In the footsteps of Incan’s, on the Jungle Trail
I coughed at the dust in my throat as the caged cattle truck rattled along the pot-holed road. Billowing dust was caught in our slipstream and churned straight back into our faces, along with a great deal of exhaust fumes from the old vehicle. We screeched to a stop, and I clambered to grab hold of the cage bars before inertia came to the party. The old farmer climbed out of the cab, and came around to the back of the truck and unlocked us from our cage. Who needs the true Inca Trail? This was the Inca Jungle route.
I believe spontaneous travelling is the best way to travel. Period. But after a quick enquiry we were told that to hike the ‘True’ Inca Trail, months of planning is required as the trail numbers are minimalized by the need to apply for a license to be on the trail. I see the sense behind this, there’s no joy in hiking along a trail packed together like ants, and to protect the trail etc. Fortunately there are great alternatives available, for the spontaneous traveller! We signed onto the Inca Jungle Trail after deciding it sounded best. For the thrill seeker, the Jungle trail is the most exciting anyway, offering a great number of white-knuckle experiences along the way.
to hike the ‘True’ Inca Trail, months of planning is required
We started Guns Blazing. Departing from Cusco, we arrived after a bus ride at Abra de Malaga Pass – Altitude 4,350 meters (14,200 feet). Strapping on some fairly serious protection gear and climbing onboard a mountain bike, there was quite simple only one way.. Down! Our destination was Santa Maria at 1,430 meters (4,691 feet). Between the two, lay 55km of winding downhill roads, with blind corners, steep descents, stunning views and of course dangerous Peruvian drivers to contend with. I relished the opportunity and flew to the front racing against our tour guide. My girlfriend Elena stayed in a somewhat more conservative middle, travelling at a safe but steady speed. In the front, I had a few near misses with traffic, and taking corners too fast but for the most part it was just an exhilarating downhill ride from the top of the Andes, to the lower valley.
That afternoon, there was the option of going white-water rafting in the river below. I signed on eagerly. I was driven to the river with a few other fellow travellers and stopped on the riverbank to collect the gear, or lack thereof. The lifejackets looked like they had been salvaged from the Titanic and re-used for the entire century. My personal one had 1 strap out of 3 that worked but that’s half the fun, right? A quick briefing and we were firing down the river on yellow inflatable rafts. Elena opted not to come, and instead was driven to our pickup point with the vans driver, who apparently spent the whole trip trying to persuade her to marry him, ha. The rapids were fairly standard, a grade 3 maybe. Towards the end of the river, the rafts commander asked if anybody wanted to go for a swim. The water was hell cold, but I couldn’t pass the chance up! Neither apparently could another one of our passengers and the two of us jumped over the into the fast flowing river, where things didn’t exactly go to plan.
The lifejackets looked like they had been salvaged from the Titanic and re-used for the entire century.
I’m sure jumping out of the rafts into the rapids goes against every code of a western white-water rafting commander, but here it seems anything goes. The two of us hurtled away from the raft, both caught in two separate currents and swept away from the raft in different directions. I was somewhat amused at first until I hit my first rock. My toes bent backwards through all sorts of strange angles as they took the brunt of the impact. I went into typical rescue position, knees tucked up, ass first down the river! I managed to boost myself into the other side of the rapids, and the raft caught the two of us up and we clung to the side before the commander skull-dragged us onboard (lucky my one lifejacket strap held!). I learned later that Elena saw the whole thing from a bridge at the end of the valley, slightly concerned no doubt as she did not know we had intentionally jumped overboard! No lasting damage, but a slight pain in my step for the next 3 days!
The next morning, we were given the option of hiking down a small road to get to the trail-head, or to pile into the back tray of a cattle truck who would drop us most of the way along. With dusted lungs, and stinging eyes at the end of the trip, I’m sure a few of us would go with the walk next time!
Day two involved 23km of hiking, mostly through borderline rainforest. Stopping at a Cocoa plantation soon in, to have a demonstration. A pet monkey was running around here, and managed to steal lipstick from one of the girl’s pockets and figure out how to take the lid off, and then put it on its lips! Needless to say the girl didn’t want that one back!
A beautiful walk through the rainforest ensued, through some small isolated villages high in the hills with a rampant mosquito population. Passion fruit and Banana tree’s grew sporadically along the trail and made for a tasty snack. Midway through the day, we had to cross the river via a hand-pulled basket, literally squeezing in and then clinging to the side to cross the raging rapids below!
Bird song filled the trees during the day, and after the prescribed 23km we emerged from the bush to a perfectly placed natural hot springs fed from the earth, where we rested the days walk away in solitude. That night in Santa Teresa a few of us went out for some drinks in a bar, where another tour group seemed to be well way through drinking the bar dry. The tour guide was topless, and sexy dancing (leave that one to the imagination) on the bar. Good laughs!
Needless to say, the next day at the normal departure time, that group was nowhere to seen.
After a short sleep, we were up at 6.30am to visit a local zip-lining attraction. The zip-lines were strung between the two sides of the valley near Cola de Mono, leaving huge expanses of ‘dead’ air beneath you flying across the canopy of the rainforest. Advertised as over 2500 meters of ‘flying time’, this was another exhilarating side trip on our trail!
Following that was a 16km hike that eventually took us around the very base of Machu-Pichu itself. Looking up from below, there was no indication that anything of value was up there, let alone one of the wonders of the world! We followed the train tracks of the Incan Railway, jumping out of the way of an oncoming train every once in a while. Before nightfall, we arrived in Aguas Calientes where we took a cold shower (only option!) and slipped into bed for the big day tomorrow.
The alarm clock buzzed in my ear. It was 4am. That fact alone would normally be quite depressing. But today the alarm clock was welcome, and we jumped out of bed and prepared for our pre-dawn departure. Headlamps on, a quick breakfast, and we left Aguas Calientes and walked down the road in darkness to the lower gate to Machu Pichu. The big deal of course was getting to Machu Pichu to watch the sunrise. Being such a famous landmark, of course we weren’t the only people with those ideas. There were, I would estimate, two hundred people waiting in the small car park for the tiny ticket booth to open the track up to the top. The climb should have taken 1 hour and 45 minutes. Using an intricate squirming system, a few of us managed to squeeze through to the near front of the crowd.
Looking up from below, there was no indication that anything of value was up there, let alone one of the wonders of the world!
When the gates opened, it was game on. The ones who looked like fitness freaks were off like racing hounds leaving us behind in the dark. Elena and I set a fairly fast pace, and soon we were overtaking those who had started to straggle. Before long, we were at the front of the pack and setting a new land-speed record in the process! Not that I like to brag, but we did win that race to the top! But it was all for naught (bear this in mind future travellers!) as at the top there was another set of gates that were closed. We were the first people at the front of the queue, but before long, busloads of burger-lovers were pilling out from buses and joining in behind us. Once the main gates opened, we walked through into Machu Pichu.
But it was all for naught (bear this in mind future travellers!) as at the top there was another set of gates that were closed.
The ruins present themselves as majestically as one may imagine. On the cloudless morning, we sat immersed in the stone ruins, sitting on a grass clearing as the sun edged slowly over the jagged mountains concealing it. The rays burst across the ridge and a razor edge of light fixated on the ruins, as if a spotlight. The rays became larger and more varied, and crept slowly across our bodies providing warmth as it moved. The pictures from this experience were great, and the memories magical.
Machu Pichu is not your average stone castle, or historical palace. It is both a wonder and a monument to a civilization of power and beliefs. If I can say one thing, it is that is must be seen, it must be felt, to be understood. And can scarcely be described with words. We spent a magical day exploring the ruins. We even climbed Mt Machu Picchu, twice as tall as Mt Huayna Picchu (the classic peak in the background of Machu Picchu pictures). A 90-minute grueling climb in the Sun, but the view sure was worth it! Short of taking a helicopter tour of the site, Machu Picchu Mountain is the next best thing, and the most incredible view that can be achieved.
At the end of the day, we took the bus down the mountain (lazy I know.) We had only minutes to run the distance to the train station, squeeze our way through the queues and only just manage to get onboard the train before the wheels started turning. Inca Jungle Trail? Fantastic.