Well, what can I say. One of the most amazing experiences of my life to date. The whole thing is one big challenge but a very rewarding one. I’m not even talking about Machu Picchu, I’m talking about the Inca Trail here. Stunning scenery, great group of people and mysterious historic place at the end (now I’m talking about Machu Picchu!).
So we started off in Cusco and made our way through the Scared Valley to our start point. We met the group we would be walking with for the next 4 days and got the first of many group photos. It always helps when you have a great guide too, and Paul was just that. He was funny, knowledgable and kept us entertained the whole way round.
We began to walk and got to the first checkpoint where we got an exclusive Inca Trail stamp in our passports. After the quick stop we started to walk for real and the first section to camp for the night was on Inca flats. What I mean by ‘Inca flat’ is that its not extremely up or down, but it’s not exactly flat. It’s what I would consider a normal hike.
The scenery was stunning walking though the valley next to the river and we were on our easiest day so took it all in. We saw our first ruins site and had a history lesson about how they built them to match the exact meanders of the river. There were also some farming sites up on the sides of the mountains that looked near to impossible to reach but we were assured they used them each and every day.
We stopped many times along the way to see various things including a bug that feeds on cactus that was used to dye fabrics. It’s completely natural and if you mix the naturally purple colour with different things, like a lime for example, it changes the properties to make a whole array of natural colours.
By the time we reached camp on each and every day the tents were already set up by our porters and the dinner was well under way for us to enjoy great food together. We played a Peruvian version of Wink Murder in our own little ’tea party’ before dinner which was entertaining to say the least. The food was unreal and how they managed to carry all of the different things we eat for 16 trekkers, 2 guides and 16 porters for 4 days I will never know!
Well, not quite ‘hunting’ but we did go off into the darkness on the first night to see if we could find some tarantulas. We were not disappointed and saw many hunting in the cracks of the walls lining one of the paths.
We coxed a couple of huge ones out using a long piece of dry grass which was great. Only the 2nd time I have seen them in the wild.
Back on the Trail
Day 2 was billed as the toughest and most challenging. We were up at 4:50AM and had breakfast for a 6AM start. Day 2 was 80% uphill and 20% down. Now, when I mean up or down, I mean that in the sense that its either between 30 and 45 degrees or steps. It was gruelling in parts but a good challenge to get up to Dead Woman’s Pass.
After setting off from our second stop I felt my bowls screaming at me for the dreaded number 2. There was no way on this earth I was walking back down 10 minutes to the toilet to have to walk all the way back up the steep gradient again. So I left a piece of Incan history of my own just off the trail behind a bush. It wasn’t the last time nature called at the wrong time either.
We walked for a total of 5 hours up to the top of the pass which was by far the hardest part on the heart and lungs. We walked from an altitude of 3000 meters above sea level to 4200 meters in those 5 hours. I say 5, it was more like 3 to 4 as we were with a pretty quick and fit group. We still took the time to take in the scenery as we had changed eco systems and were walking though cloud forests.
The next part was a 2 hour down section which was almost exclusively stone steps. This is where it stopped being a challenge for the heart and lungs and became a challenge for the ankles and knees. Most took it fairly slow in this section and I even saw a few people fall flat on their arse as some of the rocks were slippery.
We got to the second camp and all anyone wanted to do was sleep. It was 3PM by now and after 6 hours of walking almost constantly without any lunch it was time for me to sink a well deserved beer. We ate lunch, chilled out and before long we sat down for dinner. By this time all everyone wanted to do was sleep and we had had our first few run ins with altitude sickness. At least 3 people had felt pretty bad the worst of which one person passing out and being caught (luckily) by a porter and then a guy feeling so bad with fever type symptoms and throwing up most of what he ate that day for a few hours! Altitude sickness is not to be taken lightly!
By far the most interesting day in terms of history, ruins and the actual trail we were walking on. We saw many ruins with lots of different little details that make you sit and scratch your head thinking either how the hell they did something or why the hell they did it. Either way we were all stuck with our jaws open most of the day from their genius.
For example they built a building as basically their calendar. On the longest day of the year around June 22nd (I think?!) the light would beam in to the very end of the building through a gap in the mountains. Then exactly 6 months later on the shortest day around December 21st (?!) the light would beam in at the exact opposite end creating a 180 degrees shape where they could tell the season instantly.
This kind of thing went on most of the day and it was made even better by the fact we were now on 100% original Inca Trail that was more like a wall attached to the side of an Andean mountain. Crazy to think that the trail/wall is 500 or so years old and its still in pristine condition!
The Porter Challenge
So after lunch on the 3rd day we were all asked if we wanted to take the porter challenge. 3 of us decided we wanted to do it so were told the rules. We had to swap our bags for theirs and walk on ‘Inca flat’ for 10 minutes and we would win a free Pisco Sour (the national drink) at the next camp. My bag weighed in at a measly 6KG, Eduardo’s bag weighed in at almost 35KG. Oh and the Inca flat was a load of bullshit, it was all up after a small flat from camp!
To start with it was easy enough, but once you started to go up the steps you can feel your heart pumping and your lungs struggling to take in oxygen due to the altitude and the added strain of 35KG on your back! We all managed to complete the full 10 minutes but were relieved to get our own bags back which at this point felt like feathers.
I have a massive respect for all of those porters who carried our camping gear and 4 days worth of food for us all. They not only carry it all, but they are so fast with it. They walk faster than anyone on the trail and even run down the steps, there was some huge downhill sections too but they didn’t let up at all. Amazing to see how their bodies are adapted to the environment they have lived in most, if not all, their lives.
On the rest of the day it was pretty much all downhill. 3 hours or so of tricky downhill section but the views of the valley and the Urubamba River below were just out of this world. I was ahead of everyone and had the whole of the Inca Trail to myself for 30 minutes at a time without seeing a single person. I stopped to take in the views at a lookout for 10 or 15 minutes and didn’t want to leave. Stunning.
We got to our final camp after an exhausting 12 hour day of walking and exploring ruins. It was totally worth it though. Another great dinner and a briefing of what to expect on the final day.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
So we were up at 3:30AM to get in the queue for the checkpoint. No one is allowed to pass the checkpoint before 5:30AM but competition is fierce so you have to claim a spot early. We were 2nd in line so sat around trying to rest up while we waited for 2 hours.
It was a 2 hour hike on Inca flats again but we knew the pace had to be quick to get to the Sun Gate for sunrise. We made it to the Sun Gate after a tricky 20 meter up section that was the hardest on the trail yet, it was almost vertical with huge stones as the steps. We got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the clouds but no one cared, we had made it to the sacred ground. One couple, who had struggled a little whilst on the trail, got to the Sun Gate about 10 minutes after most and burst into tears at the top. We all got a little emotional.
After trying to watch the sunrise but failing due to the clouds we made our way towards Machu Picchu down the final part of the Inca Trail. Once we arrived we got some photos and everyone felt we had accomplished something special, together. Then it started to hammer it down, the first time in 4 days we had had even a glimpse of rain and it was on the day we wanted it to be clear.
We got a guided tour around the magical city and the clouds that kept coming over the ruins only added to the mystery of the place. Such an amazing place filled with history and what ifs.
To be perfectly honest I preferred walking the trail to the final product but maybe it was due to the really bad weather we had. The trail is just unreal and you really get a sense of achievement at the end as, believe me, its tough in parts. Really tough.
A big thanks to everyone involved in the whole trail, the group we had made it even better than it would of been if I’d of walked on my own for 4 days. We made it together through the horrid farts wafting down the trail (Craig!) and the horrible uphill sections. I like to think we spurred each other on to reach the end. So thanks to Brogan, Craig, Beth, Rion, Chris, Sandy, Nicole, Suzanne, Mats, Alejandro, Hector, Deb, Daryl, Alejandra and Omar. You can’t miss out the guides too, Paul and Marco.
An amazing experience that I would start again tomorrow given the chance. Pity theres a 5 month waiting list.
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