Inca Trail: Pilgrimage to Machupicchu

Trip Start Jul 01, 2008
Trip End Aug 05, 2008

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tuesday 22nd July saw us make a very early start at 3.45 am with a text from England to say that Jamie had passed her Law exams - woohooo!  What a clever girl - obviously takes after her dad!!!

We were picked up at 5.30 am for a long coach drive to kilometre 82 and the start of the Inca Trail.  Our group was merged with another from SAS Travel and Molly, who booked too late, found herself in yet another group tackling the Lares Trail (It is crucial to book the Inca Trail as early as possible - they are now booking for tours in November!)  It soon became clear that one of the young members of our extended group, Rachel from Trinidad, was unwell and we stopped in the town of Ollantaytambo for her to be checked over by a doctor.  The diagnosis was a lung infection and that proved to be the end of her trip, which was very sad because she had planned to do it with her younger sisters Regina and RenÚ.

Once we had arrived at the start of the trail our bags were weighed and shared among the 22 porters, each carrying a maximum of 25 kilos  (Before regulation they used to carry up to 50 kilos!).  Our bag was a little overweight so another porter had to be found plus an extra $30.  We then endured a fairly lengthy and bureaucratic process of checks and finally at 1.15 pm we hit the trail. 

Our guide was ten-year veteran JosÚ Luis (who we referred to as 'JosÚ) assisted by the young, lively and incredibly funny John CÚsar (who we referred to as 'CÚsar').  CÚsar's favourite word in all the world was "Tremendous!" and he used it at every opportunity, including to describe JosÚ's skills as a guide AND his waistline!

The Active South America Tour Guide, Carlos, had told us repeatedly that we should settle into our own pace but JosÚ was having none of it, doing his utmost to slow down the quicker walkers to the pace of the slowest.  Anyone who has hiked knows it is as difficult for a fast walker to walk slowly as it is for a slow walker to walk quickly, but unfortunately this seemed lost on JosÚ, who, quite frankly, was not in the best physical condition himself!  In fact at one point during the day he forced a lengthy stop while he talked to us about the Incas.  It was a rambling talk that left us all cold and wondering for exactly whose benefit we had all stopped!  Consequently we arrived late for lunch where our fantastic porters had been standing for over an hour holding onto the tents to stop them blowing away.  But at least by this time JosÚ appeared to have got his second wind!

We pushed on after lunch having gotten to know the new members of the group.  In addition to our original group of Marilyn, Marvin, Bill and Shiela, we were now in the company of Cameron and Fred from Florida (Fred is an ex-Norfolk, England lad whose dad emigrated to the US some years ago); teachers Dave and Margaret from Boston, USA (Margaret had just finished a year's teaching exchange in Chile and Dave a sabbatical in Madrid); Brent a student from Winnipeg, Canada who had just completed a period studying Amazonian flora and fauna; honeymooners John and Rozemarijn from Toulouse, France (John is an ex-pupil of the Ipswich School in Suffolk, England now working as a sales executive for Airbus Industries, while Rozemarijn is an assistant hotel manager and from Belgium); and the two remaining sisters from Trinidad.

By the end of Day One we were late arriving at camp, where night was falling fast, meaning the slower walkers found themselves with no daylight.  Knowing how Marvin enjoys his beer I arranged for a woman selling chilled bottles to be sitting outside his tent to await his arrival.  When he saw her sitting there he worshiped the ground she was sitting on before emptying a large bottle in one go!

Our tents were good quality and our hired sleeping bags superbly warm.  Those of us with small headlamps found them invaluable if not crucial as we went about unpacking bags, using the "bathroom" (i.e. hole in the ground!) and eating our dinner.

Most of us felt that the day had not got off to the best of starts and although tired we were looking forward to the challenge of Day Two, when we would open with a 9 kilometre long, 900-metre high steep climb to Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point of the trail at 4215 metres.

Up at 5.45 am and JosÚ gave us the green light to press ahead.  Jamie and I left camp at 6.40 am and exactly two hours later we were the first to scale the high pass, along with just three porters.  We had passed several groups on the way up and even saw a few on the way down, having given up.  Cameron from our group had been taken down before we left that morning as it seemed the altitude had gotten to him pretty badly.

Jamie and I were elated to be the first walkers to the top and it was to be another 40 minutes before we saw anyone else from our group and two hours before the last of them arrived.  By this time we had got pretty cold, even with all our layers on, so we were pleased to get the group photos out of the way and to start our descent.

Those who know me will be aware that my knees have been shot to pieces for many years.  (That I was able to make this trip at all is down to the skills of my friend and Physio Martin Haines, my excellent surgeon Nigel Henderson and more recently to the talented osteopaths Edward Jones and Michael Clark of the Mersea Road Clinic in Colchester, England.  Thanks guys - could not have done it without you!)  I trained hard for four months for this challenge and the treatment and my training paid off on the uphill sections.  But nothing I had done was enough to see me through the downhill sections unscathed.  The slippery rock steps are steep, uneven and of varying depths meaning it is impossible to get a rhythm.  I was wearing knee supports and carrying Leki walking poles, which were a huge help and without which I am certain I could not have completed the trail. 

Jamie and I were now joined by Dave, Margaret and Brent, with Dave being particularly surefooted and quick on the downhill stretches.  We made it to camp for lunch within 30 minutes but then had another long wait for the remainder of our group.  This led to lunch being rushed before we were climbing once again to another high pass, before yet another steep descent that took two hours to complete.  The whole exercise that had seen us climb 1300 metres up and 1100 metres down over a distance of 17 kilometres had been very hard on everyone's knees, so it was with some relief that we spotted our camp across the other side of a valley.  Steeling ourselves for another tough climb we were delighted when the camp proved to be far closer than we had imagined.  We arrived nice and early with plenty of daylight remaining so were able to arrange our kit in the tent, wash and relax before the other group members arrived.

JosÚ had been far more relaxed today and in the evening after dinner he produced a bottle of rum and a wonderful fruit punch that soon saw us all relaxed and laughing, exchanging banter and funny stories.  This was an important point for the group that saw us gel together properly for the first time.

After a good night's sleep we were woken at 6.30 am with sweet coca tea for the start of Day Three, which was to involve just half a day of walking.  But if that sounded like the good news, the bad news was that the half day involved descending down 2000 more rocky steps!  We were away from camp by 7.45 am and completed an 80 minute climb before another long wait for the others.  Then it was forever downwards with our knees screaming at us with every step, until we reached another set of Inca temple ruins where JosÚ gave one of his best tutorials.  Talk over it was down another 900 metres to arrive at our overnight camp above the town of Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters) by 11.30 am.  Our aim for the day had been to be first into the hot showers available at this camp and so we were.  What a lovely feeling!  Then it was lunch and a free afternoon.  The only disappointment of the day was to find our tent pitched on a terrace directly above the toilets and washroom - it is not only heat that rises and our tent was constantly zipped up tight to keep out the worst of the stink!

It was to be some time before all the members of the group made it to camp, which as well as showers had a washroom, canteen and tiny bar.  One of the funniest sights was of Marvin staggering in, looking completely bedraggled and heading straight for the bar!  He lurched towards the refrigerator and swinging the door open grasped a large bottle of super-cool beer, which he then held to his forehead, just like in the TV ads.  As he was about to remove the cap and take his first gulp in his parched mouth the non-English speaking bar attendant wagged his finger at him and pointed at the cashier's office ten metres away in the next room - Marvin had to drag himself there to pay the cashier BEFORE he could drink the beer.  I thought he was going to cry!!

That evening was a special celebration for Marvin and his wife Marilyn, who were celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary.  Our tour guide, Carlos, had provided a bottle of champagne and arranged for the chef to bake them a huge cake.  It really was a lovely moment enjoyed by all of us.  Not to waste the occasion we also drank to the health and happiness of newly weds, John and Rozemarijn!

The final act of the day was for us to be introduced to our army of porters, the chef and his assistant and some of us tourists made short speeches to express our appreciation for the incredible work that these wonderful men had carried out on our behalf.  JosÚ made clear to us beforehand that if these men, most of whom were from the village of Pisaq, had an alternative form of work to supplement their farming they would not be working as porters.  Only those who have walked the Inca Trail and witnessed the super-human efforts of these small men can understand the total respect that we hikers have for them.

We were awoken at 4.00 am ready for the final push to Machupicchu.  By 5.30 am the last of the porters had near sprinted down another path - still carrying their burdens - to meet transport for their return to Pisaq.  For those remaining it was the start of what can only be described as an extremely slow slog, first to the final check-point before Machupicchu (which only opens at 5.30 am so there was quite a queue of walkers ahead of us) and then along a narrow path before the short sharp climb to Inti Punku (known by most as the Sun Gate).  Some of the walkers from other groups seemed to find this last climb very difficult to the point that all movement upwards came to a standstill, until our tremendous assistant guide, CÚsar, broke the log jam by virtually carrying a woman and her pack to the top of the steps!

As we passed through Inti Punku there was a collective gasp as we saw the ruins of Machupicchu below us for the first time.  As we descended the sun rose over the mountains to our right and on the outskirts of Machupicchu we were reunited with Carlos, Molly, Cameron and Rachel, the last two now almost fully recovered from illness.  Next, JosÚ gave us a superb tour and tutorial of this important Inca site.  His spoken English was really quite exceptional and his articulation of even the most technical descriptions superb (It was only later that we discovered that his wife is a teacher of English! :>)  But almost as soon as JosÚ began his talk the site began to fill with tourists who had made their way up by bus.  It struck all of us that had hiked up and down mountains to reach Machupicchu that it was a little unfair to deny us a brief period to explore the site before the masses flooded in.

One of the real highlights of the Machupicchu site is the imposing peak of Waynapicchu that towers over everything and can be seen in most photographs of the place.  Just a few hundred people a day are allowed to climb the steep path to the top and only then with a ticket.  By the time we checked all the tickets were gone but Molly acquired two for Jamie and herself from members of her Lares Trail group who no longer wished to make the climb.  Then I put all my faith in Carlos to find a ticket for me.  By some kind of magic, just as the gate was about to close, he slipped a ticket into my palm and the three of us were off!  Well, actually the one who was well and truly off was Molly: the climb is said to take an hour and Molly completed it in 25 minutes!  Jamie and I thought we did well to make the top in 40 minutes and had the excuse that we lost 5 minutes when  a man got himself wedged in a rock tunnel ahead of us.  I pushed and his partner pulled but he had forgotten to remove his back pack and was stuck solid.  So instead I pulled and his partner pushed and we got him out.  But this was no time for good manners - we pushed past him and made a final surge for the summit, from where Molly and others were cheering us on!

I collapsed in a heap at Molly's feet with the immortal words, "I'm too old for this sh*t!"  I felt everyone of my 57 years reaching that summit in what was the most challenging climb I have ever made.  But that was nothing by comparison to the descent, which proved even more difficult and dangerous  (Do NOT do this climb if you do not have a head for heights or are unfit.  We witnessed several who had problems with one or the other or both and frankly they were putting themselves and others at risk.)   But the views at the top were well worth the effort and we met some young Irish medical students and had a great laugh (in between my gasps for breath!)  The descent really did for my knees so it was with much relief that Jamie, Molly and I boarded a bus down to Aguas Calientes for a wash and some lunch.

Refreshed with food and drink we said our goodbyes to JosÚ and CÚsar and some of the extended group before boarding a deluxe carriage on the train back to Cusco.  The 4.5 hour journey was broken up by a glass of Pisco Sour, a local cocktail that became quite a favourite amongst us all, and a fashion parade involving the train attendants!  They were actually really very good and showed off some lovely clothes made from local products, such as Alpaca wool.  Further entertainment came from one of their colleagues dressed as a clown who spent almost an hour mocking the Spanish invaders from the 16th century.  As we arrived on the outskirts of Cusco it seemed that we were early, but then we realised the train was too high and it took several switch-backs - reverse, forwards, reverse, forwards ad nauseum - before we pulled into the station.

That night we were disappointed once again to get only a tepid shower at the Hostel Centenario, but soon cheered up when Carlos produced several boxes containing huge pizzas, to which he added a few bottles of red wine from Chile and Argentina.

And so the toughest part of the tour, hiking to Machupicchu, was at an end.  All of us felt a surge of satisfaction when we reflected on the past four days.  Each of us had tackled the challenge for our own personal reasons and whether we completed it speedily or slowly was of no matter.  There is however a view held by the guides that we met that it is not possible to walk the trail quickly and enjoy what it has to offer.  For Molly (on the Lares Trail), Jamie and I that simply was not the case.  Our reason for tackling the trail was to do it and do it well at our own pace, just as the slower walkers were doing.  This conflict of philosophies was initially a problem that threatened our enjoyment.  Although we eventually convinced our guides to let us set our own pace they frequently made negative comments in their efforts to slow us down.  We think it significant that each group should have a guide at the front and one at the rear.  During the four days we saw our two guides just four times for a few minutes at most, whereas other groups that we passed had guides covering both ends all of the time.  On the two brief occasions that we had JosÚ walking with us, he fell back very quickly thus reinforcing our view that he simply was not fit enough to stay at the front (and nor did he seem to consider it appropriate for his very fit assistant to take the lead!)  As things turned out Jamie and I had a great time and the combined achievements of hiking the Inca Trail and climbing Waynapicchu made any difficulties pale by comparison.
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