Day 2 — Sacsayhuamán

“Sunday, May 31

6.30am: Sunrise over the mountains, and I’d forgotten what an amazing sight that is. Today is an acclimatisation walk, we’re being taken up to about 3500m and then walking back.

I admit here to being concerned about my foot, the doctor back thinks it could be weeks before it is better. I don’t even want to think about the possibility of not being able to walk.”
Our first real day in Peru started just before sunrise. It was already light outside, but when the sun reached over the mountains I remembered why I love this kind of country so much. We don’t have mountains in England, not a single one, so the best you can hope for is either hills or when the sun comes up over the buildings, which doesn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Cusco was starting to wake up, like a big cat stretching and yawning. The hotel provided us with breakfast, which incorporated fruit juices, fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, and various bread products. A feature of the trip as a whole was large meals — loading up on the carbs and the calories, since you’d be needing all that you could get.

We were bussed up into the foothills of the mountains to start our first day’s walking — it wasn’t part of the trail itself, just an opportunity to get used to being at altitude and warm up a little for the walking we had ahead over the coming days. We started at a ruin called Tambo Machay — whose original purpose remains unknown, although it has been speculated it served as a place to guard the approaches to Cusco. Because of the Incas lack of a written language, many things about them are open to speculation — including their architecture. Just the same, the structures with its canals and aqueducts remained impressive.

From Tambo Machay we set off walking across country, and other than the altitude it was no more strenuous than many walks in England. It was particularly surreal to be walking through plains and fields and seeing football pitches off to the side, before remembering how popular the sport is in South America.

While the walking wasn’t hard, my foot was still painful. It had been several days since I’d hurt it, and although I was better able to put my weight on it and was taking a lot of pain killers it was still slow and difficult going at times, and put undue strain on my opposite knee. Just the same, although it bothered me, it still wasn’t anything that was likely to stop me altogether.

At times, we passed through towns in the mountains — basic stone houses where people lived their simple and quiet lives. Until the native children would see you, then suddenly there would be a dozen, barely-dressed children surrounding you, holding out their hands for money. We were told not to give them anything — the Peruvians are proud people, and don’t want their children growing up to be dependant on begging and handouts. We were especially told not to give them sweets, since they had no system of dental care.

I think our Macmillan guide Sarah described the children best as incredibly sweet, but so dirty. They were clever though, so often they would appear with a cute baby animal — usually a lamb — and try to entice you to take pictures, which they would then want money for. Fortunately, none of our group was taken in by this.

The next ruin we came to was Sacsayhuamán, referred to by the Peruvian guides as “sexy woman”. The site appeared to be a kind of fortress, and with the city of Cusco forms the head and body of a Puma. What is truly impressive about Sacsayhuamán was the sheer scale of it — from pictures, it looks like any other pile of stones that was once a fort. But some of the stones weigh as much as 200 tonnes, more than twice as tall as me, and are larger than I can comprehend. As with places like Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, it’s amazing and much debated how these huge blocks of stone with rounded corners and interlocking edges were carved, transported across great distances and assembled. The fortress was also assembled with all the walls leaning at a slight angle to help protect it against earthquake. Clever chaps, those Incas — although much of their cleverness lay in borrowing ideas from older cultures.

From Sacsayhuamán, it seemed like the rest of the day was one long descent into Cusco — albeit on well maintained stone steps, and while I wasn’t exhausted by the day, the altitude left me feeling worn out and I was walking very badly by the time we eventually made it to the city’s outskirts.

As mentioned, this wasn’t even part of the trek itself — just a gentle warm up and a day trip to some historic sites, we wouldn’t ever have it this easy again.

Back at the hotel the order of the day was just dinner and bed, since Monday promised a very early start, and the beginning of the hiking itself.

“6.35pm: After a gentle day’s walking to get used to the altitude, my knee hurts and, of course, my foot hurts. The doctors are openly concerned about it, I see them exchange looks, but everyone is very friendly and nice and supportive. I just keep saying I will do whatever it takes to make it through.

Sacsayhuamán was amazing. The huge stone blocks were so perfectly carved, the hills and mountains all looked more like a picture than actually real.

What lies ahead is honestly scaring me. I think everyone feels the same way.”

Day 1 — Cusco

After much delay (it’s been two weeks now since Machu Picchu), I begin a series of posts about the Inca Trail. As always, my travel writings go under the working title of “Stay out of circulation til the dogs get tired”.

Day 1 — Cusco

“Saturday, May 30
After almost 24 hours since I got to Heathrow, I am in Cusco. I feel fuzzy with the altitude, but mostly ok — and though my foot does worry me, I have to now try not to get too worried. It is bright, warm and sunny, and the air is filled with traffic noise and car horns.

Peru is a dusty brown colour, with dark green trees. The earth-toned buildings look like they are part of the landscape, almost as if they just grew here, instead of being made.

[later]The city doesn’t seem to ever slow down. It’s now 6pm, and dark, but the city still rumbles on.

We arrived in Lima in that dazed, half-awake, half-asleep state that comes with long-haul flying. I spend most of my time travelling in this kind of waking-sleep state, due to my ability to fall asleep in almost any moving vehicle. Aeroplanes used to be a kind of exception to this — mostly because you don’t really notice you are moving — but I happily slept almost the whole journey from London to New York, and then New York to Lima.

What had been billed as a long stop-over in New York instead became a rush across the airport — we’d been late taking off from Heathrow, and by the time we got to New York they were holding our plane for us.

Stepping off the plane in Lima, we were met by what appeared to be a doctor and a nurse wearing surgical masks, giving out information on swine flu. Despite the virus starting in Central America, many South American countries are still largely unaffected — Peru for example has only a handful of cases, compared to those in the United Kingdom. I imagine swine flu would be a lot more dangerous in a third world country like Peru, so their precautions weren’t overzealous — but it was a disturbing sight to be met with.

Unfortunately, out of the 50 or so of us travelling together for Macmillan, only about 10 bags made the journey from New York. Because of how delayed we had been, there hadn’t been time to load many bags — and a lot of people had only the clothes they were standing in. On the other hand, I always pack under the assumption that my bag is likely to be lost somewhere and include a change of clothes in my hand luggage.

The less said about Lima, the better. We didn’t see anything of the city, but from all the accounts I’ve heard that’s for the best. After filling out forms about our lost bags, we hopped on a short flight to Cusco, where I promptly went back to sleep and woke up only as we were landing.

Cusco — the cultural capital of Peru, and the former capital of the Inca empire — was vibrant, full of colours and people and noise and life. We were staying in the Savoy hotel, which our guides had gone to some pains to point out was not to the same standard as the Savoy in London. Part of the hotel was closed due to building work, and apparently it was something of a lottery if the showers worked. My shower worked — sort of — but the room was clean and the beds were large and comfortable. That was good enough for me.

After dropping our bags and a meal at the hotel, our hardy band of adventurers set out into the city. Along the roads were markets where local people sold their wares to tourists — ponchos, blankets, carvings. Each stall holder would call out “Hola, amigo” and try to entice you over. I deliberated for a long time before buying a poncho myself, but I figured it would come in useful at nights on the Inca trail. Half the fun in buying anything was bartering with the seller for a good price. Everything was a good price to begin with, the Peruvian Sol was about three to the Dollar, and with almost two Dollars to the Pound, nothing was too expensive. Just the same, I’d ask how much it was, mentally convert it, and then try and get them to knock about another ten off the price.

In Cusco it seemed there was always some kind of a parade going on, without explanation and without anyone paying too much attention. Maybe it was a special weekend.

In the evening, the Discover Adventure guides took us to a local restaurant for a chance to sample some Peruvian cuisine. Even though the restaurant was run by a Scotsman called Dougie. I turned away the chance to eat guinea pig when it was presented to us, since the creature still had paws. Had it been served as just sliced meat, I might have been willing to perhaps consider giving it a try — but when it still looked like someone’s pet, I wasn’t keen. In fact, I don’t think I tried anything Peruvian that night since the buffet also included a couple of chinese style dishes. I just wasn’t in that kind of place where I wanted to be eating something unknown, when we’d be spending the next few nights camping, without proper toilets or showers. What did catch my interest was when I discovered the owner of the bar also ran an adventure sports company, and he offered me the chance to go mountain biking on the last day in Cusco.

I turned down the chance to go drinking after the meal — although I wasn’t feeling too bad for the altitude, it was a fairly early start the next day to go on an “acclimatisation walk” in the foothills, and I wanted a clear head for it.

I did it

Machu Picchu 3I DID IT.

Through 4 days of walking on bruised and blistered feet, I made it to the lost city of Machu Picchu and what an experience it was! Many thanks to Amanda who updated the group here for me while I was away :)

I fell down the stairs at home just two days before I was due to go away, but despite it all I kept going and saw it all; snow capped mountains, steep stone staircases, cloud forests and Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200m — it was all quite inspiring. Chelmsford doesn’t seem quite the same after the vibrancy of Cusco and the mountain passes of the Andes.

At the moment, my fundraising is only a few quid shy of £4,000, and I expect to break that when I call in a few promised sponsorships. If anyone had been thinking about donating but wanted to see if I could manage it first, now is your chance to make that contribution.

I’m still updating and captioning photos — this link should take you to a slideshow of the pictures on Flickr, so keep checking back to see if there is anything new. Proper blog posts about the trip itself are coming soon, I promise.

Thank all of you again for your help and support, it meant a lot to me and kept me going when things were tough.

So here’s to all of you for your support, here’s to Peru, and here’s to starting to think about what the next challenge can be!