I made it! I hiked 49 kilometres in 4 days, ascended to a height of 4200 metres, showered in a waterfall, ate cake in the midst of the mountains – oh, and saw Machu Picchu – and lived to tell the tale.
My legs hurt like hell right now and all I want to do is sit around and eat chocolate, but oh my god was it worth it. Despite the early mornings, despite the exhaustion and the sore muscles, despite the freezing night at high altitude and the rain (luckily only on the second day), despite the stinky toilets and sweaty clothes, it was an incredible incredible experience and I’m so glad I did it.
After my briefing the day before I wasn’t exactly confident as to how well the whole thing was going to go – Carlos, the guy giving me the information, reminded me of a cheap James Bond villain rip off, what with his false front tooth and accent, and in my opinion focused way too much on giving a detailed breakdown of the walking itinerary and not enough on practical things like what to pack. He also told me that I couldn’t possible use my smaller rucksack for the trek as I wouldn’t be able to fit all my stuff in it, so naturally the next day I showed up having completely ignored him in that respect, backpack full to the brim with nothing but the bare essentials. I showed him.
The day of the trek we were picked up all from various locations by bus at 5.30ish in the morning, and driven to km82 of the trail, the usual starting point for the trek. It was all a bit confusing as halfway some of us had to change buses, and we all seemed to have booked through different companies (more on that later, grr), but it was all ok in the end and we arrived as a group at the start of the trail without too much hassle.
Perhaps here would be a good place to introduce the members of the group: there were 9 of us in total including me, all different ages and nationalities and hiking abilities.
Mike and Jason (27 and 23), cousins from New Zealand: hilarious, kind of nutty, referred to flipflops as “jandals” (it’s a Kiwi thing), did the trek after having done white water rafting the day before.
Chad (40), American from Ohio: never hiked before, not a big fan of camping, won 2 tickets to South America in a competition at a football game, doing the trail as part of a 10-day break from his job as a lawyer.
Henrik (32), Swedish: lives in the mountains of Norway, designer of his own clothes, brought and carried his own tent for the entire trail despite the fact that tents were provided for us, almost forgot his passport for the trek, loveliest guy you will ever meet.
Josefine and Eric (19 and 21), Swedish: a couple taking a break of a similar length to me, fully prepared for the trek including with walking sticks.
Albert and Jane (27 and 26), American: students at Harvard and Yale on spring break, flew in to cusco the morning of the trek itself (which all the guidebooks will tell you is a terrible terrible idea), staying in and around Cusco just for a week or so before going back to college.
So that’s the team. It was a great team.
So day one was the “inca flats” day – a phrase they used many times and which never bore any relation to what I would call “flat.” Hereafter it shall be referred to as the Inca Relatively Flats. We started walking at probably 8 o’clock and within 10 seconds I was out of breath (silly decision to start eating an orange just before we set off as well). Soon enough we developed a fairly steady pace though, and began to get used to the idea that the majority of the next few days was going to be spent on our feet, trudging along a trail. It was definitely an odd thought to begin with – having never really hiked much in my life it was difficult to grasp the fact that we were actually going to be doing this continuously for multiple hours in the day – but once you got into it it wasn’t too bad.
The first lunch stop initiated the continuing trend in which we all spent most of our day looking forward to the next food stop; at each meal we got at least two courses (soup as a starter at lunch and dinner), with tea or coffee, and were pretty much waited upon and didn’t even have to do the washing up. Camping in style. I never did get over how amazing it was that the porters went ahead of us to each place and set up a lunch/dinner tent and cooked meals for us weary travellers.
At about 5 o’clock that day when we’d arrived at our campsite for the night, we had our first glimpse of what was in my opinion the best part of the whole inca trail experience: “happy hour” – popcorn and tea/hot chocolate to be eaten and drunk to our hearts’ content, to fill that gap just before dinner. It was wonderful.
After that came sitting and chatting time (something which there was generally quite a lot of), before our first incredible dinner. I’m sure our general state of exhaustion coupled with a feeling of having earned it definitely made the food taste better, but even so it’s still very impressive how the cook managed to churn out a two-course meal three times a day for the 9 of us plus the guides and porters, on just a little gas stove.
We tended to go to bed pretty much immediately after our post dinner cup of coca tea each day – the knowledge that you have to get up at about 5.30 will do that to you – so generally we got a respectable amount of sleep, which was definitely necessary. I have to say I struggled a bit to begin with – I always take a while to adjust to the sleeping bag/tent thing, plus my sleeping may was perpetually damp because my bag’s rain cover didn’t quite fit over it. But I survived so its all good.
The second day was–
And that’s all I have to say about that.
No but seriously the second day was evil. Its notorious for being the hardest day: 4 hours climbing uphill to the highest point of the trek, followed by the rest of the day eradicating your hard work by going pretty much the equivalent distance back down. My legs just couldn’t cope, and going down hill was actually harder – not only was it physically tiring, but you had to keep up your concentration in order to think about where you were putting your feet: the trail was pretty slippery (this was the day it rained) and a couple of people ended up falling over because of this (aren’t you impressed and also very surprised that I didn’t?). I’ve definitely never been happier to sit inside a dry tent at the end of the day before. And happy hour was very, very happy. (Also I should mention that we got pancakes and porridge for breakfast, great set up for the day; I was in heaven).
That night was not great: it was the highest altitude campsite of the trek and thus pretty bloody freezing; I wore all my clothes in bed but my fleece was still damp from the rain during the day so it wasn’t exactly comfortable, plus Henrik (my roomy) had set up his own tent – fair enough considering he carried it all the way up – so no shared body heat.
But I woke up the next morning still alive despite the lack of sleep and ready for another Inca Relatively Flats day.
They told us the third day would be easy, and I guess in comparison to day 2 it was, but my legs were struggling after the previous day’s exertions and it was more of the dreaded downhill: every time I stopped to take a break (frequently), my legs would start trembling uncontrollably – I guess something to do with the strain on the nerves. On the plus side there was a lot less actual walking, time-wise, so we got to the campsite by lunch and the last (and best aside from Machu Picchu) inca site was just 5 minutes walk away, and could be reached in flipflops (or should I say jandals?), joy of joys.
And now I will explain why day 3 was the best day of the trek.
We had a shower in a waterfall.
It was ‘just around the corner’ from the inca site (i.e. 15 minutes’ walk down a lot of steps) and everyone but Albert and Jane (Jane had sustained a bit of an injury on the day) jumped at the chance – bearing in mind we hadn’t showered in 3 days and the campsite which had promised showers only had cold ones anyway.
So that was incredible. It felt amazing to be clean and ok it was absolutely bloody freezing and a little bit painful under the cascade, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime thing and I would 100% do it again (despite awkward lack of places to change and the fact that I didn’t bring a towel).
To top it off, when we got back it was time for happy hour and the cook made a CAKE, I repeat, A CAKE, for us – and I’ll just reiterate that all he had to work with was a 2-ring gas stove. Mind blowing.
So that was awesome. And we still got popcorn. Not that I’m obsessed with food or anything.
Unfortunately a bit of a dampener was put on things when it came round to the end of the day: it was time to sort out tips, and it was not an enjoyable or easy experience (especially as they had a suggested minimum of 100 soles per porter and more for the cook). Luckily we decided to do it as a group so I got away with only putting 60 in (I carried my own stuff for a reason, ok?!) and then put it out of my mind. I feel like its not fair that its such an obligatory part of the trail when you pay so much for the damn thing anyway – they should just pay the porters better in the first place and then let the rich people or those who hired an extra porter to carry their stuff do the tipping. Pfft. Luckily Mike and Jason felt similar (apparently there’s no such thing as tipping in NZ) so I didn’t feel too bad about my stance on it.
That all dealt with, it was tea and then bed: 4 o’clock starts are just not appealing whatever direction they are approached from.
The next day dawned (not before we were up though) and we were woken by the usual tent shaking and proffering of coca tea through the tent flap. Nobody was ready to get up I don’t think, and we didn’t even get breakfast (they said it was too early for it), instead being handed a bag of snacks (ham & cheese sandwich, biscuits and 2 sweeties, not too bad). We headed to the checkpoint (which really was just round the corner) and waited in the queue until it opened – to be honest we needn’t have got up at 4 – and then started the brisk trek to the one and only Machu Picchu. Before you knew it we were there, having passed through the sun gate (disappointing in the mist and clouds) and arrived suddenly upon it at about half 7.
I have to say that to begin with I was a bit underwhelmed – we had been warned that we might not be able to see it properly if it was still cloudy, and it was – but after we had a 2 hour tour and saw all the various temples and sections of the place, the sun came out and it was WONDERFUL. It was definitely made better by the fact that we’d just trekked nearly 50km to see the bloody place, were all completely knackered and generally just wanted to sit down somewhere and admire it. In the clear light of day it was just as incredible as the Internet pictures would suggest, and completely baffling as to how on earth they made it so long ago.
I of course do now have many many photos (including lots of me looking absolutely horrendous in front of famous bits of ruin) so you can look forward to seeing those when I get back.
We left to get the train down to Aguas Calientes at about lunchtime, and met the guides at a prearranged restaurant (too expensive for me, I just bought a banana from round the corner and sat in) to wait for the others who had gone to climb Wayna Picchu to get there. Once everyone was fed and watered, they surprised us with a round of Pisco sours (very nice surprise) and then again with the news that Eric, Josefine and I would be getting the 2.30 train rather than the 6 one that we had previously been told (not a nice surprise).
So we had slightly hurried goodbyes with everyone, and I sulked for a bit because I didn’t get to go to the hot springs (I was in a bit of a sulky mood I think, just sooo exhausted), and then we went to catch the train followed by the bus back to cusco. In the end there were positives to getting back earlier: all I wanted to do was sit down and relax really, and I had a bit of downtime in the hostel that I wouldn’t have otherwise had to eat some chocolate cake (which I’d been craving for days) and drink some tea. The train and the bus ride were also both really beautiful and I was glad to see the view in daylight: I got a crick in my neck on the bus from trying to follow the sunset over the mountains, which was pretty incredible. I also had a nice chat with a fellow called (I believe) Cecil on the bus – I love the Peruvian tendency to start conversations with strangers.
We eventually made it back to Cusco and I made a beeline for the hostel after saying goodbyes, only stopping for a quick kebab on the street outside (it was amazing and I couldn’t resist) and having yet another Spanish conversation (I hope you are all impressed) about the inca trail and Machu Picchu (and also how to eat the kebab – with your hands).
It was amazing to get back to the hostel and collapse into bed and sleep with no thought of waking at 5 in the morning: never have I been so grateful for a bed. And also never have I been so proud of something that I’ve achieved: I know a lot of people do the inca trek every day, but there’s no getting past the fact that it was seriously challenging and I did well to complete it without complaints and without extra help.
Now bring on relaxation on the Isla del Sol: hellooooo Bolivia!