Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Peruvian Gringo Trail

Peru, the ancient kingdom of the Inka civilisation and a mystical land full of lost cities.

Engulfed by the Andes, the Peruvian gringo trail offers a range of breath taking experiences and adventures to embark upon - not for the faint hearted mind! From sand dune buggying in the desert of Huacchachina, buzzing over the infamous Nazca lines in a light aircraft to discover over 800 eerie unexplained markings, condor spotting whilst trying not to fall off the edges of the Colca Canyon, boat trips across Lake Titicaca and visiting the Uros Islands – floating islands made of reefs, very easy to fall through if not careful!! And of course the legendary Inka Trail leading to the magical lost city of Macchiu Picchiu - the Mecca for any avid traveller!!

The majority of back packers’ first introduction to Peru is Lima, a crowded and poverty stricken capital city along the coast. From there regardless of what route you choose to follow, transport for travellers is pretty reliable, though be prepared for some long bumpy rides along the way!!

At some point your travels will lead you to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inka civilisation and the main jump off point before heading off for the Inka Trail. Cusco stands proud at a staggering 3,300 metres above sea level, so it’s a perfect place as any to begin acclimatising yourself in preparation for the 4 day trek that will lie ahead of you! The locals will try and ply you with a local concoction known as coco tea to help you cope with the altitude but it doesn’t taste much like PG Tips! Here you can also stock up on all last minute goodies, such as energy bars and thermals. Although these are not the most flattering of garments, you will be glad of them once the sun sets and you are huddled in a tent in the depths of the Andes!
Cusco is an enchanting city with so many narrow streets of red-roofed houses to get lost wandering around and so many hidden tales to discover.

There are cuisines to suit all tastes, but if you are feeling adventurous you should definitely try the local delicacy cuy (guinea pig) or the lomo saltado, a delicious beef and tomato dish. If on the other hand you are on a tight budget you should try out the many empanadas that can be found sold on most street corners, pasty style snacks that come with both meat and veggie fillings and should not cost more than 1 or 2 Peruvian soles (about 40 pence).
As in most of Peru people are warm and friendly and often speak English, although knowing some Spanish does go a long way and as I found out from personal experience can help you out of some tricky situations!

The trekking season runs from April until October when the weather is drier and visibility good, with July and August the busiest.

The easiest way to complete the walk is to book the trek from a reputable travel company in the UK and to avoid disappointment be prepared to book well in advance as a combination of high demand and strict regulation of the trail by the Peruvian authorities means that places on the trail get booked up months in advance.

The trail in itself is just less than 40 kilometres over 4 days. Now although this doesn’t seem that arduous, the sheer altitude can lead at times to sickness and lack of air. The best way to combat this is to walk at your own pace and follow local custom and chew coca leaves, which are very much of the legal kind!

The main stars of the trail are the porters. Not only do they carry all your gear but even put up your tents and prepare breakfast, lunch and a three-course dinner. And then they wake you up each morning with a cup of coca tea! Most porters walk the trail up to four times a month and not once do you hear them complain, unlike the rest of us! What with being so used to the trek, the often reached camp in plenty of time before the group.

The second day is notorious for its difficulty as it’s just over 12 kilometres of solid uphill walking to reach the highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 metres. Now although there were no dead women when we arrived there, there were certainly lots of semi collapsed corpses lying in agony at the top! In fact one of my highlights of the trek was reaching the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass to cheers and applause from the rest of my friends and as well as obviously reaching Machu Picchu!

Any hardship was worth it for the prize at the end of the trail! There was a palpable sense of excitement as the fourth day dawned and we knew we didn’t have long to go. So a 3.30 am start and two more hours of trekking and we arrived. To our disappointment it had been raining and the much anticipated postcard view was out of sight, but then after not long the clouds lifted and before my eyes was the most awe inspiring sight I had ever seen in my life!! It really made you stand back and say “wow” and appreciate all those days of trekking!

You definitely need to get there early before the bus loads of day trippers arrive and spend a good day exploring the ruins, losing yourself among temples, steps, terraces, broad squares and rows of houses, all built by stone from the local quarries.

Once you and your tired out body return back to Cusco, be sure to treat yourself to a well deserved shower, though hot water can be a rarity at times, so be prepared to master the art quick body washes!! Dotted around the city are massage parlours offering all kinds of pampering packages for worn out trekkers.
If like me you feel that your adventurous efforts should be rewarded, head down to Paddys, the highest irish pub in the world and then Mama Afrikas, both popular hotspots amongst travellers. Sample the local beverages pisco sours and the national beer Cusqueña. A word of warning though, at such a high altitude alcoholic drinks tend to have more of a effect on you than normal, so best not to over do it if you have to find your way back to the hostel!

If you have a keen sense of adventure and fancy a trip of a lifetime, conquering the Inka Trail is definitely a must!