Monday 10th October: Finally arrived in Lima.
After a long and terrible 3 day bus journey, we almost cried tears of joy when we finally reached our hotel (it had been pre-booked as part of our Inca Trail package). The hotel was definitely the most luxurious place we'd stayed in so far and after 3 days on a smelly bus, I couldn't wait to have a shower and put some clean clothes on.As we checked in we were told we had a briefing for the trek and needed to meet in the lobby very shortly - that much needed shower would have to wait until later. We went down to the lobby and met with our group who we were going to be spending the next four days with and to be honest our first impressions weren't the best.
This was made worse by the fact that as soon as the Gap Adventures rep arrived, one woman from the group went angrily straight over to her to complain that the hotel was not up to standard, this was not what they had been promised and they were disgusted. Her and her partner then left saying they would like to cancel their trip and would expect a full refund. I was shocked that someone would sacrifice their opportunity to do the Inca Trail because what seemed a perfectly nice hotel wasn't good enough for them (the Inca Trail has a strict quota of 250 walkers and 250 porters a day and gets booked up months in advance). It was probably a blessing in disguise for the rest of us - if a 4 star hotel wasn't good enough, what would they say about tents and squat toilets for the next 4 days?!
Anyway, the rep took the remaining 10 of us into the conference room and I was rather embarrassed to meet my fellow trekkers for the first time in dirty clothes and matted hair. We were served our first Pisco Sour; a Peruvian cocktail made from the local spirit pisco (white brandy) with lemon juice, egg white, sugar syrup and a dash of angostura bitters. It was delicious and looked and tasted just like lemon meringue pie in a glass… but much stronger! We listened to what was thankfully a very brief briefing and were told we would be picked up at 9am the following morning for our flight to Cusco. We got chatting to Eveline, a lovely Dutch girl, who was travelling on her own and didn't really get to meet the rest of the group until the next day at the airport...
Tuesday 11th October: we don't touch down in Cusco.
We boarded the minibus to the airport (I embarrassingly got called back into the hotel as I've forgotten to pay for a juice from the minibar - oops!). On route the rep told us that the earlier flight to Cusco had not yet taken off as the weather there was so bad. However, everything seemed to be alright with our flight, so we took off, got to Cusco… but couldn't land because of the weather conditions. The cabin crew announced the airport had been closed, so the plane turned around and headed back to Lima - 4 hours later we landed right back were we started.
We got off the plane, collected our bags and headed back to the check-in desk to see what to do next.When we got to the front of the queue, the woman told us there were no more flights that day and that we'd have to be put on the 6am flight the following day. This wouldn't have been so bad if we hadn't seen that the two flights leaving immediately after ours landed in Cusco without a problem and some of the people from our flight had been hurriedly rushed onto these flights by their tour rep. We were very disappointed as we were supposed to have that day in Cusco to relax and explore the beauitful city, whilst acclimatizing to the high altitude (approx 3200 metres). We called our rep who eventually turned up at the airport and explained that we would have to pay for our own accommodation in Lima that night.
Frustratingly, it was an all inclusive tour and we had prepaid for a hotel in Cusco for that evening. Instead, we had to spend another night in crappy, industrialised Lima - at our expense! We all argued with her, spoke to her boss and realised we were not going to get the hotel paid for but made sure we got a free transfer to the airport the next morning. The hotel we'd stayed in the night before was too expensive so they organised a cheap hotel in a grotty area of Lima for us. After a long taxi ride from the airport to the dingy hotel, we dumped our bags and headed out for dinner after wasting the entire day at the airport. There were hardly any places to eat and we ended up in this bizarre 'restaurant' with more antiques and bric-a-brac than tables?! We left most of the food for fear of poisoning and decided the day was a complete right off (although we were still relieved to be off that damn bus!). We went back to the hotel for an early night, hoping the flight would take off AND land the next day otherwise we would miss our chance to do the Inca Trail.
Wednesday 12th October: we landed in Cusco!
An early start, and much to our relief we landed in Cusco with a rep waiting to take us to the hotel. We had some breakfast and met with our guide, a Peruvian guy called Ozzie, who gave us a more detailed briefing about the trip. After organising our gear for the trek (we were allowed a 6kg duffle bag with our sleeping bag, tent, clothes, etc in which the porters carried for us and a day bag we carried with our water, camera and sunscreen in). The rest of our things were left in storage at the hotel and at 10am we left for our first day of the tour. Our group (1 Dutch, 2 Swedes, 3 Canadians, 2 Aussies and us 2 Brits) boarded the minibus with our local guide and travelled high over Cusco admiring the incredible views over the city.
Cusco is America 's oldest continuously inhabited city which was founded in the 12th century and is steeped in history, tradition and legend from the days of the Incas and the subsequent Spanish invasion. We passed many colonial buildings, the archaeological Inca ruins of Saqsaywaman (meaning 'satisfied falcon') and the huge display on the hills stating 'Viva Peru' before arriving at the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Sacred Valley is a lush agricultural region that continues to supply the city of Cuzco with much of its produce. We looked out over the open views of the farming plateaus and as we walked amongst the ruins we were already beginning to feel the affect of the altitude.
This was our first exploration of Inca ruins and our guide pointed out a burial mountain behind the site honeycombed with hundreds of Inca tombs that have long since been looted of the silver and offerings that Incas were traditionally mummified with. After our guided tour here, the bus took us for a very brief stop at a colourful artisan market in Pisac. The market was overwhelming, with rows upon rows of beautiful, handmade goods. There was everything from Alpaca scarves and gloves, to sillver jewelry and leather bags and we wished we'd have had longer to look around.
The next stop was lunch, it took a while to get to the restaurant and by the time we arrived we were all really hungry, which was just as well. It was an ample all you can eat buffet of the most delicious food using traditional Peruvian recipes (lots of potato!). As well as a mouth-watering dessert table with rice pudding, strawberry mousse, passionfruit cheesecake, kiwi mousse, creme brulee, chocolate cake and a feast of other things - yummeeee!
The day trip finished in the picturesque village of Ollantaytambo; the site of another large Inca ruin. The town and fortress of Ollantaytambo are strategically situated overlooking the beautiful Urubamba River Valley. This major ruin site is known as the best surviving example of Inca urban planning and engineering. It is admired for its huge steep terraces guarding the Inca Fortress and for being one of the few places where the Spanish lost a major battle during the conquest. Here Ozzie explained some of the mythology and theories behind some of the ruins, which were all really interesting to hear.
Our guide, Ozzie, was from Cusco and was clearly very passionate about the history and legends of the Incas. He had been a guide for over 10 years, and had spent a lot of time learning English in Machester and London and had a really funny accent with a twist of cockney and Australian in it, as well as lots of northern sayings which was all very amusing. In the evening, we stayed in a hotel in the town (which was a pleasant surprise as we thought we were camping that night) before heading out for the start of the hike the next morning.
Thursday 13th October: first day of the Inca Trail.
We had a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu which was physically challenging but so worthwhile and one of the best things I have ever done. It was a 40-km (25 mile) hike, often steep, with 3 high passes to be crossed, one of which reached an elevation of 4200m (13776 ft). To Ozzie's amusement I kept referring to 'Machu Picchu' as 'Machu Pichu' (apparently I was pronouncing it wrong?!) which means old willy, as opposed to old mountain.
After breakfast, we boarded the minibus for a two hour drive to the starting point of the Inca Trail at an altitude of 2,380 metres. We bought some coca leaves for the trek, a dark, green leaf which the Incas have harvested and grown for hundreds of years and the chewing of them is very much a part of the Andean culture. It's very bitter tasting and is supposed to reduce, hunger, fatigue and cold whilst increasing alertness and helping against altitude sickness. Cocaine is also derived from the leaves using a long chemical process. I tried chewing them and it did seem to have an effect (you know it's working when your lip goes numb), but the taste was so horrible, I stuck to coca tea and coca sweets after that. (I gave the rest of my leaves away as it's illegal to take the leaves out of Peru - and I didn't fancy another run in with border control!)
We got to the official checkpoint, where the railway track runs by (there's a train to Machu Picchu if you don't want to walk it), had a group photo and then queued to get our tickets and passports checked (you need your passport to do the Inca Trail and get a cool Machu Picchu stamp). They have a really strict quota of 500 people a day (250 walkers and 250 porters) to preserve the Inca Trail (which is why the trail gets booked up months in advance) and all the porters were queuing to get their HUGE packs weighed in - I really don't know how they do it?!
The poor porters carried the majority of the gear for the hike, all we had to carry was a small daypack with water, rain gear, snacks, a camera, etc. They are allowed to carry 25kg EACH and if they are found to be carrying more, the tour company they are working for is fined. It's good they have started to regulate it, as the porters used to carry up to 50kg each, which is a ridiculous amount, especially on their small Peruvian frames. Even now, the porters are only allowed to do the job for around five years as it put's such a strain on their bodies. Each porter practically runs up the mountain (in small leather sandals with the strongest calf muscles I have ever seen!) to get to camp a couple of hours ahead of the trekkers to set up the tents, prepare a 3 course dinner and boil fresh water for us to drink. They do this three times a day, each time having to tidy up and pack everything away up after we've left camp. Overtake us on the trail, to get ahead and set up camp again - EXHAUSTING!! You see them running past with sweat pouring from them - I even saw one porter carrying a full calor gas container on his back!
The Inca Trail is about 60km in total, the highest summit along the walk is reached on the second day at 4215m, and the city of Machu Picchu is at the end of the trek at 2600m. Just as we set off, the ankle strap on one of my designer hitec walking sandals broke and was hanging off my foot like a flip flop. The first day walking was quite flat but still quite difficult due to the lack of oxygen in the air from the high altitude. We passed a number of Inca ruins along the way, which were used as rest stops by the Incas on the way to Machu Picchu. We admired the breathtaking views from the high plateau areas of the dense cloud forest, as well as lots of flora, including miniature and large orchids, and fiery rhododendron bushes along the way.
We arrived at the first camp for lunch and could not believe the hard work the porters had gone to. There was a dining tent set up with table, tablecloth and chairs, a bowl of hot water to wash our hands before lunch. As we arrived, all the porters stood around clapping to congratulate us, which was rather embarrassing considering the hard work they had done. There were 14 porters in our group which included a head porter who organizes all the campsites, a head chef, an assistant chef, waiter and the rest of the porters who help set up the tents and carry all the equipment. The waiter served our delicious three-course meal with soup to start, then stuffed fresh trout and a selection of teas. The best food I'd had in South America so far - really tasty, healthy food which was all the more impressive as the porter's had prepared it with no proper kitchen facilities.
After lunch, we set off for our campsite for that evening, leaving the porters to clean up, pack up and having to overtake us to get to the next camp to get everything ready again. After about 14km, we arrived at the campsite for the first night at about 4pm, to another round of applause from the porters. Once again the dining tent had been set up with afternoon tea of biscuits, popcorn and hot drinks. The porters had also put up our tents with bowls of hot water and soap waiting for us (there was no washing facilities at the campsite, just two squatting toilets on the hill). There was even a local old lady selling chocolate bars and energy drinks at a ridiculously inflated price - which if you want it you pay it as there are no Tesco metros on the Inca Trail! Another delicious three-course dinner was then served at 7pm (the porters have even done origami with the napkins on the dining table), then hot drinks and an early night while two of the porters stayed awake all night guarding our tents.
Friday 15th October: I got BAD altitude sickness.
I woke up early morning scrappling to get out of the tent like a caged animal - I felt DREADFUL!! I felt sick, dizzy and catastrophically dehydrated and was desperately trying to unzip the tent to get some fresh air. I tried to make it uphill to one of the squat toilets but was too weak and collapsed on the floor, with the stench of pee making me feel even sicker. Luckily, someone was just coming out of the toilet and went to get the two guides, Ozzie and Luis. I honestly couldn't remember the last time I had felt that ill, Ellie looked at me and said I was so pale I looked transparent - I had terrible altitude sickness. The guides poured some pure alcohol mixed with a local herb on my head and then made me take a really deep breathe and inhale it which slowly made me feel better… then I needed the toilet. I had the worst diarhoea of my life - and on a smelly squat toilet!
The night before we'd been joking about how disgusting it would be to fall down the squat hole and there I was feeling totally weak and faint, trying to hold myself over a squat toilet thinking last nights joke may come true. Embarrassingly the toilet was overlooking the campsite so everyone saw me come out and no one else could use it - although I had tried my best to wash it down with a bucket of water. I headed back to the tent and the guides weren't sure if I was going to be able to do the rest of the trek. They gave me some iodine tea to try to settle my stomach and we delayed setting off for a bit. Determined to do the trek, I bought some gatorade and set off hoping I would be able to make the top.
The second day climb much harder than the day before, it was a steep 12km trek uphill from 2980 metres to 4215 metres. The air kept getting remarkably thinner which really affected your breathing, everyone in the group was struggling so we just took it slowly, stopping for frequent breaks and to get photographs of the incredible scenery. Amusingly, there were local woman selling snacks along the way, and the higher we got, the higher the prices! We had an early lunch and the porters served us a delicious, warm herbal drink called chica morada. Ir's made from purple corn, pineapple and lime and is supposed to help you acclimatize - so I had two cups!
After lunch, we climbed the steepest part of the trek and it was really difficult as we struggled to breath from the lack of oxygen in the air. It was so satisfying to reach the highest part of the trek, known as Dead Woman's Pass at 4215 metres (13,769ft) above sea level. Relieved and exhausted, we celebrated reaching the summit and took photographs of our accomplishment. It was cold and windy at the top, and amazing to look down on the trail we had just climbed.
Late afternoon we arrived at our campsite at around 3600m, it was much larger than the previous campsite, with lots of other guide companies and flushing toilets! The porters made us some hot cheese and apple turnovers for afternoon tea, then a fantastic three course dinner of soup, spaghetti Bolognese and even chocolate pudding for dessert! Yet again presented on a large dining table with tablecloth and origami napkins - so impressive! We were all shattered and it was a bitter cold night so after dinner we got tucked up in our tents and had a much needed early night.
Saturday 16th October: we said THANK YOU to the porters.
We were woken by a porter at our tent door with hot tea and water, and I was very relieved to have woken up without feeling sick. We had breakfast and the porters had made pancakes with GAP (the name of the guide company) written on them in toffee sauce. After breakfast, we left the porters to pack up the campsite and continued on our trek. There was more uphill walking to the second pass at 3990m, where we enjoyed superb views of the snow-capped Cordillera Vilcabamba mountains. We were all still tired from the day before, so Ozzie tied a snickers bar to the end of a stick and dangled it in front of us to see if it would make us walk any faster, haha!
We then stopped at some Inca Ruins to make an offering to mother earth, where people place a stone or some coca leaves on a high scared rock which is supposed to be good luck from Inca legends and myths. After lunch, most of the walking was downhill which wasn't as enjoyable as walking uphill as it was very tough on our knees. We passed a number of Inca ruins and walked through some beautiful cloud forest with lots of wildlife and flowers as well as a lake. We then reached the highest point of the third pass at 3700m (12136 ft). We were rewarded for our hard work with beautiful views of the Urubamba Valley below. We then proceeded to the serene ruins of Phuyupatamarca (the 'Town above the Clouds'), at about 3650 m (11972 ft) above sea level.
We walked about 16km that day and arrived at our final campsite about 5pm. This was our last night and we were just a short hike from Machu Picchu. It was a very large campsite, with a bar and disco, as well as flushing toilets and hot showers. You had to pay to use the showers and there was a massive queue, so we didn't bother as we'd gone so far without one and would be back at the hotel the following night. We had a last supper together and did a collection for the porters. In South America, it's courtesy to always tip guides/porters and ours had definitely earnt it.
After dinner we were introduced to the whole team of porters who had looked after us so well, and the two chefs even had proper chef's hats and aprons on (the crease marks and cleanliness of them made me suspect they had only been worn that evening, ha!). I was nominated to present the porters with the money, and Ozzie translated as I said a huge thank you to them for all their hard work. They all looked very grateful and shook our hands as that was the last evening we would see them. Despite the bar and disco, we went to bed after dinner as we had a very early start in the morning to get to the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise over the city of Machu Picchu - the pinacle of the Inca Trail!
Sunday 17th October: we arrived at the city of Machu Picchu.
The porters woke us up with our usual cup of hot tea or coffee but this time at 3.30am… we got ready really quickly, had a light breakfast and set off for the entrance gate to the final part of the trek leading to Mach Picchu. There is an official checkpoint which opens at 5.30am, then it's a 7km dash to the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise as you look down over the city of Machu Picchu. It's a race between all the guide companies (250 walkers) who can get to the gate first to have the best views over Machu Picchu as the sun rises. So as soon as we were all ready, we put our head torches on and set off in the pitch back (and walked past an old man having a poo on one of the squat toilets which knocked me sick at 4am in the morning).
We got to the checkpoint just gone 4am and were very pleased to be the first group there. We waited in the freezing cold, as other groups started to arrive who seemed disappointed they weren't first. As soon as the gate opened, we followed Ozzie who was practically running to make sure the groups behind us didn't catch us up. It was a 7km mad dash along a narrow, rocky path with a near vertical climb of 50 stone steeps at the end up to the Sun Gate - we were totally out of breath, but made it to the top and arrived at the Sun Gate just before 7am.
We waited for everyone in the group to catch us up, excited for our first glimpse of Machu Picchu as the mist began to clear. It was raining and cloudy, but we still managed to get a good view and it was clear to see why the city is considered one of the wonders of the world. There is really no way to describe the first views of Machu Picchu, as the mist rises off the mountains early in the morning and the famous ruin appears in front of you - a definite highlight of our time in South America!
We then trekked down to the city to explore the site and as the rain cleared it became a scorching day and the views were spectacular. We spent about 4 hours walking around Machu Picchu whilst Ozzie told us about the legends and myths surrounding the city. The term 'Machu Picchu' means old mountain and is both the best and the least known of the Inca ruins. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors and archaeologists today can do no more than speculate on its function.
The local Quechua farmers in the area knew of Machu Picchu for centuries, but it was not until an 11-year-old boy led the American historian Hiram Bingham (who was in search of Vilcabamba) to the site on July 24, 1911, that the rest of the world became aware of its existence. At that time the site was covered in thick vegetation, and Bingham and his team returned in 1912 and 1915 to clear the growth.
Over the years, much work has been done on excavating and studying the site. Despite these efforts, many unanswered questions remain as to why Machu Picchu was abandoned by the Incas. We walked amongst the very well preserved ruins at the site, however, some had partly collapsed during the removal of the trees which had grown over the ruins. The craftsmanship of the buildings was unbelievable, there were temples, terraces and stonehouses all designed to worship the sun, irrigation systems and agricutiral platforms to harvest coca leaves and maize and it was all built by hand by the Incas. It was incredible to see and was definately one of the best experiences of my life.
After lunch we were all really tired and caught a bus to Aguas Callientes (Hot Springs). It's a small town with natural thermal baths you can rest in. So we all had a well deserved lunch and headed to the hot springs to soak our aching muscles. We were all really looking forward to it, but it was another steep uphill walk and we joked that it had better be worth it as we were all so shattered. What a DISAPPOINTMENT - there were four man made pools and they were disgusting! The water was so filthy you couldn't even see the bottom - it was like sharing everyone else's dirty bath water. To top it all off there were some ominous looking couples in there and black sandflies everywhere which were eating us alive. I refused to get in and just dunked my legs in from the side, daydreaming about my hot shower back at the hotel. Everyone else got in the water for about 5 minutes until Eveline announced she could smell pee and we decided to leave. The showers were cold and I had no soap, so I wiped myself with baby wipes and was covered in painful sandfly bites - ouch!
We went back to meet Ozzie to get the train back to Cusco, which is run by the same company who run the Orient Express. The train journey was bliss - the seats were soooo comfy, there were windows in the roof so we could enjoy panoramic views all the way, and we had a free sandwich and drink as the two trolley dollies did a fashion show for us! The man and woman who had just served our refreshments, later strutted down the train in a variety of alpaca wool garments - all very entertaining.
The last part of the journey was by bus and we got back to our hotel in Cusco about 8pm. Ozzie wanted us to do the 24 hour challenge and stay out until 3.30am, as we'd been up since 3.30am (I shoud have saved those coca leaves afterall!). However, we were all really tired and rather reluctant to do so, so decided to take a quick shower and meet for dinner at 9pm. We presented Ozzie with a collection we'd done for him for being such a great guide, but after a few cocktails we were all practically falling asleep in the restaurant. Reflecting on what had just been an amazing 4 day's trekking in the mountains, we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved good night's sleep.