Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Written by Frances Harris
(A Runner-up entry in the Senior Travel Expert Inaugural Writing Competition.)

Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu
Approaching Machu Picchu

I think it is a great idea when my husband says he wants to celebrate retirement by going to Machu Picchu. Who would not want to see this most celebrated of Inca cities? I rather fancy getting there by train. The journey is supposed to be spectacular.

The Inca Trail has the high Andes as a backdrop and winds up and down over mountain passes, through cloud forest and past Inca ruins until it reaches the glories of Machu Picchu. Sometimes the path is wide, elsewhere it seems to hug the rock and always there are steps. Thousands of them. Unlike me, the Inca people must have been very fit. They certainly built to last.

My husband, however, has other ideas. He wants to walk. “Come on, you’ll enjoy it.” I am still not convinced when, several months later, I take the first tentative steps on the Inca Trail. I am not sure I am going to succeed, let alone enjoy the experience, but my options have run out.

Sometimes the path is wide...
Sometimes the path is wide…

I walk alongside the Urubamba River and reflect on the fact that I am walking along a path that dates from the fifteenth century. I am lulled into a false sense of security because the gradient here is moderate, the views are stunning and we stop for a three course lunch. Not like camping as I used to know it.

Our group is accompanied by a trail guide, a cook and thirteen porters. I hope the number is not an omen but so far, so good.

The porters applaud our entry into the first campsite. I am taken aback. Why are they doing this? They are the ones who deserve the applause. They are carrying loads of twenty five kg and have to make and strike camp each time. They always smile though, especially when they overtake us.

I am certainly not smiling the next day when we are toiling up towards Dead Woman Pass. It must be one of the most appropriately named rock formations in the world. It is exactly how I feel. The top of the pass is 4215 metres high, nearly four times the height of Snowdon. It takes a long time.

...elsewhere it seems to hug the rock
…elsewhere it seems to hug the rock

We have been told to go at our own pace. A malfunctioning snail would be quicker. But we get there. Eventually. And the views at the top are breath-taking. Literally.

I look at the track snaking along the mountainside far below us and contemplate the Incas’ purpose in building cities on the tops of mountains. Philosophy is soon forgotten when I realise that what goes up has to come down. Six hundred metres of steps. I never did enjoy step – aerobics.

I am not that keen on camping either at three o’clock in the morning when I have to put on jacket and hiking boots and make my way down a path and across a stream to get to my destination. No en-suite facilities here.

Snow on the Andes peaks
Snow on the distant mountain peaks

On the way back I stop on the bridge and look at the night sky. The Milky Way stretches to infinity across a shimmering expanse of stars. Apart from the murmur of water below me, the night is still. Who would not feel a sense of awe?

This euphoria dissipates very rapidly at dawn when the porter brings warm water and coca tea that is supposed to stave off altitude sickness. I hate the stuff. I long for a decent cup of English Breakfast tea but I down it with only a slight grimace. It is infinitely preferable to becoming ill.

It seems to be working, for we climb the next pass, a mere 3900 metres above sea level, in brilliant sunshine and even have the energy to smile at the porters as they overtake us.

 the Urubamba River threads through the narrow, steep-sided valley
The Urubamba River threads through the steep-sided valley

Here it is easy to see why the Incas worshipped mountains. We are walking through cloud forest. In the clear air you can see for miles across to where the snow on the distant mountain peaks glitters in the sun.

We stop as our guide insists that we must make an offering. We place coca leaves on a rock and make a wish. I wonder how many people through the centuries have looked up at the mountains and placed their fate in the hands of the gods. I prefer, at this point in the trail, to place my faith in our guide.

We negotiate a narrow tunnel carved through rock to reach the third pass and start the dizzying descent towards the final campsite, going past the magnificent ruins of Phuyupatamarka where the water for the ceremonial baths still runs through the site. Baths, ceremonial or otherwise, seem an impossible dream. Today. Tomorrow we are returning to civilization.

Machu Picchu
Gradually the splendour of Machu Picchu is revealed

We set out before dawn on our final morning. Far below us the Urubamba River threads through the narrow, steep-sided valley. Not far now.

At last we reach the Sun Gate and there, in the grey, early morning light, is Machu Picchu. We watch the daylight creep down the mountain towards the city walls. Gradually the splendour of the Inca city is revealed. It truly is one of the wonders of the world.

We have not broken any records in completing the 43 km Inca Trail. That stands at three hours, forty five minutes, in the annual porters’ race. It has taken us several days and considerable determination. (We have not even broken the record for being the oldest couple our guide has taken; that honour, annoyingly, belongs to a German couple.)

We have, however, reached a new high in our sense of achievement. It is a truly memorable way to celebrate retirement. Although it would have definitely been quicker by train.

See also: Round the World in 40 Days: Stage 9 – Cusco and Machu Picchu

POSTED 22nd FEBRUARY 2018 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of FRANCES HARRIS. The photographs were taken by Steve Hanson