There is one word that is universally understood and that expresses the same intensity of feeling in all languages.
What started out as a tick on my bucket list, ended off as a personal pilgrimage for me. But in the end, I completed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I don’t want to run ahead of myself, but when I (finally) entered the Sun Gate and had the first view of Machu Picchu, I cried. Amidst all the congratulatory hugs and high fives, I had to swallow back the tears that welled up in my eyes. I made it. I could not remember the last time (if ever), I was in so much physical pain, but I did not regret a moment of it. As we posed for a group picture and the designated guy to take the picture said ‘Say Never Again’, I thought I probably would never do it again, but I am so glad I did. For me, to prove to myself that I can do it.
But, let’s start at the very beginning, which is always a very good place to start.
After our trip to the Amazon Rainforest, we set off for Cuzco, which is the historical capital of the Inca Empire. We arrived quite late in the afternoon, after some flight delays, but had a couple of hours spare to explore the beautiful mountainous city. We managed to fit in the ‘best hot chocolate in the world'(according to Manuel, our guide) and had an excellent dinner, which was coupled with a hands on practical lesson on how to make the local cocktail, Pisco Sour. Actually, we made the passion fruit version, which was delicious, but at an altitude of around 3 400m, it went straight to my head…:-).
The next morning, I got up early to pack for the trip. We were given duffel bags that we had to use, and each hiker had an allowance of only 6kg. That may sound like quite a bit, but once you deduct the sleeping bag and inflatable thermarest mattress (anything to make the sleeping bit more comfortable, I thought), it basically meant we had 2.5kg to 3kg maximum for 4 days of clothes. No easy feat, I tell you. After my first attempt, I went to borrow a hand scale from the front desk, and the bag was over 5kg… What to take and what to leave…? Of course, you can carry extra in your day pack, but THAT you have to carry for 43kms…so better think carefully about it. Eventually, I took out my takkies (sneakers) and some extra clothes, and stuffed some of the other essentials in my day pack. This would mean that I would have to wear my hiking boots ALL the time, but I had blister plasters and an extra pairs of socks, so that should be okay, right?
At around 7:30, we set off for Ollantaytambo, with a visit to the local community of Ccaccaccollo, funded by the Planeterra fund, where we were shown how the local people still make Llama and Al Pacu wool and woollen products by hand.
We took a drive through the sacred valley and soaked in the awesome views.
After a lunch stop, we headed for our first Inca site visit on the trip, Pisaq. This was also my first realisation that I may have some troubles with my digestion on this trip. I generally don’t eat a lot of carbs, as it aggravates my IBS, so I try and stick to lean meat and lots of fruit and veggies. I overindulged at lunch and felt bloated and uncomfortable all afternoon. The guide told me that the altitude generally slows down your digestive system. Great stuff… After a light dinner at our hotel in Urumbamba, I went to bed early, to get my last night’s sleep in a proper bed for a few days.
We set off for Ollantaytambo, and made a quick stop in the town for some last minute supplies, and then made our way to Km 82 (Kilometre 82), which is the start of the 4 day Inca trail. Passports in hands, eager to get a stamp on entering the trail, we set off after the first of many group pictures. Our guides for the trail was Vladimir (yes, that was his name…), Nellie and Jesus. The porters made a head start and we were amazed at the speed at which they almost ran up the mountain with 25kg each on their backs, so that they can set up lunch for us…
The first day was not too hectic and we did about 11km, which took us roughly six hours to complete. The most difficult bit was an hour stretch of steep uphill stairs after lunch, climbing about 300m in elevation, which scared me sufficiently for the next day! But one of the high points of the day was the fantastic three course lunch, served in a tent with tables and chairs. Our trek guide, Vladimir, informed us that we would not be camping for the three days, but rather, we would be GLAMping.
Upon arrival at our camp site, our tents were all set up, and each hiker was brought a bowl of hot water to clean up a bit, before we gathered in the tent for a card game or two (‘Shithead’), with tea and biscuits. Dinner was another two course meal, after which we all went to bed early, as we had a 6:00am start again the next morning.
After a fitful night of sleep in an unfamiliar small tent, where I could barely sit up, we were woken up in the morning at 6:00am by the porters with another bowl of hot water, and a cup of coca tea. Now, coca tea (mate de coca), is made by dipping leaves from the coca plant into hot water, and is said to lessen the effects of altitude sickness and according to Vladimir is effective for any kind of illness you can think of including ‘a broken heart’. However, coca leaves also contains about 4.2g of alkaloids which, when extracted chemically, is the stuff cocaine is made from. I said, bring it on!
On top of this, we were treated with a breakfast fit for a king, with pancakes stuffed with roasted apple, each one personalised with caramel syrup. It was delicious and exactly what we needed to get us in the right frame of mind for what can only be described as a gruelling day ahead.
The second day of the Inca trail is also the toughest, and although the distance covered is only 12km, this includes the notorious Warmiwañusca pass or ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’, which takes you to a maximum elevation of 4200m, from a starting point of 3200m for the day.
Honestly, after the steep climb the previous day, I have to admit that I was
shit scared very nervous for day 2. I noticed on the previous day that I was quite out of breath and that the stairs are very tough on my legs. I started suspecting that maybe I was not fit enough…But there was no way out now, and there was only one way to go!
And it was tough. I was very happy and relieved when we finally reached the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. Towards the end, I could barely climb 15 stairs before I had to take a break, but the beautiful views made up for it!
After reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass; which incidentally has nothing to do with a real dead woman or anything sinister, but rather, the shape of the mountain from a distance looks like a woman lying on her back; we still needed to do another couple of hours before we reached our camp site. This time downhill. I celebrated too soon.
By the time we reached our camp, my legs felt like jelly. I could barely stand, and spent an entire five minutes debating which way to go to the toilets. Uphill, which meant I had to return downhill. Or downhill, which meant that I had to return uphill. Eventually I decided to go downhill.
The views from the camp site were magnificent though, and it was with a sigh of relief that I finally settled in my tent and surveyed the view ahead of me. I was silently wondering how I was going to be able to carry on walking the next day, as my legs did not feel like I had any more miles left in them, but it was time to relax.
The next and final post…the ups and downs of day 3, and finally…Machu Picchu!
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Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction. ~ E.O. Wilson