The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru

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The Inca trail to Machu Picchu

I joined a group of 14 friends for one of those rare journeys of a lifetime. It was a multi activity trip culminating in negotiating the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Tour operator was Amazonas Explorer, a company specialising in South American exploration and activity type holidays. It was a very slick operation with every piece of the itinerary jigsaw meticulously arranged in every detail and a company that takes a responsible attitude to the way tourism affects the environment in that part of the world.
After many hours flying with transfers in New York and Lima we flew into Cusco, 3,200 metres high in the Andes and centre for the ancient Inca civilisation. At that height we needed time to acclimatise and spent the day viewing the sites and town market with Alan our Peruvian guide for the first few days.
Led by Carol the second day was spent horse riding in the hills above Cusco and at the same time visiting some ancient Inca sites. The first site was Tambo Mackay (The Water Temple), a temple containing pools of water fed from natural springs, at one time used in bereavement ceremonies. We then visited Puca Pucara, a small fort guarding the road into Cusco. At this point I should mention there is no documented evidence of Inca culture, whatever existed was destroyed by the Spanish during their invasion in 1532 who tried to eradicate anything to do with the Incas. This brings us to Sacsaywamen, an enormous ruin on top of a hill overlooking Cusco which was too big for the Spanish to demolish although they did use some of its stones to build some of their own buildings. The structure contained what is thought to have been a round pool for observing the stars. It is thought that the Incas were very advanced in astronomy. The structure also contained a large open space, no one knows for sure what this was for, it could have been used as a garrison, temple, sports ground or a combination of all three. Like many important sections of Inca structures the perimeter walls were made from very large granite stones each weighing several tons. How they got them there was one thing but then to tailor the joints so there were no gaps seemed impossible.
Led by Paul day 3 saw us canoeing on the Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, a river which contained a few small rapids up to grade 2 and finishing the day in Pisac, a small town with a large market selling locally made products.
We had a new guide for day 4, Simon who was to look after us for the next 3 days cycling. We were taken to the top of a mountain pass 4,400 metres high, kitted out with good quality mountain bikes and safety gear with the intention of cycling down the other side. Initially the dirt road was very steep with some very tight hairpin bends; main concern was making sure we didn’t go over the edge. We travelled downhill all day through some isolated mountain settlements to Lares where we camped overnight by some geothermically heated pools.
Day 5 we were taken back to the top of the pass this time descending in the direction of Calca via an old Inca path which followed a stream down through a gorge to a small settlement where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we picked up the road again. One minute I was pedalling nonchalantly downhill, the next minute I was being put into the support Land Rover for transfer to hospital. For some reason I came off my bike but cannot recollect why? The hospital was very good, they checked me over, cleaned me up, kept me in overnight with concussion and released me the following day to re-join the group now at Urubamba.
On day 7, with the help of a supplementary diet of Ibrobrufen and other tablets given to me by the hospital, I had to motivate my bruised and battered body for the Inca trail, one of the world’s highest walks. The length of 28 miles, over 3 ½ days doesn’t sound much but then factor in the altitude – several peaks with overall altitude ranging between 2,650m (8,600ft) and 4,200m (13,650ft).
We met Effie our guide for this part of the trip at Ollantaytambo, location of another impressive Inca fortress, and met our team of 20 porters at the start of the trail. Only those with the correct permit and using officially approved guides and porters are allowed on the trail. We used wild camps therefore everything had to be carried up; food; cooking equipment; tents and even a chemical loo. Tour operators are concerned about the environment so camp sites are always left perfectly clean after use.
All 14 of us did the first section following the river Urubamba to a camp site at Llactapata and were very pleased to see a happy bunch of porters waiting to greet us having already set up camp. Across the river was another Inca site which was terraced and probably used for growing vegetables, the humble potato originated in this part of the world.
The following morning common sense prevailed for 6 of the group who retraced their steps back to civilisation leaving 8 of us to start climbing proper, camping that night at 3,680m with snow-capped mountains all around.
The start of day 9 saw us climb to the summit of Warmiwanusca (Dead woman’s pass), at 4,200m the highest point of the trail before descending into the Pacasmayo valley, or Cloud Forest, passing the ancient Inca garrison ruins of Runkuraqay before climbing to a mountain pass of the same name at 3,780m. The trail then passes through tropical rain forest with very strange vegetation including many varieties of orchid before arriving at Phuyupatamarca (place above the clouds) where we camped for the night. The site was definitely not for those with a tendency to sleep walk, perched on the top of a mountain pass with views of snow-capped mountains all round and deep valleys below.
The start of day 10 saw us say farewell to our porters who had looked after us so well the past few days before descending into the Cloud Forest, passing through the ancient Inca ruin Winay Wayna before reaching, what the locals refer to as “Gringo’s killer”, a very steep set of steps leading to Inti Punka (The Sungate) and one of the world’s finest views; having trekked for 3 ½ days the first and most rewarding sight of Mach Picchu was laid out in all it’s glory below us. Saving a tour of the ruins for the following day we passed slowly through the ruins to catch a bus down to Aguas Calientes to meet up with the rest of the group who were waiting to see how we got on.
The following day saw us catching an early bus back up the zig zag road for a tour of Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourists arrived. As a UNESCO world heritage site with access by train it has become very popular. Only a small percentage will, of course, have the satisfaction of getting there by the same route as the Incas.
With assistance from the National Geographical Society Machu Picchu was discovered for the outside world by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. It is a site the Spanish did not find during their invasion which left it as the largest complete Inca settlement. It is perfectly landscaped and contains royal, ceremonial and religious architecture along with astronomical alignments. It survives as a perfect example of Inca planning and engineering.
The holiday was rounded off with an internal flight from the highlands to Puerto Maldonado where we were taken by small boat to a Rainforest Lodge in the heart of the rainforest. The first thing we noticed was the change in temperature from the fresh mountain air to the humid warm air of the jungle. The Lodge was set up for Eco tourists, those people who want to learn more about the rainforest and its environment. Activities included climbing to the top of a 40m tower to view the rainforest from above. We got up at 4.00am, yes in the morning, to see the sunrise along with the wildlife, particularly exotic birds, on a lake. We then visited a Shaman in his garden. A Shaman is a local medicine man who uses plants and trees to make his medicines. His garden contains all the plants and trees he needs and has medicines which covered all the major diseases including an alternative for Viagra.
The 2 day journey home with 8 hour stops in Lima and Houston was a bit arduous, but then you have to take the rough with the smooth. Overall it was a rare journey of a lifetime.

Stafford Steed