry our packs: Enough
Number of times I beat Kristin to the top of a pass: Zero
Number of times I beat Kristin to the dinner tent: 3
You can check out our pictures/captions from the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu here.