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Inca Jungle Trek, Day 4 – The Climb to Machu Picchu, Peru

I have already written a detailed report about our trip to Ecuador.

This series of posts will detail our trip to Peru and ultimately one of the new seven wonders of the world – Machu Picchu.

This post (part 9) will cover the final day of our 4-day Inca Jungle Trek with Loki Travel.  Check out our other posts to learn more about our trip to Peru.

Part 1:  Traveling to Machu Picchu: The Basics
Part 2:  Planning travel and lodging
Part 3:  Travel from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
Part 4:  Things to do in Ollantaytambo, Peru
Part 5:  Eating in Ollantaytambo, Peru
Part 6:  Cycling down a mountain
Part 7:  Hiking on an Inca trail
Part 8:  Zip lining and hiking to Aguas Calientes
Part 9:  The climb to Machu Picchu
Part 10: How much did our trip to Peru cost?

This post is a look inside my brain as I had a challenging climb from Machu Picchu Pueblo to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary.  Most of the hike was in the dark, so I have very few pictures of the experience.

The Climb to Machu Picchu

The majority of the tourists to Machu Picchu take the bus from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary for $12 each way.  I wasn’t going to be satisfied taking a bus; I wanted to hike to Machu Picchu.

Travel time estimates vary from one hour for fit hikers, up to about 1.5 hours or longer for those who want to take their time.

I set my alarm for 4:15 to get an early start, but I woke at 4:00, wide awake and excited for my adventure.  Breakfast was advertised to start at 4:30, so I was at the breakfast room promptly at 4:30.  This gave me at least a comfortable 75 minutes to get to the top in time for the 6:00 opening.    However, when I arrived, there were two other people and no food.

I wait.  I am still eager.  I step outside to check the weather and find it a bit chilly, probably mid 50s – perfect for hiking.  While I am outside, I watch as other robust hikers head out of town, knowing they too were going on the same adventure I would soon embark upon.  More people arrive in the breakfast room.  Around 4:45, a frantic guy arrives and puts out some bread, jelly and mini bananas, and starts to work on organizing breakfast.  I guess someone overslept. 

I eat a banana and a slice of bread.  Soon a few slices of ham and cheese arrive, as well as coffee, hot milk and hot water, and everyone scrambles to get what they can.  I debate whether to eat or get started on the hike, but figure I need all the energy I can for the day ahead.  I make myself a sandwich and a cup of coca tea, the tea everyone drinks which apparently helps with altitude sickness.

It is already 5:00.  I am behind schedule, so head outside.  Just as I do, it starts to rain.  Though I am behind schedule, I have another decision to make.  Do I start hiking since I am already late, or do I be smart and put on my rain gear?  I go back inside, take off my day pack, and pull out my rain poncho and reorganize everything to help me stay dry.

The Trek Begins

It is now 5:04.  Finally I start on my trek out of town, the well-worn, dirt road along the river lit by the lights of the buildings along the way.  But when I get to the end of town, all light gradually disappears.  It is now very dark and I can barely see anything.  This is not going to be a problem because I brought a flashlight.

I reach into my right pants pocket.  No flashlight.  I reach into my left pocket.  No flashlight.

Oh no.  Where is my flashlight?  Panic starts to build.

I reach into my jacket pocket.  My flashlight!

Thank goodness.  What a relief.

I click on the flashlight.  It lights, but when I point it ahead, it does nothing.  This light would have been good if I was trying to read a map, but it is useless to light a road ahead of me, so I just stick it back in my pocket.

Here I am on a dirt road, in the Andes Mountains, by myself, in the dark, with no light, and it is raining out.

Common sense should have prevailed, but it didn’t.  I am expected at the top at 6:00.  I HAVE to press on.  I decide if I hurry, I will eventually catch someone ahead of me who brought a working flashlight, and will walk with them.  Problem solved…except I don’t see anyone in front of me.

Close your eyes for a moment, and try to walk, even slowly.  It’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?  But it’s not so bad because you are able to open your eyes and see again.  I am in the same situation, except there is no opening my eyes and being able to see again.  It stays dark.  I can’t see the dirt road beneath my feet.

Without the use of sight, I become keenly aware of sounds.  I hear every leaf rustle and every bird chirp, often making me jumpy at the slightest sound.

I press on, determined to catch someone in front of me.  Not too long later, I step in a puddle; my right foot is now soaked.  Within a minute, I step in another puddle; my left foot is now soaked.

“I’m an idiot.  I’m an idiot”, I hear myself say out loud to no one in particular.

But I press on.  I have to get to the top.  I have to catch a group in front of me.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally see a glow ahead through the trees.  It gradually becomes bright enough where I can see the road.  I start to run.

Passport and Ticket Check

I round a corner, and in the distance I see the security checkpoint bathed in beautiful light.  Not only do I see the security checkpoint, but I see some hikers.  I start to run even faster.

The hikers move past the security checkpoint and over the bridge, which crosses the Urubamba River.

Finally, after a total of about 20 minutes from my departure, I reach the security checkpoint.

hike machu picchu peru
The security checkpoint to start the climb to Machu Picchu. Yeah, it’s pretty dark and hard to see.

“Boleta y passport”         (They want to see my passport and entrance ticket).

Darn! They are in my backpack.  I take off my rain poncho and backpack.  I get out my passport and ticket and hand them to the guard.

C’mon.  C’mon.  Faster please

Finally, the guard gives me back the documents and motions me toward the bridge.

I put the passport and ticket back in my pack, and then put the poncho over everything in order to keep it all dry.

I look across the bridge.  The two hikers are gone.

The Climb Begins

I sprint across the bridge and follow the trail to the right.  Up until this point, the road has been pretty flat.  After about 50 meters, a trail veers to the left and now turns from a path to a series of continuous stone stairs.  I still don’t see the two hikers.

Soon the light from the guard station disappears and I am back in complete darkness.

I’m an idiot.  I’m an idiot.

I plod along step by step, assuming the next step will be under my foot.  Imagine yourself climbing the staircase to the 100th floor of the Empire State Building wearing a backpack, a thick jacket and a rain poncho, and then the fire alarm goes off and the sprinklers spray a steady stream of water upon you as a tiny river flows down the stairs past your feet…and the lights go off.

Finally I think I catch a glimpse of a flashlight through the trees.  I quicken my pace.

I see someone!

I quickly catch up and settle into step not too far behind them.

Up to this point, my mind was singularly focused on catching the hikers.  Now that I caught up, my mind can wander to other things.

I realize I am breathing heavily (remember we are at about 8,000 feet altitude) and sweating profusely.

I am so hot!

I have to make a decision.  Do I stay hot, or do I take some clothing off?  Since the group I am behind is moving more slowly than I had been, I figure I will soon cool down, so I just keep walking.

We press on for a few more minutes, relentlessly climbing step after step.  I realize I am not cooling down, but rather getting hotter and hotter.  The heat is becoming overwhelming.  I have to stop and take off my jacket.

No problem; this will only take a second.

I take off the poncho.  I take off the backpack.  I take off my heavy jacket.  As I try to stuff my jacket into my backpack, I drop the backpack.  I also hear the clunk of my water bottle fall out of my backpack and start rolling away.

I need that water!

I quickly reach into my pocket and pull out my almost useless flashlight and start crawling along the ground.  I see the water bottle.  I put the water bottle into my pack, tie the jacket around my waist, put the pack on my back and slip on the rain poncho to keep me dry.

I no longer see the hikers I was following or their flashlight.  I am in the dark once again.

I’m an idiot.  I’m an idiot.

I continue the punishing climb as best as I can.

The trail soon smooths out and turns into what feels like a dirt road beneath my feet.

This is better.

After a couple minutes, I see a glow through the trees.  I get closer and the road turns into the lighted parking lot of the museum.

Noooo!  I’m going the wrong way.  The museum is in the other direction.

I’m an idiot.  I’m an idiot.

Quickly I evaluate the situation.

The trail must have crossed a road.  All I have to do is follow the road back until I find the trail again.  I walk as close to the woods as I can and very carefully scan the trees for any opening.  Finally I see a break in the trees and a small 4”x 6” sign with an arrow pointing into the woods.

The trail!

I resume the seemingly endless cascade of stairs.

It begins to get light and I can now easily see the stairs.  Mentally I relax, but physically I quicken my pace and continue my power walk up the Empire State Building.

Again my brain has time to wander from the task at hand and I notice my heart pounding in my chest, the audible heavy breathing, and the oppressive heat under my poncho.

I have to make another decision.  Do I get hot, or do I get wet?  I am so hot that I decide to slide off the hood of the poncho.

Much better.

But soon my hair is soaked.  I press on.

I continue my power walk and soon catch the two hikers and quickly leave them in my dust.

I am so hot I have to stop and take off my rain poncho.  I don’t care if I get wet anymore.

I catch a couple more hikers, and soon they are out of sight behind me.

Not too long after, I see a couple of hikers standing beside the trail to catch their breath.  The hike is taking its toll on people.  They sit on the side of the trail, like wounded soldiers on a battlefield.

I pass them with a quick nod (we can relate; we share the same pain).

But there is no time for me to stop.  I have to get to the top soon.

I pass dozens of people, many of them stopped to catch their breath, and finally reach the entrance to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary.

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In the rain, in the dark without a flashlight, with a dropped water bottle, a wrong turn, I eventually reach the top at 6:04, one hour after I started.

I cannot recall a time when I have been more happy to reach my destination.

Would I do that same thing again?  I learned my lesson and would be a lot smarter in the future.

Would I trade that experience?  Never!

The Jungle Trek Ends

If you are reading this and planning to do the Inca Jungle Trek, our guide was waiting near the entrance (along with the other people from our group who took the bus).

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The guide took us through the entrance and proceeded to give us a short tour.  At the beginning, we got a relatively long (20 -30 minutes) explanation of the history of the area.  Our guide then took us to a few of the areas within the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, and then told us he was leaving and we were free to explore the rest of Machu Picchu on our own.

Machu Picchu Peru
Machu Picchu

It was then up to us to get back down to Aguas Calientes and to the train station on our own.  Plan to get to the train station about a half hour early.  This is largely because of the challenge of finding the train station.  You have to cut through a bazaar to find the train station; I was totally lost at first but finally found my way.

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The train took us to Ollantaytambo.  Once we exited the train, there was someone there, amid the chaos, with a Loki Travel sign who escorted us to a colectivo for the 2 hour journey back to Cusco.

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Note: You can spend the night in Ollantaytambo, and take a colectivo in the morning.  If you plan to do this, let your guide know at the pre-trip briefing and they will take 10 soles off the cost of your trip (as you will then need to find a colectivo back to Cusco on your own).  Why?  Well, this is a long day and you just may want to break up the trip instead of having another 2 hours of travel so late in the day (especially if you are on the last train).  Also you can probably find cheaper lodging in Ollantaytambo.

Summary

The Inca Jungle Trek was an amazing experience, and I would do it again (actually I did do it a second time).

I feel the hike from Machu Picchu Pueblo is more rewarding, but it is a challenging climb. Be aware that it is about 20 minutes from town to the security checkpoint, and that the security checkpoint does not open until 5:00 a.m.  Many people get there before 5:00 and wait in line.

However, if you are not up for the hike, you can take a bus for $12 USD each way.  Be sure to have cash.

This can be a very long day, so I suggest paying extra to take the early train back.  In fact, the second time I did the trek, I paid extra for an earlier train and every single person in my tour group said they wished they paid extra for the early train.

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