(nb. Due to slooooow internet connection in Bolivia, the photos will have to follow...)
It was shortly after discovering the Inca Trail was 26 miles that I began to panic. Following my last disastrous attempt to cover that distance (for those of you who don't know I collapsed running a marathon at mile 25 - yes, that's MILE 25, I still can't bear to think about it) I wasn't feeling overly confident about my abilities to walk a route which at best has been described as "challenging". As if walking 26 miles at altitudes of up to 4,200m wasn't enough. I'd also decided from the comfort of my home when booking the trip in the UK that despite only being 5ft tall I'd be absolutely fine to carry all of my own things (including sleeping bag and mat) rather than hire a porter.
It was only during my first few weeks here that I realised it may not have been the best idea as everyone I met who had already done the trek advised me to change my booking and take the extra help. However it turned out I'd left it too late and all of the passes for the days I was due to take part in the trek had been allocated. (Only 500 passes are allocated each day, 200 of which are for tourists.)
Doing the Inca Trail is something I've wanted to do since the first time I visited South America seven years ago. But with the idea about to become a reality, I totally panicked. I spent the day before packing and repacking my bag, torn between not wanting to carry too much and not wanting to freeze on the way. The nights get very cold and we also had the added risk of taking part in the trek during the rainy season, so rainwear, including an attractive floor-length poncho (I was assured in the shop that 'one size fits all'), also had to be squeezed into my bag. I even hired a new sleeping bad, as the one the agency tried to give me was ridiculously heavy. All in all, when we were picked up at 6am the next morning I think my bag weighed about six or seven kilos.
There were 16 people in my group and day one of the trek lulled us into a false sense of security. The walk was relatively easy and we had lots of breaks along the way. We also quickly realised how spoilt we were going to be by the porters who accompanied us on our trip, who raced ahead to set up camp and whip up amazing meals. If I ever felt like complaining about the weight of my bag I only had to look at the 20kg they were carrying as the ran ahead of us. After an enjoyable first day I was feeling a lot more confident about day two and although some members of the group opted to hire porters for what is known to be the most difficult day. I decided I would be able to manage to carry my own stuff (proud, moi?)
I think it would definitely be fair to describe day two as "tough". It saw us reach our highest point of the trek, 4,200m, at a place called Dead Woman's Pass (so called because it looks like a woman lying down, rather than the fact you feel like you're going to die by the time you've managed to drag yourself up there...) Getting up to that altitude involved a lot of stone steps and a combination of the heat, less oxygen in the air and, of course, the dreaded backpack, made it a very difficult climb. But finally reaching the top was an amazing feeling and as the other groups cheered us in I felt a real sense of achievement.
Since beginning our walk at 7am our guides had been reassuring us that we only had to walk until lunchtime, as we were going to spend the night at the same site. They had also been telling us that after Dead Woman's Pass it was all downhill. What they failed to tell us however, is that downhill is hard. Although breathing becomes easier, there is constant pressure on your knees as they crash down the steps and try to stop your legs running away down the slopes. After two hours my shoulders were absolutely killing me and I couldn't even think about having to put my backpack on again for day three, the longest day.
Luckily lunch, an afternoon siesta, a "tea" of popcorn and biscuits at 6pm, followed swiftly by dinner at 7pm, helped to revitalise the group. The early morning wake-up was also made more bearable firstly, by the cups of tea which were brought to our tents by the porters (see what I mean about spoilt?) and secondly, by the amazing view of the mountains which surrounded us.
Day three was a long day, but was broken up by stops an Inca ruins along the way. After the head-down plod of the day before, it was also a chance to really appreciate the stunning scenery we were walking through. We had been warned before we started the trek that we were now in the rainy season and there was a good chance of rain. I'd had images of myself trudging along in torrential downpours, while trying not to fall off the edge of a mountain. But we were actually incredibly lucky, it only rained once during the night, which meant that every day we had fantastic views. (It also means you all miss out on a photo of me in the lovely poncho.)
When we arrived at our final campsite Winay Wayna, there was a general air of giggly excitement among the many groups which were camping there. Knowing the hard part was out of the way and that we were so close to our final destination, meant we were like kids on Christmas Eve. Even the 3.30am wake-up didn't dampen our spirits. Although the control point for the final two hour walk to Machu Picchu doesn't open until 5am, groups start queuing an hour before. This is presumably so that the super-enthusiastic can run ahead once the control opens in order to have approximately one second to view Machu Picchu with no one else there, before the other 200 tourists pile in behind them. Obviously the members of our group must have taken a while to get going (I may, or may not, have been one of the culprits...) as we were second to last in the queue. Not that it mattered as there was no way I was running for two hours, especially as the trail included some of the narrowest/biggest drop combos we'd seen so far.
Eventually was came to a flight of stairs which were so steep we had to climb up it like a ladder. Exhausted, we got to the top and suddenly realised we'd made it! Walking though the Sun Gate and seeing Machu Picchu for the first time was amazing. The sky was clear and we had a perfect view of the site, overlooked by the mountain of Wayna Picchu. Even though I've seen the pictures a million times, it still took my breath away.
It was at that moment that my body decided it had probably done enough work for four days and I suddenly felt exhausted. However it wasn't quite yet time to have a rest way to make something harder then I'll usually take it and thanks to some encouragement from my Canadian friends Mark and Chris, who had already done the trek, I'd also bought a ticket to climb Wayna Picchu. So after a tour of the Machu Picchu ruins, my climbing partner Nazir and I (the only members of our group who decided to tackle the extra mountain) set off.
The way up was incredibly steep and narrow, meaning sometimes it felt safer to go up on all fours. There were also ropes to haul ourselves up with and a small tunnel to crawl through. But after an hour's climb we were rewarded with the most amazing view of the entire trip. Health and safety doesn't really feature on mountain tops in South America and people balanced precariously on the edge of the huge boulders to take photos of the bird's eye view of Machu Picchu. Climbing Wayna Picchu was definitely one of the highlights of the four days and even the fact that I had to get down the steps on my bum as I'm not a fan of heights didn't matter.
So #3 was a fantastic way to end Peru and who knows, now that I've conquered my fear of the 26 miles, I might even sign up for another marathon...(jokes people, jokes!)