It beats a walk in the park.
February marks the end of another season on the Inca Trail, brought to a close by the wettest weeks of the Altiplanic winter and the floods, rockslides and mudslides that come with them. I was fortunate enough to join a group of intrepid travelers on the final expedition of the season and catch up with a guide who rather confidently calls the ancient walkway his “office.”
“Expect all four seasons in one day,” we were told in the days leading up to the trek.
Day one along the Urubamba river was a gentle introduction to the trail, which would be our home for the next four days before we reached the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu — 26 miles and three mountain passes later. The Urubamba was high and fast-flowing as we had our passports stamped and crossed the wooden bridge onto the damp and gravelly footpath.
Our guide was Manuel Latorre Letona, or “Mani,” as he liked to be called, and for the next four days, he assured us, we would become his surrogate “family.”
“OK family,” he would start almost all of his sentences, whether it was to show us an almost invisible parasite used by indigenous people as a natural dye, or the fruits of a tree that work as an anti-inflammatory. His encyclopedic knowledge stretched from the natural world back into the Incan history which surrounded us.
The ruins of Llaqtapata, a breathtaking example of Incan ingenuity and craftsmanship, marked a highlight of the first day, and questions of when, how and why the Incans built it came flooding in. The answers were always slightly shrouded in mystery as, without a written history, even the most experienced only had the theories — and in some cases whims — of archaeologists to go off.
With a western group of Ozzies, Brits, Kiwis, Californians and a lone Irishman with a penchant for dancing, it took only the first night for a few beers to be opened beneath the ivy green Andes and a real family spirit to be struck up as the ever-present mists came rolling in and the culinary wizardry of the porters — or “chaski’s” — marked our first delicious meal in camp one.
This would be the last we would see of civilization, nestled amongst the crooked mud buildings of the few remaining Peruvians brave enough to live amongst the clouds, as tomorrow, we would climb 1,250 meters vertically to the highest point of the trail where there would be nothing but lakes and llamas.
If day one was a balmy spring, day two was undoubtedly a wet winter. Thinner air and a steep five-hour climb stifled conversation and perhaps knocked a few spirits, but these were soon lifted with the wholly unexpected appearance of English “celebrity” Lee Ryan, of the 90’s boy band Blue.
At 4,200 meters in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, I must admit that that the absurdity (or perhaps the effect of the high altitude) caused me to ask for a picture, along with a few of the girls in our group. He actually lent me a walking pole for the descent and joined the family as a “guest of honor” to play cards that evening.
As we woke with the rising sun, we were greeted with phenomenal views of the Andes. Glacial peaks and low lying mists made the journey a truly awe-inspiring experience as we continued past the snow-capped mountains, stopping at the ruins of Runkurakay, Sayaqmarca and Puypatamarca. With a mixed day of ascents, descents and flat stretches, I finally had the chance to talk to Mani about the Inca Trail and how it had changed over the 15 years he had spent in his “office.”
“A lot changed about eight years ago, when the regulations were brought in measuring the weight of all the food and equipment brought onto the trail,” he said. “When I started as a Chaski, we would be carrying up to 50 kilograms on our backs. Now not only are conditions better for the porters, but weighing everything helps monitor litter, or equipment which might otherwise be left behind on the trail.”
Mani also spoke about the “lack of respect” shown by tourists in previous years.
“Littering, fires and climbing on ruins or damaging ruins used to be a serious problem. Now Rangers enforce the trail and the government actually supports it, making it a safer, more sustainable experience. For example, the checkpoints make sure no one enters the trail without a guide and also controls the number of people on the track, with a maximum of 500 per day.”
Striving towards a safer experience led to the decision to close the trail in February, when flooding, rockslides and mudslides become much more frequent with the increased rainfall. Numerous people have fallen from the edge — which, in sections of the trail, is the only thing separating hikers from from a 300-meter sheer drop.
The break in tourist traffic also gives the authorities a chance to do maintenance of the trail, although, Mani said, “it’s mostly for tourist safety.”
“Being a guide is much more difficult now as well.” Mani added. “There is a five year course where you must develop your knowledge of the flora and fauna, learn about the history of the trail and of course pass various elements of medical training, obviously you need solid use of a chosen language too.”
Mani opted for English, but French, German and Japanese are also common languages heard along the trail.
Our conversation took us through a cloud forest where thick lianas and moss-covered trees blotted out the sun and the mammoth scale of the rocky, uneven walkway began to sink in. The narrow path snaked around two more mountain passes, through granite caves and down thousands of steep steps the guides have nicknamed “the gringo killers.”
“Pachamama,” or Mother Earth, must have been happy with our offerings and family spirit throughout the four-day hike as when the morning mists lifted on the final day, Machu Picchu was unveiled in all its glory — bathed in summer sunshine.
A surreal sight, having seen it in pictures and documentaries for years, the city fully deserves its own story where the Indiana Jones-style discovery, architectural mysteries and celestial functions can be fully explained. But this is about the Inca Trail, and I have run out of words.