So on the 1st day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: the start of the Inca trail climb.
We rose early and met with our guide, Henry, who would lead us up over mountain and down dale to reach the famous Machu Picchu on our fourth day of walking. We drove a short distance to the place where we would meet our porters and cooks. As we were a group of 15 we had 21 porters to carry our main bags, tents, cooking gear, food etc. We were left with just a day pack to carry.
We started at kilometre 82 and as we prepared there was drizzle in the air. The ponchos came out- for info - ponchos are far better than water proof coats. They let the air in so your don't get too hot with the added bonus of covering your day pack! As it was Christmas Day Santa hats were compulsory. With walking poles extended, we were armed and ready to go. We set off and hit the first control gate. The Inca Trail is limited to 200 people per day so passes are a rarity and have to be booked months in advance. Your ticket is linked to your passport and they really do check it is you! After a slight delay we passed through and were ready to go.
We had already been told that the first day was an easy day walking 12km over relatively smooth terrain. This was certainly the case, and after a brief uphill struggle it flattened out and the Christmas carols began. It helped the walking, but maybe not the ears! At one point however, we hit an uphill that we were not prepared for and here the carols stopped as we struggled for breath. I also got an intense case of stitch - not conducive to walking! After a quick rest, we carried on down the hill to a river. But on the other side was a steep hill to climb with steps. We were told that this would give us an idea of what the next day would be like. Uneven steps climbing sharply. Even so, it looked quite do-able and I felt quite positive. What a fool I was! The path took us to a the start of the ruins - Llactapata - an old look out village. You could still see the terraces and houses. Our guide also pointed out the valley that most people would have followed to Machu Picchu. They only took the trail as part of holy experience!!! It was an exciting start.
The path carried on with relatively ease for the rest of the day and by mid-afternoon we were rocking up to our camp site. The last stretch, however, became a steeper climb and the altitude had now increased to 3000m making the air a lot thinner and me slightly breathless and glad to reach camp. Our porters had run ahead and we found most of the camp was set up whilst they were already off playing on a nearby football ground! We cleaned up and settled down for an afternoon snack. With the day accomplished there was not a lot to do but relax, look out over the view and rest. Dinner was good and, with it being Christmas Day, Katy and I had brought a bottle of wine to celebrate the day. We settled down to bed early ready to start Day 2.
On the second day of Christmas my true love brought to me: the hardest climb of all!
This was the day of challenge - we would only be going about 9 km but this would involve 5 hours of constant uphill climbing. We had already decided the day before to do the whole day's walk before lunch having been told there was no where really practical to have lunch. With this in mind we set off. The first hour was fine, gradually increasing in height, and Henry keeping a slow but steady speed. The scenery was beautiful as we climbed steadily higher and the valleys fell further away. We passed a house which had steam coming off the roof, the little sun we had evaporating the moisture lying there. It was lovely going. After our first break this then changed. The path gave way to steps, uneven in lay and depth and with a steady rain that had started to fall, wet, making the going difficult. Soon the group began to break into smaller groups as we all found our own speed.
We were now climbing from about 3000m to 4198m and the altitude started to affect me and every so often I would have a head rush. It also got a lot colder and with the rain, it was hard to use my fingers to open water bottles etc. Luckily, I found that my pace matched two others, Alex and Lynn, and thanks to them and their encouragement they kept me going. The climb was constant and just when you thought the pass was in sight (we were aiming for Dead Woman´s Pass - aptly named!) you would turn a corner and realise the pass was even further away way and see on the horizon coloured ponchos inching towards it. We took constant breaks but I must admit it was painful. At one point we saw a sign and thought it must be the pass but no! - the sign was only for the nature reserve. Alex and Lynn kept me going, but it was a case of 10 steps and stop. We used the passing porters as excuses to break, as they squeezed past - much of the trail was only wide enough for single file. As we climbed, the view was impressive but then cloud swirled in and took over.
Finally, we reached the top. The summit was by now covered in cloud and very cold but, even so, we took 10 minutes to celebrate surviving before walking downhill for another hour and half to our camp. This should have been easy but, due to the weather conditions, was petrifying. The steps were uneven and slippery and at some points turned into streams of water. I was really glad for my poles supporting me as I slowly inched my way down. Even so, I did slip several times. You have to remember that during the whole of our struggle, porters would be running past as they headed towards their next break, hurtling up hills and hurtling down, carrying up to 25 kilos. They are extremely fit. We had been told that the quickest porter completed the whole 4 day Inca Trail in 3 hours 45. Now that is impressive!
At 2pm Lynn and I finally reached camp (Alex had rushed off down the hill ahead of us). The hardest day was done. It was horrible and rewarding at the same time. The earliest members of our group had got there was 11am. Amazing! But we were not the last! As we waited for the others, warming up and drying off, we played cards to past the time and generally congratulated ourselves. Everyone but one member, Radka, had arrived by about 4.30pm. By dinner we were still waiting for her to turn up. We were getting a bit worried and our head guide had sent some porters off to meet her and our assistant guide who had remained at the back of the group. By 7 she turned up, smiling! She had taken her time but had got there in the end. In reward for our efforts, our cook had even baked a cake. Well done us! The rain had not stopped and we headed to bed, exhausted but satisfied, listening to it pattering on our tents.
On the third day of Christmas, my true left sent to me: a day of ruins.
We started off knowing that this would be our longest day of 16km and with 2 passes at 3998m and 3700m to climb over. Again the rain accompanied us but by now we were used to it. Our guide led the way at a steady pace and soon we were once more climbing up ancient Inca steps. Half way up the first pass there was the ruin of Runkuracay. Circular in style and overlooking the valley, it was a great opportunity to take a break and learn more about the Inca ruins before continuing to the first pass. Once more the scenery was a joy to see passing as we did a very still lake with stunning reflections of the nearby mountains but then the mere concentration to get to the top took over, whilst the porters kept running past! Finally we got to 4000m, and on the whole, a lot easier than the previous day.
We rested here for quite a while waiting for the whole group to catch up. Once again Radka was far behind. Then it was another downhill walk, true to form wet and slippery. The group stayed more together as we wound our way around the hillside. After a while it became a case of putting one foot in front of the other and just hoping not to slide! Soon however more ´bloody´ Inca steps faced us. We had reached the ruin of Sayacmarc which translated means 'inaccessible town' and boy was it! The ruins were perfectly protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. Even the steps up to it were narrow and literally fell away at the side. Poor Dawn, who is scared of heights, had quite a few problems making her way back down them! The ruins were large scale and impressive, but my legs were a bit too tired to be wandering around them!
Back down the steps and we were on our way but this time towards a lunch stop. Again the heavens opened and down came the rain. Luckily, once there we could shelter in the lunch tent. Then it was on to the next pass. This was like walking up a waterfall at first but no where near as bad as any of the other passes. The scenery became stunning too. We were truly in the cloud forest. On one side of the path was cloud but on the other beautiful mosses, fern, mushrooms and flowers. We even found some tiny pink hallucinogenic mushrooms! We felt as though we had been transported back to Inca times. The path had also evened out giving us a chance to appreciate the lovely walk. It was serene and I think my favourite bit of the trail. We reached the height of the pass at 3,700m and the ruin Phuyupatamarca but due to the weather, we did not stay long and pressed on.
The last bit was all down hill, with a thousand or so steps. The downhill was actually worse than the uphill. After a while I got a crick in my neck from concentrating and looking down so much! So I threw caution to the wind and went for it. I just wanted it over and done with, to be at my camp site and to be dry. Nearly running, I started over taking people and finally the camp site came into sight. I had completed Day 3.
Some of the group had run the downhill so were already there. They had gone so fast they had even beat the porters! At this camp site there was a shower but I forgo it as a) they had run out of towels and b) I could not imagine getting wet again after having dried out. It would only be one more day until a proper shower so instead I turned my attention to the magic of a bar and a proper vodka and coke. This was pure bliss. Again we settled down early and Radka still had not turned up! She did not turn up until nearly 10pm! We felt sorry for her but even more for the assistant guide who had had to stick with her the entire time.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love brought to me; Machu Picchu.
Rising at 4 am, we prepared ourselves for the final day. The gates to the last part of the trail did not open until 5.30am so we had to kick around waiting in anticipation. So did all the other walkers. Then they opened and the sprint was on. This last bit was only 6km of relatively easy terrain. The rain had stopped and the view across the valley was stunning. Sheer magnificant mountains towered over the valley with the river snaking through. We stopped frequently to take pictures. It made up for all the rain. The trail hugged the mountain side and wound around with it. There were less steps and it was fun to walk.
Then, after being lulled into a false sense of security, a tower of steps appeared. Fifty in total which would take us to the Sun Gate. Hauling ourselves up for the final time we reached the Gate. Spread in front of us, cloaked in the occasional cloud and far off, was Machu Picchu. We had made it! Our group had been one of the first groups to reach the Gate. Just as we prepared to leave and other walkers appeared, cloud swirled in and covered the view. We had got there just in time.
With excitement in our steps, we walked the final half hour to the actual city. It was a dream come true and well worth the pain.
So - Machu Picchu - what is the hype? It is known as the Inca´s Lost City and one of the few Inca cities that the Spanish never invaded. It was built around 1430AD and abandoned (though why is still unknown) when the Spanish came to South America around 1530. Why it was built in this particular place is also unknown. In fact very little is known about Machu Picchu. Undiscovered until July 24 1911, Hiram Bingham, an American historian was led up to the city by a local 11 year old boy named Pablito Alvarez. Bingham undertook archaeological studies and completed a survey of the area, coining the name "The Lost City of the Incas", which was the title of his first book. The National Geopgraphic then helped to recover the city from nature.
The city itself is above the Urubamba Valley, nestled between two mountains. It is perched on sheer cliffs which drop vertically for 600m to the valley below. With its own water supply, land to grow food and limited access routes, it was a perfect site for a settlement and easy to defend. The city itself is a testament to the work of the Incas and their professionalism of the stonework.
After being given time to take the classic photos, Henry took us on a tour of Machu Picchu, explaining what is known about the place before we were allowed to wander on our own. It was an amazing sight and something I will remember. The sight of the city nestled in the mountains, standing for centuries looking out on the deep valleys and stunning sheer mountains, will always be imprinted on my mind. On one of the nearby mountains there was a further walk we could have taken but unfortunately we did not have time before our train departed Machu Picchu. Some American tourists, hearing our groans of disappointment, commiserated with us saying what a shame it was that we could not go and how much we would miss out. We then asked how they got to Machu Picchu, to which they exclaimed- by train of course! They had arrived that morning and not attempted the 4 day trail. So much for missing out!
Soon it was time to leave this fabulous site (even though the many steps in the place were killing me - whatever happened to flat??!!) and to get the bus down the hill to the valley where a train would take us back to Ollantaytambo and a bus to Cuzco. Exhilarated that we had completed the trail, it was strange to see bus loads of people taking the easy way up to Machu Picchu- 1000 visitors visit the site a day by bus. We stopped for a spot of lunch before catching the train and just as we sat down the heavens opened. The rain fell hard. All those people who were heading up would have been soaked. It would not have been fun to walk around the city and the cloud would have obscured the view. The three days of rain we walked in made up for that one perfect morning.
Finally, a comfort train whisked us away from this magical experience. It had been tough and I had learnt a lot about myself, my stamina, my need for encouragement etc but it worth it! If I was to return to Machu Picchu I would probably take the train or a different trail but I can now say I completed the Inca Trail and after a 4 day walk, got to stand on the Sun Gate and look out on the magical city of Machu Picchu.