As I write this, one of my closest friends is on a flight to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, and a challenge that I too would like to take on one day. Talking to her about the trek has brought back a lot of memories, good and bad, of a trek I took on in 2014.
I’d already visited Peru once in 2007 and it absolutely captured my imagination. It’s still one of my favourite countries with a great variety of different landscapes, climates and culture, and rich in history. Machu Picchu was a magical place. Perched on top of a mountain, the lost city lay undiscovered by the western world for hundreds of years. As a kid I used to love the idea of discovering a hidden secret place and even now I love exploring abandoned buildings.
We took the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes that time, but I’d always fancied the idea of making the 42km trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. So when my dad told me a friend of his was organising a trip out there to complete the trek, I jumped on board! Not content with visiting the newest Wonder of the World once, I decided to go back. Greedy I know, but this time I’d be earning it.
On the first day, and within the first few hours of walking, it quickly became clear that this would be more of a challenge than I expected. I didn’t remember the altitude affecting me much when I visited the Sacred Valley before, but I certainly felt it this time. The smallest of slopes would render me breathless and I felt constantly nauseous. When we stopped for lunch we were told that this was where the climbing really started. I could barely eat anything. I’d lost my appetite. I was still excited and couldn’t wait to see what spectacular scenery I’d come across next, but my body was trying to stop me!
We’d been walking together as a group up until that point, but the next few hours were going to be tough, so we all went at our own pace which meant splitting up. At one point I hadn’t seen a single other human for at least two hours, I began to wonder if I was even going the right way, but there wasn’t anywhere I could have gone wrong. It’s just one path with a lot of steps going up and up. Every corner I turned I was faced with yet more steps.
Eventually I caught up with another group. They were taking ten steps then stopping to catch their breath, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but at that point it sounded like a great idea so I joined them. It took a long time, but we arrived at the camp just before dusk. Two of my group had already arrived and helped the porters set up the tents and cook dinner! The others weren’t far behind. It was strange to think that on the trail I felt so completely alone, yet in reality there were hundreds of people walking along the same path that day.
It was a cold and uncomfortable first night in the tent. We were woken at 5am the next day. The porters brought us hot coca tea in bed and we had pancakes for breakfast. The first part of the day was a tough climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail at 4,215m. I felt surprisingly energetic and ascended fairly quickly. The views were incredible, and I was so happy that we could start going down steps now!
But as we waited at the top for the slower members of the group, my temperature must have dropped too quickly and I began to feel very faint. I think I’d have passed out if one of the guides hadn’t put a coat on me and stuck something very strong-smelling under my nose! I began to feel normal and warmed up again.
The next two days were easier on the legs. We descended quite rapidly and it was amazing how much warmer and more relaxed we felt. My appetite was still meagre, which did nothing for my energy levels, but I was determined to make the most of every part of this journey nevertheless. There were Inca ruins along the way to explore, plus a mini mountain that Chris and I chose to climb as extra, because we could! He even called his dad from the top to find out the football scores!
Me looking like I’ve just scaled Everest, Chris looking like he just jogged up a hill.
At the last campsite we walked to a waterfall where we enjoyed a welcome dip after three days of hiking with no showers. I was feeling absolutely horrific and wasn’t sure if bathing in a cold waterfall was a good idea, but I felt much better afterwards, so I’m glad that I did.
The final morning saw us getting up at 3am and hiking in the dark for two hours to arrive at the Sun Gate for sunrise. Machu Picchu was bathed in mist that morning, as it often is being at the edge of the rainforest, but we caught a few glimpses of it from the Sun Gate before walking the final stretch down to the city ruins.
We amused ourselves comparing our sorry state to the few tourists who had arrived early and were walking up to the Sun Gate in their sparkling white jeans and converse trainers. It was wonderful to see the ruins without the crowds that would form later in the day.
We took a tour around and Chris and I also climbed Huayna Picchu to get a beautiful view from the other side of the mountain. I would have found it scarier had we not just spent 3 days hiking along steeper, narrower pathways WITHOUT handrails. This was a piece of cake! We smirked at the people who’d just come for a day trip, clinging on for dear life!
I was still feeling dreadful, but wanted to take in every angle of this amazing place. It was simultaneously one of the best and worst days of my life, let’s just say that a few changes of underwear took place that day! In spite of this I’m still smiling and I can look back on it and laugh!
As a triathlete (well, I had only done one triathlon at this point!) I expected to find it a lot easier than I did, but everyone is affected differently by the altitude and it hit me really hard. Lesson learnt, never underestimate any challenge, however well prepared you think you may be. That, and never complain about public toilets ever again!
Yes…that is a pig sleeping next to the toilet.