The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the most infamous treks in the world. Since Hirim Bingham’s first photos in National Geographic in 1911, every angle of this incredible, implausible, city in the skies has been catalogued and published. It was now my turn to experience it, to form my own perspective of the Lost City on a four-day hike through the Peruvian jungle, dodging life-threatening experiences along the way.

It was three days into our trek, at three in the morning, and we were facing the final stretch of the trail. It was dark, cold, and raining.  Somewhere at the base of the Urubamba valley, amongst the ramshackle houses of Aguas Calientes, far below the cloud forest, a party was in full swing.  Among the attendees were a couple of guards responsible for opening the gates to the final section of the ancient path.  Now known as the back entrance to Machu Picchu, it used to be the main way to access the Lost City. This is the peak of the trek; in theory, you arrive at the Sun Gate at sunrise in time to see Machu Picchu emerge from the morning haze.  In practice, however, things don’t always go to plan.

The fact that the guards had a good time at the party the night before was indicated by the fact they turned up an hour late to open the gates. Behind us, several dozen groups sprawled along the trail, anxiously edging forward trying to get through first. Sunrise was approaching, and the Sun Gate was an hour and a half away by foot. As the pale light started to burn away the mist, the guards finally appeared to release the barrier.

Timing started to play a very important role. The first group in front of us had leaped over the barrier just before, so had a five minute head start. The second group were allowed through immediately and we were asked to wait seven minutes to space out the groups.

The supposedly gentle undulating track included a near-vertical scramble up the stone ‘Monkey Steps’.  Deep vegetation loomed to the left and to the right, the mountain descended suddenly.  Gaps in the leaves revealed the deep V of the valley.  Occasionally, a booming explosion would echo across to us. “They’re just mining,” our guide Freddy assured us.

We pressed on, intent on making up lost time, when a boom sounded out from above us.  Then silence. “Corre! Run! Now!”

From somewhere above, a cascade of mud, rocks, trees and roots hurtled down.  It’s amazing how fast you can run at high altitude, with a 12kg backpack, and your life on the line.

When silence fell again, Freddy turned back to check the damage. The landslide, which closed the trail, was 20m wide and had come down just between our group and the one behind, missing us by about a minute’s worth of walking. 

Unique ‘incidents’ like this (as I assured my parents) can’t be bottled up, or photographed, or anticipated.  You could do the Inca Trail and at no point endanger your life, or you might.  What is guaranteed is a completely unique insight into the Lost City. Images of jungles, lost civilisations and stone temples hidden in the mists of time start to become reality as you move nearer towards Machu Picchu. It’s nice to know that the mystery of travelling to foreign destinations can still be found. You may not be the original explorer, but for a moment, you can live in your own Indiana Jones fantasy.

The altitude up to Machu Picchu cannot be underestimated.  You climb from 2600m up to 4200m before descending to 2400m.  The peak of this is the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass. Any slight weakness in you – whether knees, feet, back or muscles – will work against you as you climb 1200m in the morning and down 800m in the afternoon.  Once you reach the top of the pass, waterfalls erupt over the stone steps on the other side, making the path treacherous.  If you didn’t believe in the power of Pachamama (Mother Earth) before, you will soon. When I arrived finally at Machu Picchu, it was stunning; everything you expect it to be from the soaring views to the awe-inspiring ancient stones.

I could have just taken the train from Ollyantambo to Aguas Calientes and then the shuttle bus up the winding mountain road.  There is something undeniably romantic about the old wooden and iron tracks coursing along the bottom of the valley.  However, somehow nothing quite beats risking your life as the sun rises in the Peruvian rainforest.

To take the same tour company as Katie, click on the Peru Treks website, recommended as one of the best companies for safety, price and treatment of staff.