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Conquering the Inca Trail

Kate Walker achieves her lifelong dream of conquering the Inca Trail in Peru

At near to 4250m (14,000 ft) altitude, I have to stop every 10 or so steps and regain control of my breath. “Vamos chica,” a weathered-looking porter calls out to me as he hikes past in his sandals with seven times the weight I’m carrying, strapped to his back and towering above his head. I can’t find voice to answer him, but I muster a smile in response.

Leaning against an outcrop of rock on a trail less than one metre wide, I look back down and am amazed at how far I have come. I have waited years to do this and I still can’t quite believe I am on the road to Machu Picchu.

It’s day two and I’m surrounded by ice-capped Andean peaks and hundreds of weary but determined hikers are spread out over the Inca Trail, making progress in the aggressive sun. I’ve been going since 7am this morning. I could kill for a hot chocolate.

I can still just make out the sound of flowing water. I can’t see the stream anymore, but the comforting sound has been with me ever since our small group was stamped into Peru’s Machu Picchu National Park some thirty hours ago.

“Vamos senhorita, vamos,” another porter quietly calls out as he stops alongside me. Hunkered under 35-ish kgs of camping and cooking equipment, he signals to me and feeling somewhat ashamed at my struggle, I push off from my chilly granite perch and fall in behind his cracked, black heels. Man this is tough.

Day two is all about conquering ‘Paso De La Mujer Muerta’ (Dead Woman’s Pass) – a short hike in comparison to the days to come. She's steep, winding and at a height where many people struggle with altitude sickness and fatigue. It’s a long, slow ascent.

Folk from all walks of life pass ahead of me and fall behind. Some form chatty groups, whilst others walk with heads bowed in single file; and then there are some, like me, that need extra motivation. Music is my answer. With a few fast-paced Brazilian tunes lifting my spirits, my pace becomes that little bit easier and the minutes shorten.

The mountains and passes in this part of the world are some of the most beautifully rough and extreme I’ve ever seen – to the point where they appear near uninviting. And yet, here I am. Some peaks I’ve already traversed lie above the cloud line and it’s a surreal world to watch the sun filter through cloud wisps that trickle along moss-covered tree limbs.

Rounding another deceiving corner on this royal highway, I hear distant cheering above the lyrics of Don Omar & Lucenzo. I have to be close. I meet large stone slabs (steps…really) and with every ounce of will I have left I haul upwards, baby step by baby step, gasp by gasp and low and behold, I conquer Dead Woman’s Pass.

Tens of other hikers have made it too and they sit or lie, bags discarded, water bottles uncapped, grinning and totally drained in the fat tendrils of cloud and mist that roll over the top of us. Plonking to the ground with a juice carton, bag of M&Ms and an orange, I rest amongst porters and gringos (westerners) alike. With my breath returning to normal, it dawns on me – this is the most epic thing I have ever done. With freezing winds picking up though, this is not the place to linger and contemplate for too long.

An hour or so later and myself and two new Dutch companions, Marthe and Johannes, are hiking down the backbone of Paso De La Mujer Muerta, the temperature increasing little by little and colourful tents in the valley of Pakaymayu come into view. Camp; thank goodness.  I can smell cooking onions. We pass chefs and porters singing along to Wayno tunes (local Quecha music) on portable radios and as we make our way to the Bamba Experience tents and team I return the grins and salutes of other hikers, who have made it too. The vibe here is one of elation.

There’s a myriad of tour operators offering Traditional Inca Trail packages, but the key to an enjoyable and successful four days out in The Andes is to hook in with a company that has good quality tents, sleeping bags and – most important of all – hearty food. And Bamba Experience's chefs can cook, let me tell you! We dined on avocado salads, semolina soup, rocoto rellenos (stuffed peppers), cheese filo rolls, tender beef stews, dulce de leche pancakes and banana flambé to boot.  The best bit... hot water and towels were provided prior to all our meals, dishes were serviced from 'silver trays' and each day I noted a different style of serviette arrangement. It's the little things that count.

Mornings out here start super early (as early as 4am sometimes) but the horror of the hour is made less by a soft ''buenas dias chica'' outside my tent and a cup of steaming cocoa leaf tea passed through to me. Good morning to you too.

Reaching the infamous Sun Gate, before dawn on day four, in the hopes of laying eyes on Machu Picchu city underneath a dissipating early morning fog, is incredible. It's almost a race to the top and for many, legging it at such oxygen-deprived heights and in the dark for over an hour, leaves them positively stunned as they crest the last of the stone slabs and pass through the 'gate'. Together, guides and hikers finally relax, bursts of applause ring out, camera shutters snap away; it really is beautiful, monumental and not comparable to anything else out there on earth.

In saying all of this though, for me, the most gratifying moments over the course of four days were during the hike itself. Days of hard walking, hugging very narrow mountain passes, mastering knee-jarring descents and singing along with the guides is what walking the road to Machu Picchu is all about.

Machu Picchu is incredible, but the journey is more.

By Kate Walker


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