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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