So… who can remember studying the Inca Empire during one of their school history lessons? Well, despite recalling very little of mine, I do remember a lesson about the Incas! A civilization stretching all the way back the 13th century with arguably their most famous icon, Machu Picchu, situated on a mountain peak in the Andes 2,430 metres above sea level, 80 km northwest of the city of Cuzsco in Peru.
Built around 1450, Machu Picchu remained relatively unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911 and after being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 it is now recognised by millions of visitors from around the world who travel to see it every year.
Getting to this remote site hundreds of years ago took lots of skill and effort but today it’s far less difficult: take a 4-hour train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes then a short 6 km bus journey up a winding road and you’ll reach the site with relative ease. The queues for the bus up to the site can be long but the views once you arrive more than make up for that, even if (in my personal opinion) the views haven’t quite been “earned” in the same way as those who’ve trekked the Inca Trail to get there but obviously not everyone has the time to dedicate four days to trekking so the site’s accessible by all regardless of how much time someone has.
The Inca Trail
The Inca trail, located in the Andes mountains, is not an especially long trail by global standards at 43km (27 miles) but one which does vary in height considerably, from 2,600 metres where most people join the trail, to 4,200 metres at “Dead Woman’s Pass” before finally descending down to the site of Macchu Picchu at 2,430 metres.
Most people who trek the trail stay in Cuzco for a day or two before they start, primarily to help with acclimatising to the altitude as the city’s well above sea level at 3,200 metres. While the locals may be used to the thinner air, visitors usually are not, so it’s wise to acclimatise first no matter how fit you are or where you’ve come from.
I booked in January of 2014 with a good friend Andy (who was also looking to do something a little different) and after comparing dates we were both available, opted for 7th-16th October.
The Peruvian authorities limit how many people are allowed on the trail in any one day to five hundred, two hundred of those being for paying tourist trekkers like ourselves, the rest made up of guides and porters supporting the treks. The limit is primarily in place to protect the trail from excessive erosion that would otherwise likely occur which is a good decision of course, but as a result of the permit system the permits themselves are reserved quickly by tour operators so it’s essential to book early if you have specific travel dates in mind, especially during the busy season from July to September.
We booked online with Adventure Peaks, a UK based agent, paid our deposit (the final balance would be due 10 weeks before we left) and soon after received our welcome pack containing our booking details, kit list and flight information etc. We would be taking a local flight from Newcastle (NCL) to Amsterdam (AMS) before catching a connecting flight with KLM to Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM) in Peru’s capital Lima. Once in Lima we’d catch a local flight to Cuzco with LAN Airlines (now LATAM airlines) where we would be met by our local guide from Peruvian operator Amazonas Explorer. All in all, 20-plus hours worth of airports and flights would be needed to get us where we had to be!
Arrival in Peru
The long flight to Lima from Amsterdam took just over 13 hours, more than enough time to watch a few movies, down a few drinks, eat what we liked and and sleep when we wanted. We’d left Amsterdam just after mid-day at 12:30h and arrived in Lima at 18:05h local time but of course to us it felt like much later in the evening. I’d booked a hotel room in advance close by the airport to give us a few hours rest and the chance to freshen up before our next flight but after a quick shower each we decided to hit the hotel bar for a few beers instead! We even considered a trip into the city but quickly ruled that out not knowing for certain how easy it would be to get back to the airport in time. Two hours late with beers drank and bar closed, we called it a night. We probably managed three hours sleep before the phone alarms woke us up and we were heading back into the airport that we’d left only five hours earlier!
The flight from Lima down to Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport was short at only 80 minutes but at 05:00h neither of us were feeling very energetic after getting only a few hours sleep so we we both opted to skip the in-flight service and get a little more sleep on the flight. After landing we collected our bags, which had thankfully survived the journey with us, and headed through the Arrivals hall where we were met by our trekking guide from Amazonas Explorer, José. A nice guy, very welcoming and someone I instinctively thought we’d get along with easily which was no bad thing considering we’d be spending the next few days with him on the trek 24/7.
José drove us the short distance to Cuzco centre and to the hotel we’d be staying in for the first and last night of our time in Peru (the other nights would be spent in tents along the trail). The hotel was fairly basic but clean and tidy with all the rooms facing a square outdoor courtyard in the centre and a small restaurant and reception area facing the street outside. We checked in, dropped the bags in our rooms and freshened up briefly before José returned and welcomed us officially to Peru and introduced us to the other two people who’d be joining us – Peter and his son Chris, both from Australia.
The briefing was clear and informative. We’d be collected from the hotel next morning at 07:00h to be driven to the start point of our trail and we must have all our gear that we’d be taking with us ready at reception by that time. Any non-trek gear such as travelling clothes could be left securely at the hotel until we returned in a few days time. José then said he would give us all a brief tour of Cusco to show us around and help us acclimatise a little. I suspected he was also checking our fitness to see whether we were up to the trek as neither of us were looking very energetic at the moment, suffering from a terrible lack of sleep, all our own fault! He took us along side streets and up hundreds of steps until we we were finally were able to look down on the city square from above. While both of us felt the pace, the heat, and the altitude, the view was well worth it!
After our brisk tour, Jose dropped us off back at the hotel with a final word of advice: don’t drink alcohol and have an early night so we were well rested for the start of the trail tomorrow. Sensible advice of course which any sensible person would heed but Andy I had other ideas……
One night in Cusco!
José, now gone until the morning, left us alone to do as we pleased. Our intentions started out well. “Let’s sort our gear for tomorrow so we’re ready to go first thing in the morning then go for another walk in the square, relax and watch the world go by”.
Gear all prepared a short time later, we walked from the hotel along the few narrow streets back to the main square, Plaza de Armas de Cuzco, to do just that, enjoy the sunshine, watch the world go by and, as we were now getting quite hungry, get something to eat. The choice of Kentucky Fried Chicken clearly wasn’t a one driven by the wish to try the local food but more a “quick fix” and perhaps the leaning towards something familiar, even if we had only been in the country less than 24 hours!
Not long after our walk around the main square we spotted a bar, Paddy’s Bar (the highest Paddy’s Bar in the world so it is) which made both of us suddenly feel thirsty for a beer! Surely no harm could come from having just the one cool refreshing beer and it turned out our fellow trekkers felt the same as both Peter and his son Chris were nestled comfortably by the window already, beers in hand!
Both from Australia, Peter had agreed to meet up with his son Chris to walk the Inca Trail together during Chris’s travels around South America. He flew in separately and, on completion of the trek in a few days, would fly home again leaving Chris to continue his travels around South America.
Both were trying the local beer Cusqueña so Andy and I chose the same. Beers duly delivered to our table, a quick “cheers!” all round and we were off…. Andy and I downed them both in minutes, quickly followed by the 2nd and then a 3rd… the “how much harm can one beer do?” sensibilities quickly passed as we ordered a 4th, then a 5th….
Tequila shots followed and soon after, at Andy’s suggestion, “Baby Guinness” shots then numerous more Cusqueña. Pete, quickly and wisely realising that this was getting out of hand, left us to it and headed back to the hotel at around 19:00h. I called it a day at around 22:00h and spent probably another half hour or more trying to find the way back to our hotel! Andy stayed out even longer with Chris until the very early hours so by the time breakfast came around there were some very hungover looking faces around the breakfast table!
José could tell instantly when he arrived that we hadn’t heeded his advice at all but just smiled politely and asked if we were ready to head off. We gathered our gear, Andy and I downing as much water as we could lay our hands on, and headed out to our waiting transport a street away. This wasn’t the fresh energetic start to our trek I’d envisaged all those months ago!
Day 1: Ollantaytambo – Piskacucho – Wayllambamba
After a long drive from our hotel in Cusco by minibus, we reached our starting point at a place called Ollantaytambo (2,720 metres) by the Urubamba River, 82 kilometres from Cusco. We met our support team of porters here, José introducing each of them in turn, fourteen of whom would be joining us on the trail. The porters would be carrying all the essential gear including tents and cooking equipment, our large travel bags containing our clothes for changing, wash gear, sleeping bag etc. to each campsite every day while also preparing breakfasts, lunches and dinners for us all served up waiter style in a shared dining tent no less!
We would get to know the porters better later that day but for now they were busy offloading the gear from our minibus and preparing to set off ahead of us to set up camp. José meanwhile was signing us in to the park and presenting our trek permits to the officials. We also received the first of five tourist passport stamps indicating various points along the trail that we’d pass to serve as a sort of souvenir record of our progress.
The route on the first day was mostly uphill but nothing too strenuous (even for those with a hangover!) and we arrived at our campsite, Llactapata, in just under five hours. Carved into a mountain valley, Llactapata was used historically for religious purposes, crop production and housing but today it would be our home for the night The site was quite spectacular to see up close and would prove to be a fine introduction to many of the other incredible sites we’d see and visit along the trail over the coming days.
Day 2: Warmiwañusca – Pacamayo
The second day started early before sunrise and after a wonderful breakfast prepared by our team of porters we were on our way once again. The porters stayed behind to clear up camp and while we’d paid for the porter service as part of the operator costs, it was hard not to feel lazy when they did all the hard work!
The day started with a gradual ascent for two kilometres followed by a more challenging but manageable eight kilometres uphill, mostly on stone steps and dirt tracks. We finally reached the highest pass on the trail at Warmiwañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 4,200 metres and the views in all directions from here were simply stunning. After a break to take some photos and rehydrate, we headed a further 3 kilometres downhill along some winding Inca stairs to our campsite at 3,600 metres.
Day 3: Runkurakay – Winay Wayna
Day three was another early start with a gradual two kilometre trek uphill to the second high pass, Runkurakay at 3,950 metres. Once again, being up at this altitude afforded everyone stunning views of the Andes mountains all around us. From Runkurakay, we headed back downhill for approximately six kilometres to the ruins of Sayacmarca.
Next stop was the third high pass at Phuyupatamarca at 3,580 metres and from there, we trekked a further five kilometres downhill to reach the final campsite at Winay Wayna at 2,650 metres. Although this section was downhill, the sheer number of steps as the path winds around the side of the mountain proved hard on the legs and especially the knees, so finally reaching the camp at Winay Wayna was a welcome relief!
Day 4: Intipunku – Machu Picchu
We were up early once again on the final day of our Inca Trail trek to begin the last section leading to the famous ‘Sun Gate’ (Intipunku) which leads down to Machu Picchu. We left the porter team at lunchtime, wishing them all well and sharing our tips we’d collected for them all as a gesture of thanks. They would be heading back to Cusco with all the equipment while we continued with José along a combination of steps, affectionately known as “Inca flats” but when in reality they were not flat at all!
The final push to the Sun Gate was four kilometres from Winay Wayna and on reaching it we were met by a set of very steep, almost vertical stairs, the last thing any of us wanted to see at the end of the trail! Nonetheless, climb them we did, finally reaching the Sun Gate and the first view of Machu Picchu, 345 metres below us. It was quite a sight to see after seeing so many pictures in books and on film. We took some photographs, enjoyed the view for a while then finally made our way two kilometres downhill to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We’d made it!
José gave us the full guided tour of the site and afterwards we were left to wander and explore the site alone. Despite having just walked the whole trail, we made the most of the time taking in every section of the site not forgetting the obligatory photo “selfie” by the main entrance of course!
Once we’d explored as much as we could we headed out of the site and onto one of the many public bus services running back down to Aguas Caliantes. It’s here we’d be staying for the night in a hotel before heading back to Cusco the next day. Our trip was almost over!
Nestled at the foot of the mountains 6 kilometres away from Macchu Pichu, Aguas Caliantes (“Hot Waters/Springs”) is a small but bustling town, full of tourists and local businesses making the most of all the visitors that come and go every day. We were booked into a small hotel down the back of many intersecting narrow streets, mostly containing either a hotel, a shop or a restaurant of some kind!
We headed out for some dinner and a few drink to celebrate our trek being over. We tried (and failed) to get our guide Jose a little merry on tequila but failed miserably and he had Andy and I struggling to keep up with him! Never challenge a Peruvian to a tequila challenge!
We crashed that night at the hotel and it was a pleasure to enjoy a comfortable bed and some air conditioning after a few days outdoors without either! We’d be getting the train back to Cuzco the next day.
The journey took approximately four hours and we were served snacks, drinks and entertained by what could only be described s a fashion show on a train! Models paraded the shop owners wears up and down the carriages encouraging passengers to pick up some souvenirs before their final journey home while dancing to some local music!
We arrived back at Cuzco in the early evening and headed back the hotel we’d stayed only four days earlier. After gathering our gear and packing ready for the journey back to Lima the following morning we shared a dinner with Peter and Chris. Peter, who would be heading back home to to Australia had an even long flight ahead of him than Andy and I while Chris would be continuing his adventures around South America for a few more weeks. We had a great final night together chatting about the few days on the trek and our thoughts on Peru, Cuzco and Macchu Pichu.
The flight back up to Lima and then over the Atlantic back to Amsterdam, and finally across the North Sea to Newcastle were all uneventful but felt like twice as long as the same journey we took to get there! Some of the time was spent talking about what we’d just done, how much we enjoyed it and what we’d like to do next but a lot of it was spent asleep too, the previous days unusual sleeping pattern and “quiet” nights out catching up with us both. We arrived back into Newcastle mid-afternoon and that was it all over, back home, back to routine and to ponder on which challenge would be next…..
I’d highly recommend to go visit the site in person and, if they have the time, to trek the Inca Trail for a few days. While no-one would ever be short-changed just visiting Macchu Pichu on its own, trekking the Inca Trail is hugely rewarding, getting the chance to see other Inca sites that you just wouldn’t see otherwis
There are many other places in South America I’d like to visit, not least the Amazon rain forest and infamous cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires but that’s for another time, but at least I finally got to see my school history lesson brought to life and see Macchu Pichu up close and personal!