Scrambling up impossibly high and narrow steps, panting for breath and trying not to slip on the soaking wet stones, I launch myself up into the Sun Gate. The famous 15th Century ruins of Machu Picchu are tucked away in a bed of cloud, but the lack of a view doesn’t dampen my spirits too much.
This is the finale to a grueling three-day trek along the famous Inca Trail, and I feel fantastic. Peru’s iconic stretch of this ancient road has been followed by thousands, and having completed the journey I can see why.
The 26 miles of road passes through teetering mountains, babbling brooks, stunning landscapes and fascinating flora and fauna, before descending into cloud forest and thick jungle. Spectacled Bears, pumas and cougars inhabit this wild terrain. There are some fascinating ruins along the way, which add the magic of the place.
As well as being beautiful, the trail is a challenge. Reaching altitudes of 4200m above sea level it includes sharp descents, slippery terrain and imposing cliff edges. The killer for most is Dead Woman’s Pass, a five-hour climb up endless steps and stones.
The Incas used their intricate system of roads – which linked about 25,000 miles of roadway – to transport information, products and people. But it’s believed that the road to the mighty Machu Picchu was more than just a highway. Intentionally tough, it’s a pilgrimage to a sacred sanctuary. The Incas believed that by walking the walk, they would cleanse their souls.
Even today, the road is a life-changing experience for many. Whether they are achieving physical goals, or finding their spiritual side, it is certainly an unforgettable experience. Soon afterwards the clouds lifted to reward weary travellers with the awesome sight of the citadel, bigger and better than the postcards.
1. Go with a reputable company. The trek would be impossible without a merry band of porters – local men who haul all the tents, equipment and food allowing tourists to carry just their day packs. Make sure they are well looked after. Also check environmental policies and safety standards.
2. Bring some change. With a talented cook in the team, you will certainly be well fed during the trip. But a cold beer at the end of the day or a bit of chocolate at a summit will lighten your spirits no end. You may also want to try some coca leaves to help prevent altitude sickness.
3. If travelling during rainy season, wrap everything in plastic bags and invest in a plastic rain poncho before you set off. Wool dries quickly and a little towel is also useful. You’ll need sunscreen all year round.
4. Don’t forget to tip the porters and the guides at the end. Also be prepared to share coca leaves, sweets and water with them along the way. Don’t be afraid to shout words of encouragement as they zoom past with their huge backpacks – a little bit of Quechua goes a long way.
5. Keep smiling. Early starts, all weathers, exhausting climbs and crappy nights’ sleeps will test your patience. But that’s all part of the experience. Take photos of the bad bits as well as the good. You’ll laugh about it later.
6. Invest in some decent walking shoes and take at least one walking stick for balance. The other essential items are: a torch, toilet paper and insect repellant. You also need your passport along with your permit to enter the park. Don’t forget to get it stamped for major bragging rights.
We went with G Adventures as part of a three week tour called Inca Heartland: