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Machu Picchu, Peru

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

By Carl Pritchard

Peru. A country that had beckoned for as long as I could remember - although it was probably as a result of Paddington Bear, of course! I had put it off and put it off, but no more...it was time to make another travel dream a reality.

Having only 11 days, due to spending a couple of days in Miami on the way home, I knew that there was going to be much of the country that I would miss, but as my sole reason for being there was to do the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu, I wasn't overly concerned. So, the morning after our arrival in Lima (which looked OK at night, at least!), we flew to Cusco, gateway to the Sacred Valley, where we planned to arrange the Inca Trail trip ourselves. The guide books and locals are not wrong when they advise a couple of days doing nothing upon arrival, as the altitude really does matter - I think I was quite lucky, suffering only shortness of breath, tiredness and headaches for just over a day. We booked the Inca Trail with the man who had taken us from the airport to our hotel, as coincidentally, his brother owned a travel agency. We paid our $150, and eagerly awaited our early-morning departure two days later.

Cusco itself is a very pleasant place, with an incredible Plaza de Armas and fascinating back-streets, surrounded by mountains. On the outskirts of the city lie a number of perhaps lesser-known Inca ruins, that are definitely worth viewing, although I was buggered if I could see the form of a puma in the city's design! Perhaps go with an open mind and a truly vivid imagination and you might believe it! The city tour, that can be arranged at dozens of agents around the town square, was very interesting, but if you do step out of the cathedral to find an apparent nutter clicking away with a Box Brownie, and then disappearing, smile. Why? Well, contrary to appearances, it is a real camera, and he is taking genuine photographs...which are then cunningly pasted onto post-cards and shown to you about 2 hours later, by craft-selling local women, on top of a mountain, next to a ruin. And they don't just display them, oh no; they actually seek you out! I was so astounded by this feat, that I of course had to buy one!

So, dawn broke, and we excitedly awaited our collection to start the Inca Trail. I was just a bit miffed that because I had forgotten my own, light-weight, compact sleeping bag, I had needed to rent a heavy, large one for $5 a day! Still, we had been able to leave most of our gear at the hotel, so the rucksack probably weighed no more that 5kg or so. We were part of a group of about 12 people, and so the minibus that was driving us to the start of the trail was quite full. We stopped for breakfast en-route in Urubamba, and it was here that it first struck me that I was in the Andes - the actual Andes!! The scenery on the way was genuinely breath-taking and all that I had imagined it to be.

We reached the start of the trail at about mid-day, and after the formalities were dispensed with (you know, checking tickets, signing the book, saying 'no thank you' to the hat, the stick, the poncho and the sodding toy llama), it was time to start walking...
The weather was perfect, not too warm, dry and with a slight breeze. After a couple of hours, I was well into my stride, and was frankly having a jolly good time. The trail at this stage was not too uppy-downy, although there were of course tricky stretches, and then it was quite suddenly lunch-time. Now, let me clarify here that all meals were included in the cost of the trip, and were to be prepared by the cook and porters, who had the unenviable task of lugging all of the tents and other equipment, so it can't be an easy job to feed people well...however...while I was not expecting gastronomic delights, neither was I expecting to feel quite ill with every slow mouthful! I was assured that all the meals were nutritious, containing carbohydrates, for example, to help us walk, but it was just plain nasty.

We completed day one at about 5 o'clock, and were rather pleased to see our small camp on a grassy out-crop, overlooking a river, and in full view of the next day's trail. Another point worth mentioning here is that I hate, hate camping - loathe it, in fact. However, I was fully aware of what was involved in doing the Inca Trail before I signed up, so it wasn't exactly a surprise, and, as my Mother always takes pains to remind me, it is all just another one of life's experiences. Experience my arse. The mats that had been provided were worse than useless, and I do not take kindly to being informed half-way up a mountain that I will also be sharing the tent with a Swiss man (the sharing bit, not the Swiss bit). Three of us in the same tent, not being able to move a muscle during the night for lack of space, me in the middle with one snorer to my left and, you've guessed it, another snorer to my right...and another in the tent next door...and another, and another. Morning came, and I stumbled out into the crisp air, tired, stiff and quite cross.

It was now Day Two - the Day Two. Day Two that rests in the annals of time as the hardest day on the trail. Our guide, River, pointed ahead, and up, towards our direction of travel, blithely stating that we would be climbing up to 4200 metres. There was a very fine drizzle as we started our ascent, but after only a few minutes, it began to feel very refreshing, as a sweat had already begun! After a couple of hours, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss had been about; sure, it was no picnic, but, really...! Well, the pain lasted for hours. It was while we were climbing up through the cloud forest that it started, having to take rests every 5 minutes or so. Having said that, the whole area really was stunning - with humming birds even adding to the already-rich nature that surrounded us. Mother Nature, or Pacha Mama in the local tongue, I believe will always humble us.

Breaking through the cloud forest, it was really only then that the full extent of the task that still lay ahead became apparent - there in-front of my disbelieving eyes was the trail, snaking its way nonchalantly upwards towards the summit, with an equally depressing view of the smug bastards (Swiss man included, no doubt) on the ridge who had already made it, and those who were in the process of struggling up, like bright blue ants, because of their rain poncho's. Ten paces, stop, breathe; ten paces, stop, breathe, sit down; ten paces, stop...you get the picture. I made it to the top (with a mystery burst of energy and an equally mysterious Dutch girl) and almost died. I have never, ever done anything like it in my life. I had done the Northern Thailand thing, and even the Simian Mountain thing in Ethiopia, but this? This was the King of all treks, the daddy of all mountain trails...and I had done it. Well, almost - only another two nights to go! On turning round, however, I was filled with awe as I stood in amazement gazing at the view, at the sight of the trail I had just walked and feeling a mixture of pride, utter relief. Now all I had to do was go down the other side to our second camp...

Now, going up is very hard, but going down is a whole different ball game. The only way of really relaxing the pressure on your legs is to sit down...it is a constant battle against gravity which seems intent on trying to pull you down the trail way faster than is safe! But, I made it. We were at the second camp by about 1 o'clock - 6 hours after having started. But now my knees were really giving me trouble (I have a torn cartilage in each one!) - the left one couldn't really cope with the up, while the right one couldn't really cope with the down. (The Inca Trail does, I grant you, seem a rather strange thing for me to want to do - I adore good food, value my privacy, despise camping, and have dodgy limbs - what was I thinking??!!). I mean, those bloody Inca's - why couldn't they have founded an equally mighty civilisation on the coastal flood plains for goodness' sake? Anyway, I just crawled into the tent, without any dinner (nothing lost there, trust me) and slept right through the night (apart from the times when I awoke after having moved and stabbed myself in the back on a stone, and then again on my head). I awoke feeling quite drained, zipped open the tent-flaps and - pow! There in-front of me was one of the most wondrous, soul-stirring views of snow-capped mountains and water-falls. My spirits were immediately revived - until I smelled breakfast. Gruel. Again.

Day three really was fantastic - not that easy, as at the start the climb was quite steep, up to the lakes - but much less severe. We were now walking the genuine, original trail, taking it easy, enjoying the glorious weather and marvelling at the ruined Inca towns, nestled on the sides of mountains, almost merging into them, like barnacles on a rock. The ingenuity and engineering skills of the Incas really are staggering. We lunched in the middle of some kind of bog, silently sipping our warm, un-set jellies, and gulping down cups full of cocoa tea (as in cocaine, not chocolate - helps with altitude, apparently), all the time talking about the fabled lost city of the Inca's - Machu Picchu. It was the thought of finally getting to see this incredible place that was keeping me going, and if this Promised Land had not been at the end, I would have given up long before! We reached the last night's camp at about 5 o'clock, after having been taken on a more circuitous, but more interesting route, than other groups on the trail (who had taken a shorter, step-ridden route - 500 steps I believe!). I had been a little concerned when River started to lead us towards the 'other trail' as it was quite clearly roped off. However, all credit to him - the views were again well worth the extra time, and we even got a view of Machu Picchu from a distance, with the sun beating down on it, gloriously spotlighting its greatness.

The last camp was by a proper building, and hotel, where much merriment was had, celebrating the fact that it was the last night (I was of course celebrating hard!) and the fact that the following morning, Machu Picchu would rise, Phoenix-like from the spectral mists of dawn to cast her imperial, mystical spell on us all (or so I was imagining!)... Our group's celebration was somewhat marred by our Last Supper. It was clear that a lot of effort had been made (the jelly had been allowed to set, for example), so our comments were naturally muted. But, I was certainly a tad disappointed by the lump of gristle that had been prepared with the rice. Never mind, it was the last one, after all. It did seem, though, that our group had been given the worst, most perilous site for our tents, with one poor couple having the opening of their tent literally millimetres from a sheer 30 metre drop! Sleep was delayed by the celebrations of other groups, and by the incessant chatting of the porters right outside our tent (although I'm not sure that Gavin's response of jumping out and shouting 'Just shut up! Just SHUT UP!!' was how I would have dealt with it. Neither did it work.).

Day four. 4 in the morning. Lashing it down with rain. Supposedly, we were up at this ungodly hour to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu, but it doesn't take a genius to realise that the chances of that happening are slim to nil when there are quite evidently some very serious clouds in the sky...hope, you see, it will do strange things to a chap. So, by 5, we were at the Sun-gate, with the sun having already risen somewhere behind one of the clouds. Great. Plus, all we could see from that vantage point was in fact more cloud. Oh, and some cloud. Words cannot suitably explain how I was feeling at that stage - I was tired - physically, mentally and emotionally, wet, cold and bitterly, bitterly disappointed. The trail down to the city itself was by now a death-trap, nothing able to get a grip on the wet stone, and weary minds and bodies not able to resist the gravity anymore. People slipped, or fell, and no-one was talking. This was misery, true misery.

When we reached the bottom, our guide took us around the site, which is justly famed. Despite everything, I was taken aback by the place, the sheer scale of it, its design, and the energy of it all. The rain stopped, the clouds cleared and we all dried out...now able to appreciate Machu Picchu in all its glory. Deliberately abandoned around 600 years ago, this great Inca capital is truly magnificent, although I was perhaps slow to appreciate that at the time! And I'm not even sure that Abba blaring out of the loudspeakers at the small café marred the atmosphere or enhanced it...?! It was certainly surreal !

We then had to wait until 5 p.m. for the train back to Cusco, so spent an hour or so longer at the site, before catching the bus down to Aguas Calientes for lunch and relaxation. The 4-hour train journey back was another 'experience', as it jerked and groaned more than any other train I have known - to such a degree that we were afraid to relax any of our muscles for fear of being hurled down the carriage! From a train-spotterish viewpoint, I guess it might have been interesting to note the number of switch-backs as the train made its way steadily down the mountainside into the city. However, we were all just so exhausted, and so relieved not to have suffered any whiplash, that it was all any of us could do to say goodbye!

Knowing what I know now, would I do the Inca Trail again? Quite resoundingly, and unequivocally 'NO' I would not! However, would I recommend for other people to do it? With the same conviction, 'YES', I would! It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that could push you to the limit, and will certainly test your endurance and your character - but what an achievement! You will see and feel things that you won't anywhere else, and with a bit of good fortune, you'll be rewarded admirably with a stirring view of one of the most incredible sites in the known world. What are you waiting for...?

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