Another Round of Mont Blanc

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” ― Dr. Seuss

We received some requests for some additional information on our Tour du Mont Blanc experience.  So here are more details and pictures (in addition to our blog post that we posted earlier).  Enjoy!

over-the-col-de-balme

Our Mont Blanc hike was counterclockwise starting and ending in the beautiful mountain village of Les Houches (just a few clicks down the road from Chamonix).

img_4003img_4020

This route with its Les Houches starting point gets going immediately with plenty of climbing, and some of the best views on the whole route are within the first 3 days but nearly all the views on the TMB are superb.

Les Houches to Les Contamines

15km, 700m up, 1300m down, 6 hrs with Bellevue cable car

We hiked from our hotel to a cable car at the base of Les Houches which took us up to Bellevue to begin our hike.  (We started hiking around 9 am from the hotel and there were plenty of other TMB hikers setting out as well as day hikers and rock climbers heading up in the cable car.

The first part of the day winds through the woods and over glacier rivers.  Then, begins the ascent up to Col de Tricot.  Going up and down is incredibly scenic (you may read that a lot in this post).

img_4026img_4037img_4041img_4048img_4059img_4072img_4082img_4085

After a short break at a refuge at the bottom of the ascent, it was up another steep but short climb to Col de Truc.

img_4112img_4119img_4121img_4122

And ultimately, the trail winds down a forest road to the hamlet of Les Contamines which is at the top of the same valley where Megeve and St. Gervais are located.  ( We fell in love with France all over again this summer.  Megeve and St. Gervais are another two absolutely stunning villages in France.)  We arrived in Les Contamines on a Sunday, and the shops in town were having a massive market sale that took over main street.  Les Contamines is yet another beautiful spot.  (You will hear that a lot in this post with the exception of Trient which we suggest hiking thru and no staying staying in Trient, if at all possible.)

img_4130img_4137img_4136

Les Contamines to Les Chapieux

18km, 1350 up, 90o down, 6-7 hrs

Today’s route started off on another steep forest road along a river, and then climbed up to an open valley that was just spectacular. We hiked along the valley for a couple hours all the time viewing the saddle where we were heading – the Col du Bonhome.

img_4157img_4169img_4171img_4178img_4198img_4201img_4212

This day was another dual Col day.  So after the initial climb, we climbed up to the Col du Croix du Bonhome which is one of the highest spots on the TMB.

img_4217img_4222img_4225img_4226img_4232

There was a refuge just below the summit to grab some food and cafe.  Then it was a long downhill to the tiny village of Chapieux.  There is not much in the tiny village of Chapieux but a couple spots to stay, a bar and a small store (that sells wonderful sausage and cheese).

img_4237img_4252

Les Chapieux to La Palud

20+ km, 1100m up, 500m down, 6 hrs, with lift down

Today, we hopped on a public bus and took it up the road about 7km.  Purists hike the whole way, but our bus was filled with about 30 folks looking to cut off the less interesting dirt road that starts the hike.  And then it is up up and away to the Col de La Seigne – today’s primary climb.  The peak is the border between France and Italy.

img_4261img_4265img_4274img_4299img_4304img_4309img_4323

Once over the top, you hike down and along a valley that reminded us of some of the hiking we have down in Alaska – open meadows, glacial rivers and towering mountains. Our destination was Courmayeur, Italy, and there are more than a few options to hike to Courmayeur. We chose to hike up to the Col de Checrouit which gives you access to a high route along the valley with astonishing views of a number of glaciers

img_4330img_4336img_4343img_4339img_4349img_4371

to-courmayeur-2to-courmayeur

After descending from the high route, we found a couple lifts to shorten our descent down to Courmayeur, a classic Italian Alps town. It is large and jammed with tourists in August but we stayed a few kilometers above the city center in the smaller village of La Palud.

img_4375img_4387img_4393

La Palud to La Fouly

18km, 1200m up, 900m down, 5 hours

The start of today’s hike also included a bus start. We hopped on the Courmayeur public bus and rode it to the end of the road, about 10km or so past the city center.  The road followed another valley and a small river until we were at the base of the Grand Col Derret.  It was a bit cold and slightly wet at the top of this climb (the only day we pulled out our rain jackets), but the views and scenery did not disappoint. The peak is also another border – between Italy and Switzerland.

img_4405img_4408img_4411img_4426img_4433img_4439img_4441img_4444img_4453img_4471

to-la-foley

The descent down eventually winds through woods and along another glacier stream that flows through the town of La Fouly, a very typical Swiss village in the Alps. The town is small – a few restaurants, a supermarket and a bunch of beautiful Swiss cabins.  It was pretty quiet when we were there, but it has two ski lifts and a bunch of Nordic tracks in the village so it is likely more popular in the winter.

img_4484img_4490img_4516

La Fouly to Champex-Lac and Rest Day

20+km, 400m up, 550m down, 4 hours

Today was a relatively easy day until the end.  The route was mostly downhill through a number of small Swiss villages. We passed a number well preserved historical farm buildings and neighborhoods and ended the descent in another classic Alp’s valley

img_4525img_4526img_4528img_4529img_4540img_4550

The last hour or so was a steep uphill through the woods to the alpine lake town of Champex-Lac.

img_4557img_4560img_4566

We had a rest day in Champex-Lac which worked out well as it was the only day on our route where it rained heavily for most of the day.  We took the opportunity for a couple short hikes around the lake and trails around the village, but mostly took the day off from hiking.

Champex-Lac to Trient

15km, 700m up, 1000m down, 5 hours

Today was another relatively easy day. The hike was still long and we had plenty of climbing – some of it very steep.  There was some leftover moisture from the previous day so it was a bit chilly and wet heading up the first Col. But there was a nice refuge up there to get a cafe and warm up a bit.

img_4580img_4581img_4583

img_4587img_4590img_4595

The route took us up to the Col de Forclaz which is one of the popular road cycling climbs in the area and was featured in this year’s Tour de France. We took a side hike up to another refuge and a glacier vista which was quite nice.

img_4597img_4614

The trail up followed an ancient aqueduct so it was relatively flat and also positioned well to follow the valley to our final destination of the day, Trient. Trient is a tiny spot with nothing to offer. There are a couple auberges that are pretty worn and tattered but its location on the trail make it a very popular overnight stop. There were definitely more hikers than residents in town the evening we were there.  (Trient is the only village that we would suggest skipping if you plan to do the TMB.)

img_4624img_4632img_4634

Trient to Argentiere

20+ km, 1200m up, 1300m down, 5+ hours

We woke up early and exited our auberge as fast as we possibly could so we were on the trail at 7:15am. We could not get out of it fast enough (it was really the only spot on our hike where we were not thrilled with our accommodations but it did offer a clean bed, cold beer & wine as well as hot food).  Our first goal of the day was to hike up to the Col de Balme which was a 2 hour steep hike in the woods and then another hour of incredible walking up through an alpine meadow to a refuge at the top of the Col. We watched marmots playing and hawks hunting them as we followed the hairpins to the top.

img_4639img_4640img_4650img_4663img_4668

At the top (after throwing in an extra Col because of some poor navigation), you are greeted with stunning views down to the Chamonix Valley and can almost see to Les Houches  – still a few days of hiking away.

img_4665img_4667

There are many trails down that wind through ski areas, forests, and ridges to the towns of Tours and Argentiere – both villages north of Chamonix.  We chose the route along the Aiguilette des Posettes which was along a ridge line that provide views of two different valleys.

aqui-de-posettesposettes-2

img_4683img_4699img_4700img_4711img_4712img_4701

We ended in Argentiere which could be our favorite village on the TMB. It is a short bus ride to Chamonix but not as crowded or developed.  It also has a train stop and a number of lifts that can get you high on the mountains fast for great skiing or some alpine hiking.

Argentiere to Chamonix

11+km, 1150m up, 400m down, 4.5 hrs

We took a trail right out of Argentiere to avoid any buses or lifts that many trails require in the area and headed up to Lac Blanc – which is a very popular day spot for hikers staying in Chamonix.  The trail up was steep but beautiful and very rocky at the top.

img_4734img_4717img_4721

The lake itself was beautiful but a bit busy.  We stopped at the refuge for some water and refueling and then headed down a steep and rocky trail to a lift that took us close to Chamonix where we were able to take nice wooded trail along the river right into the heart of Chamonix.

img_4728img_4729img_4737

Chamonix Rest Day

We had plenty of energy on this rest day. And having spent a few days this summer in Chamonix, we decided to hop on a bus back to Argentiere and climb up to the Argentiere glacier. This is a spot that I have skied in the past so I was looking forward to seeing it in the summer. It was good to see the glacier was still there.

img_4750img_4762img_4766img_4777img_4802img_4803img_4806

Chamonix to Les Houches

13+km, 800m up, 1700m down, 5 hrs

Today  was all downhill accept for the parts that were not. We took the PlanPraz lift up to the base of the Col de Brevant and then climbed for 90 minutes or so to the top.  The lift was quite crowded in the morning with paragliders who launch at the base of the climb and sightseers who take another lift up to the top of the Brevant. We really enjoyed the hike up to the Brevant as it was very quiet along the backside of the ridge and offered views of different valleys. The trail was steep with some ladders, rungs and chains to help keep you on the trail. Once at the top, the views were fantastic. It was then a long steep downhill back down to our starting point of Les Houches with epic views the whole way.

img_4787img_4789img_4794img_4805img_4797img_4801img_4807img_4806

brevant-down

We regrouped with our travel companions in Les Houches for some celebrating and a big meal and then it was off on the train in the morning to the St Gervais valley.

les-houches

 

 

 

 

One of the World’s Best Hikes?

The  Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trail circumnavigates Western Europe’s highest mountain, the mighty Mont Blanc, up craggy passes, over pastoral saddles and through surreal valleys of France, Italy and Switzerland.  It offers fantastic hiking that is both scenic and challenging while providing the allure of great vino, a hot meal and a comfortable bed in a charming village at the end of the trail every evening. The route winds through famous mountain villages such as Chamonix and Courmayeur as well as smaller villages that will leave you contemplating dairy farming as a plausible profession.

IMG_4792

thumbnail_IMG_3490.jpg

IMG_4106.JPG

There are countless hiking options of varying lengths and difficulty as well as many options to leverage buses and lifts to navigate the hike around the massif.  And both directions of traveling the loop offer their benefits and challenges.  You can plan on about 10 days of actual hiking give or take your speed of walking, and it is worth considering an option that includes 1-3 “rest” days to check out some of the bigger villages and side trails along the way. Some travelers carry their own gear, but there are plenty of guide and transport companies that will transport bags so you only need to hike with a day bag. And with plenty of refuges, some of the best potable water supplies and villages along the way, day packs can be light.  Most stay in hotels, auberges or refuges so carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag is not required. Guided trips are available and may be the way to go for those less experienced with walking and hiking, but we found the navigation and hiking pretty straightforward and enjoyed the flexibility of a self-guided version where we walked at our own pace but met up with a group often on the trail as well as at the end of the day.

IMG_4129

 

The surreal scenery makes this hike one of the best that we have ever done, but that is not the only reason why this hike is consistently rated one of the best in the world.  Here are some more reasons to love it:

  • Hiking thru three stunning countries with different cultures, food and languages- France, Italy, Switzerland.

IMG_3968.JPG

IMG_4263.JPG

IMG_4485.JPG

  • Trekking 132 miles on well marked trails with about 32K of vertical (up and down) not only gives one a sense of accomplishment, but burns a lot of calories on the gorgeous trails and allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the wonderful food and wine every night.

IMG_4070.JPG

IMG_4419

IMG_4449

  • Days are filled with surreal natural beauty.

IMG_4292.JPG

 

IMG_4012.JPG

IMG_4730.JPG

thumbnail_IMG_3646

IMG_4669IMG_4683IMG_4712IMG_4806

  • The only sound you are likely to hear are the bucolic chimes of cow bells or the rush of running mountain water.

IMG_4168

IMG_4046.JPG

IMG_4047.JPG

  • Gorgeous wildflower strewn fields abound in alpine back country.

IMG_4093

IMG_4646.JPG

  • No need to worry about grizzly bears. The only wildlife you should see on the trail are more benign- ibex, marmots, hawks

IMG_4698.JPG

IMG_4643

  • A hot shower and comfortable bed awaits every night in charming hotels and villages.

thumbnail_IMG_3473.jpg

thumbnail_IMG_3579

IMG_4011.JPG

IMG_4024.JPG

IMG_4655

IMG_4700IMG_4728IMG_4750

  • Eating is taken seriously in Europe.  (France takes two hour lunches and many places are closed from 12-3 pm.)  In the Alps, regardless of where you are whether at the top of a col or in a valley where there appears to be nothing for miles, refuges are plentiful on the TMB offering wonderful food, drinks and shelter.

IMG_4119.JPG

IMG_4095.JPG

IMG_4286.JPG

thumbnail_IMG_3512

  • Plenty of vino, cheese and great food every night.

IMG_3036.JPG

IMG_4018.JPG
Bakery in Les Houches where we picked up sandwiches for our first day on the TMB.
thumbnail_IMG_3514
This spread was in a small refuge quite far from anywhere

There are so many ways to do this hike- on your own, guided or self-guided.  We used Sherpa Expeditions, and they were fantastic.  Sherpa offers a self-guided model that involves transporting your luggage every day but one.  We also started the trek with 8 other people and stayed in the same hotels every night making for a social but flexible trek.  So for those that want to hike at different speeds, this is a great option.  

The TMB is definitely one of the best hikes in the world and one of our best experiences this year between the stunning views, fresh, clean mountain air, fabulous food and wine, charming villages in three of our favorite countries!  We loved it so much we will likely repeat this trek sometime in the future.  Stay tuned for more details on the TMB.

IMG_4235

 

 

Majorca Hike: Cala Tuent to Puerto Sóller

“The mountains are calling. I must go” – John Muir

When we planned a couple weeks on an island in the Mediterranean, we were thinking more about the beach and the beautiful, crystal-clear waters. But after a few days in the city and near the sea, the mountains were calling!

IMG_3634

 

Majorca is an island off the coast of Spain that is a very popular summer spot with European tourists. It is most known for its shopping and nightlife.  However, it also happens to be where the professional cycling team, Team Sky, does some winter training, and so it is also popular with cyclists.  But its mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana that dramatically cascades down to the sea on the Western part of the island, offers some incredibly scenic walking trails.

 

IMG_3625IMG_3672IMG_3678

After a few days in the capital of Palma with the hordes of tourists, a walk in the mountains with relative solitude was just what we were after.  We chose a route between Cala Tuent and Puerto de Sóller which are both on the northwest coast of Majorca and only about 30 km from Palma. We were day tripping from Palma. So while the 211 bus and the Ferrocarril de Sóller (first train is at 10am) offer good options to get to the Sóller area, we opted to pick up a rental car to give us some flexibility on both ends of the hike. (Travel tip: we reserved a small commercial truck with Enterprise on the Palma port and as expected, they replaced it with a standard car when we picked it up – saving us over 75% the cost of a standard rental.)

IMG_3534IMG_3535

We were aiming for a 10 am sailing on a water taxi with Barcos Zules from Puerto de Sóller to Cala Tuent so that we could walk the 10 miles back on the Balitx path. It was tight but we made the boat by 10 minutes.

IMG_3606IMG_3611

After squeezing out of the harbor, we followed the coast for about 45 minutes, stopping to check out a couple bays and caves along the way.

IMG_3550IMG_3556IMG_3563IMG_3566IMG_3582IMG_3585IMG_3589IMG_3594

We were delivered to the Cala Tuent beach – which is a nice quiet bay at the base of the mountains (if you are looking for something to eat, there is a restaurant about 200 meters up the trail from the South side of the beach).

IMG_3600IMG_3601IMG_3603IMG_3610IMG_3612

For the first couple hours of hiking the path gains a bit of elevation and also meanders along the cliffs, providing fantastic views of the bays below. The views above and below are spectacular.

IMG_3621IMG_3628IMG_3635IMG_3640IMG_3641

A couple hours in, you climb two saddles and then drop into a gorgeous valley filled with  olive trees and goat farms. You lose most of your shade for the remainder of the hike so it can get hot. It was 35C the day we traversed this spot so we were glad we brought 3 liters of water. (Note: water is not easily accessible on the trail so bring plenty before you hop on the boat – 2 liters per person is a good min for a moderately hot day; more for hotter days).

IMG_3644

IMG_3648IMG_3650IMG_3651IMG_3654IMG_3656IMG_3657IMG_3658

IMG_3660
Olive Trees – hundreds of years old
IMG_3664IMG_3665IMG_3675

After an hour of wandering through the olive trees, you will reach another saddle and the last high point for this direction.  As you start to descend, you will get killer views of Puerto de Sóller.  You will see plenty of signs on the path for trails to the Port or to the town of Sóller – both about 60-90 minutes down the path.

IMG_3676
Puerto de Soller
IMG_3681IMG_3688IMG_3684

While we found the trail well marked for 80% of the way, we lost the signs as we exited onto a road where we should have been only 20-30 minutes from the end. We had a 50/50 choice in direction and chose incorrectly and ended heading down a busy road for a few more kilometers (if you end up there, take a right back towards the north). But we found a restaurant to grab a couple cold beers and called a taxi to get a ride back to the Port.

IMG_3539IMG_3540IMG_3542IMG_3546

Palma is a fun city (stay tuned), but if you find yourself in Majorca, you need to get out and see the mountains – they are incredible!

Vamos! Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail is one of the world’s epic treks.  It has has been on Susan’s bucket list for years, but I have always been hesitant on signing up because of the weather.  Cusco, the launching point for the trek, and the Peruvian Andes receive a fair amount of rain and cloudy days throughout the year, and we get enough of that in our home base of Seattle. But given our travels over the last few months, we thought this would be a perfect time to add this hike to our swing through South America.

IMG_5017

 

As this is a very popular trail, logistics make it very difficult to do it yourself. Even with guides, one must plan months in advance.  There are only 500 people per day allowed on the trail and 300 of them are porters, guides and support staff. There are over 200 licensed operators that guide people on the trail and group sizes can be as small as one and as many as 20ish.  By far, most people are hiking in groups of 15 or so.  We did a fair amount of research and found a great guide company, Valencia Travel, that we would highly recommend after spending a week with them. We used Trip Advisor and Google to locate options and ultimately, booked through The Clymb, which can have some great deals on outdoor travel trips.

logo-Valencia-Travel-2014-300x168

We chose the classic, four day trek which was 26 miles of hiking (with elevation as high as 13.7k ft. (Dead Women’s Pass) and as low as 7k ft. (Machu Picchu)), 3 nights of tent camping, 3 mountain passes, plenty of ascending and descending ancient staircases, countless Inca ruins (some arguably as impressive as Machu Picchu) and an 3:30 am revelry for the final to push to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. For us, the Inca trail experience was as much of the trip as checking out Machu Picchu.  With the hordes of people at Machu Picchu coming in mostly via bus and train, we may have liked the hike more than the destination. ( 3,500 people is the limited at Machu Picchu per day.)  For this reason, if you plan to hike, you may want to consider the five day trek to give you more time out  on the trail with less people and incredible views.

IMG_5083IMG_5019IMG_5025IMG_5066IMG_5108

We were a large group of 34 not including our drivers to get us to and from the trail head. Our team for the hike included 15 porters, 13 guests, 2 chefs (complete with a torque), 2 guides, 1 lead porter, and a waiter. All the guests were from the US and consisted of  a couple of sexagenarians with their 20 something son and girlfriend  (all from Oklahoma), a mother and teenage son from Phoenix, a father and teenage son from Florida, two cousins from Iowa, and a solo male traveler from LA.

IMG_5016IMG_5049

Day 1 was one of three early mornings as we left the hotel at 4:30 am for a couple hour drive to the town of Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast, met up with our porters, and had our first view of some of the surrounding peaks. It is also where one can take the train to or from Machu Picchu if one is not hiking.  After hiking and visiting Machu Picchu, our experience included a train ride on the PeruRail from the town of Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo where our drivers met us to take us back to Cusco (to complete a 18 hour day).  The train ride was another treat with gorgeous scenery.

IMG_4881IMG_5012IMG_5011IMG_5018

Starting at what is sometimes referred to as KM 82 and after clearing a checkpoint where each passport and ticket for the Camino Inka are verified, we slowly followed the trail up a dusty path dotted with small villages, a number of ruins sites and small vendors selling water, Gatorade and even cerveza.  Spirits were high, and weather was outstanding. There was a lot of introductory conversations, discussions of pack sizes and contents and vigilance for the teams of porters that would pass us with packs of 70 lbs and moving at double time. Most of the porters are farmers in their twenties and cannot way more than double their packs.  They are absolutely amazing to watch as they navigate the trails with their heavy loads.

IMG_5014
Porter getting ready for the trek. Note the size of the pack!

We had our first look at a significant Inca ruins site set high above the Urubamba River. Llaqtapata, or the Town on the Hillside.  We had a quick look around and got some background and history from our fearless leader, Alex, and then headed up the trail for lunch.

IMG_5020IMG_5023IMG_5026

IMG_5027
Alex holding court.  Fantastic storyteller!

Each day at lunch, the team set up a mess tent complete with tablecloth, chairs, real silverware (not the utensils you get at the airport these days) and served us a full, multi-course, hot lunch that we all inhaled looking for extra calories and carbs for 6-10 hours of hiking we did each day.

IMG_5125.JPG

Our first campsite( Ayapata) was up at 10k feet with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and an awesome view of the stars and night sky when the sun left us.  We all crashed pretty early after the nine miles of hiking at elevation and the early and huge ascent planned for the next day.

IMG_5038IMG_5042

Day 2 plan was for an o’dark hour wake-up call, two mountain passes including the infamous Dead Women’s Pass at just under 14K feet and 10 miles of hiking. Our mornings always consisted of some hot coca tea that was delivered to our tents by Edy, one of our guides , while scurrying to get everything back in the packs and then followed by a carb-heavy breakfast. (We never spent more than 90 minutes from awaking to hiking and a couple of days, we were under an hour.) Coca tea (along with candy and leaves) is everywhere in  Cusco and on the Inca trail. Hotels serve it to guests in their lobbies.  It is a mild stimulant and contains alkaloids that are believed to be  good for hydrating and countering the effects of high altitude.  Our porters and guides chewed the leaves non-stop during their days on the trail. Coca is very much part of of the culture in Peru and its medicinal use dates back thousands of years. So while it is the source of Cocaine, there is a bit of resentment here for the outlawing and vilifying of the plant in other parts of the world (some argue that banning coca would be like banning potatoes if one was trying to stop alcohol consumption).

Day 2 was an incredible day. The hike up to Dead Women’s Pass lived up to its reputation. It was a bit of a grind, but the views from the top were stunning. The second pass of the day was just as scenic and both were followed by epic descents on the ancient stone paths of the Incas. (Some parts of the Inca Trail have been renovated and other parts of the Inca Trail are close to, if not, 100% original.)  We had perfect weather (again) for our climb up to about 14K.  It was blue skies and warm enough for t-shirts and sunscreen. In fact, the first 3 days of our trek were perfect with plenty of sun. We were only hit once with rain on our final morning (more on that later).

IMG_5057IMG_5059

IMG_5063
These ladies hump drinks up 3k feet everyday to sell at exorbitant but compelling prices. Another giant porter pack to the right.
IMG_5068
Even panting at 14k feet, this does not get old.

IMG_5069

IMG_5073
This is just about where I saw a young scholar from Harvard (at least he had the t-shirt) passed out on the side of the trail.

IMG_5083

IMG_5079
At the top of Dead Women’s pass and happy to report no dead women.

 

After the big uphill, we had an incredibly long downhill to a nice lunch spot at Pacaymayu (11.6k ft), followed by some ruins and another big and scenic uphill. To say this day was big is an understatement.  The total time hiking on Day 2 by the team was about 10 hours.

IMG_5085IMG_5090IMG_5100IMG_5113

Even with all the hiking, we managed to squeeze in a couple more Inca ruins on the way  – Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca. Runkuracay or the Egg Hut is a small site about halfway up the climb to the second pass, it overlooks the Pacamayo valley.  It was probably built as a lookout point for watching the commercial Inca highway, and perhaps also as a traveler’s lodging for the chaski’s (Inca messengers with oral messages) and temporary storehouse. No one is really sure what the purpose of Sayacmarca was, but one hypothesis is that Sayacmarca was a fortified outpost of Machu Picchu, storing food for pilgrims and visitors.

IMG_5104IMG_5109IMG_5116IMG_5120

Our destination for the night was a camping spot in the cloud forest, where we would be sleeping above or with the clouds. It did not disappoint.

IMG_5131IMG_5121IMG_5123IMG_5128

After a big day, we looked forward to a relatively easy hike for our 3rd day.  We still ended up hiking for 6 hours and ascending one pass, but after the 10 hours the day before, we were all happy with a relaxed afternoon. And with all the celebrating with the Pisco Sours  (that the Valencia team provided us) the night before, we were also looking forward to an extra long siesta. The sours were just one of many treats our cooks and team had for us. We were treated to all sorts of fantastic quinoa power dishes ranging from soups, to granola, to porridge and salads. Dinners were always followed by deserts, including a baked cake on our final night, and teas of all sorts including the digestion-friendly local munta tea.

IMG_5206
Roughing It on the Inka Trail

IMG_5187

During the day, we visited two ruins including one of favorite ruins, Wiñaywayna (meaning “forever young” in the local Quechuan language). Intipata was first.  The name Intipata means “Sunny Slope”.   Intipata was primarily an agricultural settlement, but it probably had a strategic function as well.  Wiñay Wayna is a neighbor to Machu Picchu, on an elevated perch overlooking the Urubamba River.   The ruins consist of upper and lower house clusters, interconnected by a long, precipitous staircase and includes a large area of agricultural terraces.

IMG_5172IMG_5174IMG_5185

Followed by Wiñaywayna.

IMG_5197IMG_5200IMG_5201IMG_5203

It was another great day of hiking with a great campsite at the end. Although, we did note that this campsite was also used by day trippers and 2-day hikers (Do no do the day trip or 2-day hike – you will miss too much) so the amount of people out and about increased significantly.

IMG_5135IMG_5148IMG_5189IMG_5190

Our final day was challenging as well because we had a 3:20am wake-up call when we ate a quick breakfast and were on the trail by 4am. Due to the crowds, we had to hike to the park’s entrance early to secure a place in line for the 5:40am opening. It was tough getting up early only to get to the  entrance and wait for 90 minutes but this is life on the trail. Machu Picchu has become so popular that logistical challenges await all visitors – hikers and those arriving by bus and train. To add to our challenges that morning, we faced a full-on down pour of biblical proportions. The morning hike was quite surreal as the 13 of us, covered with gore-tex and plastic and donning head lamps, searched for our footing in the muddy trail in the dark as we were blasted by water. But the skies broke around sunrise and we had only a couple hours of hiking to get to the Sun Gate – the entrance to Machu Picchu, our final destination.

IMG_5207IMG_5209IMG_5210IMG_5214

The section of trail today was mostly “up and down” and relatively flat but we negotiated one final set of stairs, nick-named “the Gringo Killer” , to add to our countless encounters with steps during the week.

IMG_5077IMG_5086IMG_5089IMG_5090IMG_5134IMG_5156IMG_5163IMG_5184IMG_5165

The Inca Trail was fantastic (and exceeded our expectations including the gorgeous weather we had). We are so glad we chose the Inca Trail route to see Machu Picchu not only because of the outstanding views but also because of the additional ruins.  There are other hiking approaches to Machu Picchu, but the Inca Trail is supposed to be one of the most historic and has the most ruins.  As mentioned above, the trail experience was every bit as good as Machu Picchu itself.  If you have not gone, go!  Tourism drives the local economy in Cusco and the surrounding towns.  Not only will you be rewarded with an amazing experience but without tourists, Cusco would likely be another very poor city.  Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and pictures of our Machu Picchu and our Cusco visit.

 

IMG_5219.JPG

IMG_5223

Table Stakes in Cape Town

Table Mountain, the mountainous gem of South Africa, has to be one of the most photographed peaks and certainly one of the biggest attractions in Cape Town. It is actually one of three major peaks that dominate the Cape Town skyline, the other two being Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak.  Table Mountain towers above the city and a cable car only a few kilometers away takes hundreds, if not thousands of visitors, to the top every day. It is a stunning site from the city and from the water and the view from the top is as stunning.

IMG_2513 IMG_2564

There are tens of hiking routes and hundreds of climbing routes.  Given the multitude of options, safety concerns on and around some of the routes, we chose to find a guide and go with their recommendation.  Our route did not disappoint.  We chose the Porcupine Ridge route along the 12 Apostles ridge which climbs the back side (out of the sun and away from the crowds).  It was a four hour climb with some solid elevation gain and more than a few good scrambling or bouldering moves.

Porcupine-Ravine
Straight up that grassy spot below Porcupine

We left early with Mike from Hike Table Mountain.  Mike has climbed this route more than a hundred times and was extremely knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and key handholds.  The mountain and the trail’s proximity to the town is incredible.  Our hike started in the tony suburb of Camp’s Bay where we simply parked in front of some nice homes and headed up on an old pipeline route.

IMG_2366 IMG_2369 IMG_2373 IMG_2374 IMG_2377 IMG_2372

After  30 minutes of rough fire road, the climbing and scrambling began, and we continue for a couple hours straight up through the ravine.  As we climbed, the sun progressed around the mountain, illuminating Camp’s bay and the beachs below.

IMG_2367 IMG_2370 IMG_2383 IMG_2389

Up up and away

IMG_2399 IMG_2401 IMG_2396 (2) IMG_2394 IMG_2390 IMG_2405

The climb was serene- quiet, shaded, and peaceful.  The orange-breasted sunbirds, redwing starlings, and the ridgeway ramblers were out in numbers, and their calls got louder as we approached their nests.  Traces of porcupines digging for bugs scattered the trails in spots.  Flowers were blooming everywhere, including the national flower – the stunning protea.

IMG_2420 IMG_2419 IMG_2421 IMG_2429 IMG_2382 IMG_2381 IMG_2379 IMG_2425 IMG_2386 IMG_2384 IMG_2371

 

As we approached the Table, the terrain flattened out.  On top of the ridge, you can see remnants of the old reservoir that supplied fresh water to Cape Town in the 1800’s.  Now, it is an unofficial beach for backpackers.

IMG_2424 IMG_2417 IMG_2439 IMG_2441 IMG_2443 IMG_2438 IMG_2434 IMG_2435

We finally topped out on the summit of the Table where there were astonishing views of the city and surrounding bays.

IMG_2450 IMG_2447 IMG_2439 IMG_2441 IMG_2445

Finally, a 10 minute cable ride brought us back to the lowlands.

IMG_2457 IMG_2452

One down, two to go.  Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head up next.