Our small group is half way through day two and we reach the high point of our Camino Inca trek on the evocatively named Dead Woman’s Pass (trail map). Breathing heavily in the rarefied air at 4,200 metres, our spirits lifted when we discovered that this was the highest point in our walk. Three hours earlier, most of us were regretting signing up for this famous four day venture to the Incan “lost city” of Machu Picchu (my number one South American travel wonder). Looking back, other trekkers are hunched forward, heads down, slowly trudging up the steep slope. They dare not look up at the distant goal ahead for fear. They are probably sharing the same regrets but refuse to be daunted by the steep featureless final slope and plough on.
Mind you, there is a strange feeling of privilege in walking on the same paths as followed by the Incan Indians some five hundred years ago. The mountain vistas, cool, clean air and patches of refreshing forest keep the spirits going when the legs become unwilling and the body flags.
By contrast, the guide and porters are making easy passage. Shod only in old sandals made of car tyres, they have walked it many times before and despite being weighed down with our packs, food, clothing and tents, they seem to enjoy tracing the steps their ancestors took, five hundred years earlier.
I walked the trail several years ago but today the government have placed a strict daily limit of 500 people (counting guides, porters and tourists alike) on the trail to help protect this ancient Incan highway. The officials seem to be battling a delicate balance between the lure of the tourist dollar and preserving the very thing attracting these tourists. This means you have no option but to book some time ahead to ensure that you can get access to one of the most famous treks in the world. You must walk the trail with an official operator and you cannot join at the last minute (the agencies have to register the names several days in advance). This is something that you need to be organized for. As a rough rule, there will be between one and a half to two guides/porters/cooks for each paying walker and all rubbish walked in must be walked out. It is a travesty that plastic water bottles litter the path in some places – all of us must play our part to preserve this remarkable heritage area.
There are a number of different walks. This post describes the best known and highly recommended four-day “Classic” trek but there are one-day, two-day and seven-day versions as well. The trail passes some thirty different Incan sites and is surrounded by spectacular Andean mountain backdrops.
Yesterday, we started this journey in high spirits for a short train ride from the lively village of Ollantaytambo, itself rich in Incan structures and possibly the best preserved Incan town of all. Alighting at the drearily named Km88 (representing the distance from Cusco) with our group of six eager trekkers and guide, around nine porters and cooks organise their loads in good spirits. There is a strict code to ensure that everyone carries an even share and that the loads don’t exceed an agreed weight.
Almost immediately we cross the Urubamba River over the appropriately named Bridge of Happiness and walk at a brisk pace, locating the first of numerous Incan sites at Llactapata, an Incan residential site. Day One is twelve kilometres (eight miles) long with a slow ascent for the second half of the day. Camp areas vary but we stayed with a superb valley outlook, the towering snow-capped peak of Salkantay and Veronica (lead picture).
Refreshed from resting on Dead Woman’s Pass, we started our descent, falling away into the Hidden Valley and back up to a milder Andean pass at Runkurakay, an Incan watchtower, animal shelter and food store. Dinner is enjoyed viewing the incredible valley vista under the light of a gleaming full moon, before we all head for our tents - the soothing sound of a tumbling waterfall easing us into our evening slumber.
This world famous trek continues in part two.