All in all I was blown away by Peru, to me it has everything to make a perfect holiday. Beautiful countryside, lovely cites and towns and a wealth of history and culture. Everywhere we went we saw people dressed traditionally, and talking in the ancient Quechua language. Working ladies carry their loads and babies in a colourful blanket on their back. Their hair is worn in long plaited pigtails, tied together at the back, to prevent them falling over their shoulders. Of course there are some tourist extras, such as the girls and ladies dressed traditionally and trailing lamas round the city, for that all important Lama Photo. For me, this didn’t detract from the genuine feel of the city, probably because you never had to walk far to see an element of real Cusco life. Such as, the bustling fruit, veg and meat market at St Pedro, a short walk from the main square.
When a friend asked me if I wanted to join some friends of friends to trek the Inca Trail I was immediately interested. I love to hike and this world famous 45km trail was certainly on my bucket list.
Due to the certainly I would enjoy it I did little research into what to expect and intentionally didn’t watch any videos, I was more than happy to be surprised. This ancient trail picks its way through amazing high peaks, jungle and cloud forest with various Inca ruins to be enjoyed along the way.
Day 1 involved an early start and long bus ride. When we eventually reached the control gate, after stopping twice on route, we were itching to get going and it was a pleasant walk of gradual uphill. This was also the only day we got any rain with a brief light shower, after that we barely saw a cloud for the rest of the trip. Our group contained many inexperienced hikers and the overall pace was slow, but we reached camp by night fall and tucked into a great meal before standing out to enjoy the stars.
Unfortunately this is the night that it all went wrong as altitude sickness set in. This was really surprising for me, since everyone had come from Cusco at 3400m where they had spent a few nights, I had expected that walking from 2720m to 3300m for first camp would have been fine. It seems however, that wandering around the streets of Cusco and exerting yourself over 16km had an entirely different impact on the body. Many of the group experienced upset stomachs or vomiting as the night passed or in the morning. This type of altitude sickness hits you quickly and unfortunately for my tent companion he didn’t manage to get the tent zipper open before he was sick. I had been feeling fine up till that point but of course the smell of vomit can be enough to tip even strong stomachs over the edge. Thankfully my stomach remained intact and after a couple hours of restless sleep from my poorly tent buddy I decided to ask the girls if I could sleep in their tent. I squeezed in between an old friend and a new one and there I slept for the remaining three nights. Wound up and worrying about the tent mate I’d abandoned I had a fitful, restless sleep with a pounding heart. I woke up feeling shaken and with my blood sugar low. One of the worst things about altitude is that it often takes your appetite away. I did my best to force down enough breakfast to get my sugar levels back up whilst also trying to avoid overloading my stomach and joining the vomiting gang.
Day 2 was a tough and gruelling climb over the highest pass of the trip. I trudged slow and steady with a slightly spinning head trying to keep my breathing down and by mid morning I had perked up. When I opened my gluten free snack provided by Lamapath I found plantain chips, these are a favourite of mine and I found my appetite (for some foods at least) had returned. The climb to dead woman’s pass, so called due to the mountains shape, was slow. It’s seemed to go on forever and get steeper as we approached the 4250m saddle. What an amazing feeling to take that last step and peer over the other side to the valley below. I waited for Reshma and a few others to reach the pass before the two of us continued down to our lunch spot by around 1:30 pm.
It was 3 pm before the rest of the gang arrived and we were given lunch. Our guide entered our lunch tent with some bad news. He felt it was unsafe to continue to camp that day, with a second high pass to negotiate followed by a long downhill section, he felt sure it would be darkness by the time we would arrive. The safest solution was to stay in the campsite we were currently in, originally planned as just a lunch stop. As frustrating as that was for a few of us the majority of the group looked exhausted, with altitude sickness sapping every last ounce of energy and many people were completely spent.
After a very early night Day 3 started before dawn in order to make up for lost time. We climbed towards the second pass in the dark but spirits were high as many people had improved overnight. Soon a beautiful sunrise warmed the air and our guide let me skip ahead to enjoy the pass alone, never before have I felt so acclimatised and strong at 4000m! Once re-grouped I sped off down to the next Inca ruins using a careful trotting technique on the hard stone steps, there was no way I was repeating my head injury from last year! I enjoyed the ruin to myself and even set up my camera on the self timer to capture the moment. Had we continued the previous day as per the original plan I never would have experienced this Inca ruin entirely to myself, it was a very special moment.
Due to our change in schedule we saw many ruins on Day 3 and also spectacular scenery from every angle. I was blown away by the excellent condition of the Inca Trail as it clung to cliff faces as intact now as it was all those hundreds of years ago. Towards the end of the day the ruins got larger, even without Machu Picchu waiting at the end this is one of the most spectacular walks I have ever done.
On our final day we rose early to walk the five minutes to the first control and here we waited for two hours. At 5:30 am the control opened and it was a one hour hike to the sun gate. I was the first from our group to reach and I looked down on a cloud free Machu Picchu. The desire for the early start became clear as the sun crept up above the side of the mountain and illuminated the ancient city of the Incas. The site for Machu Picchu was chosen for its natural quarry and water resources. However, that location, buried deep in the mountains, illuminated by the suns rays has got to be one of the most breath taking things I have ever seen.
Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a humbling experience. So little is known about this ancient and brief civilisation. They worshiped nature, the mountains, stars, sun and moon and they built beautiful perfect temples and cities with very basic tools. What wiped them out? According to our guide a combination of smallpox and simple arrogance that they were the superior power, but what they have left behind looks like it might last forever. Seeing it with your own eyes and walking through the city that remains is a truly unique experience.
A special thanks to all those who where on this very memorable trip!