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After three epic days on the Inca Trail, my friends and I awoke on the fourth and final morning of our trek with anticipation gnawing at our bellies. Just the ten of us (or so it seemed) striding purposefully through the 4am darkness, hawing our jagged little path across the flanks of deep, quiet mountains. We each entertained visions of the magical, epic, ancient, forgotten, discovered city – Machu Picchu, the famous lost city of the Incas.

Machu Picchu: the never-really-lost city of the Incas

Guided initially by the glow of our torches, then by the first sparkle of light that hovered in the damp air, we made our way along the thin and twisting pathways of the mountain side. Two hours later, after hiking a final stairway toward heaven itself (or so it seemed), we finally mounted the famous Sun Gate, just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon and bask its eternal glow upon…

the impenetrable layer of perfectly white clouds which blanketed the valley below us. We couldn’t see a brick of Machu Picchu.

While truly handsome, this wasn’t quite the scene I had hiked for four days to lay my eyes upon. “I want to see Machu Picchu,” I whined, with a childish pout. Eternally optimistic by nature, my friends and I were loath to despair. We quietly agreed that if we waited it would clear. Wayra, our guide, thought us foolish and informed us that it was thus fogged almost every day (they don’t put that in the brochure now, do they!) We stubbornly ignored his advice and waited…

After almost an hour our patience was rewarded. The clouds split and faded just as the sun hit the ancient city. Triumph! But we were too awe-struck to be cocky. Stunned and humbled by the sight laid out before us, we sank into silence to milk the moment for all it was worth. Unable to extract all her glory, for she has an endless supply, we eventually gathered ourselves and begun a surreal decline into her waiting embrace.

Sacred mountains protect Machu Picchu

After the obligatory “Look Ma, I’m at Machu Picchu” photo ops, I broke away from the crowd and purposefully lost myself in the alleys and stairways of the proud mountain-side town. Sitting in a shaded corner, soaking in a bustling calm of the place, I found myself looking out over history, hidden in the enclave of a trilogy of mountains – Machu Picchu (old mountain), Waynu Picchu (young mountain) and Putucusi (happy mountain). A gentle breeze blew seductively on my neck, bringing with it the memory of cool waters trickling through the fountains and irrigation chutes. Ay, Machu Picchu, with her manicured grass banks and farming terraces, tropical plants growing in rocky crevices, stone temples and statutes made of the Earth’s treasures, flowing waters; a city with her head tipped elegantly to meet the sun’s rays.

A hum of chatter emanated from the hundreds of tourists below. They were happy. Machu Picchu is a happy place. It is old and pure and perfect and pays homage to the gods – to Pachamama (the earth mother), Inti (the sun), Killa (the moon), the air and the water. This was a culture of people, Quechuas ruled by Incas, who knew how to respect the planet, who understood the wondrousness of the gifts we have been given, the treats that money is not required to enjoy.

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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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An open-air kitchen on the Uros (floating reed islands) in Lake Titicaca, Peru

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It was my twenty-fifth birthday and I was on the road in South America. To celebrate, my travel companions and I set off for a two-day adventure on the “high seas” of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world.

Houses made entirely of reeds on the Uros in Lake Titicaca, Peru

First stop were the Uros, floating islands made entirely of reeds. In the harbour of the lake, near the city of Puno, there are about 45 of these islands, all floating (or anchored) in the clear blue waters of the lake. Everything is made of reeds – the houses, boats, food and the ground. Stepping off the boat onto the squishy turf was a strange feeling indeed!

Out beyond the headlands, about 3-4 hours on a slow boat, lies Isla Amantani. She was to be our home for the night. We were met at the dock by Célia, a delightful 19 year-old local girl, who led us up the rocky island path for a lung-stinging 30 minutes (at altitude just shy of 4000m) to her family home, where she proceeded to house and feed us. Our room was tidy, the best in the house (this was the first of many times I was confronted of the injustice of tourists living higher than locals); the bathroom was nothing more than a tiny space with a toilet basin, bucket flush (when there was water) and a rusty corrugated iron sheet for a door; the kitchen was a dark, windowless adobe room, with dirt floor, mud walls, a fire at one end and a table (another luxury for tourists only) at the other end; the island has no electricity and no plumbing.

Our lovely hostess, Celia

Célia was an amazing host and one of the warmest individuals I have ever met. She was always twirling or singing gaily. At night she dressed us in the local clothing (we couldn’t stop giggling, we felt so ridiculous) and took us to the local hall for the dance.

At one end of the hall a skinny stage boasted 4 local teenage boys who played their instruments with little enthusiasm. The room was skirted with bench seats accommodating locals and tourists alike in their best gears – women in boldly coloured skirts, embroidered shirts and wrap around belts, the men in large, heavy ponchos and brightly weaved hats. The dancing itself was partnered and playful and exhausting – holding hands dancing to and fro; in a circle swinging round in all directions, whipping round corners being pulled by sudden, unexpected force; dancing in pairs, racing though the tunnel made by the happy hands of the group, twirling to begin and to end; giggles and smiles.

About half-way though the evening Célia presented me with a birthday gift of a flower necklace, which she had made that afternoon by stringing together dozens of blooms of the national flower of Perú – the Kantuta. It was one of the simplest and most sincere gifts I have ever received.

The night was cold and the earth’s cool breath stung our faces as we skirted the hillside under the inky night after the party. We curled up in our beds and didn’t complain about our shivers and icicle fingers (knowing as we did that we had more blankets than anyone else in the house).

Looking out across the lake from Isla Taquile

The next morning, after a cheerful farewell to our host family, a one hour boat ride took us across the lake to Isla Taquile, which was a very different but equally beautiful island. We took a delicious stroll around the island in the heart-warming sunshine, soaking in the remarkable view. The sapphire waters sparkled with an infinity of water-bound stars, the flat surface stretching as far as the eye can see and beyond in all directions. The lake resonated with such energy. I could feel it tingling in my face, my arms, just like I had experienced at Iguazú and Talampaya. I was starting to be intrigued by these natural energy centres and the effect they can give on the human spirit. That afternoon, as we cruised back into town, I began to bubble with excited anticipation for our next stop, Cuzco, and the long-awaited adventure – the famous Incan trail…

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