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
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
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
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