The Classic Inca Trail – Machu Picchu
'The Classic Inca Trail' ends at the world famous 'Machu Picchu', the largest and best preserved ruin of an Inca settlement. For Centuries it was buried deep in the high Jungle (at 2,472m/8,000ft) until it was rediscovered by an academic from Yale named Hiram Bingham in 1911. He took 60 boxes of Inca artefacts back to the States which the Peruvians have been trying to recover ever since.
The 50km walk does not sound very taxing until you take into account the altitude (up to 4,215m/13,700ft), the difficulty of the terrain (I mean steep!) and the fact that we covered it in only 3 days. It is also a bit hard-arsed in that the nights are extremely cold (you go to sleep fully dressed) and the showers are so cold everyone goes smelly. From a female point of view the loos are a little trying.
A walking group will consist of trekkers, guides and 15 porters (including one that is euphemistically called a Chef). While the local guides speak decent English, the porters don’t. Neither do they speak Spanish but rather Quechua, the local language, and the tongue of the Incas. Most communication is done with exaggerated arm and eyebrow movement or, through the guides.
Guides and customers will set off first leaving the porters to break camp after either breakfast or lunch. The porters overtake the group after a couple of hours, running past carrying huge loads and sweating profusely. By the time you reach the lunch or evening stop a camp will be set up. It is impossible not to admire the effort they put in to their task which they do with a smile and good nature always. They are all small guys who are tiny but carry 25 kg on their backs and all of them have inappropriate footwear (flip flops/ broken shoes/sandals) but they scamper about the mountain like Ibex.
Your day will usually start with being woken at 5.00am, just as it is getting light, with a cup of mate tea made from coca leaf. In fact coca seems to be the local cure-all for every ailment. It is claimed that it cures headaches, stomach ailments, altitude sickness, ‘marital problems’ and just about anything else
The first day’s walk is pretty easy. A gentle incline leads to a lunch stop at an Inca settlement called Q’entimarka (aka Patallaqta). Stopping the days walk at around 5.00pm the night closes in quickly and you will discover exactly how cold it can be camping at altitude. The first night is ‘only’ at 3,300m (10,725ft) but many people crawl into sleeping bags wearing all your clothes and will still shiver. The second day is the hardest with a climb over the highest pass on the trail and descending into the high jungle on the other side. After a lunch break, you’ll climb over another pass almost as high as the first before descending into cloud and mosquitoes.
The first pass is known as Dead Woman’s Pass because, from a distance, it looks like a woman lying on her back who has had breast augmentation. For once no imagination was required to see why it was so called and it would be impossible to get lost in the area whilst trying to pass it. The route up was lined with stones, all of which had been deliberately (or so it seemed) laid unevenly with some very large steps upward. The top is at 4,215m (13,700ft) but so worth it for the magnificent views. Behind are the crystal clear peaks of Llullchayoq and Wayllabamba and in front the tops of the inner range of the Andes stretched out forever as they struggled to stay above the cloud of the high jungle.
The second pass on the route is Abra Runkurakay, although not as high as Dead Woman’s Pass, it was steeper and had two false summits to test the resolve. Many groups do not attempt to cross the second pass in the same day but if you get the opportunity to then take it as you reach Machu Picchu the following afternoon, a day early, allowing you to visit Machu Picchu twice, in the early evening of the next day and again in the morning of the fourth day. This does involve getting permission from the National Park Rangers to bypass the last official campsite and walk down to a private campsite by the river below Machu Picchu. But well worth the effort.
Nothing prepares you for the first sight of Machu Picchu. It is a magnificent sight, the settlement being built 2,400m up in the mountains on a site that has many different levels and many different types of building. It is miraculously well preserved, 70% of it as originally built over 500 years ago with the remainder having been carefully restored to its former glory. The Spanish Invaders never made it up here and did not get the chance to destroy it as they had done with almost every other Inca site. It must have taken years to build and the stones had to be dragged into place manually (there being no horses around before the Spanish). The most important buildings are constructed out of large stone that fit together so perfectly they do not need any kind of mortar and it is impossible to fit so much as a cigarette paper between them.
A second site - Huayna Picchu - is worth visiting, but tickets are restricted to 400, is as the climb up is narrow and very steep. However the reward is at the top, for a superlative view of the whole site, there is the classic aerial view of Machu Picchu.