Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
The most famous of the Andean treks, the Inca Trail starts at kilometre 82 (82 km from the historic Inca capital Cusco), ending at the majestic and mysterious Machu Picchu. At 26 miles the Trail is the length of a marathon but takes four days, day two being the hardest – a relentless 1,000m ascent to Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass).
In my case, it was more of a dead man’s pass. I had naively made two mistakes: believing that the word ‘moderate’ when applied to fitness level meant ‘able to walk’ (therefore not training beforehand); and not allowing sufficient time to adjust physiologically to high altitude. Cusco is 3,000m above sea level and you feel all these metres in your lungs as soon as you disembark. It didn’t help that my walking group consisted mainly of Dutch student backpackers who had been trekking for weeks in Ecuador before, and whose idea of fun was to race the sherpas up the mountain. Very gallantly they waited for me at the top, cheering me on those last few steps. Unfortunately I was feeling close to my last breath, but there was an overhang in the rock, so I hid whist wheezing my way back to strength, before running those last twenty steps and collapsing with joy.
Once up that mountain though, the Trail was a spectacular march through the clouds, with great camaraderie at the camps, leading to the unforgetable climax of seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate at dawn. It’s vital to get there early before bus loads of regular tourists spoil the ambience.
Or you can take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and catch a bus up the mountain. But that’s not the same.
Inca Trail tips
- Train beforehand.
- Acclimatise for a few days in Cusco first – it’s a fabulous city with plenty to do and see: archeological ruins and artefacts, Quechuan (the indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes) culture, Spanish colonial architecture, or if so inclined- the world’s highest altitude Irish Pub.
- Chew coca leaves which can be readily picked on the way or drink mate de coca (coca tea). At the shop at km 82 I ordered two mate de coca, and my companion was disappointed it wasn’t a Coca Cola. And yes, coca leaf is the basic constituent of cocaine, but its alkaloid content is less than 1%, so neither euphoric nor addictive, but is said to help with relieving altitude sickness and fatigue.
- Avoid consuming alcohol at altitude. (Needless to say, we didn’t, adding local spirit Pisco to enhance our coca tea, with some hilarious and less hilarious consequences).
- Don’t be too proud to hire a sherpa to carry your backpack. It makes a massive difference (I didn’t – another mistake).
- Good shoes (ditto).