So excited to see Jan, getting water-bombed 3 times & covered in shaving foam on the way to the airport (carnival) could not dampen our spirits. Poor Jan had jet leg to cope with as well as the change in altitude so we spent a few days exploring Cusco and doing lots of catching up, getting ourselves match fit for our trek.
On the advice of other travellers we'd hired a porter for the trek which meant we carried our day packs but he carried our sleeping bag, roll mat & 2kg of other stuff for us. When packing for 4 days in a climate that changes massively every 30 minutes (fierce sun followed by torrential rain by day, torrential rain and -5 by night) 2kg doesn't cover much so we agreed to forgo toiletries other than toothpaste, loo roll & one bar of soap, and wear everything we owned at night time. All good unless our one pair of boots/trousers/fleece got wet...
We'd chosen our trek company carefully based on them being Peruvian owned and having a good rep for treatment of porters (Trek Peru). This paid off as not only were the logistics handled really well but it meant we trekked with 13 like minded others. Our porters travelled with us to the start point (km82) where they skipped on ahead and we began the first days walk. A relatively gentle day to break us in, it stayed dry & when we got to camp one the porters had got the tents up & a 3 course dinner for us.
Cook & his assistant never failed to impress. The camps are carried from place to place in total so he has nothing more than a gas canister style camping stove but provided huge amounts of food (never the same meal twice) for c40 people 3 times a day. On day 3 he made and iced a cake for us. I can't do that in a fixed kitchen in London.
To ensure the porters aren't abused our group had a weight limit p/person. This meant in total we had 16 Trekkers, 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 20 porters. The porters sleep in the meal tent in the same kit as us - we saw other porters sleeping in toilets to avoid the rain as their shonky company didn't provide them with tents - this is no reward for carrying around 20kg+ on the same difficult & treacherous routes - but nearly twice as fast as we could manage and with around 10% of their load. We had awe, respect and gratitude for their efforts - but still there is something amusing about watching men who rarely top 5'2" carrying huge packs that are bigger than them up & down mountains at speed.
The afore mentioned toilets are 'day-5 festival long drops' with no running water. Using them took a very deep breathe and the threat of kidney failure if you didn't. So it must be an act of desperation for other company's porters to be using them as accommodation. This is no thanks for their legendary efforts.
Day 2 is notoriously the hardest as it starts at 6am with a 5 hour climb to Dead Woman's Pass (4215m) followed by a 2 hour descent down steep, steep stones. The first half of the day was by far the easiest as despite the lung-busting climb it stayed dry. Most of us were following the porters lead (they do it weekly but still huff & puff their way up this bit) and chewed coca leaves to manage the altitude sickness. We were told at breakfast to go at our own pace, but to make that 50% of our normal pace as the trick is slow and steady. We were to expect nausea, dizziness, headaches and mood swings - anything else we had to sit on a rock and wait for the guides (leading from the back) to reach us with the oxygen bottle.
Coca leaves taste vile, leave your face numb and, if like me you can't do proper man-spits, mean you spend the day with green bits in your teeth. They also relieve headaches within minutes, stop dizziness and give you a short term hit of energy to keep mind and body in good check. You don't chew them so much as cram a wad of leaves in the side of your mouth and press the juices out until for 20mins or so. Gives the appearance of a cowboy with baccy, or a hamster. Not a strong look but when you're wearing old clothes and turning things inside out counts as 'clean', it's not a massive concern.
Coca leaves also hold significant value to Incas who gift them to the earth mother (pachumama) and the animal spirit guides in ceremonies. Our assistant guide Pedro followed Inca tradition and on day 3 performed a prayer for safety at the top of the second pass which we all took part in. As he spoke in Quechen we understood very little but there was something moving about standing atop of Andean mountains, hearing a true believer give thanks to Mother Nature and seek protection for the remainder of our journey. We all gifted our best coca leaves beneath a stone collected from the valley that morning and braced ourselves for the descent.
Back at the notorious Dead Women's Pass the rain started and the normally difficult descent became treacherous. The drops alongside the stones are very steep, slippy and unforgiving, and seeing others fall focussed the mind quickly so we went slowly. The rain poured and the wind blew our stupid ponchos over our faces obscuring vision so we went slowly, fearfully and coldly.
It took hours to get to camp 2 but despite seeing several casualties along the way all of our group made it home safely and in daylight. By now we were soaked, our kit was damp (porters rely on the same cheap ponchos to cover person&bags in one), and the tents were pitched in soggy ground. Proper camping!
Sleeping at altitude, in damp clothes, in a damp sleeping bag is an odd and not entirely enjoyable thing but all part of the package. We were part of a group of 16 people ranging from 21 to 51. So different ages, abilities, experiences and expectations - but completely on the same page that despite any hardship or difficult conditions - we all loved the actual trekking (or at least the feeling of completing some parts!) and we were all going to have a laugh while doing it. We have been assured that this is not always the case and small camp sized civil wars have been known. However we were left with a sense of camaraderie that is difficult to reproduce other than through exhaustion, damp, discomfort and a joint feeling of doing something extraordinary - we had such a great group for this and it really does make a fantastic experience even more special when you get to meet great new friends along the way.
We all slept intermittently but as the night got colder it got harder. The 5.30 wake up call was a relief and putting on the same day-clothes again we set off for the longest days walking...
Over 6 hours we descended through cloud forest into jungle and the change in oxygen levels as we dropped 1000m was palpable. Rain bursts made us expert at poncho changing (grab the persons in front, throw it over their head & pack while someone else does the same for you) as when it starts you've got seconds to avoid being drenched but the minute it stops the ponchos serve as an unpleasant one-man sauna.
Despite the rain and the section with 3000 steps down (knee problems anyone?) we saw some fantastic views that day. The inca ruins are impressive of course but the Andes themselves steal the show. Rain is an annoyance but the constantly changing cloud form meant the view was different every time we looked up.
Knackered but happy we were ready to hit the cold ground sheets at 9pm in preparation for the final day. Just before bed it was time to thank our porters and the cook, this consisted of an introduction to each man - who supplied his name and age. We have no idea why they do that, and we really struggled to hold our 'inappropriate laughter valves' as the group gasped at the news that some were 40+ and some were under 25... Plain bizarre but very entertaining - didn't change our levels of respect - as our 'volunteer' spokesmen Justin and Matt ably and sincerely shared. After the touching words and feelings of real gratitude welled, the porters surrounded us and shook hands with us all in turn while exchanging pleasantries with us at navel height... So glad those laughter valves were still just about in tact!
Day 4 begins at 3.30am and off everyone walks to the sun gate to watch Machu Pichu emerge with day break. The reality is all 500 of the Trekkers (that's the daily volume of licences issued so there were probably less than that as we're in low season) have the same idea so the hours of slippy narrow path walking are done largely in single file but in very high spirits as all the effort is about to pay off. Machu Pichu is of course stunning. The largest of its kind, steeped in mystery (no one knows why it was abandoned), hidden by trees until 1911 and surrounded by incredible mountains every step is worth it. Huge smiles and some tears were shared in the group as we realised we'd completed an amazing experience - and another one that will stand out in our Americas travels.
Of course you can avoid effort and save 4 days by taking the train up, or by staying in a hotel in the nearest valley town & taking the early bus up but then you only see the site from the site, not from the mirador we had at The Sun Gate. With a sense of entitlement and superiority over the day trippers we walked the final hour to the site itself and became acutely aware of how bad we smelt but really didn't care.
By 11.30 we'd toured the site and got down to the nearest town where we had beer & pizza. Then more beer. Exhausted but very very happy.
Several hours later, drunk with camaraderie and booze we got a bus back to Cusco. Acknowledging our ragged state the driver encouraged us to relax and sleep the 2 hours home then put Eye of the Tiger on full blast and drove into a rock/dog (not sure which). Back to normality....