And so arrived the day of the Inca Trail, possibly the thing I was most looking forward to in my entire world trip. We left our main guide, the popular and lovable Shirley in Ollantaytambo, and joined up with Fernando and Carlos, 2 fun loving, totally crazy and slightly annoying Peruvians for the trail, which started a 30 minute bus ride from Ollantaytambo in a place known as kilometre 82 (82 kilometres for Cusco). We´d been provided with duffel bags in which to put our hired sleeping bags, air mattresses and spare clothes in, and these were to be carried by the porters who I´ll get onto later. The max weight for them was 6kg so we all had to take day packs of a similar weight as well. The bulk of our stuff was left in Cusco. The start of the Inca Trail is a surreal place. It felt a bit Disneyworld esque, and we had to pose for a group photo at the start sign, which would later be offered to us for purchase at the end in a theme park style photo frame. 200 tourists start the Inca Trail each day (the number is regulated) and these are supported by roughly 300 porters. Our group for instance had 20 porters, 2 guides and 2 chefs just to support us 15 tourists. It sounds like a lot of people but in actual fact you see far more people on a hike in Derbyshire. This is perhaps because everyone is hiking in the same direction.
Many of the group were panicking about the difficulty of the 26 mile hike, which started at roughly 2600m above sea level. They had nothing to fear from the first day though, which was a very easy 11km hike up two different canyons with minimal elevation gain. I was actually a tad unimpressed with the scenery, especially when we left the fast flowing white water river, which was a pleasant change from the dry rivers I´d seen everywhere else. The scenery resembled a larger scale Lake District, with few trees about and just a few rocky outcrops. We saw one impressive Inca site from above and had a lengthy talk about it from the lively Carlos and Fernando, who did seem to know a fair bit about the Incas and were very passionate about their job. We had a lunch break soon after in a tent site erected by the porters (who did absolutely everything for us. I didn´t put a tent up or anything!). The food on the trail was surprisingly good, with 2 courses for lunch and 3 at tea time, with plenty of hot drinks and some snack stops too. After eating I swapped bags with a porter (I chose the one in an Arsenal shirt) just to see how hard walking with his bag was. I don´t know what I was carrying as the porters spoke no English but I did know it weighed 28-30kg like every other porter´s bag. This is roughtly twice the weight of my large rucksack, and is amazing considered light by some of the older porters, many of whom carried up to 60kg before new regulations came into force 10 years ago. Me and Thomas bothered to lug it for about 300 yards, but the other 3 lads were much more stubborn and carried theirs the 1.5 hours to the camp site, something the porters had never seen and were mightily impressed with. They didn´t move as fast as the other porters mind, all of whom at least walk very fast wherever they go, with some even running in parts. It was a remarkable sight when your struggling up a hill to look round and see you´re being overtaken by some mid 50s bloke carrying 5 times more weight than you.
The first night, following some yoga led by Lilo, we had an introduction ceremony with the porters, who spoke a mix of Spanish and the local language of Cechuan, which was spoken by the Incas. Fernando translated. The porters spoke so quietly and were all really shy blokes, though they seemed to enjoy their jobs. I had to use the squat toilet in the evening, mercilessly for the only time on the trail as it was absolutely disgusting. There were no proper toilets or showers until the final camp site, and even there you had to pay and the queue was too big. We were in bed very early as there was nothing to do, and we had to be up at 5.30am the next day. The sleeping bag I had was a sauna and the tent on a bit of a slope, and this proved the case every night, so I was never comfortable. The good thing about the camp sites is that they were all tiered, so we never came into contact or saw most of the other hikers, and they were thus relatively quiet with the exception of rooster and donkey noises!
The 2nd day of the Inca Trail is considered the hardest, with 80% of it just being a lug 1300m up a valley - roughly the height of Ben Nevis. This isn´t easy in the 25C heat, especially since the sun is much stronger in Peru at higher altitudes than anywhere else I´ve been before. It made it seem hotter, and this coupled with the fact there is 4% less oxygen at 4000m made it quite hard work. Still, I felt good once I´d reached the 4210m (13,812ft) summit of the Dead Woman´s Pass, whereas some people found it such a struggle they were moved to tears at the top. I was one of the first up so was afforded a 1 hour 15 minute break up there, as the clouds began to move in. I decided to nip over a small hillock to go for a piss, which was something I would later regret as I inadvertantly stood in some human turd. I couldn´t get rid of the smell until we reached our 2nd camp site 500m lower down in the next valley over, and I was able to wash my hiking shoes in a stream. I arrived at this camp site at 1.15pm, which left me wondering why the hell we had to get up at 5.30am.
It was a similar story the next day with a 6am wake up, although the 3rd day was the longest of the Inca Trail and we needed all the time we could. There was one last section of major uphill to conquer in the morning and then it was mainly all downhill, as Machu Picchu itself is situated at just 2400m above sea level. At the top of the 2nd pass the scenery totally changed and my opinion of the Inca Trail drastically improved. From barren mountainsides suddenly emerged beautiful tree clad hillsides - a landscape said to be a transition area between the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. It was absolutely stunning, and we saw 2 or 3 really impressive Inca remains on the walk too. The air in the forests was much easier to breathe and the smell was gorgeous. After lunch came what Fernando called the Gringo killer - a descent of 1000m down steep 500 year old stone steps. It was really hard on my knees but we took it slowly, with Fernando pointing out wildlife including chinchillas, hummingbirds, snakes and bluebirds. We reached a terrace farming Inca site in time for sunset, which was beautiful, and after dark at 6pm also visited a similar site just by our camp site, in which we played hide and seek in the dark and did a bit of star gazing at the clear skies.
The final evening saw us partake in a tipping ceremony to all the porters, and gave us chance to say a few words of thanks. The porters are all handpicked by GAP adventures from local communities and are mostly from a farming background. I don´t know how much they get paid but I doubt its much, yet they were all such humble and lovely people. I felt quite emotional for them. The subserviant relationship we had between them was not always pleasant, and you could see how pleased and surprised they were when one of us would donate them water on the trail for instance. They generally didn´t carry any. Andy also said to them he would campaign to GAP to get them better equipment and you could see how happy they were about that. I bet many other tour groups, especially Americans, are total t*** towards them, and I think they had fun with us. Some of them even joined in the yoga, though they´d never seen it before.
It was a horrific 3.50am wake up the next morning to enable us to be one of the first groups in line for Machu Pichu, just a 5km level walk away around a hillside. I was disappointed to see it was cloudy when we first woke, but by the time we reached the sun gate overlooking Machu Picchu from a distance the cloud was spectacuarly clearing. By 8am when we reached the "postcard" view of Machu Picchu it was beautiful sunshine. I got some amazing photos. Its a truely stunning sight and is one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. I don´t think I could take it all in being so tired, and it was hard to realise I was actually there. It was built as a Hacienda for the Inca around 500 years ago, and soon after abandoned when the Spanish invaded. Fortunately it evaded the Spanish conquistadores who would have surely destroyed it, and was left to the hands of nature until American explorer Hiram Bingham from Yale University uncovered it around the time of the first world war. The Incas were remarkably clever people for the resources they had, and there is a load of clever maths behind Machu Picchu´s construction. Still, I couldn´t help but think that the Greeks and Egyptians were similarly knowledgeable and developed although they came 2000 years prior.
Being Inca trail hikers we were in and out of the site before the majority of day trippers arrived from Cusco. We got a 1.5 hour walking tour around it from Fernando and then stayed until about 11.30am exploring on our own. It was then a hair raising 30 minute bus journey down the hill to the tourist trap town of Aguas Calientes where we had lunch. I would happily see the village nuked if only to take out some of the annoying American tourists and Peruvian conmen who blighted our time there! From the village it was a 1.5 hour train ride on the slowest train ever built back to Ollantaytambo and from there we got a bus back to Cusco. To celebrate a great few days some of us went to the world´s highest Irish bar (yet another 1) for a few drinks, though most of us couldn´t stay out long as we were so so tired.
Anyway I´d be surprised if I write a blog as long as this again. It´ll take a lot to top Machu Picchu. Free day now to watch the footy. Tomorrow is a gruelling 8 hour bus journey to the town of Puno near Lake Titicaca. I´ll update soon. Thanks for reading.