Friday, 20 August 2010

The Inca Trail or: how my legs and I had a falling out

Arriving back to Cusco after the jungle, it was time for some history – a day exploring the sacred valley of the Incas, and then straight into the Inca Trail for F and I. The sacred valley is packed full of relatively well-preserved Inca ruins, and we had time to visit two of the best, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, both displaying excellent examples of Incan architecture and city planning. Our guide brought the ruins to life with passionate talks, and the whole experience made us very excited for what we were going to see over the next few days.

At the end of the day we said goodbye to the rest of the group, and remained in the town of Ollantaytambo ready for an early start in the morning. Although we hadn’t deliberately planned it that way, we were the only two to have permits for the Inca Trail, so would have a private guide, cook and porters for ourselves (which seemed a little extravagant). We showed our permits at the first checkpoint, and set off for the four day trip.

The first day started well, and was a gentle introduction, with plenty of flat parts to break up the uphills. The views across the mountains were amazing, and after our first break, although we could see groups setting off one way, our guide took us another, explaining that the full Inca trail involved a route past a site, but that most groups avoided it as it was a steep half an hour on the first day. He insisted we went that way though, and we soon realised why – as we climbed up and over a hill we had an amazingly close view of Q’Entimarka, an agricultural area with vast terraces. Although the steep, scrambling route was shattering, the opportunity it presented was definitely worth it. From there the trail began to get tougher, with steep uphills exposed to the blazing sunshine, although our lunch stop in a small village (although the whole trail is now protected and no more houses can be built along it, there are still communities remaining) with lots of baby animals helped us to forgot our aching muscles. The evening was lovely – F was invited to play football with our guide and porters in the local community and we realised just how lucky we were with our team – the porters were relaxed and friendly, teasing us constantly and trying hard to communicate even with the language barrier.

The second day is hilariously described on the Inca trail map as ‘challenging’. Ha bloody ha. It is in fact one of the toughest hikes I’ve ever done. Over a thousand metres straight up, made up mostly of steep, deep steps (not ideal for little legs like mine…), without flat areas and exposed to the strong sun. Challenging is a bit of an understatement, and we saw a few fellow hikers go back, suffering from the effects of the altitude on an already exhausting day. The trekking was relentless, and the steps increasingly difficult to mount. The scenery was stunning, alternating between forested sections and panoramic views across the valley and mountains, but there were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it. For all those tackling day two, the pace was slow, and for the first time we could understand why some people have suggested that the one disadvantage of the trail is how crowded it is. For the most part I completely disagree with this – we found that groups spread out and we were alone for a lot of the trip, but for this one section, everyone is plodding along at a similar speed, so it does feel busier.

We finally made it to the 4200m peak of the pass – rather conveniently named ‘Dead Woman’s pass’, as this was exactly how I felt when I arrived, after 5 hours, and had a quick rest and some pictures before starting the second leg – almost the same number of metres but this time downhill, down steep steps and stony paths that were killer on the knees. After around an hour and a half just going down, we arrived at our campsite completely exhausted.

Day 3 was more accurately described on the map as ‘unforgettable’, and although it was the longest day (over 8 hours walking), it was certainly the most diverse in landscape, and the richest in Inca sites. We started with a steep ascent of around 450m to the second pass, stopping at the ruins of Runkuraky en route, a watchtower station with great views up towards the pass from yesterday, providing the Incas with a panoramic of the valley in case of visitors or attack. Coming over the pass, we hit Sayaamarka, a ritual site with an impressive stone wall cut to resemble (and dedicted to) the mountains, important objects of worship for the Incas. We continued on our way to the third and final major pass, a beautiful walk which led us down through an Inca tunnel and into a much lusher environment than we were used to, with a great diversity of plants surrounding us on each side.

After mounting the final pass we were faced with the most difficult part of the day – a steep 1000m downhill, mostly down steps. We had a short break at Phuyupatamarka, a very well-preserved arrow shaped site, but from then on it was down down down for almost two hours, knee jarring and extremely painful. We finally reached camp, everything aching once more and with sore feet, but happy to have most of the trek out of the way – it was definitely tougher than we expected, and the long steep ascents and descents at such a high altitude (average of 3000m, reaching up to over 4000), added to the strain on the lungs and legs. An unforgettable trek – but definitely one not to underestimate. We were extremely lucky – our porters, cook and guide were great sources of support and motivation, and after watching the incredible porters run up the mountains with upwards of 20kg on their backs, there was no way that we, with our little measly day packs, could ever have lived down not making it!

We relaxed in the bar, glad that the worst was behind us. Or, at least, we thought it was...

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