Three Days on the Inca Trail

Last week I accompanied one of Rodrigo’s tours on the Inca Trail. He was leading a group of three on a rigorous southbound hike to climb over 1,000 meters following the path of the chasquis, the Inca runners, 500 years ago. These chasquis carried messages across the Inca Empire, providing the sole form of long distance communication.

The trek started in the small indigenous town of Achupallas, where farms speckled the land without a trace of road leading to them. These were the last houses we saw as we headed to the more isolated valleys along which the trail runs.

Roosters in Achupallas.

Roosters in Achupallas.

The interesting thing about this section of the trail is the formation of the land. It is believed that the rounded valleys were left by glacial recession. The idea is that 10,000 years ago, anything above 3,200 meters was covered in glaciers. As the ice slowly melted, it left a characteristic U-shaped valley with steep walls, often with a stream running through the center. Another sign of glacial recession are the rocks embedded in the ground that almost look misplaced. It makes for a unique and beautiful landscape.

The glacial valley along which the Inca Trail runs.

The glacial valley along which the Inca Trail runs.

The first day was a short hike, as we set up next to the rushing stream in the valley. The evening quickly grew foggy, as clouds rushed in from the north, setting the ambiance for the night.

The stream rushes by camp.

The stream rushes by camp.

The stream will soon be covered in clouds.

The stream will soon be covered in clouds.

The lush green landscape against the red curtain of our improvised “facilities” even made the loo picturesque.

The bathroom.

The bathroom.

As night grew closer, Rodrigo and I decided to explore and climb the western side of the valley. At the top, we were able to catch the last light of sunset, as well as a view of the tops of Chimborazo and the volcanic Sangay. It was a slow trip back down, as night had fallen and all we could see was the short distance illuminated by our headlamps in front of us.

The last glimpse of sunset.

The last glimpse of sunset.

When we returned to camp, food was waiting to be served and a fire had just started to crackle.

A fire roars.

A fire roars.

We had tents prepared for sleeping, but another opportunity was calling. Along the steep sides of the valley, small caves lined the rock walls. Under the sounds of dripping water and the flapping of wings as birds sought shelter, I spent the night on a bed of hay nestled in the mouth of a small opening.

My view in the morning.

My view in the morning.

The next day started with clear skies and a warm sun. We decided to take the high road, along the ridge of the mountains. This provided excellent views in all directions, as well as a chance to get light-headed in the high altitude. The highest point of the day hit 4,450 meters, or about 14,600 feet.

View from the ridge.

View from the ridge.

The valleys are peppered with lakes.

The valleys are peppered with lakes.

At high altitudes, it’s like you’re in another world. The flora grows smaller and smaller the higher you get and grows in formations unlike anywhere else.

A typical view of the highlands.

A typical view of the highlands.

Instead of grass, this plant covers much of the ground.

Instead of grass, this plant covers much of the ground.

After five hours of hiking, our destination was finally in sight. With three more hours, we reached this lake in the valley, where Incan ruins awaited.

Our destination.

Our destination.

These ruins are believed to be a tambo, a station house for the chasquis as they tag-treamed across the trail like a relay race.

A donkey and a tambo.

A donkey and a tambo.

Fortunately, it was intact enough for another interesting camp spot. And, as I settled into my sleeping bag and the clouds cleared for the night, shooting stars streaked across the sky while the milky way twinkled from above.

Camping in the tambo.

Camping in the tambo.

The last day was a shorter hike across flat farmlands, where cows called to us and streams irrigated the pastures. These provided obstacles, but nothing to which we hadn’t grown accustomed.

Leaping over a stream.

Leaping over a stream.

We ended the day at Ingapirca, the largest known Incan ruins in Ecuador. This is also an interesting site because these temples and ritual site were actually built on top of an ancient Cañari site, the predecessors to the land. Here sit the temples to the moon and sun, as well as a burial ground and rooms that were believed to house virgins.

Temple of the Sun.

Temple of the Sun.

Although it’s called the Inca Trail, there were originally several routes; this one stretched from Quito down to Argentina. Most people, when they think of the Inca Trail, think only of the path to Machu Picchu, but Ecuador’s trail has a lot to offer. Some people spend months hiking the entire distance; these were just three days. I hope to spend more time on the trail in the months to come.

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A couple days in Baños

Rodrigo and I spent the past couple days in Baños, a town of roughly 21,000 inhabitants. Baños is known for its melcocha (taffy), surrounding cloud forest, and abundant tourists cruising the streets in rented quads. It is also known for its frequent volcanic activity, being situated right beneath the often belching Tungarahua.

A number of waterfalls are just down the road, so we hiked to a few of them. First we hit Rio Verde, where the path is admittedly over-cleared, but the waterfall is the most majestic in the area.

Waterfall at Rio Verde.

Waterfall at Rio Verde.

Looking down at the Rio Verde waterfall.

Looking down at the Rio Verde waterfall.


As Ecuador is the land of orchids, we passed many wild orchids on the way. In fact, Ecuador has 4,000 different native species of orchids out of 30,000 worldwide. This means that Ecuador, a country roughly the size of Wyoming, is home to 13% of the worlds native orchid species.
Wild orchid at Rio Verde.

Wild orchid at Rio Verde.


The next day, we hiked to Manto de la Novia, or The Bride’s Veil, with Rodrigo’s family. Fewer tourists frequent this hike (because they can take cable cars instead), so it’s a quick way to get outside without running into as many people.
Manto de la Novia from afar.

Manto de la Novia from afar.


It’s a steep hike down, followed by a walking bridge dangling over a rushing river. Rodrigo was so scared, he had to find someone’s hand to hold.
Rodrigo and Lucas run over the bridge.

Rodrigo and Lucas run over the bridge.


Interestingly, Manto de la Novia used to be a single waterfall, but it split last year due to a flood of melting glacier water heated by Tungarahua. It’s a part of the ever-shifting landscape of Ecuador, where earthquakes, volcanoes and floods move rivers, roads, and towns.
Rodrigo's family under the waterfall.

Rodrigo's family under the waterfall.


Despite the fact that it is overpopulated with tourists, Baños is a great town to visit. The weather is always warm, the landscape is lush with plants and the sugar cane taffy is top notch. I’m also glad that I was able to be here in good company (and good entertainment).
Lucas provides entertainment.

Lucas provides entertainment.

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Up the Devil´s Nose!

The most difficult part of the G&Q Railway construction was La Nariz del Diablo, or the Devil’s Nose.

Our goal was to hike to the top of the Devil’s Nose and camp for the night. We set out from Alausi in the mid-afternoon with three porters in red ponchos from the nearby Nizag community, each with a mule loaded with supplies. We also had Fabian, and Delfín with his wife, Fanny, as the expedition team’s cook.

Walking along the refurbished railway tracks of newly set ties from the U.S., and new rails and gravel, we came upon a small yellow engine of workers chugging along.

They stopped and gave us a ride. The friendly boss, or Jéfe, was from Columbia; José was also working on a “then and now” book of the railway before reconstruction and after.

Then we split off from the tracks and hiked on a path up the mountain, past harvested cornfields and into the sky. At the top of the Devil’s Nose, Fabian, Delfín, and Fanny set up our tents, and also a kitchen/dining room tent complete with table, stools, and a petrol stove.

One of the porters from the Nizag community brought along his daughter, Elisabeth, who had a sweet tooth for butterscotch candies.

Fanny, Fabian and Delfin produced an excellent dinner of fried bananas, green banana and yucca soup, a main course of mushrooms nested on zucchini, lupin beans and mixed vegetables, and a desert of hot, sweet tree tomatoes in a sauce.

Here is Sandy enjoying his meal in the kitchen/dining tent.

 We built a fire outside, and Rodrigo roasted marshmallows while Sandy roasted some horseskull and bones he’d found on the hike.

The moon was shining brightly, along with stars, and we fell asleep to the sound of the water rushing in the Chanchan River far, far below, and wind bumping over the ridge of the ancient, sacred mountain.

In the morning, we awoke to charred bones in the dead fire, and a beautiful morning on top of the Devil’s Nose.

 Our porters returned and we broke camp, and hiked out to Nizag. It was a most excellent adventure!

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