ON TRACK: A train chugs into Aguas Calientes station on the Inca trail, to be greeted by locals selling their colourful wares
Inspired by the recent celebrity charity trek to Machu Picchu, NICOLA ISEARD takes a less well-trodden path to discover the amazing 15th-century Inca citadel
IT DID not take me long to realise that this was going to be no ordinary holiday. I was sitting on a rock 12,000ft up in the Peruvian Andes with three women I had known for barely 24 hours, discussing the merits of dry shampoo.
We were about to set off on the Inca Trail, heading for the 15th-century "lost" Inca city of Machu Picchu, undiscovered by the Spanish during their 16th-century invasion of the Incan empire and only unearthed by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. So if Denise Van Outen, Fearne Cotton and Alexandra Burke could ditch their Jimmy Choos for hiking boots, then I could too. Click here now for amazing offers to Machu Picchu!
Unlike the 500 tourists who embark on the classic Inca Trail each day, our 22-strong group, aged between 18 and 68, and from countries as far afield as the Netherlands and New Zealand, was following a remote, less well-trodden trail. The 18-mile route through the Lares Valley was tailor-made by British tour operator Dragoman and Peruvian tour company Andina Travel.
After flying into Cusco, we camped overnight in the school field of Quishuarani, an ancient Andean farming community 51 miles north of the city.
We spent our first morning doing voluntary work (I helped paint the school's newly-built toilet block funded by Dragoman and Andina) before setting off. Our guide, nicknamed Smithy, led the way up a steep, rugged trail. We had three days' walking ahead of us.
At Urubamba we would hop on a bus for Ollantaytambo before catching a train two hours west to Machu Picchu for sunrise (far more civilised than the 3am start trekkers on the classic Inca Trail have to make).
NOT THAT our trip was big on creature comforts. We were wild camping with no beds, toilets (just hole-in-the-ground tents) or showers until our hotel in Ollantaytambo.
As for our clothes, we had packed "essentials only" into a Dragoman duffle bag, leaving the rest in Cusco, thus keeping the llamas' load to a minimum. Want incredible deals to Machu Picchu? Click here now...
We had four miles until Cuncani village, our base for the second night of our three-night trek, involving an estimated five hours of uphill hiking. It took only five minutes for me to start puffing. It was the altitude (the lack of oxygen causes the heart to beat faster).
The answer? Walk at a snail's pace.
By the time we reached the 14,435ft-high Uchuycasa Pass, with its spectacular views of sacred snow-capped peaks (the Incas worshipped the mountains as gods, believing they controlled the weather), our group had dispersed, as everyone found their own pace.
Smithy's co-guide William took up the rear.
It was as we descended towards Cuncani that the headache, like a bad hangover, set in. Altitude sickness. Luckily there is a cure:
raw coca leaves. Regarded as "the divine plant" by the Incas, they increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood. As we huddled together in the communal tent for card games and supper (quinoa soup, chicken pasta and chocolate pudding), I drank eight cups of coca tea. It worked.
It was good to know if any of us felt too poorly to walk, there was the "ambulance horse". We could just hop on and enjoy the view.
There is something rather absurd about going to bed wearing thermals, a fleece, hat and two pairs of gloves but the temperature did drop to -3C. The 5am start was also hard but necessary. This was our big day: 7.5 miles mostly uphill.
Hiking over rocks and past vast glacial lakes, I relied on my walking stick (bought from a village market) as if it were a third leg. Using every ounce of determination, I reached the Pumahuacasa Pass, the highest point of our trek at 15,748ft. I stood grinning, arms outstretched, the view of the tumbling valley below me. Best of all, we were the only ones around (we didn't pass a single tourist on the entire trek).
After a night of wild camping at Paccha surrounded by tall leafy polylepis trees and a four-hour walk past stunning waterfalls, we made it to Ollantaytambo, hailed as a "living Inca town" (people still live in Inca buildings). It was then that the excitement hit me: Machu Picchu was just hours away.
After the train journey to Aguas Calientes, the 30-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu felt like a lifetime. As did the five-minute trail through the trees which leads to the citadel. Then, finally, we saw it: sprawling ruins clinging to the steep mountainside. It took my breath away.
We wandered past the Temple of the Sun, a semi-circular tower showcasing Machu Picchu's finest stonework, and the Intihuatana, an enormous granite sundial, Smithy reeling off facts as we went.
Most archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was built in about 1450 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti and was abandoned in 1572 as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest.
There was just one more walk to make, to the Sun Gate, a pass two miles above Machu Picchu where hikers on the classic Inca Trail first lay eyes on the citadel.
I'm not sure how long I sat there taking in the sweeping view below but it's a sight that will stay with me long after the blisters have healed and the photographs faded.
Denise And Fearne's Charity Trek For Breast Cancer starts tomorrow, 9pm, ITV2. GETTING THERE: Dragoman (01728 861133/www.dragoman.com) offers the Community Inca Trail as part of an 11-night Machu Picchu, Inca Trails & Lake Titicaca trip between Cusco and La Paz from £900pp (two sharing), half board. Prices include accommodation, most meals, transfers and excursions. Return flights from Heathrow to Cusco and out of La Paz or vice versa can be booked via Dragoman from £723. Prom Peru: 020 7235 1917/ www.peru.info