We were picked up at 5:15am from our hostel by the 'red army' as our porters were known to us (for their bright red head to toe outfits although we would later discover that the other porters refer to them as the firemen). The last to be picked up from Cusco we were bundled on to the bus with the rest of our Inca Trail group - Rob and Jemma from Australia, Yen and Ruben from Singapore and Lindsay from England - and started for Ollyantambo where we would pick up our final group member (John from the US) and have our "last meal" before embarking on our trip - in truth whilst the breakfast was good it was probably the worst we would have on our trip as the porters cooking was immense, but more about that later. After breakfast it was back on to our bus and to the start of the Trail and it was at this point we would be horrified (HORRIFIED) by the sheer size of our sleeping bags and sleeping mats. Lucy and I had opted not to hire an individual porter to carry our things as frankly we had thought of it as a frivolous expense. Faced with the size of the bags we were begining to regret this decision. Infact our intended method of attaching our sleeping bags was of no use at all given the size of them so we had to purchase some belts from some conveniently available locals standing outside the entrance, which comforted me at least knowing that it happens frequently enough for there to be business in their sale. Each of our respective locals tied our bags to our bags, Lucy's much more usefully than my own, and ladened up we headed for the entrance for a nice big group before photo.
We were each given our tickets and had our passports checked and received our first stamp (a very exciting event on the Inca Trail!). We then crossed a bridge over the river and set our first foot on the Inca Trail, the actual proper Inca Trail, none of this immitation nonsense of the others, that built by the Incas 500 years ago to connect Cusco with Machu Pichu (we were of course not starting it from Cusco - that would have taken weeks - and it only starts properly at km82 anyhow. So off we went! The first couple of hours were awesome. Relatively flat, slight slopes up and down beautiful view of the river and a riverside Inca site. The weather was as beautiful as the scenery, bright, hot - I was reapplying my sun tan lotion every hour or thereabouts to ensure I didn't get burnt, particularly at this kind of altitude - I could think of nothing worse than bad sunburn on the Inca Trail. Then the first slope set in and not a particularly bad one at that and I fell way behind from up the front with Lucy and Casiano (our guide) to dead last and 10 minutes late for Lunch. I put it down to the bag being ridiculously heavy and bulky as a result of the ridiculously proportioned sleeping bag. However on the first bite of lunch I had to run to the toilet (thankfully there WAS a toilet) and threw it up along with the majority of the water I'd been drinking) I poked at the rest of the meal - ridiculously large and more courses than I could count - salas, soup, rice, meat, vegetables - there was enough for 20 people and we were only 8!
After lunch I started at the back and got further and further behind as the day went on. We'd done 4 hours walking and had another 4 to go. All uphill. To make the Inca Trail more challenging I also had the added obstacle of sporadically throwing up along the way. I didn't know where it was coming from I'd already thrown up the majority of my water and lunch and yet came it did. I'd suffered from horrendous altitude sickness in Cusco yes, but not this bad, and the starting altitude of the Inca Trail is in fact quite a bit lower than Cusco so I had infact descended in altitude that day! Can only put it down to a combination of the heat, the exertion and the altitude. About 200m from the camp (although I didn't know it at the time obviously) the porters found me struggling along the track and despite my desperately trying to send them back on their way (fruitless considdering they spoke niether english or spanish) they took my bags the last 5 minutes to the camp. The fact it was also only 5 minutes made me feel very stupid and also somewhat defeated that I didn't do it by myself. Not to mention embarassing that they had found me just as I was vomitting.
At the campsite I continued to be sick and so skipped dinner and "happy hour" (snack time immediately following our arrival into camp) and went to bed hoping to get some rest and feel better the next day.
However, the next morning I felt as bad as the first and we were doing Dead Womans Pass this morning - the hardest part! After forcing myself to eat some breakfast (considering most of anything I'd eaten had been long thrown up after brief bouts with my digestive system) we decided to hire a porter to carry our things the rest of the way. This definately made the walk easier in that I was no longer laden but the cumbersome and bulky sleeping bag dangling from my backpack, but considering the increase in the steepness of the hill not that much easier in comparison to the previous day. I soldiered on behind everyone, making slow (VERY slow) progress, but progress none the less towards Machu Pichu. After a break Casiano decided to leave one of the porters with me so that I wasn't entirely by myself, this would have possibly been better had he spoken anything resembling english, but alas he did not and rather you felt pressurised to move faster (particularly given how fast they go ordinarily) although I'm sure this was also part of the reason for leaving him with me even if not one Casiano admitted to.
Around 12 I was nearing the top of what I was convinced was Dead Woman's Pass and tried to ask. Silence. Dead Womans Pass I said pointing at the summit. Further silence. Perhaps it wasn't and I was being an idiot and thinking a rise was in fact the summit as had been the ase numerous times before that day already. I tried a final time by making a steeple with hands and pointing. He nodded vigorously. YES!! I ran up the hill at an incredible speed, overtaking people (soaking wet people I might add as it had been raining very heavily for the past few hours) reached the summit and collapsed on to a rock and took in the view. It was blurred by the rain and my ridiculous poncho, but it was stunning all the same. From here on in it was downhill (or so were to believe) and so after a 5 minute rest and photo oppportunity I began my descent down the steps that had now entirely become a waterfall from the rain. It was a bit tricky in places, large drops made more difficult with all the water, but I made it down quickly and arrived at camp about 10 minutes behind the main group as they'd taken the descent at a somewhat more leisurely pace and taken a longer break at the summit.
The feeling of illness was now pretty much gone and I felt much better and was starving so I wolfed down lunch.
The next morning started wet. It had rained throughout the night and Casiano our guides tent had flooded. Poor Casiano, he didn't let it bother him tho and after breakfast we headed out on our last full day. It started uphill and I managed to be not entirely awful only 10 minutes at most behind the rest of the group and nearly always within eyesight. After reaching our final uphill summit I celebrated very vocally to eveyone's amusement and Casiano had me lead the group downhill, which was significantly easier going and managed to stay ahead for the majority of it - major confidence boost.
I'm first into camp - a miracle by anyone's standards - albeit because half the group went off in an unintended and longer direction. And I don't know whether I was more surprised or if the porters were, given how much they'd been helping me in the past few days. We had happy hour - popcorn and juice - and then went off to look at a pretty well preserved inca site close up.
The camp site we were staying in had a bar, which was very much appreciated and in it we had a drink and decided what exactly we should do for our "guapo" ceremony as it was expected to us to sing a song or do a skit or something as a way of saying thank you (along with the generous tip that they would be receiving). We decided to do a history of the setting up of Llama Path, narrated by John and acted out by the rest of us, translated by Casiano for the benefit of the guapos who presumably thought we'd entirely lost the plot. Rob in particular had an excellent Casiano impression going on incorporating all of his catchphrases that we'd managed to pick up on on our trip. We then returned to the bar where we played some card games before heading to bed ready for a VERY early start the next day.
And before you knew it it was 3:30am and we had the gaupos waking us up as usual by banging on the outside of the tent. At least we were met with coca tea each time. After a quick breakfast and trip to the toilet. We left the campsite just after 4am and got to the final check point at 4:30am a full hour before the gates open and were the first group there - well done us! We were all in high spirits despite the hour, the end was in sight and Machu Pichu ridiculously close now. Casiano tried to suggest we not bother with the passport stamp to save time and give us the greatest head start possible. This suggestion was met by a stony silence quickly followed by precise instructions from everyone about where exactly each stamp should go.
5:30am came, the gates were opened and we were off in the dark into the dark wilderness of the final part of the inca trail. And so for an hour and a half or so we were running through the lessening darkness of the Inca trail, torches in hand, and then delayering and removing ponchos as the sweltering morning sun took hold. Theres not even much to say about this portion of the trail as we were very much in a "the end is in sight - run!" situation. That was until we came to the Monkey Steps - 50m of steep, near vertical Incan steps. I'd have been more comfortable climbing a 50m ladder. But as I scrambled up the steps on all fours I was reassured by Cassiano's words that morning that the Sun Temple was at its summit. Well if Casiano isn't a little liar! There was no temple, no crumbling ruins, not so much as a stray rock at the top of those steps! Just more trees and the never-ending trail. Thankfully it was only 10 minutes along the path and the view was spectacular. Whilst Machu Pichu was under cloud cover, and at that altitude its hard for it not to be, it was undeniably Machu Pichu - we had made it - it was there! Like actually right in front of us - the end was ACTUALLY in sight. And down the gentle decent to Machu Pichu spirits were high and everyone was relaxed and an hour later we got our final passport stamp - a nice big picture of Machu Pichu.
And Machu Pichu was awesome. Theres no other way to describe it, over looking the fact that Lucy fell asleep during Casiano's little talk at the begining (although this was a matter of sheer exhaustion and not one of bordom). Its ridiculous to think the place wasn't found until like the 1950s and the locals were all so blase about the whole thing and were like "yeah thats Machu Pichu" and everyone was like like "wow, thats a totally big deal." Casiano gave us a walk through some of the major sights, our cameras basically recording every step we took, and then he left us to go off and explore on our own. There are some amazing photos of the place so if you can view them on facebook I suggest you take a gander.
We then took the bus to Agues Callientes where we were to meet up with everyone again (I should point out I was with John, Rob and Jem at this point and not with Lucy) but we got ridiculously lost trying to find the restaurant as a police officer had pointed us in the entire wrong direction, but we soon found it and I enjoyed a tasty pizza before handing over a very generous tip to Casiano so he could buy himself his own MP3 player. It was also given to him in some rather intricate origami Yen had done, apparently learnt from years of folding bus tickets.
We got on the train and got off at Ollyantambo concentration camp - I s*** you not its what it looked like, high barbed wire fences, everyone being ushered along this dirt track road to stalls and nothingness we were convinced that they were intent on keeping Machu Pichu a secret by holding us there or something and after a laborious trek to the bus were seated and swiftly fell asleep.