Inca Trail – Day Four: Machu Picchu

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The morning routine on Day Four was compressed. My forty-eighth birthday dawned with a knock on our tent at 03:30, but no tea to wake us up this morning. Everything was on a tight schedule so the porters could get the gear to the early train down from Aguas Calientes. The rushing was not helped by a heavy rain.

Tomi and Hans distracting themselves as we wait. Day Four.

Early morning by torchlight

The checkpoint which lets on to the final stretch of the Inca Trail only opens at 05:30, once there’s enough light to safely navigate it. Nevertheless, we were queuing in a shelter from 04:30, presumably to make sure we were not too far back in the queue to get into the site. I’m not sure it really mattered in the end.

We spent an hour in our ponchos under a corrugated tin roof, illuminated only by the occasional mobile phone screen, listening to the rain. Not the best start to a day. Towards the end though, as the sky lightened, Andy brightened us up by leading the group in some callisthenics to warm us up for the final trek.

Once we did get moving, the trail wasn’t hard; there were no long climbs or descents and, while it got quite narrow in places, it was fairly navigable. It rapidly became a slow-moving queue of people as the groups followed one another. We were now low enough that the jungle really looked like jungle though; creepers slung between trees, strange colourful and big-leaved plants emerging from the pervasive mist. Someone remarked it felt like the set of Jurassic Park.

The queue approaching the "Gringo-kiler" steps.

The queue on the trail

Over the previous days, we’d seen hikers in all kinds of gear; from the professional mountaineer, to the tourist in make-up and bling. Many people seemed to be wearing trainers which seemed crazy to me, given the state of the trail. On the final day, I noticed a couple of people wearing plastic carrier bags inside their trainers. I guess ankle support wasn’t the only thing they were missing in the torrential rain!

When we finally reached the Sun Gate, it was rather anticlimactic. Suddenly, at the top of a rise in the trail, there are a couple of columns. You go through them, turn left and find yourself in a crowd of hikers milling around taking photos. In the distance you can see Machu Picchu, but it is hardly a great view. I suppose, people remember this spot because it’s their first sight of the ultimate goal of their trip.

We took the standard photos and moved on.

After the Sun Gate, there’s still a fair way to go before you reach the ruins themselves. When you do, though, the rigours of the Inca Trail suddenly seem worth it. While you have probably seen pictures, I don’t think they, or any words I could conjure, really do justice to the reality of Machu Picchu itself.

The ruins are extensive, well-preserved and interesting, but it’s their situation which really makes the place special; nestled beneath the peak of Huayna Picchu and with precipitous valleys to either side. The sense of distance and scale you get as you look around at the sharp, sheer peaks of the surrounding mountains is quite incredible; awe-inspiring and humbling. While I wouldn’t recommend the Inca Trail trek to everyone, I would advise anyone who can to visit the site of Machu Picchu at least once in their lifetime. You won’t regret it.

I made it - after twenty-plus years on the to-do list!

A long-held ambition achieved

Coming from the Inca Trail, you enter Machu Picchu kind of by the back door. Felipe gave us a half-hour in which to get photographs from the top of the site, before we had to drop down to the ticketed entrance to officially register our entry. This was when I most enjoyed the site. From the higher points you can appreciate the scale of the place and the surroundings. Standing there, looking at the familiar, picture-postcard view, but seeing it for the first time in living, breathing three-dimensions, I found a moment of profound satisfaction; I was finally standing in the spot I’d first imagined over twenty years ago.

In my tour-manager years, I’d been scheduled to escort a trip here but been cancelled at the last moment – after having done all my research and bought all the gear. At the time I was a little-travelled twenty-something for whom a long-haul trip to mystical Peru was a thing of dreams and, ever since then, I knew I wanted to complete that journey. And now I have.

As an older and perhaps more worldly-wise forty-something, the moment of realisation wasn’t quite as magical as it might once have been – particularly since I was tired and weary from the trail – but even so, as I drank in that view, there was a part of me that shed a tear of joy; finally, I had made it.

Machu Picchu, in the shelter of Huayna Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Inca Trail – Day Three

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Day Three also dawned damp and drizzly, but we all seemed well-recovered from the previous day’s exertions and set off in a cheery mood. After a very short, level warm-up, we were climbing again to reach the second of the three passes the trail takes through the mountains. At 3950m, Runkuraqay Pass was not as high as Dead Woman’s, but the trail leading up to it was narrower and felt steeper.

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At the top of Runkuraqay Pass

Tomi (the more extrovert of the two Croatian guys in our group) seemed to have picked up Richard’s bad stomach this morning and lagged quite a way behind the group, being cared for and encouraged by the guides. While I didn’t envy him having to carry on pushing himself up the trail while feeling wretched, I couldn’t help a bit of guilty pleasure that Brett and I were no longer the slowest in our group.

Descending from the pass we were once again serenaded by frogs and birdsong. As a change from the constant sound of rushing water that follows most of the trail, it was very pleasant. As the descent undulated, we also passed a few shallow tarns.

Exploring the Sayaqmarka ruins.

Exploring the Sayacmarka ruins

Mid-morning, we stopped at the ruins of Sayacmarka, once a large Incan roadside rest-stop; the Holiday Inn of its day. Following the now familiar pattern, the weather had cleared as the morning progressed and we had some good views down into the valley below. We sat awhile, as Felipe gave another of his somewhat rambling history/culture lessons before beginning our descent into the high jungle.

The trail after lunch became really narrow and we spent a lot of time tracing the rims of cloud-filled valleys. While it was certainly picturesque, each time we passed a viewpoint extending out from the side of the track, I wondered again about the view those clouds were hiding. From what we had seen on Day One, I guessed they must be spectacular vistas.

Llamas surveying Phuyupatamarca (Third) Pass, 3670m (12,040ft) above sea-level.

The llama, while it was still behaving itself

We reached Third Pass at Phuyupatamarca, some 3670m (12,040ft) above sea-level, around 2pm but it was completely enveloped in cloud, so no views. As well as serving as a campsite and rest stop, there’s also a farm nearby and their llamas roam freely. Naturally, as soon as llamas come wandering by, lots of cameras turn in their direction. It amused me somewhat that, as soon as this particular llama was the centre of attention, it let out a long stream of piss and then shat on the trail. I suppose maybe it didn’t like the tourists…

Phuyupatamarca also marked the first time we had encountered mobile signal since we departed, so I took the opportunity to do a data dump, backup my notes and check the “Urgent” category in my mailbox. Fortunately, it was empty and I happily shut-off the data connection once I was done.

Not everyone was quite as keen to stay off the grid though and through the afternoon on the trail, we kept passing a girl from another group who would stop at every turn in the trail to read or send messages on her phone.

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Brett descending the Three Thousand Steps

After Third Pass, came the hardest part of the trail for me. I heard it described as the Three-Thousand Steps but, really, it’s impossible to say how many steps there were as “steps” would be a generously precise definition of the trail. “Uneven, rocky descending track,” would be more accurate. Regardless of how it is described though, it consisted of nearly four hours of hard downhill. The trekking poles can only absorb so much of the impact and both Brett and I were limping by the end.

Because we were so far behind the group, I had held off stopping for snacks so, by the time we reached the afternoon rest stop at Intipata, I was quite the grouchy bundle of grumpiness. Nevertheless, I let Felipe take photos of me against the cloud where there might otherwise have been a view of the River Urubamba far below and then tucked into my cereal bars and chocolate.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, I was feeling human again and, as the cloud had now cleared, I took a few shots of the river down in the valley before Hans, the group’s rear-guard, escorted us down into our final camp.

A clearer view of the River Urubamba from Intipata. Day Three.

The Urubamba River far below us

Given the state of our knees, it didn’t help my mood that our pitch was on the lowest level of the campsite!

The discussion over dinner that night was about some of deprivations of the trail. There was a comparison of how cold the showers were at each camp. (The second night had been the worst as it was supplied by fresh spring water from the mountain!) I was quite glad that I had decided to make do with Wet-Wipe Showers and wear our Icebreaker Merino shirts – which you can happily sweat into for several days without getting smelly.

There was also discussion of the toilet facilities. While many western tourists will throw up their hands in horror at the thought of using a squat toilet, our group seemed quite pragmatic about the mechanics of it all. Where we all agreed we were unhappy though, was the general state of the facilities. None of the camps had had lights in the toilet, so you had to work with your head torch. Most of them hadn’t had locks on the door. Because of the height of water from the cistern, a good portion of the flush washed over the rim and onto the floor around the bowl. That made it a problem where to put your toilet roll while your hands were busy, as there was no shelf or hook to be found. To add to the general level of unhygienicness, there was no bin for the used toilet paper, so people just piled it up in the corner – where it soaked up the overspill from the flushes.

Brett disappearing into the jungle mist. Afternoon, Day Three.

Brett disappearing into the jungle mist. Day Three.

It seemed to me that a few small, cheap adjustments would make the facilities far more sanitary and more pleasant to use. It always surprises me when I find situations like this, where it seems “modern” culture is less aware of/concerned with basic sanitation principles than “primitive” indigenes who take far more care of their personal environments.

After dinner though, none of us were really up for staying around to chat; we had to make a very early start in the morning and everyone was weary and ready for bed. We put our contribution into the pot for the porters’ tips and gratefully left Andrew to do the presentation while we went to sleep to the sound of frogs placidly croaking – and an occasional train horn, reminding us that we were, once again, close to civilisation.

Inca Trail – Day Two

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Day Two dawned grey and drizzly. I had not slept well: Our tent was not quite long enough for me to lie down, so we had to sleep diagonally which, with the incline we were on, meant that Brett kept sliding down and pushing me into the corner. So, when the porters came around with hot tea at 05:30, I was already awake and keento get moving.

It seems I wasn’t alone and, after packing our gear for the day and performing the morning ablutions, I joined the group of glum-looking hikers huddled under the farmhouse’s balcony, sheltering from the rain and waiting for breakfast.

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The entire team after breakfast on Day Two

The rain cleared during breakfast and before we set off, Felipe called the porters together and introduced them all to the group. Age and marital status (including how many wives/children each one had) seemed to be the key information. I wondered at several of them having two wives in what is allegedly a quite Catholic country. Our earlier tour of Cusco, though, had underscored quite how much the “unchanging, universal” church had adapted to fit local culture in order to baptise the Andean peoples.

When you research the Inca Trail, the second day seems to be the most talked about. It includes the steep climb to the trail’s highest point; 4200m at Dead Woman’s Pass. For a person who is reasonably fit and acclimatised to the altitude though, it doesn’t really pose a challenge. Brett and I both found it comfortably doable, albeit slower than we might otherwise have gone, as we had to go at the speed dictated by our lungs’ ability to extract oxygen from the rarefied air.

Slightly bedraggled team photo taking in the view from Dead Woman's Pass.

Celebrating at Dead Woman’s Pass

The drizzle was quite a welcome coolant on the trail as we hiked up the ascent surrounded by the clouds. The sky did begin to clear as we reached the pass though and, while we didn’t get much of a view from the top, we were at least able to see each other and take off the ponchos. We were treated to tantalising glimpses of distant peaks as the mist and clouds were constantly shifting and, not for the last time, I wondered how spectacular the views must be once the dry season gets started in earnest and the cloud clears away.

One of our group, Richard, had been unwell overnight. It sounded more like a milder version of the food poisoning that had taken out his colleague, but at the top, he took a few hits from the oxygen tank Hans was a carrying to clear his headache. Once the others saw it though, the mask was passed around several in the group.

Richard taking an oxygen hit to help with the effects of altitude.

Richard feeling better after a bit of O2

The landscape on the far side of Dead Woman’s Pass was noticeably different from the climb up to it. The air was warmer and the previously constant sound of rushing water was replaced by the tranquil croaking of frogs. The hillside reminded me a lot of the Scottish Highlands, with coarse, low-level vegetation and a lot of brown with the green, broken by the occasional rushing stream-come-waterfall.

As it turned out, the descent was more arduous than the ascent; the long runs of irregular steps were very hard on the knees, even with the support of trekking poles. We were very grateful to reach camp and be able to sit down and take the weight off our legs – although that did involve us unpacking our duffels and inflating the air-mattresses first.

Still, we were a reasonably happy and chatty group at dinner after we’d taken on the afternoon’s load of sweetened tea and popcorn. After dinner, instead of tea, Felipe passed around a local drink (whose name I didn’t remember to record) which was very drinkable. He also produced a bottle of rum which everyone used to augment it. A very pleasant evening was had by all…

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Brett descending from Dead Woman’s Pass

The drinking did come back to haunt me though as, after settling in to sleep, I had to get up twice through the night to pee; a not-insignificant task when camping! The silver-lining though was that I got to enjoy the bright, silent moonlit night; no stars because of a light cloud layer, but plenty of moonlight shining on the mist-filled valley below us. Quite surreal and lovely.

 

Inca Trail – Day One

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I always enjoy the welcome meeting, or team briefing, at the start of a tour; sizing-up your travel companions for the next week or so, sizing-up the tour manager and the organisation behind them. As a former tour manager myself, I enjoy watching out for the machinery operating behind the curtain. As a passenger on the tour, I’m interested in making sure everything goes smoothly and as planned.

We met the night before departure in a room above the tour office, lined with vinyl-upholstered seating, a small table in the centre. We were offered tea as people drifted in. Our tour guide Felipe introduced himself and his assistant, Hans. Although Felipe’s English was good, he seemed to struggle with our rapidly spoken accents – several times answering questions quite different to the ones asked.

Our group before setting out on the hike, at breakfast on the first day.

Breakfast at Urubamba

He handed out blue nylon duffle bags for us to pack our things into and gave me the hiking backpack I had rented to replace our usual daysack (the rental having a waist belt and chest strap to better distribute the weight of the pack for the longer periods I would be carrying it while hiking up Andean mountains.)

At the end, it felt slightly anticlimactic as we all departed to pack. After our sleeping bag and mat, we had an allowance of four kilograms for personal items in the duffel bag but, being used to travelling light, were easily able to stay within the porters’ weight limit.

So, early the following morning, as the first sunlight warmed the tops of the hills which surround Cusco, we headed down towards the Plaza San Francisco, dropped our excess luggage off at the tour company’s hotel and boarded the little bus ready to go. It emerged that two of the eleven scheduled for our group would not be joining us, as one of them had got quite bad food poisoning and his girlfriend was staying behind to take care of him.

The early journey was subdued as we had all got up earlier than we would have liked to make the 6am departure time. After an hour or so, we stopped at a small restaurant in the town of Urubamba and had a light breakfast. As we were eating, Felipe emerged with a chocolate cake! It turned out Andrew (one of our fellow trekkers) had a birthday today. Chocolate cake for breakfast does wonders for a group’s cohesion and enthusiasm!

Sorting ourselves out at Km82 before setting off.

Sorting our gear at Km82

Our next stop was at “Kilometre Eighty-Two,” the official start of the Inca Trail. Here we joined our porters and spent a while sorting out gear in the car park before finally proceeding down to the checkpoint, with a brief pause for photos beneath the Inca Trail sign. In no time, we were checked-in and had crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River. Just like that, we had begun the Inca Trail.

The pace was brisk and the vegetation at this lower altitude quite lush. Not far in to the walk though, Felipe stopped to give us all a talk (the first of many) about the benefits of chewing Coca leaves. He handed them out to those who were interested and explained how to chew them up and then keep the wad in your mouth to let it ferment. I gave it a try. The taste wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t notice any of the advertised benefits. I wondered if that was related to my resistance to dental anaesthetics.

Trekking onwards, the sun was eventually replaced with cloud, but the occasional spits of rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm as we trekked through trees laden with Spanish Moss and passed cacti bearing tasty red fruit. As we approached our lunch stop though, it got heavier and we decided it was time to break out the ponchos.

The “poncho plastic” (as Felipe referred to them) was probably the best investment I made out of all extra equipment we bought for the trip. It only cost S/.5 (about £1.20) and got plenty of usage over the following four days. Covering both your upper body and your backpack, it was an easy-to-put-on waterproof.

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Inca Corn cobs topped with Llama cheese

Lunch set the tone for the trip’s high standard of catering; a ceviche starter, followed by a variety of plates including battered trout fillets in a delicious sauce, massive Andean corn-on-the-cob topped with Llama cheese, soup, several salads and rice. When hiking at altitude, the meals are carbohydrate-heavy and usually include a lot of liquid (hence, soup or porridge figured in every meal.)

The skies cleared after lunch and, by the time we reached our afternoon rest stop at the Llactapata ruins, we were back to clear skies and able to enjoy the magnificent views between the sheer mountains and down to the Patallacta ruins on the valley floor.

Our camp for the first night was in a farmer’s field just off the trail. It had been advertised as having a hot shower, but that proved to be optimistic. The first user of the shower reported it went cold halfway through. Looking at the wiring to the electric heater attached to the shower head, I’m surprised it lasted that long. There was also much discussion about the cleanliness of the room – which was shared with the toilet and had a filthy floor – and the contortions necessary to reach your towel after the shower.

There was a great view from the campsite though. As the sun set we watched the last rays illuminate a glacier further down the valley before settling in for an early night after another delicious dinner.

The ruins of Patallacta seen from the trail.

The ruins of Patallacta seen from the trail

The view from our Day One campsite.

The sunset illuminating a glacier further down the valley; Camp One

Ready to hit the trail.

Our group, ready to set out on the Inca Trail

Cusco and The Sacred Valley

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The historic centre of Cusco is quite beautiful. The mountain air is crystal-clear and they must have some fairly strict regulations on building modernisation and advertising, as the heart of the old town is a picture postcard of Spanish Colonial architecture. Take away the cars and the road signs and it would be easy to believe you had travelled back in time.

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Ancient Incan stonework at Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun

That said, behind the beautifully preserved façade, there lurks an efficient tourist industry ready to extract as many tourist dollars as possible from visitors to the continent’s most visited attraction; Machu Picchu, just along the Sacred Valley.

Cusco is the traditional starting point for trips to the Incan city, particularly if, as we are, the visitor is planning to reach it by hiking the Inca Trail! From walking the streets, at least a third of the people you see are gringos of one variety or another. Virtually every Peruvian we have encountered has had a good grasp of English and, according to the guide on our tour yesterday, tourism makes up about 65% of the local economy.

We arrived in town on Friday, in plenty of time to get used to the altitude ahead of our trek. Although Machu Picchu itself is below the altitude of Cusco (2,430m, compared to Cusco’s 3,400m) the Inca Trail rises to a height of over 4,200m before descending to the famous ruins.

The Trail is not a technically challenging hike. Just as it was with Kilimanjaro in 2012, I suspect altitude will be the biggest challenge to overcome – and we’ve organised our itinerary to help us with that. That said, neither Brett nor I are as fit as I was back when I climbed Kili. We are also not especially well-equipped for hiking at altitude, where the temperature varies dramatically between the heat of the sun and cold of the clear nights.

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The foundations of the Temple at Saqsaywaman

Arriving here several days before the hike has given us time to take stock of what gear we have, and to think through how we can either work around not having it, or buy or rent it cheaply for the duration. Having sorted through our clothes and toiletries and reviewed all the advice on what to take, we spent this afternoon touring the (many!) outdoor equipment shops around town to pick up warm hats and mittens, torches, wet wipes, etc.

We have a briefing with the tour company tomorrow evening, where we meet the rest of our expedition group. Then we come home, pack our luggage into two sets; what we are taking and what we are leaving stored in Cusco. Then at 5am on Wednesday morning, we rendezvous with the group again to set out on the trail. Excitement, mixed with trepidation!

In the meantime though, we have found time for a little sightseeing…

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The golden altar in the Cathedral of Cusco

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The silver altar for the Virgin Mary

On Saturday afternoon, we took a city tour. Partially on foot around the centre of Cusco and then partially on a bus to visit some of the nearby Incan ruins. We saw a number of spots we will want to revisit in the days following Machu Picchu. I also got quite a profound sense of how the Conquistadors – and the priests they brought with them – destroyed a flourishing and advanced civilisation. The tour of the cathedral was loaded with examples of how elements of the native religion were leveraged to convert the populace to Catholicism; the massive altar piece, entirely in gold, because gold represents the Sun, who is the Father. Similarly, a completely silver altarpiece of almost the same size for the Virgin Mary, because silver represents the moon; the Mother.

Our guide also pointed out differences in how native and European artists depicted their subjects. Andean artists always depict Mary with a wide, triangular dress because the triangle has long been held as the symbol of fertility. It is quite distinct from the slim, hourglass figure in European representations.

On Sunday we took a longer tour along the Sacred Valley to explore more impressive ruins. Luckily we had the same guide both days and we found German to be very knowledgeable and willing to talk in depth about the sites we saw – as well as not overdoing the retail stops! One of the few we retail stops we did make though, was at a co-operative where we saw alpaca wool being cleaned, dyed and spun, with guinea pigs running around underfoot and several adorable llamas penned-up nearby.

On the whole though, I can’t decide what I feel about Cusco. On the one hand, the old town is beautiful. On the other it exists today for the large numbers of tourists who pass through it – and it is quite tiring to be having to decline tours, restaurants, massages, paintings, etc. every few yards as you walk along the street.

I think it is somewhere I would like to visit again, but mainly as a base to spend longer at some of the sites we have visited too briefly on the tours, as well as some of the more out-of-the-way ones we won’t be able to see this time around. I don’t think it’s somewhere I’d want to live.