The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Last January I was sitting in a café in Raleigh, NC with my best friend Claire. For a few months prior we had been vaguely talking about backpacking together, but she had decided it was time for her to look for a more stable job that allowed her to live closer to her family. I knew this was a possibility, and as she finished the sentence that I knew was hard for her to tell me, a question popped into my head. It actually felt like this question landed on the table between us and slapped me in the face. It said: “So Kelly, are you going to go backpacking alone, or are you going to forget about the idea entirely?”

I asked the question out loud to Claire, and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. “You can absolutely do this!” And that was that. The decision was made. Claire had done some backpacking in South America after her study abroad semester in Cusco, Peru, so we pulled out Google Maps and she started rattling off a list of must-see places in Bolivia and Peru. She also knew a little about the gringo trail in other parts of the continent, and soon I had a rough itinerary of places to visit. I ordered Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring and began researching my first solo adventure. At the top of my list of priorities was how to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was Claire’s biggest recommendation and it required some advance planning.

At the height of their history, the Inca Empire spread from Ecuador to Chile and east into Bolivia. Cusco, Peru was the center of their empire, and the Inca Trail was a 40,000 km network of highways to connect the various places to Machu Picchu, one of the most sacred of all the Inca sites. In an effort to preserve this Inca citadel, the government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to begin the 4 day, 26 mile (43 km) hike on the Inca trail which leads you along a mountainous path of Inca ruins and stunning nature. Hikers must be accompanied by a licensed guide employed by an authorized company for the duration of the trek. Permits must be purchased months in advance because of their limited quantity, and for this reason, many backpackers I met chose to hike other routes to Machu Picchu since planning is the last thing most backpackers are doing. (If you’re interested in how to hike to Machu Picchu for free, check out my friend Nick’s blog about the Salkantay Trek!)

Claire convinced me that the Inca Trail was the way to go and when I looked online, June 15 was the earliest date I could get a permit. I knew I would need to be back for my summer job the following week, so I bought the permit with Alpaca Expeditions before I purchased any flights. I remember receiving my confirmation email after paying a deposit and thinking, “okay, I guess this trip is really happening.”

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Getting ready to begin at kilometer 82

The price tag for this trek is no joke: $650 is the average cost! You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. I wanted to make sure that the company I chose had high standards for paying their staff, and Alpaca Expeditions also seemed to follow environmental and sustainability best practices. The cost includes food and water, transportation to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. I felt good about my choice, and continued to feel good about it after asking my guides lots of questions about the circumstances under which they and our incredible team of chaskis* worked.

*Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to the group of porters who traveled with us.

Hiking with a dedicated group of porters made this trek immensely easier, and to be honest I will probably never do a hike this way again. These men worked so hard for the sole purpose of my happiness over these 4 days, and the humanitarian in me couldn’t believe that I was participating in this type of industry. I am aware that for many people this is the only way they could have completed this hike, and I both respect and understand that. From a humanitarian perspective however, although the porters in my group seemed to be paid well and treated fairly by the company they work for, it is not an industry that I want to support again. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who disagrees with me, but I don’t feel I can write about my Inca Trail experience without being honest about my thoughts on this topic. For this reason, I have decided to elaborate in a separate blog post in an effort to not take away from the experience of the hike itself, and you can read more about it here.

The day finally came to start the trek and I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco at 4:30am by our chipper guides, Herlín and Manolo. We drove for about 5 hours and made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis before arriving at kilometer 82 where the hike begins. As soon as we arrived, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day.

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Our chaskis preparing their packs to hit the trail

Claire had described the experience as the physical feat of her life so I was nervous. I had read a lot about the difficulty of the trail because of the altitude and the steep inclines and descents. It turns out that having just finished the Ausangate Trek the week before was incredible training for this hike. The altitudes on the Inca Trail are lower than where I had been for 2 and 1/2 weeks, so I was definitely acclimatized. I wasn’t going to be carrying nearly as much weight in my backpack thanks to the chaskis. For the first time in my life, I was one of the more athletic people in the group. If you know me, this has never, ever been the case for me. Although I love hiking. exercising doesn’t bring me joy (especially cardio) and I’ve never been an athlete. During these 4 days, I was primarily at the front of our group instead of bringing up the rear like all of the other hikes I’ve done. I promise I am not trying to brag, but I was quite proud of my ability and felt stronger than ever.

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This map shows the 26 mile hike to Machu Picchu

The first day starts out at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in the Inca jungle – on a sunny day (which we were so lucky to have the whole time) it is hot! As we hiked up, we could see the Urubamba river below surrounded by lush green mountains. As we got a little higher we could also see a glacier in the distance (I sure do love looking at glaciers!!). We passed Patallacta, an archaeological site believed to have been a common place to stop and rest for Inca travelers along the trail on their way to Machu Picchu. The hardest part of the day came after lunch with a steep incline before arriving at our campsite.

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Patallacta

When we arrived at our campstie our chaskis were there working hard to set up and cook us an incredible meal. Seriously, the meals they prepared each day were impressive! I don’t think I could make this caliber of food in a full kitchen with all the amenities, never mind in the middle of nature with a camp stove lit up by a few headlamps. After dinner we gathered in a big circle with our guides and chaskis, and everyone introduced themselves and where they were from. Our guide translated to Spanish and to their native Quechua*, and I was so proud to be able to communicate my story in Spanish! The chaskis also told us what they were each specifically carrying in their bag. I was really happy that we had this time to learn a tiny bit about them and to make them feel like they were also a part of our group. After learning a little about the constellations thanks to some amazing stargazing, we were off to bed early to rest up for another long day of hiking.

*Although many Inca traditions were lost during the Spanish invasion, the Quechua language was kept alive and continues to be spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The Spanish were mainly interested in cities and places at lower altitudes. This was not so much the case for other indigenous populations in South America such as the Muiscas from Colombia.

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My spacious home during the trek

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Hard at work making a delicious dinner

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These meals seriously impressed me!

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Yummmm!

Day 2 was by far the most challenging day of the trek because it involves hiking to two summits and then ascending them both. After an intense ~3 hour uphill climb, we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), the highest point of the trek. The top is incredible, complete with more glacier views. You can also see the trail leading from the campsite where you start the day, and I felt a huge sense accomplishment seeing what I’d just done.

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Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet)

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We all made it!

Hiking down the other side was much harder than hiking up in my opinion. It’s the first time that I’ve ever used hiking poles, and I was so thankful to Justin in my group who had rented them but didn’t want to use them. We basically spent the next hour and a half walking down steep stone steps. Justin let me hang onto the poles for the rest of the trek, and they made the downhill parts SO much more manageable.

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What goes up must come down, as they say.

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If you look closely you can see our chaskis making their way past these ruins

After lunch it was uphill again for another 2 hours where we saw some waterfalls and more breathtaking views. We passed two Inca sites this day, Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Inca sites had various uses depending on their location. Some were temples used for religious ceremonies and celestial observations while others were centers of urban life and agriculture. Agricultural sites are located at different elevations based on the crops growing there, which included potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and corn.

I was beyond exhausted at the end of day 2, and it was a struggle to stay awake through dinner. When we woke up early the next morning, the spectacular 360 degree view which had been covered by clouds the night before was the first thing I noticed.

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Sure you can brush your teeth, but first we take a selfie.

We hit the trail again after breakfast for a much less strenuous and equally beautiful day. We had the Salkantay glacier in the distance and passed two more Inca sites: Phuyupatamarka and Wiñay Wayna. Both of these are only accessible via the Inca Trail, and they were two of my favorites. Since there weren’t many people around, it was easy to walk around and enjoy the structures without any crowds. We took some time at both sites to learn about some history from our guides (the details of which I really wish I wrote down or could have retained).

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Salkantay Glacier

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Herlín and Manolo making rope from straw

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Well hello there!

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Phuyupatamarka was my favorite of the ruins

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Admiring what we’ve accomplished

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If you don’t take a llama selfie, it didn’t happen!

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Manolo speaks Llama.

After dinner on our last night, we gathered up as a group with the chaskis again to thank them for all the hard work they had done to make this trek possible for us. I was so happy to not need a translator for what I wanted to say, but even still it was difficult to find words to express the gratitude I felt for what these men had done for us. They even made us a cake on the last night – in the middle of nowhere in the woods! Using a campstove! It was truly incredible.

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Our campsite on Day 3

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View from my humble abode.

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Seriously, they made us a cake in the woods!

Day 4 begins very early as groups rush to make it to the entrance of the last part of the trail. The gate doesn’t open until 5am but people start lining up to wait there at 3am. We were the second group in line. When they opened the gate, I walked right through and kept a steady pace until I arrived at the Sun Gate two hours later. I was among the first 10 or so people to arrive, and although I am not motivated by competition, I was happy that I arrived before 490 others obstructed the views. It made up for the hoards of people  I was about to bump into walking around Machu Picchu who had arrived from the train that morning. From the Sun Gate we looked down over Machu Picchu and watched the sun rise before the final descent into the ancient citadel.

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Machu Picchu itself is amazing, but I have to say that after 4 days in the woods, being surrounded by chipper, freshly showered tourists is quite annoying. I was so thankful for all the time spent listening to the history with our guides in some of the more peaceful sites because it was hard to focus on our tour inside with thousands of people pushing through the narrow walkways. The most impressive part of this ancient city is that it was built completely by hand without the use of modern technology, high up in the mountains. I don’t know how people weren’t careening down the sides with the pure weight of the stones they were carrying. Also amazing is the fact that when they were taken as slaves by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Incas kept Machu Picchu (along with some other sites along the trail) a secret, and instead purposefully led them to other sites with less importance than Machu Picchu in an attempt to preserve it.


I dedicated this hike to my cousin, Alex David who passed away in Peru in 2010 while fulfilling his dreams of seeing this beautiful world we live in. He shared my deep love for travel, and I’m told he especially loved Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail. I’m proud to be following in his footsteps and aspire to be a great adventurer like him!

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I added the top rock to this cairn in honor of Alex.

I spent a lot of time hiking by myself during this trek because I was moving so much faster than my group. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hike with them, or because I was trying to be as fast as I could, but it turned out that I was very prepared for the challenge and I was moving at a pace that felt good to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences of the past 3 months and try to make sense of how fast it flew by. In the end, it felt symbolic that I was often hiking on my own. I came to South America by myself to see if I could do it. I had a lot of doubts and I was really scared to be alone, but I’ve come a long way since the planning had begun in that little cafe in Raleigh.

My flight back to Boston was the following day. The Inca Trail was the first thing I planned and the last thing I did on my 3 month adventure. There was something strangely satisfying about ending my trip at the exact spot that made me make this trip happen in the first place. As I sat watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, both for completing this hike and for successfully living out of my backpack and moving around South America on my own. I listened to my favorite song, We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow, which I discovered on my Camino De Santiago, and took a moment of solitude to reflect on how far I’ve come. I couldn’t help but cry happy tears. I’m so proud of myself.

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Among many other things, South America taught me how to fly!

 

A Letter to My Sweet Sister

Roughly 18 years ago, my parents sat me and my brother down to give us some important news. I was 11 at the time, and like any American kid, I crossed my fingers that it was Disney World. (We actually did go there that same year, but that was not the news they had to share.) 

“We’re having another baby.” My wildest dreams were coming true! I always wanted a baby around but never thought it possible. 

I vividly remember holding her for the first time in the hospital the day she was born. I remember the day she took her first steps. I remember showing her snow for the first time. And I remember how crazy life becomes when a cute little baby turns 2, 5, 13…

Well now Colleen is 17, and today she leaves for a class trip to Italy, which she has worked incredibly hard to pay for by herself. Proud doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about her for making this trip happen. Last June as I flew home from Spain, I wrote her this letter that I gave her before I left for Colombia. To celebrate her big adventure, I’d like to share that letter here. Enjoy!

Dear Colleen,

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

As I sit on the plane back to Boston reflecting on my two years in Spain, I can’t help but think back to Perugia where I began my travels and where my eyes and my heart were opened wide to the world. That city changed my life in so many amazing ways. I think it’s incredibly cool that your first international experience will also be in Italy. I know you are going to love it as much as I did!

I wanted to share some advice with you that the world has gifted to me. Take it with you on your journey 🙂

Be open to new experiences and be patient with the differences you encounter. They inevitably give us what we need to grow. Be tolerant of other viewpoints and values but never lose sight of your own. Be gentle to people who seem like they need your kindness most. Talk to people; listen to their stories. Share your own. Write. Dance. Smile. Explore. Be CURIOUS!! Surround yourself with interesting people. Allow them to color your world and be sure to do the same in return. Always listen to your heart because it knows exactly what it wants and needs, and it will lead you to the most beautiful places and the most incredible people. Lean into your fears and use them as tools to keep things in check – but also challenge them because most of the time they’re just there to keep you inside your comfort zone. And whatever you do, never let them stop you from following your dreams. 

I’m so excited for you to hop on that plane and see where the world takes you. I’m very proud of you for working so hard to make this trip possible. Your journey will be different from mine and that’s the greatest part about it all, but I’m also excited for our travels to take us places together! So, where to first?

I love you so much!
xoxo,
Kelly

Superluna Adventure!

Ever since I started teaching science classes in an elementary school last fall, I have become increasingly more curious about the solar system. This is something I had absolutely zero interest in as a child when I was a student in similar elementary school science classes. I am particularly intrigued by the moon and the stars, so when I heard about this thing called a supermoon last week I immediately started googling.

After reading a few quick articles and watching a very helpful youtube video, I learned that the supermoon was going to be combined with a lunar eclipse, a phenomenon which only happened 5 times in the 20th century! My curiosity spiked to great heights. I won’t bore you with the science-y details but basically this was something I had to see.

My excitement was briefly squashed when I realized the optimum time to see this phenonemon in Madrid was at 4:47am. (I am not a morning person, especially when the “morning” begins at such a ridiculous hour.) This was going to be complicated. But since this was an almost once-in-a-lifetime experience, my boyfriend and I agreed to be outside to see it happen.

The only cool thing about the fact that the superluna danced with the lunar eclipse at that time was the fact that at that exact same moment in Massachusetts, my family was looking at the exact same thing!! Lucky for them their optimum viewing time was 10:47pm.

Before I get to the moon part of this story, I have a thought about curiosity. I live in the middle of a major city, meaning there are a lot of people here. And I had never even heard of a supermoon before, so to me that means it’s rare. Yet despite all this, we only saw one other person outside waiting to see what our moon was up to. Just the three of us. I even saw a guy leave his apartment at 4:49 and walk in the opposite direction from the moon without even taking a peek to see what it looked like. Okay, sure…maybe he didn’t know this was happening just at that moment. But I talked to a lot of people about this in the days leading up and most had at least heard about it. So I wonder if this means that people just don’t pay attention to the simple yet amazing things our world can do, or if they don’t let their curiosity get the best of them enough. Regardless of the fact that it was at a crazy-early hour, it seemed sad to me that there weren’t more people interested in this.

Okay now back to la luna. Although it didn’t seem as red as I had read about (I blame the city lights), the moon looked incredible! It actually looked more like what I imagine a planet would look like it if were super zoomed in. The Earth’s shadow and reddish color made it look less like a bright circle (how it usually appears) and more like a ball in the sky. This shape made the fact that it just hangs out in our atmosphere because of gravity so much more mind-blowing. We watched it for about half an hour and could see it change slightly as it moved into the complete lunar eclipse. I tried to take photos but they did not even come close to doing this justice.

I learned an important lesson this morning as I grumbled out of bed and into the world. Our lives are so overwhelmed with schedules, to do lists, and priorities that we forget to acknowledge the simple things. Perhaps had the eclipse happened at a not-so-unreasonable hour more people would have watched. But I think that’s a lame excuse. Not only was this a sweet, romantic experience I shared with someone I care about, it was also something I may literally never see again.

My point here is not to focus all your attention on the moon – of course not everyone shares this interest with me. But if there is something you’re curious about, don’t let life get in the way of exploring it. Set that alarm and get out there!

Motivation from my Fans

When I started this blog a year ago, I had just moved abroad and my intention was to keep family and friends at home up to date on where my latest adventures had taken me. Unfortunately sometime around January, I lost motivation to write. Weeks passed by and then turned into months, and at some point I figured it was too late to pick it up again. To me, my blog turned into a fading memory that just seemed to hang out in the back of my mind as something that I would hopefully, eventually, maybe someday start again.

While home for a whirlwind two months this summer, I was truly surprised by how many people asked me about it. I guess I didn’t realize how many people had actually been reading what I had to say. I received awesome feedback and a lot of encouragment to keep writing. So to all you wonderful people out there, I dedicate my new inspiration to you and hope to make writing a more regular part of my life.

Back to School

Today was my first day teaching here in Madrid. I had so much fun! The students I met are so adorable. No one has ever been so excited to hear that my favorite color is green and my favorite animal is a kangaroo 🙂

As far as first days go, it was really everything I’d hoped it would be. I know it was only day one and I’m confident there will be many challenges ahead, but I am so excited to go to work tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ve ever said that before…

Months and months ago when I was wondering if I should actually do this, I was really nervous that it wasn’t the right career move. Those smiling faces I saw today have quickly proved to me that I was very wrong. Sara Bareilles says it perfectly in her song Uncharted: “Compare where you are to where you want to be and you’ll get nowhere.” This is a bit of retroactive inspiration for me (if such a thing exists). What I’m doing now is so completely different from what I was doing before, and comparing these two things months ago was just not productive.

Unexpected Inspiration

Two days ago, after reading my blog, a friend recommended I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. He warned me that I would need to set aside a few solid hours after I picked it up because it’s that good. I’m not an avid reader, and I often abandon books partway through for one reason or another. But this one is different. I read it in two sittings.

It’s a simple story about following your heart and listening to what it truly wants. Be ready for some spiritual and existential ideas thrown at you, but most of all, be ready to start asking yourself some real questions. Since writing my first post four days ago, two friends have told me that I’ve inspired them to do the thing they want most. To those friends, and to others yearning for something deep down, read The Alchemist. May it bring you peace in following your dream.

Easier Said than Done

Okay, I admit – leaping is far harder than it looks. Otherwise, I would’ve just gotten on a plane 4 years ago and brushed away all the “what ifs.”

My dream was on hold until later. Until I could afford it. Until I had X years of work experience on my resumé. Until my parents thought it was a good idea. Until…. My list of “until’s” was extensive, but excuses made it easier to accept that it wasn’t the right time. I tried making it happen in 2012 and because of a long wait list, it didn’t work out. Then I fell in love (with my partner and his dog), got a new job, moved to a new city. I thought the idea might go away eventually – staying was just easier. But every time someone asked me what I did for work, I would always find myself saying “…and I really want to teach abroad someday.”

“Why don’t you teach here?” they would ask. I studied education in college and learned how much of a curriculum is guided by standardized testing. Not my thing. “But you travel all the time!” they continued. As I mentioned before, work travel can be frustrating, and lacks the immersion experience I crave.

So why now? It’s not like the until’s just disappear. Simply put, it was now or never. My partner and I have been together for over two years, and the pressure of the next step was looming in the not-so-distant future. (Luckily, he is 110% supportive of this.) Grad school is also on my list of goals, so now seems like as good a time as ever to spend some time away before hitting the books for a few years. And those student loans will be there until they’re not, so that excuse really needed to be tossed out the window.

The point I’m getting at is that life will always present you with things that complicate other things. There will always be reasons to stay. I struggled with these reasons for a very long time. Honestly, the hardest part for me is remaining confident while some of the people in my life do not think this is a good idea. It’s difficult feeling like you’re letting someone down. What I realized is that not everyone sees the world in the same way I do (obviously, right?). When you make a choice in life, you won’t always have the support of everyone you’d like it from. And that’s okay. Sometimes you have to be a little selfish. Otherwise, what’s the point of having goals? For me, making peace with my desire to live abroad and maintaining conviction in choosing to finally do it has been really freeing.

I don’t consider myself brave or courageous. If anything, I’m silly for ignoring myself for this long. If there’s something you really want out of this life you have to make it happen. Sometimes it feels impossible, but I’m learning it’s a lot more simple than it has to be.