Walking in the steps of Incas

Sleep deprived and with my legs feeling like lead, I hobbled up to the Sun Gate – a walled platform high up in the mountains. I  peered through a gap in the bricks to catch my first glimpse of the iconic view that adorns almost every guidebook of South America. I’d been walking for four days and camping for three nights on the classic Inca trail.

Four days earlier, I’d joined my tour group on a bus out of Cusco just after 5am. We made our way out of Cusco and along the mountain roads for over two hours, stopping briefly in Ollantaytambo to have breakfast and stock up on stacks. Finally we were dropped at ‘Kilometre 82’ – the beginning of the classic Inca trail and we were released into the national park, met by the Urumbamba river nestled in the valley of sharply rising mountains. The dirt track  we took wound slowly away from the river into these mountains During the first morning, the sun was at its hottest and we trekked past our first archaeological site – an Inca village carved into the mountain side. Our guide explained to us the ingenuity of the Incas in building their villages with their terraces aligned to ensure they could harvest food twice a year. The rest of the day passed at a fairly leisurely pace with everyone getting to know each other. We had a big lunch and enough time for a quick sit down in the sun to digest it. At around 4pm, we arrived at camp to the porters cheering for us; rather ironic given that in the time it had taken us to make it there, they had packed up the lunch campsite, dashed to this one and set up all of our sleeping tents and started cooking our dinner. We ate and chatted happily and then climbed into our tents in the darkness at around 7:30 to fall asleep straight away.

We were woken up at 5:30am with a cup of coca tea and given an hour to pack up our possessions and fill our stomachs with the breakfast provided. Following that, we set off on the second day’s trekking – the one that we’d all been briefed was ‘the challenging day’. Unlike the previous day, this day’s route involved an unrelenting climb over several hours to ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ 4,200m above sea level. As we trekked steadily upwards with hearts thudding in our chests, everything around us changed. The dense greenery and cascading waterfalls of the jungle faded and slowly morphed into the stark, grey mountain tops. We constantly thought that we were on the final set of steps but every corner we turned revealed a higher peak for us to reach. By the time we were nearing the summit, the altitude meant that we were having to stop every couple of minutes to try and catch a breath. By mid afternoon, we took our final steps to scramble to the top. It was bitterly cold with unrelenting gusts of wind and perpetual drizzle. After a celebratory photo and some breathlessly exchanged congratulations, we headed over the other side to tackle the downwards climb – two hours of steps carved into the rock, uneven and slippery from the rain.

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After a couple of hours of knee-breaking steps, we spied the campsite – the brightly coloured tents standing out against the greenery of the landscape. Almost as soon as we saw it, we watched the mist roll into the valley, obscuring the campsite from view. Yet the path was reliable and we followed it down to the campsite, a small clearing next to a stream halfway down the mountain.

That evening we sat around in the dining tent scoffing fresh popcorn and playing cards.  “It’s a clear night. It’s going to be a cold one.” our guide mused after dinner. Several hours later, I was wearing all the clothes I had taken with me, including two pairs of socks on my feet and one on my hands, and huddled in the foetal position somewhere towards the bottom of my sleeping bag. I could feel the cold seeping through from the rocky floor beneath me. It was a tough night and, despite the physical exhaustion, I barely slept. I crawled out of my tent on the third morning feeling groggy and unprepared for the day. However, there are very few options for the person who wakes up on the Inca trail and “doesn’t really feel like trekking today, thanks”. There are no shortcuts or emergency exits. I gave myself as strong a pep talk as I could muster, laced up my boots and joined my group for day three.

The third day is meant to be the day for stunning views. My muscles were sore from the night before, but we wound our way along paths with sheer drops to one side and lush jungle vegetation on the other. The only thing keeping me from vertigo was the thick fog of cloud that enveloped us. Instead of peering down to the valley hundreds of feet below at the side of the path, all we could see was a vast white nothingness as if we were walking on the edge of the world. The mist meant that we missed some of the views, but the atmosphere of the fog gave day three an unforgettable mystical quality.

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The third night brought more warmth than the previous one but still no sleep. The ground was still uncomfortably hard and in every position I tried to sleep in, I could feel the bones of my hips and shoulders against the unforgiving surface. Still, we didn’t need to sleep long as we were woken up at 3:30 to pack up for the final time and head the 10 minutes down to the bottom of the campsite where we joined the queue along with the other trekking groups at the entrance to Machu Picchu and tried to keep ourselves warm as the sun rose.

I had a sharp pain in my knee that started as I was descended the steps aptly nicknamed the ‘Gringo Killers’ the day before. Once we’d been allowed into the site, I hobbled along the final kilometres using my walking sticks like crutches, cursing every downhill step.

Finally I reached the Sun Gate, and braced myself for the famous view. I held my breath for the first glance, but as I peered over the cloud continued to shroud Machu Picchu, and it was invisible. Our guide gestured to the direction of it, but the mist was thick and unmoving. Still, onwards and downwards, we still had a long rocky path to descend to Machu Picchu.

As we descended, the cloud began to shift and the image that I’d seen covering the windows on tourist shops all over Cusco and adorning the cover of my guidebook came into view. It was hard to believe that this was the real life source of the image and not just another mock up. I felt as if I was on an elaborate film set.

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As our guide led us around the streets and corridors of the lost city, up and down steps, we began to understand the lives of the people who had lived there hundreds of years earlier. Having a deep affinity with nature, they worshipped the things that sustained them and gave them life – the sun, the moon and the earth. The sheer amount of effort and ingenuity in the city is hard to imagine. The window in the Temple of the Sun is positioned in just the right place so that when the summer solstice comes every year, the sunbeams go directly through the window at the front of the temple of sun and throw a rectangle of light on the altar, perfectly matched to the size of the surface and illuminating it completely. Another window on a different side serves a similar purpose for the winter solstice.

The sharp, precise lines of the bricks that form the temples have chiselled so painstakingly that they look like they were built yesterday rather than several hundred years ago.

Llamas roam the site freely keeping the grass short. They hop from terrace to path and back again, mingling with the tourists and creating all manner of photo opportunities. I think I took more photos of llamas than the site itself.

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Finally we left the site to head into ‘Machu Picchu Town’ or Aguas Calientes. We reunited with our group and celebrated the end of our journey with pizza and sangria. We then lazily wiled away the afternoon until catching the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a bus which reached Cusco just after 10pm. I had a ten minute walk back to my hostel, and then a euphoric reunion with a hot shower, a mattress and not one but two pillows.

I’ve already started to forget the cold bones and aching legs of the the trek, and I find it hard to believe that it was me climbing up those endless steps on day two. Looking through my photos, there’s a sense that it was someone else that sweated under that bright yellow poncho and hauled themselves up the endless steps into the clouds. It’s only the residual heaviness in my legs that makes me certain that it was me.

It’s inspired me to do more treks. It was very tough to go without a hot shower and a comfortable sleep after a hard day’s exercise. But I loved the feeling of physical strength that I got from climbing step after step after step. I enjoyed the easy camaraderie on the way – the on/off conversation that accompanied the rhythmic trudging of feet. I miss how simple the day was but what a sense of achievement there was at the end. It was exactly the contrast I needed from my two months in Colombia and an excellent remedy for the sense of disorientation that I was feeling after leaving it.

I have another week or so in Peru and I’m excited to explore the other nature it has to offer.

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