My 21st Weekly Challenge coincided with us having reached Peru on our travels through the Americas, so there only seemed one real challenge to take on…to walk the ancient Inca Trail to the famous lost city of Machu Pichu. Well, I did it, saw it and got the photo, and now I want to share a true picture of what South America’s biggest tourist draw is really like, because in truth it is a bit of a hellish machine.
When My Year In Flux began, I made my thoughts clear about backpacking. I really wasn’t relishing joining the backpacker ‘trail’ through Central and South America, because I loathed many of the classic backpacker tropes and was scared of falling into them myself. Several months on from writing that piece, I’ve learned a lot about travel and, inevitably, my views have softened and I’ve become a bit of a backpacker myself, which I think is a very good thing.
Our travel bubble
Part of any elongated travel stint is the little bubble you create for yourself. Together with my wife, with whom I am traveling, I’ve discovered that, for us, a gentle pace is generally best, party hostels are for kids and creepy loner male travellers, we won’t see major sights just for the sake of it, and there’s nothing better than sitting in a plaza and people watching…for hours. I’ve also found that I need MORE structure than most backpackers (forensic budgeting, booking a day or two ahead, reading reviews), but LESS than I did in the real world. Oh, and most of all, I’ve discovered, to my utter surprise, that 90% of my fellow travellers are thoroughly decent sorts who don’t deserve my unkind words about backpacking. These are some of the parameters of our bubble, which is also full of little comforts like private rooms (not dorms), endless quests for good coffee (instead of loadsa booze) and a general underlying ambition to stay and visit places where we’re greeted in Spanish (not English). Unfortunately, the bubble has to burst if you want to walk the Inca Trail. It is an awesome international tourist machine with little space for nuance and choice. From the moment you get on the bus in Cusco, your experience -up to a point- is predetermined.
Inca Trail machine
The Inca Trail machine which we encountered has good points and bad points. On the positive side, the path is so well-worn you can’t get lost, tour groups are generally no bigger than 10-12, and the food which each tour group chef manages to conjour up, atop mountains from a tiny field kitchen, is insanely good. The conquistador legacy, too, has its distinct benefits (if you can get over the guilt of it), so your bags and sleeping equipment are carried, tents erected and all food cooked for you across the entire 4 day hike by an incredibly strong and fit team of porters. And if you’re unlucky enough to sustain injury on the trail, your porters will even carry you on their backs too, in an eery echo of how Spanish dignitaries were carried by the indigenous community across these lands all those years ago. Also, to state the bleeding obvious, spending 4 days trudging through the Andean countryside is as good for the soul as the altitude is bad for the heart.
The downside of undertaking the Inca Trail is that, despite the Peruvian government limiting the amount of tourist permits issued per day, the Inca Trail often feels like little more than a theme park, complete with rowdy tourists, long queues and the faint whiff of disappointment on arriving in the tourist-stuffed grounds of the ‘lost’ city. What was once a royal road, carrying pilgrims to the sacred city, is now little more than a never ending ribbon of brightly-coloured goretex wrapped around a pretty Andean mountain, the ancient spiritualism of these lands having long ago been ground into the dirt by spotless hiking boots.
If I sound down on the Inca Trail, I am a bit, but really I’m just disappointed in my own naivety. We booked this part of the trip without even thinking about it. Machu Pichu was a must see, and beyond consulting a few friends who’d already walked it and finding a good tour operator (Q’ente), we didn’t do much research. All I knew was that I’d seen the pics, read the Tintin adventure and watched the hokey history docs, and that you couldn’t visit South America without seeing the Lost City in all it’s mysterious glory.
Moments of magic
But as my misgivings mounted and the final steps of our trail beckoned, something strange happened. In spite of all the idiots I was sharing the trail with, in spite of rising that final morning at 3am in order to queue for entry to the final part of the trail, in spite of nursing my wife through a nasty bout of altitude sickness, as I passed through the sun gate of Inti Punku and looked down and there, bathing in the first shafts of sunlight in the valley beneath me, I saw Machu Pichu for the first time.
I shivered, gulped back tears and cracked an ecstatic smile, knowing I was experiencing just a little of what the pilgrims must have felt all of those years before. The warm glow and emotion lasted less than 2 minutes, but the entire 4 days of bubble-bursting bothersome-ness was worth it just for those unexpected moments of bliss.
Machu Pichu may no longer be the lost city, but somehow, in those ancient Andean mountains, surrounded by the tourist machine, a little of the Incan magic dust clings stubbornly on.