Southern Cross – The Inca Trail

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."  
J.R.R. Tolkien - Lord of the Rings

For me there were always going to be two main highlights to this trip. The first was the ruins at Ankor Wat; which were everything and more than I could have hoped for. The second was Machu Picchu. 

To start the 43km trek you have to travel up the Sacred Valley. As we'd already visited the Sacred Valley in January and as I've already blogged about it there's little more I can really say about it other than I am now the proud owner of an alpaca woolly Peruvian beanie which looks as silly as you can imagine but it's warm and that's what counts

On reaching Ollantaytambo we bought some last minute provisions for the trail such as toilet paper, Gatorade and of course some snacks. Each of us doing the trek was given a duffel bag in which to pack our stuff, up to a limit of 3kg. A further 3kg is taken up by a sleeping bag and inflatable mattress. Anything over the 6kg has to go in your own backpack whilst the duffel bag is carried by the incredible porters. 

So where did my little non-hobbit like feet sweep me off to? Well, Day 1 starts at a place called KM82 (Piskacuchu) and is about an 11km trek, Day 2 (the b@stard day) and is 12km and can take about 8hrs, reaches the highest point of the trail and is the day you're most likely to quit on. Day 3 is a mere 16km and is a loooong day's walking. Day 4 by comparison is a doodle given it's only about 2 hours, or it would be if it didn't start with a 3:30am wake-up call. As I sat there in our chilly hotel the night before the trail started I did wonder what the hell I was doing trekking and camping for four days when there’s a perfectly good train and bus service that would get me to the site.

Day 1

After passing thru’ the control gate in Piskacuchu (or KM82) and getting our passports stamped we set off. The first 6km weren't too bad as we walked up a relatively gentle trail that followed both the railway line to Aguas Calientes and the Rio Urubamba. The weather was quite warm and as we were one of the first groups to start the trail it was pretty much ours. On route we stopped to view ruins at Q’anabamba and Llactapata. The next 6km however were a taste for what was coming on day 2 as the trail started to rise – seemingly at 45° even if in reality it wasn't.

We reached our camp at about 4-ish and found our tents. Because Claire wasn't doing the trail (a clear sign of sanity if you ask me) I had a tent to myself. The tent was a bright yellow and claustrophobic but thankfully the sleeping tablets I’d bought meant I did at least sleep when we were kicked out of our meal tent at about 8pm so that the porters could clear away things and sleep in there themselves.  

Note: Sunday 10th was Presidential Election day in Peru; where it is compulsory to vote. Failure to vote leads to a fine and until the fine is paid the person is blacklisted and unable to get any bank credit.  After carrying our gear, the tents and cooking stuff 12km and then setting up the camp our porters jogged/ran back down the 12km to vote and then returned, after the light had gone to be ready for Day 2. At least 36km in total; incredible.

Day 2

Day 2 is the day where people give up and turn back. And I have every sympathy for those that make that decision. Straight out from the camp at 6am-ish you face a steep set of steps that kill the tops of your legs and drains the energy from you. Without doubt this was the toughest physical thing I have ever subjected myself to - harder even than the uphill Grand Canyon trek I did some 13 yrs ago and several kilos lighter

The day is broken into two parts: the uphill slog from Huayllabamba at 3,000 metre above sea level (masl) to Huarmiwańusca (or Dead Woman’s Pass (DWP)) at 4,125 masl and then the downhill bit to the campsite at Paqaymayo, at a mere 3,600 masl. ­The uphill section turns from steps into a soul and muscle destroying uphill slope that seems to never, ever, stop or flatten out. Aside from the physical battering it’s a humbling experience as your porters, who are carrying loads of up to 25kg, pass you with ease wearing in many cases just simple flipflops.

I didn't take many photos on Day 2; it was just too tiring to stop and lose momentum to drag the camera out of the backpack but if Day 2 lacked some of the ruins of the first day it more than made up for it in the scenery. For the first part of the uphill section we walked, or rather trudged and stumbled, alongside a tributary of the Rio Urubamba. For the second part you’re walking along the edge of the mountains which does at least allow you to look back to where you've started and amaze yourself with just how far you've walked. But looking forwards and upwards to DWP brought me back to earth with a depressing thud.

That I made it to DWP I would love to attribute to my own stubbornness and determination but the truth is without the encouragement of the others in our group, esp Lena and Jo, it would have been far more difficult and would have taken far longer than the 5 hours it took me to reach the summit (usual time is about 6hrs). Having made it to DWP I felt uncharacteristically overwhelmed but fortunately my good old English stiff upper lip stood firm so there were no post-Diana scenes of emotion.

The downhill section was also tough. Tough on the knees. Fortunately I’d bought a knee brace in Cusco for my dodgy right knee and had hired a hiking pole which made getting down the steps easier but not easy. To say I was relieved to finally reach the campsite is an understatement and I immediately took a couple of anti-inflammatory pills to ease to pounding my knees had taken during the day.  After teaching a few of the group 'Big 2’, a card game I’d picked up in Malaysia, I crashed and found no difficulty in sleeping that night.

Day 3

Rough start to Day 3. The breakfast of quinoa porridge was grim, it was raining and the start of the day was all uphill from the off. That I was able to crawl out of the tent and put one foot in front of another was a nice surprise tho’. At 3,600 masl the rain, even to’ it was more of a constant drizzle, was cold and the uphill sections were steep and slippery.

The first stretch was a steep 100m climb in altitude followed by a more gentle incline – even if it didn't feel it at the time – above the cloud forest. And views of the surrounding scenery were lost in the mist which enveloped us. After lunch at 3,900 masl we headed downhill back thru’ the clouds. Visibility was limited but given I was just trying to concentrate on not slipping on my arse I doubt I’d have noticed my surroundings had it been clear. As we traipsed further down the mist began to clear and we could look down into the valley with the Rio Urubamba winding its way westwards.

Eventually we reached a fork in the path; take the right hand-side and we’d have ended up quite quickly back at our final campsite. We took the left-hand site path we brought us to Inipata, an absolutely huge series of farming terraces built half way up the mountain side. The most amazing site was again the porters who ran down the slippery steps with 25kg on their backs.

Our final night was at the campsite at Wińaywayna where we managed to get a warm-ish shower before crashing out at about 7:30pm ready for the 3:30am wake-up call

Day 4

3:30 is dammed early to be getting up but with about 200 people all wanting to be amongst the first to reach the Sun Gate for the view of the sun rising over Machu Picchu you have to be at the control gate early to get your place. The other 300 of the 500 allowed daily on the trail are porters.

Our group was the second or third group at the control gate. We reached it at about 4:30 and waited the hour for it to open huddled up in the dark and the cold. When the gates were opened we walked solidly, without breaks for 2 hours to reach the Sun Gate. We didn't see the sun-rise, no-one did that day, as Machu Picchu was completely shrouded in mist which burnt off on very slowly.

We probably waited at the Sun Gate for about an hour or so, took some photos of the site in the mist before heading down to the main complex. As we walked down the first of groups who’d come up by bus and train were arriving and were getting in the way of the smelly, knackered looking people who’d opted to walk for 4 days to reach the same place.  Unsurprisingly they gave us a wide berth.

As we walked down the sun broke thru and the clouds started to clear and we started to see the full site for the first time. That’s when you first realise what an achievement Machu Picchu is or was. Half way up a mountain, on a slope a whole city was built – okay, not a huge city but a city nonetheless with its religious sectors, farming sectors and industrial sectors. If not huge it’s still impressive and I'm afraid the photos I've taken don’t do it justice.

After validating our passes we met up with Claire and our Tour Leader, Barbara. Amazingly despite being hot, sweaty and unshaven I got a hug from Claire. We re-entered the site where we did a tour with the guides who had walked with us for 4 days taking pictures of everything. These days the only inhabitants of the site are the llamas who keep the grass nicely short.  After the tour we clambered back up to the highest point of the site and took some more photos, this time without everything being shrouded in mist.

We had planned on catching up with my parents, who were on a tour of Peru and were in Cusco which is where we were returning to after Machu Picchu.  However a landslide on the train track between Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo put paid to this plan and we finally arrived back in Cusco just after 11pm.

A couple of days later as City were putting an end to United’s treble hopes I was feeling worse and worse and that was without seeing the footy result. A curry on the Friday night, back in cursed Cusco, had left me reeling, far more so than it should have done so we called a Doctor who decided I’d probably picked up an infection on the trail (personally I'm convinced it was the Indian food) and that I was also suffering a bit from altitude sickness. Not great as the next few days take up higher until we reach La Paz in Bolivia.

Aside from that my legs have pretty much seized up but hey, such is life and the experience was worth it.  But would I repeat it? No, probably not. Next time – assuming that Claire & I ever return to Peru – it’ll be the train up to Machu Picchu.
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Andy Howell on

Well done Ian, and a special mention for Ian's knobbly knee for holding up so well. Excellent blog again. I'm thinking of doing a blog myself, but 'I went to homebase this weekend' hasn't got quite the same ring to it. Bad luck on the football, I really felt for Man U, once I'd managed to stop laughing. Hope you are feeling better, I recommend imodium, bananas and bog roll in the fridge whilst the other two work their magic....

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