The long road to Machu Picchu

P and I are feeling somewhat heroic. We feel we now sit comfortably alongside the likes of Edmund Hillary, Ernest Shackleton and Ranulph Fiennes.

We made it through cloud forest, rainforest and over rivers and mountain peaks to reach the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu early last Thursday morning.

After four days of trekking, damp, dirty and elated we stood at the Puerta del Sol and watched the dawn sunlight extend its golden fingers with tantalising patience towards that intricate granite city atop its steep mountain ridge. Standing a lofty 2500m towards the heavens the smoky morning clouds drifted below us. We soaked up the beauty with deserving eyes.

It was not made easy for us. Life, as it sometimes does, decided to test our fortitude beyond the simple but knackering task of walking 43km up and down and up and down to altitudes of some 4200m.

The dramas started when P’s flight, two hours over the Atlantic did a U-turn back to Madrid due to a generator failure.

He had the joyous experience of waiting in Madrid overnight before restarting his journey a mere seven hours after he was meant to be enroute to Lima, then Cuzco.

After mild panic over missed connections – and the fact the trekking agency stipulated we must both be in Cuzco by 7.30pm that Saturday in order to start the Inca Trail the following Monday as booked – he finally arrived in Cuzco, sleep deprived but still smiling.

All seemed well that evening, excitement at our impending adventure and a delicious supper wrapped us in a happy haze.

But my feeling of happiness were quickly eroded that night as an invisible hand began to grip my stomach with a ferocity that seemed unnecessarily vindictive.

I had spent the last few weeks concerned that it would be P who might struggle on the trek with so little time to acclimatise to the altitude while I, having travelled through the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru would be skipping up the mountains. Ha! It was not to be.

Apologies in advance for my lack of delicacy, but I awoke on Sunday with a stomach that refused to ingest or hold anything more substantial than air. I could not eat, or drink, without rushing to the loo within seconds.

The very idea of food made me fall into a nauseous sweat – and those who know me well will know that it takes a severe illness to put me off my food!

I soldiered on through Sunday but by the evening, weak and shaking collapsed in a tearful sick heap terrified I would be forced to miss out on something I had planned for six months and may never be able to do again.

So I made what was probably a very stupid decision. I decided to walk the Inca Trail with the squits.

I downed several rehydration sachets and put my faith in my immune system to fight it off sufficiently quickly that I would not have to be carried back down the mountainside.

P was saintly, supporting this foolhardy faith, looking after me and bullying me to force down water and the odd bit of bread.

I dealt with the problem by laughing, slightly hysterically, at the ridiculousness of the situation and diving off the trail into bushes at regular intervals. Enough said.

Lastly, the weather. It rained. And rained. Admittedly opting to do the Inca trail at the tail end of the rainy season was always a a risk. But by the end of March the rain should confine itself to showers rather than day-long downpours.

Even this would be fine if balanced by high temperatures but four kilometres above sea level, even this close to the equator, is cold. On the second night as the rain pounded our tents we all struggled to sleep as we tried to bury ourselves deeper and deeper inside our sleeping bags.

But honestly, despite all these minor set backs, it was an incredible four days.

We walked through some of the most magical mountain landscapes imaginable and were lucky enough to land among great group of people none of whom even contemplated anything other than enjoying themselves. Some people were battling altitude sickness, others recurrent leg injuries – one woman had just had the all clear after being treated for breast cancer – but there were no complainers. No whingers. Everyone trooped on up those mountains, huffing and puffing and always cheerful on arrival.

At 5.30am on the Monday we boarded to bus to the start of the trail. Thank god the first day is the easiest as it felt like lead weights had been tied to my ankles.

Day one is flat but ‘Peruvian flat’, which is not flat in any normal sense but simply means you are going up and down at gradients which do not make your knees want to explode but still set your heart beating like a drum.

It was a stunning walk through the Urubamba valley, passing two Inca ruins, the small hillfort of Huillca Racay and Llactapata.

The sun shone and our merry band hiked on until about 5pm to Wayllabamba, on the banks of the Rio Cusichaca where our wonderful team of porters were ready and waiting, tents set up. Supper was already on the go, overseen by chef-come-magician Justin whose ability at whipping up mouthwatering three course meals using only a gas stove was nothing short of miraculous. Justin was not one to let standards slip simply on the basis of his jungle surroundings. Every day he emerged in his chefs whites and hat, ready to direct his porter sous-chefs.

A word about the porters. These remarkable men, most of whom are local farmers trying to earn some extra cash for their families, scamper up and down the precipitous Andean paths in their sandals or bashed up old converse carrying loads of up to 30kg. They used to carry more until the Peruvian government imposed strict weight restrictions. Most stand at little more than 5ft 5ins and are dwarfed by their heavy packs. They are pure sinew. And in the case of our porters, never betray a moment’s resentment but offer only welcoming smiles to the well-fed tourists complaining of their aching limbs while carrying small day sacks and arriving each evening to find their food and shelter provided.  Peru Treks, the company we chose for the hike, prides itself on porter welfare as any reputable trekking company should. Without the porters the Inca Trail would not be possible. They are the worker bees who make it happen.

Day two is when the knees really start to burn. It is a relentless four to five hour climb, ascending more than a kilometre in altitude to the Abra de Huarmihuanusca or Dead Woman’s Pass, up the steep stone steps laid by the Incas more than five centuries ago – most of the trail is still the original stones.

We passed through cloud forest, thick with knarled trees and dainty flowers until even the trees refused to go any higher and the land opened out into meadows, exposing the mountain peaks, scatterings of snow still visible. After the pass we headed back downhill for a couple of kilometres and reached the second campsite at about 1pm just as the heavens opened. They did not close again until the following morning when we all emerged wet and shivering for the 16km walk to the final campsite at Winay Wayna.

The third day we entered the jungle. Machu Picchu sits on a climactic and botanical dividing line where the Andes meets the Amazon.

After another steep climb, another pass, we descended and the humidity rose. Thick green vines and hanging mosses dripped and steamed, ferns brushed our legs and exotic orchids bloomed.  We passed the impressive Inca development of Sayacmarca, which means Inaccessible Town, surrounded on three sides by sheer rock faces.

Just when we were celebrating a few hours of morning sunshine, the rain arrived.

I suppose one has to expect rain in the rainforest. And rain it did, all day.

But as we neared our final campsite after eight hours of walking and emerged onto the incredible Inca terracing of Intipata, the clouds slowly lifted and cleared to reveal a breathtaking view down the Urubamba Valley, the raging river at its heart winding away into the jungle mists towards the mighty Amazon. We were nearly there.

At 3.30am, yes 3.30am, the next morning we were gently but firmly woken for the final trudge to Machu Picchu.

As we walked night slowly conceded defeat to the day and sunlight began to illuminate the highest peaks.

Then suddenly we were there, rising up before us in ancient stones, the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu and far below clinging limpet-like to its mountain was the lost Inca city, discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and now more than a century later by us. The skies were a clear perfect blue at last.

All the discomfort, the aching muscles, the lack of sleep was rewarded in those precious minutes as Machu Picchu was slowly lit up before us.

It is an extraordinary place. Huge, intricate, beautiful, fascinating. And absolutely crawling with tourists.

We could see them already streaming in like ants as the sun rose at 7am.

Even with the ever growing crowds the site is worthy of its fame. But to walk there along the ancient paths which lead to it, soaking up more and more Inca history as you progress, makes it part of a greater experience than simply ticking off another ‘must see’ sight on the well trod South American tourist trail.

At Machu Picchu everything we had learnt along the way under the laid back tutorship of our brilliant guide Edwin came together.

The movement of the sun, the constellations, the four corners of the Inca empire, the three parallel kingdoms through which Inca souls would journey, all feed into the symbolic design and location of the ancient city.

Even the brawling American accents that seemed to reverberate off the prefect Inca stonework could not ruin Machu Picchu for me.

In this instance the journey really is as important as the destination.

The gang, elated on arrival.
The gang, elated on arrival.

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