The popularity of Machu Picchu has led to a rethink on how to treat the inca trail. WORDS: Daniel Smith
My head is pounding and my vision is blurred. The litres of sweat that have poured off me during the day have frozen my clothes to my skin. Outside the tent I’ve stumbled into, one of our guides is calling to the other for help with a fellow hiker who has practically fainted. We are at 4800m, the air is cold and thin, we have been walking uphill all day – and this is just day one.
People come from all over the world to hike the Inca Trail to the endlessly fascinating ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu (‘Manly Peak’). It is Peru’s most captivating and popular tourist attraction – indeed, one of the most alluring destinations on the entire South American continent. Spreading from the 12th-16th centuries, the Incan empire once reached so far it encompassed areas now located in Chile and northern Ecuador. Vast amounts have been discovered about their civilisation but Machu Picchu is not mentioned in any surviving documents from the subsequent Spanish rule, and its history and purpose remain shrouded in mystery.
When American explorer and historian Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins in 1911, three indigenous Quechuan families were living there. Machu Picchu has captured travellers’ imaginations ever since. But with high-intensity tourism comes litter, soil erosion and overcrowding. Something had to change, and in 2000 the Peruvian Government restricted the number of travellers allowed on the Inca Trail to 500 a day, leading to waiting lists of three months.
A variety of new treks have sprung up to accommodate the tourist hordes, though, and restrictions have not prevented an expansion in the number of tour operators thronging the streets of colonial Cusco, the starting point of all Machu Picchu treks. And many of the new walks, such as the Salkantay Trek I was about to attempt, are longer, harder and take in more spectacular scenery than the ‘true’ Inca Trail.
The trek begins in the grassy Molibamba valley, on a gentle incline that leads onwards and undeniably upwards towards the gleaming white Salkantay glacier. Our main guide, Milthon, leads us through coca leaf rituals which demonstrate respect for the glacier and for Pacha Mama, the spirit of the mountains. As we reach the pass beside the Salkantay each of us deposits a stone brought from the base of the mountain. They represent our sins and as we place them, we hope Pacha Mama will forgive us, or at least make the next few days a little easier.
The group divides into three. The bulk of us, mainly breathless Brits, adopt a steady pace, while an older Californian couple fall behind with the pack horses and a girl who is, bizarrely, afraid of heights. Storming on ahead is Milthon, with two super-fit Canadian lumberjacks who apparently feel no pain. The scenery is beautiful in its barrenness. Our surroundings change dramatically from day to day as we descend, and then climb once more: a lush valley with a rushing spearmint-blue river; sand and rock landslides; sheer cliffs; and even a cloud forest.
After a shorter second day walking through a verdant valley of bamboo and yellow flower alongside communities who only eat potatoes, we are pointed in the direction of a natural hot spring. After the muscle strain of day one this is blissful news, and we wallow in its temperate waters for an hour.
It’s on the fourth day that things get tough again, starting at 5.15am for a two-and-a-half-hour vertical ascent. Our efforts are rewarded by our first view of Machu Picchu dominating a mighty skyline of blue mountains. It still looks incredibly far away, but it’s nothing we can’t manage now.
Our campsite that night is literally beneath the ruins, though several hundred metres away. We wake at 4am and conquer the final stretch in record time to try to beat the crowds entering the Machu Picchu. It’s not to be – others have got here before us, travelling in air-conditioned buses. But when our turn comes to pass into the phenomenal site it’s clear our worries were unfounded: Machu Picchu absorbs its visitors with ease.
As the sun bursts over the mountains, it seems as if spotlights are being used to point out areas of particular beauty. Agricultural ridges carved into the mountainside are dotted with grazing llamas; temples, fortifications and living quarters glow blue-grey, as mesmerised tourists pad through them reverentially. It’s truly incredible.
Now there are just two things left to do: a final one-hour climb up nearby Huayna Picchu (‘Young Peak’) for an aerial view of the site, then a return to civilisation in Cusco to regain our energy by devouring a whole roast guinea pig.
• Daniel Smith travelled with United Mice (www.unitedmice.com). The five-day Salkantay Trek cost US$390.
Acclimatise This is very important. Arrive in Cusco at least two days before your hike, or altitude sickness will strike, and you don’t want diahorrea and vomiting on your walk. Your tour group leader will give further
advice about altitude sickness medication.
What to pack
The weather conditions here are variable, so you’ll need a raincoat as well as suntan lotion, vests as well as hats and jumpers. Good walking shoes and thick socks are essential, and a swimming costume for the hot spring. Take a torch and spare batteries, and make sure you’ve got spare batteries and memory card/film for your camera. Insect repellent and bite cream are also a good idea. Most tours are good at providing hearty meals, as well as fruit and water for the day, but take snacks – there’s no denying the pleasure of a Snickers bar at 4000m. You’ll need cash for tipping your guides, and your passport – you wouldn’t want to leave without a genuine Machu Picchu stamp, would you?