The 43km that forms the Inca Trail is as tough as it is rewarding. CONAL HANNA charts the ups and downs of the trek to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.
To walk the Inca Trail is to follow in a lot of footsteps. First, of course, came the Incas themselves, who ruled large swathes of South America until the arrival of the Spanish. Next were the early 20th century archaeologists led by American Hiram Bingham, who uncovered the abandoned city of Machu Picchu, the trail’s destination, 400 years after it disappeared into the wilderness. Then there are the most recent invaders, the estimated 50,000 travellers who flock to Peru each year to embark on the four-day trek.
The Inca Trail’s rampant popularity has led to a form of reverse snobbery among backpackers in South America, who point to the hugely inflated prices (it now costs at least US$250) and the fact you often have to book a berth months in advance as reasons to seek their thrills elsewhere. But speak to anyone who’s endured the four consecutive early mornings and 43km of trudging up and downhill only to emerge around dawn at the Sun Gate to catch their first glimpse of the beguiling ancient city perched in the valley below, and they’ll tell you it was worth every penny.
Certainly times have changed since the Peruvian government legislated in 2001 to prevent overcrowding and the degradation of the trail by limiting numbers to 500 per day and forcing trekkers to go with registered tour companies. Nowadays, the Inca Trail begins, at the point called km82, with a passport check far more rigorous than anything I’ve encountered at Heathrow. (You must provide your passport details when you book a trek, and then take your passport along with you.) Bureaucracy headaches soon fade, however, as we cross the romantic wooden swing bridge to begin the trail.
Day one is filled with excited chatter as our group of 15 (16 is the maximum group size allowed) travellers from all over the world (we even had a pair of Romanians) get to know each other during an easygoing 11km hike. The only noise to disturb the tranquillity is the occasional clamour of footsteps as our porters come rushing to overtake us. Setting out, I’d been filled with self-satisfaction gleaned from embarking on a four-day hike carrying all my own gear.
It didn’t take long for the pride to fade, however, when I realised that our group of 15 was being accompanied by some 20 porters who were lugging up the food and tents. Indeed, it’s hard feeling at all intrepid when you wake each morning to a cooked breakfast, then head off hiking while the porters clean up after you and pack away the tents before running past you on the trail, in order to have lunch ready by the time you arrive, and then repeat the process to have the tents pitched and dinner ready in the evening.
The improved life of the porters is one of the undisputed positives of the new legislation, which limited the weight they can carry and introduced minimum rates of pay and working conditions. A further law taking effect in March will force companies to provide their porters with life insurance. It’s no less than they deserve for their Herculean efforts.
Going gets tough
Unfortunately, the good cheer and self-congratulations which characterise our first day don’t linger long. In fact, day two is more about self-flagellation than congratulations. The banter is replaced by heavy breathing as the trail climbs some 1200m to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the trail at 4200m. At this height you really notice the effects of the altitude making every step a struggle. Thankfully, the occasional pitstop to take in grand mountain vistas, gentle waterfalls or local wildlife (including hummingbirds and orchids) helps distract from the pain.
Just as the panting pauses long enough for us to realise we’ve conquered the toughest part of the trail, a new set of pain is inflicted upon us, the knee-jarring sensation of going down. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of the trail – while you’re on it, anyway – is that, over the course of the entire 43km, you actually descend some 200m, from an altitude of 2600m to 2400m. However, en route you fluctuate like a yo-yo, climbing to 4200m before going down-up, down-up over two more gruelling passes.
Location, location, location
Despite being, at 16km, the longest hike, day three encompasses all that’s good about the Inca Trail. The scenery shifts dramatically from dry, rocky mountains to cloudforests and snow-capped peaks. The ruins, too, are at their most impressive. I’ll say this for the Incas: they sure knew the secret of a good property – location. The only time we see ruins that aren’t atop gorgeous mountains is when they’re nestled in equally impressive valleys. Aside from the common feature of location, the ruins vary almost as much as the scenery, from multi-tiered agricultural terraces to nigh on impregnable fortresses to bathhouses to pitstops for Incas making the long journey between towns. Day three is also the first time we get to walk on original Incan pathway, built to last some 500-plus years ago.
Camp that night is spent in relative luxury, with hot water showers and cold beer on sale from a neighbouring hostel. After three days of physical exhaustion, it takes just two beers before I’m giggling like a schoolgirl. I quickly sober up, however, when told that day four won’t involve the now familiar 5am start – it will start at 4am instead. The reason for the early wake up call, we’re told, is to help us beat rival groups down to the National Park checkpoint where we have to queue to enter. Unfortunately, they all have the same idea.
These fellow groups had been with us at various times over the past three days, offering words of encouragement or a consoling grimace as we passed each other en route. All sense of camaraderie quickly evaporates, though, when the check point opens, with everyone seemingly hell bent on reaching the Sun Gate first. Having been too stuffed to rush, I’m one of the few people at the Sun Gate to find some amusement in the fact that low-lying clouds have blown in. Not only can we not see the sunrise, we can’t even see Machu Picchu, some 20 minutes below.
Thankfully, the tale has a happy ending. Having given up on the sun, we begin making our approach only to have the clouds slowly lift, lending the city a mystical, ethereal touch. As spectacular as the ruins are, it’s definitely the atmosphere and serene location that sets Machu Picchu apart. And there’s no doubting the fact we’ve ‘earned’ this moment of relative solitude, before trainloads of daytrippers begin arriving, helps add to the appeal.
This gives us the chance to tour the grounds at leisure, wandering among tame llamas whose job it is to keep down the grass. Our guide astounds us by pointing out the advanced understanding of astronomy and engineering that went into the Incan buildings. That they ruled the areas outside their native Cuzco for only 100 years, before the jungle devoured Machu Picchu for almost 400, goes to show the temporal nature of civilisations.
Formalities completed, we take a seat on the grass and enjoy the twofold pleasure of a rest amid such splendour. My thoughts meander aimlessly through time to when the site around us was a bustling city of 1000 people, before fast-forwarding to 80 years ago when archaeologists reclaimed the city from the jungle, piece by piece. Last of all, I think of the friends and colleagues who in the past few years have walked the same paths only to arrive at this beguiling city. It’s true, you won’t be the first person to trek the Inca Trail, but rest assured you won’t be the last.
• Conal Hanna traveled to Peru courtesy of Flight Centre (0870-499 0042; www.flightcentre.co.uk), who have return flights to Lima from £659. He completed the Inca Trail with Peru Treks (www.perutreks.com) who have all-inclusive four-day trips starting at US$295.
Inca Trail alternatives
If you really can’t afford – or lock in a date – for the Inca Trail, Mike Weston from Peru Treks suggests these alternative walks which can be done at short notice or independently.
Salkantay via Santa Teresa to Machu Picchu
Length: Five days
Cost with a tour operator: Approx US$300
A popular trek with those who left it too late to get on the Inca Trail. The first four days are moderately difficult trekking to Santa Teresa, followed by a 45-minute train ride to Aguas Calientes where trekkers stay in a hotel before visiting Machu Picchu on the fifth day.
Length: Four of Five days
Cost with a tour operator: Approx US$300
Becoming popular with tour companies, but this really suits trekkers who want to go it alone. Interesting Inca ruins but not comparable to Machu Picchu.
Length: Four or five days
Cost with a tour operator: Approx US$350
One of the few treks that takes you to remote communities. There are varying routes, with the most popular starting in Lares and ending in Ollantaytambo. Trekkers take the evening train to Machu Picchu on day four and visit the ruins the following day.
Length: Six or seven days
Cost with a tour operator: Approx US$250.
A circular route around Ausangate mountain that takes you well off the beaten track into highland communities. Recommended for experienced trekkers. Horses and Spanish-speaking guides can be hired in Tinqui and local buses can be used.