Days 70 to 74 – We are Family

Before “The Big Trip(TM)” one of the big questions we debated was whether to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or not.

It appears as though it is ‘THE’ thing to do in all of South America: it appears on the front cover of the our Lonely Planet guide to the continent; the same book lists it as top of its 15 Things to Not Miss (by the end of the trip we will have done 11 of them); it is considered one of the 7 modern wonders of the world.

So why the uncertainty?  Well its 4 days hiking and staying in tents, and anyone that knows me well will know that I do not like camping.  Also walking isn’t one of my favourite activities.  In addition reviews of the trek indicate that its not great for those that suffer with vertigo, with its precipitous ledges and steep footpaths and steps, and Niki has vertigo at times.

To make it more tempting, you can avoid the trek altogether and get a train to Machu Picchu, and miss out all the camping and all but the tiniest amount of walking….

But, but, but….the fact that it is so amazing and that our friend Malcolm (who in the end became a source of inspiration to all of us) managed to do it means that we did decided to go the whole hog and booked our second G-Adventure tour of the trip.

Our group is 14 strong, plus two guides, and day one we set off as a group of strangers aboard a mini-bus for a day trip through the Sacred Valley.  G-Adventures are a company that appears to have some fairly decent social principals and we see that at our first stop, a small town called Colca where we get to see some local ladies engaged in the creation of indigenous textiles (complete with how they use natural products to dye the colours).  We find that G help support the development of the community with funding for infrastructure projects i.e. new roads and buildings.

We continue our journey to our stop for the night, Ollantaytambo, and get to visit our first Inca structure known as Temple Hill.  This is a massive terraced structure built into the side of the hill and as we marvel at the structure our guide David imparts his knowledge of the civilisation.  The climb is hard work, and some of the heights make Niki nervous about the what is to follow (but any concerns are expertly allayed by David).

Day one and the evening meal give time for the group to get to know each other a bit better.  The British slightly outnumber the Aussies (6 to 5), and the team is completed by two Germans and a Canadian.  We are amused to discover that Sophia and David lived about 50m from us in Chapel Allerton, and we even share a mutual friend (small world).

It would take too long to talk about the Inca Trek in detail, but there are a few key factors that stand out:

The route:  You start at kilometre 82 and it is a 43km trek from here to Machu Picchu (the legendary city of the Incas) over 4 days.  Doesn’t seem that far on paper, but the topography and altitude mean that for most people it is certainly considered far enough. With “Dead Women’s Pass” hitting 4,300m above sea level, a 1000m drop on uneven steps (known locally as the ‘Gringo Killer’) and the final staircase that resembles a ladder in its steepness, it is more than challenging.

Outside of the physical nature of the walk, the next thing that hits you is where the path leads.  Over the course of the trek you pass over Andean mountains, descend through magical clouds into both cloud forests and primary high jungle, and never get tired of looking at the lush green mountains that tower up from the valley bottom below (hopefully the pictures do it some justice).

The support:  There are no permanent tents etc. across the Inca Trail.  So 14 people require tents, sleeping bags, and all the associated equipment that camping requires.  Based on the route above it is extremely unlikely that we were going to carry all that stuff (it would probably kill us), so the tour provide a support team that do everything for you.  And I mean everything.

When you arrive at camp, all the tents are set up (with sleeping bags and mattresses) with your 2.5kg per person bag safely installed.  On top of that there is a dining room tent, complete with table and 16 chairs, which is provided with simply astonishing food from an adjacent kitchen tent.  Not amazing camping food, but amazing food (3 course meals, afternoon tea, and the – still cannot believe it – last day cake!).

It doesn’t end there.  You get hot water and a cup of tea brought to you every morning (with the early was up call)!  And they also set up a lunch stop (again full meal and tent with table and chairs) half way through the day.

How is this possible?  Well our 14 strong group are supported by 19 porters and 2 cooks.  This team carry huge rut sacks (now restricted to 25kg per person, but prior to recent laws could reach 40kg+) and travel at a pace that means that despite clearing camp after we have left, reach the lunch or final destination way ahead of us so that we just stroll in and get treated like royalty.

Watching the pace with which these local guys move is incredible (and you feel a little embarrassed), and despite the fact that they have bigger hearts, lungs and red blood cell counts than mere mortals (like us) you cannot help but be in awe.  An amazing fact is that a few years back they held a race across the trail for local porters and guides….the winning time? An unbelievable 3 hours 45 minutes.  That means they average just over 8 minute miles over a marathon distance….on uneven ground….at altitude….with huge stepped mountain passes.  Simple staggering.

The team:  Over the course of the 5 days, our guides referred to us as a “family”.  Normally this kind of familiarity is over the top nonsense that I don’t have that much time for, but on this occasion I couldn’t agree more.  The laughter, support, help and conversations that developed over the course of the trip created a bond between strangers that I cannot recall ever experiencing as quickly.

This was demonstrated by the sharing of food and supplies, providing moral and physical support when needed, and the overriding sense of camaraderie that permeated ever hour of the trip.  I generally think that we have made friendships in these 5 days that will be maintained for a long period of time – and anyone of this group would be welcome at our home back in the UK (when we get one).

It didn’t just extend to the tourists.  Seeing the porters join in a group stretching exercise at the end of the day with laughter lighting their faces, watching Niki learn Quechua, seeing David and Iver enjoy a few drinks with the team on the night the tour finished when they could just as easily gone home to their friends and family – all these helped create memories that will live for a long, long time.  Edwina (one of the Aussies) described the sensation when our group was going its separate ways as separation anxiety, and I couldn’t agree more, we shared an extraordinary experience together and the end was tinged with sadness when there was no more to share.

When we eventually reached the sun gate on the last day (after a 3am wake up call) and all saw Machu Picchu bathed in sunlight with the famous mystical clouds providing an unearthly backdrop, I  think it was probably the highlight of everyones trip, no matter how long.

Machu Picchu itself is wonderful and unique, and with its remote setting it isn’t a surprise that the Spanish never discovered it.  What we see today has been subject to a reasonable degree of subtle renovation, with approximately only 50% of what is there now was what was present when it was discover by Hirmam Bingham on the 24th July 1911 (there is a small section that shows the state it was in at time, when the overgrowing vegetation had taken its toll).  Archeologists no doubt will debate the merits or not of his approach, but from a lay mans point of few the work that has been done gives the place a huge impact when you first cast your eyes upon it.

You can look at the pictures and google if you want to know more details about the site itself, but for me the trek and the time with our new ‘family’ was extraordinary and that will always be my longstanding memory.  The Inca Trail was simply the best thing we have done in all our time in South America.

The following poem was written by Niki as a way of extending our gratitude to our guides and team and I think is a perfect way to end this post:

David & Ever we would like to say,
You really helped to make our day,
Our Inca Trail began with trepidation,
But ended at Machu Picchu with elation,

Four days we’ve walked along the trail,
Dead woman’s pass made our faces pale,
At times we felt the air grow thin,
But your breaks & enthusiasm always made us grin,

Over landslides and ledges you kept us calm,
Making sure we arrived safe and came to no harm,
Your Inca knowledge brightened our days,
Full of quinoa, terraces and rotations of maize,

So many times you’ve seen this through,
And yet it seemed so fresh and new,
Your passion for your job is clear for us to see,
What started with strangers, ended with family,

A memorable few days that will linger long in our heart,
Who could have expected so much at the start,
What began in the sunshine at kilometre 82,
Ended the same way at Machu Picchu,

So on behalf of our team the final words are left to me,
What else but thank you, gracias and sulpyki!

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