If a four-day mountain trek in Peru seems too much like hard work, try it with the help of locals, the psychological reward of Machu Picchu – and a fabulous hotel at the end. This is how I did it
We began our trip at Ollantaytambo – an easy transfer from Cusco, as it is only 60km to the northwest. Four porters, a chef and our guide for the trip met us – and we were pleased to hear we would only need to carry our day sacks, as we had no idea how the altitude would affect us.
We passed the first checkpoint and crossed the raging waters of the Urubamba river via a rope bridge. The porters ran ahead to set up camp. At our own pace, we walked along the trail with the guide pointing out ruins, flora and fauna (including the plant that tequila comes from). We arrived at the camp on the banks of one of the Urubamba’s tributaries – and, to our surprise, there was a dining tent with a table and stools. A three-course lunch was served, all the more impressive for being cooked on a camping stove halfway up a mountain. We set off again to make our camp for the night, which was situated near a village and our last chance to get bottled water.
We climbed to the highest point of the trail, passing through villages, sub-tropical jungle and cloud forest. After a steep climb, we reached the snow-capped peaks at 4,200m. Here, we took our expedition photographs. I was relieved not to have suffered from the altitude – and amused to see my husband, who is normally fitter than me, suffering from exhaustion.
We descended to camp at 3,600m. It was precariously placed on the side of a mountain, but the views were amazing as the clouds swept up the valley. That night, we were sitting in the dining tent in the evening darkness when a flash of fire passed the entrance to the tent, later to be identified as flambéed bananas. Not a bad culinary feat at this altitude.
We still refer to this affectionately as "the day of steps" – 1,200m of them, to be exact, which we descended with trepidation. It was an incredible day, nonetheless. We pondered how all the stone steps and buildings were constructed all those years ago. We then camped at our last stop before Machu Picchu and I jumped at the opportunity to take a well-needed warm shower.
We were woken at 4am and made our way to the final checkpoint in darkness. Then, one after the other, we made our way along a narrow path with a sheer drop to the right, only to be rewarded with incredible views as the sun rose. Eventually, we reached an old wall and passed through a gap in it to arrive at the sun gate. There, in the misty distance, we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and stood in silence as we were mesmerised by its magnificence.
We went down the steep path to the ruins and meandered around the maze of steps, walls and buildings, feeling a sense of wonder, as if visiting a city floating on top of the mountains.
Then, with tired legs, we caught the bus down to the local town – an adventure in itself as we zig-zagged down the road with sharp drops to the side. Safely transported, we disembarked at Aguas Calientes and made our way down the rail track to our accommodation – the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel.
We received a warm welcome, despite our muddy boots and trekking gear. We were shown to our room in one of the cottages dotted around the colourful grounds of the hotel.
We couldn’t quite hide our excitement to find a massive bed, open fire, flat-screen TV, free-standing bath and wetroom-style shower, not to mention a private heated pool, outdoor shower, terrace and daybed outside.
We visited the hotel restaurant for dinner and I had quinoa risotto and alpaca, which was superb. Afterwards, we headed back to our room, lit the fire and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of our surroundings. Our only regret? Having to leave the next day, as we had scheduled only a one-night stay.
Where to stay
Sol y Luna (Urubamba) A cute, homely hotel close to the start of the trail, offering a range of of activities including horse riding and white-water rafting.
Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel (Aguas Calientes) A beautiful hotel in stunning grounds, the only place to stay when visiting Machu Picchu.
Hotel Monasterio (Cuzco) A fantastic hotel with historic grandeur, superb service and great food. The perfect ending (or beginning) for a visit to the sacred valley of the Incas.
All these are included in a four-night Inca Trail itinerary booked through Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com)
What to take
Warm kit We didn’t realise how high we would be climbing, so extra layers and hats and scarves are a must – though these can be bought locally, if your negotiating skills are up to scratch.
Ear plugs I happened to discover these in my pocket – but they were very useful, especially when we stayed near one of the villages and the local dogs started barking in the middle of the night.
Walking boots It goes without saying, these need to be well-made and worn-in.
Walking pole Again, this can be bought locally and is invaluable for the steps down when your knees will thank you for having one.
How to prepare
Training A reasonable level of fitness is required. If you can put some time aside in the months before your trip, to build up your stamina and muscles, you will definitely get more enjoyment out of it.
Patience Take a few days to acclimatise before starting the trail. Let's just say I didn’t, and was lucky – but my husband suffered a little from the altitude.