Before the sun hits the streets of Cuzco we are all standing with a full backpack and a good pair of hiking boots outside our hostel. We are waiting for the minibus which is going to take us to Ollantaytambo, where we will eat breakfast and buy last minute snacks before our trek. However, the van does not come.
After an uncomfortable amount of pre-dawn waiting even our guide, Simba, loses his patience. He finds a taxi and soon after we are all heading towards the minibus, where we meet the last two members of the group.All in all we are a small group of six including Simba. Immediately after our arrival in Ollantaytambo we get attacked by an army of Peruvian women, who try to sell us everything from chocolates to walking sticks. We decide to buy a walking stick, a decision we won’t soon regret. After breakfast we all meet up at the car, but this time Simba is accompanied by a woman called Luciana. The Brazilian girl Luciana has been left behind by her group, a welcome addition to our tiny clan we let her in.
The whole crew geared up and ready to go!
Then we drive to the starting point of the Inca trail, KM 82. We spend some time repacking our backpacks. Most of us have just a small backpack with the most basic stuff, but Luciana is prepared for anything that could strike and has packed all the necessary equipment (a lucky addition for sure). When everyone is ready we all head down the path to the first check point where our permits are checked for the first time.
We trek along the Urubamba River, among snow-covered mountains, calming green fields and the first few Incan ruins. We stop along the way to listen to Simba tell us about the Incans and the plants close to the path. Once we stop to pray to the mountains passes that we will be trekking through over the next four days. Everyone in the group receives three coca leafs, which we show to the mountains while we repeat after Simba a number of words in Quechua. We put the coca leafs into our passports so they will stay intact until we reach the top of the mountain (called Pachamama in Quechua) where we are going to sacrifice them.
We reach our camp after nearly five hours. The tents have been up for quite a while and the dinner is almost ready. The porters are truly fantastic. They are always the first to get up and the last to go to bed. They leave the camp later than the rest of the group and they are the first at the new campsites. On top of that they carry 28 kilos of equipment every single day (before restrictions they easily carried up to 60 kilos).
A Tough Way Up
Early in the morning we are awakened early by the porters. We each get a cup of coca tea and after a few minutes of packing (remember we don’t have much) we sit down to a wonderful breakfast.
We start the trip towards the mountain Warmiwañuska at 4215 meters. Shortly after beginning the oldest group member, Mariann has to stop. She gets ill and has to return to Ollantaytambo, so Simba walks back with her to make all the arrangements. The rest of the group continues onward, despite our recent loss. We walk in the lush jungle, where we meet a small deer. We “climb” huge stairs and walk under the boiling sun. After a small break half way up the mountain we have renewed energy. Every time we stop for a break porters walk by cheering: “Vamos, vamos” (“Let’s go, let’s go”). I keep thinking that the top is just a few meters away, but every time I walk around a corner I see that it is further away than I expected. People are getting more and more exhausted the closer we get to the top and a girl asks me: “Why did we pay for this? God, I hate myself!”
As the path disappears into the thick of the jungle we wonder if we will ever reach the end…
Finally after 4 hours and 40 minutes I reach the top, the first one in my group. The view is breathtaking and I thoroughly enjoy taking a break while waiting for everyone else. Surrounded by other trekking groups we all cheer in unison for the rest of our group members to join us at the top. We are all exhausted, but happy that the worst part is over. Now it is just the descent to 3660 meters that lies ahead of us. The trip down takes us past unstable and rocky stone stairs plus beautiful waterfalls nestled in the glorious mountains. Arriving at the camp 45 minutes ahead of the estimated time, I am meet by a sea of surprised faces, porters who are used to being the top of the pack. They did not expect to see anyone this early and haven’t prepared any tea for my arrival. It doesn’t matter; I just find my mp3 player and start listening to music in the warm Andean sun. After an hour the rest of the group reaches the camp, and joins me in my bliss of finally resting our tired feet. After unpacking and a great three course dinner we all head to bed.
We are awakened by the porters half an hour later than all the other groups so that we can have the entire trek to ourselves, free to bask in the solitude and stillness of the expansive trail ahead. So, as we are watching all the other groups packing up their stuff we take our time enjoying our elaborate breakfast. A guide like Simba is precious on a trek like this. His knowledge about the Incas and the surrounding nature is massive. He loves his job, is a people’s person, and lets everyone trek at their own pace.
The porters hard at work, an irreplaceable asset to our Incan Trail experience.
Todays walk is one of the most beautiful ones. The trail leads through the jungle, past reflective lakes and is enshrouded in a constant wall of mist covered mountains. After passing a small mountain lake we reach the top-Pachamama. We still have our coca leaves ready for the sacrifice. To begin our blessing we collect a couple of mountain stones which we use to hold our leaves under. We say a few words in Quechua, which should be enough to bring us luck tomorrow and continue the journey along the path. When we arrive at the lunch site we see the other groups packing their stuff and continuing towards the campsite for the night.
After a delicious lunch the trek continues. We walk on narrow paths teetering between safety and the deep cliffs which plummet off to the left side, as a quite necessary safety precaution Simba orders us to stay on the right side whenever someone tries to pass. We are all tired after yesterdays walk. Every foot is splattered with bubbling blisters so every small hill is like a mountain to us. For the first time I need music to keep walking. I reach an old robust Inca ruin and wait for the rest of the group. We have a small break while Simba recites another story illuminating Incan life, making our rich surroundings buzz with the history and life that once inhabited it.
Ruins tell half the story, but luckily our knowledgable porters help us fill in the rest.
We continue trekking through the jungle and all of a sudden we are facing a crossroads; we are able to choose between a short cut and the original path to the campsite. Feeling invigorated I make a solitary decision to take the original path and get accompanied by Simba. We walk by a couple of Incan terraces and a lama quietly wandering on the path beside us, on the trail we are able to see the snow covered mountains change colours as the sun goes down. Simba entertains with stories from all his treks to Machu Picchu; from the one time where the whole journey turned into a marathon to the time where he was trailed the entire time by a curious lama. When we reach the camp it is time for dinner before an early bedtime.
Reaching Machu Picchu
The final day of the trek is also the earliest departure. I slept terribly the night before since the tent was precariously perched on a small bump, which meant that I kept falling into Luciana during the night. However, night ends practically before it started and at 3.30am we are awakened by the porters – it is time for breakfast. This morning we eat fast, pack our stuff even faster and walk towards today’s checkpoint- what is sure to be an epic finale. The gate opens at 5.30am, and we want to be among the first few groups there in order to see Machu Picchu before all the other tourists arrive. As soon as the gate opens everyone’s permit is checked and we are free to pass. After an hour of walking on another path (no longer the Incan trail) with deep drop-offs and a trip up knee-high stairs we reach Inti-Punku (The sun door), where we get the first glimpses of Machu Picchu.
Finally we arrive, The city oozes of history and mystique. I can almost sense the Incan people when we walk among the rustic buildings and through the stone terraces. Our tour through the ruins exceeds our expectations. The beautiful morning sun, the high verdant green mountains and the playful Urubamba River encircles elegantly this unique city, making it all a fantastic meeting with the past. We take it in, let the mystique soak into our veins, breath in the thin mountain air, and feel the weight and journey of the last three days wash over us before we head back to Cuzco one amazing memory richer.
Overlooking Machu Picchu, blistered feet momentarily forgotten.
There are plenty of tour operators trekking to Machu Picchu, so there is plenty to choose from. Do a bit of research first and find the company that suits you. I went with The Bamba Experience, which I really enjoyed since our group was small and the guide was really good. The Inca trail is the most famous trek to Machu Picchu, but there are plenty of other treks to do like the Salkantay trek, which is famous for being the most beautiful one nature wise, or the Inca jungle trek, which includes mountain biking and river rafting. If you’re flexible and don’t mind which trail you are on it is easy to book a tour after showing up in Cuzco. However, if you are certain that you want to go on the Inca trail then book in advance. There are only 500 walking permits for the trail, which means that there are only about 220 tourists on the trail a day, meaning spots are limited. Please note, it is not possible to do the Inca trail in February due to rain and renovation of the path.
What to bring:
Decent clothes and a good pair of trekking boots, passport, blister patches, a water bottle (the ones in metal keeps the water cold longer), water purification tablets (a bottle of 0.5 l water on the trek might cost $6) and a rain cover.
By Tine Haslam Nielsen