When I decided to book this trip back in June, the traditional Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu had already sold out. However, I had read online that it was often busy, felt over-crowded in places, and there was a mad rush to get through the Sun Gate first. So I wasn’t that upset about missing the main route the Incas used to get to Machu Picchu. I decided to book a different Machu Picchu trek through Dragoman Overland, and you can read my review of Dragoman & the trek package here.
The Community Trek to Machu Picchu
As an alternative to the traditional Inca Trail Dragoman offered the “Community Trek” which took a different route through the mountains, actually ending before the traditional trek begins at Ollantaytambo. The Community Trek is run by Peruvian company Andina Travel, and is exclusive to Dragoman, unless they don’t have enough people to make up the minimum numbers, in which case Andina can sell it to their own clients.
The main benefit of the Community Trek is that it offers a completely different route to that of the usual tourist trail. We would visit local communities on the way who otherwise wouldn’t see any benefit to the thousands of visitors coming to their region every year. The brochure emphasized Andina’s focus on responsible tourism, sustainable development and the importance of spreading the tourist footfall more evenly so as not to overload the other trails. I was sold. The only downside to this trek was, due to the different route, we wouldn’t enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate, but for me the other benefits far outweighed this.
The trek itself was incredible. I have never experienced such highs and lows, in both a physical and psychological way. It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. There were moments when I thought I couldn’t go on, but they were balanced with sheer joy at the marvellous views, changing landscapes and those ‘wow’ moments when we finally reached the summits we had struggled towards.
The Trek to Machu Picchu, Day by Day
Day 1 was a ‘test’ trek; a relatively short walk on easy terrain, then we spent the night in a homestay in a village called Zurite. The hosts were welcoming, bunk beds comfy and the food was hearty & warming. There was even a bar, and they made a cake to celebrate one of our group’s birthdays. Along the way we visited ruins and wandered through villages – the local people were surprised to see us and asked what we were doing there – a welcome experience after the tourist-filled Cusco. This was rural Peru; were people used donkeys, not cars, to carry their loads. Where sheep, cows & pigs roamed the streets, and the occasional alpaca raised its head to greet us. I loved it.
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Day 2 was a lot harder though. We started the trek for real, with almost the whole day climbing upwards into the mountains. We all noticed the difference in the air as we climbed higher. The higher the elevation, the less oxygen entering our lungs, less energy fuelling our tired legs. Progress was slow. I was always at the back, always the last, unless someone had stopped for a bush pee along the way. I hadn’t done any real training for the trek, I was used to living at sea level, and my exercise regime in Barcelona was non-existent. I thought I was still fairly fit – I lived on the 5th floor without a lift, I cycled uphill to work every day – but I was woefully unprepared.
And then the rain came. Or at that altitude, the hail. We reached 4200 m above sea level, and it was tough. The hardest thing I have ever done in fact. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t expect to feel so out of breath, unfit and exhausted. All the time we climbed, my legs fought against me, and the descents were rocky and slippery; sometimes on narrow paths I didn’t dare look down. At one point I lost sight of the guide, the group, and the path to follow – I was stranded on the rainy mountainside. I was starting to panic, when 2 of the porters caught up and showed me the way – chastising me for letting the guide get too far ahead, but I was so relieved to see them I didn’t care. Around the next corner we re-discovered the path, and the guide, and I cried tears of relief silently into my rain jacket, trying not to show how scared I was.
We reached camp soon after, and the porters who bounded ahead after rescuing me had already set up our tents, and were rustling up dinner. The campsite was in a valley close by a river, and as the rain persisted we huddled into the dining tent for hot coca tea and popcorn. They certainly kept us well fed, with three square meals a day plus tons of snacks for the hike. I’m amazed at what they managed to create from a kitchen in a tent with a one-ring gas stove. We had soup to start with, chicken and quinoa this time, although it was different every day. Then the main course of a cheese & potato scallops with rice and veggies. And dessert of chicha morada – a fruity goo that is kind of a cross between marmalade and warm jelly. Then tea, coffee or hot chocolate to follow. After the day’s exertions, we were all starving, and ate our meals with glee. We chatted for a while but were all too exhausted for much revelry and retired to bed.
The rain continued on and off during the night, but the porters managed to dry our wet clothes by the stove, and I wasn’t bothered by the rain all tucked up in my sleeping bag. It did get cold during the night of course – but my thermal underwear, woolly hat and thick socks, plus 2 sleeping mats, a minus 10 degree sleeping bag, thick liner and my jacket over the top kept me toasty! When I woke in the morning I could see my breath, until the porters plied us with hot tea. There was no time to snooze, we had a lot of ground to cover. The porters brought bowls of hot water to wash with, although I stuck with babywipes that morning, and we were all soon tucking into porridge for breakfast.
That day (number 3) of the trek turned out to be the hardest for me (more on that in the next post), as I realised neither the flesh nor the mind was willing to carry on! I couldn’t manage to climb myself, and had to use the emergency horse. That night we camped by an old school house that the Community Trek had funded a few years ago, which now lay abandoned as the communities nearby had descended into the valley and there were no children left to teach. One man still remained though, Horatio. He lived alone in his house, as his children & wife had moved to the valley with the others. But he was happy there, in the mountains.
His home was basic by our standards, with a stone base and thatch roof. His mattress was layers of llama pelts and blankets and guinea pigs scuttled around below – sheltered from the elements and adding a little warmth to the house as well. Outside he had llamas, provided by the community trek, and kept dogs, pigs, cats, and had even fashioned a trout farm by re-routing a nearby stream. He was a horse-handler and porter for our trek, and it was great to see how he has benefitted from the trek and our contributions. He welcomed us into his home, showed us how he lived, worked the land to grow potatoes, and laughed as we tried to plough the field as he demonstrated. He seemed happy, and genuinely pleased to have us there. That really made the trek for me; Sun Gate, Schmun Gate – the rest of the tourists don’t get this experience on the Inca Trail!
The rain had finally stopped, and when day 4 arrived it was a joy; descending from the mountains following the river along the valley – the landscape changing from beak, cold mountains to lush forest, beautiful orchids and humidity. I was still at the back of the group, but had a bounce in my step as we crossed the river, and it wasn’t just the rickety bridge across the river. I had survived!
We finally ended our trek in a small town called Chillca near Ollantaytambo. We celebrated with beers that were conveniently waiting for us, and thanked the cooks, mule drivers and co-guide, and were taken to Ollantaytambo to rest for the night. We were all exhausted but happy. We hadn’t seen another tourist in 4 days, the only people we had met were local people, and not many of them either!
My legs would never forgive me, and my knees still feel the effects when I walk any distance. I had underestimated how hard it would be, and although not as challenging as my Dad expected (he kept telling me that it was half the height of Everest!) it was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done, including taking 4 tries to pass my driving test.
I’m not used to these challenges, either physically or mentally – I normally float through life quite oblivious to how hard it can be, and I count myself very lucky for that. So sometimes it’s important to remind myself just how lucky I am by doing something completely out of my comfort zone. For me, the trek to Machu Picchu was not necessarily an experience I would like to repeat, but it was an amazing journey and I am very glad to have done it!
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