Woke up on Saturday morning relieved to find myself still in my own bed without any disasters having crept up on me during the night.. and to be honest, after the previous day, I wouldn't have been surprised if that hadn't been the case.
After breakfast we got on the bus to take us to "km 82" from where our four-day hike on the Inka Trail would start. On the way we stopped on the way to pick up some last minute supplies for the hike, including rain ponchos and walking sticks. The three amigos also stocked up with a bottle of fine red wine and a little flask of not-so-fine peruvian rum to keep us warm in case it would get cold.
Depending on which tour operator you use (and how much you pay) you get various levels of service on the Inka Trail. The less you pay the fewer porters you have and so the more stuff you have to carry yourself. We had the premium service which meant that we only had to carry our daypacks (which in some twisted way felt a bit like cheating).
The first day of the hike turned out to be a fairly dull episode. To spice things up a little Martin, Owen, Neil and I decided to hike at full speed most of the day. As we had some incredibly unfit people in our group this meant that we spent most of the day waiting at various points for them to catch up. In the end we arrived at the first camp site after dark.. aargh! That pretty much ruined any hopes of socialising with other groups that we might have had earlier. Instead, most of us decided to call it an early night soon after dinner.
In the middle of the night I woke up freezing cold.. and my sleeping bag and the sheet liner were soaked! The muppet who set up our tent had placed it in the middle of a stream of water and so my side of the tent had been covered in water. Didn't really get any sleep after that for obvious reasons..
Day two of the Inka Trail is a real test of strength, both physical and mental (especially after the incident the previous night). Starting at 9am we set out on the first leg of the day which was a 9 km hike over Dead Woman's Pass taking us from an altitude of 3000 m a.s.l. to 4200 m a.s.l. (not surprisingly there's very little oxygen left at this altitude). In other words, it's one hell of a climb. The hike usually takes 3-6 hours, but being big headed we set ourselves a target of merely two hours. Halfways through we were still well on course to beat our target, but with three kilometers left I got severe cramps in my thighs and had to drop the pace and let the others race ahead. In a painful hour and a half I climbed the last third of the way up to the pass stopping repeatedly to stretch and massage my muscles. What a feeling of relief when I reached the top! I was up in two hours and 45 minutes, and as the slowest member of our group took around six hours to get to the top it provided a welcome opportunity to sit and relax and recover in the sunshine. The view over the Sacred Valley below with the snow capped mountains in the background was quite astonishing to say the least.
Once everyone was over the pass it was time for lunch just a few hundred meters further down the path. As if we hadn't felt enough pain for the day, Martin and I decided to race down the hill to the campsite after lunch. Trust me, half an hour of running down steps can really kill your knees (not to mention your thighs). The good thing was that just moments after Martin and I arrived at the camp the skies opened and it started pouring down. The others arrived half an hour later soaked to the bones.
After the rain had ceased we sat down outside our tents and cracked open the little bottle of rum we had brought. What a shame the bottle was so tiny. Just as the rum was hitting in starting to warm the bottle was empty. A game of the aussie favourite "celebrity head" followed while Martin disappeared into our tent with a swiss girl he had met at the top of Dead Woman's Pass. Foot massage he claimed.
For some reason nobody had though of bringing playing cards along to the trail, and thus we found ourselves short of entertainment before and after dinner.. so we started singing! First we stuck to contemporary classics by Beatles and the likes, but not before long the Scandis were teaching the others a few traditional camp songs (in response to which one of the women expressed "I'm not a child, I'm not singing these childish songs".. how mature coming from a 32-year old). By this stage the tensions within the group had really started emerging.. especially this weirdo had started getting on pretty much everyone's nerves.
The third day of the hike provides the most scenic and also the longest hike of the trail. It's all very flat or downhill, so physically it doesn't seem quite as tough as the previous day, but trust me, at the end of a day your legs are so ready to give up. Allowed to hike our own pace, Martin, Owen and I decided to go ahead and walk at a decent pace not to get to the campsite too late. We stopped at a number of ruins along the way to admire the incredible structures which have withstood everything the elements have thrown at them, including numerous earthquakes that have destroyed many a modern city. Most of the ruins are completely intact, and thus the guides like to refer to them as cities rather than ruins ("how could they be ruins, they're completely intact!"). It's quite an amazing feeling walking around these cities.. and the air is filled with mystique. It's really hard to describe.
Legs sore we arrived at the last campsite in late afternoon.. and you should have seen our faces when the first thing we came across was a little shop selling beer(!). Our tents were only 25 meters down the path, but we parked ourselves outside the little shop for an hour before we even thought about taking our stuff down to the tents. In addition to the beer, this campsite also provided the first chance to take a hot shower since the beginning of the trail. What a feeling after three days of sweating! On top of all there was even a little bar on the site hosting a party until 10pm for the hikers. As Martin was still in pursuit of his swiss interests, Owen, Neil and I hit the party without him. We were also accompanied by a couple of the older English guys in our group. At 10pm we stocked up with a few beers each and took the party outside. One by one people left to go back to bed, and at 1am the only ones still around were Owen and I. We'd joined some guides who were sitting next to us.. and god what stories we heard that night. Hmm.. maybe I should drop banking and go for a career as a guide instead? ;) At 1am Owen and I decided to call it a night. We had a 4.30am wakeup the following morning afterall. Feeling quite merry at this stage we unfortunately managed to wake up every other member of our group before we had made it into our sleeping bags.. whoops!
Still feeling the effects of last nights partying we got up at 4.30am the following morning to hike for an hour to reach the sungate above Macchu Pichu before sunrise. When we arrived the valley below was covered in a think layer of clouds (hence it is called the "cloud forest"). We sat down on the edge of the mountain cliff impatiently waiting to see the magnifisence of what we knew lay beneath the cloud cover. Suddenly, before our eyes the clouds in the valley beneath us started rising and opening up.. and within moments through the clouds appeared the most amazing of Inka structures to the sound of a collective gasp from the people watching. There it was.. Macchu Picchu.
The rest of the morning we spent roaming around the city taking pictures and admiring what we saw. The tourist train (for those that don't hike the trail) arrives at around 10.30am, at which time Martin, Owen, Neil and I decided to put our legs through a final test. We'd climb Huaynapicchu, a mountain peak next to Macchu Picchu. It's not a very high mountain to climb, but the lack of height is more than made up for by the steepness of the climb. At one stage we were even climbing using our hands to keep us from falling off the mountain. From the summit we got a great view of the Inka city below us.. and it provided a perfect moment to moon the world. Such a classy way to mark the end of our four-day hike!