Andy in the Andes
We chose to take a 5 day hike to get to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail (Camino Inca). This would allow us to explore a few of the sites which are passed over if you take the classic 4 day hike as well as being a bit less taxing on our legs and lungs.
We have an orientation meeting with our tour guide. Nothing is out of the ordinary except he suggests 3 rolls of toilet paper, per person, for the five day hike. A great way to lend a sense of ominous foreboding.
We are collected from our hotel in Cusco at 6am by our tour guide. It's a minibus and we take the three remaining seats. The three of us appear to command what feels like an Imperial British Expeditionary Force with seven porters, a chef and our guide, Javier. We drive out to Kilometer 82, the start point of our hike.
One of my last minute purchases comes in handy, a red poncho. It appears to have magical properties, when I wear it the rain stops, when I put it away the rain starts again. I am implored to withstand the discomfort and keep wearing it for the benefit of the others.
We stop for lunch, our expeditionary force has already set up a lunch tent and the smell of lovely food wafts towards us.
We hike on (or roll on) after lunch. There is so much water up here. We pass a number of streams and rivers, all tributaries to the Urubamba River, the sacred river of the Incas. This water will eventually join the Amazon River bound for the Atlantic Ocean.
We arrive at the camp site (tents already constructed) and go to Andean Happy Hour, tea and nibbles before dinner. Amazingly we are hungry from the hike even after such a decadent lunch and enjoy the courses as they are delivered with a sense of anticipation.
Vamos y vamos y vamos
Up before 6am with the glare of the sun through the tent. A porter offers a cup of hot coca tea before we are out of our tent. It is a mild stimulant and also helps to cope with the altitude. We will be reaching our highest point of the hike today, Dead Woman's Pass. We are still taking Diamox to prevent any symptoms of altitude sickness.
A hearty breakfast later (including grapes the Peruano way, peeled) and we are ready to hit the road. We start up, passing villages along the way. Many of the inhabitants were displaced when Machu Picchu was made a National Park. They receive support from the government for this inconvenience, we pass a fish farm which was constructed from government funds. It is maintained communally by the villagers who grow mostly subsistence crops. The more entrepreneurial offering bottles of water and Gatorade to the weary hikers.
I pass a mule. It ignores me, standing stoically facing the path but I am left with a feeling they know more than they let on.
We are overtaken by our porters. They carry 20-25kg each (controlled, there are weigh stations to ensure there is no porter abuse). They power past us in a group hardly breaking a sweat. Other porters charge past us as well. With the rush over we feel alone on the trail.
As we walk through the Cloud Forest it feels like we walk above Eden. The trees are covered in moss and there is a river beneath us that occasionally breaks out into a waterfall.
Leaving the Cloud Forest we continue our upwards climb. The air is thin and we seem to have no endurance. It's a strange feeling, my legs are not tired (we are climbing quite slowly) however each step leaves me breathless. If I wait to catch my breath I feel fine, but the next step leaves me breathless again anyway.
Another delicious lunch stop. It starts raining as we continue up the mountain. My Poncho is earning my admiration. I am able to prepare my camera under it and whip it out quickly for a couple photos before putting it back under protection from the rain.
We find our first Llamas on the hike. They are being farmed by the last family before Dead Woman's Pass. Beyond them no one is allowed to farm the land. The incline increases as approach Dead Woman's Pass, so named for the rock formations visible on the approach looking like a woman. If you use your imagination. About 15 minutes from the peak my left hand begins to tingle, a sign of oxygen depravation and altitude sickness. After resting it lessens and eventually goes away before reaching the pass. Uneventful but certainly attracting my attention at the time.
We reach Dead Woman's Pass, at an altitude of 4,200m (13,780ft). The clouds move quickly here, the scenery changes as the valley below becomes covered in cloud, then clears, then a cloud is pushed up the pass and we are surrounded in a white haze. Out of this haze a dog seems to materialise. It follows us down to our campsite, keeping it's distance. We camp near a waterfall and are treated to a spectacular sunset down the valley, clouds moving at such a speed that the view is changing constantly. I need to keep my eye out for an iPhone tripod so I can take timelapse videos. My attempts so far have not been very successful, somewhat limited by the need to find an appropriately shaped rock.
At the campsite I accidentally find myself in the right place at the right time to get some close photos of hummingbirds, elusive due to the speed they zip between different flowers.
Dinner finishes with stories from our guide of previous customers. We feel relieved that any amount of complaining on the way up the mountain today pales in comparison to what some people have put him through.
We are woken at 6am by a hot cup of coca tea and warm water to wash our hands before breakfast. A quick photo at last nights sunset spot and we're off to explore the trail.
There are often good incentives to stay on the path. Occasionally, when straying onto some of the less official trails, I am warded off by toilet paper stuck to bushes. Best to leave the rest of the trail alone I think. We stumble across a pair of deer grazing amongst the highland grass, luckily I had the right lens on to get a quick shot off before they were over the hill.
The weather alternates between overcast and sunny, it works well as it allows for a variety of views without us overheating on uphill sections of the hike. Before lunch we find ourselves in a cloud, the view off the mountain is pure light. Sometimes the overhead cloud clears and the direct sunlight makes the cloud we walk in glow intensely. The sound of thunder hastens us to the lunch tent.
Javier tells us of the beep beep frogs which live under the bright orange moss along the the rock face. The 3cm long frogs can change colour to blend with their surroundings and have a 'beep beep beep beep' call they make. They are also poisonous and can jump about 4 metres. As the rain that held out since lunch resumes I find myself left alone hunting the beep beep frog to no avail. I can hear them but they are safe behind the moss.
Landscapes and buildings of the Inca Trail:
We reach the campsite, it is on a fantastic overlook with an Inca ruin below that will be explored the following day, the still functioning aqueduct is our water source for the night. Clouds lead cavalry charges down the mountain as we wait for sunset to approach. We walk out to the a view point beyond the campsite and see Machu Picchu mountain for the first time, the city is on the other side. We can also see Agua Caliente and a hydro power station which has a tunnel right through Machu Picchu mountain providing enough power for the whole region.
The porters have set up a portable toilet, carried all the way from Kilometer 82 just for tonight. Talk about a loo with a view!
Four llamas wander in around dusk including a 3 week old baby, incredibly cute.
We are surprised yet again by the resourcefulness of our chef, there is a cake waiting for us for Andean Happy Hour. I secretly wonder if they have also carried an oven up just for tonight.
I am inspired by Shannan to try some night photos as the clouds have thinned.
Up at 5am to catch some sunrise colours but it was too cloudy. I catch the porters, who last night seemed oblivious to the baby llama, posing for photos with it. I think they're not used to people being up earlier than they have to be. They have attracted the attention of the head llama, he is standing and starting to stomp his back foot a bit. He's also starting to chew nothing, we have been warned this is the llama preparing to spit. Apparently they can spit a greenish, glue like substance up to 4m.
The serenity of the last few days is shattered by the horn of the PeruRail trains as they ferry tourists to Machu Picchu. The air is humid and sunny. Everyone seems a bit lethargic today.
We lunch near some impressive Inca ruins, nicknamed the Little Machu Picchu before continuing on to the Sun Gate. We have our first view of Machu Picchu in the afternoon light, it lends a golden tint to the city. We continue down to the city and get to 'photo rock' 15 minutes before closing time. The rain is falling in the valley below and one of the strongest rainbows I've ever seen is off to the right of Machu Picchu. I feel we are very lucky to have seen the city under these conditions.
We are hustled out of the ruins by the rangers. A real toilet, with a seat, is available outside the gates for 1 soles. This is right up there with the $2 shower at Grand Canyon.
We walk to our campsite, a 400m descent to the Urubamba river. At the campsite we have our final meal and say goodbye to our Porters and Chef. It's an early start tomorrow where we will be exploring Machu Picchu in detail.
Animals and Plants of the Inca Trail: