We knew that one of the highlights of our trip around South America was to trek the Inca trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu. At this stage in our trip, Mum and Dad had flown out to join us since it was something they had also really wanted to do and so we could share Christmas as a family. So now there were six of us (me, my brother Mark, our parents and our friends Jono and Irinia) and we had taken the night bus from the city of Arequipa in southern Peru up to Cuzco – the historic capital of the Inca Empire.
18th December 1999: Cuzco, Peru (Day 150 overall)
A taxi took us through Cuzco to the Resbolosa Hotel. The ancient Inca capital was filled with magnificent buildings and statues as a reminder to a glorious past. It was much bigger than I thought but the centre was a cluster of old buildings in a mixed Spanish and Incan architecture. I had been expecting the usual multi-story buildings found in most other Peruvian cities but there were none here over 2 or 3 at most.
Our hotel was a bit of a shithole and also expensive at $5 pp. The owner even wanted to charge us $1 extra if we wanted toilet paper and wasn’t interested in our request for towels. The shared bathroom stank and the hot water was virtually non-existent.
Jono and I headed for the main plaza where we bumped into Gareth (who we’d last seen in Venezuela after our joint adventure up Mount Humboldt) who was with some of his friends. We shared a beer with them and caught up on everything Gareth and us had been up to since Venezuela.
At 11am, we had left to meet the others in the main square since our main task for today was to find a tour operator for the Inca Trail. We’d discussed whether or not to attempt the trail on our own and finally decided to go with an operator. The problem was that there are loads of them all saying pretty much the same thing so choosing one was difficult. We spent the whole day questioning, fact finding and bargaining until we’d narrowed it down to a short list of three representing our favourites in the three price brackets the operators we looked at seemed to work within. “Top Adventures” seemed to be the best of the cheap end at $45-50; “Continental” was our favourite of the mid-range $60-65; and “SAS” occupied the top end at $80+. We chose “Continental” as it was in the middle and we couldn’t otherwise work out the difference between them.
Cuzco was a lovely place with not half as many tourists as I’d expected (although still touristy all the same). I wandered around and came across a nice little restaurant called ‘Greens’ which we thought would be good to book for Christmas dinner. It had a good feel to it although it was expensive at $30pp but we decided to splash out! In the evening, we went out to find some food along ‘Gringo Alley’ – this road had many restaurants all with runners looking for passers-by and trying to encourage them into their place. Normally you can bargain with the runners to get something like free Pisco Sours, free garlic bread or just a discount and after a bartering with a couple of them near a restaurant we wanted to go to – we ended up with a very filling me for $7 albeit not particularly tasty.
After the meal, we met up with some friends in a nearby bar – Mama Africa – but our previous night on the bus meant we didn’t last long and headed back for an early night.
19th December 1999: Cuzco, Peru (Day 151 overall)
Yesterday’s breakfast in the hotel was crap so today we headed out to find anything better. At the top of Gringo Alley, we found a cafe serving a full English breakfast with all the trimmings for $11 which absolutely great. We then wandered around finding the plush Hotel Niler which we booked for when we returned from Machu Picchu; picked up food, drink and ponchos for the start of our trek tomorrow; and generally just continued to explore the town.
We bumped into various traveller friends including Susan, Robin and her new boyfriend Darren, Gareth and several others we recognised from previous places. We shared a few drinks in various places mostly around the central ‘Plaza de Armas’ inbetween exploring the interesting backstreets. We heard that several friends were also heading out on the Inca trail tomorrow so we’d probably be bumping into them along the way. Unfortunately Robin, who had also intended to go, had sprained her ankle which meant she wouldn’t be able to go and she was really disappointed.
After a generally lazy day, we went out to get some food energy for the walk tomorrow but the Mexican place we ended up in served enchiladas which weren’t very filling. I was very excited about the prospect of the Inca trail but did have my concerns about how commercialised it would be, envisioning hundreds of people and an over-used trail. We repacked our rucksacks with only what we needed for the trek and bagged the rest to leave with Hotel Niler. We had seen the rooms yesterday – they were huge, spacious and even had luxury bathroom-en-suites so they were something to look forward to.
20th December 1999: Inca Trail Day 1, Peru (Day 152 overall)
‘Chief’ was the salesman at Continental with whom we’d bought the tickets. Chief had said the bus would pick us up 5-5:30 so we awoke at 4am, showered and did final preparations. By 5am we were all ready to go and waiting.
An hour later, Willy – our guide to be – arrived in a minibus and was completely confused as to why Chief had said the wrong time. We jumped in and Willy drove around town picking up several more people (all men much to some of our group’s disappointment!) before finally setting off on the 4 hour journey to the start of the trail.
Our grouped all seemed a bit serious but then perhaps it was because we didn’t know each other yet. The rest mostly seemed to come in pairs: two Canadians (Curtis and Karsten); two Austrians (Christof and Mario); two Swedes (Lenard and ?); two Dutch (Yonis and Moris); and a lone New Zealander – Edward.
After a couple of hours of driving during which I mostly slept, we stopped for an hour in the tiny village of Urubamba for breakfast. There was only one place in town to eat and it all seemed a bit of a farce. The prices were nearly twice what we would pay anyway else and we were annoyed with ourselves for not thinking to buy something in the supermarket yesterday for the journey. But we were hungry and had a long walk ahead so we went along with the others. Over the next hour, our wait continually forgot things, got our orders wrong or just ignored us before finally serving a couple of cold, tasteless eggs on stale buns. I took one mouthful before sending mine back and the bus had to wait for us while we remonstrated with the owner refusing to pay the full amount. I ended up paying about half which was still what a normal breakfast would have cost us back in Cuzco. Not a great start!
During the rest of the journey, we chatted with the rest of the group and found we were actually the only ones who had come via Continental. Everyone had come via different tour agencies and everyone had paid the same as us ($60) including two people who had come via Top Adventure who would have charged us $45. Perhaps a missed saving in hindsight.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at the trail head and parked near a few other minibuses who were also unloading their passengers. A few dozen people were milling around in various states of repacking their bags; putting on trekking gear and we soon joined them. Willy handed out some shrivelled and torn sleeping mats for us to carry which not anything like the ‘luxury’ mats Chief had shown us in the shop. We also applied copious amounts of sun-cream since the day had turned out to be very hot and sunny.
Finally, we were all ready and we set off down a dirt track beside the Urubamba river and up along the ‘Sacred Valley’. The scenery was wonderful – tall mountains with steep gullies and snow covered tops. The path briefly followed the train track which was to be our way back from Aqua Calientes at the far end of our trek, crossed the river via a small suspension bridge and then continued up the valley for several kilometres before we stopped for lunch. Willy spoke a few words of welcome in his passable English (better than our Spanish!) and we were left to integrate with the rest of the group. We were all becoming more friendly now and there were a few serious walkers amongst them who strode ahead of the rest and our little group tended to be at the back taking it slow and steady.
The path continued up and down the edge of the valley with occasional stops for views, an Inca ruin or a quick picture. Over the crest of one hill, we had a lovely view of a large Inca ruin called ‘Patallacta’ over the other side of the river. At this point, our path turned up towards what I later nicknamed the Enchanted Valley. The crisp sunlight perfectly highlighted the river flowing down, the flowers, the trees with the mountains all around and it seemed magical that such a place could even exist.
For several hours, we walked until arriving at a bridge where our tents were already pitched nearby. Popcorn and cocoa tea were served and we chatted about the day. Willy had noted it was my birthday from my student card and brought out a chocolate cake for us all to share. Lenard kindly gave me a bottle of White Spirit (or something equally potent!) which only added to the meal made by the porters which was very yummy!
After dinner, we celebrated further with Mark and Jono presenting me with a huge, furry, stuffed llama! I would now have to carry that for the rest of the Inca trail and around South America! After the food was finished and the drink stopped flowing, we returned to our small two-person tents and chose to forget the claims that Chief had made that it would be three man tents between every pair. Irinia and I shared a tent and finished of the rest of the White Spirit in a small private party before zonking out. It wouldn’t be a birthday I could easily forget!
21st December 1999: Inca Trail Day 2, Peru (Day 153 overall)
At 5am, Willy woke us up with cups of cocoa tea. After a simple breakfast, we were back on the trail ready for the dreaded ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. This was a long ascent climbing up a thousand meters over the course of several kilometres of walking. The pass itself was the highest point in the whole trail at 4,215m and we were already high so the altitude added to the difficulty.
It was raining hard, so we had donned our ponchos which kept the rain at bay for about 5 minutes as we trudged, scrambled, climbed and even crawled our way up the path. It was a very social day and we chatted with many people albeit all from the other groups since the rest of ours were way ahead. We continued this way for several hours and we could see the pass itself up ahead in the distance slowly getting nearer and nearer until all of a sudden – we were at the top and looking down a long valley on the far side filled with a swirling mist. A bitterly cold wind swept up the valley putting off any thought of a rest and we hurried down and off the top to get into shelter.
The path here turned into steps paved with roughly hewn stone which we followed for two hours until we reached a field covered in tents which marked our stop for the night. I dropped my pack and hurried back up the path to find mum and dad and help carry their packs. After another hour, we were all back in camp and eating some good grub. Our tents had leaked profusely the previous night so our bags were still damp since they were stuffed into our rucksacks all day. So, we chatted as late as possible to give them some time to dry before we headed to bed.
22nd December 1999: Inca Trail Day 3, Peru (Day 154 overall)
Yet another early rise and back on the trail. The walk started with another steep climb up to an Inca look-out post which had a direct view across the valley to the pass we’d crossed the day before. As I learned more about the Incas, I was growing in my utmost respect for them. Their systems of agriculture, government and religion were all incredibly simple yet extremely effective.
The path led on and continued upwards to another pass where the views were incredible. The view ahead was of mountains and forests which perhaps was the beginnings of the Amazon rain-forest. It is amazing to think that the river we’d followed on the first day led eventually to the Atlantic, several thousand miles away. The thick, dark green forest which covered the mountains ahead was a sharp contrast to the more barren, rocky hills we’d been walking through. Clouds were caught like clumps of candyfloss in little pockets of the valley ahead which gave it a slightly eerie feel and we could see the path descending and disappearing into one such pocket.
Our family spent a little time on top of the pass trying to recreate a family photo we had taken many years before in Yosemite Park with the four of us standing on the ridge ahead of this eerie valley. The problem was the rock we were standing on had a sheer drop on the far side and mum was getting rather concerned – but we finally got our photos and carried on.
The walk continued and we passed several more Inca ruins – all very interesting in their own way – and wound its way high up and into a beautiful ridge walk. On one side was the cloud forest and on the other, steep cliffs falling to a river far below. At the end of the ridge was a large Inca temple and from here we had our first view of Machu Picchu mountain although the lost city was on the far side and out of sight.
The path descended once again, and the heavens opened with torrential rain. It took us about 3 hours to reach the large camp were all the tents from all groups were pitched and by that time, we were thoroughly soaked. There was a large bar and so we all sat round drinking beer, playing chess and cards, and generally relaxing after a long day. We thanked the porters and gave them a large tip since this would be our last night and slowly dwindled the night away. Irinia and I were the last to finally get to bed where we had a wet night having to huddle together to try and keep warm.
23rd December 1999: Inca Trail Day 4, Peru (Day 155 overall)
The sunrise over Machu Picchu seen from the Sun Gate is supposed to be one of the most beautiful sites in all the world, so at 4am, Willy woke us all up to start the trek. The breakfasts had got slowly worse throughout the trek and today we had the very basics (the porters had already had their tips!).
Irinia and I led the way for a while setting a good pace. It was raining and very cloudy so we were not feeling hopefully of a good view from the Sun Gate. About an hour later, we arrived to find about 30 other people already waiting for the clouds to part. Everywhere was thick white cloud and passed the time with a discussion about in which direction the lost city even lay!
The cloud was unrelenting but occasional glimpses of green forest kept us transfixed hoping for a view. But after about half an hour, I decided that any photos to be had cold be taken by the others and took a wander along the final stretch of path towards the city itself. When I arrived, the place was still covered in thick cloud and not much could be seen but the swirling mists around the looming ruins of old buildings was magical.
We all met up in a small restaurant by the entrance. There were two sections in the restaurant – one filled with grotty Inca Trail walkers – dripping wet and smelling; and the other filled with those tourists who had come straight up the mountain from the small spa town of Aqua Calientes who were in fine clothes, smelt good and generally mocked by ‘us lot’.
Willy took us on a tour of Machu Picchu and as if by magic or some command of the Inca Sun God, the clouds cleared to reveal the whole city and its buildings and temples in full glory. To try and describe the city would be an injustice so I will only describe my feelings towards it. I felt spiritual and glorious – to walk around this amazing place – truly something that is one of the best feelings on Earth. I was completely stunned.
After a couple of hours of wandering about with Willy, we all split up to explore by ourselves. Mark and I rushed off to climb the nearby peak of Huayna Picchu since it wasn’t long before the group would have to start heading downhill. It was supposed to be a 2 hour climb and another hour down but Mark and I ran up it in 25 minutes and down in 15! From the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views in every direction but especially back down onto the lost city itself.
After some further exploring back in the lost city, we had to start making our own way down to Aqua Calientes. It was a long walk, and in the town we finally met up with the others in a restaurant. We celebrated, toasted and celebrated some more since today was Mario’s birthday.
We caught the train which trundled slowly through the river valley we’d seen yesterday from the ridge walk. It was packed with tourists and locals and although we had reserved seats – I still have several groins and several arses in close proximity to my face. Trying to get out at our train stop was fun since it was packed with people who were staying on to some further destination. Jono and I used our rucksacks to bulldoze a path to the door but the others ended up climbing out of the window! The train shuffled off and we all found ourselves stumbling along the train track in the pitch dark trying to find the others. But we finally found our way back to where the minibus was waiting and piled on for the 3 hour journey back to Cuzco.
Willy was pissed and therefore provided light entertainment throughout the trip. Finally in Cuzco, we said fond goodbyes to the rest of the group who had all become good friends and set out back to Hotel Niler. Although I’d already seen the rooms, I gawked and gaped once again at the luxury of it all! Being last into the shower, all the hot water had gone but that didn’t matter since it was so nice to finally get clean. We relaxed late into the night enjoying the comfort of the hotel before finally collapsing into our beds.
The map below (and this link) shows the full route from start to finish along with roughly where I think we camped (from looking back at photos!).