Peru: Hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu

Introducing Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most famous sights in South America and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It is a 15th-century Inca citadel, located in southern Peru, around 80 kilometres northwest of Cusco. It sits on a 2,430 metre (7,970 ft) mountain ridge, close to the Urubamba River which has created a canyon with a tropical mountain climate.

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). It was built around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. While known by the local Quechua people, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.

Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give visitors a better idea of how they originally appeared.

Why hike to Machu Picchu?

The most popular hiking trail leading to it (commonly called the Inca trail) is also one of the most iconic hikes in the world. There are other ways to reach Machu Picchu including The Salcantay Route (5 – 8 day hike), the Lares Route (3 – 5 days hike) and the relaxed option (train and bus from Cusco, a 3 hr and 20 minute train ride and 15 minute bus ride).

I chose to undertake the multi-day hike, to challenge my boundaries. I had never hiked for more than 1 day or at altitude! In order to have a good chance of making in one piece, I had to undertake several months of preparation in the form of treadmills and stairclimbing at the gym. While I didn’t manage to be completely diligent in preparing for the hike, I was still glad for the preparation that I managed and happy that the tour had included some time at altitude.

The Inca Trail – Day 1 (Piskacuchu to Wayllabamba)

My hiking adventure started with a 3.30 am wake up call in Cusco and a bag check. Each hiker is allowed a duffel bag which must contain a sleeping bag and any personal items with to a maximum of 7 kilograms; which carried by the porters. Anything needed for that day and any additional weight is carried by the hiker. At 4.30 am, the bus started to wind its way through the pitch-black mountain roads with only the occasional shack visible through the diffused beam of the bus’ headlights.

Our first destination of the day was the last provision shops that we would see for the next few days, a chance to pick up that last chocolate bar, a packet of chips or a bottle of soft drink.

Before we could begin the hike, it was necessary to brief the hikers and porters and organise the supplies. For our group of 16 hikers, we had 2 guides, 3 cooks and 16 porters! The duffle bags, individual, communal and kitchen tens, tables, chairs, food and cooking gas had to be weighted and distributed among the 16 porters with each carrying a maximum of 25 kilograms. The porters were from the same local village, their main job was farming and to supplement their household income, they would complete the Inca trail hike once a month.

As the Inca Trail has a maximum of 500 people are allowed on the trail each day, (200 trekkers, the rest being guides and porters), the starting point was a hike of activity with all the different groups of porters and hikers getting organised and National Park officials checking each package.

Finally, around 10 am, we finally ready to kick off the Inca Trail hike!

Our starting point was the 82-kilometre mark Piscacucho at 2,600 metres (8,500 ft) altitude; where our passports were checked by the National Parks staff.

At the start of the Inca trail hike
Donkeys and railway lines
Donkeys taking a break
Hut along the Inca trail

The trail wound its way through farmland, rising and falling with the contours of the land. We shared the trail with donkeys laden with produce on its way to the market or returning with the farmer from the nearest village.

Rio Urubamba – Inca trail, Day 1
Rio Urubamba – Inca trail, Day 1

After a few hours of hiking, we stopped for lunch in a small village. The cooks and porters had overtaken us on the trail and prepared our lunch which we ate in a dining tent… Now let’s be clear, lunch was not a sandwich which had seen better days after being transported on a porter’s bag, it was pan-fried fish with rice and vegetables! After lunch, cutlery and crockery were washed and packed and we set off for our overnight camp.

Patallaqta (also called Llaqtapata)

Patallaqta (or Llaqtapata) is a site used for religious and ceremonial functions, crop production, and housing for soldiers from the nearby hilltop site of Willkaraqay, an ancient pre-Inca site first inhabited around 500 B.C.

I was the last to arrive at camp, around 5 pm… The porters had of course, not only overtaken the group but had set up our tents as well as the dining tent (which they would later sleep in). A pitched and dry tent was certainly a welcome sight and when I took off my hiking shoes; I could almost hear my feet thanking me!

We camped under the shadow of the mountain we were climbing the next morning, the famous Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”). At 4,215 meters above sea level, it would be the highest point I had ever hiked at and was definitely in the altitude sickness territory, not an experience I was looking forward to.

Donkey feeding on the trail
Donkey feeding on the trail

Eventually, I summed up the courage to brave the toilet facilities, a “long drop” toilet (a facility without the benefit of solid floors, walls, lighting and running water)… I will leave you to imagine the rest.

The Inca Trail – Day 2 (Wayllabamba to Paqaymayo)

The second day started at 5 am, with a gentle tap on the tent flap. The porters were up long before us and provided us with a pan of hot water and a warm breakfast before starting just before 6 am on the hike. The day’s objective was to ascend just over 1,000 metres, cross Warmi Wañusqa and descend approximately 600 metres to Pakaymayu.

Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”) from Wayllabamba
Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)
Waterfall – Inca trail Day 2

Initially, it was possible to just walk up slowly without getting too out of breath, then it became harder and harder. With the power over the mind becoming more important than the legs and lungs, I forced myself to count the steps, only allowing myself to only stop when I got to 50. About a hundred metres below the pass, this dropped to 20.

Steps towards Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)

Finally, after 5 hours of a constant and steady uphill climb, I finally made it up to Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)! It was an achievement that I am proud of the highest that I ever climbed on foot, and one I remind myself of when a city street feels a bit steep….

At Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)
Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”) at 4,215 metres above sea level
View from At Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)
View from At Warmi Wañusqa (“Dead Woman’s Pass”)

Almost immediately, the 600m vertical descent began. The way down was via large stone steps dating from the Inca period around 1400. While the hiking poles were useful, my knees (and two blackened toenails) have never been the same since.

That night, the cooks managed to “bake” a gluten-free birthday cake for one of the hikers with the rudimentary cooking equipment. It was delicious and one something I expected to eat on the Inca trail.

The Inca Trail – Day 3 (Paqaymayo to Wiñay Wayna)

The third day of the hike was to be the longest, around 15 kilometres; ascending and descending across a number of valleys, high cloud forests, passing a number of Inca era towns and tambos (Quechua: tampu). A tambo was an Incan structure built for administrative and military purposes which contained supplies, served as lodging for itinerant state personnel and were depositories of quipu-based accounting records.

Quchapata (Lake)
View from Quchapata (Lake)
Sayaqmarka (“steep-place town”)
Sayaqmarka (“steep-place town”)
Ruins – Paqaymayo to Winaywayna
Flowers – Day 3 Inca trail

The lunch stop of Day 3, was a viewpoint from which we could see Agua Calientes and the mountain which hid Macchu Pichu; so near and yet so far!

Viewing point overlooking Agua Calientas

As you can imagine, it was a popular stop for lunch with quite a few other hiking groups also sharing the lookout; which makes for a temporary and bustling place.

Quecha village and our Day 3 lunch stop
Day 3 lunch stop for all hiking groups

I took the opportunity to carry the porter’s 25 kilograms pack, just standing up and walking a few steps was a challenge; one of the girls stood up and instantly fell backwards with the weight! The shoulder straps were slightly padded with no strap around the waist to distribute the weight and towered above. Most of the porters did the hike with flip flops or second-hand trainers with little or no sole.

Just managing to lift the porter’s load
The guys managed a hike up a few steps with their packs
Carved Inca Steps – Day 3, Inca trail
Flowers – Day 3, Inca trail
Narrow opening carved into the rock
A flat bit! – Day 3, Inca trail

Wiñay Wayna

Wiñay Wayna (2650 m) (Quechua for “forever young”, Hispanicized spelling Huiñay Huayna) is just 3 kilometres before Machu Picchu. It is built into a steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba River and consists of upper and lower house complexes connected by a staircase and fountain structures. Above and below the houses the people built areas of agricultural terraces or andenes, which are still visible.

Agricultural terraces at Wiñay Wayna
Upper housing complex – Wiñay Wayna
Wiñay Wayna

While Wiñay Wayna was on a much smaller scale than Macchu Picchu, we had the place all to ourselves and were able to wander through the buildings at will.

The campsite at Wiñay Wayna was the most populated and busiest, with access to alcohol and a hot shower!

The Inca Trail – The Final Push!

After a short sleep and a 4 am wake up call, we queued up, in the chilly early morning air with thermals. hat and gloves waiting for the gates to open at 5.30 a.m. As soon as the gates opened, there was a surge towards the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. There were some reckless people trying to pass us on the narrow path which had a rock face on one side and a several hundred-metre drop on the other.

The final push to The Sun Gate
The final push to The Sun Gate
Machu Picchu is visible at the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. Finally!!!

The view of Machu Picchu from above was amazing! Even though Machu Picchu looks small in distance and I look as if I was photoshopped it, I can assure you it is really is me!

The previous three days of hiking, the months of training before really made the first glimpse of it in the soft morning light a truly magical experience. Although, it was one of the most physically challenging experiences in my life it was totally worth it!

I did it! I completed the Inca Trail!

From the Inti Punku or Sun Gate, it was a relaxed downhill stroll to the actual site of Machu Picchu. Being a hiker, meant that we were one of the first on-site and got to enjoy some of the buildings before it got too crowded.

Machu Picchu
Residential section – Machu Picchu
llamas at Machu Picchu
llama overseeing their kingdom at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Residential section – Machu Picchu
Residential section – Machu Picchu
Residential section – Machu Picchu
Residential section – Machu Picchu
llama at Machu Picchu
llama at Machu Picchu
Residential building at Machu Picchu
Tower at Machu Picchu
llama at Machu Picchu

#buckletlist; #Incatrail; #Machu Picchu; #travel; #nature; #landscape; #adventure; #intrepidtravel

Travel date: 05 – 08 May 2011

Isla Floreana

Ecuador: Galapagos Islands – Isla Floreana

Post Office Bay dates back to the 18th Century where British and American whalers would pick up post for those close to their destination. The majority of the post was for the USA, reflecting the visitor demographics of the Galapagos,

“Post Office” dating back to late 18th Century, Isla Floreana
“Post office” at Post Office Bay, Isla Floreana

We identified 6 postcards that could be hand-delivered in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), the UK and Canada. The instruction given to us by Alexis (our guide) was that it had to be hand-delivered and accompanied by wine and cheese.

The remains of the Japanese canning factory, Isla Floreana

Isla Floreana has two failed tuna canning factories, a Norwegian and Japanese, all that remains today are a few bits of rusted metal. As the only freshwater on the other side of the island, it is unsurprising that both ventures failed.

Snorkelling off Post Office Bay, we saw sea turtles, schools of yellow-tailed surgeon fish, spotted eagle ray and a white-tipped reef shark.

Yellow-tailed surgeon fish, Isla Floreana © Linda Hartskeerl
White-tipped reef shark, Isla Floreana © Linda Hartskeerl

Walking across Isla Floreana, we spotted several dozen adult flamingos scattered across the lake and nursery group of baby flamingos, protected by a few adults. Young flamingos are the same size as the adults, with their light grey feathers denoting their youth.

Flamingo nursery, Isla Floreana
Pink flamingo, Isla Floreana

Punta Cormorant is a fine sand beach where we spotted around 15 sea turtles and stingrays off the beach. The female sea turtles were waiting in the water to come onshore to lay their eggs. There was evidence of sea turtle nests above the high-tide mark.

Green sea turtle swimming, Isla Floreana
Green sea turtle on the beach, Isla Floreana

Snorkelling close to Devil’s Crown, we saw white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and a sea horse camouflaged by the seaweed on the seafloor.

Devil’s crown off Isla Floreana
Close up of Devil’s Crown, Isla Floreana

Sailing to Puerta Ayora (Isla Santa Cruz ) our boat was chased by a pod of dolphins and the cloud cover resulted in a most spectacular sunset.

Sailing away from Isla Floreana
Sunset over the Galapagos

This was definitely a Christmas Day to remember, one where presents came in the form of amazing wildlife where Santa’s reindeer were replaced by sea lions and marine iguanas.

#buckletlist; #Galapagos; #travel; #nature; #landscape; #adventure; #intrepidtravel

Travel date: 25 December 2018

Ecuador: The Galápagos Islands – A truly amazing place

An introduction to the Galapagos Islands

Any search of bucket list destinations will include The Galápagos Islands, famed for the amazing and diverse wildlife and the variety of different landscapes.

The first recorded visit to the islands was in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga. In the 1830s Charles Darwin visited the islands and observed adaptations made by different species. Using his observations and collections, Darwin developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection which was published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Today, the Galápagos Islands are part of the Republic of Ecuador and can be found 906 km (563 miles) west of continental Ecuador. The islands and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve. The permanent population of the islands is around 25,000 and they receive around 250,000 visitors annually.

The group consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets; covering 7,880 square kilometres (3,040 square miles). The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate (tectonic plate), which is moving east/southeast, diving under the South American Plate. Volcanic activity is still evident today, with Sierra Negra (on Isla Isabela) erupting in June 2018.

The islands straddle the equator, the Humboldt Current brings cold water, causing frequent drizzles during most of the year. During garúa (June to November), the temperature by the sea is 22 °C, a steady and cold wind blows from south and southeast, frequent drizzles (garúas) last most of the day, and dense fog conceals the islands. During the warm season (December to May), the average sea and air temperature rise to 25 °C, there is no wind at all, there are sporadic, though strong, rains and the sun shines.

Visiting the Galapagos Islands

Most visitors to the Galápagos arrive by plane from Quito or Guayaquil into Seymour Airport (Isla Baltra), which was renovated to be environmentally friendly with on-site electricity generation, natural air-conditioning or San Cristóbal Airport (Isla San Cristobal). Each visitor pays a $100 USD park entry fee and a $20 USD transfer fee upon entry (2018 prices).

Around half of the visitors cruise the islands using ships designed for between 16 and 110 passengers which follow strictly defined routes defined by the National Parks. While the other half use land-based hotels in the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela and use day boats to visit the uninhabited islands.

Access to the park is tightly controlled to the 54 land sites and 62 scuba-diving or snorkelling sites around the whole archipelago. Small groups (usually around 16) are allowed to visit in 2- to 4-hour shifts only, to limit the impact on the area. All groups are accompanied by licensed guides.

Landscapes

As a result of the volcanic activity, islands in the archipelago vary in age from 0.05 million years (Isla Fernandina to 3.2 million years (San Cristóbal).  This is evident today in the variety of landscapes from the white sand beaches of Bahia Gardner (Isla Española) to the lava fields of Isla Santiago and the green wetlands of Isla Santa Cruz.

For detailed accounts of my visit to some of the key islands refer to https://reflections-travel-etc.com/category/travel-diary/galapagos-diary/

Mammals of the Galapagos Islands

There are six mammal species (found on land) that are considered native to the islands as well as aquatic mammals that swim in and out of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Including:

Galapagos Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus, subspecies: wollebacki). They are incredibly playful and inquisitive behaviour especially from the young pups made them easily our favourite animals. We were also lucky enough to be treated to incredibly elegant underwater gymnastics. They are very territorial – especially the males – and I saw one nip the fins of one of our snorkelling party.

We spotted a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which followed the boat on a number of our sails between islands. Other marine mammals including the Common White-bellied Dolphin, Humpback whale, Sperm Whale, Killer Whale, False Killer Whales, Pilot Whale were not spotted on my trip.

Other mammals include Galapagos Fur Seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) which are found on more rugged, rockier, and shadier shores than sea lions. There are also Rice Rats and Bats.

Land Birds of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos land birds vary in height with Darwin finches which are between 10 – 20 cm and were often hard to spot amongst tree branches. While the larger birds like the Galapagos hawk (45 – 58 cm) and the waved albatross (80 – 90 cm in height) tended to command their immediate environment.

The Galapagos flamingo numbers around 420 and we spotted them in saltwater lagoons and saw them feeding (often standing on one leg). filter feed primarily on brine shrimp. Young flamingos hatch with grey plumage which turns to pink due to the aqueous bacteria and beta carotene obtained from their diet.

Other land birds not spotted include mockingbirds, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Rail and Galapagos Martin, Galapagos Short-eared Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Common Gallinule, Paint-billed Crake.

Sea Birds of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands famous for it’s for tropical seabirds, including Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca Boobies. The three booby populations are the most common and most frequently seen of the seabirds. Each species feeds by spectacular plunge-diving into the sea and then catching fish on their way back to the water surface. All three species tend to live in groups, widely distributed small colonies of Blue-footed Boobies to the larger, less frequent colonies of the Nazca Boobies, to the few huge colonies of Red-footed Boobies.

The Galapagos Penguins are one of the smaller penguins of the world and the only penguins that live at or just above the equator and the population number around 2,000. Waved Albatross breed only on Isla Española Island in the Galapagos and number around 35,000. Swallow-tailed Gulls nest on steep slopes or broken cliffs, on ledges, and also just above the wave line on gravelly beaches and under vegetation and number around 10,000 – 15,000 pairs.

The Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird are both found in the Galapagos. They are amazing flyers and feed by snatching up flying and other fish, squid, and scraps from the surface of the ocean – and, most notably, by stealing from other seabirds in flight.

We spotted the Yellow-crowned Night Heron considered the crab-eating specialist taking shelter under the many volcanic rocks which dot the islands. Other species include Great Blue Herons, Lava Herons, Black-crowned Herons and Striated Herons, Oystercatchers, White-cheeked pintails, Gallinules, and Common Egrets.  

Other sea birds not spotted include Flightless Cormorants, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Lava Gulls and the Galapagos Petrels.

Marine Life of the Galapagos Islands

As the Galapagos islands are the meeting point of the nutrient-rich cool waters from the south, warm currents from the north, and a deep cold current from the west this creates diverse flora and fauna for its marine life.

There have been more than 400 fish species recorded including yellow-tailed surgeonfish, blue parrotfish as well as blue-eyed damselfish and white-banded angelfish etc. One of the most common sights is the sally-lightfoot crab, white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks and manta rays. While whales and hammerhead sharks are often found further offshore (luckily away from the snorkelling sites we visited)

Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands

The giant tortoises of Galapagos are some of the most famous fauna of the Islands. The Galapagos Islands were named for their giant tortoises; the old Spanish word galapago meant saddle, a term early explorers used for the tortoises due to the shape of their shells. The shape of their shell varies depending on the climatic conditions and food sources of the islands they live on with domed tortoises larger due to easy access to food in the humid highlands.

The marine iguanas are the only sea-going lizard in the world, they live on land but feed on seaweed. Their colour depends on the island they inhabit and range from red and black to black and green and red and grey. The land iguanas are large, up to a metre long and can be found in the drier areas of the islands, the most common species is yellowish in colour (Conolophus subcristatus).

The Galapagos lava lizards have adapted to their surrounding with their colouring varying by both the island they live on and their gender. The ones living on islands with dark lava are darker than those living on light sandy islands.

Fish Market in Isla Santa Cruz

The fish markets in Isla Santa Cruz is unique. Fish and other seafood are caught on hand lines by local fisherman in areas that are strictly controlled by the National Park authorities. Once the catch is landed, there is a race for the best parts of the catch between the different types of locals – humans, pelicans and sea lions!

#buckletlist; #Galapagos; #travel; #nature; #landscape #adventure; #intrepidtravel