Sunday, 17 July 2011

There Will Be Mud: Ciudad Perdida Trek

Having completed the Inca Trail less than two weeks previously, Stu and I decided we were suckers for punishment and signed ourselves up for an epic five-day jungle trek to the Ciudad Perdida (´Lost City´) deep in the Sierra Nevada (tropical Colombian foresty mountains). We signed up with Expotur in Taganga, who were excellent. When we initially signed up we were told we would be in a small group of seven people (including our friend Richie who we met in Cartagena), but by the morning of the trip this had expanded drastically to 18 people! At first we had our reservations about this, but it turned out to be no problem at all since the whole group got on brilliantly and the fantastic people on the trek with us elevated the experience from a memorable trek to one of the most fun things we´ve done on our entire trip!

Day 1

We started on South American Time (i.e. waiting around while everyone faffed about for ages) before 10 trekkers, 2 guides and a driver were crammed into a jeep and driven for a hot and sweaty couple of hours down an increasingly bumpy road to the start of the trek. We arrived to meet the second van-load of our group in the village that would be our starting point, and got to know each other over a lunch of sandwiches. Richie had kindly lent us a backpack (we otherwise only had one between us), so we set off with our backpacks lightly packed for ease of trekking, our walking sticks from the Inca Trail, and some wet shoes for river crossings which turned out to be incredibly useful.

Not ten minutes had passed before we reached our first river crossing and changed out of our hiking boots and into our wet shoes. It is so hot out here that wading through the rivers is a refreshing treat, but it was about to get a whole lot wetter: about 15 minutes into the trek the skies opened and it bucketed down with rain! Heavy, hot, tropical rain that soaked us to the skin in seconds. We shrouded our backpacks in plastic bags and stayed in our wet shoes, continuing on through the jungle while taking a compulsory open-air shower. I actually really began to appreciate how cooling the rain was when the sun came out again and baked us!

It was uphill for ages on the first day, on a path that ranged from a neat country trail to a red mudslide, and went through sections of jungle and up onto hilltops with beautiful views of the countryside. We had stop for watermelon slices and coffee, which made all the difference.

A tidy-looking path at the start of the trek:

The view:
The mud:

We arrived at camp around 5pm, and I was impressed by how good it was. We were sleeping in hammocks that were covered by mosquito nets, and the camp was sheltered by a roof so we wouldn´t be soaked by the regular tropical rains. The camp also had showers (the luxury!) and big wood burning stoves for our dinner. (I hung my soaking wet, folorn-looking shorts over the stove overnight in the hope of drying them, but we quickly discovered that nothing really dries in the humidity of the jungle. Better to grow accustomed to the constant damp instead.) We were fed really well on the trek too, with big plates of rice and veg, and even soy meat for me and the other veggie in the group! We spent the evening trying (unsuccessfully) to dodge mosquitoes, while playing the card game ´spoons´. I slept surprisingly well in the hammock, too.

Our hammocks:
Day 2

The second day was the easiest one of all. We got up around 7am to coffee/hot chocolate and a delicious breakfast of granola, fruit and yoghurt (very rare in South America), before doing a reasonably easy two and half hours walking to the next camp.

Filling up a water bottle from a waterfall:

Some noisy wildlife:

The two of us on fine trekking form (note the long socks pulled up to provide a little extra protection against the mosquitoes - they love to bite your ankles!):

The weather was much sunnier too, although after the first day we were deeper in the shady jungle so it wasn´t too baking hot. Nevertheless, we were all pretty sweaty by the time we arrived at camp, so we all headed down to the river to jump in for a swim - lovely! There was a 7-8 metre rock jump into the deep river, and a tough swim against the current to get back across - a very refreshing start to a relaxing afternoon in the jungle.

After lunch, we took a walk to a nearby Kogui village, which was really interesting. The Koguis are one of the tribes of people indigenous to northern Colombia, and they are the most traditional of these communities. They still speak their own language (although many speak Spanish as well), and they live in traditional round thatched huts and wear white. (Our campsite was run by a different indigenous people, the Arsarios, and they made us feel very welcome.)

Kogui homes:
Some Kogui boys we met at the village:

In the evening of Day 2, Stu and I taught everyone a card game we had learned during our Bolivian salt flats trip: ´Werewolf´. It´s something of a murder mystery game, and it became an ongoing theme of the trip, with many games played each night!

Day 3

More rain. Lots of rain. We were supposed to be up at 5am but the rain delayed our start so the guides let us sleep till 6am! Nevertheless we set off quickly so that we would make it across all the rivers before they got too swollen with the rain. The first big river didn´t actually require wading since there was a lift contraption set up to carry us across the valley. The lift hung from ropes and was pulled across the drop by guides at either end. Everything went smoothly until my turn came, when the rope jammed in the pulley and I was momentarily stuck, suspended over the raging river below! Luckily I didn´t have time to get worried, as with a jolt (which nearly sent me flying out the back) the rope was freed and I made it to the other side.

Trekking in the rain:

Stu crossing the river in the rickety lift contraption:

Me with our excellent guide/translator Carlos, with an enormous bamboo thicket behind us:

There was a lot of uphill walking on the third day, but our spirits were kept up with regular stops for snacks of pineapple, bananas and sugar cane. We emerged out of the jungle onto this big open hilltop, with great views and a very friendly horse which ate all our banana skins:

On the final part of our ascent to the campsite, we had to wade through a waist-deep river against a really strong current - we had to hold hands in a long line to keep everyone upright, and inch our way slowly from one side to the other. Felt very intrepid, although totally soaked!

Arrival at the third campsite:

There was only one shower at this campsite, so Stu took advantage of the downpour and showered in the rain! Rather predictably, the rain calmed down a lot just after he´d got fully covered in shampoo, so he had to stand under the dripping corners of buildings for ages to get washed off.

Our treat for the third night was that Stu and I got a comfy tent to sleep in instead of hammocks, and I was very glad of that because it was really cold that night and I hadn´t counted on it being cold so I didn´t bring warm clothes! Rooky error. Nevertheless we had another fun evening in the campsite playing ´Werewolf´and building houses of cards with ´Agua´ (´Water´), a seven-year-old local boy who was very sweet.

Some friendly locals at the third campsite, during a break in the rain:

Day 4:

This was the big one: finally, we got to the lost city. We were up early, had a hot drink and headed straight to the Ciudad Perdida. It was about an hour away from the camp - half an hour through jungle and across a river, then another half an hour up some ancient, mossy stone steps the first of the city´s many terraces.

Another river crossing:
The steep climb up the stone steps to the lost city:

The steps were really small for us - I think because the people who built the city were so much smaller than we are. So it was 1200 little steps up and up through the forest until we emerged into a clearing decorated with several stone circles that were apparently the locations of houses. This first clearing was once the city´s market, centuries ago.

Made it!:
In the clearing our excellent guide Archie and translator Carlos gave us an interesting history of the city. It is believed to date back to 800AD (making it over six centuries older than Machu Picchu), and the local indigenous communities call it´Teyuna´. It was originally inhabited by the Tairona people, who were the ancestors of today´s indigenous tribes. The city was never really ´lost´to the local peoples who have alway lived deep in the jungle here, but it was more widely discovered in 1972 after treasure hunters found the stone steps which led to the abandoned city (it was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest). The local tribes still hold a festival in the city every year.

The city consists of a network of circular terraces and plazas, joined by stone staircases. It was really amazing to wander through it, you never really got a sense of the scale of the city because each terrace was obscured from the next by the thick jungle. Staircases go off in lots of directions and it would be easy to get lost there! It was also mosquito-central: I had never seen so many enormous mossies in my life, and you couldn´t stand still for long without being totally devoured by them! As we were given the history of the place, we must have looked like a group of crazies, all swatting around at the air and smacking ourselves to get rid of them!

One of the many mossy stone staircases leading through the jungle to the cleared terraces that made up this jungle city:

Staircase leading up to one of the terraces:

View from one of the upper terraces:

Stu had enough of the staircases...:

The site has some slightly scary stories in its past. In 2003, a group of tourists was kidnapped from there and held for three months, although they were released unharmed eventually. There have also been fights between looters and police, which resulted in some deaths. However, security has been increased and army soldiers now guard the city so it is safe for tourists again. We met the soldiers who were happy to chat with us about their experiences there - they are posted to the Ciudad Perdida for 5 months at a time!

The soldiers guarding the site, who were both very friendly and very heavily armed:

After a few hours exploring this amazing place, we headed back down the steps to camp for a delicious lunch of hot lentil soup and fried arepas, as we still had a lot of walking to do: all the way back to the campsite we stayed in on Day 2! It was a long walk, and very slippery to go downhill in all that mud - lots of people fell over at various points. But we were all so pleased to have reached our goal that spirits were high as we spent our last night in hammocks.

Day 5

Our final day meant walking from Day 2´s campsite all the way back to the start of the trek: that´s the first two days walking in reverse, in one day. It was much easier of course going downhill (with exhausted legs on the final day I couldn´t imagine the insanity of walking up the steep slopes that we had managed on the first day). We were up at 5am to start walking at 6am, so that we could make it back to the start in time for lunch. One of the guys in our group hilariously managed to bargain with a local to get a ride back on a mule, which unfortunately gave Stu a minor allergic reaction. A quick break and a couple of antihistamines later, we caught up with the group in time for a well-earned stop at a natural swimming hole - bliss! :

Our victory lunch back at the start point included a few bottles of bubbly provided by the tour to celebrate! I felt elated to have made it back, happy to have had such a good time with such good people, relieved that I would sleep in a proper bed again at last, and sad that the trip was over. I also said goodbye to my walking boots, which had seen me through about eight years but were well and truly finished off by this trek!

After a bumpy ride back to Taganga, we had the most amazing showers and naps EVER. But we made sure to get up to meet all our group (including our guide Carlos) for dinner at our hostel. A few Colombian rums later and we headed out to a bar/club on the beach which had an open-air dancefloor balcony with amazing views across the bay. Despite aching limbs, we danced the night away before collapsing back at the hostel after one of the best experiences of the year.

The morning after, Stu in a hammock in our lovely hostel, writing the dates of this second trek on our Inca Trail walking sticks:

Taganga: A Slice of Caribbean Life in Colombia

After our three days in Cartagena Ania and I decided to move on to Taganga, a small fishing village next to the city of Santa Marta. After hopping into a minibus full of tourists, four hours later we arrived at Casa de Felipe, a hostel that had been recommended to us by several travellers and guidebooks. It hasn't disappointed and has turned out to be one of our favourite hostels of the whole trip, right up there with Travellers' Oasis in Cairns, Australia. We arrived on 5th July, and with two days to go to my birthday, decided to splash out on a slightly more expensive room with a TV, its own balcony complete with hammock and a sea view!

Here's Ania repairing her sunglasses with her sewing kit (yes, her sunglasses!) on our beautiful balcony:

For me, Taganga is the place where I truly started to enjoy Colombia. Casa de Felipe is fantastic, a big hostel that somehow manages to feel private and sociable at the same time. There's also an amazing restaurant run by Patrick the Dutch chef. His fillet mignon steak with blue cheese sauce is incredible. There's also great veggie soups and wraps that Ania's been enjoying. We've eaten in the restaurant several times now and as well as the great food and atmosphere, we're usually joined by the hostel's resident kittens who are tiny and so cute! On our first night we met Mel and Steph, two lovely Aussie girls from Melbourne. Here's Mel playing with one of the kittens at our dinner table (after we'd eaten, obviously!):

Colombia has some of the cheapest scuba diving in the world, so on 6th July we set off with a local company called Aquantis for two boat dives. It was unbelievable value! About £40 each for two dives, a basic lunch and photos taken by the guide underwater included in the price! The staff all speak great English and are very helpful and friendly too. The diving was good despite some poor visibility in places. But the amount of wildlife we saw more than made up for that: a sea snake, lion fish, porcupine fish, moray eels (in two different colours) and a lot of squid. Ania saw some seahorses on the first dive after I'd surfaced (I am an official air guzzler underwater). We also had a really nice group of six: us, plus two other couples from the UK and Holland:

L-R that's Nicky, James, me, Ania, Sonna and Rob.

We're ok! Us two underwater:

Some of the aforementioned amazing wildlife: a big lobster we found hiding under a rock...

...and a seahorse:

The next day was my 27th birthday! We saw it in on the night of the 6th. Hanging out on the roof terrace of Felipe's we met an American guy called Dave and his brother Joe. Dave thought I looked familiar and it turned out we'd met him almost four months ago in Pucón in Chile! It was a nice surprise to link back up with someone we'd hung out with before and the guys raised a glass to me as the clock ticked over to midnight on the 7th. The next day began my birthday proper. Thanks again for all the messages and emails on the day, it was so touching to hear from everyone. I certainly haven't had many birthdays abroad, so to have one in South America was really special! On the actual day we didn't do much, aside from some serious relaxing! Ania woke me up with a pancake breakfast in bed from the hostel's restaurant (ain't she sweet?!), I Skyped with my mum, dad and sister and we ate dinner with Mel and Steph.

In the evening we took a walk down to the beach and found a small percussion band playing with the beautiful sunset behind them:

Then we bought arepas from this street vendor. Arepas are cornmeal patties. This guy barbecues his and then stuffs them with guacomole, salsa, cheese and chicken. Yum!

We ate our snacks on the beach and continued to watch the sunset. Ania took this photo, I'd say it's one of the most beautiful from our entire trip:

The following day Ania, myself and Mel headed to nearby Tayrona National Park. Poor Steph was ill, having been taken to hospital and put on a drip just days before. The three of us caught a bus for an hour and a half to the entrance to Tayrona, paid our entrance fee and then set off on a three-hour walk to a beach camp site where we planned to stay the night. We started off by taking the wrong path for the trek, the one meant for horses rather than people!

Mel and Ania at the very start of our walk:

Some leaf-cutter ants! These guys were everywhere and busy, busy, busy. I suspect that somewhere they are building one MASSIVE leaf. But to what purpose?

Our horse track was churned up into a kind of swamp in places (easy with hoofs, difficult without) and I was only wearing flip flops, having not anticipated a tough trek! Very soon Ania and I had gone barefoot to avoid losing our footwear and we were thigh-deep in mud, while Mel had an easier time of it in her trainers!

My new pair of mud-boots. Just dip and let them dry!

Towards the end of the toughest section my left leg went all the way into the mud and I stacked it, ending up sitting down in the mud! I was not best pleased at the time but after a quick wash in the sea I saw the funny side. I believe Mel has an embarrassing photo but I don't have it for the blog. What a shame!

After some easier walking over sandy beaches we reached Cabo de San Juan, where we rented hammocks for 20,000 pesos (about £7) and met up with Mel's friends from home Jim and Chris, plus their friend Tyra from London. By this point it was afternoon so we spent as much time as possible relaxing on Cabo's beautiful beach and cooling off in the rough yet refreshing surf.

Ania relaxing as the light fades on Cabo beach:

Later we climbed the rocks you can see in the distance in the photo above and enjoyed the views, before returning to our camp. Here's our footprints leading back from our mini-adventure:

That evening our little group was joined by Owen from New Zealand and we all had a poor and overpriced dinner, plus some beers, before breaking out our own bottles of rum and ginger ale, which we drank from our old beer cans for lack of cups! We rinsed them out first, what do you think we are, animals?!

After a surprisingly good sleep in our hammocks we woke up, or rather were woken up by some obnoxious tourists, at 7am. It was actually quite nice to be up for a swim before breakfast and to enjoy some beach time before the insanely hot high temperatures in the middle of the day. At one point Ania and I climbed up to a sort of tower they have at Cabo beach. The building has private cabanas and a floor below with more hammocks (the demand is high, but Mel managed to get one for her second day). We checked out the views from the balconies and climbed on some more rocks, as you can see in the photos below:

At midday Ania and I waved goodbye to the others and headed to La Piscina, a different beach on the walk back with calmer waves. There we met James and Nicky again, the couple we'd scuba dived with days before. Ania and I took the right path back to the park entrance this time, which was far easier although it definitely had muddy points! We got the bus back to Taganga and enjoyed a good shower and a proper bed at Casa de Felipe.

Arrival in Colombia: Cartagena de Indias

After relaxing in Cusco for another couple of days after the trek to Machu Picchu, Stu and I flew back to Lima for just one night back at the volunteer flat before catching our flight to Colombia. We had decided to skip straight to the Caribbean coast for the final month of our trip, and it was certainly a big change! Getting off the plane was like stepping into a wall of humidity and heat - which was actually just what we were looking for after spending the last couple of months wrapped up against the cold. On the way to our hostel it started raining - heavy, tropical rain. We´d barely slept the night before and were exhausted, so it was a bit of a downer at first. But once the sun came out the next day we really started to enjoy Cartagena. Cartagena de Indias (the city´s full name) is an old colonial city, and the walled old section is beautiful - plazas, balconies covered in bougainvillea, horse-drawn carts and stalls selling mango slices. We were staying just outside the colonial centre in a slightly down-an-out neighbourhood called Getsemani, which is where all the cheap hostels are - it wasn´t too shady, but it certainly didn´t have the charm of the centre. There were street parties blasting vallenato music in the alley outside our hostel most nights! Although one nice thing about our hostel was that we made friends with fellow guest Richie, from Ireland, and convinced him to come trekking with us the following week!

Cartagena in the rain:
Most of our time in Cartagena was spent wandering about the city and enjoying the warm weather and views from the fort walls along the sea. We also tried local Colombian food straight away, and it is delicious - much nicer than Peruvian food in my opinion. Think beans, rice, fried plantains, veggies, arepas (cornflour patties), and meaty things for Stu such as spiced minced beef and fresh fish from the Caribbean of course. Colombia also boasts amazing tropical fruits and delicious super-sweet sweets in the same vein as Indian sweets, which I love. Just inside the walled colonial centre is an alley called El Portal de los Dulces, which is a sweet market with loads of stalls selling sweets predominantly made from coconut, nuts, or arequipe (a milky caramel substance which is much the same thing as dulce de leche in Argentina and manjar blanco in Peru). Yum!

View of a typical plaza from the city walls:

Another visit we made was to the Palacio de la Inquisicion, which is a museum that documents the history of the city, and in particular the effect of the Spanish Inquisition there. There was a display of some grisly torture instruments, but most of them had a sign next to them saying that these weren´t actually ever used in Cartagena (the Inquisition seems to have been at its most brutal back in Europe). The whole museum was in a beautiful old colonial palace, which was worth a look in itself.

You can really tell you are in the Caribbean here: the people, the music, the heat, the sea all give it a really different feel to the previous places we´ve been. Here we are with a couple of local women selling fruit from the baskets on their heads:

Cartagena was fun, but after a couple of days we had enough of the city and decided to head along the coast to the village of Taganga...

Friday, 1 July 2011

Bring Your Porter and Lots of Water: Machu Picchu!

As Ania said in her last post, we both loved Cusco. So much history, culture and beautiful buildings. After three days of enjoying all the city has to offer, we set off on a journey that we'd been looking forward to for months: the Inka Trail to the 'lost' city of Machu Picchu. 'Lost' in inverted commas because it was found 100 years ago by the American professor, Yale University's Hiram Bingham!

On the Thursday before we started our trek, we met our guide, Bruno, who came to our hostel to give us a briefing of what the four day trek would involve and what equipment and supplies we should bring.

Day 1

On Saturday morning, as per our instructions, we met Bruno in Cusco's main square, La Plaza de Armas. We arrived on time at 6:30am, and then finally after 7 our bus turned up, but not before I'd ran back up the huge hill (I'll take this opportunity to remind you we're at 3,400m above sea level - this is not easy!) to our hostel to call the tour booking company! We should be used to 'Peru time' by now, nothing runs on time! After an hour and a half on the bus, we arrived in Ollantaytambo, a small village where we bought some more snacks, an extra backpack and a walking stick each. We also met the other people in our group. There were six of us, and as it turned out, everyone else was from Colombia, the next stop of our trip! There was a family, dad Juan, mum Monica and daughter Alejandra; plus Olga, who was travelling on her own. Olga lives in New Jersey in the USA, so she spoke pretty good English, but Juan, Monica and Alejandra had little, so it was a great opportunity to practice our Spanish and get some tips on what to see in Colombia!

After a quick stretch and some time to gear up with our sleeping bags and other things, we started our 45 kilometer journey (about 28 miles), but not before posing for some photos in front of the sign at the start. From L-R that's Olga, me, Ania, Alejandra, Juan and Monica.

Between us we had two guides, Bruno and Larry, but you'll hear more about them later! The first day of the Inka Trail or Camino del Inka (literally, Inka walk, en Español) is pretty easy. The scenery is breathtaking, and that goes for all four days, this is not a boring walk with something cool at the end. Ania and I agreed to think of the entire four days as the trip; and this was the right way to go. If you embark upon this journey with only thoughts of Machu Picchu in your head, you might as well do a day trip on the train. So the first day we took it pretty easy. We started with sights of a river running along our right, saw the train carrying tourists to Machu Picchu whizz past us and enjoyed seeing the surprisingly diverse amount of wildlife on the trail, including these guys, who were outside the toilets near our lunch spot!

Speaking of lunch, we ate in a small village, where our porters set up a large tent, dividing it in two for a kitchen section and a dining room section. It really is amazing what these guys conjure up on the road. And they carry everything! Not your own personal luggage, Ania and I were carrying 8 and 9kgs respectively of our own clothes, snacks, medicines, repellants, etc. But the porters carrying pots, pans, tents, food, cooking gas, everything! They really are heroes. I'll get to them in a moment!

After a lunch of soup and pasta, we spent half an hour climbing quite a steep hill:

Again, the views were fantastic! Our guide, Bruno, told us that this was but a taster of the hills we would be climbing tomorrow, except it would be for much longer! Five or six hours of this instead of half an hour!

Triumphant at the top of Day 1's 'mini-hill'. After Day 2, it doesn't seem so much of an achievement! Here's us two with Bruno in the middle:

Before we went on this trip, Ania and I would often refer to it as 'Machu Picchu', but really it should be called 'The Inka Trail'. We saw these ruins on Day 1, the first of many we'd see along the way. This was at the top of the steep but short hill we scaled.

Having started walking at around 10 or 11am (I told you Day 1 was easy), we arrived at our camp at around 5pm I'd guess. It was great that we still had some light! The porters had already set up most of the tents. Within half an hour we were given a lovely spread of biscuits, popcorn and a variety of hot drinks to choose from including tea, coca tea and hot chocolate. This was to be the norm every day. God bless the porters!

Ania with our tent at camp on Day 1:

We had dinner that evening and talked away, mainly in Spanish, with only a few pauses for Ania to translate the rapid Peruvian/Colombian and English-people-who've learnt Spanish in Buenos Aires Spanish! Our group got along really well, despite a slight language barrier, and everyone, guides included, were brilliant! When the light was gone we made for our beds. No surprise with sore feet all round and a 5:30am start to look forward to!

Both of us slept surprisingly well! Bruno did us proud hiring feather-down sleeping bags. Included in the price of the tour was a wafer-thin roll mat to sleep on and we used the clothes we weren't wearing as makeshift pillows! I'd also expected to be much colder than I was. I went to bed wearing loads of layers but ended up taking almost everything off during the night. The male Duggan hot-bloodedness strikes again! Guaranteed Never Cold(TM).

Day 2

Day 2 is probably the toughest day. It's shorter than Day 3, but the walk is much more difficult! After being woken up at 5:30am by a porter carrying a steaming kettle and offering us coca tea (see: legends!), we breakfasted at 6am on PANCAKES (have I mentioned how much I love the porters?!) and were on the road by 6:30. For the next five or six hours, we were officially walking uphill. Day 2 is also when you climb to the highest altitudes of the whole trail, culminating with Dead Woman's Pass at 4215m above sea level. I noticed the breathlessness and Ania was affected a bit more than me, but nevertheless I'm happy to report that neither of us went through the hell we experienced at altitude on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

As always, there was gorgeous scenery and the chance to simply enjoy each other's company uninterrupted for hours! This was also the day that we discovered how fit Juan, Monica and Alejandra are! They set off at their own pace, leaving us to eat their dust. We arrived at camp at 2:30pm. Those three got there at 11am! Sheesh!

Me walking with two porters overtaking me. Note the size difference between my backpack and the ones they're carrying!

Beautiful scenery. Two horses pose for us in silhouette before the mountains on the morning of Day 2. I love this photo!

Joined on the trip by more random animals! Ania makes a doggy-friend for a bit as we climb towards Dead Woman's Pass.

I was keen to create a bit of a video diary as we trekked and I took many videos. I've only chosen three for the blog for uploading reasons and so as not to bore you! Here's the first, with me interviewing Ania as we approach Dead Woman's Pass.

Gorgeous flowers lining the Inca Trail:

Ania climbs on up on Day 2:

We made it! The two of us knackered, yet smiling, at Dead Woman's Pass:

That was one tough climb and you start to notice the altitude at Dead Woman's Pass! Here we experienced some of the great camaraderie of the trail. Random people from all sorts of different tour groups, guides and tourists alike, were shouting encouragement and clapping as people conquered the Inka Trail's highest point. It certainly felt like we'd really achieved something! Hell, we had!

After a short break at DWP we then began a steep descent of around one-and-a-half hours down to our camp. 'Downhill', we both thought, 'Fantastic!'. A refreshing change from uphill to be sure, but after a while those Incan steps take a toll on your knees! We walked mainly on our own down the steps, passing more great scenery and briefly crossing paths with a woman from Canada/Florida who was in her MID 70s! Massive respect to her! Soon we spotted tents and toilets in the distance. Finally, we'd made it to camp! Our porters had set things up as always in a big campsite with lots of tourists. There was even a stream where I soaked my feet in freezing water. A few seconds was bliss! I was glad we'd set off so early. Having arrived at 2:30pm (or 11am if you're from the planet Krypton), we had a well-earned lunch and then headed into our tent. Here's video diary 2:

After our sleep we got up for our usual 'tea time' of popcorn, crisps and hot drinks, and then dinner! Bruno and Larry then briefed us on the plan for the next day. We were to get up at 5am, an even earlier start!

I had an even better night's sleep on Day 2. I think you figure out a way of making yourself more comfortable as you go along! Or perhaps you just need to get used to it! At 5am we got our cups of tea and after getting up and dressed in record time, ate our breakfast (no pancakes this time, but I still love the porters!) and headed off at 6ish.

The reason for that early start was to get the longest day's walking over and still arrive at Day 3's camp with time to enjoy the daylight. It's not nice getting up so early, but as you'll never sleep that well on such hard ground, it really is worth doing.

Day 3

Early morning of Day 3 at Day 2's camp. We were above the clouds with glorious views!

Day 3 consists of 8 or 9 hours walking. None of it is a tough as Day 2, but there's just so much of it! We started the day by climbing a steep hill, then we reached this cool structure, where Bruno gave us a brief tour. He really was a great guide, he spoke excellent English and knew so much about the Trail!

Our guides, Larry on the left and Bruno on the right:
After some more walking we passed two rain water lakes and then came to another set of Incan ruins. At this next spot Bruno told us all about chasquis (or chaskis): the Inca messengers who would deliver messages or collect delicacies such as fish from the coast. The system would work like a relay race, with chasquis waiting at their stations to relieve the previous runner.

We climbed these steps up to a ruin to hear all about the Incan chasquis. You can see one of their waiting stations in the background:

Some of the original Inca Trail. We climbed down these steps, which I imagine would be treachorous in the rain. You can just see a fully-laden porter on his way down from the top:

It was on this day of the trek that the surroundings became noticeably more rainforest-like. The humidity increased and the jungle became far more dense and lush.

More beautiful ruins shrouded in cloud on Day 3:

Finally, we made it to camp on Day 3. Of course, Juan, Monica and Alejandra had beaten us by ages as usual! Thanks to our early start we had time to visit another Incan ruin right next to our camp. Behold: Wiñay Wayna!

Cool, isn't it?! Those terraces were used for farming. The Inca's re-acclimatised lots of different kinds of plants, including their beloved coca leaf, which didn't originally grow at such high altitudes.

Ania playing 'Where's Wally?' amongst the Wiñay Wayna ruins:

The impressive views from Wiñay Wayna:

That night we had our final meal and the porters and cooks pulled out all the stops. Afterwards we tipped them and the guides (all, so well-derserved) and gave them a big round of applause. Great guys who do very hard work. Some of them are only around 18-21 years old.

The meal you can see below is actually from the lunch of that day. That's chicken and vegetables with rice, and something I'd wanted to try in Peru for a while, quiñoa. Vaguely like couscous, it's delicious!

Our porters, cooking up a storm in the most basic of facilities:

Enjoying another great meal. L-R that's Monica, Ania, me and Alejandra:

The whole gang! Back row, L-R that's Olga, Juan, Monica, Jesus the chef, Alejandra, Ania and me; with the porters in the front row:

That night we went to bed even earlier, with the prospect of a 3:30am start ahead of us! It was exciting, but didn't seem real. Tomorrow, we'd be arriving in Machu Picchu!

Day 4

At 3:30am we got up and the porters had already started packing up. They have to get everything down to the town of Aguas Calientes (beyond Machu Picchu) in time to catch a train. If they miss it, they have to walk, back the way we came. We got out of their way as quickly as possible and Ania and I said goodbye to our roll mats and sleeping bags. Slightly less to carry! Ye-es!

After some hanging around in the campsite's communal area with hundreds of other trekkers, we left at around 5am. It was still dark at this point and Ania and I both felt wrecked after three days of hard walking. Our group joined a queue of tourists at a checkpoint. After checking our documents, the guards let us through and then we were off!

Some people were running past the whole group, hoping to be the first to glance Machu Picchu. I had a moment of what I've dubbed 'Machu Picchu insanity', but Ania's request for us to slow down brought me to my senses. It's still going to be there, whether you're the first or last! After about two hours we climbed some steep steps and reached the Sun Gate. This was it, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Wreathed in cloud, still in the shadow of a mountain that for now blocked out the early morning sun, there it was. Any fear of it having been built up or that it would disappoint was immediately lost. I'm not ashamed to admit that I welled up a little. There it was: the famous lost city of Machu Picchu:

After collecting ourselves we started walking once again. Forty minutes later we were there. Machu Picchu. We queued for photos and took some incredible shots, some of which you can see below.

Our group with a very cloudy Machu Picchu in the background:

We were lucky though, we had a crisp and clear day for it and the clouds were moving fast, meaning they weren't in the way of our photos for long! This is one of my favourites:

Machu Picchu in all its glory:

A sign inside MP commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hiram Bingham's discovery of the city. Ania and I got there 99 years and 11 months after he found it in 1911, just a month before the 100th anniversary!

We then left Machu Picchu, very briefly, to stow our backpacks at the main entrance, use the loo and get changed into shorts. It was starting to warm up! After a quick break we met Bruno inside and were joined by three young Aussie girls and the elderly lady from Canada/Florida that I mentioned earlier for an English-language tour. Bruno was really thorough and didn't disappoint with an entertaining two-hour tour of Machu Picchu. Inside we saw some wonderful sights and learned how the city functioned when people used to live there. We took so many photos. Here's a selection!

A circular tower with a window pointing towards the Sun Gate, to enable the first morning light to flood the room at the earliest opportunity:

Two different kinds of wall inside MP. Note the different styles of brick-work, the one on the left very smooth and the one on the right very rough. The smooth kind were used for important buildings like temples and palaces; whereas the rough kind were used for everyday buildings. They slope away from each other, apparently for increased stability! That's the city guard tower you can see with the pointed roof in the background. We'd climbed down from that point earlier that morning.

Me with just a part of Machu Picchu and those beautiful mountains behind me:

Bruno mid-flow at the city's calendar/sun dial. People put their hands on the sun dial to try and absorb the energy it's soaked up from the sun. Part of it was broken recently when a company filming a beer commercial accidentally dropped a lighting rig or some kind of crane onto it! Whoops!

After our tour we parted company with Bruno for the time being and were given time to wander on our own. First we came to the area of Machu Picchu that you can see below. People were relaxing and snacking on these terraces, while a group of llamas pranced happily around. Two lucky/unlucky tourists discovered that they love oranges and we saw one llama jump over said couple from a terrace above them as they sat eating a snack!

Us having fun with llamas. I was feeding this guy peanuts and raisins (he was the only one who liked them!) and he got closer and closer. I felt like we were doing that famous Smith and Jones sketch!

These guys looked so relaxed that I thought I'd imitate!

Ania: surrounded!

At 12:30pm we decided to bid farewell to Machu Picchu. We'd been there for something like four hours but still didn't really want to leave! We had lunch booked with the rest of our group at 2pm in Aguas Calientes though, so we moved on. You can get a bus to AC, but we walked it. It's more downhill for over an hour! But what's another hour or so when you've walked for 25-30 hours in the past four days?! Incidentally, Bruno told us that every few years they hold a race along the Inca Trail. It's mainly porters and guides who take part. The current record holder did the whole trail in 3.5 hours. 3.5! It took us four days! Unbelievable!

Anyway, we walked downhill to Aguas Calientes and soon got our first glimpse of the pretty little town:

We found Bruno, Larry and the rest of our group at a little restaurant where we ordered pizzas and pastas and I had a well-deserved botella grande of my favourite Peruvian tipple: Cusqueña Malta (a malt beer):

We waved goodbye to Bruno and Larry for good at lunch and thanked them profusely. They really were great guides and if you're planning to do the Inca Trail, I would really recommend them. Bruno's company is called Cusco Explorers but we booked through our friend Julio at Karikuy. Then we had some more free time until our train and a bus back to Cusco. Ania and I spent it wisely, going for an hour-long soak in Aguas Calientes' hot springs. It really helped our muscles! If you don't speak Spanish, Aguas Calientes translates as 'hot waters', which explains the town's name. Here's a snap of the baths:

At 6ish we headed down to the train station and met back up with Juan, Monica and Alejandra. Olga had caught an earlier train. The five of us took a two-hour train to Ollantaytambo and then a 1.5 hour bus back to Cusco. Ania and I trudged up Resbalosa Street up to our hostel of the same name, exhausted, but happy. We had completed a glorious trip along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!