Finally, the Inca Trail post. I´ll put up pictures once I get them on CD, so bare with me for the time being. The Inca Tral was a lot of fun for multiple reasons. The group I went with consited of about 14 people, half from Germany, Poland, and Switzerland and the other half from Australia and Canada, plus me. Even though it was a slightly larger group than I had originally wanted, it ended up working out perfectly since the group from Australia were the same age as me while the other half were a bit older, so it was nice to have the big group just for variety. Also, I was first considering going with a group called United Mice, since they are on a slightly different hiking schedule than all the other groups, so during the day they don´t see any other people but themselves, which is a nice aspect. However, the cost is about $100 more, and since everyone in my group was at different athletic levels, during the days if you walked quickly enough you could easily separate from the rest and act as if you were doing the trek on your own. From my experience in Patagonia I personally enjoy hiking without a big group or more specifically, without a guide and cook, since its a little more adventurous to complete the trek by yourself, carrying all the equipment and cooking each meal. But I will admit, the porters that carried everything were amazingly hardcore. These guys would carry around 20 kilos of equipment on their backs and get to the campsites in about half the time as the rest of us only wearing sandals. But they do live up in the mountains, so they´re used to it, but still crazy. I didn´t want to pay the extra $70 USD to have a porter carry my things so I just rented a small bag with all my clothes and snacks, not too hard and definitely worth it for saving that kinda money. There was a decent range of prices that people payed for the trip, with mine being one of the lowest. A few guys from Australia were kicking themselves cause they booked the trip back in Australia and payed about $500 while most everyone else sacrificed somewhere in the range of 200. I used a group called Nice Tours, and their office is located right next to the Loki Hostel. The owner of the company was a longtime guide for the Inca Trail, so he definitely knows his stuff, and they have all the equipment necessary to rent if needed. He´s a really nice guy, helped me out a lot, and he said the price for everyone that stops by in these next few months is $240 and $200 with a student card. Ok, now for the hike...
The first day is considered a very light acclimatization day with a few slight uphills, but the majority of the hike being flat. The weather really worked in our favor the entire trip as it either rained just in the night or right after we´d finish our hike for the day. In this instance, it was raining all the first day while we were on the bus heading to Km82 (the starting point) and even during lunch, but immediately when we started the hike the rain ceased. We saw a few inca sights that first day, but none were too interesting to note.
The second day we all woke up to a hot cup of coca tea in our tents, and then were saved breakfast before heading out on the hardest day of the trip. Crossing Dead Woman´s Pass is quite a challanging experience and I can easily see how people that just arrive to Cusco and start the Inca trail soon afterwards could have some serious problems with the altitude. Overall, the entire group finished the grueling 1200m ascent from 3000m to 4200m in around 4 hours, but me and a few others finished it in around 2.5hrs, which gave us plenty of time to enjoy the views and rest up before continuing on. The last 30 to 45 minutes is literally just climbing uphill steps until the top and by the end both my legs were cramping up, but luckily that didn´t occur until the final minutes, so it wasn´t bad. The rest of that day was a downhill stroll to our campsite where we arrived at about 2pm for lunch. The rest of the time was spent playing cards, relaxing, and waiting for dinner.
The third day was definitely not as hard as the second, but still challenging for the very first part which was all uphill. After the first hour or so until the second pass where on a nice day you can see the Machu Picchu mountain, the rest of the day was downhill, about 1.5 hours. A few Australians and I wanted to see how quickly we could make it down so we ran the whole thing finishing in about 30 minutes. At the final campsite there was a restuarant where our meals were served as well as showers. I spent the 5 soles for the crappy shower, but we later discovered a pretty cool waterfall to wash off in near the final Inca ruins, so that´s what the Australians used as their cleansing. The ruin site next to the final camping area was by far the most impressive out of all the others we saw up to that point. It was a very well kept structure with massive terraces marking the agricultural district. It was an optional part, so others didn´t bother, but it was definitely worth the quick 5 minute extra walk.
The last day our group woke up at 3:30am in order to be the first group through the Sun Gate and to Machu Picchu. We almost made it, but ended up being second at the control stop before continuing on. Actually, the first group were all there from Alaska. The only part throughout the entire trip where I really felt the overtourism of the Inca Trail was at the Sun Gate, but that´s only because the view of Machu Picchu was covered by fog so everyone had to wait around for the clouds to dissapear which allowed for all the other groups to catch up. Besides that one instance, there wasn´t too much interaction with other groups, and even in Machu Picchu, there weren´t a ton of people, at least not the amount that normally crowd the different landmarks and temples during the high season.
Machu Picchu was very impressive. Compared to all the other ruins we passed along the way it was by far the most impressive, without a doubt. Included in the cost of the Inca Trail is a 2 hour guided tour of the ruins, where the history of Machu Picchu, the people that lived there, what it was used for, why it wasn´t discovered by the Spanish, how it was first discovered, etc etc. is discussed, followed by a walking tour tour of all the different temples and important sites along the ruins. After thetour, we got our tickets to Wayna Picchu for the very steep hike uphill that we were all dreading in order to get a nice view of Machu Picchu from the opposite side. The hike was steep but short, so it wasn´t too hard, around 20 minutes. Definitely a must do while visiting the site, but they only give out 400 spots a day so you have to get there early in the morning.
Besides the tour, we didn´t end up spending too much time around the ruins. After climbing down Wayna Picchu we caught a bus to the town Aguas Calientes and hung out there for the rest of the day before getting the train back to Cusco.
In summary. Great trip, definitely a must do if in Cusco during the off season, since it doesn´t cost too much more than just going to see Machu Picchu for the day. If visiting Cusco during the high season, I´d probably suggest doing one of the alternative treks which I heard from people were also a lot of fun, and a little less traveled such as the Lares trek, Salkantay, and Inca Jungle.