When I was a child, my grandmother was a constant traveller. She would go off to distant lands and have adventures, and when she came home all us grandchildren would sit on the floor while she dispensed trinkets and talked about her trip. Archaeology was a particular interest of hers, and her descriptions of the ruins she visited, along with the few photos that she took, made these places seem like fairytales. Perhaps because I already knew about the Pyramids and various Greek and Roman ruins, Machu Picchu was most intriguing.
My mum further fuelled this fascination with photo-laden history books filling our bookshelves. The set that comprised the history of the Incas, Aztecs and Olmecs was my favourite and I flicked through its pages often, fascinated by the precise carvings with their fearsome eyes, and golden artefacts found inside pyramids.
It’s probably not surprising given this introduction that my first overseas trip would include a visit to Machu Picchu. I was travelling with my sister, and we decided that it would be much more rewarding to get to Macchu Picchu under our own steam, walking in via the Inca Trail, rather than bussing in with the white shoe brigade. We were too young to take the easy option, and we had our street cred to consider. Besides, the Inca Trail sounded amazing. Who wouldn’t want to do that? That settled it; my first overnight walking experience would be the Inca Trail and it would sew the seeds for further adventures later down the track.
Landing in La Paz, Bolivia, a few days before the trek, we joined our tour group of three others to visit Lake Titicaca and the Colca Canyon before heading to Cusco to prepare. I had never seen a landscape like this before. Everything was on a massive scale. I had never seen mountains before I saw the Andes. All of these sights were mind boggling for me, a first-time traveller from a small town in regional Queensland.
The Inca Trail starts near Ollantaytambo, a town full of Inca stonework and the ghosts of warrior kings. It’s the perfect mood setter before commencing a route to a lost city, and our guide Efrain did everything he could to increase our wonder.
The first day’s walking seemed simple enough, picturesque forest and farmland walking with a little bit of uphill towards the end. So far so good. We sat down for a break and observed a set of ruins across the valley. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be more than just Machu Picchu to see.
Dinner was prepared for us at camp by our wonderful crew of locals, and we ate happily before my sis started to not feel right. By morning, she had full blown altitude sickness. As I ate breakfast and discussed her condition with the guides, I realised I didn’t feel great either. With an unrelenting climb ahead of us, it was a bad day to be ill.
Our porters and guides urged us to chew coca leaves, insisting it would help with our symptoms. I wasn’t feeling it, but I chewed anyway to be polite and thanked them through my nausea. We kept walking as there essentially is no other option, but it certainly wasn’t the way I’d imagined it: striding up those Inca steps, stopping only to wipe my brow and lament “how about these stairs, hey?”. No. Not like that. I staggered. I shuffled. I sat. There was no striding. All I wanted was a toilet, and to stop seeing stars when I walked so that I could enjoy the view.
And what a view it was. There is still nothing I’ve seen that comes close. Mountain weather adds an ever-changing dimension to the landscape, with its deep valleys and enormous mountains. Their sheer faces and sharp peaks, and the otherworldly alpine flora all made for breathtaking moments, even through the altitude sickness.
Eventually, Dead Woman’s Pass came into view, the highest point on the trail at 4200m. This was great news, because once we passed it and our altitude decreased, our symptoms should subside. Truly, it was the most painstaking walk, as that pass was in view from an eternally long way off.
Once there, our tour guide made a fuss of keeping us warm and not letting us sit for too long. It was rainy and windy, with a threat of sleet. I didn’t really care, though, I was ecstatic to have made it to the top. My sister wasn’t far behind, still sick as well, and we took a few moments to congratulate ourselves.
Looking down through the clouds from the top of a mountain was a surreal experience that I remember clearly. I gave myself a moment to really take in this place with its tough plant life and jagged surrounds. It was incredible, even with gringos clambering all over it. After maybe ten minutes of rest and long moments absorbing Pacha Mama’s beauty, it was time to go. There was a toilet waiting at the bottom of an hour-long descent. Yes!
No. Good lord, no, how awful that toilet was. Never mind, though, I was, in fact, feeling better than I had 800m of elevation ago, and it was time for lunch before I got the news that we still had another hour of uphill to go before we made camp. Ok. I can do this.
The hour of climbing passed, and though it hurt me, look at where I was: camped beside an alpine tarn in the Andes, listening to Peruvian folk tales as spun by Efrain, our university educated and strongly patriotic guide. Altitude sickness and all, why would I trade that? Our crew fed us and Efrain put us to bed early with bottles full of hot water to help keep our nausea at bay. I slept heavily.
We both woke the next day feeling somewhat better. Not awesome, but an improvement. We were in the heart of the mountains now, with sphagnum mosses dripping from rock faces and coating trees. We made some stops to explore Inca way stations as cloud rolled in and out. As we approached our destination for the night, it parted enough to let us see the valley floor with the Urabamba snaking it way through, and Winay Wayna, the water temple beside which we’d be making camp.
Tonight was our last night on the Trail, and we were packed in with a million other trekkers it seemed, all poised to throw ourselves at the Sun Gate in the morning. There were no folk tales that night, instead we had a drink and tipped our porters, these lovely friendly locals who hauled all our gear, made camp and cooked, and would pass as at a gallop in their rubber tyre sandals while we foundered under the weight of our tiny packs like the useless city gringos that we were.
Efrain rounded off this last night by solemnly discussing with us that there would be many tourists at Machu Picchu the next morning, but we were to remember that rather than take the train to get there, we had instead walked the Inca Trail in the footsteps of his ancestors, and this made us travellers, not tourists. It may seem laughable now, but after the effort, altitude sickness, and awe-inspiring scenery, his words stuck with me. I was a traveller.
We woke well before dawn the next morning, along with every other person in camp. It seemed that there was now a competition to be the first person there. The cringe of mass tourism had finally caught up with us, and I feared it would take the shine off this moment that I’d anticipated since I was a child. There was nothing to do but keep walking.
The Sun Gate finally came into view and we queued in a bottleneck at the base in preparation. As we waited, I glanced over my shoulder across the valley; Inti was just poking his head over the mountains. Our timing was perfect.
The Sun Gate is more a rock ladder than steps; steep enough that you need to use your hands to steady yourself. Tricky without a shoulder to shoulder crowd of pushy trekkers trying to beat each other to the top. Not the serene approach I had imagined, and yet… there it was.
Just as I got to the top of the Sun Gate, Inti shone directly on the ruins through the cloud, illuminating it from the shadows in a scene that couldn’t have been scripted any more perfectly. I paused to take it in.
There is quite a walk down until you actually get to the ruins themselves, and it gives more than enough time to build up the excitement required to explore the vast area thoroughly. When we were there, signage was non-existent, and we relied on Efrain to explain much of what we looked at, before heading off to explore on our own.
After having suffered and struggled on the walk getting there, wandering around these ruins was the best kind of reward a traveller could ask for. Machu Picchu was every bit as amazing as my grandmother had described.