After a couple of days acclimatisation in Cusco at over 3300 metres we were ready for our trek to Machu Picchu. A bus strike meant that the tour company had to hastily rearrange our departure and we eventually left Cusco late on the 16th, travelling a couple of hours in a cramped vehicle to Mollepata. Arriving after midnight we were crammed into an empty restaurant and 15 of us bedded down for the night on the floor. The snoring started minutes later and shortly afterwards a disorientated cockeral began crowing. A poor night´s sleep was the result. It was actually a relief when we were roused at about 6am for the beginning of the trek.
There are several ways of getting to Machu Picchu - a combination of train and bus, by car or by walking. Everyday 200 people set out on the route march upon the classic Inca trail to Machu Picchu. We opted for the alternative Salkantay trek. Also an Inca trail, it is longer, higher, harder, more dramatic, less used and in our view, better. It was also a third of the price. There were still about 40 people setting out with us of which 13 others were in the same group as us.
We carried our own backpacks but our tents, sleeping bags and mats and 3kg each of clean clothes were carried by horses for the first 3 days. These horses also carried food and were ably accompanied by a horseman and his son. Each day they would set off ahead of us so that lunch could be prepared for our arrival and tents set up when we reached our final destination for the day.
Our 2 guides, the horsemen and the horses were also joined by our chef who cooked every morning, noon and night. The tour company certainly made sure we were very well looked after. Of course, they couldn´t walk for us though...
And so we set off.
Our first few steps. Day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
15 of us along with Carlos and Eduardo our guides. Mollepata is 2900 metres high. The air was thin and the path steep. Marsha bought herself a walking pole, I slapped on sunscreen and mosquito repellent and we tried to stay up with the pace - we were about 10 years older than most of the others...
Day 1. The path was a dirt track. We were beginning to wonder as to the wisdom of our decision to walk the Salkantay route when, after a couple of hours, we turned a corner and the huge Umantay Mountain proudly stood before us. From that moment on all we did was exchange superlatives in trying to describe the scenery en-route for the next 5 days.
Day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Umantay Mountain. Day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Lunch, day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
A break. Day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
The day wore on as we walked higher. 3 others became detached at the back. It grew late and we watched as the sun set behind the higher Salkantay Mountain that had appeared. At last, just before we had to use flashlights, we arrived at camp. An amazing setting, under the shadow of 2 huge snowy mountains. We were 3700 metres high and it was cold.
Salkantay Mountain. Day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Campsite day 1. Walking to Machu Picchu.
After substituting damp, sweaty, smelly clothes for clean ones and having some soup and pasta we were treated to some sort of cognac drink to help us sleep. It didn´t help. In fact, all it did was to make me go to the loo in the middle of the night which, believe me, was a pretty unpleasant experience in the middle of the nowhere, dark, below freezing etc etc...
Day 2. At 5am we were awoken. Perhaps I should say that at 5am we were roused - for there was very little sleep had by many people. We had been briefed the night before and were told to expect the hardest day of walking today.
And they were right. The track steeply rose up the sides of the Salkantay Mountain before skirting left. Up and up we walked through the thinning air. 2 of our group had opted to take horses and they smiled and laughed as they passed whilst we laid down exhausted by a lake during a break. Up above on the mounain we spotted an avalanche. The scenery, when we felt able to appreciate it, was stunning.
Starting out on the climb. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
On the climb. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
A few of us suffered from altitude sickness - nausea and headaches combined to create a very unpleasant feeling. Marsha and I were ok, partly thanks to the chewing of coca leaves which help to alleviate the symptoms.
One by one we arrived at the highest point of the trek. Depending upon who you ask, what you read and whom you believe, the altitude at the top was somewhere between 4600 and 4800 metres. The path had been steep and we all approached the top wheezing for air.
But it was worth it! The views of the Andes mountains surrounding us and the deep valleys in between were breathtaking. We were up with the snowline.
Marsha arrives at the top - 4700 metres. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
The tour group at the top. 4700 metres. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
At the top. 4700 metres. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Our guide Carlos insisted on everyone having more cognac to celebrate reaching the top.
Marsha accepts sustinance. At the top. 4700 metres. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Several photo sessions later and we started to descend - and that's where it became really difficult. By close of day we had walked from about 4700 metres to 2700 metres and the campsite at Chaullay. Our knees were feeling the constant jarring.
Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Salkantay Mountain. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Lunchtime. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Break. Day 2. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Exhausted, we clambered into camp a little after the leaders in the group. Again the setting was wonderful. And, to our surprise, there was a hose with fresh water. It was sooo cold - but worth it. Clean, or cleanish, we suggled into our sleeping bags and enjoyed a reasonable night's sleep.
Made it! Day 2 campsite. Walking to Machu Picchu.
Day 3. The next morning Carlos proposed that we should not walk on the 4th day and instead take a truck that could take us to the 4th night's campsite. This had to be organised now. A vote was taken. 8 - 7 in favour of walking thankfully. This meant that today was to be the easiest day - about 6 or 7 hours mostly downhill.
Campsite, morning of Day 3.
After the wonderful scenery of the previous 2 days we were not expecting to be as in awe - especially as we were trekking at a much lower altitude. Less dramatic maybe, but equally as beautiful The route took us through a cloud forest and followed a river as it gushed through the tree-lined valley.
Day 3. Walking to Machu Picchu
Horses on the walk. Day 3. Walking to Machu Picchu
Marsha tells a story on a break during day 3. Walking to Machu Picchu
Our knees were creaking again and we were both pleased as we reached our campsite by the river in the town of Playa at 2100 metres and had the afternoon to ourselves.
Very smelly once again, several of us took the opportunity presented by the river. The trouble was that the river flowed straight from a nearby glacier. Numbingly cold but also cleansing. Photos were taken for which it was very difficult to keep some sort of smile together.
A shower at last! In the glacial waters at camp 3. Walking to Machu Picchu
After a couple of beers and some decent food we slipped into our welcoming sleeping bags which we were beginning to become accustomed to. We had bid farewell to the horseman and his son and our chef was also leaving in the morning.
Day 4. 9 of us continued with the walk whilst 6 took the truck that was on offer. It was probably the most beautiful day's walking - if not the hardest. For the first 3 hours we just went up and up and up eventually reaching the summit of over 3100 metres. Much of the trek was an old Inca route and it was possible to see the ancient Incan steps beneath our feet.
Starting out on Day 4. Walking to Machu Picchu
Day 4, walking to Machu Picchu
Up and up...Day 4, walking to Machu Picchu
3100 metres. At the top of the climb. Day 4, walking to Machu Picchu
After stopping for a break we walked a little more downhill before arriving at a lookout point. This was possibly the most beautiful view I have ever seen.
Behind us was an Inacn ruin - Carlos seemed to think it was an old soldiers barracks. But, otherwise, for 270 degrees around us were the Andes. In the foreground the Andean foothills covered in cloud forest, behind were higher and more stark looking hills and beyond them snowy peaks rose majestically into the sky. But, down in the distance, we sighted Machu Picchu for the first time. We all just sat and stared, exhausted and exhilerated. My binoculars were passed around to the sound of ooohs and aaaahs.
Carlos sat us around him and he passed on some information about the Incas and Machu Picchu. We sort of listened - but really we were just happily lying in the sun enjoying the view.
Machu Picchu from a long way away. Day 4, walking to Machu Picchu
Us at the first sight of Machu Picchu. Day 4.
Day 4, walking to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu in the distance.
After some time, reluctantly, we left the site and descended to the river over 1000 metres below. As we walked a huge waterfall appeared in the distance which we were eventually to walk past - the trek just seemed to get better and better!
This was the hardest part of the whole walk though. Going down is definitely harder than going up! On the way one of my boots decided to pack it all in and came apart sending me tumbling - fortunately not in a place that would have sent me plummeting several hundred of feet as it could easily have done! Fortunately I had a pair of trainers with me. They seemed a little put out at being made to take part in the walk and immediately provided me with several fresh blisters to contend with.
At last at the river, over a bridge, past the fantastic waterfall and on to lunch at Hydoelectrica.
The 9 of us sat and ate lunch in stunned silence - was it exhaustion, exhileration or a combination of the 2? We were now at under 2000 metres and ahead of us in the afternoon was a 9km walk to the town of Aguas Calientes that is nestled in the valley below Machu Picchu. Along this walk we had to carry everything as the horses had left and the people that had taken the truck had deposited the bags we had given them earlier in the day at the cafe. Heaving them onto our backs we slowly trudged the 9km.
The path followed the train line and it was a little disquieting to walk past the train standing on the platform that could quite easily take us to our destination. But we walked on - river on one side, railway line on the other and towering hills and cliffs above us. As we walked we again spotted Machu Picchu - this time high above us. It was a long, long afternoon in the baking sun. But, with blistered feet, aching limbs, mosquito bitten arms and a dust covered body the 9 of us dragged ourselves into town.
In Aguas Calientes we stayed in a hostal - ahhh, a bed! The town's name literally means hot water and this is due to the hot springs, which, we duly visited in the evening after checking in. They were fairly filthy, not that warm and full of excitable children - but magic for our aching limbs...
Tickets for Machu Picchu had to be organised after dinner and it was not before 11pm that we eventually climbed into bed. Not that late maybe, but alarms were set for before 3.30am. Only 400 tickets per day are provided for Huatnapicchu on a first come first serve basis. This is the hill that you see in all the pictures of Machu Picchu which we were hoping to climb. The tickets are dished out at 5.30am and we had been advised to be there no later than 5am to be assured of getting them. And, of course, there was a small matter of 500 metres to climb first which would take about an hour and a half.
Day 5. 3.30am, 15 people ready and waiting in the foyet. 3.45am, nervous phone calls are made. Where was Carlos - he had our tickets. 4am, and we decided to walk without him and hoped he'd wake up and catch us up (we didn't know where he was staying). As we walked down the street he appeared. Apologising profusely he handed out our tickets as hoards of tourists walked past us on the way to Machu Picchu. We had to be in the first 400...
There followed a frantic dash up the hill. The 500 metre climb took under an hour. Ridiculous. I counted. I was about 30th there. On the way we'd overtaken about 150 people. Anyhow, we had our Huaynapicchu tickets and were set to climb at 10 in the morning.
We waited for the gates to open. The queue behind us grew but nobody was tempted to queue barge. It was a very peaceful few moments, waiting to enter one of the new modern wonders of the world. It grew gradually light and the mountains and hills in the distance took shape in the hush of the morning. The trek was almost at an end. We had walked over 80km to get there. Our knees especially were aching. We had trekked as high as 4700 metres, washed in glacial rivers, been bitten repeatedly by mosquitos and had several sleep deprived nights. But, it felt fantastic. Especially when the gates eventually opened...
It really is as good as everyone says it is.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is about 2500 metres high in the middle of nowhere. 360 degree views of the Andes surround this ancient city. We wandered in - dazed by everything.
Carlos was speaking - I think. Old stone buildings, mountain views - a frenzy of photo taking - huge grins, shaking of heads, vacant stares - an emotional sense of history and achievement... Carlos was talking, definitely. Apparently it was the 21st of June - the winter solstace - the most important day of the Incan calendar. We were lead to the sun palace to watch the sun rise. It was all just too much to take in...
Of course, we soon regained our senses and began to take in our surroundings a little more. The buildings were in very good condition. There were immaculate terraces upon which llamas wandered. It was easy to imagine life all that time ago. What amazing views they had.
Unfortunately the place was littered with sun worshippers. They stood, very publically, and lifted their arms to the sun as it approached the top of the distant mountains. Some fella blew tunelessly into a wooden instrument behind them - he sounded like a 6 year old child learning the recorder. Still, I suppose they were happy in their fascination. As I stood and waited for the sun, another lady started banging a bowl and telling everyone to be quiet!! She was making more noise than anyone! Then, as the sun rose she burst into tears - all very odd. To complete the oddities, one man commented to me about his close spiritual connection with the cosmos at this moment. Whatever....
Sun Worshippers at Machu Picchu, Peru
It was fantastic walking about and enjoying the site. At 10am we climbed the 300 metre high Huaynapicchu and enjoyed looking down on Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. It had been worth getting up that early!
Marsha and Machu Picchu from Waynu Picchu
Machu Picchu from Waynu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu behind Marsha showng off..., Peru
Machu Picchu from Waynu Picchu, Peru
The trouble was though, we were both so tired from the lack of sleep and the exertion of the 5 days. We descended back down to Machu Picchu and sat on the grass and just looked - lacking energy to wander anymore.
A video to show the full extent of the beauty of the surrounding area of Machu Picchu:
Later in the afternoon we eventually left and with aching knees walked down the 500 metres to Aguas Calientes - the trek was truly at an end.