|DAY 1 - Camping at Wayllabamba
The first day started with a slight delay picking up porters and guides before an "interesting" bus ride to the start point for the hike at KM 82. What was interesting about the bus ride was the driver's near suicidal approach to driving (close call with a train, and a cow). Passed through quite a few little towns before starting hiking.
Before setting out we met the guides, porters and other hikers in our group. We were quite lucky to only have 6 hikers in our group - two Japanese guys, a Brit guy and a Spanish girl, Brad and myself. Also, we were almost all around the same age - late 20's to early 30's, which made for some fun times along the way.
In all, Day 1 involved a relatively easy 3 hour hike to the campsite, passing through the little village of Willkarakay and looking at the first set of Inca ruins at Llactapata (which was apparently an "administrative centre" controlling how people moved between 3 strategically important river valleys.
The evening saw the first of many games of cards as Brad and I taught the guides and others that we were hiking with games we knew (such as "kings and assholes"). Some very dodgy card playing came to the fore from the Peruvians...
DAY 2 - Crossing Dead Woman's Pass and camping at Paqaymayu
Starting off from Wayllabamba (3,100 M), day 2 involved a rather strenuous climb up to Dead Woman's Pass (4,200 M). Not only was this climb rather long, but altitude also played a factor. I felt quite out of breath at times, and near the top started getting pretty dizzy, which was somewhat concerning given the sheer drops on the right hand side. In all, it took me about 4 hours to complete a 5 hour climb. Once at the top we waited for the group to catch up, and over the course of this hour I developed a rather nasty headache, which was not helped by how hot it was.
This climb was the only time I used a porter on the trip, and it was only to carry my sleeping bag - about 3 KG from my 16 KG pack.
Following the climb, a steep 500 M to our campsite ensued, meaning that by the time I arrived I was almost overheating, as well as being somewhat effected by altitude. Luckily the camp had a (freezing) cold shower that was able to cool me down.
After the evening meal, more cards followed with the Peruvians teaching us a few card games including a somewhat violent version of the game "spoons¨.
Day 2 was probably the most challenging day, but it was not as long as day 3 and did not involve viewing any Inca ruins.
DAY 3 - Crossing Runkurakay and Phuyupatamarka passes and camping at Winay Wayna
What was perhaps most noticeable at the start of day 3 was the sheer numbers of gringos and porters on the trail, and the impact that this must have - and we were hiking in the shoulder season (peak = June, July). The camp was huge, and facilities such as toilets (bano), space and clean water were obviously very strained, not to mention issues such as people dropping food wrappings and other junk on the trail and around the campsites
Day 3 also involved 2 more steep climbs to the second and third passes (3950 and 3670 M respectively), but also involved steep downhill sections between each pass and a number of ruins to have a look at. We stopped before lunch at Sayaqmarka, which is believed to have been a farming and religious community, established to support the 1000 people residing at Machu Picchu during Inca times.
We also started leaving the dry alpine environment and heading into the "cloud forest", which essentially was altitude stunted rain forest. From time to time, you could see fires in the distance, which apparently was farmers burning virgin rainforest to gain more arable land. It is this reason why I am going up to Iquitos in a few days - to have a decent look at the Amazon before it is no longer there.
We also passed through a 30-40 M Inca tunnel carved out of a sheer rock cliff face which was pretty impressive. Again supported the belief that the Incas were small people, as I had to watch my head quite closely!
To get to the campsite at Winay Wayna, we also took an alternative route traveled by less than 5% of all those that go to Machu Picchu, with impressive views from the left hand side. The trail was pretty rough, and much more resembled something that you would see hiking in New Zealand, especially when you got into the forest area out of the alpine.
Winay Wayna was also a deluxe camping affair, with hot showers, cold beer and a restaurant. Although maybe not exactly roughing it, the creature comforts were appreciated after 3 days in the bush. The cooks put on a "last supper" which was a giant buffet feast. Overall, they did an excellent job, with Peruvian style food being prepared at most stops, and this being well suited for the amount of energy being expended.
DAY 4 - Inti Punku and Machu Picchu
The final day started early with a 5am race to the check point (with so many hikers, if you get up late you miss the sunrise at Machu Picchu as a cue develops). We were the first group away meaning that we got to Inti Punku (the sun gate) first. I had heard much about the views from the sungate, and although they were good, better views were to be had from closer to the main city. However, the Sun gate did mark the last climb of the trip, so most people were pretty happy about this.
It is hard to explain just how large Machu Picchu is, and the amount of effort that must have needed to be expended to construct a large, ancient city out of stone on the top of a steep ridge in the middle of nowhere. Our package included a guided tour around the city, which after 4 days walking was somewhat challenging! Our guide provided a number of theories that had been expressed to explain why certain features of Machu Picchu were constructed in the manner that they were (as there are no factual/historical records from this time). Although some seemed more likely than others, it was good to know what each was believed to do.
What I found most impressive were some of the rooms, carvings and temples that were somehow carved out of single pieces of granite.
After completing the tour we looked around for a bit, then headed down to the local town, narrowly avoiding another head-on bus crash to have lunch and a few beers before heading back to Cuzco on the bumpy and quite slow train.