1). Day 1 from Piscacscho to Wayllabamba
The minibus that had conveyed Martin and I, plus a middle-aged Brazilian couple and four young Argentineans, from our hotel in Cuzco, finally arrived at Piscacucho on the rail line at Kilometer 82, a village of small adobe built farmhouses hemmed in between the steep slopes of the Andes and the raging Urubamba River. We were met by a scene of hectic activity. Kit lay strewn about on large plastic sheets and porters were rushing round almost tripping over fowls and piglets, readying equipment and supplies for our forthcoming 43 km 4 day trek. Between the ten of them, these hard working, polite, yet shy Quechua men from the highlands, carried large packs containing everything necessary for our group of eight to enjoy a comfortable 4 day trek. It’s wise to do this, as one of the Argentinean’s, determined to carry all her own kit, soon discovered to her cost how foolish this is. We also recommend that you keep clothing and equipment to an absolute minimum. Most people carry far too many unnecessary items.
We wore the same outer layers woolen short sleeved base layer, lightweight fleece, and quick drying trekking trousers and took along only a daily change of underwear and socks, a long sleeved woolen base layer to sleep in, one spare wicking t-shirt (for the last day), a Polartec pull-on for chilly evenings and a set of waterproofs (you can buy cheap plastic ponchos in Cuzco if preferred). A pair of comfortable Gore-Tex hiking boots are essential, plus a head torch, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat. We carried our usual walking kit in a 35 liter Alpine rucksack into which a bladder (with electrolyte tablets to combat loss of salts) was inserted. Don’t forget a high factor sunscreen, loo roll, ear-plugs, microfiber towel, a First Aid kit and/or sanitizing hand gel/wet wipes. We also carried a solar battery charger (attached easily to the exterior of a rucksack) to recharge our camera batteries, and used walking poles (rubber tips essential) which we found helped to maintain an upright walking posture making breathing easier. Anyone who is a regular hill-walker should not find this trek too difficult, but those who are not particularly fit are likely to struggle and will not be able to relax and enjoy the daily climbs and scenery on what is probably going to be a once in a lifetime experience for many. This is a trek at high altitude, so it’s wise to ensure that you have been in Cuzco for at least two days beforehand to acclimatize.
There was a palpable buzz in the air as we set off, swept along in a tide of colorful -fellow pilgrims’ from all over the world, a kind of modern-day version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales! At the entry post our tour guide, Elistan, a fresh-faced Quechua man with an excellent command of English, sorted out the paperwork for our group. You must present your passport and permit or entry to the trail is prohibited. You may get your passport stamped here as a memento. It is impossible do the trail independently. Numbers permitted entry each day are strictly limited to 500 persons (including porters and guides, so in reality there are permits for less than 200 trekkers) so booking your trek with a company several months (6-8 months) ahead is therefore recommended. April to October are the most popular months as the weather is drier.
We then passed under the famous entrance sign to the Inca Trail, posing momentarily for the obligatory group photo, then crossed the suspension bridge over the foaming and seething Urubamba River. It was to be our companion for the first part of the trek along a dusty undulating route busy with mules serving local villages and running porters, eager to rush ahead to ready lunch for their trekkers. There are spectacular views of the Vilcanota mountain range, where the Veronica peak raises its snowy head with an arrogant nonchalance 5,832 meters into a cornflower blue sky and the first glimpse of an Incan archaeological site, Salapunku, an old resting place for travelers on the opposite side of the river. This first day is not hard, a 12 kilometer stroll with just 350 meters of ascent and there are several places along the way where you can buy cold drinks, snacks, coca leaves as well as walking sticks, hats and bandannas. The pace began comfortably but soon slowed as the Argentinean carrying everything but the kitchen sink began to lag behind. We were easily the fastest and fittest in our group thanks to regular forays into our Irish hills! However, we were fortunate in that our group was small and Elistan, realizing that we were both fit and experienced, did not hold us back, but over the course of the four days allowed us to make for camp at our own pace. A small group suited us, as we felt it might not have been as pleasant trekking in a group as large as some we encountered along the trial.
The route veered away from the river and began to gradually ascend towards Miskay (2,800m). Our group made several stops along the way to enable stragglers to catch up, or for Elistan to explain items of interest: cochineal beetles, concealed within dusty white patches on prickly cactus leaves, which when crushed reveal their prized crimson fluid. After walking across a flattish grassy plateau we spied the fort of Huillca Raccay at the mouth of the river Cusichaca, perched high above an Incan town of some 115 houses which Elistan called Llactapata, discovered by American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. Rising gently up slope from the fertile valley bottom near where the Cusichaca meets the mighty Urubamba, this terraced town that once housed a population of around 5,000 was strategically sited for Inca agriculture and trade and supplied many settlements with goods, including Machu Picchu
. However, its actual name is Patallacta, and it was deliberately burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who, retreating from Cuzco in 1536, destroyed many of settlements along the Inca road system to prevent the Spanish from discovering Machu Picchu or any of its settlements.
Here, the cloud smoldering around the mountain tops which had been threatening rain finally delivered, and we were subjected to a steady downpour on the descent to the valley carved by the Cusichaca. It was a relief to get out of the rain when we stopped at a local farm, heralded by swirling clouds of blue wood smoke and ducks waddling along the muddy path. After a hearty bowl of hot quinoa and vegetable soup with thick chunks of bread rustled up by our cook, we left the relative comfort of the mess tent returning to the rain to begin a gentle ascent alongside the roaring Cusichaca River to the village of Wayllabamba (3,100 meters). Here we camped in a field by a rustic farm house for the night. Trekkers sleep for three nights under canvas so it’s wise to have had some experience of camping before attempting a multi day trek like the Inca trail, especially as the weather had turned inclement which, to pardon the pun, put a bit of a dampener on things! We hung our drenched waterproofs up to dry and arranged our kit inside the Doite tent supplied where everything must be safely stashed to prevent animals carrying off your belongings!
-Agua caliente!’ became a regular and very welcome cry from the porters, and it felt good to have hot water supplied in a small bowl for a much needed wash. The facilities along the 4-day route are primitive to say the least, and unless you are prepared to brave freezing water, do not expect to shower! At least at Wayllabamba, the farming family whose land we camped on had a sit down flush toilet, albeit minus the seat! As darkness fell, we sat around the mess table listening to the rain gently pattering on the canvas, sipping coca leaf tea (which helps to stave off the effects of altitude sickness), enjoying getting to know each other a little better. In the silvery light of the gas lamp, we listened to Elistan telling us about the route we would follow the next day. After a delicious three course meal of soup, meat and vegetables, followed by fruit, we participated in the time honored Andean ritual of respect: the alcoholic toast or challa to Pachamama, -the Mother Earth’, that consists of sprinkling some liquor onto the ground for a successful journey and safe passage through the Andes. We then retired to our tents where we enjoyed a sound night’s sleep. But others in our group whose bedding, footwear and clothing got wet, fared less well. A good night’s sleep is essential for the next day, the hardest of the four.
2). Day 2 conquering the Dead Woman’s pass
Dawn heralded a beautiful fresh morning, the vegetation wet and gleaming from the rain of the day before. The jagged snow covered mountains all around, just catching the first rays of the rising sun, were set against an azure sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. After a wholesome breakfast of fruit, quinoa porridge and bread washed down with coca leaf tea, we set out to tackle the most difficult part of the trek, which consists of a relentlessly steep 1,115 metre ascent that stretches for nine kilometres to the first, and highest, mountain pass of the trail. This day sorts the wheat from the chaff.
We proceeded steadily upwards in a long thread of climbers along what seemed to be an ever steepening cobbled and stepped pathway through cloud forest enlivened by rushing streams and bird song, dense with tropical foliage and exotically shaped and colored blooms. The humidity was sapping and we were glad to stop at a clearing where local women wrapped in colorful shawls were selling chocolate bars, water and soda pop. I spied one dishing out gourd-fulls of cloudy chicha (maize beer) to a group of thirsty porters. At 3,680m and after about three hours walking, we emerged from the tree line into a meadow known as Llulluchapampa, hemmed in on all sides by magnificent golden-brown jagged mountains with snow crested peaks. Through the interlocking spurs of the mountains above, we finally spied Warmiwanusca -Dead Woman’s Pass’ the highest pass of the trail at 4,215m, so called as it resembles the contours of a supine woman. But it was still some 1.5 hours away.
After all of our group arrived, we began the grueling, lung bursting climb to the pass. Even the porters, cheeks bulging with coca leaves, burdened by loads almost as long as they were tall, seemed to be moving in slow motion as we relentlessly slogged our way upwards under an unforgiving hot sun.
Finally, the top of the pass! Here, a huddle of fellow trekkers, awe struck at the view of the pathway snaking its way down through the gaping valley just climbed, stood stunned into humble silence by the sheer grandeur of the Andes. Silken shrouds of cloud wrapped themselves round a tumultuous rapture of snow crested mountaintops for as far as the eye could see, deep shadows the size of skyscrapers scaring their rugged brown slopes. Few of the porters stopped, most continued on down the other side, loads swaying as they picked up speed.
Photos taken, we did not linger long either. Elistan had told us not to wait for the others but to proceed to camp, wise advice as our sweat drenched shirts soon made it feel decidedly chilly in a stiffening breeze. Climbing to Dead Woman’s Pass is not the only hard part on the trek; the 700m descent to the second campsite over uneven rocky steps is equally taxing. Moving as fast as we dared, we glided over these to spare knees and feet, taking care to avoid patches where see pages of water had formed slippery algal films. After an initial steep section, the paved pathway then undulates along the left side of the valley giving pleasant vistas of the grassy mountain slopes, exotic flora and eventually, a welcome view of the campsite nestled amid denser vegetation further down the valley. A gentler stepped section brings you to the camp perimeter which contains a rather smelly ablution block with pit toilets.
The terraced camp at Pacaymayo is large and busy, bisected by a rushing torrent of water tumbling nosily down through the valley from a magnificent waterfall cascading down a mountain high above. Crossing this stream by a rustic wooden bridge, we then spent around 10 minutes searching for our designated camping area. Upon arrival our porters gazed at us in astonishment. They were still erecting tents and blowing up the sleeping mats, the mess tent was not ready and there was no hot water! Choosing a tent with a fabulous view over the yawning valley below, we quietly soaked up the scenery and were treated to the sight of an inquisitive deer, before dozing off in the warm afternoon sunshine.
We were eating a late lunch when the Brazilians entered the camp and it was dusk before the last Argentinean arrived. She was clearly exhausted and sat in the mess tent in stupefied silence, scarcely eating anything at dinner. One small act of kindness caused her to burst into tears. She had a headache, felt sick and the 11 km trek that day had nearly killed her. The altitude and her general lack of fitness had conspired to make the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass to the camp a nightmarish ordeal and she had been coaxed down slowly by Elistan and a porter who came to her rescue with hot coca tea. She disappeared sobbing into her tent with painkillers, more coca tea and copious sympathy. GET TRAINING BEFORE YOU COME HERE
As the camp fell silent, we wandered up a nearby path to savor the night atmosphere. In the valley below our camp a thick carpet of white cloud glowed with surreal luminescence, leaving just the jagged snow capped mountain peaks exposed. The purple night sky was studded with stars the size of crystal apples, while the constant roar of the river filled the air with musical cadence. For a brief moment in time, we felt like we were the only two people in the world.
3). Day 3 two more passes to WinayWayna
A riot of birdsong ushered in a beautiful cool, crisp morning. We were to cover 18 km and had to climb another two passes, one of which attained a height of 4,000m. The cloud inversion still blanketed the valley below, but it was churning, great columns of white vapor rising from it as the air warmed in the rising sun. The mountain we were to climb blushed pink, then gold in the dawn and the sun finally exploded in a ball of fiery light from behind the ridge of a mountain opposite. A shy smile across the breakfast table from our Argentinean friend told me that she was feeling better.
The hour-long pull up over a very steep section of steps from Pacaymayo to Runkurakay, a semi-circular stone structure built on a promontory of rock, is best tackled before the sun gets too hot. Constructed as a look out point and traveler’s resting post, it offers incredible views of the valley below and Dead Woman’s Pass opposite. Joining a steady flow of porters, perspiring profusely and bent double under their heavy loads making them resemble giant beetles, we headed slowly upwards past gorgeous blue lakes concealed in corries towards the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay. The steps are steep and uneven, each one increasingly hard won in the growing heat of the sun.
At the pass, were met with yet more breathtaking magnificence, as Veronica and numerous other smoky blue, snow capped peaks floated into view to ravish the eye, the mountains this side of the pass greener, the vegetation lower down turning to jungle. The awesome beauty and remoteness of the Andes has shaped the lives and beliefs of the indigenous people, for these high places are watched over by powerful deities, custodians of eternal ice and life-giving water and the all-supreme Pachamama. Ritual seems to run through the people’s DNA. Gathering together a fan of oval shaped coca leaves, we did as shown by Elistan. Clutching them between fingers and thumbs, we bowed, raising our hands above our heads three times in this ancient ritual of reciprocity between the material and the spiritual, before blowing our prayer into the wind, then concealing the leaves under a tiny cairn of stones.
The start of the descent from the pass traverses a step section of steps, and the route thereafter is mostly original. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca who constructed such incredibly well engineered pathways across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. Although the wheel was known to them, the nature of the terrain made carts practically useless. These roads were built for man and beast! Clinging obstinately to the sides of steep valleys with tunnels passing through solid rock, I wondered how many feet had passed before mine on this seemingly timeless trail?
Moving swiftly, we soon spotted Sayaqmarca, which means -Inaccessible Town’. Perched on the tip of a very prominent ridge protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, it is aptly named. An incredibly steep stairway of steps, 98 to be precise, snakes its way up to its entrance. The precise function of Sayaqmarca is unknown, but it had a Sun Temple and over half of it was residential, served by an ingenious canal system that also filled ceremonial baths before disappearing into the jungle. Far below were the rectangular outlines of the terraced ruins of Conchamarca, a resting place for travellers en route to Machu Picchu, and we were soon walking in the shadows cast by its stone walls.
A veritable feast was served by our cook for lunch before we began the next section of the trail along an undulating pavement gently rising and falling as it wove its way high up the side of valleys just above the cloud forest, heading towards the third pass. The air was alive with birdsong and stunning vistas flashed in and out of view, including the first sight of the town of Aguas Calientes and the silvery serpentine coils of the mighty Urubamba River far below. At Abra de Phuyupatamarca (3,700m), a flat granite plateau with views of a yawning amphitheatre of mountains in fifty shades of smoky blue, you get the first glimpse of the top of Huayna Picchu, the distinctive hill overlooking Machu Picchu, and a welcome sense of drawing ever closer to achieving your goal.
Porters, some in just sandals, ran by us on the ridiculously steep steps of the descent towards the ruins of Phuyupatamarca. These were not living up to their name at all ““ -Town in the Clouds’ ““ for the neat outlines of the terraces formed by their impressive stonework were etched in perfect detail in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Passing by groups of grazing llamas and a series of ritual baths still fed by cool, crystal clear water, we paused to explore the ruins, the most intact so far, before beginning the infamous descent to the final camp at WinayWayna 2,700m.
Dubbed the Gringo Killer, this descent of almost 900m incorporating what seemed like thousands of steps, is gruelling. Again, we decided to move rapidly, passing those trudging slowly downward, concentration etched on weary faces, many leaning heavily on their walking poles, obviously feeling the pain in their knees and feet.
Despite its reputation, the path is a delight, descending into a mysterious cloud forest full of hummingbirds, orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and exotic flowers. It passes through an Incan tunnel carved straight down through the rock and over rustic wooden bridges. Eventually the rusty tin roofs of buildings at the Winya Wayna campsite come into view and the impressive agricultural terraces of Intipata on a mountainside above. We took a path that passed right through the center of the terraces, eventually descending down over a teeth jarring set of steep, ridiculously high steps, which wrought havoc on tired limbs! Passing a trio of llamas, who arrogantly brushed by us on the path, we finally arrived at the camp to applause from our porters. As dusk fell, Elistan arrived with all the others.
A bottle of wine was produced at dinner that night to celebrate our safe arrival at the final camp. Our Argentinean friend, who came close to quitting on the second day, made an emotional and moving speech to the porters as she presented them with the tip money we had collected. The noble faces of these Quechua men, some prematurely aged by the harshness of life on the Altiplano, who had been deprived an education and have known little other than hard graft since their childhood, will linger long in my memory. It was mainly due to them that we had enjoyed a comfortable trek, for everything – camping equipment, gas bottles, cooking utensils, provisions, stools, table and personal belongings – had been painstakingly hauled every inch of the way by them. What heroes! Had I not been so tired from the exertions of the past three days, I don’t think I’d have been able to sleep that night, so excited was I by the thought that in less than eight hours, I’d be seeing Machu Picchu
4). The March to Machu Picchu
Agua caliente!’ It was just 3.30 am as the porters roused us from our slumbers and we rose in pitch darkness to break camp for the last time. Every group has the same intention. The porters rush to pack up all the kit in time to descend to Aguas Calientes where they must catch the early -local train’- government-subsidized and for Peruvians only; the trekkers, to be at the head of the queue which forms at the final checkpoint that opens at 5.30am, in order to ensure that they arrive in time to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our group failed miserably and we found ourselves close to the back!
After what seemed an eternity and one last visit to the toilets of the camp, just as the first glimmer of dawn began to chase away the purple night sky, the queue surged forward as the checkpoint opened. Once through, a very fast pace was set for the 1½ hour hike to the final pass Intipunku (the Sun Gate), above the city. The 6km trail contours a mountainside with precipitous drops subject to landslides, passing through luxurious cloud forest alive with bird song and insects, before coming to an almost vertical flight of 50 steps. Like penitents approaching a shrine, many trekkers climbed these impossibly steep steps on all fours, gasping for breath in the warm, tropical air. A short ascent then brought us right to the Sun Gate where we finally got our first view of Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas, one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century.
Some things you see in life are destined to remain indelibly etched on your memory forever. This was one of them. Since early childhood, Machu Picchu has fascinated me. Now, right before my very eyes, lay one of the most famous scenes depicted in my first historical atlas. Choked with emotion, I watched mesmerised as a shaft of sunlight streamed down from the mountain behind me, falling softy on the upper edge of the city to gradually illuminate an intricate jigsaw puzzle of reconstructed buildings, partial ruins and the distinctively shaped Huayna Picchu rising majestically behind. It felt unreal to be witnessing the sunrise over this spectacular ancient city built in a saddle between two forest-clad Andean peaks that seem to guard it like a secret. The weather was picture postcard perfect, not a cloud in the sky, the deep green tropical vegetation blanketing the surrounding mountains whose peaks receded into purple grey infinity.
We toured the city as a group, reunited with our Argentinean friend who dropped out on day two, Elistan taking obvious pride in our awestruck reactions to his cultural heritage. As I sat on one of the grassy terraces with swifts whirling overhead and the warm April sunshine on my shoulders, I felt truly grateful for the opportunity to be at a site that is on virtually every international traveller’s bucket list. I pondered the purpose of this place, now a World Heritage Site, built nearly 2,500m high in the mountains, which was never discovered by the Spaniards and only brought to the world’s attention just over a century ago when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham.
It is believed that Machu Picchu was a laboratory that attracted the finest minds from across the vast Inca Empire: astronomers who came to study the heavens and agricultural scientists who made use of micro-climates afforded by the location and the deliberate construction of irrigated terraces that ripple in parallel down the mountainside, to test innovative methods of food production. It is also believed to be a sacred religious site due to its location, built on, and around, mountains that command high spiritual and ritual importance in both Incan and pre-Incan cultures, a place where priests and nobility rubbed shoulders. There are a trio of impressive religious structures dedicated to Inti, the Incan sun god and greatest deity: the TorreÃ³n, or Temple of the Sun, a massive tower which may have been used as an observatory; the Intihuatana (-the hitching post of the sun’), thought to be a ritual astronomical calendar and the Room of the Three Windows. Whispers of a mysterious past seem to swirl around the ashlar buildings of this incredible place, constructed to withstand earthquakes, and so well built that it is impossible to place a cigarette paper between the huge masonry blocks.
After wandering amid crowds of other tourists for several hours, exploring every nook and cranny of the city despite our tiredness, it was finally time to leave. A minibus conveyed us rapidly down a dusty trackway via a series of heart stopping hairpin bends, to Aguas Calientes, where, after a meal taken together with our fellow trekkers and Elistan, we made our farewells. We took the Vistadome Train to Ollantaytambo along a route that snakes up the deep valley carved by the Urubamba River. Hemmed in by lofty mountains, the large windows that curve up to the very roof of the train create the impression that they are bearing down on you. We lay back in our seats admiring this epic scenery, celebrating the extraordinary events of the last four days with a glass of cold beer.
There is no better way to arrive at Machu Picchu than via the Inca Trail, which combines the most popular backpacking trek on the South American continent with its top tourist attraction. Even with the expense, the bureaucratic restrictions involved in doing the hike and the almost constant presence of other trekkers and porters, it is possible to enjoy moments of unbridled solicitude and peace. The prize at the end of four days’ of sweat and effort are the sublime and magical dawn views of Machu Picchu. Yes, it is crowded, but once you see it, you begin to understand why you simply cannot have this special place entirely to yourself.
Read more about the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Sharon Schwartz