Four-Day Trek on the Inca Trail
Beginning of the Inca Trail
They’ve cut down the number of tourists allowed to trek the Inca trail each year. There are still those who do it and they probably say it was one of the most inspiring experiences they’ve had. I was prepared for it to be a hard slog, overpopulated and overrated, but my four-day trek was challenging, fascinating and just plain fun – the best thing about my time in Peru. And the part I had perhaps dreaded the most.
Travelling overland through South America, I had taken time acclimatizing to the altitude, spending a few days in cool Arequipa and traveller-central, Cusco. I wasn’t prepared for turning into a puffing and wheezing geriatric at the slightest sniff of a hill. Climbing stairs felt like walking up a down escalator – having to work twice as hard to actually get anywhere, and talking – let alone laughing – was out of the question. And this was even before we had taken our first steps on the ancient Inca road. I quailed in my squeaky new hiking boots, and wondered if I was going to make it all the way to Machu Picchu.
Fourteen of us attended the pre-departure meeting, the night before our four-in-the-morning start.
“Tomorrow will be Peruvian flat,” said Roberto. “A leetle bit down, and a leetle bit up.” He raised his hand to a forty-five degree angle. “Like thees.”
Worried looks were exchanged.
“The next day will be very up, the day after, very much down. The last day you will be walking in the dark, to get to Macchu Picchu at dawn,” Roberto continued.
The alarm went off after a few short hours. We crawled out of bed and finished our packing. Despite being limited to what we could fit in a small bag, it took the girls I was sharing with and I nearly two hours to decide what to take. That was last night. This morning we shoved whatever came to hand into the khaki army bags we were given, and headed downstairs. Eleven other bleary-eyed people met us in the foyer. It was good we’d packed our wet-weather gear. It was dark, cold and pouring.
A coach arrived and we all got on. Half an hour later, so did our guide, Jose Luis. There was definitely more sleeping to be done, and we did, until the roads got narrower and icier. We stopped for our last visit to a toilet at a tiny village, where trekkers seem to support the local economy – we were jumped on by villagers selling walking sticks, ponchos and coca leaves, which you can chew to help with altitude sickness, if you possess no tastebuds. At the start of the trail, we met our porters – fourteen of them, including Jose the Chef.
In high spirits we set off. The rain stopped and layers were removed, as the terrain went a little bit down, a little bit up. After crossing a river, we saw our first large slope stretching before us. We puffed our way up it, glad we’d invested in a 2 Sol stick. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but still fun, although as lunch time approached our muscles were starting to tighten up.
We stopped at our first ruins, which anywhere else in the world would be deserving of their own reputation and visitor centre. We spent time learning why the Incas, and us, chose to come here. Another hour and it was lunch. Tables, chairs, cutlery and plates awaited us in a tent set up for our arrival. How did the porters manage to race up ten times faster than us with all our baggage and a gas stove or two? But they did. And they prepared a three course lunch.
We carried on after lunch. The ache turned to a hurt. The Peruvian flat was getting less and less flat as the day went on. The altitude was increasing. On the plus side, the scenery was outstanding – green hills were turning more rocky, and we glimpsed snow here and there. We reached camp around four thirty. Our tents were brightly arranged in a row, the porters again having gotten there well before us. A hot dinner and a shot of rum saw us to bed almost as soon as it got dark. We were tired. The cold ground and our four season sleeping bags seemed extremely inviting.
Not quite halfway, Dead Woman’s Pass
We were woken the next day with a cup of tea in bed. Six porters stared down at us with thermos flasks. Unbelievable. We still had to go higher, to the ominous Dead Woman’s Pass. We speculated about its potentially lethal name, but it was just that it looked like a tit. The going was definitely not soft as we kept climbing to the 4,200 metre pass. Our breaths were coming in gasps. When we reached the pinnacle, it was amazing. Looking back across one valley that we’d conquered and gazing down into unchartered territory, we all felt exhilarated, if exhausted. The lure of the trail ahead kept us moving.
Now we were going down, clambering giant-sized steps as the temperature warmed. Some people thought it easier to run, but I felt old, taking one step at a time with my stick and sore knees. Lunch in the glorious sunshine was waiting at the bottom, where we all caught up before the ascent in the afternoon.
We were on the original Inca steps. They seemed to have been incredibly tall as the steps were sometimes half a metre high. We made our way back up again through the clouds as the sun got blocked by encroaching fog. Mysterious lakes appeared through the mist, then were engulfed again.
Dave, our guide Jose, Andy, me, Paul
We stopped at another ruin where the ghosts of the Incas felt almost present in the wreaths of cloud and cold stones of the fortress. The last half hour of the walk was in near darkness. The ground became more boggy, the air filled with moisture. We ended up camping in a mud bath. We didn’t care – the hardest day was behind us and we were nearly there.
Day three and now everything was hurting. My muscle rub was in serious demand. Plasters were at a premium. But we were up early and ready to go, leaving the rocky hills behind and moving slowly down another stage of the 3,000 steps through tropical foliage. We were up to speed now.
We reached our destination, Winaywayna, by lunchtime. It’s the site of an incredibly well-preserved ruin which I was thrilled with, and a camp site with bar, which I was definitely not thrilled with. Bob Marley and beers may be ideal travellers in some places, but we had all enjoyed the feeling of being away from civilization, if only for a day or two, and we weren’t ready to get back to it yet.
It was still dark, but the porters were at our tent with cups of tea. It was time to go. We took our torches and stumbled down the path to the gate, where others were waiting to embark upon the last stage of the trail. Everyone wanted to make Machu Picchu by sunrise.
The gate is only opened at five in the morning, so the path is like a crowded shopping centre on the first day of the sales, with everyone trying to push towards the front. I found myself jogging down the track, making good time up the enormous steps and stripping off jumpers and hat as I got hotter and hotter. We paused for a moment at the Sun Gate for our first glimpse of the promised destination – but it was cloudy. We couldn’t see a thing.
Although most people wait for sunrise, it seemed obvious we weren’t going to get any sun that day. So a few of us took off, this time running down the steep and treacherous path in the lifting gloom of the morning, to be the first at Machu Picchu. We were laughing with excitement. We wouldn’t stop for anything, racing over rocks and down steps and around the corner and – there it was – misty, mysterious and magnificent.
People gathered as the light got stronger. Everyone waited silently, gazing down at the nearly empty ruins, staring at the point where the sun would rise over the mountains. Most were in quiet awe of the surroundings, but not all were celebrating in the traditional way. One American stripped naked and asked us to take a snapshot of him in front of the site. Others were tearful with the tiredness a four-day trek. All those who had finished the Inca Trail that day were glad they hadn’t taken the train and had experienced the path to Machu Picchu in the original, ancient way.