Let’s start with a short (and probably not entirely accurate) history lesson. The Incan Empire spanned present-day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. Cusco was the capital and Machu Picchu was a town built up in the mountains to the North. Machu Picchu functioned as a religious centre as well as an agricultural one. Important note: pronunciation is critical. Machu ‘pick – chew’ is the correct way of saying it, meaning ‘old mountain’; if you say ‘pitch-oo’ you’re saying ‘old penis’. The Spanish rolled in and ruined shit for the Incas and Machu Picchu was lost to the jungle. Up until 1911 farmers still used that land and were aware that there were Incan ruins on the mountain. Then a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III rocked up and ‘rediscovered’ it. It’s now one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and visitors to the site are increasing in numbers every year.
Now, the Inca Trail… To relay messages across such a vast empire, the Incas built thousands of kilometres worth of trails all across the land. To this day there are still a lot of Inca trails (lower case ‘t’) but THE Inca Trail (capital ‘T’) was built as a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu. There were other, easier ways to get to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail climbs right up into the Andes where it’s possible to see Salcantay and other sacred mountains and then winds down into Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is so popular these days that the number of people allowed on the Trail per day is capped at 500, including porters, cooks and guides; and you have to book your place months in advance. Most companies tackle it the same way – three nights, four days, cooks to provide three meals per day and porters to carry the gear and set up the camp sites. We set off in earnest from KM 82, the start point of the Inca Trail (82 kilometres from Cusco), and it soon became apparent that there were those in our group that could zip up the trail like it was no big deal. And then there were those of us who just struggled. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that I was in the latter group, it did, however, surprise me that Fish was consistently the first person to reach the camp site and rarely even broke a sweat. Who knew the kid was good at hiking?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t loving being on an organised tour. I was finding the lack of independence smothering and I frequently realised that we could’ve visited many places by ourselves and often for less money. The Inca Trail really changed that though. I am so, so glad that we chose G Adventures – the guides were amazing, the food was some of the best we had in Peru, and they treat their porters really well. There’s strict regulations as to how much porters are allowed to carry and this turned out to mean that we could pack 2.5kg of stuff, not including the sleeping bags and mattresses we rented. I felt like such a dirty gringa when I’d move to the side of the path, huffing and puffing, to let a porter steam past with all 20kg of gear he was carrying to go and set up a tent for me and put all my belongings in it. It made me feel a lot better knowing that I’d chosen the company which pays their porters the most and purposely hires more so that more local people can have jobs and so that they can carry less.
Day 1 is considered the training day – there’s a few ups and downs but nothing too hard-core. We stopped half way for a two-course lunch. Day 2 is the killer. I still don’t know how we managed. You go almost straight up a mountain, reaching 4215m above sea level at Dead Woman’s Pass, only to then ruin your knees descending the other side to the campsite. The saving grace is that the views are absolutely, indescribably spectacular. We started the day in the jungle – everything was covered in moss, even the trees. Then suddenly the trail popped out of the forest and we were in barren, scrubby, rocky mountain land. Walking up a steep hill is hard enough at sea-level, but altitude is an evil ninja and can affect you in all kinds of ways. Breathing is just so much harder – two steps and you’re out of breath with that burning back-of-the-throat feeling. You stop and you’ve got your breath back in about 30 seconds. Coca leaves are a godsend. Chewing a wad in the side of your mouth can abate the nausea and the headache that are common symptoms. Fish and I were both so lucky that we didn’t suffer the other common symptom of diarrhoea like some others did.
It’s so important to walk at your own pace on the Inca Trail and luckily for an extrovert like me there were a bunch of other lovely ladies who had the same snail pace (Lol and Kaysie can attest to the fact that I dawdle and was consistently the last to arrive anywhere on the Camino De Santiago). We kept each other going with words of encouragement and Disney sing-alongs and frequent stops to ‘look at that flower!’ (code for: I’m knackered and need a rest!). Despite it being such an epic effort, we all felt bloody proud of ourselves that evening and the endorphins were FLOWING.
The third day of the Inca Trail is renowned as the most beautiful and it lived up to all expectations. There are varying degrees of authenticity on the Trail – none of Day 1 is original Inca road; Day 2 is 50/50. Day 3 is all genuine, original, been-there-for-centuries Inca Trail. And it is just spectacular. You can truly get the sense of it being a pilgrimage. It was also a lot flatter than the previous day which made it far easier to enjoy. The other days it had felt like we were the only people on the path and I was so impressed with how the guides had worked it out so that was the case. Day 3 was a little different and there were lots of retirement-age Americans dotted along the way, “Bob! Wow! Geez! We haven’t seen this kind of vegetation before!” was a favourite overheard quote.
The views included more Incan ruins; lush green mountains; waterfalls; snow-capped mountains; the river Urabamba snaking its way through the valley far below. And in the afternoon when we started descending, Mount Machu Picchu became visible down below (you could only see the mountain, we just knew that Machu Picchu itself was just down and around the other side of it).
These three days of the Inca Trail were just unbelievable incredible and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I’d heard from various sources that Machu Picchu is a very spiritual place where you can’t help but feel moved. These two factors combined made the anticipation enormous for the last day, the day where we wake up stupid-early to arrive at the Sun Gate at dawn and descend into Machu Picchu. And there’s no other way of putting this: it was a great disappointment. Some groups wake up at 2am for the last day, which is absurd as there’s a checkpoint which doesn’t open until 5:30. Luckily we had a sensible guide who only got us up at 4am purely because the porters all had to barrel down the mountain to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) to catch a 5am train. I was more than happy to do that for them considering all they’d done for us over the last three days. Aside from that, it would’ve been better to stay in bed til 10. We marched off in the dark to arrive as the last group at the checkpoint at 4:45am. We waited in the cold and dark with all the other gringos until we could show our passports and entry tickets and continue on. It was misty as shit and a little bit drizzly and we had to walk in a tight little line behind all the other tight little lines. The combination of early morning, misty drizzle and not being able to go your own pace made us grumpy and silent. Now, I’d read a book before doing the Trail called Turn Right At Machu Picchu by Mark Adams that is recommended by most websites for people travelling Peru. Because of this I knew that we’d never see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (the entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail) – Machu Picchu is a tiny mountain surrounded by enormous mountains which block the sun. However, I expected to see something other than mist as thick as custard.
We stopped there to munch on some cheese and bread sandwiches and the best thing that happened was seeing our Swiss buddies, Tristan and Lenny, who’d been doing a different Trek, and our usual guide, Elmer, appear from the mist. We trundled down the mountain (it made me wish I was climbing Dead Woman’s Pass again – I’ll take difficulty breathing over painful knees any day), mostly catching up with Lenny and Tristan (and making fun of Tristan’s Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) and trying to hide our disappointment in the weather. The fog didn’t clear and the tourists increased in numbers the closer we got to the main site of Machu Picchu. The momentum was really lost when we had to exit the site, wait around for 20 minutes, and then re-enter through the main gates amongst the swarms of day-tripping tourists who’d not put in the hard yards we had and had showered within the last 4 days. Bastards. Not being able to see more than 10 metres in front we followed Alex (our main Inca Trail guide) around Machu Picchu learning about some temples and stuff. It was one of those historic sites where you have to follow arrows around a particular route and can’t explore yourself. I was really glad I’d read Turn Right At Machu Picchu as it gave me a really in depth historic overview and I understood a lot of the sites and their significance beyond what Alex had time to tell us about.
After this we all climbed back up (uuugggghhhhh) to the Guard House where all of the famous pictures of Machu Picchu are taken. Suddenly, the fog cleared. And it was more than I ever could have hoped for. A lot of famous landmarks look better in postcards and famous pictures (Sphinx, I’m looking at you…) but honestly, nothing can compare to looking out over Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background, surrounded by the Andes, with the valley far, far below. Unfortunately, I am my father’s daughter and the hoards and hoards of tourists really detracted. They apparently cap the number of visitors to 2500 per day, but it felt like they were all swarming the view point exactly at the same time I was there. I had to get out of there before I ended up in a Peruvian prison for murder.
All in all, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s definitely true that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Title Time: This blog’s title was inspired by The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”