The Inca Trail: Day 3 – It’s a Long, Long Road

Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.

If the line “baby steps” from the movie What About Bob? carried me through Day 2 of the Inca Trail, Day 3’s pop culture theme was The Hollies “it’s a long, long road” from the song He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I hope Brian didn’t find me too heavy.

Because we knew it was going to be a long day, we turned down the tent-side tea service–it was just taking us too long to get packed up in the morning. We still got to enjoy our mate de coca with breakfast. Coca tea was readily available anywhere we went in Bolivia and Peru and there are even museums dedicated to coca in La Paz and Cusco. Restaurants almost always leave baskets of the dried leaves on tables for infusing hot water–right there with the salt, pepper, and sugar. People have been chewing the leaves and making tea from them since Inca times (and probably before) as a remedy for altitude sickness. You can even buy coca candies. Yes, these are the same leaves used in the production of cocaine; but they are harmless to consume in their natural form. We learned from our guide, Jhon, that illicit cocaine production requires thousands of leaves soaked in gasoline to extract just a small amount of the substance. Sadly, such abuse makes it illegal for U.S. residents to return home with souvenir coca leaves or tea, despite packages being sold duty-free at the Lima airport. No more coca tea for us.

Day 3: Pacaymayu to Winaywayna
Approximate Distance: 9.94 miles
Starting Altitude: 11,480 ft.
Highest Altitude: 12,792 ft.

We were surprised to find it wet outside our tent but then I had a faint memory of hearing gentle raindrops during the night. Very fortunately for us, this was the only rain we encountered during our trek. I honestly don’t know if I could have handled the trail made slippery from rain (and some of my photos from this day will give you an idea why)!

Jhon warned us that this day’s hike would be long and we risked it getting dark before we made it to our next camp site, nearly 10 miles away. Even though we had the most challenging part of the trail–Dead Woman’s Pass–behind us, this day’s hike would again have lots of ups and downs as we’d be traversing two additional passes including steep, downhill slopes. We set out before 7:30AM and worked hard to make it to camp by 6PM, just as the sun was setting.

This was also a beautiful day full of Inca ruins, original trail, lush vegetation, and incredible views. The first archaeological site of the day was the Runkurakay Ruins. Much Inca history is still a mystery, but many guess that this was a post or tambo house–a place of rest for messengers on the Inca Trail. These messengers or chasquis would run the trail as a relay–from point to point with a new and rested messenger taking over at each stop. In this way, the Inca king in Machu Picchu could receive a message from Cusco in a matter of hours instead of days.

You can click on any photo to see them larger.

We continued on towards the second pass of the trail at 12,916 feet, passing by a couple of pretty ponds and stopping for a snack before reaching the next archaeological site.

The next archaeological site was the Inca town of Sayaqmarka or “Inaccessible Town.” It’s easy to see why it’s called that, with its location high on a cliff. By this point in the day we were starting to feel anxious about making it to camp before dark–we still had to stop for lunch and had hours of hiking ahead of us. Because the only way to access the site is via a steep staircase, I decided to continue on while Brian explored. He could easily catch up with me and that kept us moving forward.

From Sayaqmarka, you can look down upon the next archaeological site, Qonchamarka, which includes terraces–one of which the trail follows ahead. For me, this was one of the most beautiful sites on the trail. I had walked ahead and was completely by myself. A bridge crosses a stream and then there I was! On one of Qonchamarka’s terraces! Brian caught up with me here and then we began a walk through jungle-like vegetation. It was incredible!

Our team had set lunch up for us at the Chaquiqocha campgrounds. It was very cloudy while we were there, but occassionally we could look up and see Sayacmarca clinging to the cliff and waterfalls above. Our cook prepared another stellar meal. I need to learn to recreate the quinoa dish he made that day!

This is probably a good time to talk about our porters’ shoes. They wore sandals. Sandals! When I asked Jhon about this, he explained that a pair of sandals costs the porters $5 U.S. and will last a year on the trail. In contrast, an expensive pair of boots usually wear out within two months. Can I just reiterate how amazing the porters are? These guys carry up to 50 pounds each and manage to complete each day’s trek in about half the time it takes the tourists, without walking poles, in sandals! Plus, they set up/tear down camp, prepare the meals, make sure our needs are met, all while sleeping 3 in a tent. And they do this as many as 6 times a month! And they cheer for us when we finally make it to camp? Please, give these guys a round of applause!

The third and final pass at 12,000 feet is near the Inca ruins of Phuyupatamarka or “Town Above the Clouds,” known for its chain of five stone baths. The other tourists we encountered (okay, maybe us, too) seemed most impressed with the llamas the Park Service keeps here!

Things got significantly more difficult for me after this with my fear of heights! I later read that this portion of the trail is sometimes called the “Gringo Killer.” The porters passed us, practically running down the steep incline while I measured each step with much trepidation.

But views were spectacular!

The town of Aguas Calientes below--a reminder that we were nearing our destination!

The town of Aguas Calientes below–a reminder that we were nearing our destination of Machu Picchu!


Snow-capped mountains

The last hour of that day’s trek was truly a race to beat the sunset to camp. We were behind a large group that was to camp near us and it was everything I could do to keep up with the slowest in their group. All my attention was on making it to camp, step after step after step. I don’t think I even stopped to enjoy the view of the final archaeological site of they day–Winay Wayna–“Forever Young”–but Brian managed to snap a picture. We had turned off to an alternate path that was built for the construction of the power lines in the valley.


Winay Wayna

We finally made it to our campsite, which was the least private of any we stayed at, yet it still managed to feel private. Cold showers were available nearby but all I wanted to do was crawl into the tent and relax. My muscles were tired and I was glad to have Ibuprofen on hand. We still had dinner to eat and there was a lot of anticipation about the next day when we’d finally make it to Machu Picchu.

After a final dinner, we had the opportunity to tip our porters, who leave for Aguas Calientes in the morning after breakfast. It was hard to figure out the appropriate amount, as everything we read in guidebooks and on-line seemed to offer different advice. Most suggestions also seemed to assume travelers would be part of a larger group. We had asked Jhon during our orientation meeting in Cusco what a proper amount would be and he suggested about 100 soles per person (about $36), to be split among the porters. After seeing how hard the porters worked, we decided to make it a bit more. Usually, the cook gets paid a tip twice as much as the other porters. Jhon said sometimes people like to tip the “toilet man” a little extra, too.

It was late when we went to bed, knowing an extremely early wake-up awaited us. As we tried to fall asleep we could hear celebrations taking place at other camp sites. Many of the big groups have special ceremonies the final night and give awards. It sounded fun but I was thankful to be able to just go to sleep after one of the longest days of my life.


Read about the final day of the trek here.



2 responses to “The Inca Trail: Day 3 – It’s a Long, Long Road

  1. Pingback: Bolivia and Peru – Summer 2014 | my ahas·

  2. Pingback: The Inca Trail: Day 2 & Dead Woman’s Pass | my ahas·

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