Monday, 24 October 2005

The Inca Trail

From Cusco, the centre of the Inca world, several trails used to start, linking different Inca sites. What is today known as is a small portion of the trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu, namely the part that starts 82 kilometres from Cusco and finishes at the citadel of Machu Picchu. The trek is done over 4 days, covers a distance of approximately 40 kilometres, its lowest point is Machu Picchu itself at 2400 metres above sea level, its highest point is the Dead Woman's pass at 4200 metres. When I booked this trek, I was only vaguely aware of those statistics but knew it would be challenging, especially considering I've never really done any trekking and I am not the fittest person in the world. So here's how it went.

Day 1, acclimatisation

It all started in a bit of a panic as the tour agency forgot to pick me up, thinking I was in Urubamba rather than Cusco. When I didn't see them come well after the agreed time, I called them, they organised a pick up and I joined the group in Ollaytaytambo.

There were 6 of us in the group: a couple of Brits from Brighton, Kai and Tom; an Australian from Melbourne, John; a couple of Argentinians on their honeymoon, Florencia and Ezekiel; and me. Our guide for the trek was a local guy named Angel. In addition, we had 6 porters and a cook. It meant that we had warm meals every day and the heavy gear was dealt with by the porters. Some will consider it cheating but it is what makes this trek accessible to the majority of people, especially unfit people like me.

The first day was a relaxed trek going from 2800 metres to 3000 metres above sea level in 4 hours or so. This was all meant to warm us up and did so beautifully. It was also a great way to get to know each other and as we were a small group all of a similar age we got on very well.

Day 2, challenge

The second day was the really challenging one. It started by a long climb over 10 kilometres taking us from 3000 metres to the Dead Woman's pass at 4200 metres. This part was absolutely excruciating but we managed to make it in the expected time of 4 hours. I thought I'd never see the end of it. The views along the way were stunning though and the feeling when arriving on top of the pass was amazing. The weather was mostly good with a few spells of light rain, which helped as it was not too hot while being mainly dry and sunny.

The second part of the day consisted in walking back down to 3600 metres to the camp. This was easily done and we were there by 2pm. It might sound like a short day but it is calculated so that even people who need significantly more time can finish in daylight. The valley in which the camp was was surrounded by huge peaks which submits were lost in the clouds. The place was extremely scenic. Bird watchers also had the oportunity to see quite a few specimens, in particular bright green humming birds.

Day 3, from one Inca site to another

The third day started with a hard climb to the second pass pf the trek at 3900 metres, with a break midway at a small Inca site. It then went from one Inca site to another. Those fortresses and temples hanging from the slopes of moutains are a marvel of civil engineering. Although the morning was beautifully sunny, the afternoon was spent in a thick mist that made the whole scene very atmospheric, especially because at that point, the trail started going through denser and denser forest that eventually becomes full blown tropical rain forest after Machu Picchu. Seeing an Inca fortress coming out of the mist in the forest on the slope of a mountain around 3000 metres above sea level is an impressive sight. We finished at the last camp at 2600 metres after a very long knee wrecking climb down.

Day 4, the lost city

The last day was very short but started very early. We were up at 4am to be on the trail at 5:30. One hour and a number of very steep Inca steps later, we were at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. The gate overlooks the citadel from the last mountain pass on the trek. It had been raining all night and the mist was very thick so when we got there all we could see was a sea of white. But the weather decided to tempt us and the mist parted to reveal the lost city below. It only lasted a few seconds and it all became white again. We walked down the remainder of the trek to arrive just above Machu Picchu shortly after 7am, as the city was still in the mist. Then in a magic 30 minutes, the white curtain slowly parted to be replaced by glorious sunshine and we could enjoy the most amazing Inca city visible today.

It was hard, my legs will be painful for days but it was worth every second. This trek is simply amazing. I will post the photographs that will hopefully say in pictures everything I didn't say in words when I am back.

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