Peru – Footsteps of the Incas to Machu Picchu

Forgotten was the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, meaning ‘Old Peak’ in Quechua. It rested gloriously under a submersion of twisted vines and trees – the jungle swallowing each piece of carved stone and history.

Rediscovering Machu Picchu

Of course the locals knew of Machu Picchu, it was a time passed but not forgotten so when Hiram Bingham III arrived asking questions, two farmers and a policeman led him to the very spot where after obtaining funding, he was able to strip back the coat of foliage and reignite the magic of the Incas. Although Hiram Bingham was the first outsider to ‘discover’ the ancient ruins (and fund the excavation) they were already known by locals. There have been other claims of discovery but that my friends, is what you call a ‘can of worms’.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Built around 1450 at the height of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu sits in the shadows of Huayna Picchu. There was no way for Hiram to know that having lifted off the first knotted vine, that he would unleash a steady stream of tourism which has financially bolstered Peru’s economy. With footprints firmly imbedded in the past, present and future, Machu Picchu has reclaimed its place back from the jungle.

Tracing the footsteps of the Inca Trail has become somewhat of a ‘bucket list’ essential and with a season from March to December, there is a constant flow of tourist’s queueing for permits. Of course this is not the only way to reach Machu Picchu; there are alternative Inca trails to get away from the hordes:
• Lares Route (3-5 days) – medium
• Salcantay Route (5-8 days) – medium to difficult
• Vilcabamba Traverse Route (7-13 days) – difficult
• The Lodge Trek (7-13 days) – medium
• The Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail (3-5 days) – medium
• The One-Day Inca Trail (1 day (2 if you camp overnight) – medium
• Take the train from Cuzco, then bus from Aguas Calietes to connect you to the site

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The official Inca Trail hike is a 4-day, 27-mile trek just beyond the Sacred Valley, culminating with The Lost City of the Inca’s – Machu Picchu. The fastest recorded time to complete the Inca Trail was set by a porter in 3 hours, 45 minutes.

Peruvian Security Guard

Peruvian Security Guard

I set off on the classic trail in March, one week after the trail reopened furnished with walking pole and bag of coca to chew for energy. With independent trail hiking banned, I travelled with Tucan Travel (www.tucantravel.com), a global tour operator and one of the founding western travel companies in Latin America. By hitting the trail early in the season it tends to be quieter with less rubbish on the trail, although it can be cold and there is the risk of rain. Thankfully the rain kept at bay but I do recommend a four season sleeping bag.

The trail is tough, mainly due to altitude so arrive into Cuzco 3-4 days earlier to acclimatise. There is enough to keep you entertained in Cuzco – my advice is hire a local guide to tour the city and surrounds. Cuzco has such an entrenched history you really need that in-depth knowledge so don’t be cheap, remember why you’re travelling and just pay it. Also make use of the excellent public bus system, it’s cheap and if you don’t mind being squashed in you can visit the places locals shop at.

We departed Cuzco as a group of 15 and 6 Sherpa’s to help carry the luggage, food and tents. These guys really are amazing. They are the ninjas of Peru who are perpetually smiling, wearing only sandals and queue each morning for work on the trails. They work hard, no doubt about it – funny thing is they aren’t affected by altitude so it must seem ridiculous for foreigners to struggle on the step-laden trail. Each day they set off after us, raced ahead to erect the lunch tent and cook a meal.

It was on these lunch stops, the locals appeared armed with a football and ready for a high altitude kick-around. I suspect it was more enjoyable for them to watch us sweat and run around exhausted than playing the game itself. Setting off on the trail again and leaving the Sherpa’s to pack up, they would then run past us, set up the camp, all tents, cook the food and be ready and waiting until the last hiker arrived breathing heavy and coated in sweat. Like I said, they are ninjas and that is how every day unfolded.

The first day is fairly easy, paved with incredible vistas and glazed in sunshine, but day 2 is back-breaking. We actually hiked day one before stopping for lunch and hiked half of day 2 in the afternoon. It was exhausting but took the edge off day 2. The Inca trail is paved with small steps which are essentially too big for 2 at a time, but just too small for a normal sized step; probably down to the fact the Incas were short. It is tough going but a rhythmic step helps set a steady pace.

During the evenings we clustered inside the lamp heated communal tent, wrapped in recently purchased Inca-style knitwear, swapping stories and bargaining with locals from mountain villages to sell cans of beer (a reward after a long days toil) before falling asleep under the watchful eyes of a foreign sky. It was simple, and basic, and quite magnificent.

Day 2 is tough, no doubt about it. It’s straight up and the stairs perpetually appear. One Australian lady having been sold the wrong trip by her travel agent struggled so much that two Sherpa’s sat her on a wooden plank, wrapping material around both ends, strapping it across their shoulders and carried her to the campsite. I imagine this isn’t in their job description but they did it without complaint and with smiles draped across their faces. This simple but monumental act always stuck with me and is one of my overriding memories of Peru.

Early on the morning of day 4, we rose to a darkened sky whilst head torches guided the way. Like a human snake we formed a chain to arrive at the Sun Gate in time for sunrise as mist swarmed the ruins, burning off with the fresh sunlight. This friends, is one of those memories which will never leave me, and as always, photos do not do it justice. We sat in silence imagining when the Incan empire was at its peak (before the Spanish conquered), framed by the towering Andes.

My advice is upon arriving and having explored the ruins, force your tired legs to scramble up Huayna Picchu. The summit rewards with a bird’s eye view of the whole site and if I had to describe it in one work, it would be ‘magical’!

View from the top

View from the top

We caught the public bus to Aguas Calientes to rest our bones in the hot water pools and clean off the dirt. The pools are not particularly clean but after 3 days of not showering, it’s a little slice of heaven but don’t forget your swim wear.

Aguas Calientes hot springs

Aguas Calientes hot springs

For anyone considering the Inca Trail, I cannot recommend it enough. It is an experiential adventure which makes you work hard, but the rewards are breath-taking. As well as tipping your Sherpa’s, take something personal from your country to give to them as they do an amazing job, and don’t forget to look around, the steps are hypnotic but the views aren’t bad either.

Machu Picchu

Tell me about your experiences on the Inca Trail?

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