TravelRest of World

Machu Machu Man - My time on the Inca Trail

Rest of WorldBy Neil Fetherston
Neil Fetherston high up on the Inca Trail
Neil Fetherston high up on the Inca Trail

Gingerly, I took a clump of the green leaves out of the plastic bag, popped them into my mouth and chewed suspiciously.

‘Coco leaves, right?’ I asked our guide, Piero. 

‘Si, si, coca leaves, they will make you better.’ 

Coco leaves, where cocaine comes from, I’m thinking, as Piero nods enthusiastically. 

I had to admit that the initial taste didn’t blow me away but within a short while I was definitely feeling better. 

We were half way along the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, when the effects of altitude sickness caught up on me. 

We had set off happily enough from our base camp near the Urubamba River, about 80km from Cusco at the start of the trail, but by day two we had gradually ascended until we were now at the appropriately named ‘Dead Woman's Pass’, at an oxygen-starved 4,200 metres. 

A dull rumbling headache I felt as I tried to sleep in our tent the night before had steadily increased in intensity that left me dazed and stumbling the following morning. 

Surprisingly, the rest of the group seemed relatively unaffected, including some who had arrived in Peru with me and so had spent the same time acclimatising before we made our bid to reach the famed Inca city. 

With excitement mounting we headed off over our first water obstacle, the Vilcanota River, where we followed the trail as it climbed steeply up though a small village.

As I was to learn, the condition can strike any individual at any time, regardless of age or fitness level but sure enough the coco leaves seemed to alleviate the symptoms and soon I was hitting my stride once again and enjoying the walk. 

And what a walk. Taking in beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud-forest, subtropical jungle and stunning Inca paving stones, ruins and tunnels, it is no wonder that this famous trail is regularly declared one of the best in the world. 

Winding its way for over 26 miles through the Andes, the trail offers a breath-taking mix of scenery and experiences and always has the final destination, Machu Picchu, the mysterious ‘Lost City of the Incas’ luring you onwards. 

On the Inca Trail

We had set out from Cusco two days earlier, once the historical capital of the Inca Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the jump-off point for treks to Macchu Pichhu. 

Although it can get busy with over two million visitors every year, it’s a fantastic city with an amazing history dovetailed neatly alongside a modern population that maintains a strong cultural identity. 

We passed the time wandering the city streets gazing in awe at the architecture and the bustling squares as we gave our bodies time to acclimatise to its 3,400 metres. 

As we strolled along we scouted out the various options in taking on the Inca Trail.  

There are literally hundreds of tours on offer and touts will apprehend you in the street to offer you amazing experiences with all sorts of promises. 

But you have to choose carefully. Most of the tour organisers are licensed  but there are good and bad operators in the city and it took a bit of research and negotiation before we settled on one particular guide. 

One of the tough porters

There is also an issue with permits as the government, concerned with damage and erosion on the trail, restricts traffic to 500 people a day and that includes the guides and porters who carry all the camping gear. It is possible to book a trek in advance through a reputable travel company before flying to Peru but buying one directly with a local tour operator based in Cusco offers much better value for money. But either way, book well in advance during the most popular months, from May to September,  as places sell out fast. 

This is when conditions are fairly dry and the weather is generally sunny, while June, July and August can be very cold and forget about February, as the trail is closed to allow for cleaning and restoration. 

We eventually settled on the four day  ‘Classic Inca Trail’ although a shorter two day trek is also possible as are longer seven day options. 

In the desert town of Huacachina (see below)

It was an early start on our first day as we were collected from our hotels and bussed out to kilometre 82 that marks the start of the trail. There, we hung around and talked with the other members of our group who would be taking on the trail with us while our gear, including sleeping bags and tents, went ahead of us with the porters. 

These sturdy locals would set up camp each night before we arrived and take it down after we left the following morning. 

With excitement mounting we headed off over our first water obstacle, the Vilcanota River, where we followed the trail as it climbed steeply up though a small village.

Through the clouds we could just make out the ruins of the Inca hillfort of Huillca Raccay squatting high on the mountain above. The path then follows the left bank of the river up to the village of Wayllabamba where we spent our first night. 

It was an extraordinary experience, sitting under the stars while gazing out into the inky black silence. Sleep comes quickly after a day’s trek on the Inca Trial and you need it as you are usually up with the dawn and hitting the road soon after. 

After a hot brew of thick Peruvian coffee and a breakfast of rice and eggs we were on our way to our first big challenge. Climbing up from Wayllabamba for about three hours the steepening trail winds through woods and increasingly stunning scenery to a meadow known as Llulluchapampa. Here you are at 3,680m but is still another couple of hours’ climb to the first and highest pass of the trail (Abra de Huarmihuausca or 'Dead Woman's Pass)’ at 4,200m. Here, the blazing sun we were sweltering under since we had set off was replaced with freezing bracing winds and it was a tough night’s sleep at the campsite at Pacamayo. 

This is where the altitude had got to me but as I walked along chewing my coco leaves I gradually recovered and fell into the rhythm of what was really starting to feel like a Lord of the Rings adventure. 

In places the trail took us along original Inca paving stones laid down centuries ago. We passed many other remains of this once great civilization where we would rest to take in the views and marvel at our surroundings. Then we’d take off again and follow the path as it meandered through magnificent cloud forests full of orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers. 

 Machu Picchu...the famed 'Lost City of the Incas'

By the end of the third day we had visited Phuyupatamarca, one of the most impressive Inca ruins so far with its six 'Inca Baths' before we finally reached Aguas Calientes, the closest access point to Machu Picchu. 

Here, we stopped for a well-deserved rest in the hot waters that give the town its name and enjoyed a beer and a proper meal in a restaurant. But it was another early night as we rose before dawn to make the final haul up to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. It was chilly in the dark as we set off to the light of our guide’s lamp ahead of us. 

After a solid two hour trek we arrived at the very last obstacle, a near vertical flight of 50 steps that lead up to the entrance of the site’s epic Sun Gate. With aching muscles straining we clamboured up the last few steps to get our first view of the famous ruins. 

It was a jaw-dropping spectacle, and a shudder of recognition mixed with relief flooded through us as we took in the sight made famous from a thousand postcards. 

It was a special moment to be there in the dawn light, watching as the sun rose and there was a quiet moment of reflection before the coach loads of tourists arrived. 

Walking among the ruins however it is not as impressive as viewing them from above and to do that took one more effort. We climbed up the neighbouring mountain of Huaklupmahciuove which overlooks the site to take in the view of the ancient city laid out below us. 

As we watched the sun burn off the last of the mists hanging low over the surrounding mountains we kicked back and congratulated ourselves on what felt like an amazing accomplishment . 

With one of the locals on Lake Titicaca (see below)

Five of the best (and worst) places in Peru 


Don’t bother wasting time in the capital. Despite my love of exploring cities I have to say it’s not up to much. Take a night or two to get over the cross Atlantic long haul jet lag then get out of there. 

It’s a dull, uninspiring and in some places very dirty and dodgy city with weather not unlike our own on a wet November day. 

Overcast when we arrived in the second week of September, the low-hanging cloud was still smothering the entire city when we left several days later. This is South America after all! Where’s the sunshine? 

2. Mancora 

Ah, to find the sun we had to jump on a small plane and fly to Mancora, where we finally found some beachside bliss only a few hours’ north. Our transport from the airport to the town itself was eventual enough though as we came across a gang of lads in balaclavas blocking the road. 

With relief we soon realised this was a local protest for fishing rights and had  nothing to do with holding up gringos and we were soon on our way, although we hugged our backpacks that little bit tighter. 

Located on the Pacific coast Mancora is laid-back town with not much action, apart from catching the odd wave while out surfing, to distract from  lazing around in a hammock. 

We did rustle ourselves out of our stupor one morning to take a trek up into the dusty hills to search for an elusive holy well but instead we found ourselves lost and parched under the beating sun. Giving up, we returned that evening having failed to find the holy well so we settled on a cold beer instead. 

The dusty town of Trujillo doesn’t have much to it, but is worth a stop off to see the impressive Mayan ruins just outside the city . UNESCO designated Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the ancient world, a World Heritage Site in 1986, while the temples of the Sun and Moon are among the largest adobe pyramids in Peru. 

4. The Nazca Lines 

A detour to the famous Nazca lines located near the town of the same name is well worth a detour if you’re travelling from Lima to Cuzco. 
Here we were able to take a ride in small propeller plane up over the desert to get a look at the lines from the air. The pilot weaved the small Cessna hard over to the right and left so we could make out the figures of birds, a monkey and even what some people believe is an alien from just a few hundred feet up. 
When we landed we were taken out into the desert to see the mummified remains of humans that have survived hundreds of years in the dry desert air. Creepy but fascinating. 

5.Lake Titicaca 

Located high in the Andes, Lake Titicaca  glimmers in a stunning setting and landing on the silent shore of the Isla Del Sol on the Bolivian side of the lake was like stepping back in time. Here, the brightly dressed locals carry on life as they have done for centuries ,quietly going about their day despite the presence of camera toting gringos wandering around town.  

6. Huacachina 

An amazing oasis that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, although in reality it is only 4km from civilisation, this watering hole in the desert boasts a smattering of backpacker hostels, restaurants and even a library. The centre of town of course is dominated by the lake that the locals seemed happy to splash around in although we were slightly wary of its contents. Where does the town’s sewerage go? 

But it was great fun to hop on a Mad Max style dune buddy and go tearing off around the desert at dusk. You can also rent snow boards and go skidding down the dunes at breakneck speed. If you get it right that is!