By Apus Peru Co-Founder, Ariana Svenson
To celebrate our daughter’s first birthday, we decided we would undertake the Classic Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu- as a family!
Permits sell out months in advance, so we made the decision with a good deal of bravado: even though we spent a lot of time outdoors, we’d never taken our daughter on a multi-day camping trip. Still, it was the peak of the high (dry) season, she was acclimatized to the altitude, and we’d paid for an extra porter to carry the superfluous paraphernalia that a baby inexplicably accumulates.
Whether it was to spare us the ignominy of having to return from the Inca Trail without completing it, or just fate, a couple of days before the trek Miss M. developed a serious cold, and it began to bucket down – right in the middle of the dry season! At this point, I accepted that our Inca trail trek was not going to happen – with both a sick baby and pouring rain, the signs were against us.
At this point the supportive folks at Apus Peru suggested we do the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu instead: they made new hotel arrangements, changed our trains, and spent hours finalizing the paperwork for us to do the Short Inca Trail starting at KM 104.
The Short Inca Trail is just that, a one-day hike that joins the last day of the Inca Trail and is ideal for folks who are short of time, who don’t like to camp, or who lack the desire to do a longer trek.
As we arrived at our starting point, my first reaction was that there were very few other groups doing the route that day even though it was the middle of the high season. I expected it to be packed out – it’s the “easy route”, after all. In fact, there was none of the hustle and bustle of the entry to the Classic Inca Trail at KM 88; here, there were just us, our guide and the porters who were carrying our baby and her paraphernalia.
On cue, the rain stopped and revealed the triangular walls of the ruins at Chachabamba. Chachabamba was discovered in 1940 – almost thirty years after Hiram Bingham found Machu Picchu. Its architectural style and intricate stonework suggest that this was an important religious site, in addition to its secondary function as a gatehouse guarding the entrance to Machu Picchu.
From here, we began to climb. Having always thought that this was the ‘easy route’ to Machu Picchu, I suddenly realized that there was a lot of gentle but consistent climbing. Despite having trekked extensively in the Andes, after a short while, my aching muscles painfully reminded me that I hadn’t hit the trail in the 12 months since my daughter’s birth – nor even in the final trimester of pregnancy!! I began to struggle, puffing, and taking lots of rests – this was what it was like to be out of shape and then do a trek?! Not a lot of fun!
At Apus Peru we constantly advise people to do their research, and get in shape for their hike to Machu Picchu – advice that I didn’t follow and was now sorry!!! Even if you are going to do a one- day hike, you need to have a decent level of fitness!
Luckily for me, my daughter needed frequent breaks from the baby backpack and we stopped often to admire the views of the valley below us, which was alternately bathed in sunshine and misted over with colorful clouds shifting over the mountains.
Despite Miss M’s lingering cold and my aching legs, there was certainly something magical about breastfeeding her on the trail with spectacular panoramas all about.
We are often asked by parents of babies and toddlers about trekking with their babies, and we always recommend that you allow a lot of extra time: at just 12 months Miss M wasn’t yet walking and so a few crawls and scoots around on the dirt at regular intervals kept her happy.
The Incas were masters at building stairways: something that distinguishes the Inca trail from the alternative trails around Cusco are the endless steps! As a break from climbing the steps, and in between panoramic views, we passed a beautiful cascading waterfall: a lovely surprise from Mother Nature in the midst of the mountains.
Maybe it’s because we were so slow, but we only encountered two groups all day while on the trail, and despite being so near to Machu Picchu and the heavily trafficked Inca trail, we felt that we were alone in the mountains. We were thrilled by the experience!
After some 6 hours of climbing uphill, we arrived at Wiñay Wayna, perhaps the most gorgeous set of ruins along the whole Inca Trail. The name Wiñay Wayna which in Quechua means “Eternal Youth,” or “Forever Young,” was given to the ruins by the eminent Peruvian archaeologist, Dr. Julio C. Tello. Considered by many to be the most beautiful of the sites on the Inca Trail, it was a wonderful highlight of our trek.
With the frequent stops for the baby we were some 2 hours slower than the average trekker and we still had a couple of hours’ walk through the moist cloud forest. At this point, the terrain was blessedly flat and cool, and we felt as if we were walking in the high jungle. We arrived at the final massive stairs of Inti Punku, which were once a control gate for those who entered and exited the Sanctuary. As the entrance to Machu Picchu, it is one of the most important features of the site; and as the name suggests, it’s devoted to Inti, the sun god.
At other times when we’ve done the Inca Trail, Inti Punku had been filled with hundreds of tourists moving eagerly to catch their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Instead, as we were arriving very late in the day, we were the only people at Inti Punku. It was a special moment to arrive at a place normally so inundated with tourists and yet enjoy it in solitude. As we descended the final stretch to Machu Picchu, we saw that there were few people at the site and we had unobstructed views: it was a unique feeling.
After exploring the ruins for a few hours, we made the last bus down. Our 12-month-old looked exhausted by the day’s trek and it was amazing to get a hot shower and then to sink into a soft bed.
As we hit the sack, we were filled with gratitude, that despite having been on the Inca Trail for just a day, we experienced solitude, isolated Inca ruins, and an indescribable sense of awe and accomplishment. We had trekked into Machu Picchu on foot, as a family.