Walk like an Inca, sleep in a puddle

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Finally, after a few days´ wait in Cusco, the day of our departure on the Inca Trail dawned. On Thursday 12 January at about 7am, we were all packed and ready for the the great adventure; we were picked up by bus with quite a number of other tourists and started the drive to Ollantaytambo, where the walk begins.

We´d been advised that there were four other people in our group, but there were at least 16 walkers on board the bus; during the journey, our guide did not make himself known to us and I started to dispair of the organisation. When we got to Ollantaytambo, we asked around the passengers and tracked down our four fellow walkers: Justin and Lynsey from Delawere in the States, and Laura and Rebecca from Leeds.

The bus took us on beyond Ollantaytambo to the starting point of the trail at Km 82. Here, our guide Claudio introduced himself to us and our six porters packed their large, uncomfortable-looking sacks with food and camping gear. We crossed the suspension bridge across the river to start the walk at about 11am.

The first day´s walking was short and easy. At about 1.30pm we stopped for lunch and by 5pm we´d reached our first camp at Huayllabamba, a little village in a narrow, green valley overlooked by a small ruin. The porters pitched the tents and soon we realised we had a problem... one of three 3-man dome tents they´d pitched for us walkers looked decidedly squiffy. The fly sheet was way too small for the tent! Needless to say, Rich and I refused to sleep in it (with the evening drizzle starting to set in, it looked like a real wet-weather hazard), so the guide gave us his small two-man tent. At least it would stay dry, or so we thought...

In the evening, after visiting the ruins above the village (where children played football among the ancient ruins) we enjoyed a fabulous three-course dinner. Poor Justin, however, didn´t enjoy his... the onset of a tummy upset saw him push aside his food.

The second day of the Trail is notoriously tough - it starts with a killer three-hour uphill slog to Dead Woman´s Pass at 4,200m altitude. So we tucked into our hearty brekky and got going. Justin was feeling rather unwell, so he and Lynsey took it slow, while the two of us plus Laura and Rebecca pushed on at a steady pace. Throughout the morning the drizzle came and went, keeping us nice and cool as we huffed and puffed uphill. Phew! Needless to say we blamed our short-of-breath state on the altitude. The scenery was stunning, though, warranting frequent breaks to take it all in and watch the string of walkers wind their way up.

A searing cold wind and thick fog awaited us at Dead Woman´s Pass. On a clear day, fine views would greet one. However, we didn´t wait around, and continued downhill for 45 minutes or so to our overnight camp. Rich and I got there at about 12.30pm, way before any of our porters! We weren´t surprised that they were well behind us... we´d seen them stopping frequently on the way up for a glass or two of ´chicha´, an alcoholic maize beer sold by the locals along the route.

After a late lunch, we spent the afternoon dozing and reading in our tents as the rain came steadily down. In the evening we gathered in the dinner tent for another fabulous meal. Poor Justin was still not well. The rain continued throughout the night... by morning a small puddle had formed in our sagging little tent, our sleeping mats were wet and the foot-ends of our sleeping bags were damp. Ooh, the joys of walking the train in the rainy season!

The third day, Saturday, was a long but gentle day´s walking. It started with another uphill stint of about an hour to the ruins of Runkuracay at 3,850m. From there, we gently descended into cloud forest to the ruins of Sayacmarca. We took a break to wander around the ruins, with Claudio giving us some background info, before heading on along a beautiful stretch of the Trail where the dense cloud forest of trees, bamboos, cycads and ferns enfolded the finely built stone path. Though it was drizzly and cloudy for most of the day, we did enjoy some lovely views of the valley below and the mountains around.

We reached our overnight camp at about 1.30pm, and after lunch, walked 10 minutes or so downhill to the beautiful ruins of Phuyopatamarca for a little explore. Back up the hill at camp, we walked to a viewpoint on a rocky outcrop, and, as the clouds parted, we caught glimpses of the Machu Picchu mountain and Aguas Calientes town way down in the distance. Quite magical!

Rich and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering slowly back along the path we´d come on, looking at birds and plants. Unbeknownst to us, our friend Justin set off on an epic four-hour mission to charge his batteries at the camp further down the valley, which has electricity. One of the porters accompanied him, yet needless to say his girlfriend Lynsey grew anxious as the hours ticked by. He finally arrived back in camp at about 8pm and went straight to bed! Poor fellow had only just recovered from his tummy bug.

It was raining cats and dogs by the time we retired to our tents after a lovely farewell meal with wine. Already a substantial puddle had formed in one corner of our tent, and about an hour after dozing off, I woke up in a soaking wet sleeping bag... arrggh!!! Well, I had no option but to climb into Rich´s bag with him (he occupied the only dry spot in the whole tent), so we spent the rest of the night very cozy indeed. Got some sleep, though, thank goodness.

The final day dawned, and still it was pouring. Our guide decided against waking us at 2am (due to the bad weather there was no reason to rush to Machu Picchu for sunrise) so we had a fairly lazy start, hit the path at about 6.30am. Unlike most of the other groups, who camped down the valley at Winay Wayna about two hours away from Machu Picchu, we had a four hour walk ahead of us. It was a lovely walk, though, though some beautiful jungle ablaze with purple orchids called Winay Wayna (Forever Young) and past a ruin and campsite of the same name.

We reached the Sun Gate at about 10am ... ah, what a sight! The clouds were lifting and we took a few quiet moments to enjoy the view of the Machu Picchu complex and the emerald green, triangular form of Waynapicchu mountain in the background. This really is the most magnificent setting for a important religious centre, it´s clear why the Incas chose this spot. It sits on a fairly narrow ridge, and on either side steep, terraced slopes fall away to the Urubamba river far below, which curves like a horse-shoe around the back of Waynapicchu.

We walked down into the archeological site, and Claudio gave us a two hour tour of the terraces, temples, ceremonial fountains, priests´ quarters and artisans´ dwellings. Many of the buildings have been restored to reveal signature Inca building techniques and carved ceremonial stones. The place was pretty quiet, as a landslide on the train line prevented the usual droves of daytrippers from Cusco from making the journey (Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, is accessible only by train).

Though the site is well cared for, it seems to be run more as a cash cow than an archeological site. To our astonishment, our guide told us that in the 1990s a large stone obelisk in the central plaza was removed to make way for... wait for it.... a heli pad! Subsequent outcries from archeologists have demanded its restoration, but the Peruvian government seems to have mislaid the priceless obelisk. And artefacts found at the site by Hiram Bingham, the explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, are gathering dust in boxes at Yale University, as there is no local facility for displaying them. An utter shame. I´m pretty sure that, if it had the political will, the Peruvian government would be able to get international funding for building such a facility at the drop of a hat.

Anyway, we were pretty exhausted from the four hour hike that morning, so after our tour we made our way down to Aguas Calientes for lunch. The trains out of town were delayed due to a landslide, but we finally pulled out of the station at about 6pm. When we got off the train at Ollantaytambo, there was total chaos, and we discovered that our bus transfer bask to Cusco had left earlier, without us. So Claudio kindly arranged a cab, and we were back at our hostel in Cusco by 10.30pm. Phew! What a memorable adventure!
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