Santiago

HAVE spent many evenings in bars over the years, a fair few of which have ended in bizarre circumstances and tears.

The details of many of those nights remain hazy – partly because they are, partly to protect the innocent. And the quite possibly guilty.

But our first evening in Santiago produced a fresh interruption to an evening’s drinking.

We were showered, freshly laundered, enjoying a few beers and welcoming several of the new arrivals – who officially join the truck tomorrow as we bid farewell to two existing truck mates, part of the reason we headed in to a troubled city – as we waited for the evening’s barbecue.

It was all going so well, considering we were pretty much confined to barracks by the escalating anti-government protests on the streets around our hostel.

And then there was a thud on the roof above the bar.

Clearly visible through the open skylight was a streaming canister of tear gas.

Like to think it was the journalist in me that opted not to run but head towards the scene for a closer look, but not sure any of us fully realised the extent of what was going on.

Right up until the point we were ushered out of the bar to another part of the hostel and we were introduced to the effects of tear gas.

It is another experience ticked off the list and not one that will be trying to recreate anytime soon.

Basically, imagine cutting onions and, just to make sure you felt the full impact, rubbing them in your eyes. All while a nasty taste develops at the back of your throat.

Thankfully, our exposure was minimal and with hostel staff on hand to spray something helpful on the affected people, the effects did not last long – although think it was more behind the discomfort in my eyes the next morning than anything drank the night before – and we were soon getting on with the evening’s festivities.

But it was a clear reminder we are in a city and country that has become a powder keg over the last month since a group of secondary school pupils began a fare evasion campaign against proposed price rises on the subway system.

That campaign – and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities – sparked a programme of civil unrest which has seen subway stations burned down or badly damaged and the protests spread to wider grievances against the government and President Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera has declared a state of emergency but the protests show little sign in subsiding and neither does the response to them.

Last night’s protest, which is all over Chilean CNN on the TV behind me and reports say involved up to 1.5million people in the Plaza Italia a few blocks from us, was described as largely peaceful.

That’s largely peaceful as in a university building a couple of hundred yards from us burning throughout the night, the church over the road being looted and the streets being littered with rubble and graffiti.

With the odd stray tear gas canister thrown in.

We checked out the damage the morning after as the aftermath of the protest became a tourist attraction.

All very sad as you can see the skeleton of a very attractive city. Those of our group who have been here before spoke highly of the place and it does look pretty once you look beyond the damage.

Of course, Chile is no stranger to internal issues with the military dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet which ran the country for much of my youth from 1973 until 1990.

Sorry to confess, bar a couple of songs by Billy Bragg and U2, Pinochet’s eventual house arrest and lack of trial in Britain – and mix-up with former Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot in a match report – plus tales of people disappearing and a vague understanding of some pretty awful press collaboration with the ruling Junta, cannot claim to know too much about it.

Which is why this morning’s visit, prior to wandering around to view last night’s fallout, to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights was very welcome.

Not easy, certainly uncomfortable but very informative.

Have been to a few museums and memorials of difficult history – Auschwitz, Rwanda, the Jewish Uprising Museum in Warsaw – and always come out with a head spinning and trying to process what we have seen.

They are always tough going, but recommend them for anyone travelling to understand the world they are heading through.

Beyond the undoubted horrors of the dictatorship – topped, like those previous examples, by the powerful wall of pictures of the dead and disappeared which forms the centrepiece of the exhibits – two major issues came to the fore as relevant to today.

First was the way the press backed the Junta with false stories and propaganda to excuse their actions (before an independent, radical press played a key role in the resistance).

Inexcusable and no wonder my profession struggles with its reputation.

But also a signal to the dangers of certain powerful figures decrying anything they do not like in the media as fake news. Asking the awkward question is journalism, anything else is just PR.

And the tale of the opposition to the regime and fight to find out what happened to the disappeared echoes throughout the protests we have seen close up – no wonder people feel so strongly about the power of public opinion and their right to express it.

We can only hope they do not have to come close to the depths of those dark years before finding resolutions which will enable this city to get back on its feet.

The trouble has spread throughout the country, but there was little sign on the road to Santiago – which we were still unsure about taking a few days ago – which took us from Mendoza across a high pass through the Chilean border via a spectacular road down a ribbon of hairpin bends.

Sort of a South American Alpe d’Huez.

Our three days camping in Mendoza, reached by a bush camp which saw our team win the truck quiz, was fairly relaxed with a fair amount of wine and steak – normal service was resumed – both around the campsite with a footballing Labrador and on a day in town which started as a tasting and ended with rather more than a taste.

And we got clean – both us, our clothes after a couple of weeks without laundry that left several of us rationing underwear and Spongebob, a group effort taking apart and tackling every part of the truck.

All to head into the issues of Santiago from where we head off to the relative peace of the countryside.

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Bed, Bugs and Ballyhoo

BEDTIME as an overlander can rely on many things.

The prospect of an early start the next day – and breakfast later than 7.30am would be classed as something of a lie-in – is likely to curtail many late nights. Not all, especially with the chance to catch up on sleep on a drive day.

Nights out or access to bars when staying in hotels or hostels – a rarity over the last week or so before reaching Santiago, which came with its own dramas but we will get to that – will have an obvious impact on what time people roll in to bed.

While camping, conditions and access to alcohol (usually red and straight from the bottle since stocking up in Argentina, to the extent the truck has a distinct clink when it goes round corners) will dictate.

At bush camps, bar those who opt for one more bottle before bed, people tend to head for their tents early.

But for two successive nights under canvas, the decision on what time to head to bed was rather taken for us by the local, buzzy wildlife and the weather.

Hiding under canvas was not always enough for some of us.

Let’s roll backwards a bit first, something we needed a bit of help to get Spongebob to do after a night listing in a dried river bed.

But freed from our Bolivian shackles and, eventually, through the first of several crossings of the Argentinian border (we bounce in and out of Chile in the next few weeks) we crossed into the fourth country on the trip and an almost instant increase in temperature.

And an increase in the consumption of red wine, starting with our night in the quaint hillside town of Purmamarca which we sort of explored in between trips to the off licence, empanada stall and town square to use the free WiFi.

Our cook group had rather more things to buy as we reached the town of Salta ahead of three nights camping alongside the most enormous swimming pool, easily bigger than two football pitches but sadly devoid of water.

Somehow, had managed to only cook once up to this point and managed to forget how long it can take to make a white sauce while camping after suggesting it as the best way to make a macaroni cheese.

Arm muscles given a work out, the evening’s choice of activities was watching The Goonies on the side of the truck or downing a few more bottles of red. While getting chewed by the local insects.

The start of two recurring themes.

With the temperature rising, sitting by even an empty pool seemed a good idea the next day so while others headed off into Salta, several of us hung around camp, sorted our stuff out and fell into a long game of Monopoly Deal (same thing, just played with cards) and some suitable refreshment.

Breaking only for some shopping for Halloween onesies before heading out for an evening with the third recurring Argentinian theme, great slabs of steak cooked to perfection and washed down with a nice soft drink.

Or a nice bottle of red, you choose.

We went even more Argentinian the next day, heading out with gauchos for a spot of horse riding – well, some did, no poor animal deserves that fate with me.

Reunited, we tucked into the piles of barbecued meat and wine which flowed onto the table, all while dressed in a variety of bizarre onesies and Halloween costumes.

Still to work out whether mine is a moose or a reindeer, but it is likely to come in very handy when it gets cold further south and is already doing sterling service as a tent pillow.

After a few days of gluttony and relative inactivity, it was time for some action to work off some of that steak and we headed a few hours down the road for an afternoon rafting.

Not the toughest river – harder challenges lie ahead for those who want it – but a fun afternoon which involved more splashing the other boat than serious threat from the churning water.

But our visit to Salta Rafting will be remembered not for the challenges on the river but those buzzing around the campsite, especially as dusk and dinner approached.

Regardless of the temperature, we dug out hoodies, long trousers and socks to keep out the nasty, still unidentified little buggers.

Should really have gone for gloves as well before diving into the protection of the tent immediately after dinner and refusing to come out – even with the offer of a couple of bottles of wine in an adjoining tent – until nature dictated.

With just my hands exposed, the right one took the brunt with a string of pin prick bite marks- 26 at one count – which as the race to get out of there the next morning intensified, began to bubble up into something rather bigger.

As did my hand.

By the time we had rolled into our next stop in Cafayate via some spectacular scenery, it had swollen up considerably and could not form a fist so rather than head into town, spent much of the afternoon crashed out on the truck – partly the effects of some tablets, mainly the impact of feeling rather sorry for myself and fearing another onset of the cellulitis which dogged my Trans Africa trip.

But snoozing was cut short by the heavens opening – supposedly for the first time in nine months in this part of the world – to apocalyptic proportions, turning the campsite and much of the town into a lake.

Not the best time for two of us to spend half an hour waiting at the entrance for a taxi to hospital – one to check on the results from a scan following a coming together between head and truck door, the other convinced cellulitis had returned.

Thankfully, seems we both got lucky.

No idea if it was cellulitis, but one quick injection later and was dispatched back to the campsite to wait on the truck for a brief cessation in the downpour to make a break for the tent and a night listening to the rain and thunder which drowned out the music on my iPod.

By morning, the rain had stopped, the tents were still dry – bar the person who opened his to check on the surrounding water and let the torrent in – and my hand was on its way down to the point where it could grip normally.

Which was handy, considering how much gripping of wine glasses it did throughout the day as we headed out on a tour of a the local wineries.

Well, we toured a couple of them, grabbed lunch which consisted of huge piles of empanadas and then headed back to one of the wineries to check our original assessments of the wine in their rather nice courtyard.

We were still assessing and discussing, rather loudly evidently at one point, until well into the evening with a takeout order which somehow came accompanied home by the winery’s dog.

She just had a better idea of when to go to bed than the rest of us.

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High and Dry

CERTAIN things are guaranteed to make overlanders happy.

WiFi – especially if it actually works – hot showers, clean, flushing toilets, anywhere to charge something, alcohol and an agreed set of rules to Uno are pretty much constants.

But little has provoked as much excitement in the past few days as the altitude dropping below 3,000m and beyond.

We are still relatively high at not that far below 2,500m, but having spent most of the last few weeks at heights of up to around 5,000m, the difference is marked – not least by the increase in temperature which had us roasting in Argentina, just a day after shivering through the night at a Bolivian bush camp.

Have been pleasantly surprised by my ability to cope with the altitude – given a less than perfect record at higher ski resorts in the past – but it has come as a relief to drop down.

For starters, it is a lot easier to breath.

The first question checking in at hostels and hotels has not been about facilities or the WiFi, but what floor the room is on – climbing stairs at that altitude will leave you short of breath, so getting a ground floor bed is to be cherished.

Shortness of breath made it difficult for some to sleep while the altitude provoked the odd sniffle and lips have been cracking with each strained breath.

Any hope that the miles on the Inca Trek would help with walking uphill were quickly dismissed, many of the survivors (who go by the name of The Horny Llamas) finding ourselves blowing harder than any time on the trail.

There were plenty of coca leaves chewed, sucked and dunked in tea which some swore by to ease the altitude issues, a lot of which had to be ditched ahead of crossing into Argentina.

The crossing has brought a marked rise in temperatures, steak and wine, as well as marking our safe transit through Bolivia after a quick change of plans forced by the unrest which hit the country and large chunks of South America – Chile provides the next major concern.

When you left us, we were facing an extra day in the Peruvian town of Puno to assess the latest situation, only to be woken by a message that we were heading for the border that morning, sparking a mad rush to spend our last Bolivianos.

Not that we got that far, the newly-repaired drive shaft not making it out of Puno, forcing some hasty repairs and emergency traffic control.

Patched up, we eased through the border, sparking a new country truck party which continued on the terrace of our hotel in the lakeside town of Copacabana and sparked some pictures in our room windows which may not all be for public consumption.

Safely into Bolivia, the redrawn itinerary saw us heading past the capital La Paz (and a downhill bike ride down the world’s most dangerous road) and mining town Potosi with a long drive day to Uyuni on the banks of the world’s largest and highest salt flats.

Having set off in the dark and crossed a river, my view of the long drive day was a bird’s eye one from up in the cab alongside Will.

My role as driver’s mate consisted mainly of supplying the music, trying to get the top back on the jar of Sour Worms, collating the toll tickets and waving frantically out of the window as we turned right through the traffic on the outskirts of La Paz.

Fears of trouble en route were largely unfounded, bar one diversion around signs of a burned out roadblock and a diversion around a group of smiling, waving protestors.

Behind us in the truck, the cargo had been passing the lengthy trip with a few drinks and a moving game of beer pong, so the cab’s inhabitants set about catching up with a couple of bottles of red and sampling the wares at the hotel’s pizza restaurant run by a Boston Red Sox fan.

Very nice it all was too.

But you do not come fo Uyuni for pizza and wine. Well, not totally.

The big attraction is the salt flats where we spent the majority of the next two days, driving from stop to stop, photo opportunity to photo opportunity – largely clad in happy pants picked up at our first port of call.

It is a bizarre, flat, white world, whether seen from out on the flats, up a volcano which provided the background of our base for the night or Cactus Island. Still not sure how it got its name.

There were plenty of chances for some unique pictures, under the stars and then out on the flats playing with perspective with a variety of props ranging from toy dinosaurs to a can of Pringles and, perhaps inevitably, a bottle of Jagermeister.

Back off the salt, there was time for more pizza before heading for the next border via a long drive day and a bush camp.

An appropriate spot took some finding, but we seemed to have found the perfect place on a river bed before – right up until the point Spongebob listed to the left, profoundly stuck in what remained of the river.

Leaving the overloading rite of passage of getting unstuck until the morning, we set up camp around the stricken truck and marked Diwali with truck inhabitant Rakesh before heading to bed.

We were up early, woken partly by the sound of a digger from the nearby construction site carrying Danny and some help.

It so nearly worked, but Spongebob is a big beast and we needed a larger machine to drag him out, plus a little bit of landscaping to divert the river.

Help chugged slowly along the river bed and, a couple of pulls and a bit more digging later, we were out and heading for the border.

And all breathing a lot easier.

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Everything Is Coming Up Milhouse

WHILE taking you to parts of the world you would not normally see, overloading has a tendency to keep you away from the real world.

The appearance of WiFi has people scurrying for the sports results and, if it holds up long enough, possibly some actual news.

We have checked on the latest Brexit news – and tried to explain it to our non-British travellers – but not sure we have been able to report anything concrete in the last six weeks without getting more confused than them.

Far more interested in the rugby scores.

But every so often, the real world impinges on our journey – and all around us South America is getting very real.

Behind us, riots broke out in Quito which forced the Ecuadorean government to backtrack on proposed fuel price increases.

Lima was in a state of flux with road blocks and threatened protests against the Peruvian government while Argentina – not many miles away once we have pulled the truck out of the river bed we are camping in – and Uruguay headed to the polls today.

And Venezuela, officially still on our route, is in such a state the option of heading down the Amazon to Colombia – remarkably, a bastion of sanity – is on the map on our tour T-shirts.

Far more to the forefront of our minds is the situation in Bolivia and Chile.

Both have been hit by protests, road blocks and turmoil which has already forced one rethink to our schedule and has us keeping a watching brief on what lies ahead with several crossings between Chile and Argentina ahead on the way south, not to mention departures and arrivals due in Santiago.

All that was a long way from our minds as we made our way back from Machu Picchu to our Cusco base at Milhouse Hostel.

Top of our agenda as we headed back via train and minibus from Aqua Calientes was getting dry, laundry, a shower, getting to the bar and staying awake on the journey as part of the 24-hour challenge to stay awake for a day after our 3.30am wake-up call – some with more success than others.

Dry, clean and laundry crammed into bags for delivery, the final climb of the Inca Trail adventure carried us up the steps to the hostel bar to a wide selection of happy hour cocktails, shots won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the bar, chocolate cake, a variety of silly hats and a beer pong tournament which never reached its conclusion.

Strangely, by the early hours the bar staff were not too keen on letting a couple of Anglo-Aussie survivors stay behind to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-final – my 24 hours awake ending watching the game on Twitter while my roomie fell asleep five minutes from reaching the target.

Not surprisingly, the following day was not too action-packed – a hefty late breakfast (try the Gordo at Jack’s Cafe if you are ever in Cusco, you will not go hungry), a massage for aching muscles after the trek, some more sleep and a group trip out for a curry at the Korma Sutra.

Very pleasant and pretty restrained amid the first stirrings of trouble ahead. At least for most of us – those on the top bunks in our dorm were glad to be well clear from the fallout of one person’s night out.

Morning came a bit too early for the late-night reveller as a convoy of taxis reunited us with the truck to make the way to our next stop in Puno, our base on the banks of Lake Titicaca.

Not that we stayed there too long – at least at this point – as we headed out the next morning on the world’s highest navigable lake. Very slowly.

Our boat chugged along, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the views over the next two days, soak up the sun, catch up on sleep, attempt to throw corn into mouths between decks, sample the local wine and work out how soon one of the children playing on the roof was going to fall in.

Our slow boat to nowhere in particular did have a few stops to get us on dry land as we headed slap into the heart of the tourist trail.

Well, sort of dry land – first port of call taking us to a floating reed island to meet the local Uros Indians who talked us through how they built the islands – interesting, once our rather long-winded guide had let them explain – before trying to sell us stuff. 

And transporting us to another island on an even slower boat.

Back on our normal sedate transport, we chugged across to Amanturi island, our base for the night where we were dished out in groups to our host families.

After fears of minimal facilities, our group – most of the Inca Trek veterans plus tour leader Danny – were pleasantly surprised as we found comfortable beds (if you did not move too much), a toilet and good food served up by our Mama for the night.

Meals were interspersed with a walk up to a temple at the top of the island – a steep incline which suggested the Inca Trail had left its mark, interspersed by another lengthy lecture by our guide on the meaning of an Inca Cross.

Something to do with things in threes evidently.

We were beginning to switch off before discovering a bar and alpaca on a stick on our way down, despite his claims the islanders were largely teetotal and barely ate meat.

The local falling drunk into the barbecue and the men drinking in the local shop until late rather ruined his argument as we headed back to our home for the night and either headed back up the steep slope in traditional dress for a party or up the slightly less steep stairs to bed.

Our guide had another couple of chances to tell us more than we needed to know as we headed to the neighbouring island of Taquile for another steep walk and a rather less strenuous stroll around the island before heading, slowly, back to Puno.

Which is where the problems on the road ahead started to get more real – a group meeting at the hotel outlining a plan to stay another day to monitor events in Bolivia with a potential second round of voting in their election.

News of problems in La Paz – our first major stop – and road blocks drifted through as the wine flowed and more people descended, clinking, on one of the rooms.

We headed to bed with heads slightly spinning. Partly from wine, partly from altitude and partly from the prospects of what lay ahead – a run for the border or an alternative route via land or air.

All we could do was sit and wait.

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The Inca Trail

My view of Machu Picchu

LEGS full of three days walking and drenched after trudging the final few hours from camp, we climbed the final few steps to the classic view of Machu Picchu.

What we got was not the famous vista over the ruins and terraces and beyond to the looming mountains.

It was there. It was just hidden behind a blanket of cloud, rain and the first influx of day trippers who had taken the easier option – the one convinced was right for me until a moment of madness – and come by train and bus.

But did it really matter?

To the day trippers, certainly. This was their Machu Picchu experience, something they may have looked forward to for years only to be greeted by a downpour and limited visibility.

And yes, it would have been lovely to see the Incan site in all its glory. It is impressive even in these conditions.

But at some point in the previous three days trekking through, up, down and over Andrean mountain passes, the destination became secondary to the experience of getting there.

Don’t want to go as far as claiming some sort of epiphany on the road to Machu Picchu, but those three days – rarely easy, often extremely testing – proved a few things to myself and provided a shared experience which the nine of us who were lucky to get the limited permits on offer each day for the Classic trek will remember forever.

It was challenging, at times painful, frustrating and exhausting, but it was fun, rewarding and utterly exhilarating. 

And it gave us immense respect for a special breed of men who did everything we needed and more beyond actually dragging us the 40-odd kilometres.

Ended it not on my hands and knees as expected, but in one piece, going strong and with a new perspective on what is physically possible – even if the first post-trek challenge was to head up to the hostel bar and try to stay up for 24 hours ago.

Have spent much of the time since being convinced to opt for the Classic trek over the train saying the feeling was equal parts excitement and dread.

By the eve of the trek briefing at our hostel in Cusco, that balance was much nearer to three per cent excitement amid the balance of panic.

But with warmer sleeping bag and walking poles hired, gear squeezed into my back pack and the the 7kg allowable in the duffel bag for one of the porters to carry and our guide Gerson’s briefing sorted, there was no turning back.

We certainly did not have much time for second thoughts in the morning as we rolled out of bed early and were whisked out of Cusco toward the official start point at Km 82 (based on the distance of the full, traditional trek from the old Incan capital) via a breakfast stop at Ollantaytambo.

And there was no turning back as we made our was through the control station and began the first day’s walking along the banks of the Urrabamba River – along with the Ngorongoro Crater, a place which has been on my travel bucket list since Michael Palin first introduced it to me.

Day one, which carried us around 11km to our overnight stop at Wayllabamba, was a mix of rolling paths with a few uphill stretches to get us warmed up for what was to come.

As well as discovering we had almost bought a perfect rainbow of poncho colours at the first early rainfall, the opening day introduced the daily routine of the porters speeding ahead with both our gear and all the equipment needed to cook up and serve mountains of delicious food (for breakfast, lunch and dinner – with added teatime bringing an obsession with hot chocolate and piles of popcorn).

They even threw in intricately-folded napkins, animal centrepieces for one lunch and a final night cake. Cooked in a pressure cooker halfway up a mountain.

They were not the only blokes carrying a lot of weight the length of the trek, but while they bounding along the trail like mountain goats, my progress was also falling into something of a routine.

My role became akin to that of a cycling domestique – setting the pace, clearing the path of people in the way when necessary (there was liberal use of a walking pole and more than liberal amounts of swearing), before making way for the proper climbers on the steepest stretches and battling to the top at my own pace to hopefully regroup or battle my way back on the descent.

That first day was a fairly gentle introduction, tough enough walking to know we had done it but with reasonable facilities (flushing toilet and flat grass) and the surprise at how well we were being looked after to ease us in.

But as we headed to bed straight after dinner, the mountains looming all around us in the dark provided a telling reminder of what was to come on day two.

The second morning over Wamiwanusca at 4,200m – or Dead Woman’s Pass – has long been in everyone’s mind, 9km of pretty much constant climbing with a vertical rise of 1,200m.

What lay ahead was very much in tour minds when we were woken at our tent doors by guides Gerson and Henry with a cup of coca tea at 5am.

It did not bode well that the short rise up to the control hut had legs heavy with yesterday’s miles in our legs feeling the strain.

But having eased back into a rhythm and found our pace, we began to hit our stride to the first rest stop of the morning as we regrouped – right up to the point when the steps began.

Walking on the paths is one thing, even on a slope, the addition of uneven stones adds another element to deal with, but the steps throw all but the very few off guard.

Imagine walking up a flight of steps for hours. Add in that those steps are uneven. And slippery. And different heights, both across the step and between each one with some up to some people’s knees.

For several hours.

That’s what saw me drop back from the leading bunch, thrown out of my even pace trained for on the treadmill and stopping to catch my breath and admire the stunning views.

It was hard, the altitude adding an extra test as we wound our way up at our own pace.

But having accepted what lay ahead, settled into my personal struggle as the top of the pass came into view with each bend tantalisingly taking it a little further away until, finally, the summit was within reach of one final effort – and a few more stops to catch my breath before stepping on briefly level ground.

Reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass Picture: Isobel McLeod

Any thoughts the hard part was over were soon dispelled as we headed down on the two-hour descent to our campsite – those steps are just as difficult to go down as they are to go up.

But with gravity giving a helping hand, only the real mountain goats beat me in to camp where we spent the rest of the day comparing tales from the trail, napping, enjoying a late lunch, napping, tea, dinner and sleeping.

After the travails of day two, the third full day we were assured was easier although longer at 14km and up to 10 hours ahead of us.

Easy was not the word that came to mind as we fought our way up to the second highest pass of the trek – Runkurakay at 3,950m, which again saw our personal battles up those dreaded steps.

Having regrouped at the summit, we dropped the short distance down the other side to the first of the day’s Inca sites and up and down the sides of a valley to our early lunch spot.

And from there it was, put simply, glorious.

Released from endless steps and on to more undulating paths, the domestique even managed to lead the pace to the top of the final pass and much of the way down the descent – perfecting a method of overtaking on the steps as people stopped for passing porters – before one of the mountain goats grew a bit nervous behind a couple of slips and moved to the front.

And as we dropped, breathing became easier, the weather brighter and the views across the Sacred Valley simply stunning and there was a genuine bounce in my step on arrival at the nearly-deserted Inti Pata terraces.

Alli and I were the first to arrive and just soaked in the view and our surroundings – a truly happy moment before heading down through the terraces and on to our final camp, via a run-in with some llamas on the path which saw me used as a human shield.

Spirits were high as we gradually all rolled in to camp and enjoyed one marvellous final meal, but not quite so high the next morning as our 3.30am alarm call was accompanied by the sound of heavy rain.

Which never relented.

Not the sort of thing you want when standing waiting for the control gate to open at 5.30am for the final 6km to our target.

It was largely routine, if narrow, slippy and increasingly wet, bar one set of steps which pretty much had us climbing up they were so steep.

And having led the group almost to the Sun Gate, the domestique again moved aside for the final steep pitch and arrived on the heels of most of the group to a spectacular view of… absolutely nothing.

Our waterproof (ish) ponchos provided pretty much the only colour as the cloud and rain blocked out any view of Machu Picchu before we were finally led down the final stretch into the citadel itself.

Thankfully, while the rain never let off, the views did clear enough for us to get some views and we were taken around the massive site, jostling for space with the thousands of visitors streaming in on the buses – quite a shock to the system after seeing just the same faces who had been walking at the same pace and schedule as us for the previous three days.

You do feel sorry for those day trippers, their big day dominated by appalling weather.

But for us, it was about so much more than just seeing Machu Picchu, grand as that was.

This was about the challenge of getting there, doing it together, sharing the experience and conquering personal challenges.

Some found it easier than others, mentally or physical. Some were reduced to tears, others had dark moments along the way. Other seemed to skip up even the steepest slopes.

And me? Loved every minute would be an overstatement, there were times on those steps which drove me to distraction.

But never went to any black places, never got too frustrated and always managed to keep calm and press on at my own pace, somehow managing to be stronger towards the finish – visions of crawling into Machu Picchu, to camp or at the top of passes far from the reality.

If you had told me that even the night before we left, it would have seemed far fetched. If you had told me that a year or 18 months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous.

And that’s my near epiphany.

Too often in the past, have not done something because felt it was physically beyond me or going to be too difficult. This could easily have been one of those things.

But with the right preparation and attitude, it is amazing what heights you can reach.

Even if you can’t see much when you get there.

  • That’s my tale, everyone has their own. Will file an advice piece for anyone thinking of walking the Inca Trail at some point in the future.
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