Sharing the Inca Trail: A Community Trek to Machu Picchu – by Guest Trekker Helene Cooper

If I’d taken the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I would have had to share it with some 500 people a day. I prefer something off the beaten track, where I can feel more attuned with nature and experience something unique. A Community Inca Trek gave me the opportunity to venture out in a smaller group and stay in remote villages along the way.

I prefer something off the beaten track, where I can feel more attuned with nature and experience something unique.

In between long hikes, clear blue skies, archaeological beauty, and sun-blushed views of the snow-capped Peruvian Andes, I camped with locals and gained an understanding of what it’s like to live there. I also had a chance to volunteer in the villages. Many tourists don’t realize their impacts on the local environment, so it’s good to be able to give something back.

To reach the start point of our trek, we passed through Sacsayhuaman on the outskirts of Cusco, which houses the remains of an incredible ancient fortress. Colossal walls made from huge boulder bricks provide an incredible view of the city and the steep mountains surrounding it. It’s funny how some things make me feel so insignificant yet so empowered at the same time.

From there we travelled farther into the Sacred Valley and the ruins at Pisac, another amazing example of ancient Inca construction. From Pisac, we headed deep into the Cordillera Urubamba and our trailhead. Our guide, Eduardo, hired horses and mules to help carry our equipment. These would allow us to hitch a ride, too, which proved a lifesaver later on the trail. Mules aren’t allowed on the Classic Inca Trail, so this was a definite plus!

Once we commenced the trek, tiredness was not on my mind at all, I was so enjoying the sunlight and beautiful terrain. Every time we stopped for a sip of water I was eager to keep going. The trail really gives you that sense of adventure.

Despite my enthusiasm, as we climbed higher we were encouraged to take more regular rest breaks. This is important to avoid altitude sickness. I could feel my breath getting shorter. I was constantly thirsty for oxygen. At this point, my enthusiasm wavered, but I was keen to push on and get to the summit, 4800 metres (nearly 16,000 feet) above sea level.

I could feel my breath getting shorter. I was constantly thirsty for oxygen.

Climbing became more difficult the higher we got. My legs felt heavy and I was exhausted. I stopped and forced myself to eat a banana, which helped. By now, the ground was covered in snow and the temperature was freezing. I put a pair of socks on my hands to keep warm.

Eduardo said we weren’t far from the peak of our climb, which was a relief.  As we arrived, the sun came out from behind a cloud, revealing an incredible view. White-topped mountains reached into the sky, their tips enveloped by thick pure white clouds.

We hiked farther to a local village, a very welcome break. We camped within the community, where I chatted with a lovely local family. The mother was a talented weaver who made fantastically bright hats and ponchos. These were as dazzling as the rainbow-coloured macaws which you can spot eating clay along the trail. The villagers spoke no English, so I had to make do with the Spanish I had acquired over the years. Inez, the mother, told me she had met many travellers since the village opened to trekkers. She enjoyed the opportunity to cook for them and sell her hats.

I also met a llama-herding family, and was introduced to the peculiarities of these unusual animals. I initially saw them as a cross between a sheep and a camel, but they’re an intelligent species, curious and friendly. Some had the tendency to spit at each other, which, so I’m told, is a way of disciplining lower-ranked llamas in the herd.

In return for our rich opportunity for cultural immersion, we volunteered at a nearby school and helped farmers with their crops. We also donated funds to the community to improve local infrastructure and schooling facilities. The villagers seemed genuinely thrilled.

In return for our rich opportunity for cultural immersion, we helped farmers with their crops.

In the evening, we sat round a campfire and ate authentic cuisine. This included cuy, otherwise known as roasted Guinea pig, served piping hot on a spit. After our physically exerting day we yearned for juicy, succulent meat and, surprisingly, cuy didn’t disappoint. Inez also made us crunchy and colourful local salads, which were refreshing and fiery. We tried to make as much conversation as possible, which proved difficult given our exhaustion.

On the last night, we hit the famous medicinal baths at Lares, which were delightful. My limbs were ready to collapse, but the water felt as good as a full body massage. I could have stayed for hours.

At last, we felt like we were close to reaching Machu Picchu.

The next day we finished the last part of the hike before travelling by vehicle to the impressive Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. We also enjoyed a cold beer, the perfect end to another great day. At last, we felt like we were close to reaching Machu Picchu. It had been a rewarding journey so far, but we were all excited to reach its climax. The day after that we continued by train and bus to Machu Picchu.

The Community Trek route doesn’t arrive at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, but I recommend making the effort to walk up to the Sun Gate for the incredible panorama. As I approached the famous stairs, which climb steeply into the sky to offer an unbeatable view of Machu Picchu, I became aware of the amazing challenge I’d overcome. I was so excited to arrive that I almost lost my footing. However, I regained my composure and took my time, enjoying the sight beneath me and the culmination of my hard-earned four days on the trail.

Machu Picchu: the culmination of my hard-earned four days on the trail.

The view was breathtaking, a flamenco pink, orange-tinted dawn sky, with the awe-inspiring ruins of the Ancient Incas decorating the mountainside. I’ll remember it forever, the more so because the Andes didn’t give its gifts easily, to me or to those I met along the way.

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Helene Cooper is a seasoned travel writer who has explored all the continents of the world. Helene currently writes for Imaginative Traveller, the adventure travel operator.

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