‘Why on earth,’ gasped Christie, digging her poles between two rough-hewn rocks 4,000 metres above sea level and hauling herself up a foot onto the next step, ‘if people 500 years ago were shorter than us, would they make steps this BIG?!’ As the giant stairway curved away before us at a depressingly steep angle, I could see her point.
This was day two of the Inca trail, the killer climb to the bracingly named Dead Woman’s Pass, and we were all feeling it. Arguing that the uneven steps we had been dragging ourselves up since the early morning were unreasonably deep and steep didn’t make the climb any easier, but it did offer a brief distraction from our shortness of breath and the length of the journey ahead. The few kilometres from our idyllic first night’s camp to the pass marked an elevation of 1,200m, and the river running beside the track was gaining in ebullience as our own energy levels sagged.
Yet it was impossible to be downcast, even as your lungs begged for mercy: the forest around us dripped with life, rain-starred orchids and fuchsias zinging out of the undergrowth or dangling from odd branches, bright rock flowers bursting up from the stones at our feet, crazy bromeliads rearing their outer-space heads at the sky. We passed cacti dusted with the powdery white presence of cochineal beetles, and Wilbert crushed one in his palm to reveal the blood that is still used as a powerful red dye for textiles; weaves we saw in the museums in Lima remained a vibrant pink centuries later. Birds of a luminous green, blue or orange flashed among the branches, chiding one another or warning of the heavy-footed intruders as we passed.
And above it all rose the mountains – preening in the word-of-god shafts of sunlight or brooding somewhere over the cloud line, achingly beautiful and wonderfully, constantly present. The snowy head of Mt Veronica would disappear for hours at a time, but there she’d be again once the sun came out; clouds would obscure the further peaks, but as we climbed into their pearled lower reaches the mists would tear apart and drift casually past into the valley below. Each night we crouched at the feet of the ancient stone gods and watched a silvery moon slip behind their backs and into the sky to gleam down on river, tent and rosebush. Each morning we woke in the cradle of the hills, and it wasn’t long before sun lifted the clouds and we could see the way we’d come, the way ahead, and the apus watching over our laboured progress.
And so on we panted, slithered and hopped – the latter mostly in the hour or so immediately after one of Grimaldo’s spectacular lunches, which he prepared in full chef’s regalia at one end of the tent and magicked onto a table improbably decked with a checked tablecloth on the other side of the makeshift tarpaulin divider. Any time we paused along the trail to congratulate ourselves on just how well we were doing, we’d be interrupted by a cry of ‘portador!’ from behind, and would paste ourselves against the cliff while the merry band of porters jogged by with dripping brow, sacks the size of small bungalows strapped to their backs and $2 car-tyre sandals on their wingéd feet, speeding on over the impossible terrain to build another tented oasis at the next campsite before we got there.
Porters aside (well, ahead mostly), there will have been about 495 other people on the trail with us each day, but for the most part Wilbert was able to keep us apart from the herd, choosing less-visited Inca ruins and timing our route to give us the space to savour our surroundings and explore terraces and temples in relative peace. As a result, we had the evocative, overgrown Intipata to ourselves on our last evening, hanging over the valley in its cloak of moss and wild flowers as the mists came down. And on the final morning, while the herd thundered towards the Sun Gate, Intipunku, we saw dawn come to the fascinating Huiñayhuayna (‘forever young’), wandering through this most complex of Inca complexes to admire the 17 ceremonial baths, gaze out on the sacred Urubamba river from its perfectly aligned gate, and imagine the sun of the solstice striking the royal quarters and the high-perched temple. The whole observed by a solitary inquisitive alpaca…
It was hard to pull ourselves away from Huiñayhuayna and head towards ‘civilisation’. Though the great Intipunku and Machu Picchu itself lay ahead, we knew that what came afterwards was the tourist trap of Aguas Calientes, and already we could hear the siren of the train that would carry us away to Ollantaytambo.
But first there were more steps! Hundreds of them, some on an almost vertical plane, others descending through the deep shadows of rock tunnels. Some in the group struggled most with the uphill climb, some with the downhill – but by this time all of us were struggling. We were now among the jungly vegetation of the rainforest: moss-draped tree trunks stood out at vertiginous angles from the steep slopes as if trying to maintain a sense of balance as their contours were sucked away by the gathering mist. The succulent tendrils of climbing plants wound their way across our path in search of the next support; we dug in our walking poles and empathised.
And finally we were there, at the gate of the sun, the gate to Machu Picchu. Wilbert’s imagining of the trail as a kind of trial by ordeal for those who would study in the royal city felt about right: when the cloud in which we sat finally lifted to show us our prize, we shared a moment of celebration at having overcome our own frailties to earn it. For me, there was satisfaction at having got fit enough since the desperately slow and painful climb of Nyiragongo in March to complete this more arduous trail with relative ease: I spared a mental ‘yah boo’ for those who had doubted I could do it, and a grateful thought for those who helped me get there.
…Yet no sooner were we there than we were gone again, it seemed. First a short time to savour Machu Picchu from the upper terraces again, and reflect on our time in Peru now coming to an end. And then we were onto the bus, then onto the train, and finally into the van, while the peaks we had so briefly moved among were whisked away, back into the clouds…