Vagabonding Field Report: disappointment on the path to Machu Picchu
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Diminutive, lean, weather-worn, mountain men carry immense packs stuffed with tents, cooking implements, sleeping bags and the like for tourists making the three and a half day trek along the official Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. These are the Chaski’s. They charge up and down the mountains in ragged leather sandals, past lines of tourists with expensive hiking boots and tiny day packs. Strict regulations impose a weight limit of 20kg (44lb) per porter, but in the past they carried dangerously heavy loads. Their high altitude conditioning is in some ways as impressive as the ruins at the end of the path.
Describe a typical day.
Get up and eat some fruit and scrambled egg variation in the communal tent. Start walking. Admire a set of ruins that appear to teeter precariously at the edge of a precipitous drop. Wonder what on earth possessed the Inca to build at such heady heights and marvel at their craftsmanship. Walk some more. Get overtaken by a Chaski with a pack three times the size of mine. Try to catch up to the Chaski to prove my physical prowess. Fail to catch up with him, but convince myself that I’ll catch him later in the day. Day dream about eating a jam donut. Get rained on. Walk more. Get a blister. Have lunch in the communal tent. Stare lovingly at the mountains as the sun breaks through the cloud cover. Swear when it starts raining again and a raindrop hits me in the eye. Walk a lot more. Eat a fish dinner with some delicious brown stuff. Sleep well.
Describe an interesting conversation with a local
Our guide Freddy seemed to take pleasure in discussing the dangers present on the Inca Trail and told many stories of people who’d perished along the way. After yet another tale involving an unfortunate, who’d slipped to an untimely death, I had a chat to him one on one. I gently informed him that perhaps the trail wasn’t terribly dangerous and that we were in fact walking along a path and not, say, base jumping, for instance. He seemed somewhat disappointed at first but then conceded that driving in Cuzco is actually far more dangerous than taking a rather long walk.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Machu Picchu and the other ruins around the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley are clearly the draw in this part of the world, and rightly so. The architecture and mysterious history of the Inca is captivating and the heights that the ruins sit at elevates them literally, as well as in their element of grandeur and wonder. Overall, however I found the Inca Trail a disappointment for several reasons.
I was a touch underwhelmed by the natural spectacle along the trail. The scenery is undoubtedly beautiful in parts with appropriately grand mountains and lush cloud forest, but, at least for me, it was’t the eye popping, heart stopping, emotionally draining beauty that I had built it up to be. I should have tempered my expectations. I found the natural beauty in the Northern Andes considerably more striking.
Although there is a daily limit of five hundred people starting the trail each day certain points along the path get extremely crowded. The human traffic that roles through the campsites and descends on the bathrooms makes for a grim spectacle.
The trek was unlike any trek I’ve undertaken in the past in terms of comfort level. The guides and Chaski’s take care of everything. Delicious food is served in the communal tent, tents are set up in camp before you even get there and the Chaski’s haul everything except for the tourists themselves. This may sound like the ideal outdoor adventure to some, however, even though I carried own gear, stupid as it may seem, I still felt as if I was somehow cheating.
Another pitfall of the official Inca Trail is the expense involved. Pricing for the trek is similar between agencies and tends to cost around $500. This is a hell of a lot of money in Peru. In other, no less beautiful parts of the country this would pay for a trek of ten days duration or a couple of technical mountain climbs.
Describe a challenge you faced.
Some may find my frustrations with the Inca Trail trivial, however I found it difficult to get past them. It was a job to try and forget the money I’d spent, my prior trekking experiences, and just try and enjoy the trail for what it is- a beautiful path, full of intriguing ancient history
What new lesson did you learn?
Sometimes the places you desire to see most are, for better or worse, not what you expected. I’ve realised that, more often that not, unexpected destinations or experiences are what will make a trip. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail were largely responsible for my decision to come to South America and I’m glad I’ve now visited this part of the world, however I’ve cherished other experiences in Peru more. I may not have ever traveled to the mind boggling Cordillera Blanca in the north or the lovely white city of Arequipa were it not for the draw of Machu Picchu. Perhaps you don’t even need a reason to travel to a place. Just go, experience and enjoy (or hate) whatever comes your way. What do you think? Have you ever been left dissapointed by a destination or travel experience that you felt certain you were going to enjoy? Alternatively, have you thoroughly enjoyed a place you thought you would loathe?
Where to next?
La Paz, Bolivia
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**For those interested in alternative treks to Macchu Picchu that aren’t as taxing on the wallet there are a couple of options. I’ve heard many good reports about the Salkantay and Jungle treks from other travelers. An additional benefit of going with an alternative trail is that you can organize them when you get to Cuzco, rather than several months before hand, which is necessary for the official trail**