Cusco and the Inca Trail

Well, after about four weeks of travelling through South America I was in Cusco, getting ready to go on the adventure that was the genesis of this entire trip.  I had secured one of the very limited and highly sought after Inca Trail permits in December last year, and I was set to hike 46km over 3 days and one very early morning, past ancient Incan sites, up and over Dead Woman’s Pass at 4150 metres, through the cloud forest and past the sun gate to one of the 7 wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. I was excited and nervous all at the same time – it was going to be a major physical challenge (particularly as I had spent the last 4 weeks drinking a lot of beer  and eating everything in sight) but I hoped one that I would conquer and be proud of for a very long time. 

Before getting started on the trail though I was meeting my mum and sister in Cusco, which was really nice after about 10 days of solo travel. We had a few days there to hang out and adjust to the altitude, and during that time we stayed in a arty little neighbourhood called San Blas up the hill from the plaza, which was much nicer than the hustle and bustle of downtown. We spent our days wandering around shopping and eating – as there is no shortage of tourists in Cusco, there is no shortage of restaurants and souvenirs!  On our travels we came across L’Atelier concept store and cafe, which not only had cute shirts and souvenirs that were a little different from what you get everywhere else in the city, but also great coffee and hot chocolate that we enjoyed overlooking the cobbled laneways of San Blas.

In terms of food, we had a really nice meal downtown at Mama Seledonia, which included quinoa coated chicken with a strawberry sauce and a great selection of craft beers. Dinner at a tapas bar called Cicciolina was another a highlight, particularly the roasted eggplant with hummus tapas. Lastly, we ate lovely dinner an organic cafe called Greens one night, where I had a rich mushroom ravioli and Jocelyn had delicious gnocchi made out of sweet potato and beetroot.

After those relaxing couple of days, we met up with our G adventures tour group to start our inca trail journey. First we were off to a women’s weaving co-op in Ccaccaccolllo, a small rural community where most of the porters that G Adventures employs are from. G Adventures established and continues to support the co-op to provide employment opportunities for the women in the community as well, and to allow people doing the inca trail a chance to experience a small part of life in the villages. We got to meet the women and learn about the stages of the weaving and dying process, and purchase some handicrafts directly from the families. Oh, and feed the alpacas/llamas that provide the wool!

Next we visited Pisac, an Incan site with ancient agricultural terraces and a citadel in front of a hill filled with tombs. Apparently back in the day the Incans were placed in tombs high up on a hill (close to the sun god) in foetal position (going out the way came in) with all their earthly treasures to take to the afterlife with them. Unfortunately that meant a lot of the tombs were looted so you can’t get near them anymore – not that I would have wanted to anyway! After the breathless walk uphill to the citadel to take in the views of the Sacred Valley, I was glad to be heading towards lunch at another G Adventures supported project, the Parwa community restaurant, where we had a an absolute feast in the most lovely setting.

To top off this awe inspiring day, we visited another set of ancient ruins at Ollantaytambo where we continued to warm up our Inca muscles on the stairs up to another ancient city (oh the burden!). One of my favourite parts about this city was a little love heart inset into the wall inset into the wall where the military headquarters were. Maybe it’s a recent addition, or there is another reason for it, but I like to imagine an Incan military officer hoping love would prevail over war!

After a restful night and savouring one last hot shower in the morning, it was packs on, walking sticks at the ready and big smiles at the start of the trail. The first day was set to be pretty cruisy – short, fairly flat (although I was soon to find out that Incan flat did not match my definition of flat) with loads of stops for food, water and more ancient ruins. It almost lulled us into a false sense of security  for the following days!

When we arrived at the campsite for the night the porters applauded us, which I found a little awkward given they had done the exact same walk with 20 kilos on their backs. That night we were introduced to all the porters, learning their names, how old they are and how many children they had. I was amazed to learn the oldest was close to 60 years old!

The first night of camping wasn’t particularly comfortable thanks to a leaky air mattress, although at least we had grass below our tents and a flushing toilet (little did I know it was going to get much worse). It was an early wake up call at about 5.30, although not entirely unpleasant one with steaming coca tea passed through the tent door and bowls of warm water provided to wash our faces in before breakfast. Almost glamping, but not quite. Pancakes were on the menu for breakfast, with some very creative decorations by the lovely porters and chefs. It was good to have a decent breakfast, as day 2 was summit day, where we were going to be going to be climbing 1000 metres up and over the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, with the summit at a literally breath-taking 4215 metres.

It was pretty tough going on the way up to the top, although I was comforted by the fact we were meant to we were scheduled to reach camp by mid afternoon, giving me lots of time to be slower than the average hiker. Jocelyn kept me motivated through the countless steps, sticking with me all the way up and assuring me the pain in my left arm wasn’t an imminent heart attack. By about midday we had made it, giving each other a high five and a tired hug when we reached the top and locked eyes on the long path down (or the part we could see through the clouds). After some photos, a muesli bar and a short rest it was a couple of hours of knee jarring steps down to camp before we could finally down tools for the day. Although I thought I was just going to want to rest, it was hard to come down of a high like that (pun intended) and I found myself in the midst of a campsite mini-dance party with two super fun English girls in our tour group. It was also a good way to keep warm as we were still at almost 4000 feet – it was a chilly afternoon and an even colder night!

The next day we were up early again for what was going to be the longest day on the trail at 16km, although it was meant to be a lot easier than the day before. That was not how it felt as we climbed up the summit for that day first thing in the morning, but that was over soon enough and it was relatively smooth sailing from there.

We stopped for lunch atop a mountain, a nice long leisurely stop where the porters pulled out all the stops by baking a cake and dedicating it to a couple in our tour group that was doing the inca trail as part of their honeymoon. Quite the feat on the side of a mountain in a makeshift tent kitchen!

Then we were on “inca flat” ground for the rest of the day, which really meant a lot of uphill with a bit of flat and the occasional downhill, with the exception of the ‘gringo killer’ stairs at the end of the day. Or as Jocelyn called it, the spiral staircase of death. Overall, it was a really beautiful day though, with more spectacular ruins, beautiful flowers, the cloud forest and stuning valley vistas.

The next day was the one we had all been waiting for, when we would walk the last few kilometres to the mother of all Incan sites, Machu Picchu. We were up at 3am to get in line at the checkpoint, and to allow the porters enough time to pack up the tents and get to Aguas Calientes in time for the first train. The last little part of the trek was harder than I thought it was going to be, with one section of stairs practically vertical just before the sun gate. It was all worth it though when we got to the sun gate and the clouds broke apart and we got our first glimpse of those ancient walls. It was less busy on the trail than I though it would be – obviously there were a few people around, but it wasn’t jam packed like some stories I had read said it would be. When we got down to Machu Picchu it was a different story though  – it was quite overwhelming to see so many clean, well dressed people after spending 3 nights in a tent!

After the obligatory group pictures, we had a tour around the site, which despite all the people was mind blowing. It really did surpass all expectations for me – it’s hard to explain how beautiful it is to be wandering around these ancient structures in the middle of the mountains. After a couple of hours of wandering and reuniting with mum, who hadn’t been able to do the hike, we headed down the hill for lunch and what was, in my opinion at least, a well deserved beer before getting the train back to Cusco.

It was a really fantastic week, made even better by some awesome people on our tour group and the fantastic job the G Adventures porters and our guide did at keeping us well fed and informed. I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone considering doing the inca trail – just remember, as with any tour company, to book well in advance to secure one of the limited permits for the trail.

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2 thoughts on “Cusco and the Inca Trail

  1. Sounds like you picked a good company to travel with, photos look amazing. I’ve been put off by it’s tourist popularity but your experience has changed that a little. Beautiful vista. I would celebrate with a beer too 🙂

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