Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

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June 12th 2007, Park Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo. It was the last night of a 2-week trip around Japan. I was there with a couple of friends who were on a pre-marriage-and-kids tour of the world. I only had 2 weeks off work and Japan seemed like a cool place to join them.

The Hyatt’s New York Jazz Bar was the obvious place to finish the trip. It was the setting for much of my favourite film, Lost In Translation, so a final drink there would have to happen. The prices looked reasonable for Tokyo too, until I realised that the price per bottle was actually the price per glass. Just the one then...

As we recalled the highlights of the Japan trip we also listed the future trips we’d discussed on the way. Kilimanjaro would be a must... and Machu Picchu (obviously). The next day my friends continued east to Hawaii and I flew back west to London. I was already planning the new trips on the flight home.

Machu Picchu nearly happened 2 years later. My girlfriend and I were researching big holidays and Peru was my favourite at the time. In the end, we opted for Bali instead. That was the trip where my girlfriend, Timi, became my fiancé and she would have been my wife for 7 years by the time the Peru plans came round again.

In the meantime, my Japan trip friends also got married and had 3 children. I’d done Kilimanjaro and all of the other trips from the Hyatt list had been ticked. Machu Picchu was now on top of the list by a very long way.

I prepared myself to be disappointed. I’d wanted the do the Inca Trail for 10 years and I was expecting an anti-climax. I’d also read about the crowds on the trail. It still had to be done though. There was no anti-climax. It was amazing. I’d use the word awesome if it hadn’t been ruined by people using it to describe their dinner on Facebook. Yes, the trail can be crowded and there are lots of ways to do the trip badly, but our experience exceeded all of our expectations.

We took the full 4-day Inca Trail starting from Kilometre 82 at Piscacucho. We were guided by Enigma, the local partner for Audley who organised our 2-week Peru Trip. We wanted a small group experience and, by luck, we ended up with an especially small group of Timi, myself and one guy from the US. It would have been a group of 5 including a couple from Houston but Hurricane Harvey had changed their plans.

Our trek was planned around avoiding the crowds for much of the trip. The key to this was an earlier start on day 1. This meant a 04:00 pickup from our hotel in Cusco and starting the trek as soon as the KM 82 checkpoint opened. This got us half a day ahead of other trekkers and we had the whole morning on the trail to ourselves.

Following an easy and relatively flat first morning, the afternoon was a steep slog. This part, from Hatunchaca to our campsite at Llulluchampa had an elevation increase of 850m in a couple of hours. 

After breakfast on Day 2 our guide Marco introduced us to our 9 member crew. All were farmers from the local mountains who spend 5 months of the year portering. It's a good job but it means that they don't see their family for most of that time. Many are constantly on the trail, returning to the start for the next group as soon as the last has finished.

The trail is highly regulated with a limit of 200 walkers plus porters per day. There's also high standards for the guiding companies and we were pleased to see them all with good quality clothing and equipment.

Day 2 was billed as the toughest day. We followed an M-shaped elevation starting with a climb to Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail's highest point at 4,200 metres. This was followed by a steep descent then another climb to our campsite at Chaquicocha at 3,500m.

Along the route, Marco told us about the history of the area and the significance of the different Incan ruins along the way. Some were “post offices” which were relay stations to get messages over the mountains. Others were rest stops for Incas on their pilgrimages to Machu Picchu. All of it was brand new to us. We had only heard about Machu Picchu itself before the trip, and even then, only small bits about it. The trail itself is full of history, nature and amazing ruins. Overshadowed by the endpoint, the wonders of the Trail itself are an undiscovered secret to most.

Day 3 was by far the most enjoyable. It started with a short climb and then followed a ridge with views to Salkantay Mountain. Much of the rest of the morning was a steep descent on slippery Incan steps. Timi had been nervous of this section having had knee problems on steep descents in the past. With a mix of training, turmeric and Coca Tea, she mostly escaped pain this time.

We reached Day 3 camp early in the afternoon. This gave us time to rest before the crowds caught up. As the last camp before the entrance to Machu Picchu and the link with the 2-day trail, it was an especially busy site. While the other groups arrived through the afternoon and early evening we took the opportunity to explore the Winaywayna ruins next to the camp.

Day 4 was a short day of walking with just 2 hours to Machu Picchu. The checkpoint opens at 05:00 and as everyone wants to get through it early, queues start from 03:00. Once people were let through it was a mad stampede for an hour up to the Sun Gate.

Inki Puku, the Sun Gate, is the first point on the trail where you can see the Machu Picchu ruins. It's so named as it's the spot where, on the summer solstice, the sun's rays come through the gate and light up the temple in the centre of Machu Picchu. Nowadays it's a prime selfie spot as everyone jostles for the right position for their new Facebook profile pic. We didn't spend too long here.

Leaving the crowds behind for a while, we slowly walked down from the Sun Gate, stopping often at less disturbed photo spots. By the time we got to Machu Picchu itself, just before 07:00 it was already busy with day trippers who got the bus up from Aguas Calientes. Most were competing for space at the National Geographic spot for the iconic photo. We were starting to resent the day trippers. We had earned our place there whilst they had just got the bus. Bastards.

The annoyance we had with the other tourists had a lot to do with being tired and feeling grubby. Like the Inca Trail itself, Machu Picchu has its quiet spots despite the crowds. Marco did his best to steer us to the quieter places for our tour of the ruins.

As we had a ticket to return the following day we left the ruins after a couple of hours to have a rest and a shower. We are really happy that we did as we could have a more relaxing time at the ruins and find some quieter spots.

Our highlight of our return trip was the 1-hour climb up Huyana Picchu. This is the big central peak you can see behind the ruins in the main photos. Access is even more restricted and, being pretty steep, it's not for the casual visitors. The view from the top gives a different perspective of the ruins and the path we took the day before down from the Sun Gate.

Just before leaving we found a quiet spot on the hill and stared at the ruins below and the peaks rising up above it. I could have stayed there all day. Far from being an anti-climax, it was a perfect moment. Having visualised this moment for 10 years since Tokyo, it was so much more than I hoped for.

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Richard gowerComment