Andrea: The Inca Trail to magnificent Machu Picchu was awesome. This is camping the way it should be: your tent is set up for you by the time you arrive, 3 meals a day are cooked for you plus you get snack-packs for the walk and you can pay extra to hire another porter to carry your stuff! So, one of the porters carried our sleeping bags and our warm clothes that we only needed for night time and we just carried our little backpacks. We didn´t even use everything we had on us, so we figure if we were to do it again we would bring less, but the porter was definitely the way to go. There were 7 of us in total (A couple from England, a Brazilian couple and one single woman from Hong Kong) and only us and the Hong Kong woman sprung for the extra porter. But, by the third day everyone was wishing they had gotten one! It was well worth the extra money.
The first day was an easy introduction. We started at the unceremonious 82-kilometre marker and we all just chatted along the way because there wasn´t much uphill and the path was pretty flat. We only walked for about 5 hours or so, but it didn´t seem like that long. Shortly after José pointed out Wayllabamba, a lodge used by Incas doing this trail and the ruins of the watch tower, we stopped for lunch and they set up a tent and bowls of water for us to wash our hands. They had one bowl for each of us, which was yet another detail we found to be a tad over the top--one bowl for 7 of us would have sufficed. We felt especially bad after seeing the porters race past us with the superfluous bowls plus 24 extra kgs of stuff! Then they brought out cream of asparagus soup and garlic bread and then a chicken dish with rice and potatoes and veggies. We were very impressed with our first lunch and, full to the brim, we carried on walking. By the time we made it to the first camp our tents were up and ready to go. We rested for a few minutes and then it was time for 'tea'. We had popcorn and tea and crackers and then 30 minutes later it was dinner time! No shortage of food on the trip, that´s for sure. Dinner was great again, and we even got dessert and tea afterwards. The only thing that didn´t feel 'luxury' in camping terms (even the mats in the tents were well padded) were the campsite toilets. The bathrooms were disgusting! They were the holes in the ground and were simply gross.
The second day is notoriously difficult so we were all dreading it. The five hour uphill trek to Dead Woman's Pass lived up to its infamy and was terribly straining, but José let us take as many breaks as we needed and the group splintered into smaller groups, each trudging at their own pace. Vern and I were actually the quickest! I do think this might also have had something to do with getting the extra porter because some people had pretty big backpacks. It was so steep and after reaching the summit, we still had two hours of kneecap-rattling downhill to go. So we walked all that way just to go down again - very frustrating. We walked for about 8 or 9 hours that day, but that included all the breaks and lunch so it wasn't that bad. The Brazilian couple was really struggling and even left early the next day to give themselves a head start. But, that second night I was feeling really sick. We had a late lunch and then dinner was served only two hours later so I decided to skip dinner because I couldn´t eat another bite. Vern tried to play down the deliciousness of the spaghetti and meatballs which I missed out on. I was still feeling ill the next morning, the third day, and unfortunately the trek started with a huge uphill and I thought I was going to pass out. But the symptoms passed and, luckily, by the afternoon I was feeling better so all was good. I have no idea what happened, perhaps a blend of altitude sickness and something I'd eaten; it was unpleasant and I was glad when I felt better again to enjoy the breathtaking scenery we were hiking through.
That third day was awesome; the mountain paths were high up and very pretty. Colourful moss lined the rock walls on the parts of the trail covered by overgrowth and we passed through a cave actually cut out of the rock by the Inca trail-makers (but later widened for tourists who are eating three course meals every few hours of this journey). The eight hour walk included trekking through cloud forest and visiting the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, an Inca administration centre which was named "City above the Clouds," and we pushed on to the campsite closest to Machu Picchu. Our group had actually been allocated a campsite further away by the powers that be (which would have been a shorter walk that third day but a longer walk on the fourth day meaning Machu Picchu would have been overrun by tour-bus visitors by the time we reached it) but our guide heard our pleas to get to the citadel as early as possible so he lead us sneakily past the trail watchmen and on to the last campsite. The porters had gone ahead, and finding no sites available they squeezed our tents into a tight area not officially allocated for camping. It was cramped but we were so grateful.
There were some other awesome ruins, Wiñay Wayna (meaning "forever young") there so we went to see these vast terraces in the evening. There were actually warm showers at that last campsite, but they cost money and we heard someone saying that the water wasn't actually hot so we didn't bother. We all smelled so what was the difference? We had our last dinner, tipped and bid farewell to the porters and thanked them--those people are crazy! They carry like 25 kgs (over 50lbs) on their backs and run the trail. They all beat us to every stop so they could set up by the time we got there. They were so sweet, and all had such kind faces and they have the hardest jobs ever. Anyway, the next day we got up at 3:45 to eat breakfast early and wait in line for 45 minutes until the checkpoint office opened at 5:30. The problem was the porters had to make a train at 5:30 so we had to hurry so they could make it because if not they would have to wait all day for a train that they could bring all their stuff onto. I hope they made it because we were very quick gulping up our pancakes! There was a mad dash that morning and everyone waited in line and then we walked for about an hour to the "Sun Gate" from where you can see Machu Picchu for the first time. We had to wait for the clouds to clear and then we could see it. It was awesome! Then we walked another hour to get there. José confirmed a rumour we heard that the way foreigners say "Machu Picchu" means "old penis". The correct pronunciation requires saying "Pick-chu" in which case it correctly means "old mountain". From the name of the previous ruins, Vern worked out that "Wiñay Picchu" would therefore be "young penis" in Quechua language, so we had the whole spectrum covered. Since a lot of the names of the ruins were changed after Hiram Bingham's rediscovery of Machu Picchu we asked what the famous ruins were originally called. He didn't know, so I guessed "Bingham penis" and that got a rare smile out of our quiet guide.
When we got to the "Old Mountain/Penis" it was already full of people! We walked around with the guide for 2 hours and then on our own. We walked along a thin path cut into the cliff to the Inca Bridge - the end of the Inca Trail and then went into the town at the bottom of the mountain, Aguas Calientas, to say goodbye to our guide and to tip him. We didn´t get back to Cuzco until 11:30pm and we were exhausted! We went back to our hotel and fell asleep right away and did absolutely nothing the next day. We sat in bed and watched movies until 2:30pm and we went to get a pizza and then went back to the hotel to watch movies for the rest of the day. Oh, and we showered, of course. Overall, it was a great experience! We loved it. Definitely a highlight!