Ah, the Inca Trail. A four day hike over mountain passes, down winding stone stairways, through cloud forests, fields and unseen Inca ruins… this popular trek is usually fully booked months in advance, but I can assure you it’s no walk in the park. And thanks to an unexpected visit from our old friend the stomach bacteria, it turned out to be a tougher challenge than initially anticipated.
Our group consisted of me, Jem, two Danish girls and our guide Jamille (from left to right). Groups can get much bigger, but 5 turned out to be the magic number and we all got to know each other pretty well during the trek.
We took the bus to the start of the trail, just after Ollantaytambo at the famous 82km marker. It was here we realised that we were going to have to carry our sleeping mats ourselves, which was a bit of surprise, but we weren’t going to start complaining as the porters each had 20kg loads on their backs. They recently changed the regulations to limit the loads because they used to carry up to 40kgs each, which is hard to fathom. To keep the regulations well regulated, there is a weighing station at the gates to ensure they haven’t overloaded.
We started off on the trail, and within a few hours we saw our first impressive Inca ruin, Llactapata. It’s a huge site and I was surprised to see no one there; not one tourist!
Sometime after that the rain started, and continued on and off for most of the day. The porters had set up camp for us by a river, where we had a quick lunch and then continued to our first camp-site. This was of course, right next to another, smaller, Inca ruin (Wayllabamba).
Things were already pretty basic by now, toilets were a hole in a ground with a ‘bucket flush’ you had to collect from a nearby stream. Several of us elected to go in the bushes instead.
Reputedly the toughest day on the trail, Day 2 involves a steady ascent up to Dead Womans Pass, which is around 4200m altitude. This is tough for a lot of people, and Jemma had just started feeling the onset of more stomach trouble as we began. On the plus side the scenery was beautiful, and proved a useful distraction from the gut infection!
As we ascended to the pass, which is a good four hours of solid uphill, we walked into a cloud, and got soaked for our trouble. The nice part of the Trail is you meet a lot of the other travellers from different tour groups, and there is a real spirit of camaraderie and togetherness. Some were getting headaches from the altitude, so we’d share out coca leaves to help with that, and Jemma was physically drained from the infection so the guide gave her his sweets for a sugar kick.
On the other side we began a long downhill section into a beautiful wild valley, and there was elation that we’d passed the highest part of the trek. The sun came out and we could take off our ponchos and take in the wild scenery. There was another 3 hours trekking until we reached our camp-site, just as the rain hit.
This day is bursting with Inca ruins, and Jamille told us it’s often a travellers favourite day if the weather holds. Unfortunately it was a bit temperamental, so we got a bit of sunshine and a lot of rain. Every day on the trail we were woken at 5 or 5.30am with a coca tea and a hardy breakfast whipped up by the porter chef. This was a shot I took just as it was getting light at our camp-site.
Passing the Inca ruin of Runkuracay we carried on over another steep mountain pass and into the sunshine on the other side. In 30 minutes we had reached the impressive ruins of Sayaqmarca perched precariously on the mountainside. These Inca’s seemed to have a fondness for building their temples in high, hard-to-reach places. This can mean it’s a tough trek to them but they also look breathtaking. I managed to get a shot of it in the distance just before the clouds came in.
Looking down from these ruins, there was another smaller ruin site, buried in the jungle.
Lunch followed on the other side of the ridge and then the rain came down for the rest of the day. We reached a few viewpoints where we couldn’t see anything because of the clouds, which was a bit of a shame, but I did get this shot of a massive waterfall through a rare break in the mist.
After a couple of hours trekking we came across another ruin (Phuyupatamarca) just as the sun broke through the clouds.
It was a beautiful spot, but beyond it lay the section of the Inca Trail they call the ‘Gringo Killer’. 3000 steps going straight down; a knee-busting test for any gringo, myself included. As it was raining, it was slippery, and took us a fair few hours to get to the bottom, by which point Jem had actually gone temporarily blind (no joke!). But the joy of making it to camp was palpable and spirits were high; the Trail was pretty much conquered, and tomorrow it was just an hour or two to the hikers holy grail: Machu Picchu.
We had a farewell breakfast with our porters, the poor guys had to hotfoot it down the mountain with all our gear to get the early morning train back. I was assured by Jamille they didn’t have to start another trail on the same day but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. They were tough as nails; wearing shorts and sandals in the freezing rain, carrying tents, food and water on their backs, and washing in the icy rivers. One of ours was still portering while in his 50s, his name was Balthazar. You can see him at the bottom right of this picture (taken on Day 2). Hat’s off to them all! Legends.
So once we’d said our goodbyes, we got in the queue to wait for the gates to the final section to open. They only let you through at 5.30am, and then it’s an hour walk to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) where, if you’re lucky, you can get your first view of Machu P. The walk there was amazing in itself, with views over the clouds and into the Urubamba river valley.
As it got lighter we arrived at the Sun Gate, but the cloud still hung around like a bad smell and Machu Picchu was nowhere to be seen. People were calling for it come out, praying, doing dances, yoga, even swearing at it… but it was to no avail. We just got glimpses of jungle-covered mountains, but no ruins.
After waiting 45 minutes we decided to proceed down towards Machu hoping the clouds would clear as we descended. We passed an altar where the Inca’s used to perform sacrifices with animals and people. You weren’t strictly supposed to get on top of it, but I felt it was an opportunity not to be missed:
Stupid fools aside, the mood in the group was quite low after not being able to see the mighty Inca ruins we had all hiked four days to behold. Luckily for us, things were soon to change, as I’ll show in my next blog post!
Notes: We were doing the trail in March, smack bang in the middle of the rainy season, and we got our fair share of it! For those looking for a drier, but slightly colder experience, the time to go is between May and September. This is also busy season, so book ahead!