Published: June 28th 2012June 25th 2012
Since I first planned South America last year the The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has always seemed to me to be the trip's centrepiece. Spaces fill up fast (due to only 500 people being allowed on the trail each day) so Andrew and I had to book a date for the trail as early as December last year. We therefore always knew we would have to be in Cusco on June 4th to pay our trek balance, and the rest of my visit to Peru essentially fell around that.
We made that date, attended our pre-trek briefing and then spent the next two days slowly making preparations and packing our bags. Then, on the the morning of the 6th, we awoke before dawn to take a bus to the start of the trail on the Urubamba River.
I'd previously heard some negative comments about the Inca Trail; some had dubbed it 'The Inca Trial' due to it's difficulty, while others had said that it gets painfully overcrowded and wasn't worth the money. It was, in short, incredible. This was largely due to a good couple of guides and a really nice group (made up mostly of Americans so
constant enthusiasm was guaranteed throughout). The trekking was often difficult, and the conditions dreadful for dry season, but I really felt my extensive hiking in Patagonia, as well as the fact I had been at high altitude for over a month, helped considerably. Furthermore the team of porters, who a) carried our food, tents and cooking equipment b) set up camp before we arrived and c) cooked all our meals, turned it into a, at times, rather luxurious experience.
It's tempting to call the porters superhuman, but in reality they are just poor Peruvian men, often wearing sandals, carrying huge weights on their back all day. Many of them also carry trekkers' personal belongings (a service available at an extra charge). It is well publicised that porters often do not receive fair pay, enough food or adequate shelter. I believe our porters were treated reasonably (although the shelter was essentially one dinner tent and some appeared to be sleeping outside on one night) but many are quite clearly not, and it can't help but leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth even after a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this. These companies make lots of money off the Inca Trail
(we paid over 300 pounds) and they should all spend more on making sure porters work in adequate conditions.
Aftyer passing the train tracks - and scowling at the smug looking people who would be there in a few hours - we started our walk to Machu Picchu. The first day was fairly easy: slow walking, easy distances and good weather. We passed by the pretty ruins of Patallacta and made camp by evening. The camp was at about the same altitude as Cusco - a warm and comfortable night.
The next day was considerably harder. The climb up to 'Dead Woman's Pass' is notorious for being steep and neverending. We did better than the woman, but it was a tough day, not made easier by constant rain. Andrew and I had a farily fast pace at the top of the group, something that did not really pay off as we arrived at our first stop and had to wait in the wet for our group to arrive. There was a quick break in a shelter so we could have a snack and dry our clothes before we progressed onto the pass, just as we got high enough
for the rain to turn into snow.
As we arrived at the top of the mountain we were rewarded with blue sky and some amazing views. The rest of the day was a knee-punishing, but thankfully dry, descent to our campsite, which we arrived at lunchtime, allowing us an afternoon's rest. Unfortunately this campsite was much higher than the last so the temperature soon dropped. Luckily our guide had brought a few bottles of rum so these, as well as our Arctic quality sleeping bags and alpaca jumpers, helped keep us warm.
The third day was less intense and wet but very long, and by the end I was exhausted. The views were breathtaking: we went over two more mountain passes and spent most of the day following the original preserved trail. Those Incas sure liked their steps - there were thousands of them. We arrived at the last ruins of the day, the stunningly set Intipata, and then trekked through the dark to our campsite.
The morning of our last day started badly. We awoke before dawn to reach the queue for the trail, so that we could be one of the first groups to reach
the Sun Gate. Unfortunately one of our group fell seriously ill and had to be stretchered over to Machu Picchu along the steep remainder of the trail - another incredible demonstration of the porters' abilities. She recovered well later after some rest and rehydration in her hotel. We went on to the Sun Gate and, just after dawn, were rewarded with our first views of Machu Picchu.
Like with most of the world's main tourist attractions, you expect to have Machu Picchu to yourself and can't help but be disappointed when it's full of coach tripping tourists. After doing the Inca Trail it's kind of like going through the wilderness for four days to get to Disneyland. Yet Machu Picchu can not disappoint at all - it really is stunning. Nothing can prepare you for the detail of the buildings and the beautiful setting of the surrounding valley, with the mountain of Huayna Picchu rising behind. The stunning green lawns, populated by llamas, and quiet outer areas, which tourists tend not to visit, make it oddly peaceful despite the crowds. It's also unbelievable to think that it was only discovered a little over 100 years ago. If you ever
get the chance, go and see it (just don't take the train!)
The nearby town of Aguas Calientes obviously felt that, already having the world's best tourist attraction, they might as well also have the worst. We had a less than comfortable afternoon in the oddly murky and smelly hot springs before having a few beers and getting on the train home. Unfortunately this was delayed but our trusty guide again provided rum (where was he getting it from?) and we arrived back at the wild Rover hostel in Cusco late but merry.
Cusco was exactly how I imagined it would be - one of the most stunning cities in South America but also very touristy. Nearly every restaurant and bar name was some sort of pun on an English word and you can barely walk more than a few feet without being offered a massage (what this meant, I don't know) or seeing an Irish bar. We chilled out for a few days before doing some sightseeing. walking around the city's picturesque plazas and going up to the San Blas neighbourhood for views of the city and the nearby Sacsayhuaman ruins (pronounced 'Sexy Woman', honest). On our final day we rented quadbikes and took them around the nearby hills. This went well before our friend Robbie decided to ride off a hill - we spent the rest of the day in Cusco A&E waiting for him to get stitches.
Finally, on our last night, we sampled the local delicacy - coy, or guinea pig to you and me. See pictures below. It tasted better than it looked. Just.