Where to begin with our time on the Inca Trail!? It was one of the toughest yet most rewarding experiences of our trip, and probably of our lives. The trail is around 52 km long but the main challenge is the altitude which reaches a high of 4200m. This means the air is very thin and any sort of exertion is quickly exhausting, combine this with the steep climbs and it’s like being permanently winded. We were fortunate in that we didn’t suffer from any sort of additional altitude sickness, probably as we had become acclimatised over the previous few weeks.
The first day of the trail didn’t involve any walking, we left Cusco early in the morning and first visited a weaving cooperative where they kept their own llamas and alpacas. They showed us the traditional methods that they still use to dye and weave the cloth. Of course there was also the obligatory exit through the gift shop – with the cold nights ahead in mind we bought ourselves a couple of pairs of socks ! A quick visit to a remote restaurant in the Sacred Valley for a traditional Peruvian meal, followed by visits to a couple of Inca ruins and we ended up in the small town of Ollytaytambo.
The following day we were up early and taken to the start of the walk, we met our porters and collected our equipment. Then it was on to the first checkpoint, as well as ensuring that we had passes (they limit the number of people on the trail) the backpacks that the porters carried were weighed to check that none were carrying more than 25kg. If you consider that this is heavier than the suitcase you take on holiday and that they run with these on their backs along the trail you get an idea of the incredible job they do. Day 1 of the actual walking was described as a ‘training day’ to help prepare us for what was ahead however it also contained the steepest section of the entire walk. It only lasted for about 200m but it was a killer! I think it’s fair to say that by the end of the first day we were wondering what we had let ourselves in for and questioning if we would last the course.
Day 2 started at 5am and is generally regarded as the hardest day because it involves the climb to the highest point, the ominously named ‘Dead woman’s pass’. By now it had become clear that within our group of 12 we were going to be the slowest. Although the guide had continually emphasised the fact that we should stay together this never happened. For the duration of the walk we were generally alone, there was always a guide behind us somewhere and towards the end he spent more time with us but we never walked more than the first few metres with the rest of the group before they left us behind. On the previous group tour we did the social side had been a big part of the experience so we felt that we missed out on this aspect of the tour. The people were nice enough when we got in to camp but we basically did the walk on our own. Day 2 would have been perhaps slightly more easy with encouragement from others but we basically had to motivate ourselves on the seemingly endless upward climbs. There were some spectacular views on the way up but when we reached the top the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped. It began to rain. This did not dampen our sense of achievement, we had conquered the highest point and dealt with everything that had been thrown at us.
The descent was almost as hard as the climb, the concentration required to ensure you negotiate the large stone steps was exhausting. We stopped frequently often to just enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. We came across a chinchilla sitting on a rock, apparently they are very seldom seen so our policy of slow and steady paid dividends. It was quite rewarding walking in to camp and discussing all the various animals and plants we had observed when the rest of the group had been so intent on getting to camp quickly that they didn’t see anything.
Up till this point the facilities had been generally okay but from this camp onwards they deteriorated badly. I won’t go into details but they were by far the worst we have experienced on our travels. Combined with the small damp tents it certainly didn’t encourage you to spend too much time in camp.
Day 3 was very long, up at 5 and about a 16km walk in the pouring rain, finishing about 4pm. The rain did let off a bit in the afternoon but by then you were soaked through. Also walking on the wet stone was very dangerous particularly with some of the drops at the side of us. We had a bit of revenge on our group, although not deliberately, we got in for lunch about 30 mins behind schedule but because they had raced ahead and not stopped at the earlier breakpoint they had been waiting for nearly two hours. The porters insisted on waiting for us before serving lunch which included pizza and cake both cooked on the mountain!
Day 4 we were up at 3!! This is to allow the porters to pack up and catch the only train back for them at 6. However for us it meant sitting in the cold and dark at the final checkpoint for nearly 2 hours. Once it opened there was a couple of hours walk, which included the ‘monkey steps’ or as they are otherwise known the ‘Gringo killers!’ These are a set of small steep steps that basically you have to crawl up. By this point the end is very close and the adrenaline is carrying you along. Finally we reached the sun gate which overlooks Machu Pichu. When we arrived the cloud covered the valley but as we moved forward into the gate the clouds parted and the sun shone through revealing the Inca ruins in all their glory just for us!
I won’t attempt to describe Machu Pichu as it is something you experience rather than just observe. The size is surprising but it is the location that makes it particularly special.
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I think with time it will feel like the achievement it was. At the moment we are still too close to it and amongst other things the disgusting toilets, rain and physical pain are what dominate our thoughts.