The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Trip Start Apr 27, 2007
Trip End Jun 24, 2008

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Every trek I`ve done so far has had more than it`s fair share of suffering and abject misery, but none of this would stop me from doing the 4-day Inca Trail, the most famous trek in South America.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu - a quick history lesson:

The Inca`s were the power in South America by the 15th century.  The name, being plural, is a bit confusing as there was only ever one Inca, and he was the King.  The Inca`s didn`t last that long, really only gaining some kind of prominence in the 12th century in Cusco, but it wasn`t until the 9th Inca King (Pachacutec) came along that they really started to flex their muscle, expanding their territory from Cusco only, to the whole of the Central Andes - an area from the North of Chile to the North of Ecuador.  And it was during this time they constructed 1000`s of miles of stone block roads outwards from Cusco, in the incredibly difficult mountain terrain Peru inhabits.  One of these roads was what`s now called the Inca Trail, that leads to the `lost city`of Machu Picchu, and many thousands of people each year retrace the Inca`s steps along this route, that takes in 3 mountain passes, has many other Inca ruins along the way, and climaxes with a visit to Machu Picchu city, high in the mountains and pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

While Europe was going through the dark ages, the Inca`s were building Machu Picchu, their showcase city, with incredibly intricate stonework abounding, and numerous structures showing their understanding of science, astrology, and the earth, with a distant mountain even altered to produce an amazing scene during sunrise for the solstices.  Machu Picchu was abandoned in the 16th century, and completely unknown but for a few locals, until it was `discovered` in 1911, complete with 3 families actually living amongst the overgrown ruins.  Rumours that it was discovered by Captain Kirk & Spock due to a freak transporter accident warping the very fabric of space and time are generally considered to be unfounded and hold little credence among locals. 

I probably haven`t done the Inca`s justice, condensing 400 years of history into a couple of paragraphs, and probably inaccurate paragraphs at that, but I do know it was a miserable time to be alive, as neither Madonna or Kylie had been invented, and you couldn`t get hold of a DVD player for luck nor money.

So we started the Inca Trail on Day 1 (strangely), and despite all advice to the contrary, the hugely strict passport control let me through without my passport without a problem.  No bribe.  No duel to the death.  No hacking my head off with a machete.  Just a smile.  Weird, but nice.  However having walked for just a few minutes, one of the guys realized his camera had disappeared - last seen at passport control!!  Unlike my experience with the police, these police guys found the guy that had stolen (or found) the camera, traced the camera to a lady he had sold it to, retrieved it from the lady, and ran to where we were walking to return it, all in the space of not many minutes.  All they asked for was 50 soles, the cost the lady paid for it.  I was waiting for my bag to dematerialize in front of me, given this unlikely sequence of events, but no such luck!  So all was well and we got going properly.  
The main thing of note on Day 1 was the number of locals that actually live on the trail.  They all live as farmers using the resources around them, living in the same type of houses that they would have lived in for 100`s of years.  The unfortunate (or fortunate) side effect, depending on your perspective, is that they also sell us travelers a few items, and so Coca-Cola has a distribution network that extends to ancient Inca roads.

So Coca-Cola was available on Day 1, at the very start of Day 2, at the very end of Day 3, and was unlimited on Day 4 at Machu Picchu.  I must admit to having some, but that was more to kill everything in my body after being ill, as well as to replenish body salts and sugars.  Along with cleaning roads in India because it`s so toxic (true), it does the other two things very well too.  Clearly the last thing it should be is a daily recreational drink (!), and really, having it available on the Inca Trail is a crime against humanity!  But you have to admire their distribution - I`ve passed countless tiny shanty-like villages on different bus journey`s, and it`s always there, without exception - to the point of being able to see a sign for it from the bus.  "Wrong" I say.  But sometimes so right!  Of course, rumours suggesting a freak 23rd century transporter accident on the Starship Enterprise led to Coca-Cola being delivered to the Inca`s 4 centuries before Coke was invented are generally considered accurate.

Anyway on Day 1 we saw many locals dressed in the same traditional clothes they have worn for many hundreds of years, and this dress is actually never for the tourists, which is nice.  And we walked past their tiny mud-reed-brick homes.  Seeing the fires inside for cooking, I had to admire how they avoided setting on fire their thatched roofs every day.  We were lucky on the 1st day - we must have been the first group to leave as we saw no others pass us, and we stayed at the furthest campsite on the 1st night.  We did however have many packs of porters dash past us to set up lunch and evening camps for their respective groups.  They are amazing, carrying 14-22kg (the regulated maximum), and very often running.  Serious respect!

On Day 1, the food was exceptional (soup & trout for lunch - a bit different to the horror of the single crumbly cheese sandwich in Ecuador).  And in the morning the porters even bring you your maté of choice to your tent when they wake you up.  Wooooah!  

On night 1, I woke to hear some kind of wild animal stalking the tent.  I was convinced it was a Puma (they are here but you never see them), and so for half an hour I didn´t dare breathe, lest it sense me and jump me in the tent!  However given there were about 30 llamas just by us in the morning, I guess that´s the more likely explanation.  Boring!!!

Breakfast was truly monumental, and off we set for Day 2.  I confidently surged ahead for about 8 steps, then remembered we were at 3800 metres, so slowed down, and literally about a minute later, I realized something was wrong, and it soon became obvious altitude sickness had got me.  And my God, it got me badly.  Early on, the guide offered me oxygen, and I took about a second to think about it - the choice being vast embarrassment but maybe getting better, or no embarrassment, and the continuation of hideous symptoms.  I went for the embarrassment option!  I was sick 4 times that day, also quite embarrassing with every other group passing you, looking on.  I felt justified in avoiding eye contact and a pathetic smile!  But worse of all was putting one foot in front of the other to ascend 400 metres, and later descend a similar height, of course over several km.  Every step took a monumental effort and it was a never-ending desperate experience.  At every break, and I needed a lot, I could instantly have slept.  So thank God the guide managed to get us a spot at a closer campsite.  There was no possible way I could have made it to the planned one.  She was very sweet, and the 2 guys I was doing the walk with, Kam & Kirk, were really good too, giving me their last altitude sickness tablets, so risking symptoms themselves.  I slept all afternoon, and the guide forced me to eat a small amount at dinner, otherwise I´d have no chance on day 3 with nothing left in my body!

After about 16 hours sleep, I got up for day 3, had a little breakfast, and aside from generally being a bit weak, I was basically completely recovered.  Thank God.  Being unable to walk on a 4-day walk is seriously bad news, especially as all the odds had been against me starting this walk.  Now I was on it, I had to do it.  Not that there was an option not to do it - the only other way out is to be carried by the porters - and I wasn´t going to suffer that humiliation - even if I lost both legs!  So today we had to do half of yesterday´s walk and the whole of today´s walk - I was so grateful to be better!

Day 3 was the most beautiful - after a long steep climb to the 2nd pass, we descended into the cloud forests, and with mist and low cloud abounding, the walk was very magical and mystical.  
You could also appreciate the sheer scale of work that went into creating this and countless other trails over 500 years ago.  The terrain was the worst kind, and often paths had 10 metres of stone beneath, when there was no usable mountain contour to build on.  And amazingly, virtually no repairs have been necessary.  It´s practically all original.  The Inca´s had truly mastered stone work, evidenced in everything they built.

On the 3rd night the campsite was a cross between Romford Market, and a University campus.  There were a lot of happy campers, and you could even buy beer.  This was when I had my coke to destroy any evil things that might have remained in the stomach.  Also I was devastated to find huge power lines going above our heads. 
Coca-Cola, Beer and Power Lines, on an ancient road, to a lost city.  "No" I say.  No!

On the last day, you get up at 4, to leave at 5, along with every other group, but fortunately for most of the 2 hour walk to Machu Picchu itself, you´re alone as groups separate out.  The first sight of it is after 1.5 hours, when you arrive at the sun gate, a place that plays its role for the solstice.  And it is amazing first seeing the city from here, and at another vantage point closer.  I´d desperately tried not to look at every picture of Machu Picchu throughout so many places in Peru, but when you see it, you instantly recognise the classic view of the city with the Wayna Picchu mountain standing proudly behind. So we made our way down, a good couple of hours before the bus loads of people day-tripping from Cusco, so it was still early and relatively quiet.  It is a remarkable place, with so little known about the Inca´s that lived here.  It was clearly a spiritual and scientific capital for the Inca´s, but things like the city´s name is lost in history.  No-one knows. 
Machu Picchu is actually the name of the mountain it looks across at! 

To complete the experience, we did the 1 hour near-death-experience climb up Wayna Picchu, seriously hard work after 4 days of walking, but it did afford some great views looking down on Machu Picchu.

After a tour of the city, and another cheeky coca-cola, that was it.  I´d finally done the Inca Trail, and seen Machu Picchu, something I have been wanting to do for years.  Hooorah!

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