Standing at the Sun Gate, high in the Andes, I look down on the mysterious lost city, its walls so foreign, yet so familiar, with a sense of disbelief. The sun creeps slowly up the Urubamba Valley, drawing back the shadows until the stone terraces glow. Machu Picchu. I've made it.
Being here, as the dawn warms the mountain air, is one of the most breathtaking moments of my life. I've been to many beautiful and ancient places but nowhere else had I overcome so much to get there.
I'd class myself as moderately fit at best; a 43km walk at sea level, on the flat, would be a big ask. The four-day hike on the Inca Trail, up steep slopes and in the thin air of an altitude of up to 4000m, was a physical challenge I had put to the back of my mind. Then there was the stomach infection I somehow acquired early on the first day, which saw me spend the first several hours and 11km vomiting violently every half an hour or so. My first night on the trail involved a Peruvian doctor, who didn't speak any English, giving me an injection in the backside so I would at least have a fighting chance of making it the rest of the way. More on that later.
We set out for the trail after a couple of days in Cusco and a long bus trip ending in the fortress city of Ollantaytambo, stopping to buy last-minute supplies at roadside villages - coca leaves (bitter but a sworn local antidote to altitude sickness), alpaca wool mittens and beanies, toilet paper, waterproof ponchos, thermal leggings and muesli bars. It was a balancing act - while the superhuman porters carry the camping gear and most of the food, hikers carry their own daypack. You don't want to run out of supplies but neither do you want to lug anything that is not absolutely necessary around on your back for days on end.
It was on the bus that took us the short distance to the beginning of the trail that I felt the first twinge in my stomach. I ignored it; the weather had cleared, there was an air of excited anticipation in our small group and we could see the mountains in the distance. We passed donkeys and farmers and made our way past groups of other hikers, got our tickets stamped and stopped for the obligatory group photograph. Then, we were off. The scenery, even on that first day, was spectacular. As you climb higher, it gets more and more beautiful and, as the hikers thin out, you go kilometres without seeing anyone but porters on the trail.
The first day was the easiest, they'd told us - a relatively short walk of about 11km at relatively low altitude. The second day was the worst - you climb past 4000m over the ominously named Dead Woman's Pass, a brutal set of rock stairs to the top of the mountains. Our guide told us it was named for the breast-like appearance of the mountain, not for a propensity to kill, say, unfit Western female tourists. We were not convinced.
Our guide, Henry, had just stopped us at a plateau looking out over the valley and the river, the only place on the trail where black widow spiders live, which he proved by picking one up on his finger. As he sat us down around a sacred stone where his Incan ancestors had worshipped, the nausea that had been churning in my stomach as I dragged myself up stairs and down steep slopes got the better of me. I managed to crawl away from the group before being spectacularly sick. As I sat on my haunches trying to catch my breath, I saw two of the deadly black spiders crawling towards me up the hill. Henry put his hand on my shoulder. "This is not a good place to rest."
And so it continued for the next several kilometres. The rest of the group went ahead - I could think of nothing worse than them waiting for me - and our second guide kept a respectful distance as I trudged up the mountain. I tried to drink but then had to stop just minutes later to throw up again. At lunch, the concerned porters made me a special celery tea they said was a certain cure. I thanked them profusely and drank it - only to promptly throw it back up. It was at that point that it first occurred to me I might not make it, that I might have come all this way only to have to turn around and be taken back down the mountain. That I might be going to miss out on a chance to finish the trek and that I might never get this opportunity again. To Henry's horror, I started to cry. In a sympathetic but stern voice, he set me straight. "Don't worry about tomorrow. We only worry about today."
We made it into camp, a group of small orange tents nestled in a grassy flat spot with a view straight down the valley, between the dark rising peaks around us. I crawled inside the tent fully clothed and fell asleep. When I woke, it was dark but I felt marginally better. I was drawn towards the noisy chatter coming from the big white dinner tent, where my fellow hikers (a mixed bag - my sister and our friend, two couples on their honeymoons, a pair of Norwegians, an American, a Canadian and an Irishman) were eating by lamplight. The chef had prepared me a simple soup that would be easy on my stomach and I managed to keep it down - but only for about 10 minutes.
It was at this point, unbeknown to me, that Henry had sent a porter 10 minutes back down the trail, where there was a small village with a doctor. Word came back: the doctor wanted to see me. In the dark and the rain, my sister, Henry and I picked our way back to the village. In a small two-room surgery, the doctor asked Henry questions in rapid-fire Spanish - had I been immunised recently? What had I eaten? Had I been bitten by anything? Eventually, the decision was made that I had a stomach infection and would require a needle to stop me from vomiting and to immediately start taking medication I fortunately had with me.
After an awkward exchange in which the doctor tried to communicate to me in sign language that the very large needle he was holding was not going in my arm, we stumbled back to camp and I fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke and ate a muesli bar without being sick. When the camp came to life about dawn, I was weak still but ecstatic. Perhaps I would make it after all.
We rose before dawn and moved in single file out on to the trail. The group thinned out; the strongest hikers moved ahead and I fell behind with a couple of others. And boy, they were right about that second day. On the first day, there were periods of flat ground where you could catch your breath. On the second, the march was relentlessly upwards. Still not game to eat and existing on water and glucose lollies, I was stopping frequently. I gave myself modest goals - the top of the next staircase, or the next bend - before I would sit for a couple of minutes to catch my breath in the oxygen-thin air. It may sound terrible but I was so happy to be on the trail instead of on the back of a donkey on my way back down that I loved every moment. Every laboured breath, every trembling muscle, was a welcome reminder I was going to prevail. By far the best part of my slow-but-steady plan was that the breaks allowed me to do something I hadn't been able to do the first day - enjoy the trail. It was spectacularly beautiful at every turn. Along the way, there was everything from the bare mountainsides, dark and ice- capped, to what's known as the cloud forest, dense green trees and icy streams in the gullies below.
The trail began to arc upwards steeply and Dead Woman's Pass loomed overhead, the path snaking upwards until it disappeared between the peaks. From the bottom, you can only assume - and hope like hell - that the disappearing point is the top and you won't arrive there to see the trail continuing upwards. I put my head down and, as I neared the top, desperately trying to suck air into my lungs, I heard my sister's voice. "This is the top!" I hauled myself up the last slope to where most of the group were waiting, into a sea of celebratory high-fives and hugs.
But relief is short-lived on the Inca Trail, for what goes up must come down. Henry looked around, brow furrowed, and suggested we get a move on. The rain was coming up the valley and under no circumstances did we want to be making our way down the rocky, steep steps when they were slick with water.
So the mad rush began, toes pushing up against the inside of hiking boots, walking poles finding any niche to keep us from slipping as we raced down the mountainside, making it inside the dinner tent in a sweating, steaming heap just as the teeming rain set in. We celebrated with hot tea. It was blissful. That night we slept the dreamless sleep of the truly exhausted.
The third day was a breeze: flat trail clinging to the mountainside, only a few steep stairs, the same spectacular scenery and clear weather. By the time we made camp that night, the air of anticipation had been building all day. The next day, we had to be up before 4am, to line up at the final checkpoint. From there, it was only 4km to Intipunku, the Sun Gate.
Gathering in the dark that final morning, we felt like a unit.
As the sky started to lighten, we made our way through the checkpoint together. On other days, we had kept our own pace, walking in small groups, pairs, on our own, sometimes joining up with others, sometimes dropping back. But that morning, we moved as one - and we moved fast. Single-file, we raced up the trail, dodging slower groups, racing the sun up the slope. We came upon a vertical set of stone steps and scrambled up, urging each other on. Then, there it was. We weren't the first but it wasn't crowded. From there, we saw it - distant but unmistakable, a place unseen but so familiar. Machu Picchu. I still find it hard to describe the feeling - part relief, part awe, part pride, part disbelief.
We sat for a while but we were so close we wanted to get there. It was all downhill - literally. With each step down, the city loomed larger. Soon, we were within its stone walls, thought to have been built in the 1400s, one of the last retreats of the Incan civilisation that was mysteriously abandoned to the forest, known only to locals until one led a Yale historian to the site in 1911. Since then, it has become the focus of modern pilgrimage. Luckily, we arrived early in the day and were able to explore the grassed terraces for a short time before it became jammed with tourists who had caught the bus from Aguas Calientes, the town built on hot springs below.
We were all so exhausted we found it harder to enjoy the city itself - after four days of climbing the last thing I felt like was traipsing up and down more stairs. Tired, sore and probably not smelling great after days with no showers, we did experience it with a certain feeling of superiority, of having earned our admission more than the others. But that also meant our tolerance for being crowded was at a minimum.
By the time the heat of midday set in, we sank gratefully into comfortable seats on the bus. The journey was over. Already it seemed like a dream, but one of the best I've had.