Trekking The Inca Trail: Day 3 – The “Gringo Killers”
The early morning dew clung to the tops of our tents and the thick blades of grass all around us like honey. It was just before 7am but most of us were already awake or, at the very least, in varying states of consciousness. The camp was alive with the jostling of porters going about their daily duties.
The sun had only just pierced the very peaks of the mountains that surrounded camp and was slowly making its way down the slopes. Soon we would be in direct sunlight but until then the temperature was only just above freezing.
The smell of the freshly made soup (vegetable this morning) punched its way through the air announcing that it was breakfast time. Eager to get on, we all made our way into the mess tent. We couldn’t hang around long, we had sights to see and 10.5km of hiking. Today also brought with it the dreaded section of the path known affectionately by the guides as the “Gringo Killers” thanks to its steepness of descent and ability to break many trek weary hikers.
Our group was first to pack up and make our way down the first section of the path (you’ll find it helpful to pack all your gear ready to go before you head for breakfast so the porters can get on with dismantling the camp).
Todays section of the trail takes in 2 valleys (Runkurakay Pass and Phuyupatamarka Mountain). Today will be the longest hike on the trail but along the way you get to take in sights such as the ruins of Runkurakay, Sayaqmarka and, if you have the energy for the small but hilly detour, Intipata before arriving in camp at the base of the mountain that is home to Machu Picchu.
First we had to get out of this valley which meant a 45 minute climb before we could descend down to the small ruins of Runkurakay, our first ruins of the day. Nearing the top of the valley, looking back you get this picture postcard image of the camp, just coming into the daylight, nestled at the bottom of a steep, fertile valley. The glacial fed stream cascading from an invisible point at the top of the valley over sheer drops hundreds of feet high until it trickled through camp. Looking the other way, in the distance the sun lit up the far off peaks of the snow capped Andes. Good morning Peru!
An hour later, standing on the trail looking down on Runkurakay, its at first unclear why it was built here. There is no strategic importance and at only 2 rooms it is tiny. Probably built for the messengers that used these trails to shelter from the all too inclement weather, the semi circular Runkuracay is still a marvel of Incan engineering this high up and remote.
Climbing back up the valley using the unforgivably uneven steps first laid down by the Incas (a testament to their workmanship that they are still here and exactly as they were originally laid over 500 years ago) we left Runkurakay behind just as the next group of trekkers were arriving. Our next stop is the simply stunning Sayaqmarka at first by way of some more of the Gringo Killers cut so close into the rock that they even had to hand carve out small tunnel sections.
Closer to Sayaqmarka and once again descending over a high mountain pass the vegetation changes with a clear line where the high altitude grass that had been with us since yesterday gives way to dense trees. This line marks the start of the cloud forest. On a clear day you can see for miles as the mountains spread out below you and far off into the distance there are yet more snow capped peaks to perfectly frame the image in your mind.
One final set of punishing stars and there it was. Built on a commanding ridge with panoramic views of the valley all around, the arrow head shaped Sayaqmarka was a strategic look out point in keeping the trail safe.
Looking down from the valley top, it at first blends in so well to the countryside it’s hard to make out but descending down the trail until a sharp turnoff left, the size of the place quickly becomes overwhelming. Machu Picchu promised to be breathtaking but, for me, this was on another level.
Looking out over the thick retaining walls anchoring the site into the impossibly steep cliffside, the views were spectacular. Spreading out far below us in to the distance was the start of the cloud forest that eventually becomes the mighty Amazon Rainforest. The colours were so vivid it looked like a backdrop to a professionally put together model train set, yet I was standing above the start of the Amazon Rainforest. It was quite literally mind blowing. This moment was the start of my change in ideals towards what I would want from my holidays for the rest of my life.
Leaving camp early meant we had a good 40 minutes head start on the other groups so we had the place to ourselves. The workmanship that went into creating this place is astounding. Built on levels cut into the mountain, Sayaqmarka is every bit as impressive as Machu Picchu, for me probably more so.
Descending back into the ever thickening foliage making our way around the next mountain, the morning was coming to a close and we were all getting hungry but our lunch stop is a further hour along the trail than most of the other groups. This extra hour though is absolutely worth it for the breathtaking views from the 3470m high small mountain top of Phuyupatamarka.
Turning a corner we were presented with yet more stairs, this time cut through the mountain creating a narrow 100ft tunnel, like most of the path now, it is original Incan design. How long it must have taken them to carve that out of solid rock I don’t know but it’s just one more example of exemplary workman ship.
Still a couple of hours from our lunch stop on Phuyupatamarka Mountain the early afternoon passed by in a flash of stunning mountain vistas as the trail snaked its way around mountain after mountain. Nearly fainting in the heat of the early afternoon sun, the going was relentless until, rounding one more corner and looking down we finally saw our camp set out below us. The panoramic view of the mountains was, again, breathtaking. Taking our jaws off the floor the true majesty of the Andean mountain range spread itself out. In the background the ever present fluffy white clouds over the snow capped peaks, while closer to us, the lush mountains spread out like a velvety green blanket under the bluest of blue skies.
Looking closer, one of the mountain tops was sporting a red flag. Barely visible without a zoom camera or binoculars the flag represents the peak of Machu Picchu, with the Machu Picchu site nestled in between this peak and the famous second peak of Huayna Picchu which is not visible from this angle. It’s a view only afforded to people that trek the trail. Kind of a payoff for all the hard work that you get to see the back of the mountain as well as the panoramic views of the many valleys in the area.
Zooming in to a mountain not so far away, Intipata is clearly visible cut into the steep mountainside. Used as an area for growing crops for the thousands of people that inhabited Machu Picchu at the height of its popularity the forethought of the Incan engineers is once again evident that a city the size of Machu Picchu would need a sizeable crop harvest. A size that could not be grown within the city walls. Walking around it later this afternoon we would once again be reminded of the incredible forethought of this stunning race.
Walking proudly into the tent the chef presented one of the biggest cakes I had ever seen to the couple on honeymoon. Baked in two trays on his tiny two ring gas fired stove then merged and decorated with icing it was a perfect way to end our lunch stop in the clouds. That guy can cook; it was one of the best cakes I have ever had in my life and he should be rightly proud to go out of his way to make this moment special for everyone. It’s an example of how everyone on the trail goes the extra mile. it’s not always about the sights you will see (spectacular though they are) but the people you befriend along the way.
Descending down the steepest section of Gringo Killers yet I was thankful for the coke leaves offered to me by our reserve guide. I had just had a 2 course lunch but the steep ascents and uneven descents were beginning to take their toll on my now, severely worn, knees. We had covered 2/3rds of today’s route before lunch but the last third before camp held 2 more surprises, Phuyupatamarka Ruins, another arrow head shaped set of terraces cut into the hillside and the agriculturally focused Intipata just before we arrived in camp.
It’s not until you arrive in the ruins Phuyupatamarka as well as Intipata that you can truly appreciate how steep the terraces are (as are the corresponding staircases). Coming out of Phuyupatamarka the steps seemingly drop away a foot at a time until turning a corner, you are presented with once of the steepest circular staircases I have ever come across. Covered in moss and over-hanged by giant vines it is a sight straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Intipata is not far now but if you find that you have had enough you may be lucky enough that your group will split, one half to explore the steep terraces and one group to head down into camp. If you have the energy I highly recommend that you explore the site. It will give you an idea of what the Inca people had to overcome in taming this area.
Being used for agriculture there isn’t a lot to see at Intipata but the ungodly steep terraces and associated plumbing will give you yet another appreciation for the ingenuity of this remarkable race.
It’s a mere 25 minutes to our final camp at the base of the mountain. Cut into the cliff side the tents are perched in single file. Make sure you have a light if you need the toilet in the night. It can be quite a challenge getting around all the tent guide ropes and stairs without any lighted assistance. You will also need a torch as you start out on your ascent to the Sun Gate early next morning.
It had been a long day so we all retired to our tents for an hour before dinner which had been brought forward 90 minutes from it’s usual time thanks to a 3am wake up call.
Sitting down for dinner we were all excited about finally seeing the fabled site we had spent so long saving for but we first had to get up to the Sun Gate (preferably before sun rise). We were warned over dinner that it would be cold when we set out in the middle of the night in just 7 short hours and that we would be held at the checkpoint (have your passport ready) until they opened at 5am but with the trail up the mountain so narrow in a lot of places you are only as fast as the group above you so we would be getting up early to wait in a queue. How very British!
Retiring to bed even though most of us wouldn’t sleep, we were completely unprepared for the mad scramble that would be our last experience on the Inca Trail.