I don’t often host guest posts on this site, but I just had to make an exception for this one. My friend, Paul Schiernecker, constantly amazes me with his overseas adventures. Over the last few years he’s trekked through the Grand Canyon and the Sahara Desert for charities, coming back with stories which have formed the basis of several books (take a look at Yallah!: The Sahara Journal if you’re after a chuckle or two!)
Since I love reading about Paul’s adventures, I was delighted when he agreed to write up about his trek of the Inca Trail for Cosy readers! It may be a little different to the kind of thing you see on here (no cats or comfy beds, sobs), but it’s 100% a story worth reading – after all, who doesn’t dream of one day seeing Machu Picchu for themselves?!
So, pour yourself a cuppa, get yourself comfy, and find out all you need to know about walking the Inca Trail!
Altitude can do funny things to a man. Landing at an elevation of eleven thousand feet I could have sworn I heard pan pipes in the cramped toilet block of Cusco airport. It might have been a cliché but it wasn’t my imagination. Pan pipes to Peru are like the It’s A Small World song to Disneyland. Annoying, but essential.
I was in Peru as part of a charity trek, raising money for Marie Curie. The arrival of sixty of us in an airport not much bigger than the plane we flew in on caused chaos. Our bags overwhelmed the carousel and were heaped in a pile where we were told to stand watch in case of thieves.
I didn’t know what time it was. Twenty-four hours before I had left Heathrow with a bellyful of bad lager and a misrepresentation of South America. My watch was still set to UK time but I could see it was a new day. The people of Cusco were on bikes, in taxis and on foot heading to work. The sun was cutting. The air was thinner and I could feel it smoothing my skin from the goose pimples adorning it. Night flights are cold in every sense of the word, especially in the cheap seats. Outside were two coaches. There were enough of us to fill them both.
Settling In At Cusco
Cusco is a valley, surrounded by mountains. Anywhere out of town is uphill. There’s a circle of hell reserved for consistently walking uphill.
On the way to town our local guide explained a number of ways we could keep ourselves safe. He recommended not heading out alone, sticking to the main streets and attempting conversational Spanish. He detailed how to identify Peruvian sol from counterfeit. I wondered how much of his presentation was for effect. It was going to be a trip outside of our comfort zone either way.
The recommendation, if you’re going to trek the Inca Trail, is to take at least a day to acclimatise in Cusco. The world’s top athletes push themselves in low altitude. My athleticism reaches as far as the ring pull.
After checking in at reception, my room buddy Sam and I raced to the first floor, both carrying the 20 kilo rucksacks we would be trekking with. By the time we reached the landing we were heaving, sitting for a moment on the aforementioned bags to catch our breath. It was strange. My body felt raring to go but I couldn’t capture the air.
During the day we had a chance to get to grips with the Peruvian delicacies. Cusco is built around a central square with a number of restaurants, varying in quality and price, and usually offering buffet service. They are generally welcoming to tourists, backpackers and the like. I recommend the alpaca steak and the Pisco Sour – a local cocktail consisting of Pisco brandy, lemon juice and egg white. If you’re feeling brave why not ask for the other local delicacy; guinea pig. You can get it fried or roasted with potatoes and greens. It’s delicious. If you’re looking for a night out then Mama Africa is deadly and heavily recommended.
What To Expect From Walking The Inca Trail
After a day in Cusco including an acclimatisation walk and a picnic, we were ready. I cannot stress how important it is to have your equipment before the trail entrance. Supplies beyond are limited to Coca Cola and latrines for four days. It’s also important to carry your passport. As the Inca trail is heritage ground, the Peruvian people are quite rightfully proud and there are strict rules on camping and etiquette. You don’t have to be a part of a large group or have a guide, but booking places is essential and there is a waiting list. The experience is worth the red tape. Plus, at the site of Machu Picchu itself you can get your passport stamped to show you have visited one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
The trail is well preserved but often gruelling. The weather is so changeable it is an additional test. I recommend a lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho for rainy periods. As with most treks of this nature, hygiene can be an issue and as our doctor told us, “anti-bacterial hand gel should be your best friend”. While there are toilets at the designated camping areas and along the trail, the facilities are basic. On one occasion I had to spray faecal matter from the wall of an outhouse with a garden hose before putting my toilet paper in a crowded carrier bag. That’s probably the least cosy element.
The walk is tough. I trained but the harsh fields of Essex are no comparison for the elevation and beauty of Peru. The highest part of the trail is almost 14,000 feet and my recommendation would be not to be struggling with dysentery when you head up to the point locals call “Dead Tourist Pass.” I was so sick that our guide took pity on me and carried my bag. I was so sick that the doctor gave up her only Mars Bar to my much appreciative cause. Again, the feeling was breathlessness. The strength was in my body, the oxygen was not.
What It’s Like To Arrive At Machu Picchu…After a Four-Day Hike
From the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) it is possible to see right down onto the stones, weather permitting. There was a time when it was possible to arrive in Machu Picchu at any time but the site is now guarded. The alternative to hiking for four days through the jungle is to take a train and a bus straight in from town, but then you’re going to smell and look good. Who would want that?
Tourists had entered from the other entrance by the time we got to Machu Picchu. I overheard an American girl asking her friends why we smelt so bad as we swept by. I was proud. The stench was our badge of pride. To some we were celebrities. Beautiful tanned girls asked to have their photos taken with us. It was a tiny slice of Beatlemania.
Machu Picchu is a strange sight after the steep staircases of the trail, after staring at the back of your tent buddy’s head as you spoon on long, blustery nights. It looks like a set from an Indiana Jones film. There were more people wandering around the ruins than I had seen for days. Puffed out looking tourists dressed in clean, dry clothes, their sandals and socks showing they had taken the easy road in. The rocks looked too perfect. Joined up, sanded down by hand and fitted together so well a credit card wouldn’t slide between them. At times it felt like the Windows redbrick maze screensaver but real and in Peru and warmer.
We took the bus down to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain upon which Machu Picchu was built, either to ward off enemies or be closer to the gods. Experts remain divided on the matter. There we dined on whatever we could pile on our plates and chinked frosted glasses to our achievements. It isn’t every day you come down from a mountain. It isn’t every day you want to climb back up again.