Porters take a rest after climbing to Dead Woman's Pass on Day Two of the historic Inca Trail.
Of course, the reason I was in Cusco was to hike the legendary Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Even having booked the trail nearly 9 months in advance, I'd still felt the pressure to time my arrival from Bolivia. Although, a central date in my trip has kept me focused as I've walked, bussed, boated and flown my way around this continent over the last 6 months.
To get this out of the way, here's a budget tip for people looking at options for booking the Inca Trail: I went with G Adventures, a premium international tour provider. It was easy to book through my travel agent at the same time as I made other arrangements and was also a pricey option – just over $1000AUD. There are reliable, Peru-based, online companies offering budget options. My recommendation would be to contact the tour company Llama Path if you are looking to save on a little bit of comfort and a lot of dollars. You will still need to organise peak-season permits up to six months in advance.
Ancient agricultural terracing in Pisac.
Having taken the premium option, my tour started in a comfortable 3-star hotel in downtown Cusco. After throwing my bag on the double bed and exploring the wardrobe for a wondorous ten minutes of imagine if I had clothes to hang in there, I joined my new group in the swanky conference room. Fourteen of us crammed around a six-person dining table to be briefed in honey-smooth English by our guide, Fernando. He explained that our six day tour would lead us from the Sacred Valley, along the Inca Trail itself and finishing by hiking over the Sun-gate into the ruins on the morning Day 6. 'Tomorrow', he said sternly, 'we are leaving at 7:30am, don't be late!'.
Naturally, the following morning I pryed my eyelids apart to the sound of urgent Spanish and, to my horror, realised it was 8:00am. Here's some pre-Inca Trail tips for those of you who are as easily led astray as me:
- The night before a 6-day tour, don't listen to the people who tell you that 'having a few drinks tonight is a great idea!'
- If you have to wake up at 6:30am, don't spend the prior evening hugging 1.1L cervezas and try to be home before 6:00am.
Having followed neither of the above pieces of advice, I stumbled onto the minibus almost an hour late. Through bleary eyes, and what must have been a devastatingly handsome grin, I noticed that the only remaining free seat was next to a girl who was looking back at me with the absolute opposite facial expression. I sat down, introduced myself, made a stunning first impression and promptly fell asleep on her shoulder.
Llama spooning. No further information required.
Two hours later, we rolled into dusty Pisac, the first stop on our tour of the Sacred Valley. The valley was a rich agricultural region for the Incas and is still an important source of food for the people in Cusco. I'd love to tell you all sorts of amazing cultural facts but you'll have to read them here. The most cultural thing that I managed to do was spend some time spooning a llama, clearly thinking that this would be the number one way to win over my new group. There was also some discussion between me and some local women about the prospect of marriage between me and a village girl. Before long, I was safely ensconced back on the shoulder of the girl I now knew to be Carly. Thankfully, my behaviour (and physical state) did improve during the day and I was able to appreciate our post-lunch stop in the town where we would be sleeping, Ollantaytambo. Our first glimpse at examples of Incan agricultural engineering did not disappoint, with the evidence of ancient terraces, homes and buildings an immense presence over the humble modern town which also provided our stay for the night. There would be no late excuses the following day, as we had a short early morning bus ride to the entry checkpoint and the start of the trail itself.
Our group, 1 Aussie, 2 Irish and ... 11 Poms! At the start of the Camino Inka.
The 44km, four day hike is a challenge in some parts but by no means impossible for those who set their own pace along the trail and enjoy the sights. As with many things, it is more about the attitude that you approach these things with. I was beginning to realise that I was with a brilliant, positive group of people and had a feeling that the next four days would turn out to be incredible. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed.
Marveling at the porters sprinting uphill ahead of us, each carrying cooking supplies, tents, our gear and their own (thus carrying up to 25kg in weight, each!), we set off on the first day of the trail. A steady 5-6 hours walking over 11km gave us more than enough time to stop at various ruins and eat the first of our daily 3-course meals – prepared by our 18-strong team of porters in time for us to walk in to camp. Meal times, strangely, were one of my favourite parts of the entire experience. Aside from the incredible food, it was a time when we got to know each other best and share jokes and laughs across the table. One other piece of excitement that day one of the trek brought was when a cheeky mountaineer from England, Richie, convinced me to stand on an almost impossible-to-reach rock in the middle of some raging rapids so he could 'take a brilliant photo!'. I needed the assistance of three fully grown men to get safely back to dry land and my right foot was wet for the rest of the trek.
Richie, Stu & Tom grin across the breakfast table on a cold Inca Trail morning.
Day two of the trail passed over the trek's highest point and also separated the men from the boys. Tom, half of a Pommy duo, 'Tom and Stu', ran out of camp like a man possessed, setting the bar for the rest of us. By the time the rest of our group trickled into camp he was just rising from his two hour nap. The long steep path to Warmiwañusca, or 'Dead Woman’s Pass', is 4198 m (13769 ft) above sea level and requires a couple of hours climbing followed by another three hours carefully moving downhill. I made my way down the hill with Stuart, and we pretty much managed to solve all of the world's problems during our intense conversation which spanned everything from World War 3 to mass migration. Thankfully, we made it to camp pretty early in the afternoon and had the rest of the day to relax and wait for the next meal. That evening, the game of 'Spoons' took off (albeit with tea bags) and kept the whole group entertained until nightfall. It was also around this time that we noticed our other guide, Elias, existed and we realised he was a champion. Look out for his bare chest and gaping grin in the photos after this post.
The next day was an early start. Due to some unforeseen group sizing (and mainly just me being an unattractive tent companion) three of the girls had decided to sleep in one tent, meaning that I had suffered through the coldest night alone in my tent. The porters delivered our hot coca tea and warm water to our tent doors (premium tour, remember!) and we stumbled into breakfast. I was thrilled to learn that Richard's girlfriend, Claire, had had a dirty dream about me the night before. Good morning! The final full day of trekking before reaching Machu Picchu itself took us over one more high pass before descending into the Cloud Forest, a beautiful three hours of lush green vegetation, a causeway and a stone tunnel. The afternoon ended with the ruins at Phuyupatamarca, ('Town Above the Clouds') and Wiñay Wayna ('Forever Young') ruins, the latter a stunning terraced hillside site, with panoramic views of the valley below and just a short hike from Machu Picchu the following morning. We thanked our porters that evening at the last supper and they taught me some dirty Quechuan words.
The day had finally arrived for us to wake up at 4am and queue for an hour in the freezing cold, wet and dark to hike for two hours to the Sun Gate which gives Inca Trail hikers their first glimpse of the ancient rediscovered ruins. Thrilled, I briefly entertained the crowd with my stand-up comedy routine (one of which I do not possess) before they finally opened the floodgates. Our group set a steady pace throughout the morning as the sun slowly peeked over the postcard-perfect mountains and, breathless, we climbed the final stairs to the Sun Gate and marvelled together at the sight of Machu Picchu before our eyes, deep in the lower pa of the valley. Some high fives, tears and one awkward wedding proposal later we were hurrying down the hillside to visit the ruins themselves.
The postcard picture!
For me to describe them up close here would be very difficult, if not impossible. What did they look like? Well, like all of the pictures I have ever seen of them. What did it feel like to be there? I guess you'll have to make the trip yourself and find out (which, by the way, I totally recommend). Ultimately though, the trip wouldn't have been the same without the people that I did it with and it is them that I would like to thank for such a wonderful experience. Yet again, 'travel' has proved itself to be not just what I'm doing or seeing, but who I am doing and seeing it with. Enjoy the photos of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Lost City of the Incas.
Compulsory llamas at the Pisac market (not the one I spooned).
I believe this to be a Robin.
The view from my lonely tent after steep Day 2.
Our group posing with the porters, Day 2.
Katie, another Pom, on top of some mountains.
Day 3, views of snow-capped mountains.
Ruins on Day 3, passing through the Cloud Forest:
The finest trekking cuisine I've ever seen…
The final views before we descended into the valley for camp on Day 3:
Part of our group poses above the valley.
Tom bravely stands his ground to photograph a stampeding llama...
Machu Picchu (before my camera died):
Oh, and Elias:
Elias in his comfort zone, putting everyone else out of theirs...