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Trek to Machu Picchu
Tackle the Challenge of the Inca Trail

Calling it "the trek of a life-time" is an understatement. The Inca Trail is much, much more. If you like travel and adventure in the raw, then the four-day trek to Machu Picchu is for you. Set high in the Peruvian rain forests, the ancient city was lost to civilization for 400 years. Although rediscovered in 1911, Machu Picchu still maintains many of its secrets. The challenge of reaching the ruins is perhaps the greatest part of the mystique.

Into Peru

We had been warned by most of the popular travel books that Peru was an unsafe destination. When we crossed the border at Arica in northern Chile, some members of our group were reluctant to get off the truck and change their money. The feelings of fear were allayed, however, when the sun peeked through the clouds and iridescent hummingbirds fed from the flowering hibiscus. I acted as guard for the truck, waiting on its side steps, while the other group members exchanged their cash.

Rooftops of Cuzco, near the Inca Trail starting point

A few days later, we had traveled to Cuzco, the starting point for our Inca Trail trek. By this time we had already become thoroughly entranced by Peru and its people. The food alone in the Cuzco was worth the journey. It was the last place I expected to find so many Chinese restaurants.

One evening we reread the travel books and laughed about the alarmist warnings. Peru is for savoring — the climate, the food, and the friendly Peruvians, simultaneously caring and happy-go-lucky. They greet visitors like long-lost friends, now returned to the fold.

Onto the Trail

The trek to Machu Picchu was booked through the United Mice agency by Salous, our multi-lingual guide. Salous came highly recommended and he soon proved very popular with our group. His grasp of English was excellent as was his rather dry wit. In the mountains he really came into his own. His knowledge of the terrain and weather patterns gave us great confidence in him and his team of porters.

The first day’s trek was relatively easy, although some members of the group were feeling the altitude. We soon became entranced by the undulating paths and the spectacular views of rugged ridges. The dusty roads, or caminos, had seen hardships over the years, as roadside graves could be found in abundance among the yellow flowering cactuses. That night, we camped in a derelict school yard attended by young children selling bottles of beer from a plastic bucket, topped to the brim with ice. The porters prepared an excellent meal of fresh fruit, followed by mixed salad in a sauce with sweetbread. After dinner, my friend, Martini, and I earned goodwill points by massaging the strained legs and backs of our compatriots.

Trek group
The trek group, taking a rest

Young and capable Inca Trail porters

Day Two Trials

Day two was always described as "make or break." Some members of the group hired horses to make the most of the site-seeing, while the rest of us struggled upwards carrying our rucksacks. The early morning was cloudy with a bitter wind, but soon the clouds dispersed and presented us with a day of crystal clear vision. However, in that terrain the sunshine was accompanied by heat, dust and vultures. I spent the early morning with my friend, Jose, a powerful walker, but my sluggish pace was holding him back. I decided to let him go, but that was a mistake, as I forgot that most of my water was in his rucksack.

At mid-morning we faced the day’s most daunting challenge. Stretching several miles into the distance was a long, narrow, ascending track carved into the side of the mountain. In the distance I could see the figures of other groups fighting hard against the mountain, the sun, and the thin air. When our group started to separate itself on the steep trail, I should have known better than to trek alone. Group proximity keeps one’s mind off the elements and the physical exhaustion. Also, in a group, someone always has spare water.

I pushed on alone and arrived at the summit some twenty minutes later than the most of the group. However, three others were not yet in sight. SJ, Martin, and Melanie arrived an hour later, with Melanie suffering from dehydration, and SJ dogged by an earlier injury. We were all grateful now for the rest, the thirst-quenching water, and a satisfying meal.

By the time we felt revived, the sun had vanished behind a dense cloud cover. Salous lead, always chatting, encouraging and thoughtful in the way he handled the group. It became suddenly cold, and the trail turned downhill and slippery under foot — an incredible change from the morning. We fished fleece pullovers and waterproof ponchos from our rucksacks

Urubamba River from Inca Trail

When we had finished the afternoon’s descent we were forced to camp in a swampy area, but the vistas more than compensated for the camp site. Surrounded on three sides by snow-capped mountains, we spent an hour before sunset looking down at the cloud formations forming in the valley below.

Inca Trail flowering cactus

Falling Rocks, Falling Bodies

Day three was long and hard, but we all reached our day’s destination without mishap. It was a small settlement with orange-tiled roofs. We found the local cantina and one of our group, Tony, broke loose and bought beers all around. As we sat trading cheers and marveling at that rustic mountain setting, we were suddenly startled by a huge crash and thud. Running to determine the reason for the commotion, we found that a five-foot boulder had smashed through the tin roof of the nearby cooking shed. Amazingly, the cook had escaped without injury. Our cook, and even the evening’s meal, had managed to elude destruction, more by luck than design. The porters and locals made hurried repairs while we sat around watching the turmoil, hoping that other rocks on the ledges above would stay put for the evening.

We pitched the tents, some precariously, on the edge of a ten-foot drop. Nobody complained — this was the Inca Trail. I awoke the next morning to the sound of porters scurrying up and down the terrace making preparations for breakfast. Dawn had not yet come, and it was cold, so cold. I said hello to Rob on the way to the makeshift bano. Then I moved up to the high terrace to watch the dawn and the entrancing cloud formations.

Suddenly I heard a sickening shriek, a dreadful noise. In the darkness, Rob of our group had tripped on a tent peg and fallen down the ten-foot gap between the wall and the cliff. It took some time before we could move him. He was in shock, with pain in his lower back and scraped arms, neck, and knees. We finally determined that he had not broken any bones, and the porters eased him up to the terrace. He later was able to take a late breakfast of porridge with cinnamon, and two hours later he declared himself fit to continue. A brave declaration, and one that I immediately questioned. Fortunately, as had often been the case, my premonitions were proven wrong.

Magical Machu Picchu

We started out late that morning, focused now on reaching our trek’s destination. The trail continued into a deep, densely magnificent rain forest. This was now our fourth day of arduous travel. As the hours passed, we grew in anticipation, awaiting our first sighting of the ruins. Finally, almost unexpectedly because we had so long awaited this moment, we were pulled up short by a holler from Salous and the magical first view of the Inca ruins.

Machu Picchu
Mysterious Machu Picchu, surrounded by clouds

Machu Picchu....Tears were shed, joy abounded, seemingly bouncing off the surrounding mountaintops. We congratulated each other, again and again, especially Rob who had so miraculously recovered from the morning’s mishap.

The time that we spent at Machu Picchu was fabulous and unforgettable — exploring the ruins, wondering at their history. However, my most valued memories came from the journey itself. For many who travel to Machu Picchu, the biggest reward is completing the trek. Give yourself the opportunity to make that voyage one day.

Vince Stevenson
Article and Photos


Click here for Vince Stevenson’s full recount of his Machu Picchu trek.
[Note: the full article with photos is approximately 1 MB].

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