The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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December 1st 2015
Published: December 1st 2015
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The much anticipated Inca Trail was the only thing in South America which was booked before we left Bristol. It had been on the bucket list for a long time and this whole section of our trip was planned around it… so it kind of had to be good! Two days before, we went to the office in Cusco and were given a run-down of the trail and what we were to expect – this left us ready and raring to go! We learnt that the trail isn’t actually that long – it’s only 26 miles over 4 days – but there are two things which make it difficult. One is the altitude, and the other is the incredibly steep ascents and descents involved. We weren’t quite so raring to go at 4:30am on Friday but ready nonetheless, and after a few hours on the bus we arrived at Ollantaytambo, a cute little town with a big square where we got off to a good start by having corn pancakes for breakfast! Another hour on the bus and we arrived at Km82, the official start of The Inca Trail.

One of the things that we weren’t quite prepared for on this trek was the sheer size of the operation. Numbers are carefully regulated and throughout the four days, we didn’t feel like the path was overly busy, in fact we rarely came across other groups – but for the 14 people in our group, there were 2 tour guides, 19 porters and a chef. Back in Cusco, this sounded excessive – but it soon became apparent that this was the reason that everything ran so smoothly. The porters are incredible. They are nearly all from Quechuan farming communities and this is one of the only jobs that pays enough to support their families – as our guide Cesar told us, “the problem is that these people like having babies too much!” and most have between 5 and 7 children. The porters in our group ranged from 23 to 60 years old, spoke Quechuan as their first language, never stopped smiling and carried 25kg on their backs along the length of the trail. They do this every week, some wearing sandals. Until 2005, there were no regulations on the weight and many used to carry between 50-60kg (that’s around the same as me)! They carried everything from food and cooking equipment to our tents and people’s luggage. We felt quite virtuous as, out of the 14 in our group, there were only four of us that carried all of our own equipment!

Anyway, we set off for our first day along the trail. As promised, this was an easy day and the trail was ‘Inca flat’; meaning it was up and down but not too strenuous. The scenery was beautiful walking just above the River Urumbamba and when we got to our lunch stop, the whole group was amazed at the set up. By the time we arrived, the porters had set up the cooking tent and our eating tent and some amazing smells were coming from the camp. The setting was fantastic; a little farm with donkeys all around, a hen and her chicks and lots of little ducklings pottering around. The group started to bond over a delicious 3 course meal followed by a selection of teas. After lunch, with the sky looking a little ominous, we headed towards our campsite. After a while, with the distant booms of thunder getting closer and the lightning strikes more and more dramatic, we stopped to put our waterproofs on just in time for the heavens to open! It poured and poured for the remainder of the day’s walking, easing off just as we arrived at the campsite…. where our tents had all been set up by the porters! We felt very spoilt and went off to have a look at some Inca ruins before a nap and then dinner – another 3 course extravaganza.

Day 2 started brilliantly as the porters surprised us by coming round to our tents with coca tea at 5:30am. As we opened the tent, our surprise turned to delight as we saw the view from our beds! What had previously been overcast and misty was now bright blue and we could see some stunning mountains down the valley. We had been warned that day 2 was a big one, and that today would see us climbing for around 6 hours to 4,200m. The uphill stretch was indeed tough, especially with the altitude making it very difficult to breathe and our backpacks seeming to pull us back down the hill! We reached the glorious mid-morning stop some distance ahead of the rest of the group (it seems that all our hiking in The U.S. paid off!) and were sporting all the layers we could find by the time the last of the group arrived, it was freezing! The porters surprised us yet again when they laid on a feast of sandwiches and popcorn with the now famous coca tea for the group. After brunch, we continued onwards and upwards to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail. I forgot about the altitude and set off much too quickly, then barely being able to put one foot in front of the other after about 15 minutes! Tom and Ronan, an Irish guy in the group, overtook me and had a little race to the top – Ronan won by about 10 meters and Tom still isn’t over it now!! They took 40 minutes to do what the guides said should take 2 hours… I struggled up 10 minutes later and we cheered the rest of the group as they gradually made it to the top. The rest of the day’s walking was almost as strenuous as the trail went incredibly steeply downhill, often down enormous steps. In anticipation of this, I had hired some poles after injuring my knee on the Colca Canyon trek – but had refused to use them for any of the uphill section! The poles were my downfall as, an hour or so into the downhill section, I went over on my ankle, put the stupid pole down in the wrong place and fell spectacularly down some steps onto my back! Luckily my bag was big enough to cushion my fall and stopped me from landing on my head, so I escaped with a bruised ego and bum, and a cut in my hand! This did not help my attitude towards the poles, and I continued to threaten to throw them off the edge of the cliff for the rest of the trek. By the time our evening meal arrived, our group had bonded and conversation soon turned from polite chatter to more immature topics!

Day 3 was to be the longest of the trek, with a 5am wake up call and 16km trek to our final campsite. This was also the most scenic day in my opinion, as we walked steeply up and down through spectacular cloud forest, with views over to snow-capped mountains. Everyone’s favourite section was just before lunch as the path meandered gently through amazing trees and vegetation with dramatic countryside barely visible through the clouds. The chef amazed us all after lunch as he produced an incredibly intricately decorated cake! He had baked and decorated it – even piped the icing – in a tent in the couple of hours before we arrived! The only disappointment was that I had to have a stewed apple instead… never mind. We arrived at Intipata, some beautiful ruins in the hillside, in the mid afternoon, to look down on stunning scenery through the valley towards Machu Picchu Mountain. We could also see our campsite from here and it really felt like the hard work had been done! We spent a lovely hour lying in the sun, admiring the view and attempting (and failing at) a human pyramid, before continuing down the hill to camp.

The final day started ridiculously early, at 3:20am, but we knew there wasn’t far to go. This was the only part of the trek which really felt “touristy” as we had to get down to the checkpoint early even though it didn’t open until 5:30am. The rain was back this morning but we were lucky to get a place in the shelter and spirits remained high, as Cesar assured us that the rain would stop at 6:30. This guy was so positive that it was impossible not to believe him, so we all crossed our fingers and hoped… around 6:30, the rain got heavier as we arrived at Sun Gate for our first view of Machu Picchu, just visible through the fog. “It’ll be sunny at Machu Picchu” Cesar said, and we believed him. An hour later we arrived at Machu Picchu… in the pouring rain. Eddie, the other guide, permanently joking and laughing, just looked at us and said “I’m sorry, chicos” and shook his head! We were soaked through but pleased to have made it and determined to get a look around this Lost City of the Incas. Our group split up with a time arranged to meet for lunch in Aguas Calientes, the nearest town. As we wandered around, the clouds lifted from time to time and the rain stopped here and there. The site really is incredible and to think about the people living there is amazing – but for me, Machu Picchu wasn’t the highlight, it was the Inca Trail itself. We saw such beautiful scenery, saw some amazing historical sites and also learnt about modern Quechuan communities, and met some brilliant people. Corny I know, but definitely the trek of a lifetime!

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