A few summers ago I embarked upon the ultimate adventure, a trek along the Inca Trail to reach UNESCO World Heritage site Machu Picchu. It seems a little cliché now considering the thousands of tourists who also journey to the “Old Peak” each year – and that’s not including the hordes that make the day trip by train – but for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip.
Over the years Cusco has become more and more saturated with tourists – close to 2 million visit each year – and the once historical streets are now lined with tour companies and commercial shops – there’s even a McDonalds! Regardless, my journey to Machu Picchu was one I will not soon forget, filled with personal challenges, incredible scenery, great company and unforgettable memories.
Meeting up with my good friend Cait from Australia and two other Ozzies, the four of us headed to Cusco a few days before our trek to get acclimatized to the higher altitude. With an elevation of around 10,800 feet, many tourists suffer from altitude sickness – a pesky nausea from atmospheric pressure – and find it takes a few days to adjust. We decided to travel with Peru Treks because of a recommendation from some friends but there are a number of providers that offer similar 4-day, 3-night treks.
Peru Treks: www.perutreks.com
Machu Picchu Treks: www.machupicchutreks.com
Peru for Less: www.peruforless.com
Andean Travel: www.andeantravelweb.com
Salkantay Trek: www.salkantay.org
Day One of our trek took us 12 km to Wayllabamba. We had hired porters to carry the bulk of our sleeping stuff but had to carry on our backs two one-litre bottles of water (there are few places to buy water on the trek), layers for the varying temperatures, our cameras and any snacks we might need throughout the day. We also picked up some neat walking sticks from a small village on the walk to make us feel like more authentic trekkers. At our camp in Wayllabamba – Quechuan for “grassy plain” we had the most delicious meal of quinoa soup, potato fritters and some really hearty stew before settling in for the night.
I’ll never forget my early morning wake-ups while on the Inca Trail. At the crack of dawn we would hear a soft voice outside our tent saying “windía, chicas” – “good morning” in a mix of Quechua and Spanish – followed by “coca?”. It took me until later in Day Two to fully understand the need for coca – a plant made from leaves found along the mountain range – and how it would play such a pivotal role in my journey.
The biggest challenge of the day was ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’, a gruelingly steep climb known for weeding out the true trekker from the day-trippers. Cait and I quickly fell to the back of the group and spent the bulk of the day chewing rolled up coca leaves to stave off the altitude sickness and learning Quechuan phrases from our awesome guide while fighting off the scorching sun and freezing wind. Despite the shame of being the last of our group to reach camp, this was my favourite day. We had the privacy of the trail where we rarely passed another trekker and learned all kind of things about the surrounding areas through broken ‘Spanglish’. That night at camp, we stayed up late drinking whisky to ward off the cold and laughing with our porters who, despite the language barrier, attempted to learn how to play ‘rummy’ – most of them only spoke Quechua.
Day Three took us through a series of ruins and plains where potatoes grow. There are over 30 varieties of potatoes in Peru which surprisingly made for some delicious starchy delicacies throughout the trek. The most significant of the ruins is Sayacmarca or ‘Invisible Town’ so named for the sheer cliffs that protect it from every side but it was the snow-capped peaks of Salkantay and Veronica and the famous town of Phuyupatamarca – ‘Town in the Clouds’ – that had our cameras flashing.
Victory started early on Day Four with a 4am wake-up call and a 5km walk through the pitch black to the Sun Gate. I’m not sure if it was the fatigue or the three days of anticipation, but as we reached the final pass and descended down the 50 steps, my heart leapt at the sight. The sun had not yet risen and there was a murky haze but like a postcard Machu Picchu spread out before our eyes.
A million pictures followed, but to be honest, the rest of the day was a blur as we wandered through the famous ruins. By 9am, trains with freshly showered tourists began to roll in and as we sat with some wild lamas we reflected on the last 4 days. Machu Picchu really is a sight to behold, but it was the journey getting there that will live on in my memory.
For more information on Machu Picchu, visit the UNESCO World Heritage website.