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The Inca Trail - the perfect escapism

Added 31 Oct 2013
The Inca Trail - the perfect escapism

Explore's Emily Davies visited Peru on our Inca Trail Trek; here she shares her experience of the trekking portion of the tour.

"Trekking the world-famous Inca Trail is a bucket list experience for many; with myself no exception. As a keen hiker, my long-term ambition had been to fly to Peru and trek the 27 miles to the Lost City (of the Incas). However, after living in New Zealand for six years and immersing myself fully in the country’s spectacular scenery, I admit I was slightly adamant that the hype around Machu Picchu may end up disappointing. It didn’t, and in fact the whole experience far exceeded all of my expectations.

emily inca trail group
The Inca Trail - Day One
Waking up on day one of the Inca Trek, the weather wasn’t quite as bright as my spirits, with seriously overcast skies and cooling temperatures. Pabel our tour leader remained as chirpy as ever however lifting any apprehension that existed in the group. Once all our gear was loaded in to the van, we set off on the one and a half hour drive to Ollantaytambo - the last village before the start of the trek. Stopping off in the main square for half an hour, we all headed straight to a nearby café to sample yet more of the great Peruvian coffee we were coming to love and make use of the last flushable toilets for four days!

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It was then another half hour drive to the start of the track – a completely unmarked road that felt like we were driving through people’s yards and zigzagging the railway track. For some reason, I had expected the road to the start of this world-famous track to be well carved out; but was actually pleasantly surprised that it still remained authentic, despite its booming popularity.

We arrived at large field and found our group of porters waiting. As soon as we jumped out of the van, they were straight to work, wrapping and packing our bags in large rucksacks and waterproof tarpaulins, as well as four days’ worth of food and water, cooking equipment, tents and sleeping gear, and the portable toilet. I felt slightly uncomfortable standing by watching them hard at work and felt a natural urge to ask to help; however I knew it was something I would need to adjust to over the next four days. Pabel gave us each a little pouch with snacks which we could re-fill every day. As a keen photographer, I then lined up the group with our porters, our cook and Pabel and set my camera on timer to take a memorable snap, pre-trek.  We then set off, stopping off at the gates at the entrance of the track to get the obligatory stamp in our passports, a photo by the big Inca Trail sign, and then off we went over the bridge to start what we had flown 22 hours to complete.
Day one was pretty easy walking, around five hours, but we stopped off for a good rest at lunch time. By the time we arrived at our lunch spot, the porters (who had actually set off after us) had long-overtaken our group and arrived before us to set up the food tent and cook us a delicious two course meal. Lunch consisted of a hearty bowl of soup, followed by beef and tomato, rice and lupin, cheese and a Peruvian favourite, potato. All washed down with about four mugs of coca tea – another Peruvian favourite.

Continuing on after lunch at a gentle pace, we eventually reached a stunning view point. Taking in the expansive surroundings of Inca ruins, mountains, and valleys, Pabel pointed out the spot where we would be spending our first night. In these surroundings? Incredible!

The site we were camping at was actually owned by one of Explores own porters – which meant we had exclusive use of it. Not another tent or group in site and the most peaceful spot of the day. I was delighted when we arrived, and even better to find our little yellow tents already set up for us! As we walked towards the camp, the porters clapped and congratulated us on the first day, playing some gentle music from a nearby stereo. We were then shown to our tents and given a bowl of hot water each to freshen up, before re-joining the group again in the food tent for games of cards, mugs of Milo (a favourite of mine from my time in the southern hemisphere!) and pre-dinner biscuits. Before we knew it, it was time for (more) food – our two course dinner of soup and pasta, followed by battered trout, vegetables and (more) potatoes. Definitely no fear of going hungry on this holiday!

I’d heard before I went on this tour that you’re often in bed very early and hadn’t believed I’d be able to sleep as I’m normally a night owl but in true trekking fashion, I too was tucked up in my sleeping bag in the thermals by 8.30pm and out like a light.
emily inca trail1

The Inca Trail - Day Two
We woke on day two at about 6.30am to the porters ‘knocking’ on our tent with a coffee and a bowl of hot water each – a great wake-up call. Breakfast was yet another two-courses of porridge with apple and quinoa, followed by pancakes. The porters then cleared up, packed up the tents, and we headed off to start our eight- hour trek. It was a beautiful day, blue skies and warm sun. We started off walking up through the Inca ruins opposite our camp site, providing a spectacular view at the top of where we had just spent the night. Alarmingly, I turned my phone on for the first time in about two days to take a photo and a familiar beep made me realise I had phone signal and a number of text messages pushed their way through; in the middle of a valley, inside some old Inca ruins in Peru - you can’t escape anywhere nowadays!

It was a longer day of walking, with lots of stops to catch our breath as we got used to the climbing heights, and plenty of opportunities for photographs. On a brief break, we sat outside a locals home and in the warm heat, happily exchanging five sols for a bottle of Inca Cola from their ‘storage room’. You can buy refreshments along the track at certain points, but be prepared to pay a lot more for them (that drink would normally have cost about one to two sol in Cusco).

After another hour of climbing, we reached our lunch spot and prepared to refuel once again, this time with some corn soup, and chicken kebabs (of course with a cheese and potato combo too on the side!) beautifully prepared by the porters. After more cups of coca tea, we set off again for the final trek of the day, following the Kusichaca river trail to Huayllabamba, a quiet 'village' of Inca ruins and the last settlement on the route.

We then carried on to Llullchapampa (3800m), ending the days walk with one and a half hours of steep climbing up Inca steps. Needless to say, we were delighted when we finally reached our camp for the night. This was slowly becoming my favourite part of the trek, the anticipation of where we would find our camp each night. This spot was absolutely incredible. We were sharing it with only one other small group, and our yellow tents were already pitched, facing the huge snow-capped mountains when we arrived. We also discovered we had a proper toilet block at this site (no toilet tent!); the small luxuries of camping!

The porters cheered us on arrival again and I don’t think I stopped smiling for at least half an hour. However, one thing that did surprise me was the cold. With us climbing so much throughout the day, we had reached quite an altitude and by the time we unloaded our bags in to our tents, the temperature had dropped significantly. I think this was the coldest night; however the views and the overall experience kept us distracted.

One particularly memorable moment was a rare 15 minutes alone, sitting on a rock, looking out at the mountains, typing up my journal on my ipad. I could suddenly feel someone looking over my shoulder, and then again on the other side and turned around to see two of the porters leaning over me, having a peak at my ipad. I soon realised, they had never seen one of these before and were amazed at the technology. They even called out to the other porters to come and look. To make them smile, I turned the camera to face us, and took a photo of us all. It made them laugh and was such a lovely moment.

After more Milo, biscuits and card games, we then devoured another two course dinner (definitely needed, to keep us warm!) before turning in for another early night.
emily inca trail2

The Inca Trail - Day Three
Waking up I was feeling pretty low as I had barely slept all night from the cold and so was feeling pretty exhausted. The heavy rain hitting the tent didn’t help the dampened spirits either. Fortunately, by the time we all got up and dressed and tucked in to our porridge and pancakes, the rain had eased and we were able to take some beautiful photos of the imposing mountains before setting off at about 7.30am for the third and most challenging day on the Inca Trek; 17km awaited us.

The weather throughout the day was the most changeable I have ever experienced – one minute slapping on the sun-cream and breezing along the track in shorts and t-shirts; half an hour later we’d be pulling on the waterproof trousers and jackets and ponchos. Crazy!

By this third day, we were starting to pass a few other groups, however still not as many as I had expected. Up until then, apart from a couple of trekkers, the only people we had really passed were the odd Peruvian lady and her donkey (locals who lived along the track). I was very pleased, as I had heard a lot of rumours about the Inca Trail being a lot busier these days than years ago and had images of battling crowds along the track. It was nothing like that, and while it was starting to get busier the closer we got to Machu Picchu, it still certainly wasn’t crowded.

Climbing up over Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman’s) Pass, we had beautiful clear views and while no mean feat, eventually summiting the highest point of the trek (4,200m) was a real highlight. Dead Woman’s Pass is rather a sacred spot and Pabel took this moment to give an ‘offering to Mother Nature’. With this, he took some coca leaves from his pocket, sprinkled on some of his drink and left them under some rocks at the top of the pass. Our group then followed suit and each gave our own offerings too.

It was a long walk until lunch and was no doubt a challenging effort. The ponchos were back on to protect from the drizzle, the legs were beginning to tire, my hiking boots were beginning to ache, and I was looking forward to our next food stop.
We continued on to the valley of the Pacamayo, surrounded by tropical vegetation, before crossing the Runkuraqay Pass (3950m). This is where the jungle comes in to view on the slopes of the mountains. Passing through cloud forest, an old Inca tunnel and along a ridge above the Urubamba River, we reached the Phuyupatamarka ruins (3579m). Once again, the views here blew me away. This was probably one of the most beautiful spots along the entire track for me. The sun was out, skies were blue and everywhere you looked, were mountains. We all perched on the edge of a ledge, taking in the view in silence for a while, sipping on water and tucking in to our snack packs. I think our tour leader was keen to make this a quick rest-stop, but we remained there for about half an hour.

A little further on we stopped for lunch, before continuing again on to one of my most favorite parts of the track. With the sun shining, we walked for an hour along the mountain track, with nothing but expansive snow-capped mountains and lush jungle all around us. We passed no one on this section and it was absolutely stunning.

After a long day, we eventually reached camp. This spot was absolutely breathtaking. Regrettably we were sharing this one with about three other groups so it wasn’t quite ours to selfishly indulge in (but still much quieter than most of the other camps sites we had passed. Explore select their campsites specifically so numbers are reduced which means you’re never battling with crowds). With views of the Andes Mountains as far as you could see, we headed straight to the top of a nearby rock for photos and could see Machu Picchu Mountain in the distance. Snow was capping the mountains each side of us and as the sun started to go down, turning the sky various shades of pink and blue, I couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d have rather been.

Not to waste the opportunity of warm water, our group (of four girls) then each threw on our ponchos, grabbed our travel towels and bottles of shampoo and took it in turns dip our heads in the washing bowls and wash our hair.  Never can I say I have ever done that, with such a scenic backdrop, perched on the side of a mountain!

After a quick change, it was then once again time to head to the food tent for more milo, popcorn and cards before dinner. Getting ready for bed in the cold and dark that night (my tent buddie had gone to bed early as she wasn’t feeling too well), I was actually grateful it was the last night of camping. I had absolutely loved the whole experience but three nights this time seemed long enough and I was starting to crave a hot shower, soft bed with a real pillow (instead of a scrunched up jacket), a flushing toilet and a change of clothes.
emily inca trail3

The Inca Trail - Day Four
The idea was to rise at 5.30am the next morning to catch the sunrise, but sadly the pouring rain put pay to any views and we remained in our tents keeping warm, until about 6.30am. This fourth and final day of the trek was to be the ‘easy’ 11km walk to Machu Picchu; quite a relief after the last two intense days. The final breakfast of pancakes and coffee in the tent set us up for the day perfectly and everyone agreed Mario’s (our chef) pancakes were the best we’d ever tasted!

Despite the morning drizzle, spirits were high and the group were excited to be reaching our final destination (the fact that most of the day was downhill too was a huge bonus). We gathered around camp with the porters after breakfast and took it in turns to thank them for their wonderful hospitality and incredible hard work over the past four days. Only a few were to continue on with us today to help set up lunch. The rest would head back to their families, before starting all over again with another group. The work the porters did absolutely blew my mind and I will forever be in awe of what they achieve every day. This time, after tipping them for their wonderful service, it was our time to cheer them on! Myself and the other girls felt strangely sad saying goodbye to them all. It had only been four days but we had grown quite attached to our little group and their forever smiley faces.

This final day was a much gentler walk, although the hours of downhill started to take it out of my tired legs. The views for the first two hours were rather restrictive because of the cloud and drizzle, but it was also incredibly atmospheric. I actually loved that both the scenery and the weather had been so varied. It meant there was always something different to see and experience – not to mention another layer to add on or take off (I quickly became known in the group as the one with the constant wardrobe changes!).

Arriving at our lunch spot was a little surreal as it’s one of the busiest camp sites on the track. Our tour leader told us this is where most tours who trek the Inca Trail stay on the last night and at its busiest, can ‘host’ up to 400 people in one night. Trekking the Inca Trail is meant to be a remote, personal experience. To fight for tight space with 400 others and share those peaceful morning moments with such a large crowd would totally ruin it for me. As beautiful spot as it was, I was delighted we were only stopping for lunch (and yet another wardrobe change, the sun was now HOT!).

We then had another three hour walk to get to the famous Gate of the Sun and finally get to see Machu Picchu. It was a really nice afternoon and the scenery was unbelievable. The sun was shining and spirits were high and walking up the final steep steps, Pabel joked that we may find a surprise at the top, but we didn’t believe him as we were sure we had at least an hour to go. And after four days of trekking, I’m not sure I actually ever pictured what it would be like to reach the end. For me, it had always just been about the journey there.

However as myself and one other in the group reached the top step and looked to our left, I let out a big gasp as I realised he hadn’t been joking. We had made it to the Sun Gate, and right there in front of us was the image I had seen a thousand times online and in books – Machu Picchu!

I had always expected, at that moment, to not be particularly impressed. There is such a lot of hype around it and I had feared it would look as spectacular in real life, but it absolutely impressed me. What I found surprising was everything else that surrounded the lost city too; the panoramic mountain scenery either side that you don’t really see in the photos.

As expected there were quite a few tourists there, many of who had caught the train and then the bus up to Machu Picchu and walked the 45 minutes uphill to the Sun Gate. Amusingly, we heard many complaining about their ‘big walk’ as we passed them on the way down. After trekking for four days to get there, we couldn’t help feeling smug.

emily inca trail4

Post Inca Trail - back to Machu Picchu
The final day was spent back up at Machu Picchu, exploring the ruins on a tour with Pabel.  It was amazing and I certainly got plenty of ' wow, I can't believe I'm here’ moments. The sheer size of the city surprised me and it was great to hear the history of the place. We were also really lucky with the weather. That was one day we wanted to have blue skies and luck was on our side – it was so warm. However I have to admit, I was surprised by just how busy it was. I had expected big crowds at Machu Picchu, but never as many as we encountered. Most were just day-trippers who had caught the train and, after the remoteness of the past four days on the Inca Trail, I felt quite overwhelmed by the big crowds.

For anyone short on time who wants to trek the Inca Trail, I can’t recommend this tour enough. If I’d had longer, I would have preferred to have tagged on some extra time at the end to explore Peru beyond Cusco. It’s an incredible country and the people are among the friendliest I’ve ever met. Make sure you try the local food, sample the local drink and get to know the local people. The Inca Trail isn’t just about the stunning scenery, it’s the entire experience and it’s well worth fully immersing yourself in it all. The Inca Trail: the absolutely perfect escapism."