I’ve dreamed about visiting the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu for as long as I can remember. I envisioned myself arriving at the Sun Gate (Inti Punko) in the wee hours of the morning, legs beat after five days of hiking the traditional “Inca Trail,” and overcome with joy as I looked upon the lost city of the Incas for the first time. This vision was crushed a few months back when I was informed that there were no more permits available to hike the Inca Trail until October 2017. Unfortunately, the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu that became popular over the past 30 years has now been completely commercialized by the tourism industry in Cusco. Not only do you have to reserve a permit nearly a year in advance but the only way to hike the trail these days is with a guided group trek that costs ~$1,000+ per person.
After doing some research, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are many other hiking trails throughout the region that lead to Machu Picchu. Some of these trails are now very popular alternatives to the Inca Trail while others offer more solitude. I also learned that there are many many Inca trails and some of them even cross paths with these other routes. I wasn’t so keen on taking one of the densely populated routes where I’d likely be hiking behind packs of mules. I opted to take a longer, more challenging route where I knew I’d be alone on the trail much of the time. This would be my longest solo hike to date and, while still a bit shaken up from my last solo backpacking trip in Ecuador, I was ready for the challenge.
…Or at least I thought I was until I finished packing my backpack and then tried to lift it. I’m guessing it weighed 30-35 pounds on the first day. The lightest tent I could find in town was about three kilos and I needed to bring 4-5 days worth of food (there would be a place to restock during the second half of the trek). I only carried two liters of water because I knew every campsite would have water available to filter and I’d be crossing rivers nearly everyday. I eliminated anything that I deemed unnecessary (like my gloves which I’d later regret) and hopped in a colectivo for the three hour drive to Cachora, the rural village where I would start hiking from the following morning. When I arrived in town I met Gabriela, another solo hiker from Peru, and a woman named Julie with her son (from New Mexico).
Cachora is the starting point for hiking to another Inca citadel, Choquequirao, Peru’s lesser known “lost city.” I would spend the first two days of my journey on the trail with the Choquequirao hikers and visit the ruins before continuing on my way to Machu Picchu. I was warned by many people in Cusco that I likely would not encounter any other hikers for the four days between leaving Choquequirao and the last day when I would finish my journey to Machu Picchu via one of the Inca trails. I was also warned that I would be hiking through puma and Andean bear country and I should be prepared with protection (solo hikers are vulnerable targets for pumas). Good thing my dad forced me to buy the ultra strong pepper spray before the trip.
I booked a room at the simple hostel Gabriela was staying in and, after wandering around town a bit and enjoying the views of the distant snow-capped peaks, I had dinner with the three other hikers (at the only restaurant in town). The next morning I caught a ride to the trailhead, 13 km up a dirt road from Cachora. I arrived at the Capuliyoc Mirador around 7 AM, just as the sun rose above the mountains. I began the steep 1,500m descent into Apurímac Canyon, the temperature rising with every step, all the way down to the Apurímac River. The warmer temps also brought out swarms of mosquitoes, leaving my legs completely covered in bites by the end of the day.
That afternoon I eventually met up with Gabriela and her porter, Enrique (a villager from Cachora), who helped me with my load for the ascent up the dusty switchbacks to our first campsite, Santa Rosa Alta. Gabriela and I set up our tents on the picturesque property of the woman who lives there and then cooked our dinners before heading to bed, totally exhausted. The next morning we ate breakfast and continued our steep 13 km climb up to the ruins of Choquequirao, the landscape becoming ever more green. We passed through the remote town of Marampata, where we stopped for a break and drank some mate (coca tea). We continued on a gradual path the rest of the way to Choquequirao, set in the high-altitude jungle at 3,050m.
After setting up camp within the park and having a quick lunch, Gabriela and I spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering the ruins. First we visited the lower section, tumbling agricultural terraces carved into the side of the mountain with sweeping views of the lush green valley and surrounding mountains. Choquequirao (meaning “cradle of gold” in Quechua) is three times the size of Machu Picchu and is sprawled across three hilltops and 12 sectors. The purpose of the hidden city remains unknown and archaeologists believe that they’ve only excavated about 30% of it. Due to the grueling four-day journey required to visit the complex (two days each way), only a dozen visitors enter the park per day on average, and therefore it offers much more solitude than Machu Picchu.
After visiting the terraces, we climbed up to the main plaza, only stopping for a few minutes before descending down the other side of the mountain to catch the sunset at one of the most iconic sectors of the park. A series of white mosaic llamas are decorated onto the hillside grey stone terraces. As the sun sank low in the sky it cast a bright golden glow on the terraces, lighting up the llamas. We hiked back to our campsite in the dark and the temperature dropped dramatically by the time we returned. I cooked dinner and ate in my tent, too cold and tired to go outside.
On day three I woke up before dawn so I would have some time to finish exploring the rest of the ruins before continuing on to my next campsite. I said goodbye to Gabriela and made the climb back up to the main plaza ruins. For about an hour I was completely alone, perched on a wall overlooking the empty citadel of Choquequirao. I watched in complete serenity as the sun rose over the mountain, lighting up the fascinating stone living quarters, administrative buildings, and temples…one of my favorite moments of the trek. I spent another hour exploring the upper ruins and snapping photos before climbing the remainder of the way to
the ridge line through an overgrown jungly path.
The next few hours involved a brutally hot and steep descent down to Río Blanco. When I reached the river I dumped the ice cold water on my head to cool down before another challenging ascent up to Maizal, where I would set up camp for the night. After a few hours of switchbacks and a big leap in altitude I finally arrived at my campsite (an indigenous lady’s farmhouse) just as it was getting dark. I was freezing again so I threw on my warm clothes and plopped down, my back aching, and watched as the sky transformed colors, creating a beautiful silhouette of the surrounding Andes. I pitched my tent in the yard, sipped a refreshing Coca Cola that I had bought, cooked dinner, and watched as the roosters, dogs, and cows meandered past my tent.
I set out on day four just after dawn, completely frozen. I sped up the pace to get my heart pumping and to try to regain feeling in my hands and toes. For the first couple hours of the climb, the trail was a mess of frozen mud. I spent the entire morning climbing up to Abra San Juan pass, hiking through the Victoria Mines on the way. The vegetation changed as I climbed higher and higher, from the wet and dense jungle with blooming wild orchids to the very dry, rocky, and arid landscape of the high altitude páramo.
When I finally reached the pass I was thrilled to find a little rest hut with a woman and her two kids selling cookies and drinks. I stopped for a much needed break, chatting with them and snacking on animal crackers while taking in the epic views all around me. They told me it would only take me another hour or two to descend down to Yanama, the small village where I would spend the night. I perched myself on a rock with perfect panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks and just sat there for a long time, completely content. I took my time descending down to Yanama, my back sore and my knees acting up, and completely distracted by the mountains and bright purple wildflowers all along the trail.
By the time I could see Yanama my back was killing me so I picked up the pace for the remainder of the way. The lady in Maizal had told me where to find her daughter’s house in Yanama, and said I could camp there that night. I eventually found the house and set up my tent on her land with stunning views of the valley. I took an ice cold shower, changed into warm clothes, and laid down on my mattress to rest my back. I made some soup and tea and then drifted to sleep shortly after dark.
Day five started out with a relaxing couple hours of hiking through the Quellqua Machay valley followed by the toughest climb yet up to the highest point of my hike, Abra Mariano Llamocca pass (4,643 meters). From Yanama to Totora (my destination that day) there is a new dirt road that snakes all the way up to the pass and then back down. The trail that I took criss-crossed with the road the entire way but I never saw a single vehicle. I reached the pass around noon, entering a strong wind tunnel that I thought might blow me away if not for my enormous backpack. The view from the pass failed to disappoint, the giant peaks of Salkantay and Humantay commanding the landscape.
I began my descent, trying my best not to topple over as my feet skidded down the nearly vertical sandy trail. I stopped for lunch once I was low enough to be blocked from the intense winds and then continued all the way down to Río Totora. When I saw the “bridge” at the river crossing my palms began to sweat. A few measly sticks were laid on piles of rocks just above the raging white water. My legs were already shaky from the exhausting climb and descent of that day and the heavy pack didn’t do anything to help with my balance either. I took a deep gulp and inched my way across, one foot on each log, trying not to focus on the concerning amount of bounce in the log under my right foot.
I made it to Totora just before nightfall. That evening I stayed at the house of the Maizal lady’s other daughter. She asked if I wanted to pay to sleep inside in a bed that evening and I agreed without hesitation. I had slept so poorly every night thus far, freezing cold and uncomfortable from the aches in my back, hips, and shoulders. After chasing the giant turkeys around the yard, I went inside and crawled into my sleeping bag on top of the bed to rest before dinner.
Day six was my easiest day, beginning with a gradual two hour descent down the dirt road from Totora to the village of Colpapampa. From Colpapampa I continued down the road until it met back up with the trail. I crossed the river and was now back down in the jungle, the sticky heat and violent mosquitoes making for an uncomfortable situation. The narrow trail made its way up and down rolling hills parallel to the river, crossing through a plethora of fruit plantations. Granadillas, oranges, avocados, and bananas were growing all over the place. I stopped for a break at an amazing tree house overlooking the river before continuing to the village of La Playa.
I was in a bit of shock when I entered La Playa. The small coffee growing village has been completely infiltrated with campsites, a few restaurants, and even a hotel catering to hikers. This was the point on my route where I linked up with the Salkantay trail, probably the most popular alternative trek to Machu Picchu. Many of the campsites were filled with large groups of trekkers. After not encountering a single other hiker in the past four days it felt a bit overwhelming at first to see so many gringos in one place. I did make a few friends at my campsite (two ladies from Oregon and a group of Germans) and it was really nice to have some people to share stories with that evening. And it was even warm enough to be outside my tent after dark!
I was all packed up and on my way before anyone at the campsite had even woken up the next morning, so used to being up before the sun by that point. Day seven was the final stretch of the trek. I hiked down a dirt road for an hour until I arrived at the entrance to the Inca trail, a large group of hikers just ahead of me. I began my ascent up to the ruins of Llacapacta, passing through tons of coffee plantations. It only took a few minutes before the rich aroma of roasting coffee beans drew me into a place just off the trail named Inka Andean Starbucks Coffee.
I sat outside as a very sweet indigenous man in a traditional Peruvian hat served me piping hot fresh brewed coffee and an avocado sandwich and then proceeded to play his Peruvian flute. Peru is one of the largest coffee producers in the world, specializing in Arabica. The area I was hiking through grows certified organic Arabica beans. It had been so long since I had good coffee (the majority of places in Peru and Ecuador only serve instant coffee while the good stuff is mostly exported) and Inka Starbucks might be the best coffee I’ve ever had. As I write this, I’m ironically sitting on an airplane in Fort Lauderdale sipping my first “real” Starbucks iced coffee in seven months…I can’t really believe that I used to live for this expensive watery stuff.
I thanked the indigenous man, bought a bag of his coffee beans, and continued on my way up the mountain. The two ladies from Oregon who I had camped with the night before and their guide Washington eventually caught up to me. We hiked for awhile together, chatting about running, cycling, and hiking. They tried to convince me to move to Portland and I decided that I need to plan a trip there soon to check it out. A storm rolled in through the valley and soon after I could feel raindrops plopping down onto my head…the first rain storm on my hike. As we neared the top of the mountain, the clouds became so dense that I could no longer see anything other than the trail directly in front of me.
As the trail steepened, I fell back behind the two women who were only carrying their day packs. I reached the mirador at the top of the mountain (where I was supposed to have my first view of Machu Picchu) but I was completely engulfed in a cloud. I chatted with three guys who had camped there the night before and were packing up their tents. They raved about the view and I decided to rest their for awhile after an indigenous man urged me to wait until the clouds cleared up. Sure enough, within less than an hour the clouds cleared and the sun came out.
Machu Picchu came into view, set between Huayna Picchu to the left and Machu Picchu Mountain to the right. After seven very challenging days, it was an amazing moment to see my final destination for the first time…even if it still seemed SO far away. I sat there for awhile longer, enjoying the sweeping views of the lush green jungle and endless mountains all around me. I continued on to the ruins of Llacapacta, just a few minutes further down the trail. I made my final descent of the trek that afternoon back down to the river, picking some bananas and oranges off the trees lining the trail.
I originally planned to arrive in Aguas Calientes (the town just below Machu Picchu) on day eight. I made it to Hydroelectrica a day earlier than expected so, rather than continuing the remaining few hours to Aguas Calientes late that afternoon, I decided to hitch a ride to the nearby town of Santa Teresa. Gabriela had told me about the hot springs there and I decided it would be a nice way to rest up before what was sure to be an exhausting day at Machu Picchu. I flagged down the first car that passed by. It was completely full but the driver said I could ride in the trunk if I wanted. I hopped in the trunk of the wagon and he sped off. We were flying along the bumpy road, zipping around each turn and I thought I was going to be sick. I was so relieved when we finally arrived in Santa Teresa.
That evening I hobbled down the dusty road to the hot springs in Cocalmayo with a Mexican guy I had met in town. My legs felt like tight rubber bands, each muscle screaming with every step. The hot springs were disappointing, overcrowded and not nearly as hot as I was hoping they would be. I returned back to town and got a room in a hotel, desperate for a hot shower and bed.
I took a colectivo back to Hydroelectrica the following morning and finished out the remaining three hours of my trek to Aguas Calientes, hiking along the train tracks with hundreds of other tourists. Aguas Calientes is a Disneyworld-type of town, where dozens of hotels, touristy restaurants, and souvenir shops line every street. I checked into a hostel, grabbed some dinner, and set my alarm for 3 AM. I barely slept that night, giddy with excitement. I’d been anticipating this day for so long and couldn’t believe that it was finally here.