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Friday 30th April - Monday 3rd April - The Inca Trail
By Claire
Friday, 7th May 2004 01:31

We were up and ready by 7.30 and slowly the hotel reception began to fill up with people with enormous bags and heavy walking boots. We milled around for ages, and I was pleased to see that although our small backpacks were full and quite large, they certainly weren't the biggest being taken. We were herded onto a bus and then we drove around for an hour picking people up and stuffing them into seats. Most of the bags went onto the roof of the bus and after stopping for half an hour all the porters squeezed on too. They were the guys who would be carrying all the equipment for us.

It took two hours to get to the start of the trail and at that point we were split into groups. I was disappointed that the two loudest English lads on the bus were in our group, but there was little we could do about that. Our guide for the whole trip was a gorgeous little Peruvian girl called Marysol who was delightful. She moved us away from the other three hundred people, and we stopped to have lunch just a few feet from the entrance to the trail.

All our meals would be provided, and we were told that water was too. We tried to get someone to swap our sleeping bags for the other ones, but it turned out that it was just as well that we'd brought our own - they weren't provided and they wouldn't be carried. We also had to carry sleeping mats too, so we didn't get off to a good start - we had to tie everything else to the back of our bags.

Lunch was surprising, especially as our six porters pulled out a little aluminium table from their sacks and decked the table with tablecloth and proper cutlery, and then proceeded to produce a four-course meal. There were eight of us in the group: me'n'mikey, a serious French couple who kept to themselves, a friendly Dutch girl, a young Norwegian guy with a good sense of humour and the two loud English lads who had to swear at everything in a way that became funny after a while. After sampling the delights of the portaloos (just a hole in the ground) we set off, more burdened than we expected to be (everyone else knew that they needed to carry mats and sleeping bags), but it was sunny and it was an adventure, and we had to cross a rickety wooden bridge over the Urubamba river before we'd gone a few feet. We walked in the sunshine, following Marysol, and it was all spectacular mountain scenery and smooth, flat paths. Not a care in the world.

We started at 2500m above sea level, but the path gradually began to climb. As the afternoon wore on, we stopped to see a very pretty archaeological site and take some pictures, and then we carried on again. Now it was mostly uphill. We climbed to about 3200m which was incredibly hard work. It didn't help that one of the English lads was telling everyone how much trekking he's just done in the jungle and how easy this was compared to that. I felt awful, I could hardly move. We finally descended to the campsite at about 3000m and found that the porters had overtaken us and set up 4 tents on a little grassy field above the river. It was just about dark and time for tea and biscuits, and then supper which included fresh trout from the river. I scored brownie points with one of the lads by offering him my fish! After supper we spent a bit of time chatting to one another and I realised that the English guys weren't quite as bad as I had thought, they just liked to show off and everyone seemed to be easy to get along with. Marysol showed me the constellations of the southern hemisphere, which was quite cool. As was seeing Orion, because that was the only one I recognised. The moon was very bright and the sky was clear so it was all quite pretty.

I don't really like camping (actually I detest camping with all my heart; people who camp are expected to have scant regard for personal hygiene and the whole thing is about the most undignified form of acommodation imaginable), so the thought of sleeping in a tent did not appeal to me. The only facilities at this campsite (about 300 people in groups of 8-30 in their own fields) were the river and a field that had a tent made of sticks and tarpaulins with a hole in it. It was really rather unpleasant. Marysol saw me wandering to the river and offered to take Mikey and I up to some proper bathrooms a way up the hill, and we went gratefully. Unfortunately they were in worse condition than the field...

I didn't sleep particularly well, but it wasn't as cold as I was expecting and the tents were brand new and almost quite cool. I would never go so far as to say I liked it, but as far as a tent goes, it was alright. We were woken by the porters with coca tea at 5.30, and had a three-course breakfast. After yesterday, I had already decided that I was going to find this hard, and the second day, which invovled the most climbing, scared me. We set off at about 7.30, and we had to climb from 3000m to 4200m in four hours. It was horrible. I felt so unfit, but I don't think that really explained it, because a lot of other, less fit people had managed it, so it could have been the altitude. I felt sick and dizzy, I couldn't breathe, I lost all feeling in my hands and I couldn't see too well. It was either boiling hot or pouring with rain, everything was wet, and at one point I heard Marysol and another guide talking about giving me oxygen, but I was in no state to respond. I think the consensus was to wait until 4000m otherwise I'd need it the whole time. It was the most horrible thing I've ever done. I couldn't go more than three steps without wheezing and almost being sick, and even chewing coca leaves and using herb called something like 'monia' or mountain fennel, I think, I was in a dreadful state.

Marysol had promised us a rest after two hours of climbing, which looked to be the highest point. I staggered up the last few steps, only to be told that everyone else had gone on because it was raining so much. I just cried. And,now that I was here, I could see the path winding up the other side of the mountain. I had barely climbed a third of the way.

Marysol was incredibly patient with me, and we walked together up the most horrible hill imaginable. I did about three or four steps at a time before I had to stop, so Marysol told me about all the orchids (300 varieties in Machu Picchu), and how the Quechua people still occasionally catch condors for religious cermonies and tie them to bulls, or how different villages celebrate weddings. She was distracting me enough that I finally made it to the top with Mikey. And, surprisingly, I only took about 45 minutes longer than anyone else - apparently we were the quickest group she'd had!

It was so foggy that we didn't even get a nice view from the top. At 4200m I had my celebratory Cadbury's chocolate (thank you Robin!) which was possibly the most delicious I've ever had. Unfortunately, the next part of the trek, although much, much easier, was totally sould-destroying: we had to descend 800m to the campsite. This was down about 2 miles of slippery rock steps, and this time I was the one helping Mikey - he hates going down hill especially in the rain. We made it in just over an hour and we were greeted by a muddy campsite and wet tents. We had tea in a tiny tent and Mikey went for an icy cold shower. I didn't have time before supper. Afterwards, Marysol told us a ghost story that was actually quite scary and apparently true (a woman was murdered here five years ago and she haunts the area round the loo block - she looks beautiful until you see her straight on, and then she's just a skeleton...) so four of us went to clean our teeth together!

We'd paid a porter to take our sleeping bags for us just for today, and they'd got wet too. Sleep was horrible - damp tent, damp sleeping bag, wet mats, cold, hard, lumpy ground. I was downright miserable! And, waking up to cold damp clothes and missing socks didn't help my mood for the next day either!

Sunday was clear and bright, but we had more climbing to do. I deliberately took it slowly, although I hated holding everyone up. We stopped at a number of ruins, Marysol told us about the sacrifices (girls were drugged then burried, and they've found preserved bodies showing that they would have woken up at some point) and about the reasons the places were built. Then it was downhill, something I was looking forward to. But it rained. And we had steps. 2062 steps downhill. Slippery, very steep (some involved using hands), and it took forever.I decided then and there that no matter how beautiful Machu Picchu turned out to be, nothing would make up for this one hundred hours of hell, punctuated by minutes of pretty scenery. I hated every single second of it. I begged Mikey to let me fly back home on Monday, Tuesday at the very latest, and we could get jobs again and buy another house and have hot baths and cheese sandwiches and sit and do nothing for whole weekends. He got as far as admitting that all that was possible, but he didn't commit to it. It was wet and mostly dark when we reached the camp and I was totally fed up. It was the last night in the tents, which was about the only good thing, and we had a huge meal andgave tips to the porters for carrying everything and looking after us so well (one of the English boys refused to tip, which was really embarassing) and then we went to sleep. We had to get up at 4.30 in order to be at the entrance early and avoid the crowds when we finally got to Machu Picchu. I didn't care.

As my luck would have it, I was very, very ill in the night, and had a violent tummy bug that meant I got no sleep at all. At 3am I was waiting for the slightly nicer loos to be opened (these ones were a little more than a hole in the floor) and I had no breakfast and kept expecting to be sick at any moment. I was still miserable and feeling sorry for myself. We actually made good time, as the path was quite level, and it got light as we walked. Then the path climbed again and Marysol waited patiently for me, and after about 30 minutes we got to some stairs. But these were the steepest steps I'd ever seen, 60 of them, each one about knee height and not wide enough for your feet. So I pulled myself up with my hands and, at the top, the most wonderful sight was waiting. I could see the ancient city of Machu Picchu in the distance and I'd just walked through the Sun Gate, the main entrance. And it was clear, which is never is first thing in the morning, so we had a perfect view. Only for about 10 minutes, because the clouds soon rolled in, but it was enough. Mikey and I took the 30-minute walk down to the city very slowly indeed, and although it was now shrouded in fog, it was still spectacular, every bit as beautiful as I had hoped.

By 7.30 we had had our passports stamped with the special Machu Picchu stamp and Marysol started our tour. And it rained. Absolutely poured down. We could hardly see anyone else in the group, and certainly not the ruins, so we sheltered for a while and then tried again. We ended up doing some strange Peruvian children's dance inside a cordoned-off hut for half an hour, and then we decided to call it a day for now. The others were going to spend the rest of the time here, but Mikey and I had a hotel booked in Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the hill, so we could come back tomorrow. Soaking, we took the bus down the hill and went with Marysol to a restaurant while she sorted out our reservation for us, which, by the look of things, hadn't been made. An hour and a half later, by which time we were freezing and looking forward to a hot shower or any kind of wash, we were checked into a hotel.

We postponed the hot shower in favour of a trip to the famous hot springs and then some lunch. We rented swimsuits and towels from a stall on the way up, changed in tiny cubicles made of corrugated iron and plastic bags, and then dipped into the cloudy green water. Which was actually quite pleasant. I could imagine the place being disgusting in the summer when it was hot - it would proably smell horrible, but this was a welcome relief from four days of stinking oursleves!

At 3pm we met up with the rest of the group who were going back to Cuzco, then Mikey and I had lunch and a walk round the town. Aguas Calientes is not a pretty place. Almost every building is unfinished, and is made of breeze blocks or cement, there was rubbish in the river and on the streets and market stalls selling tacky souveniers everywhere. The best thing about it is that the main road is actually the railway line and you can walk down it, to get to the shops on either side. It's a funny place, with it's own special kind of charm.

Back in the hotel we had hot showers and made the most of them. We were in bed and asleep by 6.30, and I didn't wake up until 7.30am. A soft, dry, warm bed, and clean. Bliss.

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