DAY 3: PACAYMAYO – WIÑAY HUAYNA
Distance: 10 miles / 16km
Time: 9-10 hours
Maximum altitude: 12,664 feet / 3,860m
At the end of the second day of the Inca Trail, I felt a massive relief that the hard part was over and that it would be non-stop fun all the time from there on out. As it turned out, Day 3 was THE HARDEST part of the hike for me. It was mostly nerve wracking due to the steep Inca stone steps that we had to descend for hours on end.
The day started with the same ritual as Day 2 – coca tea, breakfast, and ready to go. It begins with a challenging uphill section for about an hour to reach the ruins of Runkurakay. This archaeological site is fairly small, but is beautiful and interesting due its perfect circular shape. This was most likely used as a resting station for the Inca messengers – “Chasquis” as they are called in Quechua. I will say though, every guide will have a different story to tell about the ruins – but this is because many aspects of Inca life and culture are unknown and still remain a mystery.
After spending a few minutes here, we continue the ascent till we reach the Runkurukay pass and then a descent to reach the ruins of Sayacmarca – “the steep place”. You can access the ruins through a steep and narrow staircase (With a cliff on one edge). It looked super scary, and I decided not to go up but kept going along the trail instead. Kris and a few others in the group left their backpacks at the bottom and went up to check it out. Turns out the views were stunning, especially of the Qonchamarka ruins that we would be passing shortly.
After a quick stop for lunch was when my nightmare section began. Others in the group found it relatively easy (compared to climbing up), but this was extremely nerve wracking for me, given my morbid fear of heights. Climbing down these steep Inca stairs for over 3 hours gave me a lot of stress. There were a few portions where I was coming down on all fours – amusing for others in my group, but I had to do it! Huge kudos to our guide Elvis here, he made me feel comfortable and confident coming down with the hiking poles, and for the most part I managed fine, albeit a bit slow.
This section of the trail is the portion that is almost completely the original stones, with hardly any restoration required or done. For many portions, a single huge rock is carved into makeshift stairs. It is fascinating how much detail and perfection went into the trail.
As we moved through the day, we started seeing signs of civilization – a cell phone tower, and some houses in the far distance below in the valley. Turns out – it was the town of Aguas Calientes, which is at the base on Machu Picchu. That must mean we were close, right?
As it started getting closer to sunset, we started getting antsy and just wanted to get to camp. The thought of hiking down in the dark was not fun. This was the point where I felt really wobbly, and super stressed out, and lost it. After shedding a few tears and getting the crazy out (poor Kris!), I was ready to start back up again.
Another hour or so of climbing down and we were almost there. By now, the sun had set and we had our headlamps on. Remarkably, our pace quickened as it got darker (hehe), and I could not have been more relieved to finally get to the campsite!
After a round of high-fives, spirits at the dinner table were high, knowing that we were almost done. Since our porters would be leaving us early the next morning, we said our goodbyes and thanked them as well. The porters and chef are really the true heroes of the Inca trail – carrying all our stuff, making great meals, getting our tents set up, and all of this HOURS before we reach camp!
The night was also extra special, Fabian proposed to Diana, and the chef had baked a cake! Celebrations all around!
All in all, while Day 3 was the hardest for me, it was amazingly beautiful. The Inca sites we saw today were magnificent– seeing the terraced landscapes, the stone structures, imagining the living quarters, and learning about the history of the people, it all gave you a sense of the Incan way of life. Additionally, all of this added to the sense of mystery about the final destination, Machu Picchu.
We go to bed early, the final day starts at 3am – the day we will finally get to see Machu Picchu.