Hiking the ‘Classic Inca Trail’ to Machu Picchu….

So, the day is finally here: Macchu Picchu here we come. For many, this is the thing to do during their time in South America, and while it was amazing, I think I’ve preferred discovering the less well documented, but no less impressive sights such as Lake Quilotoa or Rainbow Mountain. Nonetheless, it was an incredible four days and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Well, I say the day had arrived, but our first day actually consisted of a tour of the nearby Sacred Valley before a night in a nearby hostel, complete with resident llamas.

500 people are permitted to start the trail each day, but this number includes approximately 300 support staff in the form of porters, cooks and guides. I chose the ‘Classic Trek’ because the equipment is carried by humans who choose to do so, as opposed to pack animals which are used on other treks. The porters are truly incredible; they carry up to 30kg of equipment on their backs, while I struggled with my daypack weighing 7kg. Having finished our breakfast, we would set off on a day’s hiking, only to be overtaken by running porters who would then have lunch ready for us upon our arrival. This was repeated for dinner when we would arrive at the campsite to also find our tents and bed all set up. They ranged in age from 20 to 63 years old and none of the following would’ve been possible without them. They also managed to cook incredible food despite the rudimentary facilities.

DAY ONE: PISCAYCUCHO TO WAYLLABAMBA

Distance: 12km

Starting elevation: 2,700m

End elevation: 3,000m

Start time: 1103

End time: 1627

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

We started the Inca Trail at Km82 in Piscaycucho, where we met our team of porters and guides.  Having  shown our passports and permits, we crossed the Urubamba River, following the shoreline through lush farmland before gradually climbing for the next few hours. The walk today was relatively easy, and we were treated to some stunning views of Mount Veronica (named after a woman who went missing on the mountain and was never found).

DAY TWO: WAYLLABAMBA TO PACAYMAYO

Distance: 11km

Starting elevation: 3,000m

Highest elevation: 4,200m

End elevation: 3,650m

Start time: 0643

End time: 1429

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

# of coca leaves chewed: countless

Today was by far the hardest of the four days, with the hike being almost entirely uphill with steep inclines. The scenery made the effort worthwhile, although I had to consciously remind myself of that at times, especially when I felt the formation of several blisters on my feet. The group made good progress first thing and were therefore treated to a two hour lunch, during which I took the opportunity of a nap. However, upon waking I felt decidedly ropey but unable to put my finger on why. We started walking again, but I was quickly beset with a splitting headache. Lauren – a.k.a. Wonder Woman, on account of the fact she was doing the Inca Trail only three months after surgery to repair her ACL – confided that she was feeling similarly bad and we decided to try chewing coca leaves which we’d been told would help. The first taste was revolting. Having chewed five leaves, we stored them in our cheeks like hamsters and waited for them to work their magic. We were told to change the leaves every ten minutes and counting the time helped me concentrate on something else besides my throbbing forehead. The leaves are indeed magical as within twenty minutes, both Lauren and I felt much better, even putting on a bit of a spurt. We reached the highest point on the trek, Dead Women’s Pass, and stopped for some celebratory photos. Thankfully, it was all downhill to that evening’s campsite where, upon arrival, I promptly slept for several hours before dinner.

DAY THREE: PACAYMAYO TO WINAY WAYNA

Distance: 16km

Starting elevation: 3,650m

End elevation: 2,650m

Start time: 0635

End time: 1437

# of showers: 1 (if you count dipping one’s balls in a bucket of warm soapy water)

# of poos: almost 1 (despite repeated attempts in the bush)

Today was my favourite day of the trek. Up to now I could generally be found at the back of our group of 14, with one of the guides, Willian, who was great at making us take breaks and not go beyond our limits. However, today was mostly downhill which suits me much better. Several of the group struggled more on this day because of the impact on their knees, but for me it was much preferable than the ascents. At one point, a small group of us, inspired by the amazing running porters, decided to run down the ancient stone steps with them for about 30 minutes. It was exhilarating and I had a massive smile on my face when we reached our next checkpoint, the ruins at Phuyupatamarca and waited for the others, filling the time by doing some handstands above the valley. The drop in elevation meant that I felt fine and my breathing and heart rate returned to normal almost immediately upon stopping running. It felt bizarre given that I’m usually out of breath for a few minutes having run twenty seconds for a tram in Amsterdam!!

DAY FOUR: WINAY WAYNA TO MACCHU PICCHU

Distance: 4km

Starting elevation: 2,650m

End elevation: 2,430m

Start time: 0330 (!!!!)

End time: 0730

# of showers: 1 (upon return to hotel at 1930)

# of poos: lots (also upon return to hotel and its functioning, clean toilet)

The porters woke us up at the ungodly hour of 0300 to start the short walk to the Sun Gate and our first sight of Machu Picchu. When I booked this trip, the brochure said we would arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise, but this wasn’t entirely true. We walked along the jungle path for fifteen minutes, before joining the queue of hikers who were waiting for the path to be opened at 0530. Ian ‘entertained’ us with the five jokes he has memorised for such an occasion, our polite laughter the only sound piercing the early morning silence.  The gates were promptly opened at 0530 and we began the 75 minute walk up to the Sun Gate. By this time, sunrise had come and gone, and after climbing the final super steep steps, we were treated to our first sight of the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. Except we weren’t. A mist had rolled in at exactly the worst moment, and all you could hear were the disappointing sighs of smelly and tired hikers. Thankfully the sun worked its magic and the mist soon cleared to reveal the ancient stones. It’s a truly remarkable sight and it’s hard not to be impressed by the spectacle.

After the obligatory photos, I was craving some alone time, so I went for a coffee and sandwich before playing with the numerous well-fed pooches who hang around the entrance of the sight hoping for scraps from tourists. Ian and I then caught the bus to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally Hot Waters) and celebrated our achievements with a couple of litres of beer and WiFi. I’m not sure Ian felt much of a sense of achievement given that he said he thought it was a lot easier than he’d imagined (needless to say I thought it would kill me at one point on the second day), or perhaps his achievement was managing to cope with me as a tentmate for three nights without killing me. Either way, the beer went down a treat.

The whole group met for lunch after which we took the train back to Cusco. Following dinner, copious amounts of celebratory alcohol was consumed before a corresponding amount of dancing took place on the bar of a local club. I decided to call it a night at 0430, 25.5 hours after I’d awoken.  I was shattered.

The walk home was probably my favourite part of the evening, the sense of camaraderie was strong, especially once Ian and I had discovered Cusco’s slippery stone pavements.

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Trekking to Machu Picchu isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that honour still belongs to Rainbow Mountain, but it will live long in the memory and I feel privileged to have done it.

Challenges in Cusco….

20171119_112509939091199.jpgThe main reason for visiting Cusco was its location as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but we’d also heard there was a great trek up to Rainbow Mountain, known as Vinicunca in the Quechua language, and having ogled the relevant Instagram hashtag, four of us decided it was definitely worth doing. I’m not quite sure how or why we reached that conclusion given the following:

* The day trek requires a 0400 wake up call for a 0430 departure, and we’d return to the city at 1930;

* The hike would take us to 5,200 metres above sea level, by far the highest we’d been on the trip so far, and altitude sickness isn’t fun;

* We would be doing the 4-day Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu after Rainbow Mountain, with only one rest day in between.

Like I said, I’m not sure how we decided it would be a good idea, but nonetheless we paid the fees and off we went. It took three hours by minibus to reach the start of the hike which is located at 4,700m above sea level (Cusco is 3,600m). On the way we stopped for a very hearty breakfast, but as those close to me already know, I can’t eat anything before ten in the morning. I managed to swallow a few bites of a bread roll while my fellow hikers scoffed cereals and panqueques, a far more sensible preparation for what was to come.

The first couple of kilometres were relatively flat so we declined offers of ascending on horseback – something I came to regret later – and we set off purposefully, the rhythmic clack clack of our walking sticks the only sound to be heard. The inclines got steeper after the third kilometre and it became a real struggle, especially as we had to reach the summit by a certain time in order to be able to descend in daylight and return to the city by early evening. There were horses available at various spots on the mountain and Ian came up with the mantra of ‘every horse you pass is a victory Gazza’ which really helped by appealing to my competitive nature. However, by the time we got to the fourth kilometre, that competitive streak which has served me so well throughout my life decided to desert me when I needed it the most, and I finally gave in to the idea of completing the trek on horseback. The only snag, however, is that horses were forbidden from going any further from where I currently stood. I stopped and wondered what I’d done to deserve such a cruel fate.

The final two inclines were only another 400m or so, but were undoubtedly the hardest physical activity I’d ever asked my body to undertake. To give you some perspective, the summit of Rainbow Mountain is only 125m lower than that of Mount Everest Base Camp. Thankfully, on this final descent the level of camaraderie really swelled and there were lots of encouraging ‘you can do its’ and ‘you’re almost theres’ from not only the group, but complete strangers who knew exactly how I was feeling. They definitely brought on an extra spurt of energy and the sense of elation on reaching the summit was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I think Ian and Matt were a little taken aback by the bearhugs they were subsequently treated to.

The view from atop the summit was something unique to me. So many different coloured soils were exposed, hence the name Rainbow Mountain. It was amazing to look back from where we had come and the realisation hit of what we’d achieved. After 45 minutes of celebratory back slaps and selfies (including one sitting on our guide’s shoulders, at his insistence!) we began the descent back to the start. The downhill terrain was much appreciated and we were making good time when I started to feel a bit ‘iffy’. It began with a splitting headache, and was soon followed by an upset stomach. Matt (who thankfully I’d shared rooms with already on this trip) and I sped up once I told him that I needed to reach the dreaded drop-toilet that we could see in the distance asap. We arrived just in time, however, upon squatting into position I realised that not only did the rickety door not lock, it did not even close shut. Poor Matt stood guard as my stomach fell out of me at quite a rate of knots, no doubt wondering what he’d done to deserve such a fate. I could see the hiking boots of fellow trekkers trudge by, and their footsteps increased in speed once their ears and noses were assaulted by indescribable sounds and smells. As I exited the shack, rather sheepishly I have to admit, Matt asked me if I felt better for the experience at least. I don’t think he was expecting my response to be in the form of projectile vomiting near his feet, and to be honest, neither was I. The combination of no breakfast and drinking lots of water meant that a constant stream of bright yellow liquid landed on the mountain for the next five minutes. Unlike in the drop-toilet, this time I could see the sympathetic faces of my fellow trekkers. It didn’t make me feel any better.

Matt, ever the gentlemen, accompanied me for the entire descent and I’d never been more glad to see a minibus in my entire life. Ian tried to make me feel better by telling me that another guy in our group had also puked, but I was too busy wallowing in my exhaustion to pay much attention. The drive back to the city was the best medicine and for every kilometre we descended I felt much improved. So much so that upon arrival in Cusco, I felt like I did at the start of the day. We treated ourselves to a carbtastic dinner and red wine before collapsing into bed, telling ourselves that it was good prep before Machu Picchu the day after tomorrow. My body was not convinced.

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