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Cusco and the Inca trail

Machu Picchu - a tick for the bucket list!

all seasons in one day

Merry Christmas everyone! While you've been racing around the shops buying last minute presents, watching X-factor finals (don't pretend you didn't!) and embarrassing yourselves at Christmas parties (again, don't pretend you didn't!), we have been continuing our travels and following in the footsteps of the Incas.

After our time in Arequipa, we took another lovely overnight bus to Cusco, the Inca capital of Peru and our base for the next week or so of exploring. Today Cusco is pretty much wholly geared towards persuading everyone to book a tour to Machu Picchu or the nearby Sacred Valley and so is awash with travel agencies and outdoorsy shops. Having said that it remains a fairly pretty city, with sites of its own to see and plenty of markets to visit, and we enjoyed spending our first day or so exploring it (and its great restaurants - not very peruvian but we had the best pancakes and pizza here ever!).

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We were already booked on to a 4 day Machu Picchu trek, departing 3 days after our arrival in Cusco, so after a restful couple of days in the city, we booked ourselves onto a day tour of the surrounding Sacred Valley as we were keen to see some of the Inca sites surrounding Cusco before we headed off on our trek. Whilst this proved to be a slightly annoyingly touristy tour, it took in the key sites of Pisac (ruins and markets) and Ollantaytambo, both of which were very large, well preserved sites of Inca buildings and terraces and well worth visiting.

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Having had a taste of cool Inca architecture, we were ready for some more, so the next morning (bright and early as usual - the Peruvians do love a good 5am start!) we were picked up by our company (Peru Treks) to start the 42km hike to Machu Picchu. Our guides (Will and Yanet) intoduced themselves and we met the remaining 14 members of our group, who immediately seemed like a great bunch (although much to Shaun's delight and Hannah's despair seemed to contain a disproportionate number of triathletes and ´Iron´ men/women!) and we were off.

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The first day´s walk was a fairly leisurely one, along mainly undulating terrain and it wasn´t long until we reached our first Inca site, an impressive structure which Will explained is believed to have been home to the builders of Machu Picchu.

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A bit of added excitement was provided by the spotting of a deadly black widow spider (why oh why do these spiders seem to be following me everywhere?!)! We stopped for lunch shortly after, our first experience of the incredible service we were to expect from our team of 22(!!) porters and our cook over the next few days. When we arrived, the dining tent (!) was all set up, complete with napkins and silverware and as we enjoyed a delicious three course lunch it very quickly became clear that any plans we had to drop a few pounds on the trek were not going to be realised!

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The afternoon brought more undulating paths, with stunning scenery all around (picture lush green hills with tree-lined rivers, overlooked by glacier topped mountains)

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and we reached our campsite around 4.30pm, to be greeted by the welcome site of our tents already set up (by the porters who had run past us earlier!) to face the incredible mountain view and a bucket containing cervezas available to purchase. The evening was spent watching the locals play football in front of a small Inca site just above the campsite, before enjoying another fantastic meal and heading to bed nice and early ready for day 2 and the dreaded 'dead woman's pass'.

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Day 2 began with a cracking surprise for such an early start - tent service! Yanet and one of the porters would give you a wake up call and a nice hot cup of hot chocolate to wake us up before preparing a hearty breakfast to provide us with some much needed energy ahead of what is dubbed the 'challenge day'. The first 5 hours of this day is spent climbing 'dead woman's pass', a 1200m incline that would take us up to the highest point of the trek, 4200m.

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The trek was certainly challenging but the breaks every 1.5 hours helped, particuarly the second one, where we were provided with a 'second breakfast' of cheese sandwiches and popcorn! Eventually after several hours of trudging along (while the porters again ran past us, carrying their 20kilo packs!) we all reached the top one-by-one (Shaun of course being the first up, earning himself the indisputable title of 'King of the Mountains', Hannah coming in around the middle of pack with her newly acquired walking buddies after it became clear that walking with Shaun was not going to be an option!) and after a triumphant group photo, we set off down the hundreds of stairs on the other side of the pass, that appeared to be our reward for reaching the top!

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When we finally arrived at the campsite, the rest of the afternoon was free to get some much needed rest, although a couple of the group decided to take the opportunity to bathe in an ice-cold spring, not to be recommended! Shortly before dinner we were introduced properly to our fantastic team of porters, who then prepared us another fabulous meal. After dinner, our guide produced a bottle of rum and regailed us with stories of the dead woman who haunts that campsite and advised us to leave 'offerings' outside our tent to keep her away. I'm not sure that mine and Shaun's stinky walking shoes were quite what he had in mind, but we manged to avoid a visit nonetheless!

Day 3 is known as the 'spectacular day´and it certainly didn't disappoint. We woke to see the clouds dissipating in front the campsite, to reveal a spectacular view of snow capped mountains in front of us. As we set off, the weather cleared completely and with a glorious blue sky above us, we set off on the 500m climb out of the campsite valley, unbelieving of our luck with the weather (bearing in mind we were slap bang in the middle of rainy season, yet we had not yet seen a drop of rain. Karma rewarding us for our time in the rainforest we reckon!). When we reached the top of the second pass, the views were spectacular - the Andes were spread out in front of us, flanked by perfect cloud inversions - and we felt very lucky.

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After a rest, and some time to make offerings to PachaMama (Mother Earth) at the top as the Inca's would have done, we descended, again on steep steps, into the ´Cloud forest´, so named for the cloud that the forest is perpetually bathed in. This part of the walk was truly spectacular, as the forest is lush and green and the cloud hides various small Inca sites, which magically reveal themselves on approach. This part of the path is also 95% original, so you really do feel as though you are following in the footsteps of the Incas. We took our time and took in the scenery and eventually arrived at the spectacular lunch spot, high up on the third and final pass, overlooking a huge Inca site in the valley below.

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After lunch, we were ready to take on the more than 2000 stone steps that awaited us, charmingly referred to as the 'gringo killers'. This part of the walk was almost more challenging than the climbs, as the steps are incredibly steep and, for such small people, the Incas seem to have had a strange inability to build anything other than giant steps!

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After what felt like an age, just before our knees gave way altogether, we reached the end of the steps and the path opened out onto the final treat for the day, a set of Inca terraces overlooking Machu Picchu mountain and the stunning valleys surrounding it. The site was pretty breaktaking and we could have sat there for hours taking in the views (and eating gummy bears!).

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Eventually though we headed down to the final campsite, a renewed spring in our step in the knowledge that our final destination was in sight. That night, the group were all pretty exhausted, having covered the best part of 16km of hills that day, but we still managed to raise a cheer when the cook, unbelieveably, produced a beautifully decorated steamed sponge cake he had prepared (god knows how!) as a treat for our final night!

On the final day, the porters wake you at 3.30am (!!) to drag you of bed and send you off to wait for the gate to the final part of the trail to open at 5.30am. Once the gate oens, it's a race against time (and the other groups) to be the first the reach the sun-gate, the point at which you are supposed to get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu below. What we hadn't been told was that to reach the sun-gate, there would be a final punishing set of giant Inca steps to climb and by the time we reached the top, to quote a hilarious Swiss guy from our group, we all now understood what Kung-Fu Panda felt like!! Unfortunately, our promised reward for this final climb did not materilaise as when we reached the sun gate it was steeped in cloud and we were lucky if we could see our hands in front of faces, let alone Machu Picchu!

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Slightly disappointed although undeterred, we set off down the hill towards the site and, magically, as we got closer the cloud started to part and a hazy Machu Picchu was revealed.

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When we arrived on the site, we took a final group photo before being taken on a tour by Will (although not before excitedly using the first clean toilets we had seen for 4 days!).

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The site is huge and undeniably impressive, although we were not alone in our feelings that the experience is slightly spoiled by the hundreds of day-tripper tourists, pouring in on buses and clutching giant american-sized cokes and packets of crisps, looking disdainfully at the tramping trekkers who may not have washed for four days, but at least feel they have earnt their place at the site. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our tour and were thrilled when a few breaks in the cloud allowed us to get the classic pictures we had been hoping for.

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Machu Picchu certainly deserves to be up there as a 'wonder of the world' and we feel very lucky to have seen it, although as our guide said "it's not just what you see at the end, it's how you get there" and we can definitely vouch for the fact that the whole trek is well-worth doing. Had we not done so, we would not have seen all the other magical sights along the way nor met our fab group of fellow trekkers and we certainly loved every minute of the entire 4 days.

Posted by shaunandhan 05:12 Archived in Peru

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Comments

Sounds like you guys had an amazing time. Reminded me of my trek in Nepal when I was about your age. So in pre Inca times then

by Kpo

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