In August I had a brain wave that it would be great to celebrate my 60ith birthday (Jan 2013) with something memorable - the very least it should be one of the 7 wonders of the world. In a moment of madness I chose to do the Inca Trail 4D/4N trek. After quite a bit of research (which I had no part of) my husband chose Econinka as the outfitter, and I started to go to the gym!
By the time it came around to the trip I was petrified (pays not to read reviews before you pay for your trek!). I have a stressful desk job am moderately fit but need a knee replacement (figured if I had it fixed then I would probably not do a trek) but have a strong stubborn streak.
We did all the right things and bought all of the right gear (I will never ever regret paying $140 for an Osprey day pack) did the 4 day altitude aclimatization in Cusco and went for the orientation evening the day prior to setting out.
We met Richard who was to be our guide - and found out that there were just the two of us on this trek. I was must say I was disappointed as I was looking forward to having other people to take my mind off of any pain. We reckoned that just being two had its pros and cons and as we had paid in full so we were committed, and to be honest Econinka were true to their word and did not make us join another group.
We did the Sacred Valley tour as an add on the first day, which was interesting and great bang for the buck only complaint is that I would have liked more time in some of the stop off places like Pisac. The last stop was Ollantaytambo's Temple ruins which had me huffing and puffing which only added to my anxiety level. The taxi dropped us off at the checkpoint at Klm 82 and we hiked in to the base camp for the night in torrential rain. Here we were met and welcomed by our porters and cooks (7 people for just us two made me feel horribly guilty) and we had a great trout dinner before a good nights sleep in a little thatched hut. We were woken with a cup of tea brought to us and enjoyed a great big breakfast, last hot shower for a few days and we set off on my actual birthday. Richard introduced us to each team member who had on traditional ponchos and gave a little speech - translating into Quechua - really touching.
I honestly felt sorry for Richard being lumbered with us two but he was always very kind and patient giving us information about the trek and surroundings. Day one was the easiest day by far but at the time I found some parts challenging. Due to staying at the base camp you set out earlier that those trekkers that travel in from Cusco (they have to leave at 4 am! we still had two more hours of sleep) the trail was empty.
We stopped at a couple of places that sold drinks and had clean toiliet facilities (they charged s.1)then met up with our porters who prepared a great lunch. There was always boiled water availabe and lots of good food. We ate in the tent where they cooked, on the first day I found it disconcerting to eat with 7 people looking at me . They were very careful to ensure you had clean hands before eating. The cooking tent was not the newest or flashiest as some of the other companies had and the camping stools hard to sit on (they gave me a transporting tub to sit on after that) plus I had started to get sick with a cold and an the dreaded upset stomach. I never thought I would be so grateful for a private toliet tent but after I got sick this made a world of difference, most of the other crews do not have this facility - really an added bonus. By the time we got to the camp that night lots of other trekkers were there, this is when we missed the interaction with other people. At 5pm you have tea and some snacky food but dinner is not ready until 7pm which leaves you a couple of hours to spend 'resting' - we could hear other camps with lots of laughter. What was really touching was that Feliciano (the cook) somehow had managed to make a birthday cake and even ice it with pink icing and my name on it with a birthday candle (never know how he managed this), everyone sung to me in their own language ... very thoughtful. Our sleeping tent was good and clean as was the sleeping bags and pads we hired - so glad we did not bring our own.
Day two is horrible, steep uphill for hours all the time with the air getting thinner. Looking around realized that lots of people were battling - most much younger than us. I was thankful that I had bought hiking poles and that my husband was the patient type. Many of us often climbed for a little way and had to rest, I had no inclination to look at the scenery as I was too busy trying to draw breath and put one foot in front of the other. Its amazing how adversity brings people togethe and we started to see the same people and chat and joke about how we would have chosen a cruise if we had known how hard it would be! We saw quite a few young bucks showing off and one girl turn back after lunch on the second day and porters carrying so much on their back that I felt guilty moaning about my little daypack. There was quite a bit of down hill on day two but nothing like day three where there is a section of 3,000 steep uneven down steps to navigate. Everyone should take a knee brace even if you don't have problems - here is where Richard was a super star. He realized that this section was hard for me and he held my hand through the steep patches and chatted to us during the slippery parts to take our mind off of things. There is some spectacular scenery and some intresting ruins and terraces along the way - its worth while taking your time and pausing to take it all in. At our lunch break our guys had the matresses ready for us to flop onto - and we were grateful to lie for a while. Day three was long and we were tired from the previous day, we had decided to take it easier and there were many stretches where we could stroll along and enjoy the sheer wonder of it all. When we had been hiking for about 6 hours two of our porters were waiting on the path because they thought I would not be able to manage and they were genuinelyprepared to carry me the last hour and a half ... we were so touched by this.
It is a constant wonder who these Inca people were who built these terraces and pathways, Richard was always able to give a hypothesis and fill us in on interesting facts.
Day three dinner is where you all really say good bye and do the tipping thing ... and by this time you are grateful you do not have to earn a living carrying large loads for tourists who must seem so indulgent. One young guy thought it was easy and said he would carry a porters pack for the day- he lasted an hour and swore he would double tip his guys. We did not bring anything along to give as 'presents' and we wished we would have thought to bring extra little things for the families, we hoped we tipped as much as they would have got it there was a group, they certainly deserved it. They really looked after us, and I am guessing they do not get paid much I will never foget their kindness and they even made special concoctions because I was sick .
Last morning is a bit of a rush, you are up at 4.00am and camp broken down because the porters have a 5.30 am train to catch (porters are not allowed on the last part). Its quite exciting waiting inthe dark, all of you in line for the checkpoint to open, all knowing that this is almost the end! We did see that many others had been given breakfast boxes, but we had a great hot breakfast and our usual snacks and a smashing bonus packed lunch. All of the guides warn their clients that you do not have to rush and that there are some really narrow places and often people push past. This was amazingly true, for some weird reason it takes on almost a race like feel for the first hour. Even I felt a surge of energy.
We got to the Sun Gate after a final steep challenge just time to see the sun rise - there had been lots of mist and cloud cover for most of the hike but it was like the curtains drew back for a short time and we were there! I actually got teary - it was emotional, this grandmother had made it after all!
The climb down to the ruins takes another hour and a bit and you are faced with the hoards of day trippers making their way up to the view point. They are all nice an clean and the trekkers have not had a shower for 4 days - but there was a certain air of superiority - we had done the hard trek and they had taken the easy way. As you go down into the crowds you feel like the first time you hit Disneyland - its all sensory overload ,so busy and commercial. The snack bar is astronomically expensive and we were glad that Feliciano had packed us such a great lunch. Richard gave us a wonderful tour of the ruins - he really loves history and then left us to go and find our bags in the town of Aguas Caliente. After another round of the site we got the bus down to the town (big market for tourist shopping here at pretty good prices)met with Richard who was waiting in a restaurant, we enjoyed a farewell drink and then the adventure was done.
Our feeling is that this is a good outfitter to choose if you not looking at the condition of the equipment. Most of the other teams had newer tents, separate dining tents, newer backpacks for the porters in better conditions and uniforms for their guys. Their bonus (and it is a huge bonus)is that they have is the camp at klm 82 so you get a good fresh start and a hot shower, a toilet tent (this becomes very important after you see the public facilities!) and we were surprised that they honored there promise of setting off with just two of us as we spoke to a couple of people who were palmed off with another team although others around to talk to might have been interesting (but then you could luck out and get horrible people too!). Richard was organized (we wanted a last minute train change that he took sorted out for us) and he took care of everything (even having drugs in his pack for my sickness) and the team were attentive and helpful, the food was excellent , varied and plentyfull (don't bother taking snacks) and the trek itself lives up to all the hype and your expectations. We would recommend Econika and use them again without hesitation.
Note to anyone taking this trek, here are some helpful hints
1. Make sure your boots are waterproof and worn in but not so old they fall apart
2. Take fewer clothes than you think you might need as the porters could be carrying stuff you probably will not wear - splurge on the best wool socks and daypack
3. Hiking poles helpful
4. Wet wipes and hand sanitizer will save your life
5. Sunglasses, sunscreen and hat that covers the back of your neck are a must. Good poncho if in rainy season - the flimsy plastic jobs rip
6. Pack towel is better than an ordinary towel
7. A kindle/small reader and ipod is nice to have for the rest time
8. Warm clothes for sleeping plus include a hood or hat for night 2 when at altitude
9. Take bandaids especially for blisters and moleskin. Meds for stomach and allergies and electrolyte tabs for rehydration.
10. Pay for a porter to carry your personal stuff, its hard work no matter how fit you are
11. Know that altitude tablets have side effects - I did not like them
12. Its not about how fit your body is - more about how strong your lungs are ... endurance pre-preparation is worth more than strength training
13. Take time to look around - its not a race!
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