A 6 day guided tour of the areas surrounding Cuzco, the Incan Sacred Valleys and the notorious Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu.
We arrived in Cuzco a day before the trip started due to a tendency for things to go wrong for us; however this time everything went well and we could relax in a local bar watching Peru v Bolivia (Peru won 3-1, which became more relevant later) before meeting our group. Norton Rat’s Tavern became our watering hole (a motorbike-gang themed bar with a balcony overlooking the main plaza in the town); kitted out with pool tables and dart boards. The local beer, Cusquena, seemed appropriate with it’s Machu Picchu branding.
In early evening (the dark nights of the southern hemisphere took some getting used to in the middle of June!), we met our group, who we would be spending the next few days with. A nuclear American family of four, a Scandinavian couple and a German family was slightly different from the demographic that we expected, but as an Irishman reminded me in a hostel afterwards: a conversation template is already made for you whilst backpacking. We spent the most time speaking to our tour guide, Evert (who also went by the name Spider), who would later become the highlight of the trip.
Walking up to the G Adventures office to rent sleeping bags, tents and – for those who wanted them – hiking poles, Evert found great amusement in our seeming lack of preparation (we had left our passports and wallets back in our hotel so had to have a high-altitude jog back in order to have all our equipment rented by 10pm). We met Evert’s brother, Alias; who also worked for G. Evert’s first impressions of us must have been ‘payasos absolutos’, as he sat and watched us try to join Alias’ group, having mistaken him for his brother.
The next morning, we got to know the group over breakfast before setting off in a minibus to the Sacred Valley, via the Palestinian Jesus figure who stands proud over the city. From the high point, we could make out the shape of Cuzco, the Incan’s had designed it to look like a laying puma. An hour on the road took us to a small, rural town; where we learnt about the ancient weaving methods, fed llamas and alpacas and bought woolen hats (we were warned beforehand of the chilly nights camping on the Inca Trail). After lunch at a magnificent mountainside restaurant (G Adventures seem committed to sustainable support to locals in the areas that they visit), we headed to Ollantaytambo, and explored the steep steps as the sun set around us.
Our accommodation for the night was Inka Paradise Hotel, an idyllic setting with a social garden that allowed us to get to know the group further, and we were picked up in the morning by a final minibus to take us to the start of the Inca Trail. Before the trip, we were under the impression that it was ‘all inclusive’, however we had had to pay for meals up to this point. Once on the bus however, we didn’t touch our wallets once, until we tipped Evert and the porters at the end (the expected amount appeared to be £10 per day).
The porters were another defining feature of the tour; ranging from 17 to 65, they could hike the trail like mountain goats, wearing little more than Converse-style canvas shoes (one of the more personable porters, Claudio, asked if he could have my Cat boots once we reached the end), carrying tents, stoves and sleeping bags on their backs. Their colossal rucksacks dwarfed them, with the tallest porter, George, standing at around 5’7″. They rushed on ahead of us every day, setting up camps for lunches as well as our overnight spots, leaving us to hike at our own pace and without the pressures of setting up our own tents. We could see the appeal to this, however wouldn’t have been opposed to doing it ourselves.
Evert astounded us with his remarkable knowledge of every side to the multi-dimensional story of the Inca Trail and his ability to speak three languages fluently. He spoke of traditional stories, record-setting porters who beat athletes in a race from Macchu Picchu to the start of the trail and anecdotes involving backpackers and hallucinogenics from previous hikes. He sporadically picked up sticks and stones, drawing diagrams in the dust to illustrate a story or piece of history – before protectively stamping it out, looking over his shoulder, as if nervous that another guide would hijack it for their own tour. All of these qualities made him incredibly engaging to listen to as we paused to sip our water; but it was his proposition on the second day which made him a stand out feature of the hike.
Day 2 of the trail will remain one of my favourite days on this planet for quite some time. Having woken up feeling quite ill, and using an ice-cold tap to fashion some sort of shower at 5am, we hiked the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass; the tallest point of the trail at 4,200m above sea level. The varying levels of fitness in the group meant that we spread out, and we latched onto another group who were ahead of us as we hiked in the 35°C heat. Without any cloud cover and barely any trees, we worked up a sweat trying to keep up with Edwin, the tour guide for this other, younger group. Once the mountain, named after it’s apparent resemblance to a laying woman, was scaled, we could sit at the top and marvel at the incredible surroundings as the other members of our original group made their way up the testing terrain.
Coming down was easier for everyone and we stayed together, meeting a porter at the bottom who guided us to our campsite. Samuel, the porter responsible for our food, created a 3 course meal: egg soup to start, chicken and rice for main, and some kind of trifle for dessert (The next day, he would miraculously produce a birthday cake for a member of the group, exquisitely decorated; a feat for a chef armed with only the most basic of tools). At around 4pm, whilst the others were laid down with shirts over their faces, Evert reminded us that Peru were playing Chile in the semi-finals of the Copa America at 7pm. Both avid football fans, we discussed their chances against the host nation; before Evert mentioned his plans to go and watch it. This seemed almost impossible, 3500m high in the outskirts of the Andes, with no mobile phone reception no matter where you went. There was just one television set on the whole Inca Trail route, but it was almost back to where we started, back over the Pass.
It was decided that we probably had it in us to get back over in time for kick off, and then could dawdle back over again at a more leisurely pace. We took everything apart from water out of our day-bags to save weight, borrowed the American’s hiking poles (who waited an hour for us to turn back and admit it was a joke) and set off back up the way we had come. We tried to keep up with Spider’s natural pace (his nickname was from his ability to climb at ridiculous speeds) but found ourselves asking if this was potentially one of our stupid ideas. Other hikers passed us on their way down, and we jokingly explained that we had left our cameras at the previous nights camping spot. With Evert a tiny speck in the distance, someone tapped us on the back. Two porters, Caesar and Claudio, had decided that they wanted to come and watch the match too; and relieved us of our rucksacks so that we could attempt to catch Evert up. We did so and the 5 of us continued to summit the mountain for the second time in only a few hours. There was no time to admire the views from the top – and, letting gravity take over, we broke into a jog for the descent. A New Zealander, clearly struggling and miles back from his group (the last group to reach the summit should do so at around 4pm) stopped us for a chat whilst he caught his breath. We gave the true reason when explaining why we were ‘going backwards’; he gave us a Lucozade to hand to a friend of his who was even further behind; and then we parted ways again. “You bunch of mad bastards,” was heard in the background as he continued his ascent.
We arrived to an old Peruvian lady’s house, and were ogled at by porters of groups who were a day behind ours. “They want to know why gringo’s have come back for the game”, Evert explained. It should have been intimidating, but it was clear that they were merely astounded that two British people would put themselves through a double-ascent of the mountain to watch a game that didn’t involve one of our teams. We were given bottles of beer, popcorn and chicken to replenish our energy reserves, and were ushered up rickety steps into the loft. Around a dozen people were sat on the floor in front of a 10″ analogue TV. Caesar prepared a saltwash for our feet, and we submerged our blistered feet in the solution for the entire 90 minutes. Football is a universal language, you don’t need a language to enjoy a good goal or show disgust at a poor decision. However Evert translated any conversations that might have interested us, it seemed most of the Quechuan chatter regarded their utter disbelief that they were joined by ‘gringos’, who were showing just as much interest in the match as they did. Peru lost the game, and Chile went on to win the tournament; but the main event wasn’t watching the match, it was the act of being welcomed into a local’s home like one of their own having done the unthinkable. GK summed it up the next day: “I’d have done it even without the football, just to prove we could do it to the rest of the group.”
We were given a bottle of Powerade and coca leaves to drink and chew on our way back up by the homeowner, and the porters went threes on a litre bottle of rum. We realised that we had been gifted the energy drink as mixer, and quickly stopped sipping it. Caesar couldn’t speak any English, but he acted out stories of his time in the Peruvian army; which mainly involved his roommate who sounded like a train when snoring. We ambled our way up to the summit again, before taking a seat. Evert took time to explain the star constellations that were clearly visible in the clear skies, and Caesar mixed the rum with the Powerade (50/50!) and poured some of it onto the mountain whilst muttering under his breath. We learnt that he was blessing the spirit of the mountain, and watched on in silent awe at the unexpected turn that this day (now 22 hours old!) had taken. We were all slow on the final descent of the day, and finally reached our tents at close to 3am. Waking up at 5.30 would be a struggle.
The final day of hiking was fairly uneventful in comparison, but news of porters and gringos had spread to the other groups who were hiking at the same pace of us. Edwin approached us at lunch and invited us for a drink once we had visited Macchu Pichu – and it was a great ice breaker for the small talk when overtaking/being overtaken by other hikers.
Sun Gate, on the final day, was incredible. The side that hikers approach first looks like a vertical wall, with steps 1.5m apart the only way to get up. Once up, however, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise as the clouds parted to reveal the reason we all booked on the tour in the first place: Machu Picchu. We stayed here until the sun was fully risen, and the clouds had dispersed to reveal the blue skies of yesterday. It wasn’t opened to the ‘non Inca Trail’ public until 9am, so once we had walked down the treacherously narrow track, we had the place to ourselves. Spider joked that you can tell who hiked and who caught the bus simply by smelling them, which was true. Four days of hiking, with less-than-basic facilities had taken its toll on the group! For me, the highlight of the trip wasn’t exploring the impeccably well-preserved ‘ruins’ of the city; the ‘destination’ overshadowed by the incredible nature of the ‘journey’ to get there. Even without the Peru v Chile game, with all that it entailed; the 35km trail was personally more enjoyable and a better experience than exploring Machu Picchu – but the fact that we had Evert as our guide, signed the ‘more risk, more reward’ disclaimer and said “Go on, then,” to his proposition of Dead Woman’s Pass three times in 24 hours was the perfect cherry to go on Samuel’s Inca Trail cake.
If you want to book onto the G Adventures Inca Trail tour (bearing in mind travellers cannot hike the trail unless assigned to a guided group), click here. I’m not sure if Evert is still working as a guide there, but Alias and the other guides we met were just as accommodating. Having said that, count yourself lucky if Evert introduces himself as your group leader.