The jungle trek to Machu Picchu, for those of you not already in the know, is a kind of alternative trail for those backpackers too disorganised or free-flying to pin themselves down for a date for the real Inca trail, which requires booking months ahead and a fair bit more mullah than will ever be at the average backpacker’s disposal.
The tour consists of four days of mountain bike riding, hiking, zip-lining and hiking some more through mountainous terrain and lush jungle.
Day one, if you’re lucky, will see you free-wheeling along a winding mountain road, starting at Abras Malagas, some 4,350 metres above sea level and descending to just 1,250m.
Even if you’re unlucky, as we were, you will still most likely free-wheel downhill; only instead of views you will be squinting against a blurred landscape as heavy raindrops pelt your eyelids. We weren’t too bothered about getting wet though, since even without the rain we had to steer our bikes through ten rivers that intersected the road.
With eight hours of uphill hiking ahead of us, our guide Rene painted us all with the red pigment of the seeds of a plant called achiote.
My Harry Potter spectacles didn’t look nearly as fierce as a German girl’s tiger stripes, but I sought my revenge by turning our guide into Ronald McDonald. It was hard to take him seriously after that as he told us about our surroundings or the Incan history.
That day, we ascended 600 metres in two hours, taking a short-cut that took the oxygen from our lungs and repaid us with sweat.
The rest of the walk was what Rene called ‘Inca flat’, meaning gentle undulations, on an Inca trail that clung to a mountainside.
Chankas, or Incan messengers, used to run this path to deliver notices from far-flung corners of the Incan empire, called Tiwantinsuyu. Like a more effective form of Chinese Whispers, it was said news flew through the kingdom uncannily quickly through the use of these runners.
We stopped at an outlook to honour Pachamama, the Quechuan god, to guarantee our safe passage.
We followed our guide in collecting three coca leaves, placing one over the other, and, after murmuring some voodoo words, blowing on the leaves in the direction of the four cardinal points. Our ritual leaves were collected and thrown into a cave for Pachamama. The left-overs were for us to masticate for energy as we continued on.
The Urubamba River cut through the valley three hundred metres below us and peaks rose dramatically all around us.
We traversed savage waterfalls using slippery logs and rickety bridges, and one time simply clinging to the branches overhanging a waterfall to avoid being swept away.
For the Urubamba itself we piled four at a time into a cable car that was slowly cranked across the raging river using a simple hand-pulley system.
We settled that night in Santa Teresa (1,500 m), after first soaking our muscles in nearby hot springs. We washed away the sweat, grime, tiredness and soreness and refreshed ourselves for a new day.
Day 3 felt like cheating, though it had been highly anticipated. A portion of our group opted to zip-line across a valley over walking the first part of the trek. The valley dipped below us as we sped across shaky lines 150 m off the ground, but the flight was far more exhilarating than the trek turned out to be after a quick comparison of experiences with our friends once we met back up.
We endured more ‘Inca flat’ alongside a train line on the final stretch to Aguas Calientes, the town that resides beneath Machu Picchu.
At one point, Rene halted in his tracks and pointed up. Squinting against the sun, we saw a fortified wall perched on a mountain top far above us.
‘Machu Picchu,’ he announced, and at the sound of that magical land a thrill went through my body.
South America’s most well-known ruins deserve a blog post of their own. So read this post to finish up our tour on Day 4.
Get more Peruvian inspiration
Peru is an incredible land of adventure. Check out some of the other experiences you can have below: