Peru: the Inca Trail


First of all, I should probably point out that I have never been on a four-day trek before.

Don’t get me wrong, I like walking. I do it all the time – to the betting shop, the 7-11, even the Indian takeaway and that’s 15 minutes away. I’ve even been known to go running. If the off licence is closing for example, I will sprint.

But doing it out in the country air, up and down mountains, was new to me.

It didn’t help that the departure point for the Inca Trail is Cusco, probably the most idyllic city in Peru – a sort of Inca equivalent of Siena.

There’s a weird sense in Cusco of being somewhere totally relaxing but never having enough time to go and see everything or buy all the things you like – the rugs, bags and artisan trinkets are of alarmingly tasteful quality in Cusco.

At an altitude of 11,500 feet, there’s also a weird sense of not being able to breathe. Walking round the steep cobbled streets, suddenly your legs don’t work. Your chest feels as if it’s got a heavy weight pressed against it. You get the sort of headache you get when you eat ice-cream too quickly.

By the end of the first day, I was feeling distinctly light-headed – as if the world around me was softly spinning. (The sort of sensation that, in some bars in Cusco, people will pay good money for.)

So all in all, Cusco is probably the worst place imaginable from which to set out on your first 4 day hike – something no-one appears to have pointed out to the Incas, whose Lost City, Machu Picchu (described as “the most spectacular archaeological site on the continent”) is 33 kilometres away.

True, you can get there by train in two hours, but even I could see that that wasn’t really on. Not very adventurous. After all, the Inca Trail is itself regarded by Lonely Planet as “a mystical and unforgettable experience” and we all need one of those once in a while.

Having been collected from our hotel by a mini-bus at the unearthly hour of 6am, we drove to the set-off point, a group of 14 tourists and our guide, Jesse.

The first few hours reminded me of one of those films where a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance, and you know straight away that everything is going to go wrong. In fact, it reminded me of ‘Southern Comfort’ where a group of art-time soldiers get out of their depth on manoeuvers and get picked off by deranged Cajuns).

So I sat there sussing out the others, working out which were the ones you could rely on in a crisis and which would crack under pressure and betray you.

It wasn’t long before they were exchanging stories – the sort of stories that finished with the punchline, “it turned out I had spent the night with a family of scorpions and all their babies in my hair !” Or “and he said ‘those are not fireworks, that’s gunfire’.”

Three Danish boys had just spent three months in Columbia, wrestling crocodiles and being framed by drug-dealers, while some of the others had been working in health projects in the war-torn jungles of Ecuador and Guatemala. When an old Japanese man, carrying a rucksack the size of the average elevator, started telling us about some of the ice-capped mountains he had climbed, I knew I was in trouble. (I was already behind and we hadn’t even left the van yet.)

A glance at their gear confirmed it. They all had professional-looking water bottles and sleeping bags not to mention the hideously lurid clothing only expert trekkers wear.

My only preparation for the walk had been buying batteries for my walkman, earning disapproving glances from trekkers who obviously felt the Smashing Pumpkins ought not to be an intrinsic part of such a mystical experience.

I had talked to a few people who had been on the Inca Trail, and they had all shrugged it off nonchalantly as ‘much easier than I expected’ – the sort of comment, that once I had done it, I would make myself when anyone asked me what it was like.

But, if I was honest, I would sum it up as being ‘much harder than I expected’ – like being in the army for four days – except not as enjoyable.

The first day, I admit, was quite pleasant. It made a change to be out in the open air and the scenery was fantastic. (And there was so much of it ! – mountains, valleys, rivers, you name it.).

Fortunately, I had acclimatised to the altitude by doing so much shopping in Cusco, but I was soon finding it quite difficult to keep up. (The others seemed to be running not walking.)

Everyone had said, ‘just go at your own pace and you’ll be fine’ but what if you don’t HAVE your own pace ? What if your own pace is “knackered” ?

We stopped for lunch (which was provided) – a mandarin, some soup, a cheese sandwich and some coleslaw – after which I decided to try a different tack – leading from the front, as an attempt to slow the pack down, like they do in the Olympics.

Strangely enough, the ‘guide’ preferred bringing up the rear rather than leading from the front (but enough about Jesse’s personal life).

Pretty soon being in the lead turned into a classic case of ‘Don’t follow me, I’m lost’. Every time I stopped to take a photograph (ie, to catch my breathe), I caused a major pile-up.

The other problem was the weather. Someone described the climate in Peru as: “spring in the morning, summer in the afternoon and winter at night” and I’m not sure which was worse – walking in the pouring rain, sweating in the blazing heat or shivering the night away.

By 6 o’clock, and with the daylight closing, we made camp (or rather the sherpas did), and waited for dinner – rice, beans and what (judging from the fur) could well have been that famous Peruvian delicacy, ‘cuy’ (guinea pig).

Without enough light to read their copies of ‘The Celestine Prophecy’, the Scandinavian contingent sat around the fire singing Beatles songs. They said they didn’t know any Smashing Pumpkins.

By 7.30, I am ashamed to say, I was asleep. Well, not asleep exactly. Lying on the ground in a sleeping bag in the open air, at one with nature, is all very well as long as you don’t actually expect to get any sleep.

The second day started at 6am with a fleeting attempt to wash in the stream and what could loosely be described as ‘breakfast’. One lad from Manchester described it as “cold gruel” although I myself favoured “wallpaper paste.”

Before we set off, the sherpas came round and said that for 15 sol ($ 3), they would carry my bag.

Now the way I looked at it was, the fact that they hadn’t done this at the start of Day One meant that they knew something I didn’t. They knew that it would be worth offering. I figured that if they were offering, I was paying, and so, making absolutely no pretence at being heroic and carrying my own pack, I paid them. (I begged them.) This turned out to be the best 15 sol, I have ever spent in my life.

Day Two, as they say, is the hard day – not really walking at all, but trudging. By the end of it, I felt my life was turning into a Sean Penn film – ‘Casualties of War’, or ‘Dead Man Walking’.

Day Two is almost totally uphill. It is VERTICAL. Then, once you’ve got to the highest point, you have to go down the other side – several hundred very large steps, also vertical.

The views were spectacular but personally I didn’t look at any of them. I was concentrating on the rather jagged path to make sure I didn’t trip up or fall off the mountain altogether.

Lunch was a mandarin, a can of tuna between 7, some rice and half a bread roll.

When we stopped for the day, I knew how those people feel that you see at the end of the London Marathon, zig-zagging up to the finishing line as if their legs are made of custard.

Fortunately, Day Three was wonderful, mostly an easy pace walking through rich and interesting jungle. Without the toil, I finally began to appreciate how relaxing peace and quiet and space could be. I even began to feel quite healthy – until lunch appeared a mandarin, some black potato soup that tasted as if it had the mud in it, and a large mound of beetroot.

Day Four is the easiest day – only about a three hour walk to Machu Picchu – but we got up at 4.30 in order to get to the ruins before the tourists arrived on the train. After all we’d been through, I’d actually forgotten there were going to be any ruins.

After four days slog, I turned the final corner to discover the others gazing over Machu Picchu – or what would have been Machu Picchu if it hadn’t been totally fogbound. The tour guide, Jesse, held up a postcard to show us what we were missing, and made one of his rather improvised speeches – “for the explain,
no ?”

“The middle site,” he said haltingly, “eet ees called the middle site, no ? For why ? Because… eet ees een the middle .”

He went on to describe the Inca’s philosophy about “Gods” or “ghosts”, even possibly “goats”, none of us was sure.

Some of the party clearly felt rather ripped off because of Jesse. They felt the fact that he couldn’t cook or speak English and didn’t really guide us rather restricted his qualifications as a tour guide. But I actually liked him.

Given that he spent most of the time lagging right at the back, I saw quite alot of him (along with the Japanese mountaineer who was as shagged out as I was).

Jesse made me laugh because every time I asked him a) how long it would take to get to the next rest place or b) how difficult the next stretch was going to be, he would just brazenly lie to me in order to make sure I kept going.

He was also the only person apart from myself who walked the Inca Trail with his walkman on.

Eventually the clouds lifted, and we could see what all the fuss was about. As with all historical ruins, my first thought was: it’ll be nice when it’s finished, but even I could see it was pretty impressive, a vast mini-empire set in a ring of mountains.

When the train arrived, the tourists (mostly American women in pristine white socks and shorts and Japanese men armed with video cameras) treated us like vagabonds, which after not washing or shaving for 4 days and sleeping rough in our dirty jeans and t-shirts, I suppose we were.

“What’s the opposite of ‘peace’ for you ?” I heard their tour guide/guru ask one American.
“It’s always fear I guess,” she said.
“And if you’re not in peace, you’re in….”
“In ego ?”

I was I’d walked and not just got the train. In a strange way, after it was over, I felt I’d actually really enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d want to do it again for a while.

There was something quite rewarding about suffering it all, and (for once) not just taking the easy way out and taking a short cut
– a disturbing thought, but still…

Waiting for the train home later on, we all sat at a cafe by the railway line, reflecting on the spiritual glory that is beer and mushroom pizza.

Sitting there, I could hear a sound, a sort of message in my mind, ringing. There was something familiar and attractive about it but for ages couldn’t capture it. Eventually, when the noise finally stopped, I managed to place it: It was a telephone.

It had been a long few days.


10 Tips to Walking The Inca Trail:
1.Wear in your walking boots before you go. The Inca Trail is lined with pairs of Timberlands discarded by crippled amateur trekers.

2. Take a small rucksack and leave most of your gear with your hotel in Cusco.

3. Take plenty of breaks. Drink plenty of water.

4. Take a water bottle, purification pills and a strong torch.

5. Take some of your own food – like mandarins, chocolate or
biscuits which you buy before you set off.

6. If you are interested, take your own book about the Incas

7. Do not take ‘The Celestine Prophecy’

8. Take a kagool, ideally one that will cover your pack.

9. Take a walkman – in case of Scandanavians singing Beatles’

10. Never try and stroke a llama, unless you like being spat at.