My Inca Trail experience actually began on a cold and wet February morning in Kensington Olympia, West London. My wife and I had spent seven years in the UK, and had decided to spend some time in South America on the way back to New Zealand. So, armed with our trusty travel guidebook, we headed along to the Adventure Travel Expo. Machu Picchu had always been on our list of ‘must-do’ activities, yet somehow we managed to find enough South American ‘must-do’s’ to book ourselves on a 6-month trip around the continent.
It took us nearly 3 months to make our way from Rio to Cuzco, by way of the Emerald Coast beaches of Brazil, the stunning scenery of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, and the dizzying heights of the Altiplano in Bolivia. By the time we finally arrived in Cuzco, we had spent nearly a month at altitude. Other than mild symptoms of altitude sickness (losing our breath and having mild headaches when going up to 4800m to see the sun rise at the El Tatio geysers in Bolivia) we felt as if we were ready to hit the trail.
Cuzco is the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, and is the starting point for most people on the Inca Trail. You can easily spend several days there adjusting to the altitude if required. The beautiful Plaza de Armas is flanked on two sides by the Cathedral and The Church of La Compania, and on the other two by colonnaded buildings containing restaurants and shops. You can buy or hire equipment for the trail itself, or merely spend time wandering through the numerous market stalls running from its cobbled side streets and narrow alleyways.
There Inca road system stretches all the way from Quito in Ecuador to Santiago in Chile. Rather than the ‘classic’ Inca Trail, which starts at the km82 mark, passes several well-preserved Inca ruins, and finishes at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu itself, we had decided to do a Quechua Community trek. We felt that the ‘classic’ trail had been over-travelled, even though the Peruvian Government now restricts the number of permits to 500 per day (including porters and guides). At the time that we did the trail, the Quechua trek was only being offered by one operator. Rather than sharing the trail with numerous other groups, we would be hiking through the Cordillera Urubamba mountain range completely by ourselves, and it was for this reason that we decided against the ‘classic’.
On our way to the village of Quisharani to start the trek, we visited the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman just outside of Cuzco before entering the Sacred Valley to walk around the ruins of Inca Pisac. Both sites are an impressive testament to the engineering and architectural skills of the Incas. Sacsayhuaman is constructed of enormous limestone blocks, cut with such precision that a single sheet of paper will not fit between two stones. Inca Pisac sits high on the mountainside, looking out over the agricultural terraces and up into the Sacred Valley.
Pisac town itself is a lovely market town on the floor of the Valley and next to the Urubamba River. After stopping at a local restaurant for lunch (what better way to prepare yourself for 3 days trekking in the mountains than a delicious spicy chicken curry) we were driven into the highlands of the Cordillera Urubamba mountains. The mountain scenery and stunning views took our breath away as we slowly wound our way up to the trailhead and finally started the Trail itself.
As most of our first day had been spent exploring Incan ruins, we only had a gentle hour’s walk through the beautiful mountain landscape before we arrived at Quisharani, where the porters had already set up camp for us. Other than what we were carrying in our day packs (windbreakers, cameras, water, snacks etc), each person could take another 8kg of equipment which was put into a duffel-bag and would be carried between camp-sites by mules.
One of the other reasons that we had for choosing the Quechua Community Trek was that it supported several projects along the way. No sooner had we settled our gear into our tents, than we were sanding down the classroom in the local school. The local kids all came out to help, and we soon had kids on our shoulders to help reach the eaves under the roof. We had also brought along some paint, which we would leave there for the next group who came along. We had dinner in the schoolhouse, and then played games with the kids to help them with their English before we retired to our tents for the night.
The next morning brought us clear blue skies, and after breakfast we started the trek in earnest. Heading up through the high puna, we passed numerous mountain streams and lakes. There were several old stone houses dotted along the trail, with llamas and alpacas feeding outside. Climbing up to 4400m, we reached the top of the Uchuycasa Pass, where we stopped to take in panoramic views of the Urubamba mountain chain before heading down into the pampa where we stopped for lunch. By this stage we had already had one girl turn back, and another 2 were on horseback. Whilst the scenery is undoubtedly breath taking, walking at these altitudes can conspire to take away whatever breath you may have left. We found that regular drink (and photo) stops helped to alleviate most issues. After lunch, we continued heading down passed lagoons and waterfalls to the picturesque village of Cuncani. Once again we had an opportunity to play with the local kids and take part in community projects (building toilet facilities and planting trees) before climbing into our sleeping bags to rest our weary legs.
The third day was to be the hardest of the Trek. The two girls who had struggled the previous day decided to head back to Cuzco rather than carry on. Whilst this was somewhat dispiriting to the rest of the group, it soon became apparent that they had made the correct choice. Leaving early in the morning, we were faced with a steep ascent up from the valley floor, through the clouds, and up to the 4800m Pumahuacasa Pass. As we neared the peak, the weather had started to close in with strong winds buffeting us before snow started to swirl around in the wind when we got to the peak itself. However, as soon as we started heading down the other side we were protected from the elements, and we soon found ourselves in another world. From bare pampa and rocky outcroppings, we were soon walking through forests into lush green pastures. Our last campsite was beside a river on the valley floor and one of my lasting memories will be the full moon rose up over our recently conquered Pumahuacasa Pass, bathing the campsite in it’s light.
Our last day’s trek continued down into the Valley. As we descended from the woodlands, the vegetation and climate continued to change until we were walking past small farming and agricultural communities on the warm valley floor. It was a stark contrast to what we had experienced on the previous day, and our steps were all a little lighter as we reached the end of the trail at Urubamba. We said fond farewells to our guides and porters and watched as they turned around to disappear back up the trail to their homes at Quishuarani. After they had gone, we headed off to the town of Ollantaytambo.
After showering away the sweat and dirt, and letting hot water seep into sore muscles, we had a good night’s sleep at a hotel before getting the early morning train to Aguas Calientes. From there, it is only a short bus ride to Machu Picchu itself. We spent the whole day wandering around the ruins, walking up to the Sun Gate, and then climbing Huayna Picchu to look out over Machu Picchu itself.
As much as I had enjoyed the solitude of being the only group on the Quechua trek, I must admit that I was disappointed that the trail did not finish at Machu Picchu itself. In hindsight though, many of the people on the ‘classic’ trail who had woken early in the morning to get to Sun Gate for sunrise were disappointed by the cloudy morning. In fact, it is very rare to have a clear sky for sunrise in Machu Picchu. They were also leaving the citadel by 10am because they were tired from the trail itself. In contrast, we had managed a restful night’s sleep and were able to spend the entire day at Machu Picchu.
To my mind, I had the best of both worlds. I was able to walk an Inca Trail and still have a full day at Machu Picchu itself. They were completely separate experiences that synergised into something amazing. For those of you with a similar yearning to walk the ancient Inca Trails, it is an experience that I would whole-heartedly recommend.
By Vance Haywood