As one of the most demanding hikes in the world, the Inca trail in Peru is not for the faint-hearted. However, the sense of achievement when you scramble up the last steep steps of the sun gate, to see Machu Picchu emerge gloriously from beneath the rising clouds and glitter in the sunrise is an unrivalled experience.
The 44km Inca trail is only accessible through a guided tour complete with a local guide, porters and a cook. The journey starts at KM82, where an experienced guide will talk you through the next few days, preparing you for the high-altitude, physically demanding terrain and what you can expect to see along the way. Porters are on hand to carry your equipment, set up camp for the night and cook three square meals a day. The service given by these porters is exceptional, and only adds to the wonder as they sprint past you in sandals with heavy backpacks, whilst you heave yourself up the steep steps with the aid of hiking boots and walking sticks.
The tour is made to feel exclusive as you rarely see any other trekkers along the way. In fact, permits for the trek are limited to 200 tourists a day allowing you to become immersed in the natural surroundings.
A myriad of wildlife, from luminous green caterpillars to an array of orchids keeps the eye satisfied along the way against the mountainous backdrop. Our group was treated to the rare sighting of a condor swooping overhead, a symbol sacred to the Inca civilization. The local guide commented he had only seen this rare bird once before in a 20 year long career. You know you are witnessing something special when your tour guide is furiously taking photographs.
Day one of the trek eases the novice walker into a rambling climb through the landscape. However, day two is a steep ascension culminating in what is aptly referred to as ‘dead woman’s pass’, reaching an altitude of over 4000 metres. Perhaps it was the dizzy heights and shortage of oxygen, but the sense of elation at reaching this summit was huge. The next stage was occupied by navigating the best route to take through the cloud forest down the worn steps, often made smooth by cascading streams, without losing an ankle in the process.
The comradeship of our group, eight strangers ranging from two experienced American hikers, Canadian honeymooners, a German army veteran, a Canadian animator and sisters from the UK, was hugely supportive. It is not surprising how a challenge can unite a group of strangers into achieving small steps together towards a common goal. On the last day, I witnessed a hiker from another group who had fallen and hurt his legs, only for his fellow trekkers to decide to carry him for the remaining two hours to Machu Picchu.
In all honesty, the temples and ruins dotted along the trail were more satisfying to see along the way than Machu Picchu itself, as they were void of a throng of tourists. Seemingly unspoilt, it was easy to imagine them in their heyday, and an air of mystery surrounded them due to the low hanging mists hugging the sides of the stones. The trail would have been incomplete, were it not for the pensive alpaca gazing out across the mountains at the Intipata terraces, a picture perfect moment.
On the final morning of the trail, we arose at dawn to complete the last passage. What felt like more of a frantic scramble to reach the destination before sunrise was exaggerated by an increasingly hard terrain, with sheer drops on one side. One wrong stumble could have amounted in an entirely different ending to the journey. Finally reaching the sun gate, a stunning vantage point which overlooks the ruins, we were rewarded with complete views over Machu Picchu. A sense of ownership from the hike meant our group perceived the tourists turning up by the bus load at the bottom of the ruins had not earned the rewards fairly. The best part of Machu Picchu is not the ruins themselves, but completing the journey along the Inca trail to get there.