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On the Inca trail

Helen Ochyra journeys to Peru to make the epic trek to Machu Picchu – the hike of a lifetime and one that will live long in the memory

The Inca Trail is one of life’s must-dos. Up there with Mont Blanc and Annapurna it’s the walk of a lifetime, a four-day, three-night hike over gruelling mountain passes, through verdant rainforest and past historic Inca sites, ending ultimately at the matchless Machu Picchu.

My trip to the top of the world began in Lima, Peru’s cloud-cloaked capital where the best way to enjoy the city’s slightly unhinged atmosphere is to take a walk around Miraflores. Here you’ll find Astrid y Gastón where a hearty dinner of stylish Peruvian fare is the perfect preparation for the ascent from sea level to 3,500 metres above, and the backpacking mecca that is Cusco.

A day here is mandatory to adjust to the altitude and so it has become a traveller’s haven, with plenty of colourful characters swapping stories and the best nightlife in Peru. But I wasn’t here to party, I was here to trek and at 5am the next morning our group set off to tackle the trail.

Day one is a breeze, an almost-level path from Piscacucho along the Rio Cusichaca to Wayllabamba and the first camp. Here we proudly toast day one with drinks from the ‘bar’ (actually an old lady with a bucket of beer) and clap other groups into camp as temperatures plummet towards zero and darkness descends.

Day two is the day they all tell you about. Grimly. It is the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest pass on the trail at 4,200m, and it’s tough. Because the air is thinner at this altitude, catching your breath is hard, making climbing over 1,000 metres all the more strenuous. My thighs are burning but I still make it to the top first in my group and spend a happy hour gladly chilling to my core as I take in the wide-angle view over the Andes.

From here on there seems to be another breathtaking view around every corner. Day three is mostly downhill (or rather down steps) and the scenery gets lusher and greener with every step as the path winds through the cloud forest, all hanging foliage and puffy white clouds suspended in mid-air (often, weirdly, below us).

Arriving at Winay Wayna camp on night three is the stuff of legend. There are proper toilets, actual showers and even a real bar. A party atmosphere prevails and we all forget there’s still more walking to come tomorrow.

The final day is all about getting to Machu Picchu, with the race to the famous sun gate and our first view of the Inca citadel beginning long before dawn. A two-hour near-sprint later it’s nothing if not totally worth it. Emerging from the rainforest after three days to find an entire citadel is mind-blowing, and the site’s remote location is jaw-droppingly apparent. Those stepping off the coaches might give us funny looks thanks to our unkempt appearance, but we still feel superior. We’ve completed the Inca Trail, and I’ve got the blisters to prove it.
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