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I WAS spring-cleaning my room when I came across my 8-year-old travel journal from my trip to South America. After going through pages of notes from the trip, it was evident that, after all these years, my four-day Inca Trail experience to Machu Picchu remains one of my best travel adventures.
Machu Picchu, a Unesco-declared World Heritage Site, is one of the most well-known archaeological sites in South America. During ancient times, the Inca Trail was a footpath through the Andes, used by the Incas to get to the gates of Machu Picchu. Today, it has become one of the most popular hiking trails in South America.
As an avid traveller, the Inca Trail was one of my ultimate destinations. It has it all — history, scenery and adventure.
The approximately 40km track, although not long was tough due to the altitude and steep climbs. It was a combination of high altitude mountain ranges of the Andes and the dense subtropical rainforest. The reward was the mind-blowing sight of Machu Picchu, an ancient city constructed on top of a mountain, about 2,400m above sea level.
DEPARTING FROM CUSCO
My departure point for the trip was a lovely city called Cusco. It sat at an elevation of 3,400m above sea level, which meant altitude sickness was a worry for me. For that reason, I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to acclimatise myself. Here, I met Kristina, my bubbly tour guide who had completed the trek four times already. The group I joined consisted of 10 other trekkers, some of whom I had become acquainted with when I was in the Amazon rainforest in Puerto Maldonado. I met the rest of the group members during our pre-departure group dinner.
Our trip did not kick off as planned. We were supposed to take a bus ride from Cusco to KM88, the starting point of the trail, in the morning. Unfortunately, we had to leave the night before to avoid road strikes around Cusco.
Earlier strikes, which carried political agendas, turned out to be violent. For our own safety, we had no choice but to quickly pack our bags after dinner and leave.
Our trek started at km88 as we made our journey to our first campsite, Wayllabamba. Fourteen porters, some as young as 15, accompanied us. These porters carried approximately 25kg of load on their backs!
The day was relatively easy. We began the trail by crossing Kucichaca Bridge and came across a few archaeological complexes. After about 12km, we reached Wayllabamba village, where our tents were already set up. We had a delicious meal of soup, chicken and rice before settling in for the night.
I woke up in freezing cold, pleased to find a bowl of hot water, soap and a cup of hot chocolate placed in front of my tent. One of the things I truly appreciated throughout this trip was to be able to enjoy my hot chocolate first thing in the morning, with the stunning view of the Andean mountains before me. It was surreal.
Day Two was physically demanding. The biggest challenge was crossing Warmiwanusqa Pass (Dead Woman’s Pass), a steep gruelling climb with its peak at 4,200m above sea level. Beyond the peak, it was mainly downhill. My knees hurt. If I stood still, they wobbled.
I was more than pleased to reach our campsite for the night, after a full day of hard work. We stayed up late after dinner, drinking coca tea and getting to know one another.
This was the longest and the most interesting. It took us through a series of ruins and plains of flora and fauna. It was mainly downhill, which was not too tiring but uncomfortable on the knees. The most significant ruin was Sayaqmarca (Invisible Town) — so named because the cliffs protected it from every side. We also had awesome views of the snow-capped peaks of Salkantay.
As soon as I reached our last campsite for the trip, I headed for the shower. The cold water felt like a luxury after going without showering for three days. After dinner, we had a little farewell session with the porters. As we sang and danced the night away, I looked forward to what Day Four had to offer.
We woke up at 4am and had a 5km walk in pitch black darkness to the Sun Gate. When we reached our lookout point, the sun had not yet risen and it was quite foggy. So, we sat and waited as we gazed out over the valley. As the cloud finally began to slowly disperse, my heart leapt at the sight. There it was, the mystical Machu Picchu, emerging from the cloud, spreading out before my eyes.
I remember sitting at a corner in solitude at the ruins, reflecting on the last four days. Machu Picchu surpassed my imagination. There was something peaceful and spiritual about the site. I was also in awe at the buildings, constructed by the Incas in such precision without even the use of mortar. By 9am, trains with freshly showered tourists began to roll in. Yes, I could have just taken the train to get here, but that would have been too easy.
Nothing could beat the feeling that I had earned it, that the ruins looked even better when I had put in the hard kilometres to get here, by retracing the steps of the Incas.