So we finally got here.The Inca Trail has been on the agenda since we booked it over three months ago back in Nicaragua.The Peruvian government have slapped a limit on the number of people who can enter the trail each day, necessitating an early booking and making the experience all the more exclusive.Of course, anyone can jump on a train from Cusco to visit Machu Picchu, but arriving at dawn at the Sun Gate high above the citadel on Machu Picchu mountain, at the end of three days of trekking through some of the most amazing scenery in the world, is a unique experience and was worth every penny.
The Inca Trail exceeded our expectations in almost every way.The terrain was much more beautiful than we had expected, and the experience of trekking, camping and exploring the Inca sites was a lot more fun than we had could have hoped for too.Our tour company, Peru Treks, was exceptional; they treated our porters very well and made the experience really memorable.Our guide seemed to be the most enthusiastic on the trail, and was a fountain of knowledge about the history of his Quechua-speaking ancestors.We were outrageously lucky with the weather too: on a trail said to routinely experience all four seasons in one day, we didn't witness more than 5 minutes of (daytime) rain on the whole trek, and the weather was generally pleasantly balmy.
The trail set off 82km from Cuzco on the Urubamba River on an easy hike up to the first camp site, where we settled down for the first of many amazing meals deftly served up by the cook and his team with their incredible portable kitchen.Along the way we stopped at the first of the big Inca sites on route, Patallacta, a fairly big collection of buildings and terraces curving round the side of a valley.
The second day was probably the most difficult, involving a four-hour climb all the way up to the notorious 'Dead Woman's Pass' at a dizzying 4,215m, so named because of the resemblance the rock formations share with a naked woman lying down.Here we climbed up the 'boob' to gain a spectacular view of the two valleys either side of the pass.We stayed our second night down the Pacaymayu River valley on the other side.
Day three was not as extreme but was a lot longer and arguably just as difficult.We had to hike out of the valley again in the morning at 3,950m, stopping at the Incan building called Runkuraqay along the way up, before dropping down into the next valley to visit the much larger Inca site called Sayaqmarka: translated as 'inaccessible town'.This place had been heavily restored and was pretty impressive, offering amazing views into the Aobamba valley, which we then scaled the side of after lunch.After walking along the top of the valley for a while, along a ridge through the cloud forest, we finally dropped over into the Urubamba River valley, home of Machu Picchu mountain and the tourist town of Aguas Calientes (Hot Springs).The last part of the day involved climbing down a knee-destroying 2000 steps to the recently-discovered site called Wiñay Wayna - a collection of terraces used by the Incas to grow food - and to our campsite nearby.The lost city of Machu Picchu was kept tantalisingly out of sight behind the mountain, but whilstles from the trains ferrying passengers from Cusco to Aguas Calientes could be heard echoing through the valley from our campsite.
The morning of the last day was a hurried affair involving getting up at 3.45am in order to be one of the first groups at the locked gate guarding the last stretch of the trail, which didn't open until after 5am.Once the gate had opened the, highly unnecessary, one-hour high-speed race to the Sun Gate began, the whistle of the first train-load of tourists rapidly approaching Machu Picchu only adding to the tension.After scrambling up the final few steep steps we emerged, knackered, at the Sun Gate before sunrise.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust and for a while I couldn't find what I was looking for.But then, sitting high up on a hill some way in the distance, like a grey big scar on the green landscape, I spotted the massive citadel of Machu Picchu in all its grandeur without a spot of cloud on it - we were so lucky!The clouds did come and go though, and when we got down to the ruins we had to wait from time to time for the mists to clear so we could take photos.We got some first-class picture postcard shots of Machu Picchu though, which made everyone very
happy, and in the end it was hot and sunny for the rest of the day.
Freddy took us on a guided tour of the important sites for a couple of hours, after which we were left to roam about the ruins.I occupied myself exploring the endless maze of rooms and staircases on the East side, and found a spot on a terrace looking down at Aguas Calientes to sit down and take it all in.It really is an incredible site.It is all the more amazing to think that the only reason it wasn't destroyed is because the Incas abandoned it at the beginning of their 37-year-long fight with the Spanish conquistadors, leaving enough time for the jungle to reclaim the area and cover Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail before the Spanish could destroy it.The Incas intended to return, and there is evidence everywhere that they just dropped what they were doing and left.However, the writing was on the wall for the Incas and they were never able to return.The trail was saved though: the Spanish never found it, and Machu Picchu was not 'rediscovered' until the American, Hiram Bingham, was led there by a local boy in 1911, 400 years after it was abandoned.
Down in Aguas Calientes we had some lunch and visited the unremarkable hot springs before heading back to Cusco on the train in the evening.