Day 5: Pacamayo – Winay Wayna

Our last full day’s hiking began shortly after 5.30am, on a cold Andean morning above the Pacamayo river.  Joe had slept the night through, and the cheerful porters were greeting us all with bowls of hot water for washing in, and mugs of Coca tea.

But it was mornings like this that brought home where we were, and why we were doing it.  Sometimes at the end of the day when your knees were screaming and you were hiking the last few miles to camp in rapidly fading light, it was easy to forget.  Then you wake up the next morning with views of cloud-filled valleys, and you wonder why you don’t do this kind of thing more often.  Day three of proper hiking along the Inca trail promised lots more ruins, more altitude, and more cloud forest.

About a kilometre along the trail from the campsite, and a climb of about 150m we came to the first set of ruins of the day, the remains of Runkuraqay — at an altitude of approximately 3750m.

Discovered by the explorer Hiram Bingham, who was searching for Machu Picchu, like much of the Incan architecture the purpose of the tambo aren’t entirely clear.  While some historians claim it was a lookout post for the trail, others have said it was a guard house, a grain store or even a llama corral.

From here the hike just kep going up — and like the previous day, the air was thin, the trail was steep and the going was slow.  While we knew we were going up to 4,000m again, we’d spent the night at altitude and so hadn’t nearly as far to go this time — instead we had almost all of the rest of the day downhill.

And so from the highest point of the day, it was another 400m descent down to the town of Sayaqmarka.  Reached only by a steep, narrow staircase Sayaqmarka can be translated as “inaccesible town”.

Having spent the best part of the day so far not actually at the back of the group, I decided to forego a brief side trip up to the ruins of Sayaqmarka and instead press on ahead.  There was still a lot of hiking to be done, and I had some foolish notion that I might possibly be able to get back before nightfall without being eaten by a puma.  Though I expect for many it would be an honour to be eaten by such a revered animal, I figured that could at least wait until after Machu Picchu.

Speaking of Machu Picchu, I had come this far now and was now reassured in myself that I wouldn’t have to abandon the trail with one of the group leaders and instead take the train to the lost city.  In some of my darker moments the day before I had reassured myself that it would still be an adventure, even if that was the worst case scenario.  But it wasn’t me being carried up to Dead Woman’s Pass in a papoose, or giving the porters a fright by keeling over at the top.  So, surely, if I had come this far then I would just keep going?  The worst of the uphill was behind me, and we were at such a point that returning were as tedious as to go o’er.

As the day wore on, the trail levelled out and widened — giving us fine views and occasional patches of cloud forest.  The third pass was reached easily after passing through an Inca tunnel in the rock.  I can’t be sure exactly when it was in the day, but it must have been about around this time that one of my fellow trekkers had a small mishap with some strong pharmaceutical painkillers.

For reasons of her own, one of the trek doctors had given her two of these tablets, and she’d been instructed to take them something like four hours apart.  I can be fairly clear about these instructions, since I’d been given some myself — but never felt the need to resort to those on top of what I was already taking.  Many of you can probably guess what happened next — it got to halfway through the day, and Yvonne realised she had forgotten to take one of the tablets earlier.  Maybe she was feeling particularly sore, and that was what reminded her, but she obviously figured that she would need to “catch up” on what she had missed, and took them both at once.

Yvonne later told us that she didn’t realise this was a mistake until some time later.  We were at the top of a particularly steep climb, everyone was getting their breath back, and Yvonne noticed how the colours on all the plants seemed so unusually vivid, and thought to herself that she hadn’t known that was a symptom of altitude sickness.  Then she remembered the tablets she had taken, and realised all was not well.  Before long, she was giggling like an addict in the depths of an ether binge, and was unable to walk any distance completely unaided.

Luckily for everyone involved, Yvonne needed nothing more than one of the group leaders to support her as she walked and to keep an eye on her — no permanent damage was going to have been done, she just needed supervision and assistance.

On route to the last night’s camp we passed above the ruins of Phuyupatmarka (meaning Cloud-Level Town), a complex structure of protection walls and paths built on the uppermost side of a high hill.  It’s a sad state of affairs when by this point it is almost getting to a point where this elaborate Inca architecture is starting to seem normal.  It never becomes boring or uninteresting, but after a while you start to expect it — and know you are getting closer to the final day.

Before you can get to the final day, though, if you are like me you will spend most of the last hour of walking actually hiking in complete darkness with only a headtorch for light. While I wasn’t alone and the camp wasn’t far away, it was still not advisable to be walking the trails in the dark.  For me, it just added to the adventure — but I still didn’t want to get eaten by any wild animals.

The campsite of Winay Wayna was completely different to the previous two nights.  For a start it had toilets and showers — real toilets and real showers, that weren’t in tents.  It also had a dining hall, a kind of off-licence and a small shop that sold the tokens you needed to buy beer.  Most of the others had already been back at the camp for an hour or two already by this point, and had got on the beers without delay. Even Joe, who had made a lazarus-like recovery.

To celebrate the end of the camping, that evening there was a formal meal at real tables and everything — but for many of us, that was where the celebrations would stay, because the next day was the final hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

Day 4: The Inca Trail, Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

After a restless night disturbed by tentmate Joe’s frequent and noisy vomiting, we started the second proper day of walking with the knowledge that this would be perhaps the hardest thing many of us had ever done — and possibly the hardest thing we would ever do.

We had camped overnight at an altitude of 2700m at a place called Wayllabamba, which in the Peruvian Quechan language means “grassy plain”. Both of these are quite safe, reassuring facts that you take comfort in on the trail. The altitude is low (although that is still double the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles), and the name tells you how it’s nice and flat. This contrasted with the focal point of the day: Dead Woman’s Pass, standing at an altitude of 4200m, over three times the height of Ben Nevis and nearly four times the height of Snowdon*.

It wasn’t long before the ascending trail took us up through what is referred to as “cloud forest”, where the forests are persistently misty — this made it cooler for the uphill hike, but the altitude was still tough. Joe hadn’t recovered from the night before, and was struggling to continue going since he couldn’t even keep water down. We were lucky that it stayed dry for us, since this part of the trail had a reputation for being hard going when it got muddy as well as steep.

I remember one stop we made for a rest and water, which really symbolised the contrast of the traditional Peruvian society and the “modern world”. We stopped to regroup and rest, and a few feet away, under a tree sat two Peruvian women in traditional dress, with their donkey. And a table selling bottle water, Coke, chocolate, Powerade and various other delicacies. Every now and then the donkey would wander closer to one of the women, and she’d hit it with a stick. I got the impression the woman was telling the donkey to go away, but maybe it was the other way round — the donkey enjoyed it, and every now and then just had an urge to be hit with a stick again, whereupon the old lady would oblige.

Lunch a couple of hours later was a beautiful lush valley, with views of snow-capped peaks and the heights of Dead Woman’s Pass lying ahead of us. Joe was in a bad way. He was dehydrated and weak, from being unable to keep anything down but still being determined to keep going. I think the trail and the long months of preparation did that to you: giving up was not an option. If I thought I had things bad with dodgy knees and a bad foot, Joe had to be put on an intravenous drip in a tent.

When I arrived at the lunch stop true to form our team of trusty porters had already erected the three group dining tents for us, as well as the cooking tents and done all the cooking — and there was still a few minutes to go before meal time. Most others had been there a while longer than me, but I was perpetually slow. It’s now such a bad way to take the trail, you get the opportunity to take in all the sights around you — which never have the chance to become familiar or run of the mill.

I encouraged a fellow trekker to venture in to one of the surrounding fields where llamas (or maybe alpacas, I can’t tell the difference) were peacefully grazing. I had been tasked by Ali to hug a llama for her, and I was determines to meet my obligations, and have a photo taken to prove it. Unfortunately, the llamas had other ideas about this. They might be big. And smelly. But they are also still timid of people, and weren’t keen on the idea of being hugged by someone who hadn’t showered in a couple of days. I settled for a photo near a llama instead, though I won’t post it since it’s not a very flattering picture — and I don’t look a whole heap better.

Lunch was packed with carbs — the now-usual selection of dishes ranging between soup, chicken, white rice and traditional Peruvian dishes. It was delicious, and best of all plentiful — and we needed it, since Dead Woman’s Pass still lay several hours ahead and several thousand meters above us.


After lunch the trail got steeper and relentless, there was often barely enough room for two people to walk side by side, when there would come up the mountain a shout of “Porters!”. Everyone would move to one side to let these Peruvian supermen past — with port-a-loos and stoves on their backs and nothing more than sandals on their feet.

The altitude made the trek hard going. We’d be able to walk no more than a few minutes before having to stop to catch our breath — the thing about altitude was that the air literally did feel thinner, you could take long, deep breaths but the air just didn’t go so far. Your heart would pound, your head would thump, and you just had to stop and let everything settle — no amount of eagerness or speed would get you up the mountain any faster.

With the altitude came the cloud, and once we reached Dead Woman’s Pass (so-called because it is said to resemble a dead woman lying on her back, with the view of two mountainous peaks resembling breasts) it got cold very quickly. We all assembled together to appreciate what would be the highest — although not necessarily the hardest — point of our trip. The views were limited by the cloud around and below us, and strangely reminded me of Dartmoor — probably because of the cloud/fog, rock and desolate landscape. On many of the surrounding hills were small piles of stones, not unlike the cairns found in the British Isles — they were apparently expressions of wishes by Quechan travellers, who would return and add another stone to the top of the pile when their wish came true.

Getting to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass was only half the battle — there was still a 500m descent to camp to go. While the ascent was hard-going because of the altitude and steep climb, descending is often just as hard, and the relentless steps are torture on your knees — and like with the ascent, you can’t speed up, even if you want to, and know you are against the clock to get into camp before dark.

The second night camping was in the Pacamayo (or “sunrise”) valley, where instead the sun was quickly setting. My tentmate Joe (who had been carried at one point on the steepest part of the trail uphill) was already in the tent and his sleeping bag and fell sound asleep almost as soon as I got back. After a hard day, many of us were a lot more tired than the night before and went to sleep right after dinner.

The next day was promised by some to be the hardest, with another very early start.

*Readers outside of the UK: please feel free to chip in with how this compares with mountains you are more familiar with — I appreciate the UK isn’t known for its mountainous terrain.