The Inca Trail beckoned; with restrictions about to be imposed on permits for the four-day hike and its incomparable finale, the lost city of Machu Picchu, it was finally time to book the classic gap year trip to Peru — which I’d missed until now for lack of a gap year.
Unsure whether a daily walk of city streets during my lunch break would give me the fitness level of backpackers half my age, new ways of walking the trail proved a perfect compromise.
With a permit secured for the last, most rewarding day of the classic trek, I’d be able to view the ruins for the first time as only hikers are able to, through the legendary Sun Gate.
Preferring to temper my adventures with comfort, I rested up before my big hike in the gateway town of Cusco, high in the Andes. Here Belmond, formerly known as Orient Express, has not one but two five-star properties and I started at the Monasterio, a converted monastery decked out in museum-quality artwork.
Watching millions of lights appear at dusk, illuminating the hills around this beautiful city built on Inca foundations, I was glad I also had an indulgent second night booked on the same tranquil square — at neighbouring La Casona, part of the Inkaterra group, smaller and more intimate but no less luxurious.
That’s unlike the less than luxury 4am start to catch the train to my starting point on the trail, where we waited in vain for torrential rain to stop until finally my guide announced we’d have to start climbing through the wet.
Two hours up a steep incline, via stairs made of natural rock, we reached a pitstop where hikers of every age were devouring their packed lunches. Seeing children doing the trail was distinctly reassuring.
Along the way, my guide Reuben — a middle-aged Peruvian with great English — educated me on the history and surroundings, not least the fact that Peru has 140 varieties of indigenous wild orchid, many of which I saw framed dramatically against the imposing mountains as we climbed ever higher.
The highlight was reaching Winawayna, or the Temple of the Rainbows at 2,666 metres above sea level; its seven windows representing the colours of the rainbow are arranged precisely for sunlight to stream through during the winter solstice.
Wandering along, you become aware of the beautifully terraced landscapes which characterise the valleys of the Trail, llamas graze peacefully while tourists take obligatory selfies and guides tell their stories, each always more accurate than anyone else’s version.
Then onwards, thankfully more up and down than steep climb, with a chance to glimpse the odd, very shy Peruvian anteater until our final ascent to the Sun Gate.
Appropriately, an intense sun emerged from the clouds, allowing Machu Picchu to reveal itself from beneath its morning shroud for the first time. It was a beautiful sight, the ancient city among vast green peaks, if you ignored the people Skyping their friends at home.
Euphoric with achievement, it was a taste of what I would explore properly the next day — after a good rest. In the end, the only tricky part had been carrying everything I’d need for several days in a backpack, as my bags were transferred from Cusco to my next stop after Aguas Calientes, the village which acts as base camp for Machu Picchu.
Being able to stay overnight and enter the site at dawn, ahead of the crowds made for a magical experience. In the first opening hour alone 100 visitors arrive, and by afternoon it’s more than 1000, making movement around the narrow corridors slow, something that new regulations are aiming to tackle.
As it was, I entered in total peace after the short bus ride up the hill from the village to discover this fascinating 15th century site, its buildings aligned along astronomic lines, with no mortar needed to hold their gigantic yet precisely hewn blocks of stone together.
Wandering past temples, each detail full of spiritual and symbolic significance for this long lost empire, my own highlights included the impressive Temple of the Condor and experimental greenhouse area, used by the Incas to fertilise the plants grown along the terraces, as well as the beautifully carved intihuatana, possibly a sundial but still so full of mystery.
The little narrow gauge train takes you back to Aguas Calientes, with its souvenir market, attractive winding streets and padlock-adorned bridge. Staying at Inkaterra’s lodge here, my thatched hut equipped with all mod cons, I explored further with rangers before trying an obligatory pisco sour in the bar.
Most visitors head straight back to Cusco, but that would mean missing the Sacred Valley, home to some of Peru’s most notable if less visited sites, from the concentric stone circles of Moray to the nearby dazzling salt pans laid out like patchwork, and Inca sites of Pisac and Chinchero.
And in Urubamba, I found myself surrounded by more grandiose mountains, strikingly red. Here I saw my first Peruvian rainbow and after the more crowded paths of the Inca Trail and corridors of Machu Picchu, revelled in the utter peace and quiet of the isolated site.
Seeing Machu Picchu
New regulations for Machu Picchu now limit visitors to half-day visits only in the company of a guide, and permits must be bought months in advance.
There are two entry time slots per day (6am-noon, noon-5.30pm) with three guided circuits, a maximum four-hour stay per ticket and no more than 16 people per group. It is still possible to buy two entrance tickets to spend a full day at the site.
500 Inca Trail permits are available per day, and the whole allocation for 2018 is due to be released earlier than usual, this month. The peak months sell out particularly quickly.
Travellers who miss out on Inca Trail permits can still trek to Machu Picchu on the alternative Salkantay trek route for which no permit is needed, and which approaches from the other side of the site.
For more information visit promperu.gob.pe