It’s tiring. It’s expensive. It’s essentially walking for four days to look at some rocks. And in my case, wet rocks. So, why?
For me, it’s finish has been the place I’ve been wanting to go most in the whole world. Ever since The Strokes released their disappointingly mediocre fourth album ‘Angles’ in 2011, and I googled what the opening track on that album was, ‘Machu Picchu’ led me to the ancient Inca city built under the instruction of the emperor Pachacuti in around 1450. Afterwards I already knew I’d be going there someday. I knew I’d be able to tell people how it feels to look down on the site from the Sun Gate, and how it feels to be stood within it’s perfectly constructed walls, though I didn’t think I’d be fortunate enough to do so by the age of 22.
Anyway, I was in Cusco, and a couple of days after the incident with the snoring German, I was ready to begin the Inca Trail, ready for the four days, ready for the ultimate reward which lied at the end. The three Peruvian guides on the trek were all as sound as they come, the leader Aldo, another Aldo (Aldo 2) and, obviously, Andy Williams. Great chaps, but they did have the pronunciation of my name wrong down from the start. You’d think Michael would be fairly easy even for the Peruvian tongue, but I was Mee-shell to them. Still, it didn’t really matter, these three were the guys to take me to Machu Picchu.
Along with 16 others in the group that was. Given my history on multiple day ventures on this trip (Uyuni), I was dreading coming across more intolerable people, and I anticipated some piss-taking lines I’d have to come up with. But in reality every single person I did the hike with was genuinely lovely. Senior Aldo created a family atmosphere amongst us all, those who me know well enough will now be wondering why I’ve gone completely soft here, and it was delightful. A collection of people from different countries and a wide range of ages, all united by the same thing, earning the reward that is Machu Picchu. Of course it’s only really a reward if you walk there. Anyone can get a bus there, and we were undoubtedly embarking on the best way to walk there.
I was unsure what day one would bring. The walking turned out to be mostly flat and I found it easy, but given our Andean surroundings were already unbelievable, and we still had so much further to go, it really gave me an incredible sense of just how secluded the location of Machu Picchu is. Probably to excitement, the mood of the group on the first day reminded me of the time Andy Murray won Wimbledon. That day the Centre Court crowd giddily laughed at absolutely everything he said in his interview with Sue Barker after he’d just beaten Novak Djokovic, despite not saying anything actually that funny. Imagine not getting a laugh off a Wimbledon crowd, the thought is unfathomable. It was the same principle here. Aldo could tell us there were only 20 more minutes until we reach our spot for lunch, and he could get the sort of laughs you might expect if you were performing on Live at the Apollo. I think the fortuitous feeling of our location in the world was the reason for that, Machu Picchu the Djokovic unforced error in this instance.
Day two was harder work. Six hours of steady uphill trekking culminates in ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ to take you to the highest altitude on the trek at 4215 metres. For me I anticipated this would be harder, perhaps all that time I spent in Mental Bolivia counting for something as I was already easily acclimatised. I found the descent surprisingly more tough on my body, it should have been two hours but I did it far quicker, my knees taking a small battering in the process. Still, I was making light work of the challenge.
Day three was the longest of the four, and I continued to power through at some pace. I did have a small backpack, and that’s because on the Inca Trail porters will carry the majority of your belongings for you. Porters are little men, capable of carrying massive loads of 20 kilos plus their own belongings on their little backs, and I found them absolutely fascinating. They’re descendants of the Incas, and share the same characteristics as their famous ancestors of being small and shy. I’m never exactly the loudest in the room, but even I managed to say my name and where I’m from loud and clearly when the whole group came together, three guides, 17 trekkers and 23 chaskis. Aldo used chaski rather than porter out of respect for the work they do, in Quechua chaski means ‘runner’. And they literally run up and down the mountains for you, carrying your belongings as well as all the tents, food and heavy gas canisters. On the second day I was the first to reach lunch, and as I powered ahead on day three and the same happened again, I believe it earnt me respect amongst the chaski community. If you’re reading this and not particularly impressed by my ability to write, then maybe at some point in the future there is a role for me as a chaski.
The first three days flew by, and the day I got to look upon Machu Picchu was already here. Hiking the Inca Trail is not a competition. At least it’s not supposed to be. On the fourth morning, it begins with the early wait down by the nearest checkpoint to the Sun Gate. A checkpoint that opens at 5.30am, a checkpoint we got to before 4.00am, and a checkpoint that turns people insane. It was pissing it down with rain, and hundreds crammed under a shelter, jostling amongst each other as the different tour groups huddle together. The atmosphere became really hostile for whatever reason, the stress of wanting to reach Machu Picchu making people argue over personal space and the brightness of torches. There had been three full days of hiking previously, so perhaps the lure of Machu Picchu was beginning to take its toll now it was within everyone’s grasp.
It suddenly had an effect on me, and I too lost myself in the madness once the checkpoint opened and the final two-hour walk to Machu Picchu had begun. This part of the trek is terribly narrow, making overtaking difficult. I got stuck near the back of our group having spent most of the first three days at the front, but even everyone in our group was giving every last ounce they had to earn that reward at the end. But for whatever reason it wasn’t enough for me. Machu Picchu was drawing me in. I couldn’t go any faster, the trail was too busy, but I had to get there faster. The moment I’ve been thinking about for so long was just around the corner. Just before the Sun Gate there is a series of incredibly steep steps, the last of which is basically a flat wall of steepness. As others prepared for this final push by taking a break I powered through. An explosion of pace. Normally I’d have taken over five minutes for this but because of the mad trance I was in it took about one. I felt like I was in an episode of Gladiators.
Then it was there, I’d made it, the Sun Gate. So at the beginning I said I knew I’d be able to tell people how it feels to look down on Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, and now I know, just when there’s cloud covering it entirely and all you can see is whiteness. Unlike a Donald Trump rally however, I knew there was something magical behind it all. That mad trance had kind of been for nothing as we walked a further half hour to the site itself, I’d wasted so much energy in the process but it didn’t really matter, I’d found the trek easy and now all that was left was that prize, but the weather was making me wait.
Then I did get that moment. Around the last corner of the trail I could see the famous walls. I find it amazing that they’re still standing. The Incas have captured my imagination while I’ve been in Peru, I’d even been to the Inca museum. Eventually I had a clear(ish) view of the city, the fog was making it slightly difficult to see far. I thanked Aldo for guiding me here, and then I got to enjoy it. I just stared at it. I know I’m only 22 but I’d still been waiting years for this, and it was so incredibly satisfying. As I spent more time there it saddened me to see this magical place I’d been imagining was just another tourism machine, it filled up with the day trippers who hadn’t earned it like we had, which frustrated me. It’s also sad that in the coming years you will probably no longer be allowed to walk between its walls, instead restricted to looking down from higher viewpoints. For me though I did get this opportunity and it completed my admiration for the Incas.
After it was all over and as I said all the goodbyes to the familia, as Aldo called it, Aldo 2 thanked me for visiting his country. I thanked him in return for welcoming me to his country. I can ignore bad weather and lazy tourists, Peru has still just given me the sweetest feeling of fulfilment I’ve ever felt, and there could be more to come.