The scene before my eyes is one of frenetic activity. Kit bags lie gaping open on plastic sheeting, with gas stoves, kettles, cartons of eggs, vegetables and tents piled up alongside them. Amid the chaos, porters are dashing round almost tripping over fowls, piglets and guinea pigs which are roaming this grassy compound. It's early April and we have travelled by minibus from Cuzco to Piscacucho, a village on the rail line at Kilometre 82 built of small adobe-brick farmhouses hemmed in between the steep slopes of the Andes and the raging Urubamba River. The porters are busy readying equipment and supplies for our forthcoming 43 km 4-day trek along the classic Inca Trail which we will undertake with a middle-aged Brazilian couple and four young Argentineans. Between the ten of them, these hard working, polite, yet shy Quechua men from the highlands carry impossibly large packs containing everything necessary for our group of eight to enjoy a comfortable trek. We hire ‘half a porter’ each to carry sleeping bags, pillows and personal items in a duffel bag. It’s wise to do this as one of the Argentineans, determined to carry all her own kit, soon discovered to her cost how foolish this is. This is a trek at high altitude, so it’s wise to ensure that you have been in Cuzco for at least two days beforehand to acclimatise.
There is a palpable buzz in the air as we set off, swept along in a tide of colourful ‘fellow pilgrims’ from all over the world, a kind of modern-day version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales! At the entry post our tour guide, Elistan, a fresh-faced Quechua man with an excellent command of English, sorts out the paperwork for our group. You must present your passport and permit (covered in the total price paid to your tour operator), or entry to the trail is prohibited. It is impossible do the trail independently and the numbers permitted entry each day are strictly limited to 500 persons (including porters and guides). In reality there are permits for less than 200 trekkers, so booking your trek with a company several months ahead is therefore essential. April to October are the most popular months as the weather is drier.
We then pass under the famous entrance sign to the Inca Trail, posing momentarily for the obligatory group photo, then cross the suspension bridge over the foaming and seething Urubamba River. It is to be our companion for the first part of the trek along a dusty undulating route busy with mules serving local villages, and running porters, eager to rush ahead to ready lunch for their trekkers. There are spectacular views of the Vilcanota mountain range where the Veronica peak raises its snowy head 5,832 metres into a cornflower blue sky. We also get our first glimpse of an Incan archaeological site - Salapunku - an old resting place for travellers on the opposite side of the river. This first day is not hard, a 12 kilometre stroll with just 350 metres of ascent and there are several places along the way where you can pause to buy walking sticks, hats and bandanas, as well as cold drinks, snacks and coca leaves (they increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood and help to stave off altitude sickness). The pace begins comfortably but soon slows as the Argentinean carrying everything but the kitchen sink begins to lag behind. If you book via the Internet as we did you have no idea who your fellow trekkers will be, or how large a group you’ll be in. We are fortunate in that our group is small and Elistan, realising that we were both fit and experienced, does not hold us back. Over the course of the four days he allows us to make for camp at our own pace. A small group suits us, as we feel it might not be as pleasant trekking in a group as large as some we encounter along the trial.
Start of the classic Inca Trail routeWe pose for a group photo just before we cross the Urubamba River
The route veers away from the river and begins to gradually ascend towards Miskay (2,800 metres). Our group makes several stops along the way to enable stragglers to catch up, or for Elistan to explain items of interest. He points out cochineal beetles concealed within dusty white patches on prickly cactus leaves which, when crushed, reveal their prized crimson fluid. After walking across a flattish grassy plateau we spy the fort of Huillca Raccay at the mouth of the river Cusichaca. Perched high above an Incan town of some 115 houses which Elistan called Llactapata it was discovered by American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. Rising gently upslope from the fertile valley bottom near where the Cusichaca meets the mighty Urubamba, this terraced town that once housed a population of around 5,000 was strategically sited for Inca agriculture and trade and supplied many settlements with goods, including Machu Picchu. However, its actual name is Patallacta, and it was deliberately burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who, retreating from Cuzco in 1536, destroyed many towns and villages along the Inca road system to prevent the Spanish from discovering Machu Picchu or any of its settlements.
The Inca town of LlactapataIt's correct name is Patallacta and it was deliberately burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui in 1536. It was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911
Here, the cloud smouldering around the mountain tops which has been threatening rain finally delivers, and we are subjected to a steady downpour on the descent to the valley carved by the Cusichaca. It is a relief to get out of the rain when we stop at a local farm, heralded by swirling clouds of blue wood smoke and ducks waddling along the muddy path. After a hearty bowl of hot quinoa and vegetable soup with thick chunks of bread rustled up by our cook, we leave the relative comfort of the mess tent returning to the rain to begin a gentle ascent alongside the roaring Cusichaca River to the village of Wayllabamba (3,000 metres). Here we camp in a field by a rustic farm house for the night. Trekkers sleep for three nights under canvas so it’s wise to have had some experience of camping before attempting a multi day trek like the Inca trail, especially as the weather has turned inclement which, to pardon the pun, puts a bit of a dampener on things! We are advised to keep everything safely stashed inside our Doite tent to prevent animals carrying off our belongings!
‘Agua caliente!’ becomes a regular and very welcome cry from the porters, and it feels good to have hot water supplied in a small bowl for a much needed wash. The facilities along the 4-day route are primitive to say the least, and unless you are prepared to brave freezing water do not expect to shower. At least at Wayllabamba the farming family whose land we are camping on have a sit down flush toilet, albeit minus the seat! As darkness falls, we sit around the mess table listening to the rain gently pattering on the canvas sipping coca leaf tea, enjoying getting to know each other a little better. In the silvery light of the gas lamp, we listen to Elistan telling us about the route we will follow tomorrow. After a delicious three course meal of soup, meat and vegetables followed by fruit, we participate in the time-honoured Andean ritual of respect: the alcoholic toast or challa to Pachamama, ‘the Mother Earth’. This consists of sprinkling some liquor onto the ground for a successful journey and safe passage through the Andes. We then retire to our tent where we enjoy a sound night’s sleep, essential for the next day, the hardest of the four.
I'm roused from my slumbers by a rooster that clearly doesn’t understand the concept of a lie-in! Dawn heralds a beautiful fresh morning and the vegetation is wet and gleaming from yesterday's rain. We are surrounded by jagged snow-covered mountains just catching the first rays of the rising sun which are set against an azure blue sky dotted with pillow-white clouds. After a wholesome breakfast of fruit, quinoa porridge and bread washed down with coca leaf tea, we set out to tackle the most difficult part of the trek. This consists of a relentlessly steep 1,200 metre ascent that stretches for nine kilometres to the first, and highest, mountain pass of the trail. This day sorts the wheat from the chaff. Despite finally hiring ‘half a porter’ and dumping the majority of her clothing and a pair of ancient trainers, the Argentinean who is already lagging seriously behind, drops out just before the check point above Wayllabamba. It is a tough call and we all feel for her as she becomes tearful, knowing that her dream is over. We say our goodbyes. A porter will take her to the head of the trail and she will rendezvous with us in two days time at Machu Picchu.
We proceed steadily upwards in a long thread of climbers along what seems to be an ever steepening cobbled and stepped pathway that passes through cloud forest enlivened by rushing streams and bird song. The trail is fringed with dense tropical foliage and exotically shaped and coloured flowers. The humidity is sapping and we are glad to stop at a clearing where local women wearing colourful shawls, long braids and bowler hats are selling chocolate bars, water and soda pop. I spy one dishing out gourd-fulls of cloudy chicha (maize beer) to a group of thirsty porters. At 3,680 metres and after about three hours walking, we emerge from the tree line into a meadow known as Llulluchapampa, hemmed in on all sides by magnificent snow-crested golden-brown mountains peppered with weather-beaten rocks, coarse grass and little else. Through the interlocking spurs of the mountains above we finally catch sight of Warmi Wañusqa ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’, so called as it resembles the contours of a supine woman. This is the highest point on the trail at 4,200 metres, but it is still some 1.5 hours away.
Route up to Dead Woman's PassEmerging from the tree line we have superb views of the surrounding mountains
After all of our group arrive we begin the gruelling, lung-busting climb to the pass. Even the porters, burdened by loads almost as long as they are tall, their cheeks bulging with coca leaves, seem to be moving in slow motion as we relentlessly slog our way upwards under an unforgiving hot sun. My lungs feel tight and my legs are sapped of energy as we finally reach the top of the pass. Dry-mouthed and wild-eyed, I take in my surroundings. A huddle of fellow trekkers, awe struck at the view of the pathway snaking its way down through the gaping valley just climbed, stand stunned into humble silence by the sheer grandeur of the Andes. Silken shrouds of cloud wrap themselves round a tumultuous rapture of snow crested mountaintops for as far as the eye can see. Cloud shadows are gamboling across the barren sienna-brown slopes scarred by deep shadows the size of skyscrapers. Few of the porters stop, most continue on down the other side, loads swaying as they pick up speed.
The trail below Dead Woman's PassMartin is still smiling despite the gruelling ascent!
Dead Woman's PassThe gruelling, lung busting climb to the pass is worth it for this view
The top of Dead Woman's PassWarmi Wañusqa ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ is the highest on the trail at 4,200 metres
Photos taken, we do not linger long either. Elistan has told us not to wait for the others but to proceed to camp, wise advice as it's colder up here and our sweat-drenched shirts soon make it feel decidedly chilly in a stiffening breeze. Climbing to Dead Woman’s Pass is not the only hard part on the trek; the 600 metre descent to the second campsite over uneven rocky steps is equally taxing. Moving as fast as we dare, we glide over these to spare knees and feet, taking care to avoid patches where seepages of water have formed slippery algal films. After an initial steep section, the paved pathway then undulates along the left side of the valley giving pleasant vistas of the grassy mountain slopes, exotic flora and eventually, a welcome view of the campsite nestled amid denser vegetation further down the valley. A gentler stepped section brings us to the camp perimeter which contains a rather smelly ablution block with pit toilets.
The terraced camp at Pacaymayo is large and busy, bisected by a rushing torrent of water tumbling nosily down through the valley from a magnificent waterfall cascading down the mountainside above. Crossing this stream by a rustic wooden bridge, we then spend around 10 minutes searching for our designated camping area. Upon arrival our porters gaze at us in astonishment. They are still erecting our tents and blowing up the sleeping mats, the mess tent is not ready and there is no hot water! Choosing a tent with a fabulous view over the yawning valley below, we quietly soak up the scenery and are treated to the sight of an inquisitive deer, before dozing off in the warm afternoon sunshine.
Tent with a View!The terraced camp at Pacaymayo offers great views of the valley below
We are eating a late lunch when the Brazilians enter the camp and it is dusk before the last Argentinean arrives. She is clearly exhausted and sits in the mess tent in stupefied silence, scarcely eating anything at dinner. One small act of kindness causes her to burst into tears. She has a headache, feels sick and the 11 km trek that day has nearly killed her. The altitude and her general lack of fitness has conspired to make the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass to the camp a nightmarish ordeal and she had to be coaxed down slowly by Elistan and a porter who came to her rescue with hot coca tea. She disappears sobbing into her tent with some painkillers, more coca tea and copious sympathy.
As the camp falls silent, we wander up a nearby path to savour the night atmosphere. In the valley below our camp a thick carpet of white cloud glows with surreal luminescence, leaving just the jagged snow capped mountain peaks exposed. The purple night sky is studded with stars the size of crystal apples and the Milky Way soars overhead. The Inca called the Milky Way Mayu and believed it to be a life-giving river in the heavens with its earthly counterpart, the Urubamba River, in the Sacred Valley. The Inca grouped constellations into dark and stellar types. The luminous constellations were made up of sparkling stars that depicted geometric forms in the sky and were considered to be inanimate. The dark cloud constellations, contained within the black blotches of the Milky Way, were considered living forms representing the silhouettes of animals that came to drink from the waters of the celestial river, obscuring the heavenly glow of Mayu: The Fox. The llama. The serpent... Laid bare beneath this celestial light show, for a brief moment we feel we could have been the only two people in the world.
A riot of birdsong ushers in a beautiful cool, crisp morning. Today we will cover 18 km and climb another two passes, one of which attains a height of 4,000 metres. The cloud inversion still blankets the valley below, but it is churning; great columns of white vapour rise from it as the air warms up in the rising sun. The mountain we are to climb blushes pink, then gold in the dawn and the sun finally explodes in a fiery ball of light from behind the ridge of a mountain opposite. A shy smile across the breakfast table from our Argentinean friend tells me that she is feeling better.
The hour-long pull up over a very steep section of steps from Pacaymayo to Runkurakay, a semi-circular stone structure built on a promontory of rock, is best tackled before the sun gets too hot. Constructed as a look out point and traveller’s resting post, it offers incredible views of the valley below and Dead Woman’s Pass opposite. Joining a steady flow of porters perspiring profusely and bent double under their heavy loads making them resemble giant beetles, we head slowly upwards past gorgeous blue lakes concealed in corries towards the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay. The steps are steep and uneven, each one increasingly hard won in the growing heat of the sun.
RunkurakayThis was built as a look out point and traveller’s resting post, and is still fulfilling that function!
At the pass, we are met with yet more breathtaking magnificence as Veronica and numerous other smoky blue, snow-capped peaks float into view to ravish the eye. The mountains this side of the pass are greener and the vegetation lower down is thick jungle. The awesome beauty and remoteness of the Andes has shaped the lives and beliefs of the indigenous people, for these high places are watched over by powerful deities, custodians of eternal ice and life-giving water and the all-supreme Pachamama. Ritual seems to run through the people’s DNA. Gathering together a fan of oval shaped coca leaves, we do as shown by Elistan. Clutching them between fingers and thumbs, we bow, raising our hands above our heads three times in an ancient ritual of reciprocity between the material and the spiritual, before blowing our prayer into the wind then concealing the leaves under a tiny cairn.
Abra de Runkuracay PassIncredible views of the Andes Mountains can be seen from this pass
The start of the descent from the pass traverses a step section of steps, and the route thereafter is mostly original. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca who constructed such incredibly well-engineered pathways across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Although the wheel was known to them, the nature of the terrain made carts practically useless. I imagine the chasquis, or 'runners', darting like the wind along these old trails. Working as a relay team stationed at 6-9 km intervals, they could convey a message 2,000 km within the Inca Empire in just five days. Clinging obstinately to the sides of steep valleys with tunnels passing through solid rock, I wonder how many feet had passed before mine on this seemingly timeless trail?
Moving swiftly, we soon spot Sayaqmarca, which means ‘Inaccessible Town’. Perched on the tip of a very prominent ridge protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, it is aptly named. An incredibly steep stairway of steps, 98 to be precise, snakes its way up to its entrance. The precise function of Sayaqmarca is unknown, but it had a Sun Temple and over half of it was residential, served by an ingenious canal system that also filled ceremonial baths before it flowed out of sight into dense jungle. Far below are the rectangular outlines of the terraced ruins of Conchamarca, a resting place for travellers en route to Machu Picchu, and we are soon walking in the shadows cast by its stone walls.
Sayaqmarca, ‘Inaccessible Town’Perched on the tip of a very prominent ridge protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, this Inca settlement is reached by 98 steep steps
ConchamarcaThis was a resting place for travellers en route to Machu Picchu
A veritable feast is served by our cook for lunch before we begin the next section of the trail towards the third pass along an undulating pavement gently rising and falling as it weaves its way high up the side of valleys just above the cloud forest. The air is alive with birdsong and stunning vistas flash in and out of view, including the first sight of the town of Aguas Calientes and the silvery serpentine coils of the mighty Urubamba River far below. At Abra de Phuyupatamarca (3,700 metres), a flat granite plateau with views of a yawning amphitheatre of mountains in fifty shades of smoky blue, we get our first glimpse of the top of Huayna Picchu, the distinctive hill overlooking Machu Picchu, and a welcome sense of drawing ever closer to achieving our goal.
Inca Trail between Sayaqmarca and PhuyupatamarcaThis section of the trail is original and wends its way above the cloud forest
Porters, some in just sandals, run by us on the ridiculously steep steps of the descent towards the ruins of Phuyupatamarca. These are not living up to their name at all – ‘Town in the Clouds’ – for the neat outlines of the terraces formed by their impressive stonework are etched in perfect detail in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Passing by groups of grazing llamas and a series of ritual baths still fed by cool, crystal clear water, we pause to explore the ruins, the most intact so far, before beginning the infamous descent to the final camp at Wiñay Wayna.
PhuyupatamarcaThe ‘Town in the Clouds’ was not living up to its name at all!
Dubbed the Gringo Killer, this descent of almost 900 metres incorporating what seem like thousands of steps, is gruelling. Again, we decide to move rapidly, passing people trudging slowly downward, concentration etched on weary faces. Many are leaning heavily on their walking poles obviously feeling the pain in their knees and feet!
The 'Gringo Killer'!The 900 metre descent from Phuyupatamarca to Wiñay Wayna is viciously steep and can take its toll on tired limbs, hence its nickname!
Despite its reputation, the path is a delight, descending into a mysterious cloud forest full of hummingbirds, orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and exotic flowers. It passes through an Incan tunnel carved straight down through the rock and over rustic wooden bridges. Eventually the rusty tin roofs of buildings at the Wiñay Wayna campsite come into view and the impressive agricultural terraces of Intipata on the mountainside above. We take a path that passes right through the centre of the terraces, eventually descending down over a teeth jarring set of steep, ridiculously high steps, which wreak havoc on tired limbs! Passing a trio of llamas who arrogantly brush by us on the path, we finally arrive at the camp to applause from our porters. As dusk falls, Elistan arrives with our fellow trekkers.
A bottle of red wine is produced at dinner to celebrate our safe arrival at the final camp. Our Argentinean friend, who came close to quitting on the second day, makes an emotional and moving speech to the porters as she presents them with the tip money we have collected. The noble faces of these Quechua men, some prematurely aged by the harshness of life on the Altiplano, who have been deprived an adequate education and have known little other than hard graft since their childhood, will linger long in my memory. It is mainly due to them that we have enjoyed a comfortable trek, for everything - camping equipment, gas bottles, cooking utensils, provisions, stools, table and personal belongings - have been painstakingly hauled every inch of the way by them. What heroes! If I wasn't so tired from the exertions of the past three days it would be impossible to sleep tonight, as I'm so excited by the thought that in less than eight hours I’ll be seeing Machu Picchu…
The night before the end of the trekWe celebrate with our porters, cook and guide after presenting them with their well-earned tips
‘Agua caliente!’ It is just 3.30 am as the porters rouse us from our slumbers and we rise in pitch darkness to break camp for the last time. Every group has the same intention. The porters rush to pack up all the kit in time to descend to Aguas Calientes where they must catch the early ‘local train’ which is government-subsidised and for Peruvians only. The trekkers vie to be at the head of the queue which forms at the final checkpoint which opens at 5.30 am in order to ensure that they arrive in time to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our group fails miserably and we find ourselves close to the back of the queue!
After what seems an eternity and one last visit to the truly dreadful pit toilets of the camp, just as the first glimmer of dawn begins to chase away the purple night sky, the queue surges forward as the checkpoint opens. Once through, we set a very fast pace for the 1½ hour hike to Intipunku (the Sun Gate), the final pass above the city. The 6 km trail contours a mountainside with precipitous drops subject to landslides, passing through luxurious cloud forest alive with bird song and insects, before coming to an almost vertical flight of 50 steps. Like penitents approaching a shrine, many trekkers climb these impossibly steep steps on all fours, gasping for breath in the warm, tropical air. A short ascent then brings us right to the Sun Gate where we finally get our first view of Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.
Climb to the Sun GateTrekkers struggle to climb the steep steps up to the Sun Gate
Some things you see in life are destined to remain indelibly etched on your memory forever. This is one of them. Since early childhood Machu Picchu has fascinated me. Now, right before my very eyes, lies one of the most famous scenes depicted in my first atlas. Choked with emotion, I watch mesmerised as a shaft of sunlight streams down from the mountain behind me, falling softy on the upper edge of the city where it gradually illuminates an intricate jigsaw puzzle of reconstructed buildings, partial ruins and the distinctively shaped Huayna Picchu rising majestically behind. It feels unreal to be witnessing the sunrise over this spectacular blue-green kingdom built in a saddle between two forest-clad Andean peaks that seem to guard it like a secret. The weather is picture postcard perfect, not a cloud in the sky, and deep green tropical vegetation blankets the surrounding mountains whose peaks recede into purple-grey infinity.
Machu Picchu at dawnThe first rays of the sun catch the stone walls of the Sacred City of the Incas
Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Incas just after dawnDawn over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate on a picture postcard perfect morning
We tour the city as a group, reunited with our Argentinean friend who dropped out on day two. Elistan takes obvious pride in our awestruck reactions to his cultural heritage. I sit on one of the grassy terraces that once held corn, peppers, squash, potatoes and lupine. Swifts are whirling overhead and the warm April sunshine falls on my shoulders. Opposite is Huayna Picchu which means 'young peak' in Quechua, as opposed to Machu Picchu 'old peak. I feel truly grateful for the opportunity to be at a site that is on virtually every international traveller’s bucket list. I ponder the purpose of this place, now a World Heritage Site, built nearly 2,500 metres high in the mountains which was never discovered by the Spaniards and only brought to the world’s attention just over a century ago when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham.
Machu Picchu World Heritage SiteOne of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, and the top tourist attraction in South America
It is believed that Machu Picchu was a laboratory that attracted the finest minds from across the vast Inca Empire. Astronomers came to study the heavens and agricultural scientists tested innovative methods of food production by making use of micro-climates afforded by the location. They constructed the irrigated terraces that ripple in parallel down the mountainside which so characterise the site. Machu Picchu is also believed to be a sacred religious site due to its location built on, and around, mountains that commanded high spiritual and ritual importance in both Incan and pre-Incan cultures. It was a place where priests and nobility rubbed shoulders. There are a trio of impressive religious structures dedicated to Inti, the Incan sun god and greatest deity: the Torreón, or Temple of the Sun (a massive tower which may have been used as an observatory); the Intihuatana (‘the hitching post of the sun’), thought to be a ritual astronomical calendar, and the Room of the Three Windows. Whispers of a mysterious past seem to swirl around the ashlar buildings of this incredible place, constructed to withstand earthquakes, and so well built that it is impossible to place a cigarette paper between the huge masonry blocks.
Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the IncasIncredible masonry inside the city
Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the IncasMe sitting in one of the many alcoves of the city
Intihuatana, The Hitching Post of the Sun, Machu PicchuThis structure is believed to be a ritual astronomical calendar
Torreón, Machu PicchuAlso known as the Temple of the Sun, this massive tower may have been used as an observatory
After wandering amid crowds of other tourists for several hours, exploring every nook and cranny of the city despite our tiredness, it is finally time to leave. A minibus conveys us rapidly down a dusty trackway via a series of heart-stopping hairpin bends, to Aguas Calientes, where, after a meal taken together with our fellow trekkers and Elistan, we make our farewells. We take the Vistadome Train to Ollantaytambo along a route that snakes up the deep valley carved by the Urubamba River. Hemmed in by lofty mountains, the large windows that curve up to the very roof of the train create the impression that they are bearing down on us. We lie back in our seats admiring this epic scenery, celebrating the extraordinary events of the last four days with a glass of cold beer.
The view of Machu Picchu and Huayna PicchuMartin poses in front of one of the most famous views in the world
There is no better way to arrive at Machu Picchu than via the Inca Trail, which combines the most popular backpacking trek on the South American continent with its top tourist attraction. Even with the expense, the bureaucratic restrictions involved in doing the hike, and the almost constant presence of other trekkers and porters, it is possible to enjoy moments of unbridled solitude and peace. The prize at the end of four days’ of sweat and effort are the sublime and magical dawn views of Machu Picchu. Yes, it is crowded, but once you see it you begin to understand why you simply cannot have this special place entirely to yourself.