guest post by Helene Cooper:
Last month I embarked on one of the most amazing experiences of my life, Peru’s Inca Trail. I took part in a five day “Community Trek”, which goes a little more off the beaten track, combining an exhilarating trek along the Peruvian Andes, with an opportunity to camp with local villagers and help with farming and community work.
En-route I enjoyed some of the most beautiful mountainous terrain I’ve ever seen, stopping at amazing ancient ruins and pushing my body to new extremes. The Community Trek gives you the opportunity to give something back to the local people, with a proportion of your fees helping with their schooling and farming activities. While you see less of the ruins than on the Classic Trek, you still see the best, while enjoying a completely different experience, too.
The trek was amazingly hard work, with high altitudes making the long hikes exhausting at times, but with the end reward of Machu Picchu just hours away, it was well worth it. The trails are less preserved than on the Classic Trek, which makes it harder work, but what’s life without a little challenge? The opportunity to spend time in local communities gave the trip an added attraction; I really recommend you try it.
We begin our five-day journey with a pre-trek meeting with our guides from Andina Travel. Everyone takes the opportunity to ask any questions and psyche themselves up for the next four days of walking. We’re told to prepare for the high altitudes, which can reach up to 13,900ft.
We’re picked up early by a minibus; it’s a beautiful clear day and the mountains are simply awe-inspiring – I can’t wait to crack on with the trek.
First stop is Saksaywaman, an incredible old ancient fortress overlooking Cusco; giant boulders are stacked as if they fell from the sky – it’s a great photo opportunity! Our guide tells us this was once a historic, religious and ceremonial place, which you certainly get a feel for.
Next we move to the Sacred Valley, a huge gorge between two steep mountains and home to hundreds of maize fields and numerous tributaries, what an amazing sight!
We trek on to the Pisac ruins and its fantastic terraces and walkways, where we get to put our feet up and give our lungs a rest. We purchase walking sticks, coca leaves and colourful plastic ponchos, the last supplies for our mammoth trek.
After lunch it’s time to start walking! We tentatively start climbing our way up the hills and slowly the scenery starts to change. The higher we climb the colder it gets, and the air starts to thin out, which is a strange feeling.
Our tents are already set up when we arrive to our first camp in the amazing Andes. We’re greeted by hot popcorn and cold drinks in the kitchen tent – very civilised! A pack of cards come out and we play and talk about today’s sights until dinner is served.
I’m starving and it was a pleasure to be served a delicious three course meal including ‘Cuy’, roasted Guinea Pig on a spit, which is really succulent and tasty, followed by a hot cup of Peruvian tea to warm us up, as its now getting pretty cold – I put socks on my hands to keep warm.
The morning starts with a soft knock on our tent and the voice of our guide calling: “coca tea!”
We poke our sleepy heads out to find mugs of steaming tea and a hot basin of washing water waiting for us. What luxury! The coca tea is a greenish yellow colour and has a mild bitter flavour, similar to green tea, but gives you a wake-up kick like a good cup of coffee.
Our cooks continue to spoil us with a breakfast of porridge, toast and eggs, which feels like a real treat. We pick up our snack bags, which include some local fruit and biscuits, and set off for a full day’s walking. Small steps and deep breaths is definitely the recipe for success.
En-route we meet some little old ladies running up the mountain paths without shoes, carrying heavy loads on their backs. Kids hike their way to school down the valley and we all feel a bit sheepish in our Gore-Tex hiking gear.
I feel a real respect for the people living in these harsh conditions, it’s bitterly cold and arid in places, but absolutely stunning nonetheless. We advance towards the highest point of the trek, which is surrounded by clouds and looks incredible.
The air is so thin it’s really hard to fill your lungs with oxygen and my body is getting really tired. As we reach the summit we reward ourselves with a shot of Pisco, which is quite the livener; each of us pouring a drop on the ground as a sacrifice to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
Finally we venture downhill and race towards our lunch stop. The porters and cooks overtook us a long time ago and have served up some delicious hot food, including local rice and beans.
More trekking, I can feel myself getting fitter as we progress, but it’s still a strain on the limbs. There are herds of alpacas and llamas on the mountain sides, which I feed with some of my biscuits; the llama is like a cross between a camel and a sheep and laps up my snacks.
We conquer another high pass and stop for a few photos of the stunning green mountain lakes on show, which shimmer in the sunlight, it’s great to be alive!
We cruise downhill for lunch at our second campsite. I have an afternoon nap while some of the guys play football. At night the stars are shining and we admire the silent stillness of the Andes; it feels like we’re the only ones in the world that are enjoying this moment.
We visit a local school where we work with the local children, helping with break activities, singing and poetry lessons, it’s really good fun. None of the children can speak English but they enjoy learning some useful phrases, like llama and Guinea pig!
We get Quechua lessons, the local dialect, from a teacher, who teaches me “sulpayki wayki” (thank you friend)! We then move on to a local farm and help them with planting and weeding and I buy a nice colourful hat from a local weaver.
Our last day of trekking is short and fortunately it’s all downhill, unsurprisingly nobody complains! We’re sad to say goodbye to our team of porters and cooks as we hop on a bus to Ollantaytambo.
On arrival at our lodge in Ollantaytambo we have glorious hot showers and a short rest before a guided tour of the Ollantaytambo ruins, the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. The town is home to a large settlement, so we have dinner in a local restaurant which serves some delicious soups and stews with ‘pan de papa’, a bread made with mashed potatoes.
No sooner have we finished eating we are eager to get back to the lodge to try out those lovely looking beds, which do their job very well indeed.
Today we embark on the final part of our journey, towards the epic Machu Picchu; I am so excited! We have an early breakfast and jump on the train to Aguas Calientes, which has some really picturesque views on route. Unfortunately we don’t arrive at Machu Picchu until late morning, so miss the sunrise, but we still arrive earlier than the masses of tourists, which I’m pleased about.
We take a shuttle bus to Machu Picchu, which suddenly appears on the horizon, lying on a steep sunlit mountain side. We meet up with the other trekkers, who took the more traditional, “Classic” Inca Trail route; they are yet to shower and are pretty envious of our fresh smells!
We have a couple of hours of free time to look around the Machu Picchu complex, so we hike up to the Sun Gate, which offers an amazing view on what is a beautifully clear day; the others take the opportunity to have a closer look around the city’s ruins.
Soon it’s time to head back; we board the bus and train to Ollantaytambo and our transfer takes us to back to Cusco, where we tell stories about our experiences of the last five days.
We all have aching muscles, blisters and the odd tummy ache, but the amazing scenery and ancient ruins were well worth it. I can’t recommend the Inca Trail highly enough.
Helene Cooper currently writes for Dragoman, the overland adventure operator
related – our Best Hikes South America list