Day 1 – Starting Out
Aware of the early rise, the pressure of needing to start well rested meant that I only managed about an hour’s sleep before a dazed, 4.30am, walk through the deserted Cusco streets to the meeting point: one of Cusco’s many plazas. I boarded the bus, half wanting to get to know the other people on the trek and half wanting to spend the time curled up in my seat, before it set off to pick up our porters. Helen had recommended the company, Llama Path, partly because of their sustainable attitude towards tourism. This was exemplified on that first journey as we passed by their porters’ house, a free place for the porters to stay before and after the trek. They were the only company to provide this facility, the guide happily told us. After a short stop there, where the seventeen porters, one chef and all our equipment were loaded onto the coach, we drove to our breakfast stop. On the way, we stopped for a rather costly breakfast where we marvelled at how some gringos had not only put paper in the toilet (a massive no no) but seemingly managed to put half a roll in the bowl, before we parked up at the beginning of the trek.
I had opted to not have a porter, instead carrying all my personal items, as I felt that part of trekking to Machu Picchu was the challenge of completing the path under my own steam. Apparently most of the group (perhaps wisely) did not take that attitude, as only three out of thirteen of us did not have a porter. I should have guessed what was in store from the small packs that our guides were carrying. There was a short walk to the start point, which was just across a set of train tracks, where the customary photos at the starting sign were taken, rather a lot of photos when everyone’s pictures had been taken into account.
Our porters had left ahead of us to get through their checkpoint; since 2002, laws have been introduced about wages and a maximum weight of 25kg, so each porter has to have their bag weighed before they can enter the trek, with several further checkpoints throughout the trail. The Quechuans (descendants of the Incas) are built for the mountains, with a different blood composition and being short and stocky, meaning some of their bags looked almost as big as the porter carrying it. They really were unbelievable, when we would be struggling up a long incline, the porters would come powering past, sometimes even jogging!
Once we had our passports and tickets checked, we were allowed onto the trail, crossing a bridge over the Urubamba River, which snakes its way throughout the whole of the Sacred Valley before eventually joining the Amazon. The first half day mainly followed this river, on a relatively flat dirt path, which meant that we had an easy start to things. Our first Incan ruins were across the river from us, where our guide explained some of their functionality, such as how the Incans stored their food and cut channels for fresh water from the glacier several thousand metres above and an introduction to their culture, such as their lack of money, sharing and hospitality. A bit further on, we had our first climb; although it seemed quite tiring at the time, it would pale into significance compared to what was coming up later on. At the top of this hill sat an Incan town, overlooking much larger Incan ruins, with many of their famous farming terraces, where we learnt about how the stones they built the terraces with allowed them to create a greenhouse like affect for their crops, greatly improving productivity.
After the town, we had a downhill section, knowing that this meant we were only undoing the effort we had already put in. Sure enough, it was not long before we started climbing again, away from the dryness of the sacred valley and into more lush, cloud-forested hills, following a tributary of the Urubamba until we reached our spot for lunch, our legs already feeling weaker from the exertion. It quickly became apparent why the porters had rushed on ahead of us: they had set up a tent with a long table inside for a three course meal. This pattern would continue; large three course meals for lunch and dinner meant that we were well fed throughout with some of the best food I have had so far in Peru. Sometimes there were even extravagant flourishes such as cucumber birds and pineapple turtles. How the chef managed to produce some of the meals with only two gas hobs is beyond me!
Our second leg of the day was shorter than the first, but was much steeper and almost consistently uphill, until we came to our camp site, where several of us rewarded ourselves with beers, even if they were at English prices! After another incredible dinner, flambéed bananas included, I crashed into bed at around 8pm.
Day 2 – Stairs
At 5am, a porter woke us up to a stimulating cup of coca tea, readying us for the hard day ahead. After quickly packing and eating breakfast, we set off on the first part of the day, a 1000m climb to our highest point: Dead Woman’s Pass. The climb was continuous and very draining, though fortunately the weather had worsened and the heat of the previous day had given way to cloud and drizzle. Watching the clouds moving through the surrounding valleys provided some respite from the strain, along with the constant chewing of coca leaves, providing their mild stimulant to counter the altitude, which was 4215m at the top. Finally, after around three hours, we were all at the top, not gazing at the views due to the thick cloud coverage, but instead having some snacks and taking group photos.
After this break it was time to undo all our work and descend 600m to our lunch spot. In many ways this was easier, as the steps down did not strain my fitness in the same way as earlier, making it easier to talk and enjoy the views of waterfalls, lakes and the small cave that the path passed through. However, by the time I reached the lunch spot, my legs were like jelly, from absorbing the weight of every step on the way down, and to make matters worse, I could see the next climb sweeping its way up the mountain as I stood there with my legs shaking from the strain.
After another fantastic meal, it was time to set off again, up the many stairs to reach the second pass of the day. Although the Runkuraqay Pass is lower, standing at around 4000m, the climb was possibly tougher due to the strain of the first half of the day. There was a welcome pause halfway up at an Incan ruin and just before the top there was a level area with a lake. I really thought this would be the top and was shocked to see even more stairs trailing up into the clouds. Fortunately, we were nearly there and the top of this mountain indicated the end of the treks strenuous climbs. Invigorated by the idea of no more uphill steps, we pressed on down to our evening campsite. Near the end, we came to the final Incan ruins of the day, which, although optional, had a very steep flight of stairs leading up to them. Fortunately this last climb was worth it and the views offered from this settlement were pleasing, both for the beauty of the cloud forest and for the view of the relatively near campsite. At this point, the trail joined the original Incan Path to Machu Picchu, as shown by their stonework beneath our feet.
Finally, after passing one more ruin, the hardest day was done and it felt like a great accomplishment. We were rewarded with posing llamas and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. However, the weather took a turn for the worse and as we ate dinner, we had to hold the canvas of the dining tent away from the central gas light as it billowed in the wind.
Day 3 – Able To Enjoy
We had a bit of a lie in on day three, due to the ground we had covered the day before, which also meant that we could enjoy the Incan’s work at a more relaxed pace: they hewed the route into the side of the mountain, before building a path on top of this rock. Kyle and I also took the chance to weigh our bags. They both came in at 17kg and this made the trek seem like a bigger accomplishment, even if it was a silly amount of weight. The storm of the previous night had blown out the bad weather and we could enjoy the sun landscapes. During the morning’s trekking, we had a couple of breaks, with more spectacular views, before descending into the cloud forest.
The wildlife increased, with hummingbirds and butterflies swooping around. One of the guides spotted a snake, which happily posed for photos, meaning several of us turned up way behind everyone else.
This slower pace made the day much more enjoyable, even with aching sides from my bags waist straps. After a huge terrace of Incan farmland, we carried on to our lunch stop, which was also our campsite for the evening. It even had showers, albeit with freezing cold water, though this didn’t matter as it felt wonderful to be clean. There was no afternoon hike. Instead we went to another nearby Incan terrace and relaxed. We even had a cake with our dinner that evening, made all the more impressive by the ‘kitchen’s’ limitations. After our feast, we got an early night ahead of the big day.
Day 4 – The End Goal
We were up at 3am, partly to let the porters head off in time to catch their train back to Cusco and partly to get in line: the gate to Machu Picchu didn’t open until 5.30, but we wanted to be amongst the first to arrive at the sun gate and watch the clouds lift to reveal the Incan City. Once the gate opened, we had a quick, but tiring, walk along the final stretch, which led to a great view from the small terraced area that made up the sun gate. We sat there for around twenty minutes, gazing across the valley to the point where Machu Picchu lay. Except there was one problem: the clouds stubbornly clung to the valley floor. After only two vague glimpses of Machu Picchu, we headed down the final section to the city, slightly disappointed by the lack of a majestic unveiling.
After taking photos in the classic spot, we had to go outside to re-enter with our tickets. We had an hour’s break in the humdrum of buses and visitors, which after the disconnectedness of the past three days, seemed slightly overwhelming and somewhat unfitting of the place. We began our tour of the city with an introduction, followed by an explanation of a temple (possibly for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth) and the sun temple, which rested above this cave. The sun temple had two windows, respectively aligned with the rising sun on the summer and winter solstices. We then climbed up to the quarry above the city, where we learnt how the rocks were produced.
The early pause outside had a knock-on effect here: the tour was cut short for four of us, as we had to make our timeslot to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain next to Machu Picchu, famed for its viewpoint. This was frustrating as I was interested in other areas of the site, which we would get no explanation of. The climb up quickly dispelled the disgruntlement, as it offered stunning views. The stairs were much steeper than anything we had experienced before, with cabled railings to help pull you up the slope.
As the climb went on, the stairs become steadily more precarious, until they gave way to some terraces with an unbelievable vantage point over Machu Picchu. We stayed there until the staff moved us on, through a small cave, up to the very top of Huayna Picchu. Standing on the crest of the boulders here offered a 360 degrees panorama of the sacred valley and really made the construction of the city on top of the mountain ridge all the more spectacular. The clouds had lifted by this point, with the sun shining on the mountains all around.
After pushing the time limit to its maximum, we had to descend. The stairs down were even more precarious: some were too narrow to have both feet on, very steep and with vertigo-inducing unprotected drops at the bottom. This experience was the highlight of the trek and I would happily pay the entrance fee again to re-experience it.
After we descended, I quickly tried to find some of the areas that I had missed on the tour, before boarding the bus back to the nearby town for a quick lunch and the train ride back to our starting point, followed by a coach ride back to be reuinited with Helen.