Inca Trail!

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the sight of Machu Picchu at dawn. You may have read about it. You may have seen pictures of it. You may even have tried to imagine what it feels like when you first catch sight of it. But the reality is beyond your dreams.
I chose a four-day trek starting from the Urubamba river, lunching after our first short climb by a waterfall, among four-foot high cacti and trees bearing fat, pink pods. The climb started easily enough, but after an hour or so, my breathing became more laboured, and I was pleased to crawl into my tent, amid enormous wild turkeys stepping haughtily around our camp as I sipped hot chocolate and nibbled popcorn. Next day we started up the steep track known as Dead Woman’s Pass. Someone on horseback passed me, and I was appalled to see porters, carrying several heavy packs each, running nimbly in sandals, whilst the rest of us struggled to walk.
The track rose steeply, so I made my way very, very slowly, concentrating on rhythmic breathing, and placing one foot directly in front of the other, up and up through the rainforest.
That evening, the snow-capped peaks gleamed in the remaining sunlight, whilst clouds rolled in at ground level between our tents. I watched the porters, cocooned in multi-coloured ponchos, crawling into caves to spend the night.
At first light on the third day I managed to get speared by a piece of frozen grass as I attempted to pee between five layers of clothing. It was bone cold. After a hurried breakfast, we plodded for fifteen minutes up near vertical steps to terraced ruins. This original path led us on over log bridges, through natural tunnels in the rock, and through the cloud forest, clinging possessively to the mountains. Ancient steps were covered in lichen, and lined with yellow orchids. The air was sweet with the scent of wild lupins. Bottle brush shrubs, fuchsia and hyacinths flourished. The only sounds were gentle birdcalls. The weather was perfect for walking, the sunlight caressing the landscape with maternal pride, whilst the trail itself was cool in the shade. The Urubamba snaked far below, as bright blue hummingbirds hovered in the emerald green of the vegetation. There are times when beauty is so overwhelming that the brain cannot find words to describe it adequately. Here, it was easy to believe you were in heaven.
At 4.30 on the last morning, a porter banged a spoon against his tin mug to rouse us. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and crawled cautiously out of my tent – pitched on a metre wide ledge, with a three metre vertical drop to the terrace below – and into the blackness, under thousands of stars, the tip of my nose tingling with frost. It was bone cold at minus 5 Celsius.
Although there may be hundreds of people on the trail at any one time, for the most part you walk it alone, prey to doubts about your physical strength and receptive to the soul-soaring moments of achievement. I had taken a supply of the popular coca leaves to chew, plus Inti Raymi granola, chocolate bars and plenty of water. On this last morning I needed them all.
The highlight of the Trail is seeing the ‘Lost City’ at sunrise from the Sun Gate. I set off early, in case my pace was not fast enough to reach the gate by first light. I quickened my step. The path was wet with dew. I shuddered at the sight of a sheer drop of some 15 metres to my right. Then I ran, perspiration pouring, taking huge gulps of air. I was not about to miss out on the climax. At times there was no path at all, or the trail disappeared into a log bridge, strung precariously from the mountainside.
I found myself at the base of a stone ladder, and crumbled inwardly. I barely had the strength to lift my head, let alone force energy into my knees. ‘You’ve come this far,’ I whispered to myself. ‘Have courage; you’ll never come here again, so this is your one and only chance.’ From the top, I could make out the shape, far ahead, of a pillar of stone, and human shadows flitting about. One last effort and I’d be there. I started up. At the top, the group was smaller than I expected, a dozen or so, staring silently out over the panorama. We waited; no one spoke.
Suddenly, the light changed. Beams began to stretch down from the sky, marbling the mountainsides. A blink, and there it was, the famous silhouette taking shape before our eyes. Everyone drew breath, and stood transfixed. In the silence, peace descended, enveloping us and uniting us in rapture, wonderment and veneration. It is true. You feel the energy, you sense the magic. You leave, as my guide said, ‘con las piernas muertas, pero con el espíritu vivo’ (with dead legs but with living spirit).

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