The tears came before I even reached The Inca trail. Colca Canyon was to blame for said tears. We headed there just to test our altitude capabilities before we began the trek. I was a little cocky prior to this overnight stop as ‘I have been to Everest Base Camp, don’t you know and I didn’t feel a thing!’ But for one reason or another I found myself with a skull crushing headache and my head in the toilet for a night. It was nothing to do with the fact that I had just watched England’s World Cup defeat against Italy in a little Irish bar in this tiny town.
Luckily I wasn’t so cocky that I didn’t heed the warning of buying a stack of altitude defying Coca products in advance. So at 2am I found myself munching on the foul Coca leaves, swallowing the grass tasting saliva down and resisting the urge to spit them straight back out. The pain lifted slightly but I’m a little nervous that my bag will forever retain the coca leaf scent, which could make going through customs interesting as these leaves form the basis of Cocaine. They’re completely fine to carry and chew in Peru and Bolivia where their medicinal properties are well known, other countries not so much!
From the Canyon of doom we travelled onto Cusco, slightly lower than the Canyon and I was feeling good again! The hotel has a free flowing supply of coca tea and it’s slightly less revolting then chewing the leaves. Then a long bus journey to Ollyantambo, the jumping off point for The Inca trail. Home to some Inca ruins, this town gave us a little taste of the magical ruins that we’d see on the trek.
Now at this point I started to get really nervous. I’m not actually very fit at the moment and I hadn’t read anything about how tough The Inca Trail is. We had a briefing, with a big plastic map and a wooden stick and it was here I discovered I was going to be hiking for 27 miles, including three bloody massive climbs uphill at an altitude of 4200metres at some points. Excellent! I seriously should have done some kind of preparation. The passes are all called really motivational names, like ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. Oh and the downhill sections too, ‘The Gringo Killer’ is a personal favourite.
We also had to get our packs ready, we of course could carry as much as we want on our backs but carrying a lot is pretty crazy. The trouble is you kind of need quite a few essentials for this kind of thing: Sun cream, lip salve, hat, gloves, plastic poncho, camera, coat, scarf, snacks, coca leaves, water… the list goes on. But then you get to hand over a small bag for the porters to carry, with your overnight things. Get in, I can give the porters a whole 6KG worth of stuff. Unfortunately, once I’d put my hired sleeping bag & thin mattress in, I had 2.5KG to play with •sigh•. I managed to get a change of trousers, 2 pairs of socks and some pants for each day in there, toothpaste, toothbrush, wet wipes and deodorant and that is all! The flip flops just tipped the balance so they stayed behind and I started to let it sink in that my massive hiking boots would be welded to my feet for the next 4 days.
Day 1, the easy day. At this point I started to swear a lot. From the first step we were marching uphill and at quite a pace. Breathing instantly became an issue and I wanted to hunt down the person that named it ‘the easy day’. I was in trouble within the first hour and had serious doubts about whether my lung capacity and lack of fitness was going to allow me to even make it to day 2, the tough day. I gripped my walking stick (essential!), gritted my teeth and trekked on. The first stamp in my passport gave me a little boost (there are 3 plus Machu Picchu at the end) and we stopped to check out a World Cup game that the porters had managed to run ahead and watch on a small TV. I made it through to lunch and we were clapped in by our 19 porters and they fed us soup, followed by rainbow trout and veg. Food has never tasted so good!
Whilst I’m on the subject of porters, I’m going to elaborate. These guys (they are all guys) are my heroes. Every single week they do The Inca trail, well the ones with regular work do. As I’m doing this with G adventures, we have our own band of purple shirted men who carry everything, like tents, duffle bags, food, calor gas… everything! They don’t just do The Inca Trail, they jog it and with a shit-load of stuff on their backs. They leave after you and arrive at the lunch or night stop before you, having set everything up and prepared a 3 course meal. They come and spot you and lead you in to the make-shift campsite at night when your legs feel like they’re going to collapse and they stand in a line and give you a big cheer and a high five. We were well and truly spoilt by these guys and if it wasn’t for the lack of showers and clean toilets, this could well have been classed as ‘glamping’. They baked us cakes and gave us afternoon tea. They woke us up at 5.30am and handed us a hit mug of coca tea before filling us up with some pre-trekking brekkie. I could not have even made kit through day 1 without their support. Super stars!
Anyway, back to day 1. The 45 minute lunch stop meant my entire body had time to go into shut down, even though we had an impromptu stretching class. Somehow I made it through to the final camping ground stop, where we had afternoon tea at 4.30pm. Crackers with jam, coffee and popcorn! I literally didn’t stop eating. my body needed every ounce of food I could cram in. Then as soon as the sun set it got cold and I mean -2 cold. Tucked up in bed by 7.30pm with every item of clothing on, including hiking socks and a coat I eventually drifted off, dreaming of mountains and aching limbs.
I woke up to the tent being unzipped and a steaming mug of Coca tea was placed in my ice cold hands. Shit day 2 had arrived! I learnt a valuable lesson on day 2 and that was to take this marathon climb at my own pace. I’m not an uphill sprinter in fact I was one of the slowest but I also don’t need long breaks, just regular 10 second breaks to catch my breath was enough to keep plodding on. I learnt I like trekking on my own, at my own pace, no talking, more looking. Dead Woman’s Pass was something else and without my stick I’m not sure I’d have made it. My thighs burned and my lungs felt like they were going to explode as I solidly climbed for hours, but slowly and surely I made it to the top. Every time a porter came past I wedged myself in to the side of the bank to make room and I looked up at the moon and then the sun and begged for them to give me the strength to keep going. I reached the top at 11.11am, this time will stick in my memory and I believe this to be significant. the view from the top was magnificent, with mountains, some snow covered all around with wispy clouds draped over their shoulders. We sat and waited for the whole gang to reach the summit and the feeling of elation for having made it to this point was incredible. Next was another few hours of downhill rock climbing and giant steps. I did the 2 hour downhill in 45 minutes. I may not be an uphill girl but downhill I felt like a mountain goat, springing from step to step. The hardest day was done and I went to sleep with a satisfying feeling and a big smile.
Day 3 was the longest day. Again though, it started with a long uphill climb. More swearing happened. But day 3 was also the most beautiful day where we came across Inca ruins and stunning landscapes. Again I took it at my own pace, mostly trekking alone. I thought about everything and anything and marvelled at my bodies ability to keep going. I started not to think of my legs as enemies and thought in future I should probably treat them better and get fitter! I even took the long route so I’d get to see an impressive Inca structure. The Gringo Killer didn’t kill this gringo! Although I did spot a woman being carried by porters after turning her ankle only metres away from her camp. Nightmare!
Before I knew it Day 4 had arrived. It was Machu Picchu day! This meant a 3.30am start and 2 hours of tough trekking to get there around sunrise. We were so, so lucky as we arrived at Machu Picchu on a very special day – Winter Solstice! It was a march rather than a stroll as at this point there were crowds making their way to the final destination, but we stuck to our group and when we first spotted the famous ruins ahead it was such an uplifting feeling. We did it, we bloody did it! I got the passport stamp and then chose to explore the ruins on my own. I did a lot of sitting at an amazing viewpoint watching others explore the almighty ruins.
Would I do it again? No. It’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences and it hurt. It was cold and the lack of showers after hours of trekking was revolting. My lips practically fell off they were so cracked and every part of my body ached. But I’m so happy I did it and I think you should too!