Sunday, 15 December 2013

Days 264 to 267: The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

There is more than one way to visit Machu Picchu. The simplest is to simply get the tourist train to the nearby tourist town, Aguas Calienties, then get the tourist bus up to the site. Walk through the gate and there you are - the lost city of the Incas, readily accessible. Alternatively, you can take the hard route, a four-day trek along mountains and through forests, at altitudes up to 4200 metres, through fog and heavy rain, sleeping in tents and with a choice of nature or some utterly rancid toilets for your bathroom stops. This is the Classic Inca Trail, and this is the approach Danielle and I opted for. For better and for worse.

The Inca civilisation existed around several hundred years ago, peaking in the 15th Century when the 9th king, Pachacuti, expanded the realm to create an empire. The Spanish ruined all this when they arrived a century later and tore apart the empire, doing rather a lot of killing, raping, and enslaving along the way. The empire crumbled, ably helped by disease, which wiped out large swathes of the population. Making things a little easier for the invading forces of the Spanish were the handy roads that the Incas had built between their various settlements. The Incas had built an extensive road network and developed a sophisticated communication system. All the Spanish had to do was follow them.

It was along some of these trails that myself, Danielle, eight other trekking tourists, two guides, 15 porters and a chef walked for four days. After the Spanish set up shop, the remaining Incas holed themselves up deep in the Andes. As absolutely no records whatsoever exist of Machu Picchu (or whatever it was originally called), it's difficult to say if it was then used as a retreat, but there are records of a town called Vilcabamba, which was the last Inca stronghold. The Spanish captured it in 1572. But they never found Machu Picchu, or even knew it existed. And after four days of trekking, all I can say is: no wonder. Machu Picchu is not exactly what you'd describe as readily accessible. Unless take the train, of course.

The trip began, rather brutally, at 3.30am in Cusco. Danielle and I awoke, got ready, and made our way through torrential rain to the pick-up point near the city centre. Soaking, we clambered onto a bus with another eight sleepy-seeming Westerners. The bus set off, and we were soon joined by 15 porters and a chef, all dressed in red and noticeably more perky than the rest of us. After a breakfast stop, we arrived at the ominously named "Kilometre 82" (which sounds like a concentration camp to me) - the beginning of our four day Inca Trail.

From this point, the pattern of the days was, more or less, this: wake very early, eat a colossal breakfast, walk until the point of exhaustion, eat a colossal lunch, walk until the point of exhaustion, eat a colossal dinner, pass out in a sleeping bag after a terrifying visit to some very grim toilets. As this might suggest, aside from walking, the meals were a very prominent feature. Before setting off, I'd expected the food to be basic, at best hearty and at worst some kind of weird monotonous sludge. But my expectations were exceeded, considerably. The food was amazing. It was hearty, yes, coming in at least three courses, the main course being massive portions of communal dishes to help yourself to. And it was varied, very tasty, and sometimes overwhelming in the quantities. After hours of trekking, it was very much appreciated.

Better than that though, it was a communal experience. The meals were eaten in a tent, all ten of us plus two guides crammed in. Tours are a gamble - you have no control over who else you'll be spending days of close proximity with, and if you end up with some backward-capped streetpunks or tie-dyed hippies talking about their "cosmic consciousness" then tough, better get used to that strained smile. I recall on the three day boat trip along the Three Gorges with Burness, our group was dire, with a deathly dull mother and daughter, a South American coupled that appeared permanently constipated, and an American guy and his Chinese girlfriend that did nothing but have very loud sex (so much so that we had to move room). It took the shine off what was a gorgeous river cruise. But I'm very happy to say that our Inca Trail group were, to a person, lovely. There was a Tasmanian mother and two daughters plus a daughter's boyfriend, two Kiwi girls, an English guy and a Swiss guy, all of whom were interesting and with good banter. Meals were therefore enjoyable as well as massive and filling, as we sat around discussing our day, our travel plans, and whatever nonsense filled our heads. Of particular focus was the pre-dinner "Happy Hour", in which we were presented with three huge trays of popcorn which we tried not to eat, always failing. The guides would usually provide us with a focal point of conversation, most notably the ghost stories of Day 2. Much of these seemed to focus on water spirits attempting to kidnap people, usually the poor porters. Tourists were not exempt either: one guide, Flavio, told us the first-hand tale of a girl who vanished for around ten hours. After much searching and a tip-off from a porter who claimed to have heard the wailing of demons, he discovered her, in a small ravine, up a scree slope. She'd thought she'd seen the group walking there and had followed this mirage, going way off trail. It was late in the afternoon, but she'd thought it was still early morning. Back in Cusco, Flavio had consulted a shaman, who had advised making offerings (cocoa leaves and the like) to the mountain in future, as otherwise it might attempt to take more trekkers in the future.

Day 2 was definitely the most challenging day, beginning with a gruelling climb to 4200 metres in patches of blasting rain that had Danielle cursing my name. "Machu Picchu had better be worth this" and "This is one of the worst days of my life" were some of the more printable comments. It was followed by a very steep, crippling descent. Only then were we rewarded with a huge lunch, and the afternoon was rewarded with some fine Incan ruins.

This is Sayacmarca, castle-like ruins on the side of a mountain, jutting out over the surroundings. What it was is anyone's guess - the Incas didn't leave much in the way of records. However, the circular section of the building is widely reckoned to be religious, perhaps a Sun Temple, and is a style seen in many other Inca ruins. The rest is probably accommodation and store rooms. Despite initial appearances, it's very unlikely to have been a fortress. Western explorers were very keen to tag a lot of Inca ruins as fortresses, because they kind of looked like them, but it seems that the Incas didn't really go in for these kind of defenses. When you've got a building hidden deep in the Andes, you don't really need to fill it with soldiers. The Inca Empire was not like Europe in the Middle Ages, war operated differently and on a less sophisticated, less fortified level. Which unfortunately was why the Spanish wiped themselves out so easily. The Incas had not developed the war machine that centuries of European war had instilled into the Spanish.

Sayacmarca was just one of many Incan ruins we saw along the way. For some reason, I hadn't considered this about the trek. I guess I expected to be walking along old Inca pathways, as we did, but I hadn't given much thought to seeing ruined towns and temples. And there were a lot. And some of them were absolutely incredible.

For example, on the first day we passed by his one, called Patallacta.

Before visiting Sayacmarca, on the second day, we passed by Runkuraqay, the circular shape possibly hinting at a religious function.

And overlooked by Sayacmarca was Qunchumarka. With its three square rooms and proximity to farming terraces, my personal theory is that is was where the workers stayed that serviced the sun temple of Sayacmarca. But I hasten to add that I am not currently acknowledged as a foremost expert on the Incas.

On the third day we were spoiled. Two huge Inca ruins came our way. The first, with farming terraces spread out down the mountainside was... um... I'm not sure what it was called actually, I can't seem to find any online pictures that match my own. It followed the utterly unpronouncable Phuyupatamarka, and so I guess had some equally incomprehensible name. It was fantastic though.

Even better was Winaywayna, which translates as "Forever Young". A huge series of terraces, peppered by giant boulders, with a sun temple on top and a complex network of buildings near the bottom, this was a spectacular set of ruins in a spectacular setting. The Andes are not exactly known for their long flat stretches, so finding land to farm was not exactly easy. So the Incas made their own. Very like the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, they levelled off sections of land, reinforced it with stones, and created a series of flat surfaces that cling like visible contours to the mountains. Our guide, Flavio, explained that Winaywayna had been used for experimental agriculture, based upon the evidence of crops and seeds discovered that were not native to the region. This makes sense - the Incas were incredible agriculturalists, and we have them to thank for the likes of the potato, for example. Flavio reckoned that the Inca equivalent of biologists and scientists had lived at Winaywayna, exalted as nobility due to their expertise. Flavio tended to talk of the Incas as being slightly more utopian than I expect they were - spiritual, in harmony with nature, and a meritocracy that rewarded skills - but there is no doubt they were a sophisticated civilisation with great agricultural, engineering and mathematical prowess. Forget about Machu Picchu, Winaywayna demonstrated this amply.

Not every trekking group has the time to visit Winaywayna, which is a great shame as is a striking Inca site. Our group was fortunate throughout the trail that our organisers - Llamapath - opted on a route that always had us slightly ahead of the majority of groups. From day one, we camped a little beyond the majority of groups - which including porters would have totalled around 300 people - in quieter sites with only around 50 people or so. This meant that during the trekking, the path was never congested, and only on the third night, when all the groups converged on the same campsite, did the illusion of being in a lost part of the world get shattered. Most notably by the most rancid toilets ever seen by man.

I don't mean to be a walking advert for Llamapath, but I was very impressed with their overall level of organisation. Apart from always being a step ahead of the masses, our porters were well organised and, as said, the food was excellent. The porters are usually from poor farming communities, and to put it simply, were hard-ass. I carried approximately 6kg with me, they carried around 25kg. And sometimes they ran past me. Ranging in age from 19 to 55, always in line, all dressed in red, carrying colossal backpacks of tents, food, cooking equipment, tables, chairs, and the personal possessions of all the trekkers, they walked exactly the same trail as the trekkers, but much much faster, and always had our tents set up and food ready for us at each stop. It was a remarkable effort of physical endurance: while I puffed my way up slopes and collapsed each evening in my tent with aching legs, they made it seem easy - while carrying packs almost the same size as themselves. Llamapath are one of the more responsible Inca Trail companies out there, so our porters were well kitted out, and Llamapath has even built them a resthouse in Cusco, so that they don't have to sleep on the streets between treks. Other, less reputable companies, are known for overloading their porters, and indeed many passed us, some wearing just flip-flops, and with notably more ragged packs and clothes.

There's no doubt that the Inca Trail is a physically demanding trek. It may not require months of training, and I'm hardly in prime physical shape, but it does require a very stern test of endurance, and my leg muscles felt it for days after. Being the rainy season, the weather often turned nasty, blasting down squalls of rain and wind upon us, although only on the final day did it really go for it with a vengeance. Nonetheless, the clouds often lifted, the skies cleared, and aside from the Inca ruins, we were allowed incredible views of the Andes.

Arguably, the Inca Trail itself could be considered a Wonder. Countless miles of ancient stone paths linking together, peppered with ruined structures, often spectacular. Rather like the Great Wall of China stretches on and on, so does the Inca Trail, although less visibly than the Great Wall. It is a remarkable experience. The Inca Trail Danielle and I undertook was a four day, three night trail, although the final day was essentially a straightforward 2-ish hour walk to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu and then Machu Picchu itself. It is approximately 26 miles, which you may recognise as roughly the same distance as a marathon. Except this is a marathon up mountains, that takes days of gruelling hiking along a very demanding ancient trail. So, to humble us, on Day 2 our other guide, Carlos, told us that sometimes the trail is run as an actual marathon. How long does this four day trek take a marathon runner? The record is 3 hours 45 minutes. I think I'll stick to walking.


  1. I never knew that there were so many substantial Inca ruins (and in relatively good condition) leading up to Macchu Pichu, although it makes sense when you think about it. Maybe it's one of those cases where the main attraction eclipses the rest in the mind of people hearing about it from afar.

    I wouldn't worry too much about the locals sprinting past you while you try to catch your breath - I read somewhere that they have evolved to have a much larger lung capacity due to their high-altitude environment (I'm not talking about exercising towards it, but genetically). In fact I'd be curious to know if if they look more barrel-chested than Westerners.

    I am looking forward to reading about your first glimpse of Macchu Pichu. I think you were right about trekking there rather than taking the easy route. Easy to say from my perspective sitting at home perhaps, I'm sure Danielle will agree!

    1. Locals were definitely more rotund and stocky than Westerners. They also had a very Asiatic look to them, something they themselves commented on. I'd not be at all surprised to know they were adapted to the altitude - our porters were direct descendants of the Incas.

      The Inca Trail might be pretty exhausting, but it was amazing. The one I did is just one of many. If I had lots more time and money, I'd definitely like to do more of them, and explore more ruins. I suspect, however, that Danielle would not be jumping at the chance to join me.


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