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I had heard vaguely of Machu Picchu a while ago but I knew virtually nothing about it. Then, whilst we were still in the 'vaguely thinking about it' stage, I saw my first picture of Machu Picchu in one of the Sunday paper supplements. From then on it was one of the highlights of our trip to me. Sometime later, I started working with Martin (Hi, if you're reading this) and it turned out that he had walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu the previous year. I questioned him a bit about it as I was a little nervous about a four day trek in an unfamiliar country. His words were both encouraging and worrying. It sounded as if the tour company would take care of most things, we just had to do the walking.
The day before we left, I was a little worried. We had allowed four days before starting the Inca Trail so that we could become used to the altitude but we were both a little out of breath just wandering around the Inca Museum in Cusco! Still, it felt like we were too late to back out or postpone when we were picked up at 7am on the first morning. After an hour or so zooming around Cusco in the bus, we had most of the walkers and some porters too. As we headed for Ollantaytambo we picked up a few more porters and a large collection of bags and equipment. By 11.30 we had reached km 82 where we were due to start walking. Since it was just about lunchtime, we had lunch first before setting out. It was at this point that we discovered that we had been mislead very slightly by the man who had booked our trip. He had told us that we could bring our own sleeping bags if we wanted but we didn't have to. He also gave us the impression that the porters would carry our sleeping bags; this turned out not to be the case. Had we known, we would have brought our bigger rucksacks with us. As it was, we only had our day bags. Fortunately I managed to contrive a way to attach both sleeping bags to my bag although it made my bag a bit cumbersome.
We ate lunch quite happily as the porters turned out to be great cooks given the limited resources they had. These six men had to carry all of our tents, food and cooking equipment and carry it faster than we walked. They really are amazing. Normally about 30 minutes after we started walking, there would be a steady stream of these guys carrying huge and bulky loads as they literally ran up and down the mountains to get there before us. Anyway, we finally set out and passed through the first check point and over a rickety suspension bridge. It seemed a fitting way to start. Running behind us were a few little kids who were pestering us for something or other. Eventually we gave one girl a biro we had taken from our Dallas hotel and they went away.
We started walking at about 1:30 ish and we were due to reach our first campsite at about 4:30 or 5pm. The elevation at km 82 is about 2500m and our first campsite was at about 2800m. At first it wasn't too bad, it was mostly flat or slightly downhill as we followed the river. We were quite out of breath on the few bits that went uphill but on the whole I didn't think it was too bad. Towards the end of our first day of walking, I was quite tired and I could feel in my legs that we had walked a fair way but I was ok. It was just starting to get dark when we caught up with the rest of our group (who all seemed fitter than us) at the campsite.
Yes, camping. Something I haven't done for quite some time and something I have since resolved not to do again if I can help it! Our group consisted of six porters (as I have mentioned), our guide and six other walkers in addition to ourselves. Claire and I shared a 2-man tent and whilst it wasn't bad as far as tents go, sleeping on the ground isn't my thing. Maybe I've been spoiled these last few years with our big bed with its feather duvet, but sleeping on the ground just seems wrong now. Oh, and the toilets... I'm quite happy to visit the bushes from time to time on long car journeys or walks but when the only choice is a pit in the ground, you start to miss home a lot. It didn't help that Claire dropped one of our toilet rolls (that's something else you have to provide yourself) in the pit. Ok, I did pretty much the same thing a day later:-)
Nice and weary from our walking I didn't feel much like eating at all which is a shame because the porters went to quite a bit of effort. We also spent an hour or so doing the whole getting to know each other bit. In our group we had a French couple, Sylvie and Laurent, who were on holiday in Peru for three weeks. They were very pleasant people. Else was from Holland and about to start a month of voluntary work in Cusco. Andreas was from Norway, fresh out of the Army. Luca and Peter were from somewhere with the word 'Sussex' in it. Apparently quite close to Gatport Airwick. Andreas, Luca and Peter were all travelling through South America (although not together). Our guide Marysol was probably the youngest in the group. She was only twenty, very patient with us all and an excellent guide.
So, the dreaded second day arrived. The plan was to climb upto 4200m to 'Dead Woman's Pass' before midday. Luckily for us, one of the porters was willing to carry our sleeping bags that day making my bag so much lighter. Through the use of some cunning packing, he also ended up carrying a couple of other things too! Still though, it was a very, very hard climb. We started walking at about 7am and it took four and a half hours of sweat, rain, fog and pain to reach the top. That is a climb I hope I never have to do again. At that altitude the air is thin enough but walking uphill too is just too much. Towards the end I had to stop every 25m just to catch my breath. When I finally reached the top and looked back, I can honestly say that I felt like crying. But I'm a man, so I didn't.
So now what? Well, the campsite was an hour and a half downhill from there. Marysol went on ahead to catch up with the others (we were the slowest) and we plodded downwards. Down 600m to the campsite where I subjected myself to a cold shower (we're taking mountain river water cold) and then we had lunch at about 2pm and dinner at 6pm. That was about all we did that day then, except nap of course.
The third day was longer in distance than the pervious day but involved less climbing. The morning was still quite hard though because we were worn out from the previous day and neither Claire or I felt too good. Still, we somehow made it to our lunch stop first. After lunch we both felt a little better and we set out five minutes before everyone else as the first bit was climbing. The rest of the group caught us up at an Inca tunnel (a big hole in a big rock) and we carried on together for a while. That first hour or so after lunch was the most pleasurable bit of the trail so far for me. As we approached the descent to our final campsite (over 1000m and 2062 stairs below), we started to fall behind. We took it slow, partly because we were tired, partly because those stairs are steep and large (20 - 40cm each) and hurt your knees and ankles after a while, but also partly because the stones were wet and it was a long way down on one side. None of this stops the porters though. They just run! Amazing.
As the sky started to think about getting dark, we arrived at our campsite near to the mountain of Machu Picchu. Again I had a cold shower and before we had dinner, we went out for a beer. This was the first real opportunity for us to buy a beer since we left Cusco and I can tell you it was perhaps the best one I've ever had. Certainly the most deserved I think.
The porters pulled out all of the stops for our final meal. It was great and there was too much. As is the tradition, we thanked them for their hard work (this tends to involve tipping) and went to bed as we had to get up at 4am the next day.
What sort of time is 4am to be awake and getting dressed I ask you? Well it's the time you need to get up to get to Machu Picchu early. The checkpoint opened at 5.30am and we were only the third group to go through. Behind us there were hundreds more people queueing. A lot of people run the first hour. We were quick but not running. For starters it was still dark but also, who wants to run? I was hot and sweaty just walking quickly. It took about an hour to reach the sun gate where we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu but that first glimpse made that hour worthwhile. Another 45 minutes took us down to the city itself and we took a few pictures before starting our tour of the city. Unfortunately though, nature had other plans and the heavens opened. We spent a while under cover with Marysol telling us everything she would have told us on the tour before we gave up and went down to Aguas Calientes (the nearby town).
With only a little trouble Marysol helped Claire and I find the hotel we were due to stay in that night. We rented some very badly fitting swimwear and visited the hot springs. Actually it's more like a hot, green swimming pool but it felt quite nice. We decided we would visit Machu Picchu again the following day and did little else except sleep for thirteen hours!
It cost us $20 each to get back into Machu Picchu but it was well worth it. There were some clouds over some of the surrounding mountains but Machu Picchu itself was bright and sunny. We spent a long time wandering round and taking photos and I have to say that the four days of pain were worth it. Lots of people just take the train from Cusco to see Machu Picchu but I don't think you can fully appreciate it unless you take the Inca Trail. Of course, now that we've done it we can take the train next time! I'm not going to describe Machu Picchu here, I think pictures would do it better justice. Better yet, go yourself. It's that good.
That's about it for Machu Picchu except for a quick mention of our train ride back to Cusco. Supposedly it is quicker to take the train all the way to Cusco than it is to get off at Ollantaytambo and take a bus. This is, of course, unless your train breaks down in the pitch black in the middle of nowhere! We sat in the dark for about an hour or so twiddling our thumbs before the train go going again. But never mind, we'd soon be in Cusco wouldn't we? Except that it takes over 30 minutes to get into Cusco from the outskirts as the train circles half of the city and then zigzags very slowly downhill. Luckily our hotel was still open. Unsurprisingly, we went straight to bed.
Pictures of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail will follow shortly, there are a lot of them. Keep checking the Peru photos page.
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