The last four days have been a struggle but a struggle well worth the pain.
We started our hiking preparations in Cusco at the G Adventures HQ. We were introduced to our main guide, Kantu, and given a run down of the four days including how far we walk each day and what altitudes we would be reaching. We were also given lots of advice about what to bring and what to not bring. Finally, we had the option to hire things and I went for everything (air mattress, sleeping bag and 2 walking poles). We were given our G Adventures branded duffel bags and told that they cannot be more than 6kg including the sleeping bag and mattress if we had hired them. This meant that I only had 2.5kg for my own stuff and everything else I had to carry! This meant a lot of scrimping like re-wearing walking socks and leggings, not bringing my warm coat etc and it was so hard to not go over!
The next day we got an hour and 45 minute bus to Ollantaytambo which is a cute small town near Machu Picchu. Dennis, our main G Adventures guide, took us for a walk around the town and showed us lots of old Inca bricks that the Spanish had used and built on top of. It’s impressive to see how well these walls have stood the test of time. We finished in the cute main square, from which you could see mountains in every direction. This is where we grabbed all our last minute snacks and other necessities and I stocked up on high protein foods in hope that it would prevent my muscles from aching too much! Most of us then followed Dennis to one of his favourite spots in Ollantaytambo which is an inca ruin.
After a nice three course dinner, we headed back to our hotel for our last night of comfort.
Luckily, I slept really well and had a good catchup with mum over breakfast which was nice! We were picked up by Kantu and our other two guides, Rudy and Rene at 8am and got a bus to Kilometer 82 which is the beginning of the trail. Here, we met our porters for the first time and collected all the things we had hired. There is a very strict rule that porters can’t carry more than 25kg each otherwise the company will be fined and have a one year ban on the trail so they were very thorough in weighing all our duffel bags. We started walking and after a few minutes we reached our first check point where we had our tickets and passports checked. As we were doing this, our porters ran past us all dressed in G Adventures branded purple tops and we all gave them a clap and a cheer.
As we got going, we saw our first Incan ruin. This place was called Tampu and Kantu explained that along the Urubamba river there were stations like this every 8-10km for messengers. These stations would provide them with food and shelter if they needed.
We kept on walking uphill, stopping occasionally for water and snacks. Kantu continued to give us information about the Inca Trail and what life was like for the Incas. The Inca Trail and all the ruins along it, were discovered in 1913 by Hiram Bingham III who was an American Professor and also made the “scientific discovery” of Machu Picchu. Most Inca buildings use the trapezius shape and this is because they knew about tectonic plates and the risk of earthquakes. This can be seen in both the angles of the walls and the shape of the windows. In history, Cusco had had a bad earthquake every 300 years so it’s impressive that these buildings are still standing! After seeing Inca walls in Cusco and Ollantaytambo, I was surprised that these walls were so different but Kantu explained that as the Incan Empire expanded, they absorbed the architecture, astrology and agricultural habits of the places they invaded.
Because I knew day two would be so tough, I took it easy and for a while walked at the back with our guides Rudy and Rene. Turns out, Dennis had told them I speak Spanish so they chatted with me for a bit. For the rest of the trip, they refused to speak to me in English and took the mick out of my Spain-Spanish accent.
In total we walked 11km on day 1 and when we arrived in camp, everything had already been set up for us by the porters. Ammun and I grabbed our bags and chose a tent to change in. The porters brought us all a bowl of hot water to freshen up with and then we all had a good stretch on the grass. It was at this point that everyone worked out that I used to do gymnastics/pole dancing…
At 5pm we had afternoon tea which was tea/coffee/hot chocolate and biscuits with butter and jam. Afterwards, we played a very competitive game of heads up (an app where you hold the phone against your head and words come up and your team describes them). It was great fun and everyone got so into it.
At 6.30pm we had our first dinner which was so good! Like lunch, we started off with a starter of sopa (soup) and then had some meat, vegetables and carbs. At lunch, we had a jellified version of the purple corn juice as pudding but we don’t get pudding with dinner as they want us to sleep. And that’s just what we did.
Day 2 was the day we were all fearing. We had heard that this day was called “The Gringo Killer” (Gringo meaning foreigner). We were woken up at 5am by Rudy with a cup of cocoa tea to warm us up and help with the altitude. However, my crippled back was so uncomfortable in the night that I was already awake and had only slept about 2.5/3 hours! We got our stuff ready and then went to breakfast. We all had a bowl of porridge and some bread and then they brought out pancakes with our names on! We laughed because we weren’t sure why they said well done before we complete the hardest bit but they were tasty!
We set off about 6.30am and began the 7km uphill hike. All was going okay and my back was feeling a bit better after a stretch but my body is never nice to me and I started to get bad period pains! Naturally I was in a bad mood, not because of hormones or whatever but because I hadn’t even stopped my pill!! Thank you altitude once again for killing me!
One of the Aussie girls in the group, Kim walked slower with me and kept my spirits up and we both motivated each other up the (really awfully placed) stairs to the Cloud Forest. The Cloud Forest is pretty self explanatory but it is special because there is a mix of both jungle and mountain vegetation. Obviously the mountain vegetation because we’re in the Andes but the jungle vegetation is there because of the humidity from the low clouds. One example is the Oonka tree which is really strong and therefore good for construction.
After a pause to have a snack and a painkiller, Kim, Emily (another Aussie girl who was, like me, struggling with pain) and I focused on the fact that this climb will be 70% mental strength and 30% physical so we attempted to sing and motivated each other by saying “at the top of this hill there is….” and making a list of things we wanted in that moment and it included rabies free puppies, real toilets with clean toilet seats, hot boys, massage therapists and a LOT of food!
After another break, people noticed that Kim was playing music from her speakers and slowed down with us for the toughest part of the day. Soon after, we could see Dead Woman’s Pass which is the highest part of the trail at 4,215m and nearly 1,800m higher than Machu Picchu itself! Even though we could see it, it was still very far away! We played more tunes and kept our spirits up although, the more I walked, the stronger my cramps got until I died. I had to sit down and have a cry because I was in so much pain and all the guides came running thinking that I’d injured myself. Once I’d calmed down, they offered to take all my stuff to make it easier on me but I kept my rucksack so that I could have the cable to my platypus in one hand and a snack in the other. Ammun dropped back and kept me going up the final stretch. As I reached the top, I held hands with Laura who had be struggling with her knees and everyone cheered. Whenever we arrived at camp or at a checkpoint the porters and everyone who had already arrived cheered people and it feels so good to finish feeling high!
At Dead Woman’s Pass, everyone was in such high spirits and there were hugs and high fives all around. We took a moment to appreciate the view, eat more snack and take lots of pictures. We also needed to put on warm clothes because it was quite chilly at altitude.
The next bit of the day was so much easier for me. We had to walk 4km downhill and as I wasn’t using my stomach muscles, I was in a much better mood. Ammun, Kim, Emily, Milou and I started off at a reasonable pace but ended up splitting as we had different natural paces. At about 2pm, the whole group had made it back and after a freshen up, we sat down for another yummy 3 course lunch. As we’re in a long, thin tent and were a big group, we have a lot of shouting at meal times. We shout SOPA (soup) and AGUA CALIENTE (hot water) as we pass things down the table and then had the usual cutlery issue and the last people to sit down would have to shout ARE THERE ANY SPARE SPOONS?? Eventually it would all be fine and we atw exceptionally well on the trail!
On this day, we did all our walking before lunch so that a) we weren’t hiking in the hottest part of the day and b) we didn’t have to do the most challenging section on a full stomach. This meant that we had the afternoon free to entertain ourselves… Or take a nap! At 4.30pm, our guides had arranged for us to meet our porters properly and one by one they told us their names, ages, where they were from and if they had a family. Their ages ranged from 18 to 62 and it was nice to hear that quite a few had been working for G Adventures for some years so it must mean that they are paid well and treated well. It was also cute when one older porter said that he had 6 children and then said that three were with him and three of the younger porters waved! As we’d asked about if they had a family or not, they all wanted to know if we were single or in a relationship. As there are 3 couples in the group, they could point to their significant other but for those of us who are single, we got cheers and some whistles from the porters which was funny.
After another afternoon tea, we brainstormed games that we could play that don’t involve any objects. I suggested a game called mafia which I’ve played a few times with family friends and everyone was on board. It’s like an adult version of wink murder and somehow, one game turned the whole group against each other and everyone was so angry!! Even over dinner, everyone was still mad at each other and I sat a little sheepish worried that I’d spoiled the close bond we’d got as a group over the last few days!
After dinner, we were given a special type of tea that has lime, cinnamon, orange peel and another thing that I forgot. I’m sure it’s probably quite nice on its own but we were encouraged to bring run to add to it and it made it so yummy – exactly what we needed! Due to popular demand, we played mafia again. I stayed as the narrator and instead of simply saying the villagers woke up and fell asleep etc, I based it around our group and our itinerary which made it hilarious and all our guides joined in too. It probably wasn’t a good idea to make people so angry again before bed but it was so cold and we were so tired after another 11km walking that we were all very ready to sleep.
The third day was the longest day but the most enjoyable day of walking. We were woken up again at 5am with cocoa tea and warm water to wash our faces. After a good breakfast of bread with butter, honey and jam, we marched on starting with quite a steep uphill climb and then it was ondulating after that.
Our first Inca ruin site was a circular shaped station. In Inca times, all religious buildings were circular so it’s really easy to identify them. From this station we could see a valley really clearly so this station would have also been used as a look out and an observatory as they used the stars to tell what time of year it was and what plants they should be planting. From here, we could also see why the Dead Woman’s Pass has it’s name. Through the incoming fog we could make out the figure of a woman lying down between two of the mountain peaks.
Kantu continued to tell us loads of information about the Incan times and the more I hear, the more interested I am. Cusco used to be the capital of the four quarters of the inca territory and therefore has the nickname of the belly button of the world.
When the Spanish arrived they were were received as guests but then killed off 90% of Incas. First with diseases like small pox and malaria that they had brought from Europe and then in battles. There is only 1 village left in South America believed to be true descendants of the Incas called Keros although many people still speak the Quechua language of the Incas and are believed to be mixed descendants.
Leading up to lunch was the first time we experienced any rain (which was so surprising considering it’s the rainy season!) and I did start feeling a bit miserable at this point. Turns out my rain jacket isn’t actually waterproof and my bag cover didn’t fully cover my bag. We also couldn’t see any of the nice views – all we could see was cloud!
For lunch we again had SOPA (still shouting) and then we were treated to a buffet of salad and meat dishes and mashed potato and more. But to top it all off, for pudding we had a jelly cake!! At the beginning, we had to think of a team name and somehow we ended up as Sexy Dennis. After the two intense games of mafia, we became The Sexy Dennis Mafia and they wrote it on our pudding!!
After lunch, the rain and cloud cleared up and we were on the move again. I had a happy tummy so I was good to go and powered downhill to the Phuyupatamarka ruins which in Quechua means cloud town. We raced up the stairs to get the best view of the mountains and it was incredible. There were so many buildings still fairly intact and you could see shelves where the home owners would have kept idols of their gods. All the Incan gods were representative of the elements such as the sun, the earth etc. But the best thing about this place is one particular mountain that you can see: Machu Picchu Mountain! You can’t see Machu Picchu from here as its the other side of the mountain but we could see our end goal! We all paused for a moment to take in the view and then all noticed town below which was Aguas Calientes aka Machu Picchu Town were we were going to have lunch on the last day!
We could also see some terraces in the side of another mountain called Intapata and after a bit more walking we arrived there. This location was ideal for growing fruit and vegetables for all the inca people but now it’s just the ideal location for some incredible photos.
We arrived back at the camp quite late and had the best reception of the whole trip. The porters and the fast members of the group were cheering and clapping and it was actually a little bit overwhelming! Ammun, Kate and I were feeling quite achey after our 16km hike so we did some Pilates with mountainous views in between afternoon tea and dinner. After another amazing dinner, we said our goodbyes to the porters as we weren’t really going to see them in the morning. I said a brief thank you in Spanish on behalf of the group, then Kantu said some words and we handed over an envelope that we’d all signed with a tip for them to share. The head chef then gave quire a heartfelt thank you to all of us and said that we had been a really nice group to work with. We all shook hands and hugged and then it was time for bed.
The final morning was a very weird morning. We were woken up at 3.15am, sadly not with cocoa tea, and had a light breakfast. By 4.15am, everything was completely packed away and the porters had gone as they needed to catch a train at 5am at the bottom of the hill. We all got moving too and just outside our campsite there was our next checkpoint. Annoyingly, the checkpoint didn’t open until 5.30am so to pass the time we played another game of heads up and another game of mafia. Once the gate was open, we were off and we powered on like we were on a mission! We had to stop a few times to slowly strip off layers and take pictures then we got to the steepest bit of the whole trail. It was so steep that we left our poles at the bottom, clambered up on all fours and then our three guides brought up our poles for us!
After a bit more walking, we reached the sun gate. This is what the last four days had built up to and we saw our first sighting of the main reason for all the struggle: Machu Picchu. We were fortunate enough that the sky was clear (only happens 20% of the time!) so we could see it and then we carried on walking until we arrived!
We took so many pictures and Kantu gave us a walking tour and bombarded us with information so sadly, I’m not going to fit it all on this blog post. The Inca trail was one of the more challenging things I’ve done in my 23 years but I would 100% do it again! I loved the team spirit, the constant shouting as we passed sopa along the line to each other and PORTER PORTER when a porter needed to run past us and I loved the sense of achievement whenever we overcame a difficult section.
I’m going to write one just for Machu Picchu and then I can shamelessly add as many photos and facts as I want so look out for it soon!