Latin America’s most popular hikestart
Latin America's most popular hike
Before the brutal Spanish Conquistadors tore into Latin America, the Incas had an astonishing road network high in the Andes stretching like giant tentacles from Santiago, halfway up Chile, to southern Colombia. The Inca Trail, Latin America’s most famous trek follows a small part of the route, from the Sacred Valley to the World Heritage-listed mountain kingdom of Machu Picchu. It’s only 43km (26 miles), but tends to be walked over four days to help gringos acclimatize (it goes up to 4,198m). The route slaloms between snow-topped Andean peaks, mountain-side Quechua villages and dramatic Incan ruins.
- Trail length: 26mi
- Climb: 5800ft
A highway to the skies
Pausing for a break in a tiny mountainside village, I ask our guide, Edison, what our heroically hard-working porters are drinking. “Chicha beer,” he replies, a local corn-based pick-me-up. I’m intrigued. “But it doesn’t always suit the gringo belly,” Edison warns. To me, that just sounds like a challenge.
I cockily knock back half a pint, as the porters watch this foolish gringo, chuckling knowingly amongst themselves. It tastes okay, at first… a bit, well, corny… Gadzooks! What’s that rumbling sound? Where’s the toilet?! Let’s just say I didn’t finish the cup, I should have listened to Edison and for the rest of the Inca Trail I wasn’t farting with confidence.
Ever since I first saw a picture of Peru’s dramatic mountain kingdom, World Heritage-listed Machu Picchu, I knew I had to get there one day. Those ancient, intricate walls and uniquely steep Andean peaks, the mists – and the mysteries – that always seemed to be swirling around the 2,430m-high site. It looked too magical to be real.
However I’m not the only one enchanted. Machu Picchu is a very popular tourist attraction receiving around 2,500 visitors a day. You can catch a train up to there, but surely the 27 mile ancient Inca Trail, slaloming through snow-tipped Andean peaks, is the infinitely more satisfying option.
The Inca Trail is pretty busy too. Busy enough that you have to book onto it months in advance and are only allowed to walk it with a licensed guiding company and porters. Plus numbers are limited to a maximum of 500 people (including guides and porters) starting the walk per day. Yes. 500 people.
Even if half the reason I love hiking is the satisfaction of being self-sufficient, I could just about tolerate the idea of a guide and porters. But it sounded like a Saturday afternoon at Sainsbury’s. I go hiking to get away from people. But the allure of the Inca kingdom was too strong.
I find a company (www.mayuc.com) that for just a few extra bucks pledge both good treatment of porters and crowd evasion tactics. They stay behind everyone else on the route and camp at alternative sites. Sweet.
The Trail starts with pleasantly ambling ascents through villages where houses are painted with political slogans and children offer soft drinks for sale. The route is littered with Inca ruins and our first set are perched above a canyon. At our campsite curious local kids are mesmerised by seeing themselves on our digital cameras.
Day two gets steeper, rising through cloud forests where humming birds hover like mini helicopters and we see more locals than gringos.
So far the Trail has been impressive without being truly spectacular. But day three, despite some rain and view-stealing clouds, sets off a scenic hand grenade.
As the Trail clings precariously to mountain sides, it leads us faithfully past mysterious dark-green lakes, high above valleys of inviting green mattresses, close to snow-topped Andean peaks and a dramatic cliff-top fortress, as condors circle above. I hadn’t dare hope it could be this good.
Earlier in the day, at the trail’s highest point, the unreassuringly named Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,198m, I first feel the altitude make me short of breath. I had spent three days in Cusco acclimatising beforehand and it paid off. I also see other groups of trekkers for the first time. Yet the Trail is now so beautiful, I’m happy to share.
Our final campsite is like the throne of a mountain god; yielding to-die-for views down on smaller peaks and long winding valleys. I could have stayed here for days. But Machu Picchu is calling.
At 6am we say thank you and goodbye to our porters. The coca leaf-chewing locals – farmers the rest of the year – speak mostly Quechua, the language of the Incas. They are awe-inspiring, hauling 25kg up and down merciless slopes.
We descended past more ruins and into a misty jungle. Four hours later we are there, at the legendary Inca mountain kingdom, Machu Picchu. Wow.
A big Picchu up
The ruins comprise 216 buildings, including temples, palaces, houses and a hospital with an orthopaedic bed carved into stone. The Incas were engineers, architects and agriculturists way ahead of their time. As well mountain roads and crops grown on improbably steep slopes, they built earthquake-proof walls. Machu Picchu was mysteriously abandoned, only 100 years after completion, in around 1560.
Above all I loved the fact that in places the wall’s shapes mimic the mountains that surround them, in tribute. Thank goodness those Conquistadors jerks never found it.
It’s the surroundings that really give the place of high priests and sun gods its great drama. The drifting mists, the steep snaking valleys either side and that fang of a peak (Huayna Picchu, which means Young Mountain) rearing up behind Machu Picchu (which means Old Mountain). Even though the site was thronged with tourists again I was happy to share.
Being back amongst tourist crowds – and some friendly llamas – made me realize that in contrast most of my trek had been a quiet and peaceful affair. That is, apart from my loudly rumbling tummy and other abundant antisocial noises. I learned my lesson the hard way. Stay off the local beer, kids!
Plan your travel
Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more.
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