Few people travel to Peru without visiting the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. This world heritage site is located at 8 000 feet above sea level and lies above the Urubamba valley near the city of Cusco. The city was constructed by the Incas around 1460 AD but then abandoned less than a century later when the Spanish conquered the Inca kingdom.
There is a Peru rail train that runs from Cusco to the small town of Aquas Calientes, only six kilometres away from Machu Picchu. Taking a return trip on the train allows you to explore Machu Picchu in a single day. However, it is also possibly to reach Machu Picchu on foot by walking the well-known Inca Trail. The trail takes four days and follows the ancient Inca road system of which most are still the original construction.
We decided that four months in South America definitely allowed us adequate time to walk the trail. Whether or not we were fit enough for it though was a whole different matter. We spent a few days in Cusco to try and acclimatise to the altitude while waiting for our trail to start.
The local tour company’s mini-van pulled up to one of the many quant plazas near the centre of Cusco around 8am, where we were patiently waiting for the start of our trail. We were introduced to our fellow travellers and to Ruben, a friendly local Peruvian who would be our guide for the next four days. All the luggage was piled high on top of the roof rack of the van before we set off to make our way to the famous kilometre 82, where our Inca trial officially started.
On the way we stopped at a small village where we bought walking sticks from the local vendors there. Walking sticks that would later proof invaluable on the long and tiring days on the trail. We received a cooked lunch of pasta and soup before we made our way to the trail check point where our tickets and passports were checked. We crossed an impressive wooden suspension bridge just after the checkpoint and then very enthusiastically started our trail. It didn’t take long for our initial enthusiasm to change to mild panic as we realised that we were indeed quite unfit and the next four days were going to be very long and very hard. As we walked, Ruben mentioned that there is an annual Inca run in Cusco where the locals race the entire Inca trial to see who can complete it in the shortest time. The current record is just under three and a half hours. A trail that would take us four days to complete!
The walk on day one took us only about three and a half hours and we also passed our first Inca ruin that day. From the top of a hill, we had a magnificent view of Patallacta, an ancient Inca site that was inhabited around 500 BC and was used mostly for religious ceremonies and crop production.
At the end of day one we arrived at our camp site to find that our porters had already pitched our tents and we found dinner ready and waiting for us. The food was remarkably good considering the fact that we were deep in the Andes and that everything the cooks needed had to be carried along the trail. After dinner we stayed up for a short while to discuss the day with some of the other travellers in our group before we headed to bed around 8pm. We had an early start on the second day and we were told that day two was easily the most difficult day of the entire trail.
Day two commenced with breakfast at 6:30am and we started walking at 7am. After less than an hour uphill we reached the first water point, and just over an hour and many steps later, we reached the second, and last water point. We rested there for about twenty minutes before we continued the long steep ascent to the top of dead woman’s pass, or Warmiwañusca, as it is locally known. It was a continuous steady uphill climb with what seemed like an endless amount of steps along the way. We stopped along the route to admire the never-ending hills of the Andes and the winding streams in the valleys below, but also to rest before continuing the climb.
It was around 11am when we reached the top of dead woman’s pass and the view from the top made the journey well worth it. We stayed at the top for a while before an icy breeze persuaded us to start the downhill track. We arrived at the camp site for the second night just after 1pm and were rather pleased with our progress for the day.
Day three started just after 7:30am with a slight uphill climb for about half an hour. The soft drizzle that fell earlier in the morning had stopped by the time we started to walk. We passed a number of Inca ruins on day three including Runkuraqay, a site that overlooks a magnificent valley, the Sayaqmarka ruins at a dramatic altitude of 12 000 feet, and the incredible and extensive ruins at Phuyupatamarka (Cloud-level town).
It started to drizzle again lightly but we welcomed the rain as it took our minds of the tiring walk. After we passed our second Inca ruin and had a tasty hot lunch, the trial took us through the cloud forest. The high forest covered peaks of the Andes pierced through the lowest lying clouds as the trail continued through tunnels, around sharp bends and next to sheer cliff drops. We pressed on through the rain and our walking sticks proved invaluable as we continued over steps and under the low cloud blanket. One of the hikers in our group announced with marked excitement in his voice: ‘This is fantastic, I feel like Gandalf in the Fellowship of the ring!’
We reached our campsite at the ruins of Winaywayna (forever-young) late in the afternoon. It was somewhat of a ‘luxury’ camp with a restaurant and bar where we had a drink and relaxed in the evening. We were very excited as the next morning we would set off early to make sure that we reach the famous sun-gate near Machu Picchu before sunrise.
We left Winaywayna at 3:45am on the last day as we had to reach the sun-gate before sunrise. We were the second group through the check point and as we continued to walk we could see the long line of people that followed behind us. After three days of hard walking we were very excited at the prospect of finally seeing Machu Picchu. We were also a bit concerned about the weather. We heard that it was overcast the day before, which meant that the view of Machu Picchu from the sun-gate was completely blocked. Of course the weather could have changed but so far we had brought rain wherever we went in South America, including breaking a two year drought in the Atacama desert on the day of our arrival!
There was a final flight of stairs just before we reached the sun gate. It took all my efforts to make it up the stairs but my tiredness was all forgotten when I arrived at the sun gate and saw Machu Picchu nestled in the valley in the distance in front of me. It was a clear and cloudless day. We waited at the sun gate until the sun started to set from behind us and we watched as the sunlight slowly moved over the ancient city. The view from the sun-gate made the entire four days walk well worth the trouble as this is something that we would not have seen if we took the train from Cusco.
We walked the last half an hour to the gate of the city. After three long days of walking we were finally there. The fatigue and sore muscles were long forgotten as Ruben led us into the city to discover the hidden secrets of this ancient city and the people that inhabited it so long ago.