We arrived in Lima in the dead of night -luckily the hostel had agreed to pick us up from the airport for a few dollars and our taxi driver was waiting for us. We clambered into the back of his beaten-up old banger (the cars in Argentina were barely road-worthy so we didn´t bat an eyelid when the door nearly fell off) and took in the sights as he took us to the hostel. The sights consisted mainly of fried chicken restaurants and casinos, brightly illuminated against the black night sky.
When he stopped the car and announced that we had arrived, we both did a double-take and thought there must be some misunderstanding. We were parked outside a huge colonial-style old building, which was detached and had a big manicured front garden. It was so different from our previous hostels, so we walked gingerly up the long driveway and rang the bell. The big wooden door eventually creaked open and we were let in, passing several high ceilinged rooms full of antiques and old tea chests,we were led across a courtyard and shown to our room. It was around 2am so we just crashed out. In the morning we headed across the courtyard to the breakfast area which was completely deserted. There was a little bell, faulty-towers style, that you had to ring, then a member of staff would bring some tea and rolls with jam.
The whole atmosphere was a bit eerie - very quiet, still, and very old and in slight disrepair. It felt as though it were once a childrens home as there were huge washrooms with rows of communal showers and big dorms.
We explored the local area, Miraflores,which is an upmarket area of Lima and were amazed at the architecture and bright colours of the houses and buildings: each one was quite large and had a completely different structure to the next, making for an interesting and colourful neighbourhood.
The roads are chaotic in Peru, with crazy driving and horns beeping continuously. There are thousands of "micros",which are old Bedford midi vans used as buses, customised with destinations, ribbons and logos hand-painted on the sides. People are literally spilling out of them and a "conductor" hangs onto the side, pulling passengers on and shouting out the destinations trying to get you on board. The smog and pollution are terrible, I don´t think the term green or eco-friendly applies over here.
This district had some lovely restaurants and a few large shopping malls,where I couldn´t resist buying an utterly impractical pair of 4 inch heels, that I now have trouble fitting into my rucksack and haven´t even had the opportunity to wear yet. I´m not sure the Peruvians are ready for a 6ft blonde stumbling around on the cobbled street in a pair of virtiginous stillies - they´d probably mistake me for one of the blokes in drag, only they have better legs.
Atfter a few days it was time to check into the Hotel Exclusive for the start of our Inca Trail trip with Gap Adventures.
After a stressful morning in the bank, when the bank staff had incorrectly filled the dollars ATM dispenser with Sols (which are worth considerably less) and then took away our card and held us in a side room for 2 hours arguing when we tried to explain their error and get the currency that we´d actually been charged for, we were ready for a bit of luxury. And we weren´t disappointed: the hotel was 4 star with cable tv, comfy beds and a huge bath (a bath! hadn´t had one of those for 7 weeks!).
We met the rest of the group who we would be doing the Inca Trail with and were told everything we needed to know in preparation. The group were a cool bunch of people: 4 Americans, 1 Canadian, an Aussie couple on their honeymoon, 2 Belgians and 3 other English.
We took a flight to Cusco the next morning and spent the day getting our bearings, acclimatizing to the altitude and preparing ourselves mentally for the hike ahead. Well, I did apply some self-tan and dye my eyebrows whilst everyone else probably did more cultural stuff.And OK, so we may have had a few Caipirinhas, fags and burgers as well. We had agreed not to smoke/drink/eat junk for a few weeks before the Trail to prepare ourselves but alas,we are weak and the call of the nightlife was too strong. OK, so we won´t drink ON the trail,we said, but even that wasn´t to be as there were little stalls along the way selling Cusquena, the local beer, and Marlboro Lights, so even on the side of the mountain there was no escape from our evil vices!
We spent a day hiking around the Sacred Valley, an old Inca site, with our guide Marco, which he said would be a warm-up for the Inca Trail. This site had many terraces, carved into the mountains,which were used to grow crops such as potatoes and corn. It was amazing how they had managed to create these terraces on such a steep incline. The buildings themselves that were used for adminstration, astronomy and as religious temples were built from huge rocks, which had been transported by the Inca people from another mountain 8km away and then split by boring holes into the rock, introducing wooden rods then adding water which expands the wood and cracks the white granite rock along the vein so that it can be broken and carved into a brick. The craftsmanship was amazing: each rock had been perfectly carved and slotted together seamlessly with the surrounding rocks,making a perfect wall which would be admired for it´s intricacy even today,and these buildings were over 500 years old.
We spent a day marvelling at this great achievement and the patience required to create such a work of art - apparently these small Inca habitations took about 50 years to complete.
The next day was the first day of the Trail - we had an allowance of 6kgs each for essential clothing such as hiking boots, warm fleeces, hats,gloves,hiking poles, snacks etc in duffel bags which the porters would carry and any other items over the 6kgs allowance we could carry in our daysacks.
Obviously mine was full of make-up and wetwipes - I don´t care if I´m up a 4000m mountain, I´m not going without my mascara and Juicy Tubes lipgloss for anybody.
The first day´s hiking was not too difficult - we climbed up and down but there we no passes (peaks) on this day and we were all in high spirits, chatting to the group and our guides Marco, Rosa and Uber and marvelling at the strength of the porters. The porters are absolutely amazing: these little guys are around 5ft tall and carry 3 peoples duffle bags each, plus all the cooking equipment, tents etc for the entire group. At each stop, they erect tents, the cooks prepare delicious 3-course meals then they take it all down again and literally run up the mountain to the next stop where they do it all again,so that when you arrive at the camp puffing and panting several hours later they have put the tents up and prepared dinner and are standing around waiting for the group to arrive. They wear sandals made from old tyres and their little legs are bulging with varicose veins, yet they greeted us with applause at each stop and were really sweet and friendly, although I tried to avoid bumping into them in the toilets,where the noises and stench they made was ungodly.
The "toilets" were just holes in the ground, with a basic chain that rarely worked and rationed toilet paper. With several hundred people trekking the Inca Trail at any one time, they quickly became filthy, and you had to roll your trousers up before entering.Breathtaking is a word I would have preferred to use to describe the scenery, not the toilets. Not very glamorous, especially at 3am when I woke up with my bladder bursting. When it became impossible to ignore it any longer I woke Liam up (well,someone had to hold the torch!) and we crawled out of our sleeping bags to make the treacherous journey across rocks and around other tents in the pitch black to the baños (loos). I regularly tripped over tent pegs and almost landed on people snoring loudly in their tents, or stumbled down the bank alongside a sheer 12000ft drop half-asleep on my toilet runs. (Runs being the operative word, since most of us had upset stomachs at one time or another).
The hardest day was the second day, which was mostly uphill at what seemed like a 90 degree angle, which combined with the altitude and plenty of rain made for a tough hike. The awesome views made up for the difficulty of the climb, although when we tackled the notorious Dead Woman´s Pass, which is ther highest point of the trail at 14000ft above sea level I must admit I was flaking slightly. Liam seemed to find it easier than me and shouted encouraging (annoying?) comments to try to help me. I was purple in the face, munching my coca leaves (our guide insisted we all chew them to prevent altitude sickness and to give us strength) and felt as though my legs were made of jelly. In a strategic move to keep me going, he ran ahead a few steps with the water bottle. As I choked on my coca leaves and begged for the water I had no choice but to keep up with him, and finally collapsed at the top of the mountain, exhilarated at having completed the toughest part. A few members of the group were suffering from altitude sickness and arrived white-faced at the top quite a while later. Actually, we were some of the first to arrive so didn´t do too badly at all.
The third day should not have been quite so tough, yet the torrential rain and hail made this day just as difficult: part of the trail was steep downhill steps,which had been turned into a river by the rain. As we clung to the side of the mountain slipping on the rocks and mud and trying not to look down at the sheer drop on one side I think most people were a bit scared. I know I was - what if my mascara ran?
Along the way we passed several Inca towns, which were amazing in their craftsmanship and our guides told us of their history. When the Spanish invaded and took control of the country they destroyed many buildings and took the bricks from them to make their own houses, and as they didn´t believe in the Incas tradition of worshipping various Gods (such as Sun God, Moon God etc) they destroyed all the temples. The reason the Incas built their cities high on the mountains was because they belived they would be closer to their Gods,they were safer from attack from enemies and also because the conditions for farming were better.
On the 4th and final day of the trek we were awoken at 3.45am to make the final stretch to arrive at Macchu Picchu (translated as old mountain) by sunrise. I did my usual routine of a full wash using wetwipes, applied my make-up by torchlight and I was ready. We were finally going to see the lost city, which had been deserted after the invasion of the Spanish and had been covered by undergrowth for years before being rediscovered by an American called Highram Bingham in 1911.Even today, only 40 percent of the entire city is visible, with the remaining 60% being covered with dense undergrowth. It cannot be uncovered as it may cause the buildings to collapse, and the city is already slipping by 1cm per month.
As we reached the Sun Gate and gazed out over the ancient ruins of this new 7th wonder of the world, all the efforts of the last 4 days became worthwhile. Watching the sun rise over the mountain and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery was truly magical,and something I will never forget.
We spent part of the day exploring the ruins where around 2000 people had once lived, worked and worshipped, which took 100 years to build and were not even completed, before going to Aguas Calientes for lunch and to take the train back to Cusco.
Although it had been wet for most of the trail (making parts of it treacherous),the weather on the morning that we arrived at Macchu Picchu was perfect,with blue skies and bright sun.
Liam even climbed another mountain (whilst the rest of the group declined and recovered),which he managed to climb up and down in around an hour. When you see the pics of this beast you´ll appreciate this acheivement, as he had to complete the hike by running up the mountain as we had to catch the bus down to Aguas Calientes in less than an hour and a half. Extreme Tourism,Liam called it.
Having completed such a challenge, we all agreed a night out to celebrate was in order, and although we were absolutely shattered we all took a much-needed shower and headed out in Cusco. After a drink in the Irish Bar and a lovely meal in the main square we went to Mama Afrika to dance the night away. It was a miracle we could even move as our knees and ankles were all busted, but it´s amazing what a few pisco sours and mojitos can do when combined with a pumping house beat.
We had done it..completed the Inca Trail. Our smokers lungs and 30plus bodies had not let us down and we were all on a high. The old Shaman tune "I can move, move, move any mountain" was going round in my head as I drifted into my first decent sleep (in a bed instead of a sleeping bag on some stones) in a week....