From the Bolivian border town of Puno, I headed East towards Cusco, the old capital of the Incan empire. The city is rich with incan history, alongside colonial architecture and local markets. In the centre, tourists bustle around in almost equal proportion of the locals, with many traditionally dressed women standing on corners to pose for pictures with Alpacas. I spent a few nights absorbing the city, waiting for my old friend Matt to fly in from the UK. After several months of unsubtle persuasion, I had convinced him to join me for my travels through Peru. Upon his arrival, we caught up for several days whilst he adapted to the high altitude (whilst also undertaking our friendly tradition of heavy drinking). I also met with a Canadian called Dylan, and two Germans called Toni and Carmen. Together we made an inseparable and undoubtedly unhealthy Cusco team.
But all good travellers must move on. Once we were ready, Matt and I planned and undertook our first steps on the famous trek of the Salkantay trail towards the enchanting city of Machu Picchu.
We loaded onto a bus at 4am which winded around the green mountainsides towards the trail starting point. Our guide Carlos was in a continual bubbly mood and confident of good weather, although the swirling clouds above made me doubtful. Much of the kit was loaded onto the back of mules, and we all introduced ourselves to the rest of the group. The group was made up of the usual cohort of European, Israeli and North American travellers (including an American who spent much of the journey convincing others he was either a professional footballer or a undercover secret agent; whichever picked his fancy that day).
Another group’s mule had been fully loaded with various gear wearing a blindfold. Upon uncovering the blindfold the distressed mule bolted, spraying the contents of its pack onto the track and almost launched itself off a cliff edge as it galloped around the corner. A daunting start, but more so for whoever’s tent had just been given a flying start to the trek.
Regardless, we ventured upwards along the hillside path, following a stone drainage route through a green and yellow bush valley towards the first camp. Despite the altitude, the air was warm and dry. The scenery was rich, and a few Condors glided above for company. We reached our camp, dropped our bags and made the hour-long ascent towards the ridge overlooking Lake Humantay. The grass-covered rock had been cleanly cut by glaciers to form a smooth slope with trickling waterfalls entering the emerald water. A stunning curtain of white mountains encircled the area, and the sun slowly set behind as we wandered back down to camp in awe of what we had just seen.
The following morning, still lit by glowing stars, we woke to start the trail towards the Salkantay pass. Several members of the group had already started to suffer from numerous issues; from stomach issues to sprained ankles and altitude sickness. Many of whom chose to ride through the pass on horseback. Fortunately, after two weeks at high altitude cities in Bolivia and Peru, I had fully acclimatised to the environment, and the trail peak of 4630m didn’t seem too daunting. The already thin air felt normal to my adapted body. It was a great relief following the sickness I had experienced crossing the Andes between the Chilean-Bolivian border.
We started our journey on the western side of the pass, where the icy water would flow towards the Pacific. Now over the pass, the rivers would start their long journey towards the Atlantic. It was a monumental feeling to know we stood on the dividing point between these two vast waters.
Then from the cold dry valley at the pass, we started our 1700m descent towards the Urubamba river. The air became humid and thick as we lowered, and it wasn’t long before we reached thick habitation; there was maze, coffee and coca leaves being grown in plenty along the mountainsides.
One unfortunate misconception I held about the west coast of South America would be an abundance of high quality coffee at every possible corner. Sadly, Western demand means that it is mostly exported around the world (and in fact the last bag of coffee I picked up in Santiago for my cafetière was from Rwanda). So to my pure joy, one of the villages we passed actually grew, roasted and ground some fresh coffee on the spot – a truly pleasurable reward after a day of hiking.
On the third and fourth day, we continued to follow the snaking river towards the town of Agua Calientes, known primarily as the base of Machu Picchu. This would have been fairly straightforward, although high rains were causing frequent landslides in the valley, and one (which had fallen just thirty minutes before our arrival), scythed through the road we were walking on and stopped us in our tracks. The only option was to cross the river via a precarious shuttle attached to a metal cable, and follow the river on the other side.
After a couple of hours of shuttling people and luggage in the trolleys, we shuffled along a jungle path towards the second and equally precarious river shuttle. As I was queuing for my turn, our guide crossed first with a heavy load of bags – a few bags too many. The threadbare rope pulling him across snapped, leaving the shuttle stranded and having to be strenuously pulled by hand to the other side. After several minutes they had dragged themselves across, and like nothing happened, they knotted the feeble rope together and sent it back. Along with an American, we cautiously clambered aboard and metal trolley and quietly sat as still as possible until we were pulled to the other side.
The main inhibitor on the fourth morning was a collective self-inflicted illness caused by “Inca Tequila”, that was poured from a barrel the night before around a roaring bonfire. Our guide, Carlos, made numerous speeches and frequently toasted, proudly announcing “I am the Condor! You are the pumas.” Unfortunately it was a few toasts too many for the Condor, as he could barely walk the next morning. He would simply point us in the right direction and the pinball down the path behind us at a very steady pace.
But despite all the obstacles we had faced, we eventually reached the train track leading directly to Agua Calientes, and a few hours later we arrived at the town. It held all the familiar bright lights and tourist gimmicks you would expect, but we were all mainly excited for a hot shower. It would be another early start the following morning, ready for the hike to one of World’s wonders; Machu Picchu.
We rose to the violent clatter of heavy rain on metal roofs, and so we layered on all of the waterproof gear we had. Several hundred ponchos shuffled in darkness to the lower gate. The entry to the 400m climb opened at 5am, and I was in no mood to trudge up slowly in the rain. Once open, I marched forcefully ahead of the crowd, and after just over 30 minutes of breathless stairs, I reached the Machu Picchu entrance first with only a sultry security guard and some wild dogs for company.
Slowly, others joined around me and formed a queue, and we waited calmly in the slow drizzle. Once the park opened, we flooded in. Shuffling through the narrow pathways, we found our way to the first clear view of Machu Picchu. Despite all the images of Machu Picchu that are globally shared and stapled in the back of your mind, nothing will really prepare you for the elegant citadel, with polished dry-stone walls, bright green grass, steep stairways and a few clean-cut trees. Looking outwards, near-vertical green mountains stood tall in every direction with their heads lightly touching the clouds.
We slowly wandered around the walkways and up vast staircases around the mountain as the increasing numbers of tourists leaked into the site. Once we had our fill of history and mystery, we started our descent back to Agua Calientes ready for the train back to civilisation. An Unforgettable ending to an amazing introduction to Peru.