The Inca Trail isn't always easy but the mountain scenery is spectacular and the trek will make your first glimpse of Machu Picchu all the sweeter
"Why are we doing this?” My brother, Simon, shot me an exasperated glance as we shuffled, like drunks, along the trail to Dead Woman Pass.
It was a good question – and one that my pounding brain couldn’t, at that moment, find an answer to. Instead, I grunted and concentrated on the perplexing task of walking at 4,000m above sea level. Left foot, breathe in; right foot, breathe out – I tried to pace myself with a calming mantra, but the pulse in my ears beat an altogether more frantic rhythm.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons for hiking the Inca Trail. Most of our group were treating it as a charity trek, raising money for a children’s hospital in the UK.
“I also wanted a challenge – something outside my comfort zone,” said 31-year-old Ricky, a sales manager from Leamington Spa. One of his colleagues, an ex-paratrooper called Phil, also seemed braced for adventure. In fact, from our group of just seven, only Jodi struck me as teetering on the brink of uncertainty.
“Last time I went camping was in the Lake District,” she told me, swatting the black flies that swarmed around our faces at the start of the trek. “We pitched our tent in a gale and I sat inside and cried.”
Curiously, no one mentioned Machu Picchu – the raison d’être of the Inca Trail – as motivation for embarking upon South America’s most popular trek. But, then again, why would they?
The great Inca citadel is within easy reach of daytrippers from Cuzco, thanks to frequent trains and buses. Why slog for four days over a mountain range when a perfectly good public transport system can virtually deposit you in the ruin’s sacred Temple of the Sun?
But that left me thinking there must be something pretty irresistible about the trail itself. Why else, in 2001, would authorities – fearing the trail was exceeding its capacity – decide to limit daily entry to just 500 hikers (including porters and guides)?
Everything I’d heard about the Inca Trail, however, was that it was still over-crowded, over-commercialised, strewn with garbage and basically trampled to death. I was intrigued by all this controversy – it would give me something to keep my mind off the brain-curdling effects of high altitude in the days ahead.
If anyone was going to help me understand the allure of the Inca Trail, it was Ruben Aragon Acuña. When I asked our 30-year-old guide how many times he had walked to Machu Picchu he smiled humbly and said he’d lost count after a few hundred. But here’s the intriguing thing: when asked if he still enjoyed it, he simply said: “Every time is like the first time.”
Good or bad omen? I wondered as we strolled, clean-shaven, sweat-free and blissfully ignorant, to the trailhead – a checkpoint with the uninspiring title of ‘Kilometre 82’. The reality was that we were already in the clutches of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, mountains rearing left, right and centre, the milky blue Urubamba River thundering nearby.
Our team of 14 porters, led by the charismatic 21-year-old Sixto Muñoz, quickly scuttled past, backs bent and calves taut as they hefted loads of up to 25kg each. Ruben must have noticed our guilty faces. “It’s a good job being a porter,” he assured us. “They get paid 100 sols [about £17] each trek – plus tips – and most do two a week. A farmer might earn only 50 sols a month.”
He explained that improving the livelihoods of porters was part of the recent Inca Trail shake-up. They used to struggle with packs weighing 60kg or more. That made us feel much better and, despite the scant oxygen at 2,600m, there was almost a spring in our step as we started walking.
The trail gently undulated alongside the Urubamba River. Giant hummingbirds fussed around the flowering spikes of agaves and bromeliads, and occasionally a train blasted its horn as it rattled past on the other side of the river. I tried to ignore that. We were, after all, on a trek. The 8:42 from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes was intrusive, to say the least. Two hours down the trail, the Urubamba branched in two.
We were to follow the Cusichaca tributary south, leaving the railway behind. First, however, Ruben pointed out the Inca ruins of Llactapata in the valley below. “The main aim of the Spanish Conquest,” he said, “ was to take the soul out of the people, make them forget their culture.” He gestured towards the restored stone terraces, draped across a hillside like tide marks on a beach. “That’s why Machu Picchu is so special – the Spaniards never found it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“The Inca Trail was a state secret. They made it very hard to find, let alone follow. Even common Inca weren’t allowed to use it.”
We, on the other hand, were being treated like Inca nobility. At Huayllabamba (our first night’s camp), Sixto was waiting for us with a tray of hot, wet towels, like the ones you get on long-haul flights.
Our top-of-the-range tents had already been pitched for us and there was a separate large dining tent with a table laid for dinner. “l can’t believe someone’s been carrying those!” exclaimed Ricky, pointing to a stainless steel napkin holder, nuzzled between matching sugar pot and milk jug.
The irony, of course, was that no amount of campsite pampering could conceal the fact that the Inca Trail is actually a very tough trek. And for some of us it was about to become harder still. The following morning Phil emerged, pale and shaken, from his tent, having joined the 70% of all visitors to Peru who are stricken by diarrhoea. Jodi, meanwhile, was having trouble catching her breath – a worrying sign considering that we were about to ascend Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman Pass), a vertical gain of some 1,200m.
Gazing up the valley I could see how the 4,198m highpoint of the Inca Trail resembled a woman lying down. Rising above the pass was a breast-shaped hill, surmounted by a nipple-like outcrop enflamed by early morning sunlight – a perky beacon. But one that was, nonetheless, a relentless five-hour plod away.
The first part of the trail burrowed through tranquil cloud forest, a Tolkienesque scene of lichen-bearded branches and whispering mountain streams. But it was nothing compared to the fantasy-land above the treeline. An entire meadow had been temporarily converted into a cosmopolitan café – each trekking group’s table and chairs laid out in the sun for a mid-morning snack and cup of coffee. There were tablecloths, individual bowls of hot water to wash your hands in and – yes, you guessed it – stainless steel napkin holders.
I suppose this was what people meant when they accused the Inca Trail of being overdone. But before any cynics get on their high passes and start ranting, it’s worth remembering that the Inca Trail was never intended to be a wilderness experience. It was designed as a pilgrimage route, an elaborately paved pathway to Machu Picchu, on which the great Inca himself could be conveyed on a litter by 20 of his minions.
You could say today’s trekking agencies are simply upholding traditional standards. Granted, Phil and Jodi would probably have prefered a litter and 20 slaves to a stainless steel napkin holder, but you can’t have everything.
It was another gruelling three hours to the pass. Simon, Ricky and I paused only long enough for a couple of photos before a chill breeze sent us scuttling down the other side.
The pass marked the point at which the original surface of the Inca Trail began. Until then we had been walking on rough, dusty tracks – now it was all paved slabs of white granite, meticulously jointed to form a knee-jarring stairway all the way to our second campsite in the Pacamayo Valley.
The following morning Phil and Jodi had recovered, but I sensed something amiss with Simon. He was glaring across the valley to where a long column of trekkers and porters was already ascending the next section of trail, like a snake uncoiling in the sunshine. “It’s like bloody Piccadilly Circus!” he muttered.
Fortunately, Ruben was not only a knowledgeable guide, but a wise one too. He held us back to let the rabble move on. By the time we reached the day’s first ruin (an ancient checkpoint called Runturacay), only a slow group of American trekkers were within sight.
Regrettably, they were also within earshot and I seriously considered confiscating Simon’s trekking pole before he wielded it in a way he might later regret. “I really don’t need to hear a running commentary on their trek!” He did have a point. Strangely, the sanctity of silence in some of the world’s most magical places is lost on some people.
Beyond a second, smaller pass, we descended to Sayacmarca (or lsquo ‘inaccessible town’), an exquisite Inca ruin that seemed to have metamorphosed from the bedrock like a cluster of crystals.
“The Incas always worked with nature, never against it,” Ruben enthused as we nosed about the ancient settlement. This was the start of his favourite section of the entire trek – and it showed.
Every few minutes he pointed out an exuberant cloud forest orchid, a dramatic view of the Vilcabamba range or an extraordinary feat of Inca engineering, such as a tunnel hewn through solid granite.
I began to wonder if we weren’t peaking too soon. Would it matter, having hiked all this way, if Machu Picchu came as an anticlimax?
“You do realise that I’ll probably cry when I see it” Jodi told me at our third and final campsite, dubbed ‘tent city’ by Simon.
There was thick mist at 5am the next morning. Ruben made us linger again over breakfast, so the trail was deserted when we set off on our final stretch of the Inca Trail.
I found myself walking slowly, half savouring the last few kilometres – the forest waking, mountain peaks ghosting in and out of view – half fearing that if I went too fast I might run into a queue of trekkers and shatter the quiet air of expectation.
As the sun emerged, white and pallid in the thinning mist, I climbed a stone stairway and abruptly found myself walking between the stone buttresses of Intipunku, the fabled Sun Gate. There was the murmur of voices – not too many, not too loud – as I stepped forward and steeled myself for a first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
There was a road. A road! For a moment I felt stunned, confused. The Inca city was there, ethereal in the soft morning light, in harmony with its mountain setting. But I couldn’t block out that harsh scribble, a white zig-zag scar on which buses were already trailing dust plumes across an otherwise pristine slope.
Not everyone can reach Machu Picchu by hiking the Inca Trail. I realise that. But neither has anyone felt the need to build a cable car up Uluru or a highway through the Grand Canyon. I walked briskly from the Sun Gate down towards the city itself.
And then it happened. The ugly road slipped from view and suddenly the full, untarnished splendour of Machu Picchu struck me: the sheer scale of the place, its terraces barely clinging to a ridge above the Urubamba canyon; the shark-fin peak of Huayna Picchu rising behind the citadel; and the whole scene enveloped by the smoky outline of the Vilcanota Mountains.
We sat in silence on a deserted terrace overlooking the intricate honeycomb of finely honed walls. My aching feet convinced me that we deserved this privilege.
As the first buses disgorged their passengers into the ancient streets of Machu Picchu it suddenly struck me that, for all the spiritual beauty and inspiring architecture of the Inca city, they were only going to see part of the story – the dramatic finale, if you like, that accompanies the individual movements of a long, engrossing symphony. During the past four days we’d witnessed the entire master-piece, from the breathless highs to the grumbling lows – and every Inca-paved step in between.