After weeks of anticipation, it’s almost upon us. The night before we stay in Ollantaytambo, the small rustic town that is the gateway to the trail. Residents here live in originate Incan houses overlooked by the ruins of the palace that if you squint enough, represents a llama. There is a nervous buzz about the place as hikers buy their last minute camera batteries and local women hawk various alpaca wool garments. We have a final hot chocolate and cake with the girls, calming their nerves.
At 7am we meet our guides Bruno and Anthony (aka ‘Chicken’, due to his spindly legs) and porters. There are seven in our group: Stef, Ivy, Bec and I are joined by Aussies Andrew and Trish and Caitlin from Philadelphia. We all click later over the relentless steps and by swapping travel stories. Our team from Peak consists of 11 porters, the chef and a sous chef who between them carry our duffle bags, all the camping equipment and food for the next 4 days. In recent years to stop companies abusing porters the authorities have imposed a strict 20kg limit per porter that is monitored at various checkpoints along the route.
Reputable companies (including ours!) supply their teams with good shoes, uniforms, sleeping bags, back supports and decent duffle bags. Sadly we over the next few days we would see some porters carrying their cargo by means of plastic sheeting and rope tied around their bodies. We were glad to learn that Intrepid pay above the minimum wage and provide a lot of opportunities to the team, who are mostly farmers when not working as porters. Good stuff.
After a rigorous check of permits and passports we set off in high spirits in blazing sunshine. The first day is “Inca Flat” – hilly – following the river and to Stef’s excitement, the train!
We arrived at our lunch spot to rounds of applause and were fed the first of many delicious meals. The food on the trek was fantastic, in fact some of the best food we’d had in Peru.
After lunch we spyed our first Inca ruins, Llactapata a town that was built as resting place for those on their way from Cusco. The Incans would cover 20km per day and so resting places were built at points along the route. This one was burnt down by the last Incan Emperor to discourage the Spanish from perusing the trail.
14km finished, we arrived at our camp site at 3300m to more applause and just in time for “happy hour”, the porters having ran ahead to set up tents and prepare us popcorn and hot chocolate!
The second day is known as the hardest, longest and where a lot of people break. Even though we only cover 15km, we go to the highest altitude of the trail and cross two mountain passes.
After a night of heavy rain we were woken with cups of coca tea in our tents at 5.45am, and presented with a 3 course carb-tastic breakfast and bananas to take with us.
Setting off we started climbing the many many uneven steps through the cloud forest and up to Warmiwanusca or ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. All of the Inca Trail is paved with rocks and about 80% of it is steps of varying heights and steepness. Stef, Ivy and I raced ahead and despite the altitude we smashed it…. Reaching the pass in 2.5 hours instead of the expected 4. At the top there were just a few porters resting and we were ecstatic with the view and sense of accomplishment. This soon subsided as waiting for the others we realised how bloody cold it is on top of a 4200m mountain and that there was a long long way to go yet…
A huge downhill section that killed the knees, lunch in the Pacaymayo Valley at 3650m and then up the “gringo killer” steps to the second pass at 4000m. Shouts of “Porter!” saw us lurch to the side of the path to let various porters sprint past us making it all look too easy, their feet barely touching the ground.
Descending via the ruins of Sayacmarca we stumbled into camp for happy hour while the sun set over the mountains.
After dinner we toasted the hardest day with a bottle of Pisco Bec had snuck in her bag and shared with the whole team. Before crawling into our tents we were awestruck by the night sky, the clear air at 3620m meaning the Milky Way was visible and the more we looked the more shooting stars we spied. Bruno pointed out less familiar constellations including the Llama constellation (of course!).
Everyone was in high spirits on the third day. The going was fairly easy, the spectre of Day 2 was no longer hanging over us and we were due to finish early afternoon.
In fact, navigating around llamas was the hardest part of today’s hike!
Five minutes from camp were the most impressive ruins so far, Wiñay Wayna. We arrived just after rainfall to see them emerging from the mist, clouds still hovering in the valley below, and gave us a taster of what the following day would be like.
Once upon a time this campsite had a restaurant, bar and hot showers. Shut down for safety reasons, nowadays the crumbling building houses a make-shift gym for the porters – as if they don’t get enough exercise! For those brave enough there are showers fed by mountain-fresh icy water. We elected to stay smelly.
Our chef surpassed himself this evening and somehow baked us a cake on the single gas hob on the side of the mountain, decorated with ‘congratulations’ and mini icing mountains and rivers! We passed round a bottle of rum (thanks to Bec again) and had heartwarming “thank you”s from the porters who explained how our tourism helped their families and implored us to tell others about our experience. Tired and emotional, a few tears were shed before crawling into our tents one final time.
Up at 3.30am, so we could leave by 4.30, so the porters could pack up and race down the mountain to catch their 5.30 train. No coca tea for us this morning!
We stood singing (to others’ annoyance) in line at the checkpoint waiting for the sun to come up. Once through, on a surge of adrenaline we powered up the narrow path cut into the mountain side heading to the Sun Gate. Along the way yellow plastic taping indicated where many a hiker had fallen to their death in their eagerness to rush for the view.
Climbing the vertical “Oh My God” steps we were rewarded with our first view of Machu Picchu. Beautifully clear with the first sun of the day illuminating the valley below, it was a magical sight that reduced more than one person to tears. This was our reward, that tick on our list and an indescribable feeling. We’d made it!
It was only 7am but as we wound our way down to the site, the first day trippers were headed past us on their way up to the sun gate. As we wound our way down, more and more tourists started to spread over the ruins below. Add to that more than one gobby tour guide who seemed intent on utilising the natural amphitheatre acoustics of Machu Picchu… to be honest it was slightly overwhelming after the peace of the previous three days.
Following an insightful tour from Bruno and Chicken and an incredibly overpriced hot chocolate we took a few hours to marvel at the size of the citadel and the seemingly impossible location. The surrounding mountains are very steep and covered in rainforest, not your ideal requirements when looking for somewhere to build. Furthermore, only 60% of Machu Picchu is uncovered – the rest still swallowed in the jungle. From the valley below, the site is still completely invisible – a true hidden gem.
The Inca Trail was one of the “big hits” for this trip and surpassed our expectations. Astounding, exhilarating and incredibly rewarding, this buzz is going to stick around for a while.
Next stop –> Lake Titicaca
Error 100: Your album id doesn't appear to be accessible.