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!

1 comment:

  1. What an epic trek! I thought Ania looked a bit unwell in that video, just on arrival. I'd look a bit wan too, if I'd had to get up at 3:30am....
    X Dom