Salkantay to Machu Pichu

5 days of climbing, hiking and gasping; the views were simply breathtaking. I booked up this tour in advance of my trip across the Atlantic. My itinerary was simple- travel Peru and Bolivia for 3 weeks, taking in as much experience as I could get my hands on during my short time here. My trip around Salkantay and up Machu Picchu was booked for day 10 of my trip. You need time to acclimatize to these altitudes; that or suffer phenomenal headaches and nausea on the way up. I managed to skip the sickness, but those last 500 metres skywards pounded the inside of my temples at every step. One Argentinian couple and 2 French ladies were not so fortunate, having to skip day 2 of the tour up to the Salkantay by-pass where the views were awe-inspiring, up and over the roof of the clouds. Still, they were able to see my photos on my 3inch camera screen…

I landed in Lima at the start of September- my first visit to either of the America’s. I made way through Huacachina, Ariquipa and Cuzco prior to the tour. With each altitude higher than the previous, I gently became accustomed to the shortness of air. When I climb a flight of staires back home, breathlessness isn’t something I’m familiar with- yet at 3500 metres into the atmosphere, it hits you for six. Even a short stroll to the shops can take it out of you, leaving you hunched over gasping for oxygen which these altitudes so fiercely derive from us. Climbing the 100 or so steps to my hostel based at the apogee of Cuzco (Loki hostel– great accommodation, killer climb) destroyed me every single time.

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I arrived at Cuzco the day prior to the departure date. There was a quick, yet informative meeting at 5pm that night. We was given our itinerary for the next 5 days; it sounded gruelling yet exhilarating, and I couldn’t wait to leave…

Day 1 was challenging. We were picked up from our hotels, and ran the hour drive into the wilderness by minibus. It was an early start- our alarms were set for 4:30am and the decision not to start on the shots with our new family of friends the night previous was a wise one. We pulled in to a small village, offloaded our packs and had breakfast with the locals. The famous continental; bread, butter, jam, and a scrambled egg if you’re lucky. We even had the choice of a yogurt with fruit, which, if I were you, I would avoid. And so it began- we gathered our packs, leaving 5kgs of our chosen baggage for the mules to carry. This was well accepted, considering my pack weighed in at just over 10kg; about the average of the group, and we had to lug it over 100km for the next 5 days. We followed in line for the next 3 hours, with one guide up the front, and the other trailing behind with the older french party. Waiting for them to catch up did become tiresome after the first full day. We had a 45 minute break for lunch, and then continued onward. We became accustomed to either the toilet in the ground, or the el bano naturale. Previous trips across similar continents had prepared me for the two. We reached our first camp ahead of schedule at 4050 metres- an hour before the grannies made their arrival. We camped beneath a large glacier mountain which, as night drew in, meant for an unforgiving blast of cold air through the night. At these altitudes, base layers of thermal gear are warmly welcomed inside your sleeping bag.

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Another early start on day 2; darkness not quite contempt on dispersing. Another continental breakfast down and coca tea in abundance- even for the sole purpose of warming our cold and tired physiques. We began a steeper climb, and this only increased in intensity as the sun broke through over the ice capped mountains; radiating that little bit of heat required to unzip the 4th layer or remove the third. We climbed up, and across, and zig-zagged our way up through the clouds until we finally peaked above them. It was cold and the air was thin, and at 4000 metres above sea level, the headaches began to knock at the inside of the skull. A 5 minute break and they would slowly disperse, only to repeat again after the next few steps. We reached the by-pass at 4600 metres high. We were the first party to arrive, and had the whole area to ourselves to capture limitless photos and to take all the paracetamol we needed- a great sense of accomplishment proceeding to replace any bitter feelings we may have procured for the morning undertaken.

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IMG_0929After an hour or so learning of the Inca tribe, their beliefs and a few history lessons, we began our decent down the other side. It seemed somehow tougher, as the pains in the front of my shin and calf’s kicked in. The downhill trek became tiresome. The spring in my legs trying to insulate the body from all the shocks transmitted from the downhill trek, which after a while, began to fail. The slopes leveled off as we approached our second camp. The flat surface was most welcome to all of us, as were the warmer temperatures. The layers we so heavily relied on earlier that day began to flake off; my trousers were unzipped intoshorts, and my arms slid from my waterproof jacket. As the humidity increased, so did the sweet and greasy scent of bug sprays. We crossed one last shallow waterfall before making way into the camp. We played football whilst dinner was cooking. Needless to say, Europe vs South America was a pretty competitive match. As if we hadn’t all just walked 45km’s, up into the clouds and back down to the jungle, you’d be forgiven to think our legs were fresh out of training. Europe won, and our prize of 2 bottles of beer was greatly appreciated…the other 4 thereafter came at a price.

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After a few beers, I tend to run to the toilet quite a bit through the night. I unzipped the tent with my flashlight in hand, preparing to make the 50 meter dash to the hole in the ground in the darkness of the night. As I stepped out, the darkness never came…instead I was startled by the millions of twinkling stars just above my head. I had never seen anything quite like it before. In an opening of the jungle, at 1500 meters high, it felt like the stars were within my grasp. I’d just stretch out my arms and collect them all in my hands. I was memorized by fullness of the black sky, and stood there in awe of the moment for a minute. Then I remembered why I stepped out of the tent; making a sprint to the hole before it was too late. I will never forget that night I almost wet myself…

We were promptly woken at 7am, the sound of metal mugs clanging and the smell of coca tea brewing. I had a quick bath with wet wipes, before our guide told  the group we would have just a 2 hour walk to a local village for lunch, where we can relax for a couple of hours in the sun. Lunch came swiftly, shortly followed by a minibus to run us the short distance to another small town called Santa Teresa. We had been entertained with the idea of visiting the natural springs when we arrived. Believe me, it did not take long for us all to change into swimwear as we pulled into the camp. Half an hour later we were queuing to get into the springs. You could feel everyone’s excitement as we looked ahead, anticipating the warmth and healing abilities of a hot bath. We quickly stepped to the bottom of the rocky cliff face, where the  deep blue pool of crystal water sprawled itself across the natural rock. As we all lowered ourselves down into it, the approval was unmistakable, as we grunted, groaned, and washed away 3 days of sweat from our bodies. We drank beer and relaxed for the next 2 hours, as the sun faded beneath the valley, and the sandflies came out feast on our flesh as we were to dry off and change. Amazing.

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There were subtle mutterings of a party that evening around the campfire. As new groups of campers and tour groups alike began to to show up and pitch tents around ours, we all suddenly became a little eager to start on the Cusquena’s. The sun had fallen from the sky, the music had been cranked up, and the bar (wooden shed) started to get busy. People got drunk. We shared a bottle of gin. A friend made out with a married woman. I made out with a hot french girl. Another friend was being sick just behind us…the stories stacked up from the night. With just enough beer to settle down restfully for one last evening in the rough, I took myself to my tent, where my partner in crime snored the bed off for the remainder of the night- the gin hadn’t been good to him…

We woke up at 7am, with our heads still sore from the night previous, and our bodies trying their up-most to recover from the long distances endured. From here, we had 3 choices- go ziplining for the morning, then catch a minibus 8km’s down the dusty road to Hydro-electryc; skip the ziplining and take a minibus the 8km’s to Santa Teresa, or walk the dusty road to Santa Teresa. Me and my friend opted for the ziplining, which I won’t bang on too much for, because frankly, it was really disappointing. We had been given a packed lunch to get us through the final half of the day, following the windy railway tracks for 3hrs to the bottom of Machu Pichu, to a town called Agnes Calientes. Very touristy place as it sits at the base of Machu Pichu; lots of souvenir shops, a busy train station for all those in a rush or too lazy to take the scenic route up, another hot springs (nothing in comparison to the first), and plenty of over-priced restaurants and hotels to splurch your money. Our accommodation was in a hotel for the night- a much welcomed bed, last meal with the new extended family, and an early night after a short spot of shopping. The next day we had our hearts set on arriving at Machu Pichu before anyone else. Myself, my amigo, and the German duo we shared our room with were getting up at 4:15 to climb the 1772 steps, to beat the sunrise to the top….you’ll only get the chance once.

So the bed and sheets were nice whilst they lasted. weary eyed and showered, we packed our bags one last time and left the bulk of it in the hotel reception. With just a small day pack for the 4 of us, we brought only water and snacks to see us through the morning up there. We left early, with a few people close behind us. We queued at the entrance of the footbridge which carries you to the foot of the Inca steps. We handed over our tickets, and made way in the darkness. It takes about 90 minutes to get to the top for most. We were in darkness, and it was cold, and we made it in under an hour. It was a gruelling task, but everyone well motivated to make the summit before everyone else. The sweat poured from every orifice as I climbed the irregular steps; layers of clothing quickly came off, and I was overtaking the few ahead of me. I made it up in good time. I was happy with 3rd position, only to be told that the world heritage site will not open its gates until 6am- it was now 5:30…

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It was good to watch the people pour from the opening of the steps as light broke through. Puffing and wheezing and in the same pool of sweat I was in just 10 minutes ago. The gates opened and we poured through, eager to capture Machu Picchu in all it’s glory, and snap away to our hearts content before the crowds really got flowing. It was as perfect as I had expected. It builds you with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction like no other. As if I had just trekked over 100km’s to reach this moment, from altitudes of 1200 meters to over 4000. I couldn’t stop smiling; I couldn’t stop taking photos; I couldn’t stop eating the mini packets of Oreo Cookies from my day pack. It’s fair to say that I felt quite literally on top of the world at this moment in time, and I would encourage absolutely everyone to do the same.

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The Salkantay tour is an incredible alternative route up to Machu Picchu, due to how diverse the different climates are on the way. Day one starting in arid, scorched mountain ranges, making our way up through the damp and icy cloud line, where nothing grows but a thin layer of vegetation beneath the coating of ground ice, before making way back down through the hot and humid jungle which hangs off either side of the gaunt, never ending valleys. If you are struggling to get on the Classic Inca trail, then rest assured, you wouldn’t be missing a thing by doing this one. So if you were thinking of trekking Machu Picchu, please do consider the Salkantay route won’t you…

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