- Cusco – Ollataytambo
- Inca Trail
- Machu Picchu
- Ollataytambo – Cusco
Nina and I awoke in our Milhouse Room at 5am on March 30th, grabbed our packed rucksacks and checked out of the hostel. At 6am, the bus arrived with the rest of our group and our guide, Neyser, and drove us to the town of Ollataytambo. This town is where the train to Machu Picchu goes from, but it’s also where the Inca Trail begins.
After a quick stop for some breakfast and purchasing some last minute goods, we then made our way to the first check point, or the start of the trail, if you will. Since I was on a travellers budget and it seemed the rest of my group wasn’t, I was the only one who had not hired a porter. What this meant was that I had to pack my sleeping bag and roll mat as well as carry 7kg of my personal items that the others did not. Neyser and a few of the guys had questioned me during the briefing about this, doubting my fitness. But if there’s one thing I know about myself and those around me know to be true, it’s that if you tell me I can’t do something that is physically challenging, I sure as hell will.
Anyway, we got to the check point and re-packed my bags, strapped my sleeping mat to the outside and we set off, with the Bamba Boys (our porters) leading the way. The rain was playing with us a little so our ponchos were on-off-on-off all the time. After some minutes of walking, we also realised it was going to be a sweaty affair and stripped down to t-shirts. That morning we tried various local delicacies including tuna fruit (doesn’t taste like fish, fortunately) and chicha beer (known as chicha morada).
It was also this first morning where we were introduced to “Inca Flat”. Inca flat is essentially the steepest piece of land you can find, often with a million and one cliff-like steps to “help” you scale the height. Luckily, our first taste of Inca flat was just for a 5-10 minute period, but Neyser warned us there was more to come.
Along the morning stretch of the trail I started to get to know two lovely Dutchies who were to become my Inca sidekicks. Corrine and Thomas, a couple, had me laughing from the off and seemed a similar level of fitness to me. The fact they were a couple didn’t phase me because the rest of my group were also couples, or Nina, who was in a relationship anyway. I was flying the single flag solo. We also learnt more about Neyser during this time. How crazy he was, his high pitched little laugh, his overuse of the phrase “oh la la” and his keenness of capturing all photo opportunities.
Our first Inca lunch surprised us all. Oh, first let me tell you who “us” was:
- Corrine and Thomas, the relationship to my third wheel
- Peter and Sonia, from Chicago and about to have something amazing happen
- Alisha and Adam, from Sydney. Actually from Coogee, where I spent Christmas day
- Nina, from Sweden. An ICU nurse with a heart of gold, who had shared my room in Milhouse
As we arrived to the lunch stop, we were amazed to see that the porters had put up a large cooking and eating tent for us. We were even more astounded at the food which had been produced using camping equipment. This included a gas canister I can only assume that was carried by one of the porters. Our food, as became typical, was a hearty soup, followed by a meaty main course and finished with either dessert (if dinner time) and/or mate (tea). Everything we ate was so scrumptious although we did have to take care not to overeat at lunch so that we could continue walking in the afternoon.
Our afternoon section was fairly leisurely, with a few local stops, some information about local plants and various view points. Around 6pm, we made it to camp site number 1. The porters had set up our tents for us, steaming coffee was waiting in the food tent and the rain had stopped for a short while. All was well and good in the Team Puma (as we became known) camp.
Nina and I chose our tent away from the couples (for obvious reasons) and lay out our sleeping things before having our tea and dinner. Around sunset time, Neyser introduced all the porters and the cook, Viktor to us. He asked them all to state their marital status’ for the benefit of any single girls in the group (oh wait, just me) and then asked us to do the same when introducing ourselves back! It was funng because some of the married porters claimed they were looking for second wives and Neyser made several funny references about not taking care of your woman. I liked him as a guide and I was right to as he proved to be a lot of fun.
After dinner, Neyser brought out the cards and we had many a game of Spoons, bringing back memories of New Year’s Eve at Ted’s. When most of the group had gone to bed, Adam taught Nina and I how to play ’13s’ and then we too went to sleep. Considering our early starts each morning and long, hard days of trekking, we were never in bed after 9pm. My sleep was a little restless but as good as a solid floor, thin roll mat and sleeping bag could be.
Apparently porters are the best people ever. They woke us up at the exact time needed each morning with a cup of coca tea and a bowl of warm water to wash in. They then gave us 30 minutes to get ready, before serving a big and beautiful breakfast, packing down our camp and setting off to prepare lunch. I soon took a big liking to the porters and had such admiration of them, carrying 25kgs minimum around the same trails we struggled to take out <10kgs, at double the speed.
That morning, day 2, we were the first group to pass the second check point. However, this was also the toughest day of trekking (please don’t underestimate me when I say this) and our lead was unlikely to last too long. By our second or third stop we had been overtaken. But that was hardly surprisingly given the near-vertical inclines we were tackling, at the altitude of 3000m, having to take breaks as often as 10 minutes apart. Neyser taught us how to correctly chew coca leaves, vital for both energy and combatting altitude. Although they worked wonders, I don’t think a sports drug tester would hear me out! And that’s exactly the reason the porters don’t compete in sports too.
We reached the last snack stop around 11am and found ourselves joined by almost every other group on the trek within minutes. The group had already begun to break apart, showing the fit from the unfit, the altitude sickness, the cold, the sweat. It was a tough day already and only destined to get tougher. After some time at this stop, Nina and I got very cold and could no longer wait for everyone to finish recovering. Nina set off first and I then followed with Corrine and Thomas shortly after.
We overtook Nina fairly soon after setting off and then saw Peter storming up behind us. He’d struggled with breathing all morning and it wasn’t long before his pace slowed greatly. The three of us met Ethan along the way, a Cambridge student from another group, who we kept passing along the route. Now, when I say route, at this stage I mean 1000km stretch of mountain in which you must ascend to the height of 4200m via a rather long stretch of Inca flat.
Let’s put it this way, I have run 2 marathons and the Dutchies were both keen hockey players, and we took a break every 7-10 minutes in an attempt to regain our breath, refuel our bodies and muster up the positivity to attack the next section! I was super thankful to be third wheeling this day as we took it in turns to lead our climbing party, shout words of encouragement and then thoroughly celebrate reaching the top! We congratulated the others as they also summited, because we were the first of our group up there, even beating Neyser (although he was waiting for other group members but it didn’t stop us making jokes about him being slow!).
During all this excitement we failed to notice Peter fumbling in his bag. Whilst we prepared for a photo with Ethan, Peter then got down on one knee and proposed to Sonia! Yes!! On top of the mountain, both exhausted and freezing, but engaged!! Oh it was so, so beautiful and such a lovely moment for them both. Alisha and Adam hadn’t quite made it to the top to witness it but when they arrived and were told the news, we then celebrated as a group as the clouds came in.
Corrine, Thomas and I had been exposed to the elements for an hour by this time and were freezing our little white gringo butts off. Fortunately, it was time to head down the other side. Unfortunately, this consisted of Inca flat reversed, in the rain and wind, back down 600m of altitude. More unfortunately was the lack of warning about how this would actually hurt our bodies in a way more painful than the uphill climbing did! 2 hours of downhill and some seriously strong mental attitudes later, we did finally make it to lunch, 8 hours after first setting out for the day.
6 of us took our lunch when we arrived because the porters wanted to get moving on. Neyser hadn’t told us yet, but the lunch spot was actually where we were meant to camp. Neyser had other plans for us to keep walking on, due to unsafe conditions at the last camp site. Team Uphill (Corrine, Thomas and I) resumed our lead positions and powered on through, joined by the newly engaged duo and Nina on the way down. Turns out that Team Uphill were not the fastest downhill walkers!
As the sun began to set, Neyser claimed we were just 20 minutes from camp. Given his Inca minutes were at least an hour extra previously, we didn’t believe him. However, 20 minutes later we did arrive at the new camp site to an applaud from the porters, having completely an extremely mentally and physically tough, 26km, up and downhill Day. And poor old Adam and Alisha, who was ill, finished it about 30 minutes later in the dark.
That night was a cold one because we were sleeping at 4000m. Everyone was thoroughly knackered and after refuelling on food, warming up on hot run, and playing a few chilled rounds of cards, most of us were sound asleep! For Nina and I, we went to bed after a very entertaining walk to the toilet with Neyser and a little star gaze. I’m not even a little bit joking when I tell you that you could see the entire Milky Way from where we camped that night.
I awoke in the night feeling very sick and took myself off to the toilet block, a good 5 minute walk away. I was absolutely convinced I’d be eaten by a puma along the way and was scared sh*tless by a running tap at one point! Nina, bless her, stayed awake through this ordeal to check that I hadn’t been eaten during my toilet venture and made it back in one piece. See, not so crazy of my to be thinking that might happen!
The morning of day 3 we got a longer lie in (6am). Our takka takka friends (not my words, Thomas and Neyser’s) were hot on our heels all morning and we wanted to beat them through the trail! This day was a much easier walk, gradient wise, but harder terrain and the temperatures were hotter. Still, seeing how the Inca’s had carved tunnels through giant rocks, and being shown alternative Inca Trail routes (and one tunnel) which had only later been discovered, was fascinating. We even got to visit what is believed to be the most important area of Incan territory. The name escapes me but it was where the astronomers lived, necessary to Incan livelihood to tell the seasons for growing, and a place to sacrifice girls to Pachimama (Mother Earth).
This is where the jokes began about me being the sacrifice. Makes sense I suppose, as the baby of the group and single. It sure felt like I was about to sacrifice myself heading down the steepest steps in history after visiting that place too!
Before getting to lunch, we visited another Incan ruin. I think it was just another city but this time there were llamas on the terraces that even let you pet them. And pet we did! The city had a stunning view out over the Ollaytaytamba river and the valley, leading around to Machu Picchu mountain. But the anticipation to see Machu Picchu itself was still there.
However, our excitement was somewhat fulfilled by a spotting along the track before lunch. No other than an Andean bear was in front of us! Up in the tree, searching for food and then down on the ground below our feet. A real life bear and just as cute as the stuffed kind! It was Neyser’s first time seeing a bear in his 4 years of walking the trail and that’s when we knew how unbelievably lucky we had been.
Our lunch spot that day was where we were originally meant to camp for the last night. We saw the areas of landslides and knew it was the right decision to carry on walking and reach Machu Picchu a day earlier than planned, even if it was seriously hard on our bodies. It was Nina’s turn to be ill that day but we all powered on through, thankful that we didn’t have to wait a few hours in line at the check point at 3am the following morning, as we would have if we’d stayed at that camp.
A short Inca flat later and myself, Corrine, Thomas, Peter and Sonia turned the corner, entering none other than the Sun Gate. This is the gateway to Machu Picchu, with stunningly beautiful views over Machu Picchu city, with the sun casting perfect shadows behind. The Sun Gate lines up perfectly to the line of the sun on June 21st also. Oh it was stunning. We couldn’t even fathom it. We just sat there, waiting for the arrival of the others, and took it in as best we possibly could.
Of course, group pictures ensured with Neyser’s arrival. And of course, we shouted the likes of “siki sappa”, “I love the pisco”, “never again”, “Neyser pappi” and “hakuna matata” instead of the standard “cheese”. All of Neyser’s favourite lines for us to say! And then, we walked the final part of the Inca Trail, down to the gorgeous Incan village of Machu Picchu, after tourist hours (meaning we were the only people there) and stood in awe at the constructions we were witnessing.
Unfortunately we weren’t late enough to avoid the guards asking all the straggling tourists to catch the last bus down so before long, someone was quite insistent on us leaving. Although most of us wanted to walk down and to the town of Aguas Calientes, a few did opt for the bus so we had to exit. And then 5 of us head down via the endless stairs which Neyser affectionately referred to as a shortcut (note that he didn’t take the stairs himself).
It has to be said that we did make it down the insane height and endless stairs before the bus got down. But, those on the bus were certainly not dropping sweat from every pore in their body, knees crying in pain and mouths gasping for water! I know I make some of this trek sound dramatic, but really it was. I coped and I loved every minute of it, but almost everyone else in my group struggled at some point, with some part. Having run two marathons in my short 23 years, I can tell you that mentally battling yourself to get up 1000m when you can’t breathe with the altitude, or heading down steep, jungle covered steps when your knees are on the verge of breaking and the humidity engulfs your body is much, much tougher!
Finally, we reached Aguas Calientes where we had opted for a hostel for the night, if only for the shower! Neyser waited for us laughing at the fact he didn’t take the stairs, knowing their difficulty! It was heaven to have a bed again and some warmth and cleanliness. We all met again that evening in a local restaurant in which the porters were cooking for us still. Viktor completed his excellent service with a big cake for us to enjoy and then we thanked the porters and tipped them for being such incredible people.
Despite being back in civilisation (only because we sped through the Inca Trail), we still went to bed early as our real Machu Picchu adventure was to begin at 4am the next morning. And at 5am, we were all in the bus queue (note not one of us opted to take the stairs up!) waiting to head up to the park for sunrise. The rain had come in so it was a little cloudy up in the mountains which meant only one thing, my rain dance was necessary to bring out the sun. I was, if you remember, the sacrifice to Pachimama anyway so it was worth a shot!
Neyser then took us on a 2 hour tour around the ‘Lost City of the Inca’s’, with fascinating information about how incredibly clever these people were. For example, the sun temple has 4 windows which directly line up with the sun at solstice and equinox periods. Another example is the shape of the condor that Machu Picchu makes from above, or the shape of a condor made in the Condor Temple. Every corner you turned there was something intelligent – a compass rock which pointed at exactly 180 degree north, a sun dial, sacred rocks which exactly depicted the mountains beyond it and used as alters for sacred rituals, holes in the ground filled with water and used as mirrors and to see the stars.
Following Neyser’s tour, we had free time to explore ourselves. Obviously I joined the relationship to my third wheel at this time, and Nina joined us too. We were super hyper all morning and spent much of our time making offerings and dances up for Pachimama, singing ABBA songs and generally having a really funny time. By midday though, we felt like we’d well and truly exhausted Machu Picchu, having seen it in the sun, the cloud and rain, morning and evening.
We exited the park and bumped in to Alisha and Adam so joined them for some great ice cream before we all got the bus back down. Back in the town, we head directly to the restaurant to have our last lunch together, accompanied with beer (obviously, since we’d finally completed the Inca Trail!). Here we had to say a fond farewell to our dear guide Neyser, who had provided so many funny times for us over the previous four days. He really was a big kid and perfectly suited to our group.
After lunch (with most of us opting out of the 3 course menu offered and selecting giant pizza’s instead), we wanted to try out the thermal baths. When we arrived we found out they were quite expensive so only half the group went in. The other half, Corrine, Thomas, Peter, Sonia and myself, went and found a local bar with pool table instead. Peter taught us several different pool games and we all proved to be terrible. Having said that, the table also sat on uneven ground and slanted downhill making our jobs incredibly hard. I did manage to win game 3, with Thomas taking the other two comfortably.
At 6pm, the group reconvened at the train station. We had the train included in our Inca Trail package and it was like an aeroplane. They served snacks and drinks, we sat in groups of 4, we enjoyed the comfy chairs and we all wondered why we didn’t just take the train in the first place! Still, we wouldn’t have the bond we did and the achievement of it all, made only more special by completing it 1 day quicker than it should take and seeing Machu Picchu as the sun set. I arrived back to Cusco at 10pm, checked in to my hostel and went straight to bed.
So, 157 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and I have yet another physical achievement ticked off my bucket list. Machu Picchu was a dream, my group were angels (especially Team Uphill, who I couldn’t have done it without) and my desire to climb a real life mountain still remains. Flying through the Inca Trail is a serious accomplishment and I am so thankful that there are wonders like this in the world for me to experience.