Tuesday, September 17

Peru, Day Two: The Inca Trail

As cliched, uneconomical, faddy and shallow as it sounds, the whole point of our trip to Peru came down to today: our visit to Machu Picchu.

And yet, despite being so popular and accessible, finding out how the Inca Trail worked was an exercise in advanced Internet searching and message board trawling. Perhaps visitors to Peru just can't communicate their experiences well, or maybe the tourist industry there isn't as well developed. Most likely though is that the landscape and rules change so frequently that every year is a new experience for all involved. Not helping was us choosing perhaps the most niche of experiences when it came to The Inca Trail: The compressed, one day, km104 hike and Machu Picchu visit. But first, a bit of a primer.

The main locations in the area are Cusco (for the airport), Ollantaytambo (for the start of the traditional 4 day Inca Trail Hike) and Aguas Calientes (for Machu Picchu). Cusco and Ollantaytambo are connected by rail and road, and choosing between those largely depends on whether you want to visit anything on the way. Ollantaytambo and AC are also connected by rail - with a special and fancy (read: expensive) novelty train shipping pilgrims to the latter where they can proceed to the MP site (via a less fancy and novel bus service). It is therefore possible to see MP without any hiking, and indeed in a single day, by taking a train(s) from Cusco or Tambo, to AC, then a bus to the MP site. Indeed, this is what the vast majority of visitors do.

For the adventurous, you can skip the MP train and essentially walk to MP from Ollantaytambo. This walk takes four days and three nights, through some pretty and pretty tough terrain at (for most of us) a high altitude, temples and vistas, and retraces the route that the Inca used to take themselves. This is the Inca Trail, and is what most see as the most authentic/instagrammable way to experience MP.

A relatively new option available is the km104 hike, and it's essentially a mix of the two. You take the same MP train as the others from Tambo, but around half way to AC the train stops (there is no platform or station), drops you off, and you walk the rest of way. The hike isn't quite a full subset of the Inca Trail, but does join up with it after a while. This option is pitched as a two day programme: one day to complete the walk to MP, but without visiting it (you'd spend the night in AC), with the second day reserved to visit MP. This is already a new and therefore niche choice, but we opted for an even more tailored option - to hike to MP and visit the site in the same day, leaving us to return to Cusco the same night. Although requiring an early start and late finish, its for certain the most time efficient way of experiencing MP and the Inca Trail. In fact the only real downside is the cost, as even though it's around a third of the distance, its still over half the price of the full Inca Trail.

The 4:30am start was expected yet no less unwelcome. Also expected was the overpacking - both due to inexperience and my usual overcaution - and by the end of the 10km the pack was feeling pretty heavy. I would like to say that the views were worth the journey, but no - there were a few ruins to visit on the way, but make no mistake: this is a hike one walks for the challenge, the social aspects, and to experience what the Inca used to go through with far fewer resources. In those terms it was a tough, fun and rewarding hike, and confirmed our choice of limiting it to the one day - without knowing about our ability at high altitudes it was a bit of a gamble, but fortunately we didn't suffer from any real debilitating effects.

On the other hand, Machu Picchu had plenty of visuals to offer. One of the benefits of either hike is that you enter the site via the original Sun Gate, which provides a wonderfully classic view as you peak and turn a corner. It really does feel like a pilgrimage as it appears in view and thankfully the weather was totally on our side.

We made the site by 2pm which gave us more time than we required to explore the site proper. In many ways the visit was interesting enough, but it was certainly enhanced by having to hike there, and the whole day just made more sense than each component would have on its own. Between the short term exertion getting there and our lifelong plan to visit, it's safe to say the whole thing was pretty cathartic.

The only thing left for today was then to head back to Cusco - taking the bus to AC, the train to Tambo and then a van to Cusco. After the 18 hours of activity, exhaustion was inevitable... and I expect to sleep soundly tonight.

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