2007:  Machu Picchu - the Hard Way

by Norman Harris

The question was…what was I going to do this year to give me the same sort of buzz as my trip to Everest Base Camp last year?  To be honest, I hadn’t considered anything until the brochure dropped through the letterbox.  Now Machu Picchu, the hard way trekking along the High Andes Inca trails, sounded good.

I should explain that getting to Machu Picchu, as a lot of people have done, could be done in many ways.  You can get the train and bus with no walking at all, apart from the site itself, or you can do a variety of treks.  The shortest is about 12 km/7.5miles, then there is the ‘classic’ Inca trail about 39km/24miles and then there’s the ‘other’ Inca trail which is 69km/43miles rising to 5200m/16,400ft.  Now which one should I choose?

 The only way to get to Lima, my starting point, was via Madrid, so after a long, awful flight by Iberia I arrived and was escorted to a very pleasant hotel not far from the Pacific in Mira Flores.  Despite the fact that this was the better area of Lima it was noticeable that the hotel security stall were all armed.  Worrying!

After two more flights from Lima we arrived in Puno.  Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, is at 3810m/12,500ft and without realising it; this is part of the acclimatisation process.  Wandering around Puno for a day gets your body used to the lack of oxygen before any serious exertion.  One of the included excursions was a visit to the famous ‘floating islands’ of the Uros Indians.  These people were driven to live on the lake by other tribes.  The sight as we approached the islands was amazing with so many houses!  Why they still live there is beyond me.  Let's see, they live on reed islands, their houses are made of reeds, their boats are made of reeds and they eat reeds!  Quite a ‘reedy’ existence really.  The islands are about a metre thick and float in 30 metres of water and are moored by big stones on the lake bottom.  One advantage is if you don’t get on with your neighbours you just cut off your bit of island and drift over to your preferred island.  Five or six families live on each island and the kids go to school on a ‘school island’.  It is amazing that all the women still wear what I always thought of as Peru’s ‘nation dress’ of brightly coloured dresses, woollen cardigans and the obligatory bowler hat.  It was a very surreal experience cruising around the islands on a boat made entirely of reeds.

There were no Harleys around, so transport was by either pedal-powered tricycles or the slightly faster motorised version.  We went to see the Yavari, an iron ship which was, believe it or not, made in England as a kit of 2,766 parts, shipped to Peru in 1862 in another ship then carried by men and mules (!) up to Puno at 12,000ft and reassembled for use on Lake Titicaca.  The ship is now being restored to be used as a tourist floating hotel on the lake.  I was piped off the ship by Captain Saaverdra’s bosun.  A great honour!

We went out to see many Inca temples and structures.  I was getting a bit ‘Inca’d out’ by the time we’d finished.  The accuracy of the massive blocks used in these structures has to be seen to be appreciated.  The gaps between the massive stones are so small that it would be difficult to slide a playing card in the gap.  How they did this so accurately isn’t known.  There are lots of theories but nobody actually knows.

We moved on to Cusco across the Alti Plano (high plain), which is at about 10,000ft and is studded with tiny stone houses and is the home to some of the poorest farmers in Peru.  We arrived in Cusco in time for a superb evening meal.  I found my room had a window in it, which opened onto the hotel chapel.  I figured they were trying to tell me something!

Cusco is a very pleasant town and I’d been given some information about a biker’s bar in the town square, the Norton Rat’s Tavern, so I just had to go and find it.  Very enjoyable burgers about twice the size of a typical UK burger, but not a lot of evidence of much ‘bikey’ stuff.  Again, as part of the acclimatisation process, we spent a day travelling around several Inca sites, the most impressive of which was Sacsaywaman which is reckoned to be the next most important Inca site after Machu Picchu.  The most surprising thing about these sites is the size of some of the blocks, which form the walls.  Just how do you shape and move a block weighing 150 tons?  The more we were told about the Incas the more I realised that most of what we were told was guesswork and, in reality, nobody knows for certain very much about them at all!

We actually started our serious trekking from a sleepy town called Mollepata with a lunch laid out on camping tables with spectacular views over the rather daunting Andes ahead of us.  We carried our rucksacks with all our ‘day’ gear in it but the mules, and later on, porters, carried our tents and all the rest of the camp gear.  Look, I wasn’t aiming to kill myself carrying it all!  It was very comforting to find a row of yellow tents laid out for us in a farmer’s field with a bowl of hot soup waiting after a long day’s trek.  These farmers live the most bleak existence high on a plateau with their nearest neighbours miles away.  This was our first real experience of the High Andes trails, which were like the Nepalese trails and were mostly rock-strewn and not easy to walk without looking carefully at every step.  Walking up the valleys, we got our first view of Salkantay, which at 6271m/ 20600ft is one of the highest mountains in the Andes (no, we didn’t have to climb it, I’m pleased to say!).  The views were magnificent with superb weather, but it was rather cold at night.  One night we camped at 4052m/13300ft, almost the height of Mont Blanc, with ice on the tents.  This was where my ‘4-seasons’ sleeping bag repaid its cost.  The next day, we were told, was going to be a hard day’s trekking.  We trekked/climbed up to the Inkachiriaska Pass at 4965m/16285ft.  The guide was right, it was the hardest thing I’ve EVER done and that includes Base Camp!  At this sort of altitude there is only about 60% of the oxygen there is at sea level so not only is it physically hard but you run out of breath every 10 steps.  I was pleased to say that, out of 9 in the group I was 5th over the top.  The top of the pass is only about 2m/6ft wide so getting a group photo was difficult if not downright dangerous!  Having made the effort, the views were magnificent so I took a nice long time to ‘admire the view’ and try and get my lungs working again. According to our guide, it was all downhill from now on but some people’s definition of ‘downhill’ isn’t quite the same as mine.  What astonished everyone on our way down the valley was to see two kids, about 5 years old, set out from a farm on the other side of the valley, cross a stream and then climb about 500ft up our side of the valley to sit on the trail and sell us bottles of beer and Coke!  Got to admire the initiative, but I couldn’t believe anyone here in the UK would allow such little kids to do such a thing.  We camped in the local school’s playing field and gave them all gifts of paper, pencils, pens and toys to re-supply the school.

On our way down at Wayllabamba, we had a special ‘treat’ of a meal cooked in a traditional method of burying the food (all sorts of chunks of lamb) using very hot stones and covering it with some sort of cover and soil. Probably the worst meal I’ve ever had!  Do not try this at home, raw/burnt meat and soil do not mix well!

At Wayllabamba we joined the Classic Trail and with it, the Inca Steps.  There are thousands of these steps built by the Incas as part of their ‘road system’.  They are surprisingly difficult to walk, as they are so uneven.  Watching the porters run up and down them you wouldn’t think so though.  We were awoken one morning at 4.30am to climb to the view-point behind our campsite to watch the sun rise over Salkantay, well worth the effort.  Remember what I was saying about its all downhill?  Well, we still had to cross Dead Woman’s Pass, apparently it looks like reclining woman, obviously named by someone with a vivid imagination.  This was a mere 4200m/13700ft, it still nearly killed me!  Note the climb behind us in the photo.  After several days walking through the cloud forest (you can see the cloud in the sunrise photo), a strange experience to be at 3500m/11500ft and walking in wet, lush forest, we arrived at the Sun Gate.

This is the high entrance to Machu Picchu but we hadn’t realised that this was where we were.  Our guide told us to look at him and then when we were all together he just said simply, “turn around”.  We did.  Laid out below us was Machu Picchu, a quite stunning sight.  This was not the classic view of Machu Picchu as we were still a long way from that point but it is still an amazing memory.  I was surprised how few people were at Machu as I had been led to believe it would be like Blackpool on a bank holiday.  It was a wonderful experience wandering around this incredible world-famous site.  As I noted before, despite what you may have read, nobody knows for certain why it was built, when it was built, why it was abandoned or even its original name.  Still, it was great just to sit at the point where the classic view was taken and think what an experience it had been just getting there.  I took the easy way down by bus as I figured I’d done my share of trekking for a while.

The only excitement left was on our last day when we were advised to get to the airport as quickly as possible as there was ‘civil unrest’ brewing in the town.  The group ended up in four motorised trikes racing (literally) down the back streets, actually dirt tracks, to see who could get to the airport first.  Very exciting, but not recommended as a hobby!

I think I’ve done my share of high-altitude trekking so my next activity will be a little closer to the ground - or is that to the sea?