From Copacabana in Bolivia to Cusco in Peru, you have to take a bus to cross the border which takes around ten hours including border crossing, this is if you are lucky like myself. Most people end up on a horror bus which takes much longer, however, most people are unfazed by this as they are by and large in Cusco for one thing: Macchu Picchu. Sure, there are plenty of other places in the local area such as the Sacred Valley and the city itself but nothing steals the limelight quite like these Inca ruins high up in the hills some 80km away from Cusco.
To do the Inca trail, it is necessary to book it months in advance as places sell out rapidly and there are only 500 available per day. If you don't book it in time then there are other options which can be booked either in advance or in Cusco itself: there are various treks which take different paths but lead to Macchu Picchu or the train which runs from Ollantaytambo (take a bus here from Cusco) to the town of Aguas Calientes close to Macchu Picchu, from here you have to take a bus up the mountain the ruins are situated on.
The Inca Trail starts at kilometre marker 82 in the town of Ollantaytambo, it is 43km long and takes four days and three nights to complete. The trek starts with a 5:20am pick up from the hostel and from here the group is driven to Urubamba for breakfast. This is one of the few things not included in the overall tour price but as it's a buffet it's easy to get your money's worth. By this time, people are starting to wake up and from here to Ollantaytambo the group slowly starts to get to know each other.
At the beginning of the trek, the group receives their entry tickets to the national park and makes their way down to the entrance where passports are required to guarantee entry. From here, you cross the Urubamba river via a bridge which was worryingly only put in place in 1994, before that people had to cross two at a time in a basket suspended above the raging current.
Once across, the walking starts. Day one is pretty routine and more an exercise to get people used to carrying packs, become acclimatised and get the body used to walking for prolonged periods of time. This day is 15km long but there are no major inclines beyond 25 minutes up hill immediately followed by the same time period back down again, as a result the going is pretty steady with the elevation rising from 2700m to 3000m across the course of the day.
Halfway through the day at 2800m the group reaches a view point and gets it's first taste of some Inca ruins; in Quechua (the Peruvian native language) the site is known as Patallacta, in English, City on the Mountainside. Archaeologists have deemed this place to be where workers who were building Macchu Picchu (general consensus is that it was never finished) lived as Macchu Picchu can be reached in matter of hours via a short cut. Also, there were various tools found at the site along with bodies which were just discarded in a cave rather than been properly buried in the old Inca fashion of facing east and in the foetal position due to their belief in rebirth. From the group's vantage point there were two other ruins, these are said to be watch towers as they provide sweeping views of the valley below.
The tour provides food each day and people I met before the trek said how good the food was, I generally just assumed this meant the food was edible or you at least didn't get sick from it. However, from the first lunch to the last breakfast, the food was amazing. It was always different, healthy and delicious, exactly how food should be.
Arriving in to the camp at Huayllabamba around 5pm, the porters had already raced ahead and all the tents were set up, the kitchen tent was alive with action and the packs were laid out for those who had hired a porter. This is an option that can be taken advantage of but at an additional price, given I am on a tight budget a porter was never an option, not to mention I wanted to carry all my own stuff anyway to challenge myself and maybe start making amends for my failed attempt at Huayna Potosi. The day finished with dinner, some beers kindly brought to us by a local and most of us marvelling at the night sky, with no light pollution and a clear night I don't think I'd ever seen the stars quite so clearly.
|Start of the trail|
|Walking to the national park entrance|
|Looking back towards the start|
|Watch tower overlooking Pata Llauta|
|Ruins at Huayllabamba|
With a trek like this, early starts are inevitable and at around 5:30am we were woken up with tent service of hot drinks, nothing to sniff at. Breakfast was hearty and filling, and just as well. Day one may be meant to ease your way into the trek but day two is basically an assault on the highest pass which stands at 4200m. Compared to the heights of La Paz and beyond I didn't envisage too much of a problem breathing, the only qualm lay in the fact that the way to this pass was nothing short of a savage incline with no respite.
Once breakfast was over, we mounted up and headed through one of the weigh station checkpoints for the porters on the trek ( they aren't allowed to carry more than 20kg) and immediately hit an incline. This lasts some thirty minutes before evening out where the group can catch their breath before another uphill section which once again leaves everyone breathless. Mercifully, the porters have run ahead and a second breakfast is already prepared when the group arrives at 3800m, some 800m higher in elevation since our early morning departure.
From here, it is a straight up brutal ascent to Dead Woman's pass at 4200m; there's no shade or flat resting spot and with the sun beating down it is a tough old slog with the path rarely turning and the only thing you can see is the pass which looks miles away and seemingly out of reach. After looking at nothing but the ground for what seems an eternity, the summit is within reach before the final twenty or so steps which are basically over sized stone steps designed to be cruel right when you think you are at the top. Once you have recovered your breath, the views both back the way you just came and down into the valley are breathtaking.
From here, the path goes down 700m into the valley to Pacaymayu where camp awaits. Just as the path was straight up to reach the pass, it is straight down on the other side. The path is haphazard, the steps constantly changing in height and depth and a comfortable walking pattern nigh on impossible to achieve. As a result the best plan of attack is to literally head down as quickly as possible and hope your coordination is up to scratch, going slowly will only be tougher on your knees. Again, once at camp everything is set up and after both the assent and descent it isn't long until everyone crawls into their tents.
|Long way up|
|View back down the valley towards out starting point|
|Everyone at Dead Woman's pass|
|Looking back up the valley|
|The porters and chef|