On the Trail of the Incas
Walking up the three steps to the hotel lobby was exhausting. It had been a long haul to get there, and my body was tired and struggling to cope with the sudden jump to 12,565 ft (3829 m) above sea level. After 4 flights and many sweaty hours, I had finally reached my first bed, only to be waylayed by the hotel staff as they sat us down and forced us to drink coca tea. I just wanted a good night’s sleep, but was assured that this fine beverage was the be-all and end-all of altitude sickness cures; the locals swear by it. The locals are also acclimatised, so have nothing to go on.
I had left Glasgow the day before on flight number 1 to London. Shortly after I was on flight number 2 to JFK, sat next to the fattest man I’ve ever had the ‘joy’ to sit beside. It took 1.5 hrs of being herded like cattle by the grumpiest and most humourless Americans I’ve ever come across, just to get my passport checked and my fingerprints scanned. By the time I was on flight number 3 to Lima, I was getting smelly and irritable. Thankfully, having been met at the airport, our group was transferred to a hotel for a quick shower before being transferred back to the airport for flight number 4. Departing Lima, the plane headed east over the mountains. We were flying to Juliaca via Cuzco, and this turned out to be one of my favourite landings ever. I had spent the flight chatting to an Australian who was over on holiday, and as we started our descent into Cuzco, it became obvious that he had a slight fear of flying. It turned out that due to the weather conditions of the region, the Cuzco airport is usually closed to flights after 4pm, and it was getting close to that time as it was. The descent involved a sharp drop into the valley for a short run-up to the runway. Houses became visible in the windows, and the ground was not far off, when suddenly the plane accelerated and ascended again, banking sharply: it had overshot the runway. This amused me greatly, but did nothing to calm the nerves of my companion. Second time lucky, we landed, waited for the embarkations/disembarkations to complete, and then we were off again, heading south-east towards Juliaca.
The altitude was hard to deal with. Our room in Puno was on the second floor, and I had to get the lift. Walking even a block left me short of breath and exhausted. I felt pathetic. Thankfully, the temperatures were mild, never adding to the general level of discomfort. We enjoyed visiting the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca to visit the locals who live out there, and nearby Silustani, a burial site from before the Inca era. I felt ill the first couple of nights, but thankfully as we drove away from Puno a few days later, I started to feel a bit more sprightly.
This mountainous region was pure alpaca and llama country. They were everywhere, with a few guanacos for good measure. The locals were colourfully dressed in the traditional guise, and everyone was so cheerful and friendly. I had been lazy with my Latin-american Spanish, so I knew little for conversing. Passing through the high pass of Abra la Raya at 14,170 ft (4319 m), we got to stretch our legs in awe of the snow-capped peaks around us. Continuing onwards on our long day of travel, we stopped at the Raqchi ruins near the Urubamba river. The main component of the ruins is the Temple of Wiracocha, and surrounding it are various buildings which were previously used as storehouses, living quarters and even a ceremonial bath. This was the first of our many insights into Inca life.
Cuzco was a lovely city. Our hotel was up a hill and up a large flight of steps. Whilst my adjustment to the altitude was progressing, I still continued to feel breathless by the time I reached the top. Cuzco is the former capital of the Inca Empire, and is surrounded by many examples of Inca architecture. The best, and the most awe-inspiring is that at Sacsayhuaman (sounding very much like sexy woman when spoken with a latino tongue) on the outskirts of the city. Large, shaped boulders form the walls and staircases of the massive complex. As with all Inca structures, the boulders have been perfectly shaped and slotted together, fitting neatly round the natural rocks and landscape, with no mortar or binding agent visible between them… and nobody knows how they did it. That is part of what makes their sites incredible, but the sheer scale of the walls at Sacsayhuaman are particularly impressive. Climbing up and looking back towards the south-east, Cuzco and the suburbs sprawl away in the valley below.
The following day marked our introduction to the Inca style of terracing. The countryside of the region is littered with hillside terraces, many of which are still used for agriculture today. The winding road above Pisac showed up several of these, and the main ruins at the top marked a path which hugged the hillside, and made me wary of the height against the valley floor below. Without barriers to break a fall, it was a case of mind over matter to negotiate some of the narrower, steeper sections on the trail to Intihuatana where the Temple of the Sun overlooks the valley below. Often trailing behind the main group, I missed out on hearing a lot of the history lessons. I therefore didn’t really understand what a lot of the buildings were or what they represented, but I was impressed not only with their architectural skills but their choice of builds in terms of the view. The panoramas afforded from many of the high ruins were spectacular.
Deciding to hike the Inca Trail is an easy decision. Getting fit for hiking the Inca Trail is easy in theory, but when laziness gets in the way, it results in a rather poor training programme. As a generally active person, I wasn’t expecting to have too many problems. Straight away though, the altitude had hit me more than I could have anticipated, such that I felt generally weak after very little exercise. Easing into the exercise side of the holiday, we enjoyed a white water raft (grade 3) down the Urubamba river. Split into 2 rafts, people were either falling into the river over the rapids, or they were being pushed in when the occupants of the neighbouring raft were feeling vindictive with their oars. By the end of the trip, I was the only dry one among us. It was obvious on the looks of the faces of my companions, that there was no way I was making it to the shore dry. Opting to take control, I rolled backwards off the raft and ended up waist deep in the cold river. The ensuing picnic was an absolute treat.
After an overnight stay in Pisac, in an effort to gauge our relative strengths as a group hiking, our guide took us on a day hike heading away from the Urubamba river and up the mountain to the village of Chincherro, nearly 3000 ft (900 m) above our starting point. It was a false start, meandering through a village and past farmland at the bottom, before suddenly ascending steeply up through the trees, and up the valley wall. Whilst not last, I lagged far behind the leaders, and I was utterly ashamed at my lack of fitness, and cursing myself at my lack of training. Our guide looked a little concerned with the two of us that lagged far behind, and made several comments about the Inca trail being much tougher than this. I was starting to get worried. Reaching Chincherro at 12,335 ft (3759 m) it quickly became bitterly cold as the hours passed. Staying in one of the village houses, there was no heating, and we had to sleep with the blankets piled high on the bed. Getting motivated to get out the next morning was difficult.
The reward for getting out of bed was a day on the saddle. Mountain biking through the Sacred Valley took us past more Inca ruins, this time the circular terraces of Moray, then on down steep-sided ravines, and through the countryside with the Urubamba mountains watching over us. Reaching the salt pans at Salineras, the trail became increasingly dangerous to go at speed, and the condition of the trail deteriorated. Not being confident enough, I opted to get the bus down the final descent whilst the others continued on the trail. Meeting them at the bottom, one of them had come off his bike half-way down and had multiple lacerations on his lower leg. Nothing too serious but for the fact that he knew he was going to have to hike with a large cut on his ankle. Luckily between us all, we had a pretty good first aid supply. Enjoying some local brew at a guinea pig farm, we headed on towards our final sleeping place prior to starting the Inca Trail.
Ollantaytambo was great. The showers (our last for nearly a week) were great, and the village nestled at the bottom of steep slopes from which overlooked the ruins of Ollantay, the only stronghold to resist the Spanish invasion. The climb up the many steps of the fortress was exceedingly steep, but the view over the town and the surrounding area was beautiful. Small in size, the village was great for wandering around solo, but it was inundated with foreigners all there for the same reason. This was our last stop for picking up much needed supplies of water prior to starting the Inca trail. Thankfully we started out quite late on in the day. This meant that the vast majority of the other hikers doing the trail had already left, and we found the early stages of the trail to be quiet, and we essentially had it all to ourselves.
Stopping for the obligatory photo opportunity at KM 82, we continued on, starting our ascent, and eventually leaving the Urubamba river behind as we passed the Llaqtapata ruins on our way to our first campsite. The ruins were the first time we saw any other hikers, and they again left ahead of us. We had the campsite to ourselves as those that had set off earlier in the day would have continued on to a higher altitude. The nights were cold and dark, but with the heat of exertion, the days felt very warm. With all the calorie burning, meal time was an utter joy, and we grew to love our porters for their tasty dishes and their help with the carriage of all our stuff. They ran nimbly along the Inca trail, leaving us far behind in order to get the next camp site set up and have a hot meal waiting for us on arrival. I remember sitting down for that first dinner on that first night and thinking they were crazy for having cooked so much food. As we tucked in, it quickly became clear how much need for food intake, and high calorie food intake at that, we required to balance out the spent energy on a high altitude hike. Our bodies were at high capacity output to keep us moving in such relatively thin air.
The second day marked the start of the steep ascents, and the entry into sub-tropical vegetation. The mountains were angular and domed, disappearing for miles in every direction, and for the most part covered in thick vegetation away from the cleared paths. On several occasions throughout the whole hike, steps from, or a fork in the path was evident, but it would only go as far as a few yards before the vegetation swallowed them up. There are many paths from the Inca times, and so few of them have been explored. One of our rest stops on day 2, was essentially our last place of ‘civilisation’ until we hit Machu Picchu. A small village with hens and goats running around, it also boasted a ‘shopping centre’, essentially a hole in the wall with bottled water and juice visible, and a hand-painted sign above stating “SHOPING [sic] CENTER: WE ACCEPT VISA, MASTERCARD”.
The epitome of day 2 was the campsite at Llulluchapampa at 12,500 ft (3810 m). With the increasing gradient of the hike, I was starting to lag behind again. One of the last to reach the campsite, we found our tents had been erected at the edge of a terrace, such that the view from the entrance to the tent was of the valley below and the mountains around it. Waking early, we watched the morning shadow sweep across the mountain range opposite until the sun spilled over the peak above us and warmed us up. This third day was the toughie. Only briefly paying it any attention the evening before, the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass was now towering over us. Continuing on the steep ascent, the rising sun warmed us, and by the time we’d reached the sign for 4000 m (13,123 ft), both jumpers and jackets were off. Pushing on ever upwards, I was again the second last to reach the highest pass on the trail at 13,829 ft (4215 m), and with the wind rushing over the summit pass from the valley below, it quickly became really cold. After taking photographs, the trail fell steeply away down the next valley, with the view of the ascent up the other side visible from the offset. It was slightly disheartening going all the way down, when we knew we had to climb all the way back up again at the other side.
Descending down to Pacaymayo at 10,707 ft (3263 m) had me ahead of the group for once. Going downhill, I’m like a mountain goat, skipping and hopping away. I quickly lost the advantage when the uphill section commenced again, and once more I was near the back of the group, slowly hauling myself back up to the Runkuracay Pass at 12,962 ft (3950 m). Descending again, we hit the masses of other hikers that had set off ahead of us. The crowds were wandering round the ruins of Sayaqmarka and the campsite further along the trail on the opposite side of the valley. This was the biggest gathering of hikers we had seen since we had set off. It is where the high pass trail and the standard trail come together, so there were masses of people congregating everywhere, sharing their collective stories. We even bumped into some people that had shared that enjoyable plane ride into Cuzco, including the Australian, who seemed much more at ease.
The next section of the trail was probably my favourite. At times feeling like hiking through a jungle of vegetation, and others on open sections where the immense drop was all too obvious, the landscape and flora were just incredible. The surrounding mountains rolled away into the distance, all green with thick vegetation, and the clouds danced around the summits. Reaching one viewpoint in particular, we were all mesmerised by the scene in front of us. The size of the mountains were spectacular, and it made me feel so small and insignificant, and I was so giddy to be there in such a place. The giddiness was to get even worse when we came across our final campsite. Sitting above the ruins of Phuyupatamarka at >12,000 ft (3657 m), the campsite was spread out across the varying tiers of the summit, spanning out onto the varying precipices. I adored this campsite. The view was phenomenal, there were small walks spanning out in all directions to reach different viewpoints with alternate perspectives, and in the morning on the fourth day, we awoke above the cloud base. Our whole group wandered round that morning, camera on standby, taking photos left right and centre, excitedly chatting about the sight below us, of the morning shadows creeping over the neighbouring mountains, and the cloud base that lay beneath us.
That morning, we said goodbye to our porters who had, without word of complaint, carried our belongings, tents and cooking equipment, up and down the trail like a mountain goat. We would get one last hearty meal from them further down the trail, but other than that, they were heading home to meet the next batch of hikers. We posed for a ‘team’ photograph before setting off. Descending down the steep steps past the ruins, we passed through the cloud and out the other side. The final day’s trek was a dawdle compared to the rest. For the most part descending, surrounded by jungle, we passed through an Inca tunnel, carved out of rock. Passing more ruins, we eventually hit the fork which leads to Winay Wayna. It is mainly a deep slope of agricultural terraces, but the view from the doorway looks down over the Urubamba river, our first sighting of it since we had left KM 82 a few days before. Heading back onto the main trail, we continued for a few more miles until we reached the steep steps towards Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Crawling up on hands and knees, I was more than relieved to reach the top, and was quickly rewarded by stepping through the sun gate, and glancing Machu Picchu below. I was ecstatic and again giddy with joy. I had wanted to do the Inca trail for about 3 years, and here I was finally looking down on it with just a short hike to go before I’d be on the hallowed ground. What irritated me, and burst the bubble slightly, was the windy road up the hillside from the valley floor with the buses visible, crawling round the bends. Here was another major historical site being ruined by tourism. Slightly hypocritical since I too was there for touristic reasons, and I too was impacting on the environment by hiking along the heavily-used trails, but it irked me to see all the lazy (or possibly infirm) people being deposited at the ‘front door’ without having had to break out in a sweat. I felt self-conscious walking among them, dirty and smelly from the trail. I was triumphant, but it was marred slightly by the mass of people that swarmed over the site like flies.
After a brief wander round the upper terraces overlooking the main site, we ourselves boarded the bus to head down to Aguas Calientes where we could enjoy our first shower in 4 days. Unfortunately, the hot water didn’t last long enough for us all to enjoy it equally. After a quick wander round the tacky tourist shops, we headed out for dinner to celebrate. The alcohol was flowing, but as I had spent the whole holiday on antibiotics, I hadn’t touched a drop, favouring instead the neon Inca Cola. Even our guide was getting merry, and after a few hours, the group split up, and I headed back to the hotel whilst the others stayed out on the town. It was to be an early rise in the morning to get back up to Machu Picchu to watch the sun rise. Awakening on time, and waiting in the lobby of the hotel, our group slowly convened, minus the guide and one other. Stories abounded of the guide’s behaviour in the night, and it turned out that he had got locked out of the hotel, and had drunkenly smashed in the window in order to get back in. The hotel manager was not impressed, and our guide himself, was rather sheepish when he eventually appeared. Heading back up to the historical site, there followed one of the worst guided tours I’ve ever been on. Normally so informative, he was in such a hungover state, that his musings were garbled, disjointed and brief. I was finding it hard to hide my annoyance. More than once I thought out loud about the fact that I had waited 3 years to get there, and my guide wasn’t sober enough to do his job properly.
Thankfully though, there was enough time to explore on my own. As a group, we headed up Wayna Picchu, the peak behind the ancient city, and visited the temples at the top. The hike itself was more of a mental challenge than anything else. Very steep, but with no barrier, and at times, there were ropes screwed into the rock to give a hold whilst climbing up some of the steeper sections. It was nerve wracking when people appeared trying to descend, at times it was only wide enough for one. At the top though, the view was spectacular, overlooking the ‘lost city’, the valley below and the mountains beyond. In places, I had a slight struggle with vertigo, and as a result, I couldn’t follow the whole path round the top, opting to turn back and go back the way I came. Slightly annoyed with myself at missing out on part of the site, I at least got to see that view. Back in the city, I had several hours to myself after the guide left to go and sleep. Lost in a reverie, I wandered along terraces, through old buildings, up and down stairs, dodging llamas and tourists alike, taking hundreds of photos, and also pausing for endless moments to simply absorb the view. Every turn showed up something different, every angle gave a new perspective. Whilst I felt it was in part ruined by the overwhelming number of tourists and the resultant road carved out of the hillside like a scar, it nevertheless left me in awe, and again left me giddy as I pinched myself that I was really there. That I had made it after all the planning, and that here I was wandering around and looking down upon, such a famous piece of history. Those that have visited somewhere they’ve only previously dreamt of, will know how I felt that day. They will understand why a smile kept creeping across my face; why I felt like jumping up and down every few minutes; and why I sat for an age just staring at the place. It took a lot of effort to make myself leave.
Our last night in Cuzco was our last night as a group. The following day, a few people were heading onto the Amazon rainforest, the rest of us were heading back to Lima for our flight back to the UK. We treated ourselves to the Peruvian specialty of guinea pig. Wood-fired, oven roasted guinea pig. Just the look of it on the plate, sent me into a fit of giggles, and in my attempt to hold it up to have a photograph taken, the leg fell off. This made me giggle even more. There is very little meat on a guinea pig, and frankly it wasn’t worth fighting to get it off the bone. Always eager to try local cuisine, I was rather disappointed, and slightly disgusted with this one. Not even the ‘salad’ was edible: what seemed to be a raw potato and a few green leaves. Followed by a few Macchu Picchu cocktails, it was time to head back to bed.
The flight out of Cuzco was uneventful, and the three of us that headed back to Lima got a brief tour of the city’s landmarks before being left to our own devices. We wandered around the shopping district, then headed down to Miraflores to La Rosa Nautica. I had read about it in the in-flight magazine where it was reported as being the former mafia hangout. Now, it is a seafood restaurant with the most divine menu I have ever set eyes on. We all ate like the kings and queens we felt we were in that place, and we left satisfied. Bidding farewell, we said our goodbyes to another group member, and then there were just 2 of us to head to the airport.
Again flying via JFK, we this time had time for a stop over in Manhattan. Heading into the central district, we spent a few hours wandering around central park, before heading down to Times Square, and round past the Empire State building before heading back to Central station, and then back to the airport. It was raining, misty and grey, and the top of the Empire State building wasn’t even visible from street level. I got the fridge magnet, so that is as much of a visit to the Big Apple as I feel the need to make.