It was without doubt the biggie on my trip to Peru. I’d seen countless images of Machu Picchu, one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and there’s no question that it’s extremely photogenic. The wonderfully intact ruins of a centuries-old civilisation would be enough, but throw in the fantastic backdrop of perhaps the most perfectly choreographed green mountain and your jaw literally drops.
Yet to get there and see it I’d have to earn it via four days’ worth of walking on the Salkantay Trail, otherwise known as the poor man’s (or backpacker’s) alternative to the Inca Trail. Along the way there would be spectacular views, early starts and slight altitude effects, not to mention cringe-worthy Frenchmen naively thinking they are God’s gift to women, a tour guide who didn’t even reach my shoulders and an epic match-up (almost) between England, Germany, the Netherlands and France to reach the summit of Machu Picchu. Anyway, I’d haggled myself a good price for the Salkantay Trail, paying 190USD for an all-inclusive 4-day/5-night package.
The bus picked me up at the hostel at 4.30am and we proceeded to circle around for a good while searching for the other members of our party. We got taken to a spot for breakfast (note that the first breakfast isn’t included on any of the Machu Picchu tours) and in my slumber I agreed to have a breakfast for 15/S even though I’d brought my own packed breakfast. ‘Twas a rather poor show and included a few bread rolls, jam and a small portion of eggs. I’d spent the previous days pumping my system full of coca leaves and anti-altitude tablets as I was determined not to fall foul of the lack of oxygen, and consequently learned surmised that said products, despite their positive effects, loosen the bowels somewhat. Be warned!
I evidently hadn’t realised upon booking my tour that donkeys would carry basically our entire luggage for us during the trek, and I was happy to shed weight from what was a comparatively small bag compared to others in the group. Of course, the only Peruvians on the tour were the tour guides, chefs and donkeymen, and the rest was an eclectic mix of British, German, French, Dutch, Austrian and Australian backpackers. Our main guide, Puma, was informative and organised throughout, ably assisted by the pint-sized Mauro, who was about as high as my shoulders, but an extremely fast walker. From where the minibus dropped us off we had a walk of approximately three hours, nothing particularly testing, though I had some slight back pain. We got to our campsite, tents already mounted and I shared with a Canadian nurse, Mike, who would be my roomie for the next few nights.
Due to the early start we were all a bit knackered so I hit the hay for a while and got some sleep before we were called for lunch by the guides. As above with the donkey situation, I wasn’t expecting much given the price I’d paid, so was pleasantly surprised upon receiving a three-course meal of soup, meat, rice and vegetables, and a cake for dessert followed by some coca tea. All subsequent meals would be of similar quality, an unexpected bonus on the trip, though I must admit the warm corn and quinoa drinks didn’t go down quite so well amongst the group.
After lunch we hiked up a hill to a beautiful lake, and if this climb was a taste of things to come over the next few days, I’d have been in for a rough ride. Luckily, these two hours or so were about as difficult as it got during the trek, so the heavy breathing occasioned by the altitude wasn’t to become a theme of the week.
At the top and the lake was crystalline blue, with a waterfall cascading down into it from the snow-capped mountains behind and wild horses wandering around in the distance. When Puma had suggested we bring our swimsuits, I thought he was joking, but as it happened, about half of our group got in, and immediately out, of the freezing waters. A German girl, evidently used to getting her kit off, emerged from the water with half her chest on display, though I doubt whether she knew about it or indeed cared. And she later had no problems getting out of her bikini in close vicinity to everyone else with just a small towel to hand.
Anyway, changing the subject slightly, and it was getting cold, so we headed back down to the camp, the descent being much easier, and I arrived a good few minutes before the rest of them, as the excess coca leaves in my system were being quite rebellious. Don’t forget to bring your own bog roll.
Not much more happened that evening and after a snack of popcorn and afternoon tea, a bonus we received every day, we were treated to a decent dinner, after which most people were in need of sleep and everyone was back in the tents by about 7.30pm. To be fair, there’s nothing much else to do in chilly pitch blackness. I discovered that the coca leaves also have a diuretic effect and I hope that in getting up several times during the night to water the grass I didn’t wake up Mike because of the horrendously loud zip on our tent.
The day started at 5am, as we were given coca tea-in-tent by the chefs and guides, but I’d already been wakened for a while and had slept more than enough in what turned out to be a warm and comfortable tent. The second day is the one said to be the most difficult with a climb of just under 1000m up to around 4600m above sea level, meaning the only way was up, baby. All of my five layers (two tees, a fleece, a rain jacket and ski jacket) certainly came in handy and I was the first one to make it up the high point after about 3 hours’ walking. Most of the group made good pace, but there were a few that lagged about half an hour behind on most days, especially when there was an ascent. On most routes we didn’t explicitly follow one of our guides, but went at our own pace, as basically there’s no way of coming off route. When there is slight room for doubt, the guides said to go until a certain point, e.g. ‘the unmissable big lake on your left’ or ‘where the sign for the high point is’ and to wait for them there.
Puma had insisted we carry a small rock from the first campsite up until the high point so as to pay respect to the mountain Gods and do as the Incas did. The mountains are held in high regard in these parts, and often in the Andes if one wants to scale a mountain, permission has to be asked of the mountain via a shaman, and it is not always given. Apparently when such orders are disobeyed, avalanches and landslides often occur. Thankfully someone had checked if it was OK with them and when I made it to the pass, I deposited my rock on a pile of other offerings and made the wish that was afforded to me, which unfortunately didn’t come true in the end.
After the high point we made a descent through a rocky landscape, which could be described as lunar, from what I’ve gathered from seeing pictures of the Moon’s surface. After what seemed like an eternity we got to where we were to have lunch, by which time the sun had come out in all its splendour. The French boys made the mistake of falling asleep in it without applying sun cream and thus looked like tomatoes for the rest of the trip. By this point, we’d all gotten to know each other and some stereotypes were emerging. The down-to-earth and relaxed Brits and Germans, the loud and boisterous French, wanting to be the centre of attention, the Dutch guys and girls, a cool vibe and rather outgoing, friendly and well-equipped Australians, a nice Canadian, a quiet Austrian, and a Brazilian who mostly kept himself to himself until alcohol would later prise out his inner personality.
After lunch and we continued on our walk, and the landscape quickly changed. We left the rocky wilderness and came into what is termed high jungle, and we were suddenly surrounded by luscious greens and the temperature was increasing. Here is where my repellent came in handy, but not nearly as much as it would do in the Amazon rainforest the following week. Having made it to camp, most of the crew opted to pay for a hot shower, though I chose the freezing water being pumped out of the wall directly from the mountains and it felt good to have a wash for the first time in a few days to remove the layers of dirt, sun cream and repellent I was wearing.
That night most of the group decided to indulge in a Rum-fest, led by the French and Dutch boys, though I opted out so as not to KO myself for the next day’s walk. The French had become a little annoying by this point, always shouting so as to be heard, constantly smoking and emitting their broken Spanish garblings thinking they were good at the language. One of them, the one who didn’t look like a chubby Eric Cantona, had madly fallen in love with a Dutch girl and it was interesting to watch how she toyed with him, letting him follow her around and staring deeply into his eyes as she spoke, before disappearing into the night and leaving him stranded. Some terrible singing also ensued and I soon went to bed, though the rest of them stayed up till almost midnight. The lady selling rum from the little shack by the camp certainly did good business.
We didn’t wake up quite as early as the previous day, this time at 6am, and the trek continued until about midday through the high jungle, though we did take a break for a game of football, which at altitude is certainly testing, but not for little Mauro, who ran around like a Jack Russell while the rest of us panted for breath. Soon after the game, a couple of minibuses picked us up and took us about 20 minutes down the road to our third camp, which was a little bit more like a hostel.
After a rest we all went to the hot springs via a minibus, and there were four pools ranging from warm through to almost boiling, which I could only stay in for about five minutes at a time. I initially pondered whether the springs were indeed natural or heated artificially, but we eventually figured that it would be extremely expensive to heat water in such a way, especially as it was only 15/S to get in. Supposedly there is a geological fault between the mountains somewhere nearby which heats the water. There were some Peruvian teenagers there too with their schoolteacher and it appeared that some of them had never swum before, such was their terrible technique. As I glided by, the teacher happened to say (in Spanish) ‘The gringo can’t swim either’, to which I replied to him in his mother tongue that I could indeed swim and that I wasn’t from the USA. Said jokingly of course, so we ended up having a rather long chat about Machu Picchu, archaeology and Peru in general, which astounded the French boys, who had thought their broken Spanish was champion.
In the evening back at the campsite we had a few games of rana (frog) in which you must throw heavy metal discs about 5cm in diameter into various holes in a table/board from a distance. The closer to the sides you throw, the more points you get and you play up to, say, 5000 points to decide the winner. That is unless you ping one of the discs into the frog’s mouth in the middle of the board, which Canadian Mike managed to do. Needless to say, those who had partaken in late night drinking the previous evening were in bed as soon as the sun went down, and I crashed at about 9pm.
The previous day a guy had come in with a promo video for zip-lining to do the following morning. I’d turned down the chance to do it when asked at the agency back in Cusco, as I’d done some amazing tree-canopying back in Costa Rica the previous year, but it would seem that the video persuaded me, and preferring not to hang around at the hostel and do nothing I shelled out 100/S (30USD) for the privilege. In hindsight it was a good decision, as though the distances and views weren’t as fabulous as in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to zipline upside-down, strapped to the cable in reverse, which I think is generally illegal in most countries. It gives you that sensation of ‘I might die here’, which makes anything exciting, and coupled with seeing the sky from a different perspective, I was glad I’d done it. In all there are 5 lines to do, and a swinging bridge to walk across.
For lunch we were ferried via bus to Hidroelectrica, basically a railway stop surrounded by a bunch of restaurants. After eating we walked three hours along the train tracks to get to Aguas Calientes, the small town erected as a get-off point to Machu Picchu. As far as sights go, the trail was nowhere near as picturesque as what had come before, and there are several points where you have to walk over little rocks, which cut into your feet if you happen to have worn out trainers.
In Aguas Calientes our final night was to be spent in a remarkably decent hotel, in which three of us shared a room and were entreated to a comfortable bed and actual bathroom with warm shower. The town itself is full of restaurants, hotels and small food stalls selling tat, all pretty much designed for tourists. We went out to eat and I ordered an alpaca steak, not dissimilar in taste to beef, rather than lamb, and a first beer for over a week, though I must say that Cusqueña beer ain’t very good. By this point, a smaller group of tourists had been attached to ours, and their group contained several girls, exciting the French boys who thought they were players. I’d been sat at the point on our long table where the two groups merged, but the French asked me to switch positions so they could make a move on these girls. It was very comical to see how they thought hooting, shouting and swearing in Spanish would arouse a lady’s attention, and as I anticipated they got absolutely nowhere with the girls and looked quite put out when some of the Germans and I struck up a conversation with them a little later.
On that same night we gave out our tips to Puma, and we had decided as a group to give them to him separately, because some argued that if they were giving more it wasn’t fair if say, their 40/S (as I gave) was thrown in with someone else’s handful of coins. As a rule, I was told at the agency in Cusco to give each guide/chef/donkeyman between 10-20/S, which if you consider we were a group of 20, is quite good going. The tip debate did show how some tourists can be remarkably stingy, some tipping a pittance while paying for an expensive meal minutes earlier. Anyways…
The final day of the tour was the big one. After around 50km of walking over four days we were near our objective: Machu Picchu. Such is the tourism at the ruins site – between 5000-6000 people visit daily, there is a need to get up at the crack of dawn in order to beat the queues and get in first. The first step involved waking up at 4am to meet each other and Mauro. We were all on time and Mauro slightly late and such was the mania gripping our group that some wanted to leave without him at 4.02am. In the end we waited, and about 10 minutes later and we were down at the gates to the bridge to the start of the trail and there were already a few dozen people waiting. People were keen not to let others cut the queue and when the guard announced that two single-file lines were to be made before anyone was getting in, there was a little bit of confusion. It eventually worked itself out and passport and entry ticket in hand, the crowds poured over the bridge, most people moving at a brisk pace.
I must admit that the fever to get to Machu Picchu first and take a clean picture free of the swathes of tourists had hit me, and I’d cleverly opted to come without a bag and to instead stuff my belongings in my trousers and coat pockets. I’d started about 40th, and I quickly cut through the crowds, but by the time we got to the first set of stairs, there was a slow-moving massive Peruvian family, granny and all, clogging up the line, putting everyone at snail’s pace.
Stairs passed, said family were swiftly overtaken and some people, including the Dutch guys in our group, broke into a jog. I stayed with one of the Germans for a while, and we were doing well, overtaking more people on the flats, including the Dutch, important, as there are no passing opportunities on the stairs. Harking back to my cross-country days, where I was an absolute beast on stairs or climbs, I motored past what obstacles remained before becoming stuck behind a trio of tourists, one of whom was amazingly wearing jeans. I figured they were the frontrunners, but there was no way past on the narrow passageways. I was biding my time, but a gasping orange-shirted fellow behind me, also bagless, had other ideas and sprinted past us all, slaloming between us. A few bends later and I was beyond the threesome, by which time orange man was way out of sight. As it happened, he was indeed the first to the top, and I the second, so we parked ourselves in line.
Before we were let in, a private party of suited men were ushered inside, and as the clock struck 6am the turnstiles were opened and we were allowed in. By this time, most other people had arrived and the four queues were about 20-deep so the first of us in made haste. We were like excited little lambs running in to get in our tourist-free pics, all panting at the others to take a photo. Unfortunately, many of those in there were crap at taking photos. I mean, why would someone stand in front of the Machu Picchu ruins and the imposing green mountain behind for you only to take a close-up of them which could have been snapped anywhere in the countryside? Thankfully, I got a handful of decent pics, but if I’m being honest I took better photos, and had better ones of me taken, later on in the morning and the angles from the viewpoints actually mean that no randoms interfere in your picture.
Having bombed around for a while inside, I met up with our group at the entrance to have our guided tour with Puma. The tour was an hour long and despite my sleepiness setting in, what with the early start, I gave him my full attention and tended not to wander off taking photos while he was speaking, though others within my group were, to an extent understandably, a little distracted and weren’t paying attention. I saw him get a little frustrated, but he kept his cool and told us quite a few interesting things about Machu Picchu, namely that:
- It should be pronounced Machu PICKchu with a hard ‘k’ sound, rather than PICHU with the ‘ch’ as in cheese, as in the former means ‘old mountain’ and the latter ‘old penis’.
- The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, as hearing the news about their conquests elsewhere across the country, the Incas abandoned their alleged capital, which wouldn’t be officially found until centuries later.
- Although he takes all the credit for the discovery in 1911, apparently Harem Bingham, the North American explorer famed for discovering Machu Picchu, didn’t happen upon the site by chance, as it was already known to local farmers who showed him where it was.
- Still, he initially ignored Machu Picchu as he was in search of what he believed was a much bigger site, and would only return to fully unearth it months later.
- Many ask why absolutely no gold or precious metals were found at the site, and debate abounds over whether Bingham himself snuck them away, whether locals grabbed it, or even whether there were any such riches to begin with.
- It took an Inca runner about 24 hours to get from Machu Picchu to the coastal city of Lima. The bus from Lima to Cusco takes 22.
- Absurdly, the Incas thought the Spanish were bearded Gods coming from the ‘other’ world, that was until the Spaniards embarked on a gold-grabbing Inca-culling mission.
- Despite vastly outnumbering the Spanish, the Incas contrived to be defeated, not because of the superior weapons of their conquerors, but more down to tactics, in that the Spanish set about bringing down important Inca leaders to demoralise their people, as well as forming allegiances with rival tribes previously absorbed by the Inca empire.
- Due to mass erosion, caused by trampling tourists, Machu Picchu is closed every February for restoration and there is a rumour that within a few years the site will deny entry to tourists and instead construct a cable car from which they would see it from above.
- Llamas are there to chew on the grass and keep it short, though they are put there, and haven’t been there for centuries.
As such, the history of the place is intriguing, and the way it was so intelligently constructed, for example, the position of the sun was taken into consideration when erecting farming fields, and buildings were designed in such a way that water drained away perfectly. Looking at the stonework, everything is perfectly symmetrical and measured to the minutest detail.
Of course, Machu Picchu pops up on postcards and adverts all over the world, but being there and seeing it with your own eyes is really something else, and you could just sit and stare at your surroundings endlessly. That is, you would if it weren’t for the masses of tourists that have flocked in by 7am, meaning there is an endless humdrum in the background and as there is some kind of one way system, enforced by guards, the lines of visitors crawl appallingly slowly.
Time had been ticking, and as I’d opted to take the bus back from Hidroelectrica, I had to get back over the train tracks for about 2pm. Thus I left the site at about 10.30am and pretty much ran down the steep stairs down the hillside. After rather a lot of confusion about where the minibus was departing from (in the end another 10 minutes’ walk over a bridge), we got on our way along the windy roads all the way back to Cusco and I had to grip the sides of my seat so as not to slide into the aisle.
I somehow managed to sleep on the bus, but not before a Northern Irish girl told me about her encounter with a Shaman and having Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic drug native to the Amazon. In summary, it involved barely eating for a few days beforehand, and shitting and vomiting your guts up for about three days in a dark scream-filled room with other participants and your spirit guide. During which, if, she emphasised, you’re ready for the experience, you’ll have flashes backwards and forwards, imagine yourself in the bodies of your ancestors, talk to them, have revelations about the future and come out of it all with a firm direction in life. Though, she added, you have to be careful of some shamans who practise black magic and use the whole experience to suck your soul out of you, and leave you a cancerous wreck. These were all powerful words, and I figured that I definitely didn’t understand enough about the subject to want to undergo an ‘awakening’, yet I’m still loath to cynically dismiss the whole process as simply being under the influence of highly effective drugs.
Though there would be a moment in the next couple of weeks where I’d start to believe that there actually is some kind of supernatural energy hidden away in the Andes mountains.
And on I went to Puerto Maldonado, the edge of the Peruvian Amazon.