Well, I survived!
Although on Day One of the trek I wasn’t sure I would, by the end of that same day, as I climbed into my sleeping bag in my little tent under the most incredible blanket of stars I’ve seen in my life – I was elated.
Our team consisted of 12 people, I was the only solo traveller but we quickly became a family – Marco’s Family as our guide referred. He and his second in command, Rosario, collected us from our hotels at around 4am on the first day, and we took a long coach ride up to the base camp where we had breakfast and introduced ourselves. Everyone else in the group was American, and all some of the most kind and welcoming people I’ve had the privilege to meet.
Altitude had hit me on arrival in Cusco and a splitting headache ensued. Thankfully my boyfriend, Craig, had packed a bottle of Diamox and under his suggestion, I took one. I was then to take one in the morning and one in the evening before bed. Although I was fortunate enough to only suffer said headache, I wasn’t taking a risk of further complications ruining this trip!
Day one was a struggle for all of us, we adjusted to the shortness of breath so high up and we also undertook half of the dreaded day two route I’d been told was the toughest part. It was a long day, but we were grateful of Marco’s decision to push the extra bit of the trek by the next morning.
The porters were wonderful! Every time we stopped for lunch there was a bowl of cold water and a flannel, fresh juice and a delicious meal. They then packed up the tent and trundled up ahead of us again to set up camp for the night where we would be met with a bowl of warm water with soap to wash our face and hands, a seemingly small gesture but it lifted our spirits enormously. Dinner was 3 courses of freshly cooked food which we honestly could not believe was prepared on a small portable plate with a gas canister! The porters are incredible people, truly. Quite humbling as they passed with enormous bags of kit, tents, food, the toilet even, on their backs – all while we struggled on with our tiny day packs.
By day two I’d found my pace. Slow, but steady. My motto became ‘left… right… left… right’ as I literally put one foot in front of the other as the altitude kicked my ass and I tried not to focus on anything else than moving my feet and taking in the spectacular views of the Sacred Valley. Rosario and I were to become great friends as we spent our days at the back of the group, with Anna and Bill, taking our time with plenty of water and breath-catching breaks and drinking in the scenery, ‘slow’ she would say to us – and we were happy to act on that advice.
Day two brought us to Dead Woman’s Pass the highest part of our trek at 4,200m, the trek was 2 hours up, 2 hours down, 2 hours back up and 2 hours back down to camp. All I could think was if we’d had to endure the whole ‘day two’ trek as many tours do – I might have cried the whole way!
Dead Woman’s Pass was an extra acheivement for me having not gotten to the summit of Kinabalu in Borneo (4,095m) in 2014 owing to dehydration, making it here was quite the feeling. Although I have a bit of a nerve issue with the downward portion of mountains, so I let everyone pass me as I took it very slowly indeed!
Camp for the second night was in the Cloud Forest and by far my favourite of all 3 nights. The view from my tent was stunning, we were above the clouds and in the mountains and once again, were treated to the most delightful night sky I’m likely to encounter in my life.
Day three was a joy really, with the hardest part over with the day before and the promise of a half day and an afternoon ‘off’ awaiting us, we woke to the most beautiful sun rise I’ve ever seen, coming up over the mountains making a pink sky above the clouds.
We visited two more ruins, walking along inca paths semi-detatched from the mountain, passing through an Inca tunnel, and wandered through the rain forest where we encountered a small shower of rain which was refreshing. It was the least strenuous of all of the days!
We got to camp in the early afternoon, which was the most crowded of all as this was the last camp and right outside the final checkpoint. After setting down our bags in our tents, Marco took us up to Winay Wayna which he calls ‘mini machu picchu’ and he’s not wrong. We also encountered a small group of llamas here, one of whom we named Frank!
Much of the sites are still uncovered and kept this way intentionally so that they can be preserved for future generations to discover and investigate as new technology is being developed all the time.
Our final day was an extra early start, if only to get in the queue! We stood in line for about 40 minutes with around 10 other groups to get through the checkpoint, then all trundled along the last section of the path together along a trail of flat stones along the edge of cliffs in the jungle. We had been told about a set of ’54 steps’ nicknamed ‘the Gringo Killer’, and every time we came across a series of steps (of which there were MANY) we said ‘is this the 54?’ but it wasn’t… we knew when it was!! These steps were about 2ft high with a tiny ledge… straight up… but not as bad as they’d been made out to be!
Shortly after this we made it to Intipunku, the Sun Gate where we got our first sight of the glorious Machu Picchu in the distance. It was getting crowded here so we didn’t stay for too long. Enough time to rest up and get a few photos, and we were on our way.
A little less than an hour later and we arrived at our destination! We arrived through the ‘House of the Guardians’, and took our group photo. It truly is an incredible site with such rich history and wondrous mystery, but so many people! Marco gave us a tour and told us tales and facts about the ancient site then our group went on to climb the extra steps to Huaynu Picchu, but I gave it a miss, and I didn’t have a ticket in any event – an oversight on Audley’s part I guess.
After taking some time to appreciate the stories and the views of the Sun Temple and the Moon temple and witness how work here had literally been abandoned half finished when the Spanish invaded, and once the group had returned, we took a bus back down to the village and had lunch together one last time at a restaurant with Marco and Rosario. We said our goodbyes and headed for the train station to head back to Cuzco on the standard tourist route. I’d spend one final day here before heading home, via Lima and Madrid.
So am I now a converted solo traveller? No. Not even slightly. The first few days in Cusco got lonely, as most other people are travelling in pairs or groups. After the novelty of exploring and dining alone wore off the third day alone left me feeling a little isolated. Not to mention navigating the flight changes – it really does help to have someone with you to share your nerves about whether or not you’re heading anywhere near the right direction (or carry your bag)! However, this wasn’t meant to be a solo trip when it was booked, and perhaps I’d have booked differently if it had been – for example book with a tour group for solo travellers, or a popular tour operation that might be able to put you in contact with your fellow travellers.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! Even the lonely few days at the beginning, it was well worth the wait for the epic 4 days spent in Marco’s family. Plus, Craig wants to do it, so it looks like I might well get to!