Peru and the Inca Trail
Peru has been on my bucket list as long as I can remember and in October 2018 I finally got a chance to visit. My dad used to tell me stories about the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu when I was a kid because he always wanted to visit but sadly still has not to this day despite my encouragement. This fuelled my appetite to conquer the Inca Trail and it was better than I could of imagined. Trouble is, now I want to trek Mount Kilimanjaro, a much harder feat I fear.
The Amazon Rainforest – Puerto Maldonado
Before we attempted the Inca trail it seemed sensible to spend some time exploring other parts of the country so that we had time to get over the jetlag and so we took a short flight from the Capital, Lima, to Peurto Maldonado. This town, situated on the Madre De Dios river, is a good stopping point for tourists who want to explore the Amazon Rainforest. We had booked a 4 day/3 night package with Wasi Lodge Expeditions who picked us up from the airport and dropped us off in the town for a quick bite to eat before we jumped on the boat which would take us to to the eco-lodge. Please note that although everything mentioned in this part of the post is specific to Wasai Lodge Expeditions, the other tour companies and lodges in the area have very similar itineraries and visit the same main points of interest.
The journey is quite long (about 4 hours) and uncomfortable but there are plenty of amazing plants and wildlife to look out for which should keep you entertained. We were lucky enough to spot capybara, macaws of different varieties and cayman before we even reached the lodge.
Once arriving at the lodge we had time to settle in before embarking on a night hike. This is one of my favourite things to do when in the rainforest as the forest completely transforms when it becomes dark with animals and insects which cannot be seen during the day coming out to play. Your guide will take you through the rainforest with just a torch to guide his way and will help you find lots of hidden creatures – we saw tarantulas, tree frogs, other spiders, stick insects, crickets and moths to name a few. I suggest you wear long trousers and a long sleeved shirt at this point as although it is still swelteringly hot the sensation of bugs landing on your skin is not pleasant in the dark (especially when you are introduced to the poisonous spiders). One highlight of a night hike can be found by turning off your torch and just listening to the sounds of the rainforest in the pitch black – quite an experience. As you leave the rainforest don’t forget to look up and check out the stars which, for a city dweller like me, is a scene you will never see back home. From this part of the world you can even see the milky way!
If you are in this part of the rainforest make sure you pay a visit to the macaw claylicks. If your timing is right you get the opportunity to see hundreds of macaws on the side of the cliffs, eating the clay. This is the best opportunity you will get to photograph these birds during your stay. However, you do need patience as we were sitting around waiting for the birds to come down to the clay for a good few hours and sadly, due to a circling hawk, never really got to see them properly on the cliffs. You can still watch them fly overhead though.
Other activities in the rainforest include kayaking down the river which, although it is hard work, is great fun and well worth signing up for. It’s very peaceful on the river and you get to explore areas you can’t from the comfort of the lodge. It is also important to get your guide to take you on a hike though the rainforest during the day; the guides have great knowledge about the plants and so can tell you which ones to help soothe the hundreds of mosquito bites you will probably receive!
The Inca Trail
The Amazon rainforest is amazing but after a few days of strong sun, high humidity and too many bugs to count, I was ready to escape and take a flight to Cusco for the start of the Inca Trail. Cusco, a moderately large city which was the capital of the Inca Empire, is 3,400m above sea level and so it is important to take a day or two to acclimatise to the altitude before you start the trek to ensure you don’t get sick. This city attracts a large number of tourists all keen to start the Inca Trail and there are plenty of restaurants and a couple of attractions to keep you busy for a day. However, I wouldn’t suggest you send much more time in Cusco than that. There are also a lot of hiking shops in case you need to purchase anything ahead of your trek.
Most people join a tour from Cusco to Machu Pichhu; there are a number of different options including the classic Inca Trail (a 4 day trek), the Lares Trail (a 3 day trek but to a higher altitude than the Inca trail), other trails or a train and bus ride to Machu Picchu itself. For me, I didn’t want to see Machu Picchu unless I had completed the Inca Trail, the only option which allows you to walk on the trail down into Machu Picchu.
We booked onto a tour with G Adventures but there are tons of good companies to choose from. You meet your group on Day 1 in the late afternoon / evening and hire any equipment you need for the trek. I would suggest leaving your sleeping bag at home and just hiring the bag and mat from G Adventures in Cusco – its super cheap and it means you don't have to pack it in your case/rucksack.
On Day 2 you are picked up in the early morning and driven to Ollantaytambo, an Incan town with plenty of ruins to explore. As you approach you can see the terraces and old storehouses built into the hills. On the way to Ollantaytambo you will get the opportunity to stop in a few places to see local people weave clothing from llama and alpaca hair as well as learn how they make pottery and build houses.
The next day you will be driven to Km 82 and the start of the Inca Trail. You will get given your passes and can take those all important photographs at the sign which marks the start of the Inca trail before starting your trek. All of the tour companies spread the hiking distance out across the 4 days differently due to capacity at each of the camp sites and so if you use a different company to G Adventures please bear in mind your days may differ slightly. After passing Km 82 you will start your walk up hill for 4-5 hours (11km) to the Wayllabamba Camp which you arrive at about 4pm. You will pass by Llaqtapata, an Incan ruin set into the hillside, which is your first real experience of what is to come. Your tent will already be set up for you on arrival and you will be offered afternoon tea by the incredible porters that ran up the Inca trail earlier in the day to get everything set up for you.
Day 4 starts early due to the dreaded dead woman’s pass, the highest point of the trek(4,198m) and so the part where the altitude is most likely to affect you. For me, it was not as bad as everyone had led me to believe but this of course this varies for each person; even the fittest of people can be badly affected by altitude. We started the climb at 6.45am, with a snack break of an hour just before the climb up dead woman’s pass to allow some of the others to catch up. The first part of the walk is quite special as you pass through the forest rather than open mountainside terrain as per day 1. There are plenty of interesting trees, rivers and waterfalls to enjoy along the way. After the break we started the climb up Dead Woman’s pass. Although we started the walk in the blaring sunshine we were faced with a wall of mist and fog at the top which was a bit of a shame so we didn’t stay up there long. The climb down to the Paqaymayo Camp took about 1.5 hours and so we arrived around 12.30pm in time for some lunch. We had no further hiking to do this day and so had plenty of time to relax although some others in our group didn’t arrive for another 2.5 hours, they unfortunately got caught in the rain which made the climb down difficult. The total length walked this day is 12km.
Day 5 is the longest day and so again you start hiking at around 6.45am as you have to hike 16km up and down throughout the day. This was probably my favourite hiking day though due to the amazing cloud forest you spend most of the day walking through. In addition, the path becomes less congested as people spread out and so you are alone for long stretches of the walk. Make sure your guide takes you to the Wiñay Wayna ruins, a really interesting Incan site set high in the hillside which is fun to explore especially as there is often no one else around. Take your time on this day, there is no rush and the stairs on the way down can be tough on your knees.
Day 6 brings the excitement of the final push to Machu Picchu. This day is a very early start, around 3.30am so you can be in the queue for when the gates open to the park. It also gives the porters enough time to make the first train down to Ollantaytambo. Once the park is open you start a 1.5 hour hike to the Sun Gate from where you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. In reality, most days the mountain is covered in fog and so after waiting 20 minutes or so it is worth heading down to beat the crowds. Another 20 minutes along the trail and, as the fog starts to lift, you will see that iconic view of Machu Picchu (and unfortunately its hordes of tourists). You will have plenty of time to take photographs before you go down into the ruins themselves. Your guide will explain the history of the site and you will be given time to explore alone before meeting your group to take the train back. The journey back to Cusco is quite long and the altitude changes quickly so this is the point where some members of our group got sick!
A few pointers for the Inca Trail:
The photo opportunities are amazing – bring a good camera. The trek isn’t as hard as you think and you will regret it otherwise. Make sure to bring a spare battery or two as well.
Reward the porters and guides. These guys do the most incredible job and don’t earn much so tip them well. The porters cook, clean and put up your tents ready for your arrival. The food is amazing, they even cooked a birthday cake half way up the trek. The guides are knowledgeable and do everything they can to make your experience memorable.
The toilet situation isn’t as bad as you think. There are plenty of toilets of various degrees of cleanliness along the trek.
Bring lots of layers. One minute the sun is beating down on you and the next you are in a could of fog and rain so bring lots of layers which you can easily take off and put back on.
Book in advance. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day and this includes the porters and guides so the passes sell out quick. I would suggest you book at least 10 months in advance so as not to be disappointed.
Lake Titicaca is a stop for most people visiting Peru and is worth a visit albeit only for a couple of days especially to relax after the Inca Trail. You need to fly to Juliaca airport and then take a taxi an hour to Puno which is the town on the lake. Puno itself does not have much to offer tourists and so you only really stay there so you can take a tour out onto the lake. If you fancy something a bit different like we did, however, you can stay on one of the floating lodges on the lake. These lodges float on the reeds in the lake and the locals have built B&Bs on these in some places. We stayed with Uros Titicaca Lodge but there are a couple of options available. We were picked up from the port by boat by our host, who also arranged us the taxi from the airport. Our food, cooked on the floating lodge, was all included as were a number of activities including an introduction to the lake and its wildlife, a tour of the reeds and information as to how the locals use them and a visit to the floating island village. Most tourists visit the floating island village early in the day but we were able to visit later once the tourists had gone which gave us the opportunity to see the ‘real’ floating islands and the people that live on them every day. Some locals head to the islands to sell goods to the tourists but don’t actually live their themselves anymore, choosing the easier life in Puno.
You can take a day trip from the islands or Puno to Tiquile Island. Some of the activities are a little tacky, such as dancing with the locals, but the island itself is beautiful and so I suggest you visit just for that aspect.
Lima, the capital city, and the stop that many travelers seem to rush through as most websites suggest you don’t spend much time here. I, however, disagree and suggest you give this place a chance as it has a lot to offer. We stayed in the Miraflores area, an area of clear regeneration. The number of quaint hotels, restaurants and bars is quite staggering but it makes for a good place to base yourself.
I suggest you take a walk around Miraflores at your own pace but take the time to stop in at Huaca Pucllana, a clay pyramid in Central Lima and a local shrine. The area is still being excavated but you can still take a guided tour around the site. Otherwise, just wander down the boardwalk; visiting the local shops and markets as well as taking a quick visit to Kennedy Park which is home to loads of cats.
The other must do on my list is to swim with the sealions – something which it seems most tourists have yet to discover. You can book a trip with Mar Adentro Excursiones who will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the port where you will board one of their small boats. The entire trip is about 2 hours long and it takes around 45 minutes to get to the sealions. Along the way you wish pass a multitude of seabirds and penguins but I warn you, the voyage is not for the faint hearted. The sea is extremely rough and choppy and so not only do you fear for your life a lot of the time but you will undoubtedly feel very sea sick. The key is to jump straight in the sea as soon as you can as this helps stop the seasickness. However, this can be quite a task in itself as once you arrive you will find the boat surrounded by hundreds of rather large sealions which can be quite daunting. Despite feeling quite nervous throughout the entire experience it was quite remarkable to be surrounded by these creatures in the wild whilst they play and splash around you.
Following our trip to the sealions, we just had time for a quick shower before heading to the airport to fly back to the UK.