Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, Peru
09.05.2011 - 12.05.2011 20 °C
Nearly 6 months after booking the classic 4 day, 3 night Inca Trail, the (early) morning had finally arrived. With a small daypack each, a duffle bag weighing less than 5kg and hired trekking poles in hand, we were ready to embark on the 44km trail that climbs, dives and winds through Andean mountain passes deep in the Sacred Valley.
The Inca Trail was not the only trail used by the Inca people to reach the city of Machu Picchu. Many other trails lead to the famous site, however the trail known as the Inca Trail is the one 're-discovered' by the German explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 and is believed to have been of great importance to the Incas as there are many significant ruins of Inca-time watchtowers, terraces and accommodation for the Inca people walking to Machu Picchu for big festivities. But enough of history for now...
Our 'group' was comprised once again of just the 2 of us, cementing for us that same as in the jungle, we are just destined to be a lonely duo on this trip! Although our first thoughts were 'how bored' we'd be with no social interaction for 4 days we found we were actually happy to have the freedom to go at our chosen pace - which was pretty fast.
Our guide, Juvi, plus 3 porters and a skillful cook, were from a local family-run company, "Inka Trekkers." Juvi owned the company and the porters came from local highland communities. Over our 3 days together we learnt about the way of life in their communities and heard our guide's own story of how he began as a porter and by saving his tips and working nightshifts went to study to become a tour guide, which takes many years, exams, a lot of money and hard work. The porters' working conditions are a big issue - when our guide started at the age of 17 he carried 50kg of gear on his back, now they are only allowed to carry 25kg. Our porters were all really sweet, worked incredibly hard the whole time to make us feel comfortable and our cook crafted the most amazing concoctions. Just for a taste - we ate pancakes with homemade strawberry sauce or herb-stuffed omlette for breakfast, hearty pumpkin and quinoa soup followed by crisp fried trout or spaghetti for lunch and then a 3 course dinner of soup, beef, spicy chicken or lasanga and a warm dessert of rice pudding with a sweet purple corn syrup. Not to mention morning tea of high-calorie snacks and fruit and daily afternoon tea of hot chocolate, biscuits with jam, fresh salted popcorn, deep-fried cheese and banana chips. Yum! And there goes Ali's hope that 4 days trekking would be the antidote to shedding those extra South America kilos.
The lack of need for us to lift a finger around the campsite was equally as un-camping like for us as the jaw-dropping variety and presentation of the food. Our tent was put up and airbeds inflated by the time we reached camp each day, plus we were given warm water and soap morning and night. For every meal we dined inside a tent at a table with a table cloth - this was camping a la deluxe!
The trek itself was really enjoyable, though hard at times due to the high altitudes, massive temperature variations and crazy steep steps up and down the mountain passes. There were about 250 other tourists walking the trail at the same time as us and about the same number again in porters and guides. Being just the 2 of us meant we could freely overtake slower trekkers, and stop to explore the many trail-side Inca ruins for as long we pleased. Plus we got to sleep in longer than some groups, like until 5am instead of 4, and still reach the next campsite in good time.
The second day was the toughest - straight after breakfast we resumed our trekking up the harsh steep steps, climbing breathlessly to an altitude of about 4250m, where after a short celebration of our victory, we then headed straight down a similarly steep path into another mountain pass.
On our final day, we awoke at 4am and then trekked downhill to the checkpoint entrance of the Machu Picchu park area. To our dismay, thick white clouds hung low over the valley and even 2 hours later after trekking to the 'Sun Gate', the first high point overlooking the Machu Picchu city, the cloud had not budged at all. So there was no jaw-dropping first view of the ancient site for us - which is touted as the great reward for 4 days' hard trekking. So on we went, continuing down the path to Machu Picchu, where much lower down we glimpsed our first views through the gaps in the clouds.
And what saw was very impressive - much more so than in the photographs. Our guide took us on an in-depth tour of the site and kept stressing the need for us to use our imaginations when it came to historical explanations as practically all of the Incas' record-keeping was wiped out by the Spanish and their pilaging of Inca life in the 1500s. Although Machu Picchu remained a secret from the Spanish and they never actually found the site, the Inca people who lived there abandoned the city and fled to the highlands, and was never returned to again. Tragically this left the site to be later looted by treasure-hunters from around the globe, which only really stopped after it was 're-discovered in 1911.
One of the most impressive features was the 'Temple of the Condor,' a large stone structure in the shape of a condor with outstretched wings. The condor symbolises freedom and independence for the Incas and the temple was used to worship them and make offerings.
The majority of the city has been restored and some buildings have thatched roofs made from grass, window frames and stone picture hooks.
After our tour we decided 4 days of hiking up and down steep mountains was not enough torture, so we embarked on the vertical climb up Wanu Picchu, a mountain towering above the Machu Picchu site. However, only 400 people are allowed to scale this mountain per day and it is imposible to make it to the office to gain the entry stamp when on the Inca Trail trek. However, we were informed that sometimes people don't show up, and we may be lucky if we ask close to the final entry time. Luck was on our side as we timed to perfection our entrance. We raced to the peak of the mountain, totally exhausted but elated to find the most incredibly high panoramic views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding valleys and river. With the morning cloud now completely lifted, the miniature city shone in the midday sun below us and we lay back on the warm flat rock faces high up on the peak, steeling our weary selves for the sheer descent to the bottom.
After Machu Picchu we ravenously ate a lunch of hamburgers and chips in the local tourist town Aguas Calientes, before our 3 hour journey back to Cusco that evening. So tired we could barely speak to each other, we took long-awaited hot, soapy showers and then dined on the most succulent, tender roast chicken at a cheap and cheerful restuarant for our final dinner in Cusco.
Now wondering to do what with our last week in Peru, we decided it was time to soak up some sun and catch some waves on the north coast.