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Machu Picchu here I come!

Let me begin at the end: I did it, I survived the Inca trail! This may not sound like much of a feat to you seasoned trekkers or if you haven’t done it yourself, but it was one of the most grueling experiences of my life and therefore finishing it was one of the most satisfying. I’m not a very active person, I don’t generally climb mountains or kayak down raging rivers (don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of it, but I am just too damn lazy to see it through). Walking for four days through some of the most epic landscapes on the continent was not easy for me, but I loved every muddy, lung-stinging minute of it (in retrospect of course, at the time I was half dead).

My friends and I had booked the trip months ago when we were all safely seated behind computers inside the glass cage of our corporate lives. I was soon to be heading off towards the horizon on an endless journey that would begin in Chile and my friends wanted to get in one the action. One joined me (after her own adventures in India) for three months and the other was on a two week vacation from work. Anyway, it was unspoken but always a given that we could walk in to Machu Picchu rather than take the four hour tourist train for cheaters from Cusco. The thing is, knowing that the Inca trail was popular and that it would just be just plain wrong to catch the train, I didn’t actually research what to expect. It was probably better that I didn’t as I may not have signed up for it if I had. (If you, like me, are a bit of a woose that gets put off by too much hard physical labour and are thinking about walking the Inca trail one day my advice is to stop reading now and just book it. If I can do it you can too but, like childbirth, knowing too much about what’s coming is just unnecessarily scary, methinks). Just remember one thing – it’s a walk in the mountains, not a walk in the park.

In light of my complete ignorance I was pretty shocked (and more than a little scared) on the first day when our guide explained what to expect on each of the four days to come and told us that the people we kept passing going the other way were people who had turned back, unable to complete the second day’s arduous five hour uphill climb. Oh shit, I thought to myself, I don’t think I can do this, but how on earth can I back out now when we’re already walking?

Well, it turned out that, by just putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, I could do it. It went a little something like this:

Day 1: Finding My Feet

Just The Beginning: Day one of the Inca Trail starts off gently

Our guide, Wayra was sweet enough to gently ease us into this mad-capped undertaking of ours. The first day was a simple four hour walk over undulating ground with a few heavy-breathing uphill climbs but entirely do-able. We walked along a gushing clear-water, rock-strewn river; through the outstretched fingers of ancient mountains; past grand Quechuan (“The people were Quechua, the rulers Incas,” Wayra stated with bruised pride) ruins that radiated with happy energy; and lunched in a tent during a rainfall on the peak of a wind-swept mountain. It was a delightful day and I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.
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Day 2: Dead Woman Walking

I was about to find out what all the fuss was about. After rising at 5:30am, and breakfasting in the early morning light, we began. Fifteen minutes into the walk (i.e. after fifteen minutes of walking straight up a steep mountain incline) I was breathing heavy, stinging breaths and my head was aching from the altitude and the cold air. By now I was really wondering what I had got myself into, and tried to imagine how on earth I was going to make it through the next five hours of uphill climb, given that we were still in the “easy” part. But, you know, the body is an amazing machine, and my legs (no matter how tired they got) just kept on putting one foot in front of the other. In spite of my physical suffering, I couldn’t help being floored by the world I was walking through – emerald flora still adrip with the morning rain, moldy thigh-high steps into an ancient natural world (I wondered aloud at how these stones had been brought here, from where, and by who?), stopping on a frozen ledge to snack amid the villagers (people actually still live along the trail) where a gentle old man asked me to take a photograph of his grandson; breaking out from the tree line and into the open air as we continued along the pencil-thin walking track scribbled up the mountain-side centuries before I was even born.

His Grandfather asked me to take this picture

After five hours of listening to my thighs scream, and with plenty of stops to let my breath catch up with me, I made Dead Woman’s Pass and surveyed the world from her 4,200 metre (13,650 feet) heights. It felt amazing! We rested there and took photos before beginning the equally steep descent on the other side – two more hours to the night’s camp.

Downhill felt great at first but the steps were high and relentless and my jelly-legs struggled to carry me down the mountain side. I thought it better to run so that gravity would do most of the work and my already exhausted thighs wouldn’t have to work as brakes and shock absorbers with each step down. I can tell you that I slept like a baby that night.

Day 3: Endurance

While less physically demanding than the previous, the third day was equally difficult because of its sheer length (we walked almost non-stop from 7am to 5pm with bodies still exhausted from the previous day’s hike). Within moments of departing our terraced campsite, where the view from our door-flap was across the valley still sleeping under a blanket of clouds, we were met by the rather unpleasant reality of the second pass – a steep high-stepped climb of “only” two hours duration.

The sun was shining, the tourists smiling. I could hear the powerful gush of the valley’s river rising up the mountainside as I marched on, high above it. I was tired but elated by the sheer wondrousness of the beauty surrounding me. I felt tiny and grand at the same time, a very similar sensation to what I had experienced staring into the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

Can you see the trail?

Three-quarters of the way up the climb I created the “porter challenge”. We had hired a porter to carry our sleeping gear and such. These guys are utter legends, they do this amazing trek about 60 times per year, and each time carrying upwards of 20 kilos (it used to be 50-60kg each before a law was introduced to regulate it) on their backs and, usually, in little more than open-toed sandals. They sweat and smile and race past you, speeding uphill and running downhill, making your own personal battle with fatigue akin to a child’s drawing hung next to a Monet. There are about three hundred porters for just two hundred tourists on the trail each day, because they carry tents, food, cooking equipment (i.e. full gas bottles) and such. Our porters were very kind and playful. The porter that my friends and I hired was named Aurelio and he was just 20 years old. I saw him resting and sweating on the mountain-side and offered to carry his (well, actually our) bag for him. He laughed as I saddled-up with the giant load – I was carrying gear for all 3 of us, plus his own bag – and set off. It was frickin’ hard; those guys are total legends. I lasted about 10 minutes on the endless climb before I handed the bag back to a grinning Aurelio who laughed and raced on up the mountain at break-neck speed.

I was against the idea of getting a porter at first but I honestly couldn’t have done it without one. Unless you are a seasoned hiker I suggest you hire one too. Take some extra cash for a good tip and maybe some choccie biccies or something else to share with them. Those guys are totally amazing, they seem to genuinely love what they do and do it with a smile on their faces, but it is very hard work and they deserve to be recognised for it.

Ancient ruins abound on the Inca Trail

After cresting the second pass, the undulating path took us through cloud-valleys and dripping, moss-covered woods, over mountains and through ancient archeological sites. The highlight of the day was when we stopped at an archeological site and Wayra baptised me in the Quechuan way as a pre-curser to arriving in Machu Picchu the following day. Under the flowing cool waters of the fountain I was given the name Kusi Qoyllor, which means smiling star. I know it was just something he does for the tourists, but it was charming all the same.

Day 4: The Arrival

On the fourth day we arose at 4am and set off in the dark with the view of reaching Machu Picchu’s famous Sun Gate for sunrise. After a beautiful and heart-racing start to the day we arrived just in time to see… absolutely nothing. The entire valley below was covered in an impenetrable layer of pristine white clouds. It was beautiful but, you know, I wanted to see Machu Picchu (you’ll have to imagine my whining tone and childish pout). Ever the optimists, my friends and I quietly agreed that it would clear if we waited (despite Wayra informing us that it was like this most days – they don’t put that in the brochures now, do they?). So we waited… and, after almost an hour, it cleared. The clouds split and faded away just as the sun hit the ancient city.

Note: I will write a post about the ancient city of Machu Picchu soon, so subscribe for alerts if you want to know when it’s posted.

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Jane Austen moment: walking out from beneath dripping trees into a mist of late-afternoon drizzle. A foggy horizon of trees and barren shoreline is just visible behind the soft emerald glow of rolling meadows.

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A bumblebee hugs a violet-shaded flower in the glow of a spring-like morning.
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Note: I reckon life is brimming over with these tiny moments of perfection. Let’s celebrate them. Feel free to comment back with your own perfect moments, when you’ve felt that warm thrill just to be alive in a beautiful universe!

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I find myself in Bolivia at last. The people seem far more timid than the Argentinians but very kind once they warm to you. The food is much better than expected although I’ve been sick in some way almost every day since crossing the border – alternating between screaming headaches and a nauseous belly. My discomfort is owed primarily to the altitude which is an absolute bitch.

The first few days we spent in Tupiza where I came to terms (painfully) with the initial jump in altitude (to about 3000m) and did a bum-smacking short horse trek. Now, after much umming and ahhing over which company to choose, we set off on the much-anticipated and very famous 4-day jeep tour of southern Bolivia which culminates in the bizarre Salar de Uyuni (the worlds largest and highest salt flat). This part of the country ranges from 3500 – 5000m AKA bloody high!!

I jot notes in my journal in stationery moments or as I am bounced around the back seat of the jeep:

Day 1
6:30pm. Day one of the tour was a mix of breath-taking scenery, struggling-for-breath altitudes, and gut-twisting cold. We arrived in San Antonio about an hour ago and went for a short stroll around the tiny pueblo as the sun set. The town consists of a handful of mud-brick houses with thatched straw rooves at the base of an impending snow-capped volcano, 6-hours drive from nowhere.

Forgotten Daughter, Bolivia

From the central “plaza” (nothing more than a small dusty square of street) a loudspeaker barks information periodically. This is the only mechanism for communication with the outside world in a town without telephones, newspapers, or even electricity.
The children are friendly and grubby, with frozen-snot noses and cheeky smiles. They have such age in their eyes, in their faces – it’s disarming. One boy in a turquoise sweater and roman sandals shyly approached as we chatted with his outgoing young friend. He must have been no more than 13 but somehow looked closer to 40 – his eyes were knowing, his skin aged.
A delightful family of hermanas let us take their photo… for a price of course. I have never before met such charming hustlers.

Day 2
11:08am. I am sitting in paradise – Laguna Hediona, in the deserted bottom end of Bolivia. I sit on a shore of tiny volcanic rocks looking out across the small, perfectly formed lake to snow-capped peaks and rose-coloured mountains. Flamingos congregate in the shallows.

The shore of Laguna Colorado, Bolivia

This landscape is epic. It makes you feel utterly tiny and yet completely a part of this magnificent planet. I feel as if I am seeing the world for the very first time, wondering at the exquisite beauty of it all. Like this morning, when the world was frosted in the most magnificent jewels. Whole mountains sparkled. The ice shines like diamonds, all the more precious for their impermanence.
12:44pm. I have a killer headache, from the altitude. It feels as if my head is about to explode. I am chewing coca, a leaf that is very popular with the locals. It tastes like grass, unpleasant to say the least, but seems to help.
4:34pm. Mobs of hot-pink flamingos dancing across a ruby-and-white swirled lake, skirted by emerald and gold moss banks, and watched over by earth and rock mountains. …

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