These Incas will be the ruin of us
Jul 10, 2003
Forty two pictures - ARE YOU KIDDING?
Day 1 - The Warm Up
It was with more than slight apprehension that we were collected from the hostel at 7.30am last Tuesday. After hearing so many different things about the Inca Trail, we had no idea what to expect or how difficult it was going to be. Basically you walk about 42km over four days which, in itself, isn't a huge distance. The difficulty comes in the fact that a lot of the trekking is uphill and at very high altitude. Having never attempted anything more than a Sunday stroll around Greenwich Park before this trip, we were a little scared. We hoped that our walks in Lencois might have given our legs some small hint of things to come, but as we were still wheezing our way up the hill to the hostel every night, it seemed unlikely.
All the tours leave from the same square and it was packed with porters and guides, rounding up their startled charges and ushering them onto the appropriate bus. Just in case we'd forgotten we were tourists for a nano-second, a man dressed in far too much ethnic clothing and armed with a guitar, boarded the bus and proceeded to massacre a couple of songs. He had obviously gambled on the fact that we were all feeling a bit vulnerable, as he had absolutely no musical skills. Luckily his repertoire was limited to two identical-sounding 'songs' and we gladly paid him to leave after that. We had a three-hour journey to the starting point and we drove through the most stunning countryside on the way. If you can imagine a cross between 'The Sound of Music' and 'The Magnificent Seven' (the landscapes of course, not the actual films - that would be truly awful), then you'll have some idea. Cacti-strewn farms were framed by massive snow-capped mountains that stretched for mile s into the distance.
When we arrived at KM 88 (the extremely evocative and romantic name for the start of the trail) the porters prepared lunch. We were all quite anxious to get going at this point, so a sandwich or something would have been fine, but no, out came the collapsible tables, tablecloths, chairs, cutlery and plates and a two-course meal was served. There were 14 in our group and we had 10 porters, a cook and two guides. The porters basically carry everything except your personal luggage, so all the tents, food, cooking equipment etc. Up until just a couple of years ago they carried about 40kg each (more than the combined weight of our rucksacks and day bags), but they are now only allowed to carry a maximum of 20kg and their packs are weighed at various points to make sure this is enforced.
Knowing we had to carry our own stuff, plus sleeping bags and mats, we only brought the bare essentials. However, a lot of people brought huge packs and we wondered how they were going to cope. Lunch over, we got ready to leave and after going through a checkpoint, we were on the trail and on our way. Within minutes the porters, having washed up and packed, came skipping (and I mean literally) past us, so they could get to the campsite and put the tents up. You only walk for a total of about three hours on the first day and this is known as the easy day. In my limited experience of trekking, I don't think I would have described it as easy and, as the sweat ran freely, we started to get worried about the next day which elicited such descriptions as 'difficult', 'awful' and 'hideous'.
Only 700 people (including porters and guides) are allowed on the trail each day, so it wasn't too crowded, but there were certain points where it seemed busy and a bit like a conveyor belt. A couple of really steep hills had us struggling but we weren't the last in the group so we didn't feel too bad. We arrived at our camp about 5pm pretty exhausted and glad to have got the first day under our belts. The porters had laid out tea, chocolate, popcorn and biscuits which were well-received and didn't last long. We were in a pretty mixed group - a couple of Mexican newlyweds (this was their honeymoon!), a jazz musician from New Orleans and his brother, two Brazilian girls, a Peruvian father and son, a Dutch couple and two young Japanese guys. Dinner followed about an hour later and someone had obviously taught the cook about the energy-giving properties of carbohydrates, as pasta and potatoes featured quite heavily. We all retired to our tents early as we were leaving at 6.30 the next morning.
Day 2 - The Never-ending Ascent
Breakfast gave a pretty good indication of the day ahead - toast followed by bowls of porridge, followed by piles of pancakes. Oh yes, now we were scared! All the rumours soon revealed themselves to be true as we set off uphill, our first destination and lunch stop being a mountain pass 9km away and pretty much uphill all the way. I wouldn't say the whole 9km was agony, but it was pretty tough. The first part was quite wooded so it wasn't too hot, but we were still sweating and gulping water constantly and stopping for breaks every 20 mins or so. And of course every step upwards meant a climb to higher altitude so, as the morning wore on, we were getting slower and more exhausted. At one point, we saw a young, fit-looking guy bedecked in professional trekking gear being helped down the trail by a couple of porters, as he retched and staggered - not exactly a great confidence-booster when you're only halfway there and are relying on fashion trainers to get you through.
Eventually we rounded a corner and saw the pass in the distance, specks on the top indicating that a lot of people had arrived already and were celebrating their good fortune by watching the rest of us struggle along the path. The route hugged the side of a mountain and when not breathing through the dizzy spells, it was nice to appreciate the surroundings. In some ways it was great to be able to see our destination, but it was also pretty disheartening, as however much we pushed on, it didn't seem to get any nearer. The steps got steeper, the sun got hotter and the legs got wearier, but the pass was like some kind of cruel mirage in the desert. Each twist and corner revealed another climb and we got to the stage where we could only manage four steps before taking a breather. By the time we finally reached the pass, we were barely moving at all and just collapsed in a heap, looking back at the route we'd walked along. Ours wasn't to be the first proverbial flag i n the ground for our group - the Americans beat us and the Japanese guys had been there for a couple of hours, but we were well ahead of the Brazilians and Dutch, and the Mexicans were still somewhere near the campsite, taking photos. After another carb-surprise meal once the others arrived, we began the afternoon hike, which at 4km and mainly downhill was a delight in comparison to the morning's torture.
Our camp for the night was in a place called 'Pacaymayu' and I've never been so excited about sleeping in a tent in the freezing cold in my life. It was such a relief to sit down and take our shoes off - although the accumulative effect of all those socks probably could have kept a small power station ticking over. There was a sense of relief at the dinner table that we'd completed the really tough day and were still all in one piece. It was a real 'cold beer' moment, except we didn't have any beer so had to make do with hot chocolate and coca tea.
Day 3 - It was all Worthwhile
'Nice day, all flat', the guide said. I begged to differ as we left the campsite and craned our necks to look up the mountain to our first stopping point, an Inca ruin called ´Runkuraqay'. If my legs could talk, this is the point where they would have said 'you've got to be kidding' and I wouldn't have blamed them. (Mind you, if my legs could talk, I'd probably be wealthy enough to take a helicopter instead of walking the trail.) I don't know what kind of wide-boy our guide had for a geography teacher, but this was anything but flat. With 16km of walking that day, another vertical climb was not what I'd envisioned as a morning warm-up and it was a bit of a struggle to get to the top. Luckily we had a bit of a break to look around the ruin before continuing along something resembling a flat path.
It's hard to describe the scale of the mountains, passes and valleys here, but on occasion it was possible to see sections of the trail snaking away into the distance, nothing more than tiny blonde hairs on the otherwise green mountainside. It was truly spectacular and the third day was packed with diverse scenery and, after the first hour of climbing, the pace was such that we had more opportunity to appreciate it. Just before lunch, we stopped at some impressive ruins called 'Sayacma' and from there the trail changed once again as we walked through forested areas with sheer drops into the valley to one side, and the most incredible views. It was quite amazing to think that this whole trail was built stone by stone by hand, hundreds of years previously. After a couple of hours there was yet another change as the trail descended very steeply and we had a two-hour downhill walk that put as much pressure on the legs as the uphill stretches. As the lungs weren't effected, it was a lot quicker and we limped into our final campsite around 6pm. You could pay for a hot shower here, so we took the opportunity to reacquaint our weary bodies with water that wasn't sweat, and then enjoyed a couple of beers before dinner was ready.
Day 4 - The Final Furlong
We had to be up at 4am in order to start the final two-hour walk to Machu Picchu. The idea is that you get to the Sun Gate (the entrance that looks down over the city) in time to see the sun rising over Machu Picchu. However, after three days of great weather, we woke up to the sound of rain and, once out of the tents, we realised that we were enveloped in a thick fog, not ideal weather conditions. We headed off anyway - Paul and I trying to follow the torchlight of the people in front of us, as the bulb had gone in our torch. Halfway along we got trapped behind an elderly American woman, and our guiding beacon of light disappeared so it was guesswork for a while.
The Sun Gate was predictably unspectacular in the fog, but the rain had stopped so we all sat down to wait for the mystical city of Machu Picchu to appear through the haze. It didn't, so eventually we gave up and decided to walk down to the actual city and hope the fog cleared by the time we got there. Just before the entrance is a gate where the postcard images are taken from and as we arrived the fog cleared partially. Paul ran over with the camera poised and we got our first view of the lost Inca city that we'd spent three gruelling days hiking to reach. And then it was gone again - no wonder the Spanish never found it during their conquest of Peru!
By the time we got to the entrance and met up with our guide for the morning, the fog had cleared completely and the lost city was being explored by the latest batch of gringos. We joined them for our guided tour and either our guide or all the guide books were wrong about a number of important aspects of the history of Machu Picchu. Whichever, we finished the tour none the wiser and with less than half of the group - the others obviously realised quite early on that he was a fake. We spent the rest of the morning wondering around by ourselves and I hope the photos at least do it some justice. It's pretty spectacular and the intricacy of the stonework is amazing. By 11.30am, the day trippers start to get bused in and it turns into a bit of a theme park (notice my derision for those whose legs walked no further than the llama jumper shop on the way in. 'We walked for three whole days don't you know!').
We left them to it and got on a bus down to the bottom of the mountain to a town called Aqua Calientes, due to the presence of natural hot springs, which are said to be a soothing relief for weary limbs. We never found out if that was true as we booked into a hostel, had some lunch then went back and promptly fell asleep until our wake-up call at 5am the next morning. We were booked onto the first train back to Cusco where we stayed one more day before taking the night bus down to Arequipa, a colonial town blighted by earthquakes and home to the Colca Canyon, disputedly the deepest canyon in the world.