aventura, natural wonder, Peru, South America, ye olde worlde

a marathon in four days…getting my Inca Trail on to Machu Picchu

Bec / 12/06/2013

Unless you’ve been under a hypnotist’s spell, compelling you to not know anything about Peru, you’ll have heard of a little jaunt tourists like to tick off their bucket list called the Inca Trail which leads – eventually – to the Inca city Machu Picchu.

Having had this item on my bucket list for over 17 years, it was a surprise to find I was petrified I wouldn’t be able to complete it. Over 42kms of gravel, original Incan and restored pathway rocks, narrow ledges high on mountainsides, views that spread forever and plenty of time to think.

Our group consisted of seven tourists, two guides and 16 porters, a chef and sous chef. Louise, Stefan, Ivy and I plus Caitlin from Philadelphia and Trish and Andrew from Melbourne made up the tourists – we clicked well and shared a lot of laughs around happy hour and meal times. Bruno and Anthony – better known as Chicken – our guides from Peak Adventures were a lot of fun and encouraging when the going got tough.

The team of porters put us all to shame, carrying 20kg each they left after us in the mornings after getting up before us to bring coca tea and hot water to wash before breakfast. They would be waiting to applaud us as we finally made it to lunch and night camps, ready with multi-course meals, drinks and tents set up. We would applaud them as they passed us on the trail, zooming past making it look easy. Somehow they’ve worked out how to run downhill over steep steps while hardly giving their feet time to land. They seemed to fly over the trail, lightly touching on steps but not long enough for the momentum to stall and bring the loads on their shoulders crashing into their backs. On the uphills they just kept plugging on, stopping occasionally to roll more coca leaves into their cheeks.

Day one was the “easy” day – mostly a bush walk along a hilly path otherwise known as “Inca flat”. We got our first taste of the amazing meals, met cute dogs sleeping in the sun, passed donkeys, houses, small villages, kids on their way to school and an animated little boy who did his best to try scaring us at at toilet stop. We viewed Patalacta ruins from above and waved to the lazy people taking the train to Machu Picchu – lazy or wise…hmmm.

I got stuck into the coca leaf action on day two – the day of two passes over a total of 15km and up to 4200m altitude at Dead Woman’s Pass. Until then the taste put me off and I was trying the sugary substitute of coca candy. However, after two hours uphill, at halfway up DWP a lovely lady sold me a pack for s./2 and I chewed those dry, olive green pieces of not-cocaine-yet into a soft mass in my cheek, sucking the life out of them to help me up those hills. The combined altitude and hauling myself and 8kg day pack continuously uphill – oh, and have you met my knees – all left me gasping for air and fraying every bronchi in my lungs. I took my time and made it to the top, looking back over the vast valley below and the colourful dots of other trekkers ambling along. The pass had been a dark spectre for me, conquering it gave me a big boost to match the coca high.

The “Gringo killer” stairs up out of lunch camp and up to the second pass taxed our weary legs and lungs again. A history lesson at Runtakaray ruins helped us rest and we learned a valuable lesson. If you sit still for a while during a trek you seize up like an old-timer typewriter when all the letter levers get jammed, fighting for supremacy. Your muscles feel like they are in spasm and it takes a few paces to get warmed up again.

The camp on night two was at 3750m above sea level, frosty cold, snow-capped mountain views in all directions and splashed the night sky with millions of stars and the Milky Way – such clarity showed us the llama constellation – a space devoid enough of stars so a llama shape looks like it is climbing the mountainside. We thoroughly enjoyed a jug of pisco sour mixed with warm water and tea, – te macho – left some for the porters who had to basically kick us out of the dining tent which is their sleeping tent when we had lost track of time while singing, joking and laughing at my newly acquired cough/laugh that makes me sound like Mutley. My lungs had given everything and now every inch of pipe and tube was frayed and exhausted, normal breath is hard to come by when you’re on top of the world.

Day three had a smaller pass, clouds over the valley down to Aguas Calientes, thumping downhill, llamas blocking the path and pushing past when a porter chased them, knee-crushing downhill, several Inca ruins and terraces and a little more downhill. Uphill is distressing with lack of oxygen. Downhill is a slow, steady torture which almost made me wish for more uphill. Almost. I’d have been happy with Inca flat! We spent a bit of time at Inca terraces on a ridge above the night camp since it was only an 8km day and we made it to camp at 1pm, just before the rain started. From the ridge we could see the train line snaking around the soaring peaks next to the river and the back of Machu Picchu mountain – the end goal was finally, almost in reach.

It rained for the afternoon and evening but that didn’t stop the porters baking and decorating a cake to celebrate, and we shared more te macho – this time I pulled out a little bottle of rum – I’m full of surprises.

Up at 3.30am, a pancake for breakfast and on the trail by 4.30am so the porters could pack up and make it to their 5.30am train in time – at the bottom of the mountain. Nothing like a little pressure. The checkpoint opens at 5.30am so we joined the line up, sang our now theme songs and tried to keep warm. Once allowed through the checkpoint, reserves of energy kicked in along the narrow, undulating stone paved trail, clinging to the side of the mountain. The various lines of safety tape strung up at narrow ledges wouldn’t stop you going over and some marked where people had fallen to their deaths in recent years. The fact that Machu Picchu hasn’t moved since it was built is lost on those who want to get to the Sun Gate first and run and shove their way to the front – to their fateful peril. I’m glad we didn’t have to share that part of the trail with the marathoners – for sure someone could have tumbled off. Thankfully we kept our decent pace and moved like a long snake along the path, finding ourselves at the Oh My God steps in short time and scrambling up them with relative ease using our hands since they are built like a ladder – straight up.

Ten more minutes and we stepped up onto the stone platform and through the columns of the Sun Gate. There have been a handful of times when a dream has been realised, a hope and wish has come true and all my preconceptions have lived up to the reality. Grand Canyon, Iguassu Falls, Lone Pine at Gallipoli, Sun Gate view of Machu Picchu. I dissolved into tears and it’s the closest feeling to what others might call a religious experience as I’m bound to have. The aches and pains faded a little, the feeling of relief was palpable and the majesty of the whole spectacle of mother nature and human history colliding hit me like a blow to the stomach.

Keeping MP in sight we continued along the trail, passed by train arrivals going the other way for Sun Gate views. As we got closer the view of the city was obscured until we came to the postcard spot and took our turn for a group shot. Steadily the waves of people washed over us and it was frankly overwhelming. To spend a few days slogging it out on a trail, mind full of my own thoughts to keep me company as many times I hiked alone to then come up against rude, overdressed and inconsiderate people blocking paths, shoving and shouting was confronting.

We were very tired, exhausted and smelly as we took a couple of hours in the hot, bright sunshine to tour around the various buildings, temples, tunnels, terraces, platforms, houses and plaza of Machu Picchu, followed closely by a guide full of his own self-importance and the voice of a megaphone. Where’s a narrow ledge on a high mountainside and no witnesses when you need one?

Machu Picchu is a magnificent sight to behold and a lot to take in. It’s grand scale is even more mind-blowing when you find out it’s only 60% uncovered, there’s still another 40% reclaimed by the jungle, mostly agricultural terraces stretching along the mountainsides which would have sustained the 1000-1500 residents. A handful of llamas help keep the grass down and let themselves go over the side of the terraces…onto unsuspecting tourists below. All the water channels still function, it would be pretty easy to fall off the side and the cafe overcharges.

Ivy and I took the bus downhill on hairpin turns zig-zagging to the river and then onto Aguas Calientes to meet up for lunch and grab our bags to head back to Cusco. AC is a tourist town, the Aguas aren’t as Calientes as one would hope apparently, the souvenirs are plentiful and pricey and our ice creams were like heaven on a stick.

We swapped our trail stories with the Quarry trekkers and rode the rails back to Ollantaytambo, swapping to a mini bus for the couple of hours back to Cusco. Since waking at 3.30am, hiking for a couple of hours, absorbing and processing the wonder of Machu Picchu, journeying back to civilisation, arriving at 7pm, we had finally expended every last ounce of energy, mental fortitude and adrenalin at our disposal. A wonderfully hot shower, fresh clothes, dinner at a family-run bistro with entertainment from a two year old boy on a plastic trike narrowly avoiding the tables with his head and we couldn’t go any further. It was 11.30pm by the time we piked on Bruno and Chicken and partying on the plaza. That also meant walking down cobblestone stairs, and later back up them, and our legs bellowed “NO!”

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu have been on my bucket list for a long time. We’ve been through a lot of Peru, waiting for this adventure, anticipation building and giving way to reality finally. Now it’s done and over, we’re moving on, it feels strange. For me it was an epic effort and I’ll not forget in a hurry that feeling reaching the Sun Gate, or fighting my way up those passes. Perhaps most surprising of all is the fact I made it over 42+ km of gravel and rock and I didn’t fall over once. Anyone who knows me, knows that is as monumental at the achievement of the Incas in building such a magnificent city.

Job done.











































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