The night was noticeably colder than the previous, but with me inside a sleeping bag and rum inside me (plus the exertions of the previous day) I slept well and only really awoke when a porter cam with the morning cup of coca tea at 0500. I felt pretty good too. No aches or pains and although I had a few marks on my feet, I had no blisters.
Today is the longest day of the trek in both distance and time. We will be walking for almost the entire day. Another breakfast of champions and we were on our way again. I guess the last thing anyone wanted to immediately face was lots of steps up a steep incline and, yes, that’s what we got. It was a good warm up for what lies ahead today and, although there are a few climbs and descents there is nothing as hard as yesterday apparently. It was tough enough to warrant a 15 minute break a drink and a packet of Oreo cookies though and the faces of some of the group suggested they had perhaps stiffened a bit from the previous day either that or they thought the step climbing was behind them. The rain from the day before seemed long gone as the sun rose and gave us some pretty intense heat. As the song goes…If I could give you just one piece of advise it would be: always wear sunscreen: at altitude, with the air thinner, you are more susceptible to getting sunburnt, so always be sure to put sunscreen on and cover up where possible. The sun does feel intense even if the temperature doesn’t, but then once you start hiking you get warm very quickly.
The Texan old-timer’s clothes didn’t dry so he attached it all to the back of his rucksack in an effort to dry them on the move! Seemed a bit of a futile exercise given that our trek ends tomorrow. I also made sure I was not walking behind him or too close to him. I’m not convinced he cleaned that stuff so thoroughly.
The trail was long, winding and undulating with a continuation of the great views we had seen so far. Although this is seen as an easier day than yesterday, there are still a few steep inclines and descents to manage. We had plenty of rest stops and everyone seemed to be doing ok. There is one Inca site that we got to see thanks to the weather. The site is up some very steep and narrow steps with a rock face on one side and a shear drop on the other. Had it been wet, we would not have been able to negotiate the steps without serious risk to life and limb. Stood at the bottom looking up, it looked a pretty serious risk to life and limb as it was. The treacherous climb was worth it – the structure gave excellent views and also was still enough of a structure to really picture how it would have been way back in the day. We were given a guided tour and then left to take photos before we had to then negotiate the steps down. Not easy, if one person had fallen or slipped, a domino effect would have sent everyone below them flying. We all took it steady and tried to have eyes in the back of our heads to make sure those behind us were also being very careful.
A few hours later we reached a rest stop with toilets and some groups were having lunch. Not us, we rested for a while and then set forth on the next phase which would take us into and through the cloud forest. The cloud forest is pretty much what you would expect: it’s a tropical forest that is often covered by cloud. This was very true as it felt we were walking through the clouds at times and it gave the forest a very mystical look that reminded me of Hawk The Slayer, Death Stalker and the like…except this was real cloud and not dry ice! The path is a steady climb and the views over the forests below are amazing and make you realise how dense the forest is. The side of the path was a shear drop into the forest and almost seemed bottomless, although I’m pretty sure you would get tangled up in vines and branches before you got even close to hitting bottom. The cloud forest reminded me of a coral reef in that something grows and lives on just about everything – only the much trampled path seems exempt. There were so many different types of moss and fungi filling every spare piece of rock and branches it’s no wonder new species are still evolving and still being discovered. It really brought home to me just how much life there is on this planet. From being amongst so much undergrowth emerging out at the top of the forest was like seeing all of the views across the mountain ranges anew.
This is where we caught site of Machu Picchu mountain: Machu Picchu mountain is not Machu Picchu itself, but a mountain that overlooks it. We could see the mountain quite clearly, but there was still no site of Mach Picchu which also lends credence as to why it remained undiscovered for so long and also was a strategic site as well as one of religious and royal significance when it was in use. We had lunch with the views stretching out in front of us. This is also the first point on the trek where mobile phones may work. You have to stand on a rock that stands next to the edge of the precipice that, when I dared to peer over, looked like several hundred feet. I also had to wave my phone about a bit before I got a signal in that precarious position. I managed to text my girlfriend, my mate and Twitter (in that order) before climbing back down to rejoin my group for the second half of the day.
We had already trekked for 4-5 hours and we had another 3-4 hours ahead of us. The sun had broken through the cloud cover and was beating down on us, so we knew we were in for a tough walk. Especially after our first stop at an Inca site right next to where we had lunch. It was very exposed to the sun and we received a long, but interesting, talk on the site and Inca culture and beliefs. We all felt pretty baked before we’d even started this part of the trek in earnest!
This part of the trek was very steep descent on uneven steps, some of which were very high. It made it really hard work going down as you had to concentrate on each step you took. It would be so easy to turn an ankle or slip and fall on this part. The step part was for around an hour and then, although the steps remained, the trail levelled out into a more gradual descent. I was at the back of the group taking very measure steps and using one of my walking poles for balance. Once we got the really steep part out the way, I dispersed with the walking pole and settled into a nice rhythm. It was almost a jog, but more of a fast walk, as I allowed my momentum to carry me down the trail, although still being sure to concentrate on where I was placing my feet and also placing a lot of trust in my boots not to slip. This pace seemed to really work for me and I made light work of the trail.
I did wonder, as I passed the rest of my group, if they thought I was being competitive, but I genuinely found a pace that worked and it just happened to take me past them. I also passed other groups and I got the feeling that their eyes were burning into the back of me hoping I would slip. I appreciate it may have looked like I was showing off or racing, but far from it, I was just going at my own pace. And sure enough, I was soon at the destination of our next Inca site, some huge terracing with more stunning views!
I took the opportunity to sit back, admire the views, eat more Haribo and think about the trek and my achievements so far.
After that, it was a short walk down to the camp for some rest and relaxation. This final camp had more facilities in that it had a few toilets and a couple of shower blocks. Given I’d managed to get this far using wet wipes and deodorant to quell any odour I may be producing AND the fact that tomorrow evening I would be back in El Ninos Hotel and have use of a hot shower, I decided to decline the shower facilities. Plus, when I had a look, it was difficult to tell the difference between the showers and the latrines, i.e. I think the showers may have become “multi-purpose” facilities! The Texan Old-timer, still desperately trying to dry his clothes did have a shower though and returned claiming he was now cleaner than the rest of us…having seen what I had seen in the showers, I wasn’t so sure.
We had high tea again and excitedly talked about tomorrow when we reach Machu Picchu! I showed the guides, Edgar and Ephraim my Norwich shirt which I had brought with me to wear on the special day. They were quite taken with it and suggested that we should swap shirts like at the end of a match! I politely declined and hid the shirt – I need this for my glory photos tomorrow!
It was to be our last night with the porters as they do not go on to Machu Picchu; they go to get the train from Aguas Calientes (the town nearest to Machu Picchu) to ensure they get back to Cusco. As a group we are supposed to organise a tip for the porters and the catering staff and we give it to them in a little speech after dinner. I gave more into the tip funds for each than was agreed because I felt the tip that had been decided was a little low. I had also decided that I would tip the guides separately at the end of the trek when we have our meal in Aguas Calientes, whereas the “group” tip was supposedly going to be enough to tip everyone – it didn’t add up to me, but then the group decision is only a guideline, so I didn’t feel too awkward giving more. We had chosen a bubbly guy from the group to do the speech and the handover of money, so we knew it would prove to be entertaining.
After dinner, the chef brought in a huge iced cake as a final treat. How he managed to make it or decorate it so well, I don’t know. It was delicious and offered a great segue for us to clear space and have all the staff join us. The speech went down a storm and there was lots of laughter, applause and handshakes all round. It was a great way to say goodbye to the staff that had done so much for us.
We retired to our tents as light rain fell, knowing that tomorrow would see our ambitions achieved as we would walk through the Sun Gate to see Machu Picchu in the flesh for the first time! Although excited about tomorrow and the presence of an exceptionally loud snorer in camp, I quickly fell asleep – one thing that walking your arse off does, it certainly helps you sleep!