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 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 arrived 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.

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 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 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.

The official start point

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 to 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 way through the control station and began the first day’s walking along the banks of the Urrabamba River – along with the Ngorongoro Crater, a name 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 bought an almost perfect rainbow of poncho colours at the first early rainfall, the opening day introduced the routine of the porters speeding ahead with 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 bounded along the trail like mountain goats, my progress also fell 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.

Going up in the world

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 our 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 is 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 dispelled as we headed down on the two-hour descent to our campsite – those steps are as difficult to go down as they are to go up.

But with gravity giving a helping hand, only the mountain goats among us 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, napping, dinner and sleeping.

After the travails of day two, the third full day we were assured was easier, despite clocking in at 14km with 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 brought more 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 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 narrow, slippery steps as people moved aside 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.

Arriving first with Ally, we 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 the group 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 so steep they had us climbing up.

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

The final team shot. With stunning backdrop. Apparently

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. Others 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 cannot see much when you get there.

  • That is 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.
The best view we got of Machu Picchu
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Hopefulness to How Come You Never Go There?

Day 15 of the blog post a day in May and it is back to some sort of normality – with a touch of righteous indignation.

FOR much of the last few months, a large chunk of the journey from A-Z on my iPod has taken place in the gym which looms large on the opposite corner of the square from my flat.

And probably the biggest chunk of that took place building up my running from scratch on a treadmill, right until my right calf decided that was not such a good idea.

The osteopath agreed with my calf and eventually put a ban on me going near a treadmill, even to walk. Never mind the rather scary looking step machine next to it which was part of the plan to get my legs used to going up endless stairs before tackling the Inca Trail.

Not wanting to lose the groundwork put in to my fitness levels, we agreed on a compromise of hitting the exercise bike which provides just as good a workout (if not more, given the now customary stagger out of the saddle) while taxing a few different leg muscles to protect the calf.

The back is not quite so protected, judging by how difficult it is to get comfortable, while other parts of the body have also had their complaints about proximity with a saddle.

All this work in the gym is part of building that fitness, an added push to the weight loss and that added target of building up to the assault on the Inca Trail.

And having made the decision to forego the easy ride via train and bus to Machu Picchu in favour of the four-day Classic trek, it was slightly disconcerting to read an article about which could have huge repercussions for anyone looking to follow in the same footsteps.

Machu Picchu: Fury over plans for new multi-billion pound airport next to ancient Inca citadel

The Independent article jumped out of my Twitter feed, outlining plans to build an airport in the nearest major settlement to Machu Picchu and the fears of the damage it could cause to the great attraction, the Inca Trail and the whole civilisation around the surrounding Sacred Valley.

In 2017, Unesco warned it could add Machu Picchu to its list of endangered world heritage sites such was the strain 1.5 million visitors a year – double Unesco’s recommended figure – was having on the citadel and associated sites.

Peru has responded with limited daily permits on the trail, time slots and controls on visitors at the ruins, but an airport has the potential to go well beyond Unesco’s initial concerns.

Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, told The Telegraph: “When we look back at what went wrong with tourism, this will be the story that sums it all up.”

Strong words but it is difficult to disagree with him and the thought that an airport appears some way on the wrong side of the very narrow line between the benefits and drawbacks of tourism.

It is easy to get angry at such an idea, pointing the finger at the Peruvian government and anyone who will benefit financially from the airport.

But they have a valuable resource and how many governments and economies are far-sighted and secure enough to avoid exploiting such a lucrative opportunity? No matter the long-term impact.

And what about those of us who are helping to swell those tourism numbers? Are we not equally to blame for helping to create the need for the airport, no matter how much we can claim to be doing it properly?

This is an issue, rather like all environmental concerns, that we all have a stake in.

It falls on us travellers to look careful about where we are leaving our footsteps and how much of a lasting print they will have, just as it falls on the Peruvian government and surrounding communities to look beyond the short term and not milk the cash cow irreversibly dry.

And the global community has its share of the responsibility.

It may be over another border, but Machu Picchu is a global treasure – like so many, physically and culturally, threatened by rampant tourism – and we need to be working with whatever country is affected to help keep them as such.

Not just with aid, but providing help, understanding and an ability to build economic strength to look after itself and its people to avoid the need to take such steps.

We need these places, these cultures, this enrichment of life beyond what we know – far better than pulling down the shutters and trying to block the flow of ideas and influences across borders.

To quote Rudyard Kipling (well, Billy Bragg who used it in The Few): “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

And hey, if I can walk to Machu Picchu, do people really need to fly right to its front door?

Which is all rather more serious than was intended on a post designed to steer us through the 60 tracks from Courtney Barnett to Feist.

One of the annoyances of listening to the A-Z on the bike is a long song making it difficult to break down a session into bite-size tracks, as happened again with seven-plus minutes of The House Song by The Beta Band.

This stretch had two outings for Horsin’ Around from Prefab Sprout’s masterful Steve Macqueen album, a couple of versions of Hounds of Love (Kate Bush and The Futureheads’ cover) and two visits from The Be Good Tanyas (Horses and a House of the Rising Sun cover which had me drumming on the bike console).

Initially stumbled across The Be Good Tanyas via an iTunes freebie and investigated further to the point hearing them takes me back to a mosquito-infected early evening chilling with a few beers under the midnight sun on the banks of the Yukon at Dawson City, Canada.

The Hold Steady also popped up twice with Hostile, Mass and Hot Soft Light, which also brings back travel memories after making it on to the African playlist (largely due to seeing them in Bristol the week before the off).

There were also appearances for a couple of Hotel tracks – Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes and, controversially for some, Hotel Yorba by The White Stripes – while Let’s Eat Grandma still sound fresh as they popped up with Hot Pink.

But best song title of this section – and many others – goes to American Music Club with The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores.

Doubt if those hopes and dreams include a gym bike or an airport at Machu Picchu.

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Walking In The Air

The second day of my attempt to write a blog post a day through May. Time to harness this productivity for a piece on preparations for my overland trip to South America.

IT is, pretty much, the length of a marathon. No mention about any extra yards on the end of 26 miles. Sounds walkable.

Over four days you say? Yeah, no problem.

And then you look a little bit deeper. Those four days walking are not exactly flat. It tops out on the second day at around 4,200m – at the end of pretty constant climbing over several hours, taking you roughly 1,000m up and over what is commonly known as Dead Woman’s Pass.

Can’t pronounce it but prefer the locals’ name – Warmiwañusca.

Even the downhills are tough down uneven step dubbed Gringo Killers.

The reward for this, bar some seriously painful calf muscles (and already got one of those)? Watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu at the end of the Classic Inca Trail.

And I’ve signed up for it.

There is another option (once you have dismissed going to Peru on an overland adventure and not heading up to Machu Picchu), taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and pretty much grabbing a bus up.

And with concerns about my fitness and a past tendency to function pretty badly at altitude, it was a serious consideration, posing the first major decision in the build-up to September’s departure on my Trans South America adventure.

Permits to trek the trail are limited to 500 a day, including guides, porters and anybody else whose job will include dragging me over a few very large peaks. They go pretty quickly (the permits, not the guides, hopefully) and having delayed making a decision (while keeping half an eye on how many permits were left for our day), suddenly it had to be made – permits were all but gone.

With the gym regime paying dividends, a bit of research suggesting it was within my capabilities and a fear of forever being told the trek was something not to be missed (the lingering concern of many a traveller), the decision was made.

Just in time apparently as the final permits for our date were snapped up.

It sparked a huge bout of enthusiasm, reading about what to take, walking boots, the tough bits (not such enthusiasm), dealing with the altitude, the campsites, their facilities (likened to those at a festival) and any information out there.

And a string of lengthy, increasingly uphill walks were planned as a warm-up with friends roped in as company alongside an increase in the fitness regime.

Right up until my calf went pop.

We’ll get to that in the next post (let’s cash in on this bout of blogging) but the get fit and clock up the walking miles programme has got us as far as… a total ban on walking on the treadmill, let alone running, while the calf mends.

That and a few sessions with the osteopath moving down from my back to my right calf. Not sure quite what was being dug into the muscle but think he got the message that he had hit the troublesome spot.

So what exactly is that troublesome calf going to have to deal with once it has made its way to South America, spent nearly a month on the road through Ecuador and Peru, a few days in Cusco to get used to the altitude and an early morning start to drive to our starting point.

The opening day is around 6.8 miles to that night’s campsite on the lower slopes heading up to Dead Woman’s Pass before the day that really grabs the attention – that uphill slog before heading downhill for our overnight stop.

Day three is the longest in terms of distance but after one initial hefty climb, the major ascents are over and much of the latter half of the day is downhill.

And then the fourth day day, kicking off far too soon after the third for an early breakfast and trek for an hour or so to our ultimate aim – Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise which makes it all sound worth it.

Oh yeah, the altitude.

Cusco is at 3,310m and we will crest peaks of 4,198m and 3,950m before it sort of levels out (sort of being very relative) and descends to Machu Picchu itself at 2,430m.

No, doesn’t mean that much to me – right up to the memory that my legs pretty much gave way and did not cope that well at the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix at 3,852m, to say nothing of feeling pretty rubbish on arrival at a few of Europe’s higher ski resorts.

So why exactly?

Well apart from banking on a rather more gradual arrival at the altitude, whatever the challenge it does look incredible.

Various accounts online will disagree on how tough it is, from those seemingly intent on putting you off by outlining all the hardships to those dismissing it as a simple walk in a (rather hilly) park.

But they pretty much all agree on it being something you will remember for positive reasons.

And that’s something to hang on to next time my calf is having something pressed into it.

While I’m sat here stressing about walking about 26 miles over four days, a couple of hundred yards away Jamie McDonald is attempting to break the world record for the longest distance covered in a week on a treadmill.
Just weeks after finishing his coast to coast run across the USA, the latest in a long line of endurance adventures.
He is doing this for his Superhero Foundation to raise money for the hospitals which helped him as a child – check out his story, his progress or donate at
adventureman.org.

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