The cramped plane fought against the powerful updraughts as the pilot started his early morning descent though the crowded mountain range. From the window seat I had a panoramic view of the steep creamy sides of Salcantay, a 6271m peak, its eastern flanks bathed in the first flush of sunshine, which illuminated vast pockets of jungle spreading into steep ravines and tumbling rivers. My wife and I were flying to Cusco from Lima and would soon be trekking along the Inca Trail towards the fabled Lost City of Machu Picchu in deepest, darkest Peru.
Within two hours of touchdown we had found a hostel and went in search of Calle Procuradores or, to the tourists, Gringo Alley. The steep steps of this ancient street are lined with trinket shops, funky cafes and numerous booking agents for Peruvian treks. It was here we found the trekking company we had discovered online many months before. Our guide was called Americo and, over coffee, he explained the route and answered all our questions about camping, food, water, blisters and the chance of rain in the mountains. No doubt he had heard them all before but he answered each one with a bright smile.
The following day we were driven to an area known as Km 82, the official gateway to the trail, which was a sturdy wooden bridge spanning the fast-paced Urubamba River. The number of other trekkers on the bridge was initially unnerving but our fears diminished as they clattered across in a blaze of brightly coloured fleeces and a thundering of walking poles.
Americo held us back, insisting that we enjoy each step, so when we crossed the river, the lush valley and deep ravines were for our eyes and ears only. For a few hours, we followed the gentle curves of the river, then kicked inland and quickly gained height. The sound of running water disappeared, replaced by our heavy breathing as a series of steep hills led us to a campsite that fluttered in the distance.
Our bright dome tents lay perfectly pitched on a small patch of level grass; every other piece of land I could see was angled. The adjacent hills were rounded and gentle but in the distance jagged tips of snow-capped peaks disappeared into a band of thick white clouds. Spoilt by our three porters, we feasted on pasta, beans and rice, washed down with fresh juice while sitting under the emerging stars.
The next morning's walk was a gentle affair but the Inca Trail burst into life by early afternoon, kicking up sharply from the 3000m valley as the path cantered over the highest point at 4200m, known as Dead Woman's Pass. Terraced steps of chiselled stone protected the steep path from erosion, each one a different height to the last. We lunged forward, lifting knees high to avoid scuffing the rounded corners of the granite steps. All conversation ceased. Twenty steps, then stop for breath. Twenty more, then stop again. As I passed each weary trekker I would call out: "Are you OK, mate?" The replies between breaths had a common theme: "I'm exhausted but thanks for asking."
Remnants of cloud forest withered into dense scrub as we panted and scraped our way to the summit. Creative types enjoy the story about Dead Woman's Pass being named after a mummified woman found buried beneath the path as explorers searched for the Inca Trail. Others have heard it was named for a local woman who got caught on the pass during a violent snowstorm without shelter. She was found the next day, frozen on the summit. The traditional thought is the shape of the pass, when viewed from a certain angle, resembles the subtle shape of a woman's breast. But there seemed nothing voluptuous about the abrupt path, which was now scattered with trekkers from across the globe, struggling for breath.
The adjacent meadows were home to wild llamas but I felt oblivious to their beauty or close proximity. I was lost in deep thoughts, trying to ignore the thump in my head as I struggled to walk. My wife remained close, cajoling me gently: "Come on. You're nearly there. Look, I can see Americo waving from the top."
I refused to answer, stumbling forward, eyes focused on the trail. Then there were no more steps, and Americo was hugging me at the summit. The trance was broken and the grandeur of the Inca Trail stretched into the horizon. Stragglers popped over the top of the pass, groping for bottles and sucking hard on cool water. The white-tipped Andes were now within reach, spread either side of the valley, where our tents would be pitched later in the afternoon.
The porters had spent all morning cooking, cleaning and packing away our tents and, while we stood at the top of Dead Woman's Pass, they appeared from the valley. Their loads were contained in various forms, including tattered rucksacks, thick hessian bags and rigid plastic containers, balanced awkwardly on stooped shoulders. They had no time to stop and silently marched past with strained smiles. Without Americo and the porters, the joys and tribulations of trekking the Inca Trail would have been impossible. As each step took us tantalisingly closer to the Lost City, we appreciated them more and more.
There are other ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can let the train take the strain or take a shorter trek, but we craved the isolation and were never disappointed. On our final morning we bounded along the path towards the famous Sun Gate, known as Intipunku, which stands proudly aloft a natural terrace. The muddy trail gave way to ancient terraced steps, forcing a short, sharp climb to the fabled doorway. It was here our breath was stolen.
Small pockets of clouds floated across the abandoned terraces as the first rays of soft sunshine bathed the isolated valley. Precious minutes passed as we stood in the Sun Gate, gazing at the empty ruins of Machu Picchu perched neatly on the plateau. Each crag, hilltop and distant peak had its own ecosystem, surrounded by wisps of thin clouds, stretched across the fertile valley.
We had discovered the Lost City.
Alistair McGuinness' book Round the Bend: From Luton to Peru to Ningaloo, A Search for Life after Redundancy, is published by Matador. This adventure story captures the reality and exhilaration of leaving home to undertake gap-year travel in South America, Africa, Fiji and Australia, from the Amazon to the Andes and Kilimanjaro to Cape Town. It explores the turbulence of redundancy, the excitement of travel, the anguish of leaving home and the challenges of starting a new life in WA. Part of the story published here is adapted from the book. Round the Bend is about $26 in paperback and available for Kindle. Round the Bend is available in Busselton bookshops, or online in paperback and most ebook formats.