Salkantay trek: The march to Machu Picchu -

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
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Trip End Nov 08, 2005


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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Well we are both alive so that's good. We got back last night. After walking well over 40km, my knees had ceased up, my feet refused to go up one more hill and my calves told me never to do it again. We were filthy dirty and Jason's trainers walked to the shower on their own, but we were very happy and proud that we had done it!

Actually the Salkantay trek (we couldn't get on the classic Inca trail as it was booked up for months) wasn't as hard as it is made out to be (supposed to be harder than the Inca Trail), infact trekking around Huaraz was much harder, or perhaps I have actually improved my fitness level finally...

Day One - "Can I borrow that Llama's coat please??"

As usual we set off at some ungodly hour before even the roosters were up. A very posh (imported obviously) minibus took us through some local villages (which ridiculously sold every possible item a trekker could want) to the start point. Unfortunately this involved the usual "dirt road on the edge of a massive mountain" scenario that we are now so used to, and whilst trying to get round a bend the bus driver bumped into a tree and chipped the corner of the minibus. Good start. We left him at that point scratching his head about how he would explain that one... and had a quick "whip-around" for him.

Our group was made of up 15 people - 9 Yorkshire lads and lasses who were travelling together, a very reserved English couple, an Aussie and an American girl. The group were a lovely bunch of people and definitely made the trek for me. The "yorkies" (as Jason likes to call them) had the broadest Yorkshire accents I have ever heard and the great raw Northern sense of humour to go with it. I was often in stitches at things they would come out with "will tomoroor be reet ´ard then?" they would ask the poor guides who had zero chance of understanding much that came out of their mouths. Most of the lads had long hair or dreads and the American girl said she felt like she was on the set of "brave heart". Apart from it being a great chance to "expose" Jason to "some tight Northerners" to alleviate his terrible prejudice about anyone who comes from north of Watford, it was also nice for me to hear an accent a bit similar to the one I grew up with and made me feel "reet at ´om".

Cusco has hundreds of tour companies, we chose one called SAS for the trek as it has a good reputation for guides and good food etc. Just before lunch on the first day Jason and I were trading bad experiences we had had with the rip-off-bast*rd (sorry parents and Aunty Nancy) SAS office staff in Cusco with another couple who had similarly been treated appallingly by the staff, who clearly couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery. We were wondering how SAS could get away with charging 50% more than some other companies for the same trek, then we looked up and saw our team of cooks had put up a long table complete with table cloth and napkins which looked fit for the royals! When the food came we realised why it was worth the extra money. Lunch and dinner were 3 courses of absolutely gourmet food every single day; fresh soup, various posh roulades, every kind of potato imaginable (Peru has about 200 types of potato!), veggies stuffed with all sorts of things, tender meat with all sorts of sauces etc it was all beautifully presented - all this in the middle of no where in the Peruvian Andes!!

We arrived at our first camp to find the tents already up and tea and snacks on the table waiting for us! This was no ordinary camping experience. We had an army of 10 cooks/porters/horsemen and 2 guides with us. Horses and mules carried all our things and we did absolutely jack sh*t to help out with anything! There was even a toilet tent with toilet roll! SAS were forgiven for their terrible office.

The first camp was at 3800m and as soon as the sun went down it got absolutely freezing. We hastily put on the entire contents of our backpacks and drank copious amounts of tea and a hot rum-sangria like drink they gave us. During the night the temperature dropped to minus 10 and sleeping was difficult. Our camp was alone and positioned in a fantastic spot at the bottom of a glaciated mountain face which shone in the moonlight. It seemed so strange to be so close to the glacier - usually we see the white peaks from so far away, and there was a scary silence at night broken by mini avalanches.

Day Two - " Stuff yer gob with green leaves and get up that ´ill"

In the morning (and every morning) we woke to the views and a cup of coca tea brought to our tent - service or what! This was the day I had been dreading - the hardest day of the hike. We had to reach a pass of 4700m and according to the guides the answer to this was to chew as many Coca leaves as possible. The Coca plant is found in the Andean highlands and when refined and processed is what makes cocaine. Before all the parents start panicking - it is a completely legal and normal way to counter altitude sickness and only has a miniscule cocaine content. The idea is to place a wad of dried leaves in-between the mouth and cheek and gently suck it; the juice helps you to breathe, is nutritious and gives you energy. All the Andean people chew leaves all day every day. The guide stuffed 20 leaves in his mouth, I managed about 10 max as the taste was not pleasant, but it did help me to trudge very slowly up to the top, gasping and puffing the whole way. Meanwhile Bill the guide walzed up the mountain playing his Andean flute! Of course Jason practically ran up compared to me - he never seems to get affected by altitude! I was extremely relieved to get there and happy in the knowledge that I was not the last, in fact one poor girl suffered so much she was a full half hour behind us.

The landscape at the top was completely barren, rocky mountains stretched for miles and the Salkantay glacier loomed so close it seemed like we could touch it. The top was also full of massive piles of rocks. The custom is to leave your own rock on top of one of these piles as an offering to the mountain gods. Apparently in earlier times people used to leave their sandals. The thought did cross my mind about Jason´s smelly trainers but the Gods may well not have been particularly pleased at this offering.

Another few hours of downhill stumbling and the barren moon-like landscape had disappeared, being replaced with Andean cloud forest. We walked along a ridge through a steep valley and suddenly the temperature got jungle-like and the mossies were out in force. After lunch the guides (Eric and Bill - his real name was unpronounceable) assured it was only another 2 hours to camp. Yeah.... and the rest! A Peruvian 2 hours is really 3-4 and after 6 hours already that day the last 3 were a killer.

We camped at a tiny village that night (2 houses). Although the villagers obviously made money from selling drinks to campers they did seem to live the hard Andean life. The 2 huts were made of wood, a peek through the door revealed all sorts of animals running around in the ´house´ - guinea pigs (local delicacy which I have no inclination to try thanks!), chickens, puppies, cats, hens, pigs etc. Where the family slept I have no idea! Their toilet (and ours too..) was a disgusting hole in the ground surrounded by a few bits of bamboo fence, going behind a bush was a nicer experience. The children though didn't appear to need bushes and just squatted anywhere (While we ate breakfast)!

Day Three - "Only 5 hours - what a doddle!"

The third day we continued through the valley along an incredibly narrow ridge which dropped steeply away down to a river. Although the Salkantay trek is the "alternative Inca Trail" and supposed to be much less crowded we did see other groups all the time. We were also constantly passed by crazy horses/mules, laden down with sacks of camping stuff and gas cylinders. When the horses saw people they would try to go up the steep sides and often stumble, but other than that they breezed along the tiny path with no cares. Bill told me that horses often fall to their death from the ridge though - very sad.

By now we were in what seemed like rainforest amongst orchids, tropical fruit, hummingbirds and gorgeous butterflies - so completely different to the first 2 days.

After a very tame 5 hours we arrived at a larger village "La Playa" (as expected - not beach in sight though!) situated by a river. Here the residents had clearly given up their failing agriculture in favour of selling things to trekkers camping in the huge campsite there. The filthy kids played in the dirt on the street and asked us for sweets as we walked past, later they even came to our tent to ask for sweets! This was so different to back in Huaraz where they saw few tourists and seemed almost scared of us.

By now we were covered in dirt from head to toe and so attempted to wash in the river - it was way too cold to wash properly though. We passed the evening playing cards as the "yorkies" drank large quantities of rum and wine. I left Jason playing poker with the boys and in the morning found out that he cleaned them out winning the kitty twice - enough for a night's accommodation for us! (That Lind family card training comes in handy!)

Day Four "Peruvian transport at it´s best".

Up before dawn for the 4th day running... totally knackered by now! We left the horses and porters and for some reason we did the first hour in a "bus". Well, it had been a bus once upon a time but now it was a battered heap with no glass in the windows and a piece of plastic for a door. As we arrived near to a river the bus stopped and about 2 dozen locals ambushed it, pushing and shoving to get the luggage as it was brought down from the roof. Apparently they were desperate to carry our stuff to the river (about half an hour walk) for 5 soles each (about 1 GBP) Bill wanted us to be the first group to arrive at the river to avoid the queues of trekkers waiting to cross on the river cable. This involved sitting in a metal crate 2 at a time (or 3 plus your sacks if you are Peruvian) and being pulled across on a wire!

After a 3 hour walk along a dusty road on the other side we arrived at a hydro electric plant where a train would take us the last leg to the town of Aquas Calientes, below Macchu Picchu. Tourist-ville began here with loads of stalls selling drinks and a few restaurants. We were all so exhausted we lay down next to the railway tracks and slept before the train came.

The train itself was an experience. The only way the trains can get up the steep valleys is to "switch back", so you go along for about 1km and then go backwards along the same track for 1km but higher up the hill in a zig-zig format.... this continues for hours and you kind of get the impression you aren't really going anywhere, but somehow you arrive. It would have been quicker to walk!

We spent the night at a hostel in Aquas Calientes - the luxury of not squatting over a hole/behind a bush and having a hot shower was something else after 4 days.

Day Five - "That Machu Picchu Moment".

We got to the gates of Machu Picchu by about 6.15am. I don't want to bore you all stupid about this but Machu Picchu really is one of those magical places everyone should see before they die (and it´s easy to do it in a package holiday). As it was still early there were only a handful of people there when we arrived. The sun was just rising above the surrounding mountains creating a spectacle of colours. The only sounds were the birds and the air just seemed to be filled with mystery as we stared at the vast ruins. The isolation of its location is hard to take in - a ruined city perched on top of such a steep mountain surrounded completely by steep drops on all sides, mountains and white peaks in the distance. We had seen the famous postcard view so many times; it was really hard to believe we were finally here.

Machu Picchu was only discovered accidentally in 1911 by an American archaeologist. What a sight that must have been for him even if the ruins were covered in vegetation which it took his team years to clear. The Inca's had managed to hide it from the pilfering Spaniards completely, but no one really knows what its purpose was. Bill provided 3 hours worth of explanations about each building, the Inca beliefs of sun worship, the impressive astronomy tools and the incredible jigsaw- puzzle masonry of massive stones. His English in general was good but somehow his long winded explanations of things didn't make any sense whatsoever and most of the group nodded off at some point, overcome by tiredness after the excitement of reaching Machu Picchu finally.

I don't know how, but we then summoned up enough energy to climb the ridiculously steep mountain behind the ruined city - Huayna Picchu. The Incas had incredibly built hundreds of steps leading to more terraces and a house right on the top. I pity the poor Inca´s who had to work up there - the steps were so steep and if you looked down you regretted it! The views of Macchu Picchu were worth the climb and again you just wondered how on earth they could have built something so vast in such a precarious location.

Relief from having made it to the top was soon taken over by terror on the way down. The steps down were so narrow and steep I came down on my bum in the end, clinging for dear life to the edge of the ruins.

We just managed to squeeze in a much needed trip to Aquas Calientes hot springs before catching the "tourist" train back to Cusco (locals have their own train which tourists aren´t allowed on!)

The trek and arriving at Machu Picchu was certainly a trip highlight for us, however I have to say that I am glad we trekked around Huaraz too where the locals still live their lives without the influence of tourism, you see few other trekkers and the scenery is even more spectacular. Though the proper Inca Trail trek would have been the "real thing", the magic would surely have been taken away by trekking with 100´s of others in the tourist circus it has become (500 people daily)

Well, that's us all trekked out now. Off to the Bolivian end of Lake Titicaca now. Sorry this was so long!
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