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The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Inca Entertainment - The Inca Trail in Peru
Machu Picchu in Peru is one of those views that you just have to see once in your life. Everyone has seen the classic photo, always apparently taken from exactly the same place on the descent down a mountain towards the ancient site. My trip there, however, was rather eventful and almost a disaster, but I have very fond memories despite something going wrong at almost every stage.
This article is about my trip and some travel advice and recommendations for Peru and the Inca Trail from Cusco (or Cuzco) to Machu Picchu.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
I set off with two school friends, now all grown-up and sensible, with our rucksacks on our backs, with the intention of walking the Inca Trail. The "classic" student way to see Machu Picchu is a four-day journey, three days of walking over undulating mountains and camping at high altitude, finishing on the morning of the fourth day descending into Machu Picchu at sunrise. The alternative route is a fairly short train journey which can all be done in one day or with an over-night stay to allow getting to the site early in the morning, or a helicopter flight in a matter of hours. Looking back at it, we must have been mad, and I was certainly deluded about my own level of fitness, and had apparently completely forgotten that I am scared of heights.
Getting To Peru
In order to walk the Inca Trail, you need to start from the city of Cusco. We booked flights from London to Lima with the Venezuelan Viassa Airline (the cheapest option at the time) There appeared to be a problem with the plane on take-off and we were surprised to find ourselves being ushered off the plane in Paris, where we sat for hours watching fluid gush out of the plane while "engineers" wandered around the plane scratching their heads. We then all got back on the plane for the onward journey. We landed in Caracas about a day after setting out on our journey, where we waited for two more days for a working plane to take us on the Lima. We were ferried backwards and forwards, for no apparent reason, between the airport and a luxurious hotel that the airline had put us up in for two nights. A guided tour of Caracas, food and entertainment was provided, but we wanted to be up a mountain in Peru. We fortunately hadn't booked any accommodation, nor onward flights, so when we finally did arrive at Lima airport, we just bought tickets and caught the next plane to Cusco, without even venturing into Lima itself.
Map of the Inca Trail - Map of Cusco in Peru
Some Essential Reading: Peru and the Inca Trail
Cusco (or Cuzco) Peru
Capital of the Inca Empire, Centre of the Inca Cult of the Sun
Cusco (or Cuzco) was the capital of the Inca Empire and the centre of the Inca Cult of the Sun. It is a fascinating place to spend several days with a wide variety of things to do and see, while acclimatizing to the altitude, ready for the Inca Trail. It is usefully at an altitude of 3,300m, lower than many of the higher parts of the trail, yet high enough to allow your body to get used to the reduced air pressure. It really is essential to acclimatize before attempting the journey. We didn't. The delay in Caracas had cut short our time and we wanted to get started. Cusco really deserves a separate review, so I won't go into too much detail here. But one thing really worth doing is The Natural History Museum (just 50p when I was there and worth every penny. I haven't laughed so much in a long time. All of the exhibits had no hair and were stuffed badly and had teddy bear style eyes sewn on. The boa constrictor was stuffed so full that it was completely straight and looked like a draft-excluder.
Natural History Museum, Cusco, Peru
Food in Cusco was mostly not great, as with so much of South America, but the night before the Inca Trail we decided to have a slap-up meal and a few beverages. The local delicacy of guinea pig seemed like a good idea as the main course, but that proved to be a mistake, first of all looking like my childhood pet, but also, was almost certainly road-kill. We foolishly ate it washed down with much sub-standard booze. I was very ill and didn't sleep at all.
The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is actually now a selection of several trails of varying lengths all arriving at Machu Picchu in dramatic fashion on the final day, although when I did it, I think there really was just one trail, but huge volumes of tourists have caused the requirement of spreading out the hoards a little. The classic trail takes a full four days, starting with a mini-bus journey to some distance outside Cusco, about six hours a day of walking, camping each night, with the final day spent exploring Machu Picchu, then taking the train back to Cusco. It is probably worth making sure exactly what route is being taken and what you will see en route. Some companies are now offering a short trail with just one day of walking, starting close to Machu Picchu, while others extend the journey to five days. The scenery is stunning and the destination unique, so I imagine even a short trail would be extremely good.
We booked the trail on arrival in Cusco with the least expensive guide we could find and haggled hard, getting a guide and "chef", but no porters, for the four days, shared with another 10 or so tourists for just $65 each. There is no way you will get it for this price now. We met many people on the trail, who even then, had paid several times as much. In exchange for the low price we agreed to carry some of the food and tents etc. along with our rucksacks, which was extremely foolish. A llama joined us on the journey, but she was purely for company and didn't help out at all with the carrying. One group we met on the trail had a team of porters and a pig trotting along for the first half of the journey, although he disappeared at some stage and they did have rather better protein rich food than we did. We had chicken early on, but mostly vegetarian later in the journey, and only edible because we were so hungry and tired.
Useful Guidebooks: Peru
The Peruvian Andes
The most striking thing about the trail is the incredible sheer vertical drops next to the paths we were walking on. I am not good with heights (in a cautious logical kind of way, I am scared when it's dangerous, but not if I am safe, and I would say this was quite dangerous) The surreal sight of tiny helicopters flying almost a mile below us in the valleys, and at one point even watching a thunder-storm from above, which we had to walk down through, made the whole experience even more memorable. The views looking down through the wispy clouds and haze into the valleys and of the Inca agricultural terraces and occasional ruin along the twisting path are spectacular.
On the first day I started getting symptoms of altitude sickness. I was out of breath, and had a terrible headache, but mostly just lacked energy and could hardly lift my camera let alone my body. It could have been exhaustion, or related to the dodgy guinea pig, alcohol and lack of sleep, but heading back down the mountain helped. I was given Coca Cola and high-energy chocolate and almost instantly improved, and the kind guide took my rucksack and my friends shared the burden of my photographic equipment. I was holding everyone up, most of whom had been acclimatized for a month or more, so I had to keep going, fortunately heading down-hill at that stage. Later in the journey I hired a mule to carry my bag for a significant, but worthwhile, fee (probably less than $10). Most tour operators now seem to provide porters to carry your luggage, which I would say is essential to really enjoy the walk. The first day was reckoned to be the easiest walk, with just 13km to cover, but I found it the hardest. The subsequent days involved similar distances, but more steep ascents. The camping facilities were very basic mostly without washing or toilet facilities, although I suspect this was partly due to the extreme budget nature of the tour taken in our case, and things may have improved with the increased popularity of this route.
Some Photographic Equipment
If you don't already have an SLR camera and a long lens, it would be a good idea to get one, before going on a trip like this. A compact camera will not get such good results in the challenging conditions in the jungle although they are more convenient.
I have written a more detailed recommendation of cameras here:
I have also written an article about how to choose a digital compact camera:
but here is some good kit:
Flora and Fauna
The Inca Trail has a wide variety or climates as you progress up and down the mountains, some areas approaching zero while others are tropical. Humming birds hovering around us some of the time with snow and cacti in other areas. We camped at such high altitude one night, that we were actually inside a cloud with temperatures below zero. I had packed a lightweight sleeping bag, rather than the three or four-season variety recommended (well it was the equator after-all) and I started to get the first symptoms of hypothermia during the night. I tried wrapping myself in a tarpaulin, but ended up being covered in condensation which only made things worse. Fortunately the sun came up and thawed me out ready for another scary walk with no energy and little sleep.
The History of the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail was the great communication technology of the day, like the internet now. Relay runners would run between stations along the route passing messages back to Cusco. The route was also used for transferring fresh fish and other supplies rapidly from the coast up to Machu Picchu, taking a tiny fraction of the time taken by us. Along the route there are various interesting Inca constructions, although the more intact buildings were relatively few and far between. Some of them make wonderful photo opportunities and the scenery is stunning. Ruins of small inns, or "tambos" are located at regular intervals along the trails. These were occupied by the relay runners and provided shelter and food. Some Germans in our party regularly ordered beer, whenever we had a break, from various local people along the route and it appeared in no time. I would like to think these modern day relay-runners ran back to Cusco to purchase it, but I suspect they had a fridge tucked behind a hedge somewhere. Under normal circumstances I too would have imbibed with my Teutonic colleagues, but my stamina was impaired and couldn't manage any ethanol until celebrating our arrival on the last night. The last night was actually under cover inside a brick building. We were intending to camp and cook food round the fire, but we were stuck inside a thunder-storm and it would have been dangerous, so someone pulled strings and we were allowed inside with a huge number of other tourists caught in the storm. We ate low quality food, which tasted wonderful under the circumstances and even managed a beer, or five, to make up for my unnatural abstinence along The Trail.
Machu Picchu is stunning, whether you go on the train or walk, but that sight as I walked down the mountain on the last day of the trail is one memory I hope will never leave me. A mixture of emotion, achievement and relief. It is at a height of just 2,400 metres above sea-level, relatively low compared to most of The Trail, which adds to the feeling of euphoria when you arrive. It was built in about 1460 and only occupied for a hundred years or so, abandoned when the Spanish arrived on the continent, although they never actually reached Machu Picchu. It was only "rediscovered" in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. It is only about 50 miles from Cusco and has similar architecture to many of the sites in and around Cusco, using clever earth-quake resistant interlocking dry-stone walls in its construction, but it's relatively impenetrable location has left it surprisingly intact. The sturdy foundations and many of the walls remain. Although, a tall stone column erected by the Incas still stood majestically in the midst of the ruins until it was removed to allow helicopter access. The majority of the buildings look quite modern and very regular in structure, but the setting is amazing, especially when you try to work out how the Incas actually got the building materials to the site. The terraced fields running down the side of the mountain are also remarkable, because the inhospitable location would normally have made agriculture almost impossible. The main buildings at the site are the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. The exact purpose of the site is not known but guides at the site will provide much speculative theory on the subject. The most important thing is to enjoy the remarkable location, marvel in the beauty and the unbelievable construction of the site and try to imagine it decorated with gold and occupied by the Incas instead of hoards of tourists.
Since I went to Machu Picchu it has become a very popular destination, to the extent that measures have been taken to try to reduce the number of visitors, both to the site and also to the Inca Trail. It has become far more expensive to do the trail, and I imagine the stunning sight of the destination will be a little impaired by all of the extra tourists, but still a wonderful place to visit. It is located in a magical location and the neighbouring city of Cusco with all of it's attractions and history also makes a fascinating destination.
Conclusion. Should you walk the Inca Trail?
Yes, but get someone to carry your luggage, acclimatize for several days beforehand, don't get food-poisoning, and definitely don't get drunk the night before. Next time I am taking the train (or helicopter), which would still be a wonderful experience and allow me more time to explore Cusco and its surroundings.
Advantages: Stunning location views and history, friendly llamas
Disadvantages: Altitude sickness, hypothermia, food poisoning, exhaustion, terrible food
Summary: Do it if you are fit, not scared of heights and have sufficient time
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