It was 4am and we were up and waiting to catch a mini bus to start our hike to Machu Picchu. We had booked a slightly different version of the classic Salkantay Trek and were super excited to start. Our hike was 5 days and involved altitudes of up to 4650m above sea level, so we expected a challenging hike.
We drove up a narrow road (simular to the death road in parts) gradually climbing in altitude along the windy road with just enough speed to disrupt any sleep I planned on getting. We arrived safely with new found gratitude for what it meant to be alive and breathing. I’m always thankful for being alive at the end of treacherous drives along sheer drops some hundreds of feet in depth.
After the treacherous drive through the mountains we were at the beginning of the Salkantay Trek. Our first day involved an easy hike to our camp. The village we camped at translated from Quechua (the native language of the Inca’s) to “muddy town”, this was very easy to see why as we had rain that day and the floor was inches thick with mud. This didn’t stop us from exploring the area with a hike to a lake at the base of a snow capped mountain. The Mountain was covered in a thick sheet of ice that hanged seemingly weightless. The lake was pale green and reflected the mountain peaks off of the calm water. The surrounding landscape reminded me of the time we had spent hiking in Patagonia and was a gentle reminder of how far we had come in our 7 months in South America, but also how far we still had to go and the many more breathtaking places we would see.
Our tour guide Carlos (or as he we called him Carlitos) was short in stature but big in heart. His round face and giant smile gave him one of the friendliest looks I have seen in a person. He talked with so much passion and energy about everything he knew and saw over the 5 days with us. On our first day, with a strong look of urgency in his eyes he spoke of his ancesters and what the highlands of South America meant to his people. From the Condor to his native Quechua language, his expressions were deep and as he talked his voice softened as if to hold back tears. From that moment I think we all realised he was the best tour guide for our hike to Machu Picchu.
We woke up at the crack of dawn to Coca tea served to us in our tents as promised to us by Carlitos the night before. Coca is the plant used to manufacture cocaine, but in South America it has been used for centuries for all sorts of natural remedies. However, in this case it was a simple way to get out of bed while it was freezing cold.
We set off at 6am on our 22km journey that would take us up through the Salkantay Pass at over 4600m, it would be the highest me and Bailey had hiked. The weather was wet with light rain, the fog moved through the valley like a snake would slither through a rocky path only sometimes giving us small glimpses of the mountains around us. At Salkantay Pass the weather was much more brutal, the cold wind splinted through the warm alpaca jumpers we wore and the rain froze our exposed faces. We decided not to stop and chat too long and keep hiking down in altitude to warmer weather.
As we descended down the rocky path, our surroundings quickly changed from the grey, rocky, low grass landscape to dense rain forrest. The humidity became more apparent as the temperature rose and more plants and animals appeared as we removed our jumpers to enjoy the warmth. In this area of the trek we stopped every 5 minutes to hear about or taste a new plant or flower that Carlitos knew about. Sometimes I would hesitate and ponder to myself if I could trust his knowledge of the area (as eating a poisonous plant could end our trek abruptly) but in these cultures they survive a lot without outside help and the vast knowledge of their homeland is passed down through the generations.
Not so long after we were met with dense rain forrest we had arrived at our second camp. Surrounded by green vegetation but still plagued by the muddy ground (worse than our previous night) we took refuge on an elevated wooden deck. We often discussed in a hopeful tone that tomorrow the weather would shine and joked that there would be a need for sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water to combat the harsh sun. I was almost certain that the sun would shine through the clouds before our day at Machu Picchu.
The rain that night poured down with violence keeping me awake from the early hours. While I laid there wide awake, I knew that the next day would either bring glorious sunshine or more angry storms. It was still dark when we rose from our tents that morning, but to my surprise I could see in the distance that the fog was clearing and by the time breakfast was finished the sky showed us its beautiful color in small holes in the clouds.
Excited and ready, we set off in a mini van to the start of an original Inca trail that was used by the Inca army. We drove along the edges of a giant valley. However, shortly after leaving we noticed big rocks falling from the cliffs above us, our driver slammed on the breaks just as a rock the size of a basketball flew down in front of us! The extreme weather from the night before had created rock slides in parts of the road. After a few minutes of assessing the cliffs it was decided that we would need to walk a few hundred meters to catch another bus as the vans could not pass. This involved running with all of our gear while keeping a close eye on the unstable cliffs above, it was enough to get the adrenaline pumping.
The hike that day was short but grueling as we headed up a steep path built by the Incas hundreds of years earlier. The Incas were magicians with stone work, they could build all the structures they required without the use of cement or any other kind of bonding. The path was hard to see in most places as hundreds of years of erosion and growth change the landscape, but in some areas the quality of Inca stone work remained resistant to the elements and as strong as the day they built it. This made me think of buildings today, even with our advances in technology could they stand the test of time?
“Thank god” I muttered to Bailey as we conquered the last few steps. We sat down on a fallen tree and caught our breathe before heading to our lodge. Somehow Carlitos had beat us to the top even though we left before him and didn’t see him pass us. He was 20 years older than me (and probably about 20 lbs heavier) but he charged up those mountains with ease, putting Bailey and I to shame.
The lodge was situated on the side of a steep cliff, that was dwarfed by the surrounding landscape of the Andes Mountain Range. Through the valley only 5 miles away sat Machu Picchu. It sat on a mountains peak, the outline of the rock walls was strong against the vegetation. We simply stared over at the ancient city in utter awe. This was the first time I had seen Machu Picchu with my own eyes, although from a long distance, I was amazed by its beauty and locality. We spent that night sipping cold beers becoming even more excited to visit the Inca City of Machu Picchu.
It was our last day before our visit to Machu Picchu and we only had a few kilometers to hike so we decide to take a break at a nearby hot springs. It was a perfect way to sooth our sore feet after the previous days but we still had 8km’s to hike so we got moving hoping to arrive in time for an afternoon beer. The 8km’s involved walking along the train tracks that head to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu.) The hike was easy apart from dodging the approaching train every now and then.
That last night before we headed up to Machu Picchu we all had dinner in a local restaurant and enjoyed our last briefing from Carlitos. These briefings were regular over the course of the trip and I looked forward to them. I always smiled to myself trying to hold back laughter as Carlitos explained to us our day plan with his excited and passionate expressions, seeming to enjoy the tour as much as us. We didn’t stay out late that night, the buses to Machu Picchu start at 5:30am but its recommended to get in line at 4:00am to beat the crowds of people.
Our last day had arrived, it was time to visit Machu Picchu……….. to be continued.