19 years ago I walked the Inca Trail. Today here I am again, but this time in the excellent company of my wife and two friends from London.
Day 1. We’re whisked away from Cusco in the early hours and arrive at a place called Kilometre 82. I recognise the suspension foot bridge which marks the start of the trail. With one of our number unwell and all of us suffering from the high altitude we set off slowly. Immediately the scenery has us in its thrall; the mountains growing taller and snowier, the river below growing distant as the path climbs higher.
At one point, after a particularly steep climb, our superb guide Henrry asks us to line up and look down at our feet whilst slowly approaching a ledge. When he tells us to look up we are greeted with the unforgettable sight of a massive Inca ruin far below. It all looks so neat – terraces perfectly aligned, buildings all very orderly and an aqueduct threading along the perimeter. This graceful abandoned town was once the meeting place of five trails from the five surrounding valleys. We viewed it from another, smaller ruin which served as a rest stop for travellers along our trail.
This is the last day we’ll pass by modern human civilisation, but our formidable porters ensure the rest of the journey is as civilised as possible. They run ahead of us to cook three-course lunches and dinners served in a cozy dining tent. They carry and erect our tents, as well as all the food, gas and other camping accoutrements. All we take is our clothes, water, sleeping bags and mats but after a few hours of walking even these feel heavy.
Day 2. Awaking to a view of misty forested hills and distant glacier-lined mountains, we enjoy a delicious hot breakfast and set out for the toughest day of the trail. Fortunately we’re all feeling a little fitter (thanks to some medicinal Andean tea), but after an hour we’re struggling up steep stairs. The temperate rainforest through which we walk distracts us with its huge variety of plants and colourful flowers attended to by humming birds.
Amongst the snapshots of the past I recall along the way, perhaps the most memorable is Dead Woman’s Pass (named after the womanly shape of the rocks) and most definitely the excruciating approach to it. With tightly packed high steps and an altitude of 4,215 metres, this isn’t a place to rush. Once reached, though, the rewards of the pass make the effort worth it. Looking back down the way we’ve come we see last nights campsite far below and surrounded by steep hills. In the other direction the trail tantalisingly stretched into the distance with yet more lofty mountains all around.
It’s 2 hours of nonstop down to the next campsite. This part of the trail is blessed with even more varieties of flower, even more hummingbirds and numerous tumbling waterfalls. On a far hill we spot a round ruin and – a long way below – the large site where we’ll be staying the night. It’s a site that reeks of poor plumbing and drips with rain and mist from converging falls. Not a nice place to sleep, but the clear starry sky is spectacular.
Day 3. This is my favourite day of the trek and it’s not spoiled by the constant rain and obscuring clouds. We enjoy the company of our friends as we struggle up to that ruin we spotted yesterday; a temple, it is supposed, and one with incredible views. Onwards to another pass where our guide performs a simple ceremony to Pachamama (‘Mother Earth’). Here it’s delightfully peaceful and there’s a strange light, as if we are on a film set. The serenity is aided by the fact that this is low season (not many are daft enough to hike in this rain).
Down we go along the trail and I begin to appreciate what an extraordinary feat of engineering it is. More impressive than the ruins, more impressive even than Machu Picchu. It keeps a steady line despite the many contours and cliffs. Effectively it’s one long wall either an inch above the ground in flat places, or dozens of metres high where it traverses precipitous slopes. It passes through the occasional ruined Incan town.
I forget the names of the towns (whoever named them certainly wasn’t monosyllabic), but it’s hard to forget the sheer engineering marvels to be found in them. Walls consisting of immense rocks perfectly carved to fit into one another. Aqueducts carrying water from distant sources to trickle through a series of elaborate fountains. Windows that align with temples atop the opposite mountain and through which the sun shines just so on the solstice.
That the Incas were incredibly clever people is without doubt, so much so that some people suspect they had a helping hand from unearthly beings. Day 3’s walk took in some of the most impressive parts of the trail. I gazed in wonder at sections which had been built into cliffs, or which descended as a spiral staircase along a crook in the mountain hundreds of metres above the valley floor.
As I hinted at before, the Incas also loved terraces. They didn’t see steep slopes as unconquerable places, instead they cut wide steps shored up by those formidable walls. The best example of this terrace engineering was found close to our final campsite. 120 terraces had been constructed from a near-vertical mountainside and various vegetables had been grown on them. Agriculture was another Incan specialty with evidence showing that they’d engaged in genetic engineering and tested vegetable growth at different altitudes.
Day 4. Awaking at 04:00 we were made to wait in the cold and dark (and next to stinky bathrooms) until 05:30 until the trail reopened. The reason for this ridiculous situation was that the porters had to pack everything up and hurry down to catch one of the few trains returning home. As dawn arrived we hurried along the path, which in places narrowed perilously. The first stop for today was the Sun Gate, a small ruin from which you can catch a glimpse of Machu Picchu. Glimpses are dependent on clear weather, of which we had none, although the briefest break in the rain clouds allowed a short but fortunate view of the famous site.
Sadly our good fortune didn’t last and it continued to rain throughout the day. Henrry helped lift the mood by take us to see the incredible Inca Bridge where a stone trail clings to the side of a cliff. Vertigo sufferers would have fared badly in the Incan empire. Back in the main site we were shown important buildings and temples, marvelling at the sophistication of this civilisation.
I can most definitely not recommend the agency which arranged our hike. Whilst Henrry and the porters were excellent, the agency lied to us about not being able to take an early afternoon train back to Cusco – essential after a 4am start and after four days of hiking. With Henrry’s assistance we were able to secure seats on an earlier departure and soon we were relaxing as the train threaded between mountains beside the flooded Urubamba river.
After an easygoing day in Cusco (aided by the unparalleled hospitality at the Garden of San Blas hotel) we took a flight to Lima. Staying in the historic centre I was pleasantly surprised at how many grand old buildings had been preserved. Our visit also coincided with a festival which seemed to involve marching bands, women in skimpy and colourful outfits, and men dancing in outrageously flamboyant costumes. Immense fun.
Now to Ecuador, a country I feel a particular bond with having once spent a few months there. First stop: the Galapagos. Having once cruised these islands on a boat, this time I’m going to see how to experience them by staying in a few towns and taking tours out to sea.
These magical islands are full of wildlife. There’s so much that I occasionally tripped over a seal or iguana, the latter being a marine variety found only in the Galapagos. It’s the large numbers of other such unique creatures which makes this place special. Take a trip out to sea and I guarantee that every other minute you’ll see a turtle pop its head up, a seal taking a breather or a ray waggling its wings. Yes, really.
Our first two nights here were on Santa Cruz island, staying in Puerto Ayorta. From here we took a tour to Pinzon island; a small volcano that rises many metres above the waterline. Snorkelling is one of the best ways to view the aquatic life and through our masks we saw huge varieties of fish, a playful seal pup and a couple of adult white tipped reef sharks.
The next day we took a bumpy two hour ferry to the largest island here; Isabela (aka Albemarle). 60% of this massive isle remains unexplored and is likely to remain so under the excellent stewardship of the Ecuadorians. It is a beautiful island of large volcanoes, tortoise-trammelled brush and exquisite beaches.
Getting a good guide can really enhance a tour here. On Isabela ours was enthusiastic, imaginative and fun. He took us to a place called the tunnels where lava had cooled, formed gaps and bridges and then flooded with the sea. Here we swam with turtles and sea horses then found a cave filled with baby reef sharks.
From Isabela we returned to Santa Cruz then on to the final island; San Cristobal. The main town here has a beach which fills with around 409 sea lion. It has a boardwalk occupied by iguana. There is a pier from which you can watch rays. Spectacular.
Our final tour took us to Kicker Rock – a huge piece of stone thrusting 120 metres into the sky and plunging deep down into the ocean. Star fish and colourful corals clung to the walls as seals, rays and numerous sharks swam by. Just before we left I caught a glimpse of a hammerhead, though sadly didn’t quite see its eerie head.
Now to Quito, a city I became very familiar with half a lifetime ago. Parts of it haven’t changed much especially, thankfully, the old town. Almost 500 years old there are grand churches and cathedrals to be found here with incredibly ostentatious interiors. The presidential palace is almost as grand, thanks in part to the neat uniformed guards standing outside.
A part of the city which was once extremely unsafe has now been restored and tourists are able to explore its quaint cobbled streets. One area (where I used to enjoy the nightlife) has seen an entire block pulled down and replaced with a lovely square surrounded by modern restaurants. Much nicer.
Two hours north of Quito – and back in the northern hemisphere – is the town of Otavalo which hosts South America’s largest indigenous market. This place most definitely hasn’t changed and there is still opportunity to pick up great value artisanal products.
I was keen to return to the jungle to show Anna where I once volunteered, as well as the dramatic journey along steep, forested hills punctuated with waterfalls. Misahuallí is what you may imagine a jungle town to look like. It’s located on a bend of the mighty Napo river (a tributary of the Amazon) and surrounded by steamy forests. A suspension bridge dangles over the fast-flowing water. This wasn’t here 19 years ago. It was built ten years ago but, in this environment, already looks aged.
A Tarmac road has also been installed across the river, as has a new international airport. Both have arrived in the years following when I was a volunteer at the Jatun Sacha reserve. Thankfully this modern progress doesn’t seem to have resulted in the destruction of the forest. Yet. The oil companies are circling.
The basic wood hut with chicken wire windows still stands. Here I lived with a couple of other volunteers as well as numerous cockroaches, rats and the occasional tarantula. Trails lead deep into the dense forest where bugs abound. I caught a glimpse of a snake and many glimpses of hummingbirds. Colourful butterflies are everywhere. This truly us a beautiful place.
Remembering a tower that once stood a 20 minute walk in to the forest, I asked for harnesses so that we could climb it as it is actually just a very narrow old radio mast secured to the ground with what I hope are strong wires. A 30 metre climb later and we can see for miles around the jungle, including the Napo river and huge hills. Best of all is the breeze which can’t be felt on the forest floor.
Next we hiked to the Napo. Walking in these parts isn’t easy; there are steep slopes, deep mud, branches in your face and spiders webs across the path. It’s all absolutely worth it though, for experiencing this perfect jungle and that sublime river. If you’ve ever wanted to visit quintessential jungle then go to Misahualli – a picturesque town close to Jatun Sacha (it even has a new bridge across the river).
Our final stop in South America is Baños, up in the hills, above a deep canyon and beneath an active volcano. It has become an adventure tourism destination, we took the opportunity for one final white water rafting trip, hugely fun it was too. The town is famous for its hot springs, diverted into rather municipal baths. Here we soaked and reflected on our time in this incredible country and wondrous continent.
After almost six months here, tomorrow we fly to the Caribbean. Some unexpected highlights of our trip:
– Paradaisical Ilha Grande in Brazil
– Buenos Aires
– Hiking near San Martin de los Andes in Argentina
– Getting very close to the whales in Peninsula Valdez
– Hiking in El Calafate
– The three day ferry in Southern Chile
– Our Christmas home of Pucon and its lovely lake
– Colourful Valparaiso and the great hotel we stayed in
Some expected highlights which exceeded very high expectations:
– The Brazilian Amazon
– Argentinian Lake District
– Ecuador. Even though I’ve been here before it surprised me all over again