Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

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May 29th 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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Wow! What an incredible last 4 days!

It´s going to be hard to do the trek justice with words so I´ve uploaded loads of photos. The trek started with an early 5am start. I found myself sitting on the coach taking us to the trail next to Adam, a 33-year-old guy from Tuscon, Arizona (I´ve been there which helped break the ice!) who it transpired was to be my tent mate for the next 3 nights. An interesting character - studying literature indefinitely at Universtiy of Arizona, and a Shakespeare fanatic. That first night in the tent we had an interesting reenactment of a scene from King Lear with a memorable line about ´barbermongers´! Well anyway back to the story of the trek...

Day 1 was an easy going affair with plenty of chance to get to know the rest of the group - 15 in total, australians, brits and americans, plus Bobby and Gladys our guides and about 20 porters and a chef! It turned out that the majority of people had hired their own personal porters - more were to follow on that front when confronted with Day 2. That night we had our first taste of the amazing food that our chef seemed to rustle up out of nowhere. Every meal was three courses at least, the main consisting of about 5 different dishes ranging from spaghetti pie (!), trout, ceviche, stuffed potatoes to lasagna and pizza! And not forgetting the birthday cake on the 3rd night (more on that later).

So Day 2, an early start and then straight up a 1200m climb to Dead Woman´s Pass (so-called on account of a very tenuous outline of a woman in the rock at the top, nothing to do with female trekkers dying en route, though I swear we almost lost a couple from our group!). Well I´m not quite sure where I got the energy from, but i found myself literally racing up the pass in just over an hour. I think a few of the porters were vaguely impressed too as I overtook them with my full backpack on. It was only later that I tried one of their backpacks on, and found it was approximately 3 times as heavy (overpoweringly smelly too) - so hats off to them! Well, the one downside of racing up is that it gets pretty cold at 4200m waiting about an hour and half for the rest of the group to reassemble. But hats off again, as everyone made it! Despite, age, and lack of altitude acclimatisation affecting a few (poor Adam was really suffering at this point, despite being incredibly fit - he´d been running rings around me at lower altitude).

The way down from the pass was steep and dramatic. That didn´t stop Adam and I running down the 1000 odd steps in some style, Adam (thanks to a lighter rucksack) skipping, clicking heels, and pirouetting in delight (at the fact the uphill stretch was over)! We we´re down to that nights camp in no time at all - in fact before 12:30 - and went for a quick dip in the river (inspired by our friend Robin´s antics the previous night). Very refreshing, i.e. extremely cold! After that we had lunch, tea-time (over lots more tall tales from Bobby!) and dinner to look forward to interspersed with mountain-gazing and siesta time. It was during this time that we learned of the first casualty of the trek. Poor Christie from the US had twisted her ankle near the top of the descent and had had to hobble down the last 700 odd steps. Still it didn´t stop her enjoying the next 2 days hiking, albeit at a slightly slower pace, and doped up with Ibuprofen. That night more good food and another early night. After all there´s not a lot to do once the sun goes down stuck out in the middle of nowhere. This night was the coldest of the hike - really must buy myself a decent sleeping bag!

We´d been told that Day 3 was the most impressive scenery-wise, and certainly it was. Also it was my 33rd birthday, but glad to say the legs were still up to the task! The day start with a brisk hike up 400m to the second pass via a small Inca watchtower. The view from the top of the pass was stupendous. Then downwards to an incredible Inca site perched on the mountainside via the original Inca trails. It was here that Bobby told us all about Inca stonework techniques, water provision to the site via hidden aquaducts (so they wouldn´t get poisoned between source and site by their enemies), funeral rituals, marriage competitions, etc... All very interesing, though a few of us were wilting in the early afternoon heat. So the hike continued. The next pass was a breeze, through fairly tropical forests full of strange flowers and plants and then breaking out for spectacular views of Salkantay (i think that´s name), the second highest mountain in the region at about 6200m. (Unfortunately to get the perfect photo, I strolled dangerously close to ´el baño from hell´. It seemed that other people on a different mission had also stopped short of the toilet - alas in my rush to get that perfect photo I neglected to look where i was treading. While we´re on the subject of toilets it´s my advice to would be trekkers to get to the toilets before the porters! morning trips in the dark are not advised as one never knows what will be lurking around the bowl.) Burning some time before lunch, Adam and I stumbled across a long bright green snake, apparently a nasty one. Alas we didn´t get the photo to prove it,, but it was this long <--------------------------------------------> honest! That was the only major wildlife spot for me of the trip (excluding a couple of lizards at Machu Picchu), though a couple of others saw deers and we´d been told that spectacled bears are occasionally spotted (though usually in the driest season). Lunch again was amazing, with a starter of mini-pizzas. Would hate to be the porter that had to carry the pizza oven!

The descent down from the 3rd pass was the biggie. From 3900m to about 2500m and all 2000 odd steps. Well this time Bobby the guide took up the challenge we´d laid down to him, and ran too. We sprinted off down the mountainside, with occasional glimpses of some huge Inca era terraces below close to the campsite. Halfway down we took a break and were amazed to see Ana (from Tasmania), Bridget (US) and Max (UK) arrive within a couple of minutes. It seemed that finally they´d learnt my message that running is the easiest way down. More tiring on the breathing maybe, but a lot easier on the legs and knees! Armed with a Clif bar, a gift from Adam, we set off again, through the terraces which had looked so small from up above but were in fact enormous. The campsite that night was a biggie, complete with bar and hot showers. Thanks to Adam for buying me a birthday shower (8 soles including towel rental) and Richard (english lad, carrying the biggest pack by far - can´t believe he made it all the way!) for the birthday beer! That evening was the best meal yet! And then a surprise the chef had rustled up a birthday cake for me! Tasty it was too. Peruvian tradition dictates that the receiver of the cake must take the first mouthful using his mouth only, Peruvian sense of humour dictates that whilst doing so birthday boy will have his head pushed well and truly into the cake (Max got a photo which i´ll post when he gets it too me). It took a while to get all the icing out of my nose and goatee. Nice cake though! And followed by half a cup of mulled wine! After that came the porter tipping. Well this was a surpisingly painless experience since everyone was happy to agree on the same amount. The porters seemed very happy after this. In fact there appeared to be a bit of a party going on in the porter tent that night!

At the same time the rain started and it got heavy enough that tents were straining, and a-dripping inside. Suddenly we were all a bit subdued: would the bad weather continue till the last day and obscure Machu Picchu completely. Well it turned out the rain ended after a couple of hours, and in the dark of a 4am start the skies seemed clear. We trooped down to the checkpoint at the start of the final days walk to Machu Picchu via the Sun gate. The start gate didn´t open until 5.30am so we hung around in a queue of trekkers waiting. After the gate finally opened we marched on in single file behind a group of slightly aged germans. Finally there was enough room to squeeze by and I picked up the pace in a bid to be first to the Sun Gate. Well despite the fact I´d been about 40 people back in the queue I almost made it. Getting by happy trudgers on the trail with my backpack was a bit tricky (in fact one particularly miffed and slow woman shouted some abuse at me as i waltzed past her). In the end I was 10 seconds behind the first couple of people to arrive. As I topped the pass and through the Sun Gate I was greeted by a huge wall of clouds! Oh dear. After a couple of minutes the cloud dropped slightly and I was able to make out a few distant peaks above the cloud sea, but no Machu Picchu. Were we to be scuppered?

Gradually people from numerous groups started filing through the gate, all looking a bit dejected. Our guide suggested it wasn´t going to clear up any time soon, so we´d be better to head down into the clouds to Machu Picchu below. As we hit the top edge of the ancient city, suddenly the clouds parted and we were greeted with an amazing cloud draped view of the city and Huayna Picchu the famous peak behind. It didn´t disappoint after all. In fact Bobby later confessed that if it rains the previous night, the city is always in clouds the next morning - he´d known all along that we wouldn´t see anything from the Sun Gate. By 10am we were well into our guided tour of the city and the low clouds had pretty much disappeared. We learned about the sun temple, the intricate mortarless stonework there, the rediscovery of the site by the university lecturer, Bingham (Yale Uni is still accused of stealing the treasures from the site), and also about the life in the city (only approx 521 inhabitants) and the possible reasons for it´s abandonment. Well all that time i´d been itching to get up the final challenge, Huayna Picchu. 400m or more vertical straight up, overlooking the site. It seemed like our group comprised mainly of walking wounded, but 4 of us made the hike of near vertical steps carved into the mountainside. At the top we chilled out for an hour or more on the boulders, amused by the antics of a naked Israeli, before skipping down again, crossing back through Machu Picchu, now overwhelmed with daytrippers, and down via bus to the town of Agua Calientes below. There the group reassembled in a restaurant. After food we spent a couple of relaxing hours on the boulders in the very wild river passing the town, gazing up at the high mountains towering above us. The train back to Cusco seemed to trundle along (I swear I saw a cyclist overtaking us). 4 hours later we finally arrived back in Cusco, via some amazing (for railway enthusiast only) hairpins and switchbacks in the track.

What a trip!

Additional photos below
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10th June 2007

awesome pics
how were the locals?

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