6. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Day 1: Cuzco to Wayllabamba (12 km)

Our alarms rang at an excruciatingly early 3:30 a.m. Dragging our heavy backpacks and rented hiking poles onto the coach, we promptly fell asleep before we had even left the winding streets of Cuzco. An hour later, we reached Piskacuchu, a small village located at “km 82”, signifying that the community is situated at the 82nd kilometre along the Cuzco-Machu Picchu railway – the starting point of the Inca trail. From an old lady’s makeshift store, we made last-minute purchases such as rain ponchos and water. After a quick breakfast amid the rising Andean sun, we reached the official starting point, a passport checkpoint by the Urubamba River, marked by a wooden plaque. Our spirits, aided by our hiking guides Jamie and Marco, were buoyed by optimism.

Crossing an iron bridge spanning the Urubamba Valley, we were well and truly on our way. The first stretch of our hike was along the left shore of the meandering Urubamba River, which cuts through and irrigates the Sacred Valley. As we hiked, we would lose sometimes lose sight of the river, but she would inevitably re-emerge as we made our way past the next hilly outcrop. This part of the trail is on relatively flat terrain and passes by several primitive villages. Along this first stretch, we encountered several porters and their mules, trotting through the steep paths; these mules would travel along this path daily to transport supplies to and from the remote villages. Malnourished chickens wandered through the dirt, awaiting their inevitable doom.

We began our ascent of hundreds of metres, enjoying fantastic views of the ridges forming the Urubamba Valley. We were surprised to find that by the time we reached Miskay, our porters had long reached the village and set up the communal tent where we would enjoy our lunch. As we once again tightened our hiking boots and picked up our hiking poles, the porters had tirelessly set off, seemingly undaunted by the slopes that stood ahead. Their physical fitness is truly unparalleled. We found out that one of the porters was 65 years old and had been hiking the Inca Trail for about 30 years!

Continuing our climb, the unpaved path soon began to narrow and was replaced by mossy Incan rocks. We finally reached the viewpoint above the valley formed by the Cusichaca River, and our first Incan archaeological site – Llactapata. Llactapata, or shoreside town in Quechua, so-named as it is located at an oxbow near the confluence between the Cusichaca and the Urubamba, was discovered by Hiram Bingham III. From above, the settlement seemed little more than a model village , meticulously carved from the bedrock of the valley, a deliberate continuation of the modest slopes of the mountainside. Alas, time was of the essence, and we did not detour down to the shores of the Cusichaca and Llactapata in a bid to reach our campsite on time.

As we marvelled at the settlements below, Jamie and Marco sat us down and retrieved a bag of coca leaves. Their cheeks bulging with leaves, they began to explain the spiritual and cultural importance of coca, which had been cultivated since pre-Incan times. Coca leaves are internationally vilified as they contain the psychoactive ingredient cocaine; in many farming operations, the leaves are mashed and soaked in chemicals to extract the powder, which is then sold as a paste. In many South American countries, notably Colombia, their cultivation and possession have been banned. Nonetheless, the coca leaf itself contains such low quantities of the psychoactive component that neither the “high” nor the addiction that accompanies cocaine is experienced when consuming coca leaves. In addition, for the Andean people, coca is thought to be of divine origins, playing a central role in offerings to Pachamama(Mother Earth) and the sacred mountains. In addition, coca leaves are traditionally used for medical purposes, in particular for altitude sickness, indigestion, and even as an anaesthetic. Their indigenous significance has prompted Peru and Bolivia to campaign against the international prohibition of coca leaves, but to little avail.

From Llactapata, we continued to ascend, following the contours of the valley, until we reached Wayllabamba (grassy plain in Quechua). There, amid the shadows formed by the drooping sun and the surrounding mountains, we arrived to a refreshing glass of chicha morada as well as our tents, long set up by the porters who had overtaken us along the way. We were also greeted by the view of Mount Veronica, a sacred mountain (Quechua: Wakaywilca, or Sacred Tears) of the Cordillera Vilcanotamountain range.

As the shadows continued to creep across the sky, we were treated to a ludicrously lavish dinner of schnitzel and fried yucca, a potato variety from the rainforest regions of Peru, prompting us to marvel at the incredible imagination and skill required to conjure up such dishes with basic cooking facilities. Amid starry skies and rapidly dropping temperatures, we retired to our tent and inflatable mattresses, in anticipation of the long day of trekking that lay ahead.

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