The third day of the Inca Trail was probably my favorite. Maybe it was because I felt a lot better, maybe it was the going down and down and down the mountain, maybe it had to do with the unbelievable views and maybe we were finally hitting our strides as hikers and enjoying each other's company more and more.
You can see the Night 2 campsite here, and in between the two tall mountains, Dead Woman's Pass, which we crossed over the day before.
The day started out with more uphill, not quite as high as Dead Woman's Pass, but about an hour going up, stopping along the way at a way-station which would have been more or less a hotel for those making the pilgrimage along the trail, standing guard against anyone who might have not been allowed on the route.
Made it to the top of the next pass in one piece, though it's not fair to say I felt TOTALLY better. I still wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but I was not throwing up any more, so I suppose my memory would tell you that I was feeling great at this point. From the top of the pass, we could see snow-capped glacial mountains, and towards Machu Picchu mountain. After another deep inhale of the flowery alcohol solution, my lungs opened up and I felt pretty good.
Once we reached the top of the pass, we hiked for several hours rolling up and down along the top of the mountains, following the path through caves, more ruins, lots of llamas and the beginnings of the cloud forest, where we were told to anticipate some rain, but found nothing but sun filtering through the trees and hanging moss.
We ate at the top of the final tall peak that day. After lunch, the cooks brought out a frosted and beautiful cake for Alex, a police officer from Manchester, who was celebrating his birthday. Apparently they steam-cooked this masterpiece, and even wrote his name on it. After blowing out the candles, they cut it up and we enjoyed just one more thing we never thought we'd be given while in the wilderness.
All of our porters, guides and cooks on the last day. Remember there were only 16 tourists this group of 21 cared for on this trip.
After lunch, it was time to begin the descent lovingly named "The Gringo Killer". This was 2-3 hours of straight downhill stairs, winding steeply through the forest, with a foot or more between many of the steps. The most terrifying part of this trek was the porters who would come up behind you at a jog, propelled down the mountain by the sheer weight of the bags on their backs. The shout of "Porters!" was common throughout the trail, but here it spurred a moment of panic as you jumped to the left and hugged up against the mountain so you didn't get carried down with them.
This part of the trail was probably my favorite, as we descended into the cloud forest, where it became more humid and green. The ancient trail is still totally intact here and I couldn't be happier to be going downhill, no matter how steep the steps. After days of feeling awful due to the altitude, I realized that my months and months in the gym had actually payed off on this third day, when I felt pretty strong going downhill for hours on everyone else's least favorite part of the trip.
If you had taken the train to Machu Picchu, this is the river you follow through the mountain valleys to arrive at the city. Joining up with the sounds of the trains below felt strange, but not as strange as arriving at the bustling tourist location the next morning. We were on the south side of Machu Picchu mountain that final night, with only a few more kilometers to arrive at the ancient city - the final bit we'd take in the dark hours of the morning to see the sunrise through the Sun Gate.
That last night we stayed at what is the busiest campsite of the trail. More or less all 500 people who are on the Trail on a given day stay here their last night so that they can reach the city for the morning sunrise as soon as the last checkpoint opens at 5:30am. We had a nice night together, now that the group had really gotten to know each other and the hard work was more or less done, opening a bottle of wine to toast the two couples who were on their honeymoon and playing cards before and after dinner. It was an early night, though, since we were getting up at 3:30 in the morning the next day to line up for the last mad dash to Machu Picchu.
Finally at the site - the best part of each day.