Hiking the Inca trail had long been on my bucket list — and I wasn’t getting any younger.
So, for my 49th birthday, I decided to travel to Peru.
I flew in to Lima, en route to Cuzco. Lima is a mixture of ancient and modern cultures. The architecture of the squares and churches is from colonial times with sculpted details displaying artwork that is almost forgotten.
I stayed in Miraflores, a bustling suburb popular with tourists. There seemed to be quite an active amount of elegant casinos and discotheques, but I preferred to check out the art in the local markets and tuck-in early to prepare for the days ahead.
The gastronomy was first-rate, with several styles and flavours, such as Peruvian Creole or Peruvian Chinese. I was surprised to find that there is a large population of Chinese living in Lima and one will see chifas (Chinese restaurants) popping up all over the city. There are also numerous cevicherias (restaurants serving raw seafood marinated in lime juice — ceviche). After only one night I flew out from the smoggy, sunless Peruvian capital, to Cuzco. In contrast to Lima, the sun always shines in the foremost city of the Inca Empire.
Cuzco is still the archaeological capital of the Americas, as well as the continent's oldest continuously inhabited city. Most importantly, it is the gateway to Machu Picchu.
The Inca built massive walls that still line steep, narrow cobblestone streets and form the foundations of modern buildings. I fell in love with this colonial town, spending my first day wandering the nooks and crannies and getting lost in the culture. I came upon a colourful market by the San Pedro train station where I purchased handicrafts at a fraction of the price sold in local shops. I savoured the rich pastries and drank delicious and aromatic coffee while watching the sun spread over Plaza de Armas. I explored the impressive fortress of Saqsaywaman and the imposing relics left by the Incas and Spanish Conquistadors at Qorikancha as well as Cuzco’s oldest church, La Catedral. It is easy to become winded traipsing up and down the narrow streets. At 3,500 metres above sea level, it takes the body a couple of days to acclimatize. I chewed cocoa leaves to help with stamina and energy.
After two days, my tour along the Inca trail began. I opted for a private tour with a small group of six hikers and three guides. There are 40,000 miles of trails in Peru and our route was on one less travelled. The remote path took us three days to reach the Sacred Valley and the village of Yucay. At the highest peak, I broke away from the group and walked alone with the wind blowing through the trees and condors flying above. The sun-coloured mountains and the meandering Urubamba River are scenes that will be imprinted forever in my memory. It truly felt like I was looking at the world from the heavens.
After a 15-km trek the first day, we set up camp in the shadow of an old Inca retreat as the sun set in the valley facing us. After dinner we zipped up our tents and slept under what seemed to be a billion stars.
In the morning, we rolled out of our frost-covered mummy bags, downed cups of hot coca-tea and started the second day’s trek.
The scenery and flora changed from slate, to moss, then mossy mounds to rock. The only constant was the view from the mountains. It seemed at times that we were alone on top of the world and then we would come upon an adobe hut with llamas and sheep corralled nearby. The indigenous people rarely see visitors on the path and were quite shy and refused to have their pictures taken. They work the land growing potatoes and herd sheep, pigs, llamas and alpacas. They are gentle, spiritual people. My daily fruit and other snacks went to the children I would come upon, barefoot in sub-zero morning temperatures atop the mountains.
In three days we hiked over 70 km. When I finally arrived in the Sacred Valley, a shower was most welcome. The little village of Yucay only has three hotels and a few internet cafes. I had a dinner that evening that was fit for Inca royalty; a true feast after days of camping and fuel needed for Machu Picchu.
The following morning I boarded the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes, more famously known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.
The town lays deep in the valley below the ancient Inca ruins. The only reason to stay overnight is to catch the first bus at dawn that rides up the mountain to the ancient ruins, avoiding the hordes of day-trippers arriving by train from Cuzco each morning.
As I left at dawn, my nose was pressed to the window trying to catch a glimpse of the lost city. Once at the top, there was still quite a hike to get to the first vantage point.
As the path rose above the final peak, my heart skipped several beats as the first glimpse of Machu Picchi came to view.
Finally I was able view the most beautiful peaks and snap the classic postcard photograph. The site is overwhelming at first, and I found that I had to explore it twice to satisfy my archaeological curiosity. I had waited so long to visit, I didn’t want to miss anything important. If you want to hike up Wayna Picchu, the most famous of short walks around Machu Picchu, you must be in good physical condition and arrive by 6:30 a.m. and stand in line at the entrance. There is a maximum of 300 visitors allowed daily and there is no exception to the rule.
At the end of the day I was tired, but blissfully happy as I sat in a bar sipping pisco sours and recounting the time spent exploring the ancient ruins.
The following morning our group would go their separate ways, with at least 600 pictures and wonderful memories of an amazing adventure vacation.
And another check off my bucket list.