I’ve been hiking for as long as I can remember. From the time I could first walk my parents and grandparents would take me for walks through the forest at home and by the time I was 6 or 7 years old I would go off exploring on my own. I’d return at the end of the day covered in mud and soaking wet to be scolded by Granny and thrown in the bath. It was an awesome game. From here it only escalated to bigger and more extreme hikes; all over Australia, up and down New Zealand, the European Alps, Norway, the Dinaric Alps, the UK, Turkey and the USA. The one walk I’ve always wanted to do is the Inca trail.
The day we arrive in Cuzco Mariska is not well. By midday she is in a world of pain and can barely walk. We call a doctor who arrives in Peruvian time and after a short session he comes to the conclusion that she had a kidney infection and needs to go to hospital. The nearest clinic isn’t too far away so we walk there and she gets a room, settles in, gets an IV, gets a few blood tests and we leave her to rest for the night. The rest of the group aren’t doing the Inca trail but are also hoping to do one of the other trips so at the moment their plans are on hold. Alex, me and Conor have a night in at the hostel (karaoke night) and wait for news in the morning. Luckily by morning she is feeling heaps better from not being so dehydrated and the tests have come back saying she has 2 types of salmonella. She can leave that day.
The next couple of days are spent in preparation for the hike. But worryingly on the last day I start to notice a sore throat and a bit of a cough is starting. We’ve all got some sort of annoying altitude related cough but this starts to feel more like I’m getting sick. On the last night before I leave for the hike we all have a group meeting at the tour headquarters and make sure everyone knows the amount of equipment they will need to bring. At the end of the meeting I go back to the hostel I completely repack my bag and weigh it. All together my gear weighs in at 14kg’s which is fairly light considering the amount our team of porters (chasqui’s) will be carrying. These guys are absolutely superhuman. Usually around 160cm tall they all carry at least 20kg’s and instead of walking the trail they do it at a light jog to set up camp before all of us arrive. By the end of the trip I have so much respect for them.
The next morning is the day and I have a full blown chest infection. I’m coughing up the colours of the rainbow and seriously considering whether I should be going on the trip… but I go anyway, it’s no big deal. After a few hours on the bus we arrive at the trailhead with a big sign proclaiming the start of the trail. Our team is by far the biggest with 20 porters, 16 trekkers and 3 guides all carrying enough equipment for 4 days of trekking. There is a quick passport check at the beginning but after that we are finally on the march.
The whole first day is really just a pleasant walk and we have a great time just enjoying the scenery. Starting at around 2200m over the 12km day we ascend to 2700m. It’s a great chance to meet more of the group and bond over chewing bagfull’s of coca leaves. We are a diverse group as well, a few single guys, a few couples, a few single girls and from just about everywhere on the globe. Considering how many of us there are we all get along really well and they all turn out to be a great trekking crew. Over the course of the day we pass some pretty incredible ruins that are impossible to see from the train which sticks to the canyon. We keep climbing and the path branches off to a side valley where the camp is for the first night.
Camp one is actually in a family’s backyard. They must be making a killing out of the arrangement because they sell everything from beer to thongs to hot showers. Around this time we realise how incredible the camp set up is. We have 10 tents, a dining pavilion and a kitchen which are all being carried by the porters. For camping it’s complete luxury and then there’s the food. Every meal is soup followed by platters and platters of food which we can never finish and on top of this it’s the best food I’ve eaten for weeks. Here we are in the middle of the Andes eating like we’re at a 5 star hotel. We all get sent to bed around 7pm and I don’t know how but I fell asleep in about 5 minutes.
I wake up coughing up a lung but apart from that I feel like a million bucks. More incredible food is on the menu for breakfast and then it’s time to get back onto the path. Today is the hard day and we’ll be climbing from 2700m to 4300m in a few hours before a quick decent into a canyon for the second night. Our guide must think we look extra athletic because he decided to add in an extra 90 minute side trek which goes to another Inca watchtower before we re-join the main path. As we get to the base of mountain we stop for a couple of minutes and shove a handful of coca into our mouths. After a minute or so our faces have gone numb from the alkaloids and it’s time to get going, while half of the group are singing ‘can’t feel my face’. With the burst of energy from the coca we have an amazing pace as we climb for the next hour until we reach our first break at around 3300m.
Relaxing next to a mountain stream scoffing chocolate my daydreaming is interrupted by the guide telling us that the next hour will be absolute hell. Between us and lunch is around 3000 steps and another 500m higher to go. We knew what kind of punishment we signed up for but still collectively moan and start putting on our backpacks. There’s something cathartic about having a group whinge. For 30 minutes we climb step after step and our pace isn’t too bad until we reach an area where each step is at least half a meter. I’d been in the first faster group up until this point and we all stuck together really well but this new section is where the hike became a personal battle. In no time we had all started battling at our own pace and the group had broken apart to the point where I was now climbing by myself through the jungle. Step after step for what seemed like forever and sweating so much it didn’t seem possible the trail carried on like this for another hour. Just when I was at the point of exhaustion I came out into a clearing where the lunch tent had been erected. Within a few seconds of reaching the clearing a tropical downpour started and we all ran for cover inside the tent, waiting out the storm while we ate and struggled to stay warm.
By the time we finished eating the sun had come out and the temperature jumped by at least 10 degrees. We quickly packed up our gear and started the final uphill section to the top of the high pass. This next couple of hours was easily the hardest bit of hiking I’d ever done and right away the group split up as we all started to find a pace that worked. The altitude was starting to become noticeable as well, even breathing as fast as possible I just couldn’t get enough oxygen and each step became an individual challenge. I started off pretty quick but by 100m below the pass I’d be taking a break for a minute followed by a minute of walking. I was also passing others on the track who were having a much harder time. Some were crying, others couldn’t breathe and everyone was completely out of energy. Reaching the top my lungs were on fire and it felt like every muscle in my body was starting to cramp. It took a few minutes to stop hyperventilating and we all just laid/sat down next to the path while we waited for everyone. It took 45 minutes until everyone reached us.
The path down to camp two was an easy few km downhill to a high valley which had waterfalls completely surrounding the camp. We spent a while stargazing before crawling off to bed and falling asleep to the sound of water. Again the dinner was amazing.
The third day we woke up groggy and half frozen to a cup of coca tea being passed through the tent zipper. The hardest part of the hike today is another insane ascent to a pass just lower than yesterday. On the positive side it only takes 90 minutes to reach there because we are much fresher and starting at a higher altitude. Reaching the summit we stopped for a small Incan ceremony to honour Pachamama and give thanks for a good hike so far. The ceremony takes place on the highest part of the mountain on a rocky outcrop and we can see why the spot has been chosen as being so important. From there looking in every direction we are above the clouds and you can see just about every landscape Peru has to offer; jungle, glaciers, alpine meadows, high desert and scrubland.
From this point the hike followed the ridge line towards Machu Picchu. In some areas the path had been built up along the side of the mountain like a highway with a cliff above and below. Standing on the edge of areas like this looking out over the clouds and jungle I could almost fool myself into thinking that this must be what flying feels like. The path weaves through the high jungle for kilometer after kilometer along the ridge until we come to a point where the mountain begins to drop away. In the distance, a long way down into the canyon, we can see Machu Picchu Mountain below us.
Our camp for that night is just behind the mountain so we have a long way to get down before sunset. Myself and one of the other guys decide that for a bit of fun we will jog with the chasqui’s who have been sprinting past us all day. It was probably a stupid idea but for the next hour we run with them down the stone steps… carrying all of our gear… at 4000m… until our bodies are broken. Up ahead on the path we see a couple of llama’s and slow down to walk around them and feed them a banana (llamas love banana’s!) as we walk around them we see this.
Not too far further is camp 3 and a couple of minutes’ walk away is the temple of the rainbow. In some kind of crazy coincidence as we arrive at the temple a rainbow appears over the valley. It was really the perfect way to end one of the biggest physical challenges I’ve ever had.
There isn’t much celebration at camp that night because we need to wake up at 3am the next day to get to the Sun Gate for sunrise. We line up in the pouring rain for an hour the next morning until the track is opened at 5am and we start the 90 minute power walk to get there on time. Since we woke the weather had been terrible and climbing the final steps to the sun gate we knew that there would be nothing to see for us. Sure enough, as we walk through the gate all we can see is cloud. We can’t have good luck all the time I guess. The next stop is Machu Picchu so we decide not to wait any longer and get down there before the crowds.
We arrive at the back gate to see the fresh faced tourists who arrived on the train that morning. Compared to us looking sleep deprived, haggard, dirty and scratched I can’t help but feel they are completely missing a big part of being there. Arriving there after such a big challenge makes it even more spectacular and rewarding. As everyone finishes we all congratulate each other, have a big group hug and take in the view. It’s the most incredible ancient site I’ll probably ever see in the most incredible natural site I’ll ever see.