So, here it was. The moment our entire trip so far had lead to. The pis-de-resistance of South America. The holy grail of treks. The subject of all horrible aforementioned cliches.
Hyperboles aside, this was the trek we expected to be more akin to a Sunday walk in the park – with a few thousand tourists in tow – rather than a multi-day, harrowing scramble up what was for all intents and purposes, several giant cliffs. But if it’s good enough to charge you two weeks of first-world country living expenses, and then some, just for the pleasure of walking it – it had to be worth it, right?
It had all come down to this. The Inca Trail.
At just after 9am on a sunny Friday morning, our group of trekkers assembled. We were: Michelle and I, a 25-year-old German girl who had definitely trekked before (judging by the way she’d be at the front one moment, and then lost in the distance the next, and then suddenly she’d be bounding back UP the track the next minute like a loyal dog) and a couple of fit Mums nearing their 50s, who were not only as fit as those 30 years younger, but were arguably far fitter in every sense.
Watching us giggle and chat away as we met for the first time, dressed in our pinks and fluoros, guide Mario’s face said it all. Expectations for us were not the highest.
And so we set off into the weekend, sacrificing flowing drinks and Peruvian parties to lug our belongings over a number of mountain passes, spending the nights sleeping on the floor of a tent, dirty, unshowered and severely lacking sleep. Worth every penny of the $600, right?
Little more than a five hour moderate walk into the Sacred Valley, we stopped on the first day only once for an hour break for lunch. This was no coleslaw, bun and luncheon meat, however.
Our tireless porters made a point of running ahead of us, with their bulky 25kg packs, to have the lunch tent set up and the food cooking as we sauntered on in. These guys carried the tents, the food, and a collapsable table and chairs every inch of the way in SANDALS. I mean, none of us would have been complaining if we were having coleslaw, bun and luncheon on the floor, or in the open – but mark our words: these have this down to a fine art.
And every time that little voice in your head piped up to complain about the gradient of the slopes, or the number of backbreaking steps you were climbing, or the strain on your back – one of these little guys half your size would scoot – no gallop – past you with six times the weight on his back, in his sandals. And yet, he’d still have the decency to smile and ask how you are. If I was in the same position, friendly pleasantries would not be the first words from my lips.
Chatting and strolling along a gravel path, it barely seemed like we were on the Trail of Trails, until we rounded one unassuming corner, and “Little Machu Picchu” stretched out beneath us. Only then did the full realisation of where we were dawn on us.
Day One came to a close just before 4pm, as we wandered into camp ahead of schedule, with our tents already standing – and wonder when the ‘strenuous hike’ we’d been sold would start.
If only then we’d known what day two had in store.
Tea time (somehow, these resourceful porters made room for hot chocolate and animal biscuits among their tent gear and cooking utensils) preceded a two course dinner, before a pat on the back from Mario and off to bed at about 7.30pm. How all good weekend nights should end, really.
The second, hardest day as we were warned, began at 5am with pancakes, toast and porridge.
You know it’s gonna be bad when breakfast is three courses of carbs.
As we began the gradual hike up a hill of sorts, I was feeling good – keeping pace, finding it a little hard to breath because of the altitude, but otherwise feeling a lot fitter than the endless supply of pastries and deep fried goodness over the last three months should allow.
After an hour straight uphill, we began to tire a little, but otherwise traipsed forward. As the second hour wore on, the endless steps resulted in burning thighs and a faint headache. But we strode on, keeping pace with Mario – who in hindsight, drew comparisons to his energetic namesake of Nintendo fame. Then suddenly, it was break time, each of us falling to the ground, gleefully happy we’d made it up the terrible Day Two Climb. We were all high-fives and toasting with chocolate bars, like the naive Westerners we were.
“Just two more hours to the top,” a grinning Mario said as he barely wet his lips with water.
I fought the will to hurt him.
The following two hours were a real lowlight of my entire life. Never-ending steps (obviously made for basketball players and models, because my short legs were no match for them. Weren’t the Incas small people? Did they jump up the steps like Crash Bandicoot?), coupled with a bit of altitude sickness, a migraine, the pack, mattress and sleeping bag on my back and an endless slog in front of me – almost got the better of me. Until a very overweight American passed me. At that point I had to give myself a very stern warning to get my shit together.
And then one of those little porters would run past with 25kg on his back. In sandals. Smiling.
It was just after lunchtime when we finally reached the first pass – 4,200m. There were high-fives and cheering, with trepidation as we searched around for signs of a false summit. We stood as a group and cheered Mario on as he reached the top. After all his initial misgivings, the poor guy was actually being pushed to his limits by us women, who all happened to be wearing pink that day, just to really distance ourselves from tired stereotypes, and he was quick to reevaluate his first impressions. Why thank you Mario, I thought, but you didn’t see me curse the skies for ever being born halfway up that hill.
Not long after we gorged our way through what seemed like 46 animal biscuits, we learnt one of our porters had taken a tumble on the trek and dislocated his ankle, so he had to be carted out of the area by horse. Mario was most apologetic we would no longer have a table and chairs – but honestly, I think there were worse things to go without. Now, if the guy carrying the animal crackers had been injured, I might’ve had different things to say.
Day Two again ended ahead of schedule, a couple of hours to be exact – as we limped into our campsite at about 3,600m. With our tents set up beside a waterfall, we reclined (read: collapsed without warning) in front of what was possibly the greatest view from a tent that ever was. The real highlight of the day, however, came when we all stripped off and decided to use the stream, a hose and a couple of small sarongs as the world’s most improvised makeshift shower.I don’t think the porters ever needed to see that.
Also, the multiple people who told us the 3 hour trek up Colca Canyon is harder than the 30+ hour Inca Trail all need to get your heads checked. Okay?
For all our complaints about walking and steps and exercise we never knew was coming, this day of torture was entirely our own faults. Greedy tourists we were, we decided we wanted to see Machu Picchu in the afternoon sun, and at sunrise (be sure to check if your trek is scheduled to arrive at the Gate at sunrise or not. Only a select view get this privilege). This meant over 10 hours of walking, and almost driving Mario into the ground.
Greeted at 5am at the door of our tent by a porter, drenched to the bone from the rain, but nonetheless wearing a smile and serving us a cup of hot tea – the day certainly seemed off to a good start.
That was until we saw the hike in front of us. Straight off the bat, we had two hours up a hill to the second pass, Mario explained. One hour later, we were celebrating at the top – Mario wheezing and silently cursing the fact we weren’t the overweight, unfit gringos he was apparently used to. It was about then we all discovered we’d again unintentionally dressed in pink too. Thus, the Pink Ladies were born – just not the sexy, lycra-clad Olivia Newton-John variety you’re probably more partial to.
We soon realised we shouldn’t have been so quick to balk at the hill, though. Downhill was so, so much worse. The steps made for giants resulted in our gait getting shakier and shakier as we descended. By lunchtime, we resembled elderly women trying to navigate a normal flight of stairs a week after a hip replacement. If this is what old age is going to be like, I don’t want it.
By lunchtime, we wanted to call it in. Get us outta there – helicopter, donkey – we didn’t care. And then we had several handfuls of animal crackers, and just like the Fountain of Youth, energy re-entered our tired, withered old bodies. From this day forward, I have come to the conclusion that animal crackers are the answer to all of life’s paradoxes.
At about 4pm, jacked up on animal cracker-fuelled adrenaline, we arrived at the 50 (most horribly steep, suicidal, stupid) steps to the Sun Gate and stumbled upon the view to Machu Picchu. Majestic, regal, wondrous: all the tired cliches of the English language just do not do it justice. The feeling of achievement was hard to shake.
A quick wander through the ancient village to whet our appetite before the next day, peppered with plenty of cringeworthy and posed photo-ops, we descended the small walk (by bus, obviously, because our legs were now at risk of shattering like glass. I don’t recall how much this mythic bus cost, but I do know it’s more than I’d pay a taxi for a 30 minute jaunt across town anywhere else).
At the bottom, at Aguas Calientes, we settled in to sleep on the floor of a restaurant as unassuming patrons ate their Lomo Saltado three tables away. In short, we’d given up a night of tent accommodation to ring in a favour with Mario’s friends to allow us more Machu Picchu time. Hey, if one night of half-slumber on cold lino and an extra hour up a hill was our only payment for an extra day wandering through one of the world’s most majestic sights – who were we to complain?
Instead of spending our day finishing off the last seven hours of the Inca Trail, as the rest of those who set off the same day as us were doing, we’d instead signed up for an extra three hour walk. In all honesty, those animal crackers made you feel like you could conquer Everest.
So at 4.45am, because of course the sunrise was something to take into consideration, it was back uphill – creaking joints and five years of mobility taken off our lives and all. Cue, plenty more steps, a gradient to rival a straight cliff, and verging on losing the will to live. After just over an hour, two hours early and still in the dark, we were at the top, Mario for the last time vowing never to offer a group the same deal again, and us fantasising about the extra two hours of sleep on cold, hard lino we could have had.
Until the hordes of tourists came streaming in at about 9am, Machu Picchu was every inch the legend that drives people to near remortgage their houses to tick off the bucket list. The ruins are far more preserved and intact than I realised, and it truly is just like wandering through a village. As the flood of tourists made it hard to move, we painstakingly crawled atop a nearby hill for a nap under the trees, before waddling and wincing our back down the thousands of steps to Aguas Calientes.
It was over, we’d knocked off the Inca Trail in just three days, and then some. Thighs burning, calves on fire, mentally drained and hungry – the rest of day four was spent sitting firmly on everything we could.
And as we sat, our porters were somewhere back on the Inca Trail in their sandals, with their 25kg, trekking back the way they’d came. Probably still smiling.