Thursday, 5 June 2014

Throw Back Thursday: Inca Trail

On my first trip abroad in 2011, I went exploring in South America and of course a highlight was hiking the Inca Trail to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu in Peru.

To hike the Inca trail you need to do so as part of an organised tour and book permits in advance. As I was going to be traveling with Gap (now G) Adventures as part of a longer trip, this was all organised for me. Now fear not, if you still want to hike to Machu Picchu but did not secure one of the Inca Trail passes there are other options including the Lares trek and even in Cusco you will be offered treks walking around the square. It is also possible to visit Machu Picchu via train and bus from Aguas Calientes without the multiple days hiking!

So what is Machu Picchu and why does it draw people to it? Machu Picchu is an Incan site believed to have been built in 1450 and abandoned a century later when the Incans heard of the Spanish invading. However the Spanish never made it as far into the Sacred Valley as Machu Picchu and as such the abandoned site was left to nature and became overgrown. It was discovered by Hiram Binghan in the early 1900s and was remarkably well preserved due to no army coming in and knocking it down I guess!

The Inca Trail, and indeed Machu Picchu, lie at what is considered high altitude and to minimise the risk of altitude sickness it is advised that you spend 2-3 days at altitude prior to starting the treck. This can be done in Cusco, or in my case spend nearly 2 weeks at altitude travelling through Bolivia.

Our group at the start
Anyway, we started our trip in Ollantaytambo which is about a 40mins drive from the starting point of the Inca trail, Km82 where we met our 17 porters and after passing through passport control and showing our permits, we were off. The permits need to be kept onto and stamped at each campsite
Dinner time
Day one was relatively easy, a 12km hike through farmland and relatively flat. We stopped at one point to view an Incan ruin, Llactapata, and our 17 porters trotted past us having packed all of our stuff and carrying 25kg each on their backs. Our group arrived as the first group to the camp as we decided to press through and not stop for lunch. This turned out to be a great idea as we got to camp by 1pm and so had lunch, learnt there was a villager nearby who sold twixes and played many games of Presidents and Assholes which was to become the game of choice for the hike. As the other teams were arriving, the skies opened and we all remarked on how glad we were that we were playing our 10th round of cards and not walking in the rain. That night we camped at 3,300m. 
All of us with guides, porters and chefs
At Dead Woman's Pass
View from the campsite on the
second night

It was an early start the next day for a 9km uphill portion to the infamous Dead Woman's Pass, called so because it looks like a woman lying down, which is at 4,215m. A snack was served at 3,800m asl and at this stage the altitude was starting to get noticable, breathing was more difficult, simply walking to the toilet caused you to get out of breath. The uphill portion was pretty much steps the whole way which is a killer on the knees and you really have to just take it at your own pace. Luckily the second guide Miguel stayed at the back with Sam, Bex and I and kept encouraging us. On reaching Dead Woman's Pass, the three of us celebrated with those infamous twix bars before starting off for the 4km downhill stretch to the next camp. Here I powered down with the thought of a hot mug of tea and some quinoa soup on my mind. As with the day before I received high fives from the porters who passed me out in the first hour and arrived hours before to set up our camp. At this point some groups continued on the cross the next peak the same day and I cannot imagine how they managed it. After admiring the view from our tent and layering up as it was getting really cold once the sun went down (3,600m asl), it was cards and dinner time while all thinking about the peak we had to tackle first thing in the morning. The highlight of dinner was the below cake. Who would expect a cake on the Inca Trail.

And food got better the next morning with pancakes with the porters names written on in dulche de leche. Personally I enjoyed the third day the most, there are more ruins to explore and you get lower in altitude, into rainforest territory so the views and the surroundings were gorgeous. This day was the longest, 16km in total, with 2 high passes to cross but honestly after the Dead Woman's Pass, I was ready for anything. It was tough and as we started to get lower it altitude, it got hot and sweaty but the views, the sounds and the promise of a shower at the campsite that night kept us all going. We explored two ruins and walked through rainforests before arriving at a ruin that overlooks the Sacred Valley to talk about our last day. It seemed fitting that we could view the Willkamayu river which means Sacred Valley in Quechua as we discussed our final leg to the Sun Gate and finally seeing Maccu Pichu. That night we presented our tips to the porters as they would not be continuing into Maccu Pichu with us, the oldest of our porters was 55 and the youngest was 18. Some music, dancing and clapping made it a very festive occasion. An early night was had by all as we were waking at 3:30 to be at the control gate when it opened and to hopefully make it to the Sun Gate by sunrise. 
View over the Sacred Valley
At the first peak for day 3

Waiting for the control gate to open

Finally, the Sun Gate
When the control gate was 15mins late opening, our group was getting a little tetchy as we all wanted to be at the Sun Gate for sunrise. We powered through and managed to make the, what should be, 90mins walk in 45mins. And boy was it worth we. we turned the corner to a beautiful panorama over Maccu Pichu and to had it pretty much to ourselves for about 30mins. As the sun was getting higher in the sky we could see it would be a perfect day, sunny and cloudless. Picture perfect for viewing the ruins. However, for a pasty Irish girl such as myself, there was a real risk of me frying so during our tour of the ruins, I could be found standing in any shade I could find. At one point I snuck underneath a rock outcrop to be in the only portion of shade in the old quarry area. 

You can spend hours, and indeed days, wandering around the ruins. Discovering places that you have all to yourself, climbing up and down terraces, wondering and exploring and imagining. Even turning corners to find llamas. It is truly a spectacle what the Incan empire managed to build and it makes one wonder that were it not for the Spanish Invasion and the addition of small pox, would Peru be a major player on the world scale? What this empire achieved with rudimentary tools is simply amazing. The fact that areas are still being uncovered and that this huge city was abandoned and lay, unknown, for thousands of years is mindboggling. 

Is it worth it? Most definitely. The sense of achievement on making it to the Sun Gate after 3 long trekking days was immense. We all felt we had earned the right to explore the ruins, to take it all in. The friendships I made on this trek are ones I will remember forever, even being invited to Sam and Bex's wedding, a tad different to sharing a twix at Dead Woman's Pass. Machu Piccu, while very touristic, is one of those 'must-see' sights. The ruins are so big that we were often alone exploring and at times you felt like you were the only person around.