The walk to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, and one of the seven new wonders of the world; we couldn't really miss it.
The Inca Trail sounded fun ... until we found out that you had to sign up with a trekking company. They all offered the same formula: porters, portaloo, kitchen tent, table and chairs, three course buffet meals - it sounded like my idea of hell. By the time we got over our misgivings last May, it was too late, the Trail was fully booked until the end of October.
An alternative route, the Salkantay trek seemed like a better option; it is less crowded, mules are used to assist the porters and it is more challenging - crossing over a high pass near the impressive Salkantay mountain. The downside is that it doesn't arrive at Machu Picchu, instead at Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of the ridge the ruins sit on. After 25 unsuccessful visits to the Peruvian Government website to book entry tickets to the Machu Picchu complex (each time the site was down), we finally booked a trek through an agency 'Alpaca Expeditions'.
At 4:40am we were the last to be picked up. Everyone in the minibus was blurry eyed on the drive up to Soraypampa, the start of the route. We all hopped out of the van and Rosel, our guide, made the introductions: Ervin his assistant, Alex the chef, Juan, Abel and another Alex our porters/assistant chefs, Carlos and Wilbur, who had just walked up from Mollepata with the mules, our muleteers. The beasts of burden didn't have names other than 'grumpy mule', 'very grumpy mule', 'very dangerous mule' and 'sad white horse’.
The muleteers here often blindfold the mules to keep them calm while they are being loaded
Even children blindfold their toy mules!
Our fellow gringos were Doc Hannah from Edinburgh, Chris and Louisa from Aberdeen, Francesca, Robbie, Ashley, Doug and Veena from the USA and Veena's sister Nita from Mumbai, India. A good bunch.
Rosel, Francesca, Robbie, Chris, Louisa, Ashley, Doug, Hannah, Veena, Kath, Nita and Franco with Salkantay in the background
Rosel insisted we were one big family, so as one half got busy preparing breakfast, the rest of us swanned around wondering why we needed a table and stools and pondering the inequalities of family life.
At last we set off up the valley towards the snowy peaks of Salkantay ('Savage Mountain' in Quechua). Franco and I were steaming ahead, thanks to our month-long acclimatisation in Chucuito. Hannah was also at the front, incredibly fit given she had only been in Cusco a few days. The others puffed and panted behind. Soon the porters and mules overtook us. As we gained height the temperature dropped and it started to snow. Over the next hill and there, in a sheltered spot, our team had erected the kitchen and dining tents and a three course meal was awaiting us. I didn't complain about the excessive luxury when I stepped into the relative warmth of the dining tent and out of the biting wind. The clouds soon cleared, opening up fantastic views of the steep seracs of the Salkantay glacier.
Franco and I definitely ate too much but we did feel sorry for those in our group, suffering from the altitude, who couldn't face anything more exciting than a few chips.
Kath and Franco at the pass
Once over the pass at 4,620m, Franco, Hannah and I raced down the slope and waited for the others by a small shop. Suddenly Franco suffered a lancing pain to the stomach, it was the start of a rather nasty bout of traveller's diarrhoea, the first either of us have suffered in three years.
The fog came down, adding a certain gloom to the damp rocky overgrazed mountain scape. Our Indian friends were exhausted and the knowledge that the environment was reminiscent of Wales did not cheer them up.
Franco was off food so stayed away from yet another elaborate three course buffet. Our sleeping tents had been pitched inside A-frame wooden structures with thatched roofs and we were issued hot water bottles (how luxurious does it get?) to keep our tootsies warm and to help us sleep 'like baby alpacas' as Rosel was fond of wishing us. It was Franco's worst night in a long time.
The next morning Franco was still looking green. Rosel was in denial that Franco had been food poisoned:
"It must be the altitude," he said.
I had my own theory: any food left over (usually a great deal) is for the staff. On most treks, the tourists have recently arrived in Peru and are suffering to some extent from altitude which suppresses appetite. Franco, fit and acclimatised, looked like the kind of guy who might seriously eat into their rations, so they 'took care of him' with the tomato free salad he'd eaten for lunch.
Luckily our route on the next day, although 24km long, was downhill and Franco showed much moral fibre, battling on bravely. Mid-morning we stopped for a rest and Franco vomited for he first time. A hungry dog rushed over licking its chops:
"Bile, my favourite!" suggested the look on its face.
Despite my warnings of more to come, the dog crouched under Franco and lapped up the unexpected meal with relish. Even Franco had to smile.
As we dropped down the mountainside, the temperature warmed up rapidly and it wasn't long before we were walking through banana groves and past large avocado trees. Slowly Franco's condition began to improve.
Sachatomato (a tomato relative we were told) on the tree
That night we camped in Loreta, on a property by the river owned by Alpaca Expeditions. There was even a small swimming pool for us to wallow in. A young boy turned up selling drinks.
"How much for a beer?" asked Robbie, parched.
"Fifty Soles" replied the kid, deadpan.
"But you can buy a whole crate for that much!" I exclaimed.
Robbie was desperate enough to have paid a hundred dollars.
Shortly, the child disappeared, replaced by an adult and the price came down to a more reasonable 15 Soles. We never did find out if the boy was on the make or the fall guy in case the 'gringos' cried "foul play”.
The next morning we came to a village known as Playa and turned off onto an Inka trail. The main crop in the area was coffee with many shacks along the way offering bags of it for sale. The team had gone ahead as usual and prepared lunch at a coffee smallholding. Here we picked coffee fruit, and put them through the different processing stages. We shortcut the drying process and used beans collected by a previous group which we roasted and ground so as to enjoy a cup of excellent coffee.
Hannah picking coffee berries
Separating the flesh from the ‘bean'
The ‘beans’ coming out the other end
Franco stirring as the dried beans are roasted
Lending a helping hand
Freshly roasted coffee beans
Coffee tasting… delicious
Ervin told us a joke, both Columbia and Peru claim to grow the best coffee. The difference is that in Peru you drink it and in Columbia your snort it. He entertained us by playing film tunes on his 'quena' a type of Andean flute which is surprisingly hard to get a sound out of.
Butterflies drinking from a damp patch on the trail
The High Jungle
Later that afternoon we arrived at Llactapata, an Inca ruin. The view towards Machu Picchu was spectacular. The structure is orientated towards Machu Picchu and likely played an important astronomical function during the solstices and equinoxes. It is on the Inca trail leading to Vilcabamba (probably the last city of the Incas) but unfortunately the section to Machu Picchu is no longer passable. Rosel sprung into action once again. He enjoyed telling us about Peru's glorious history and the great times of the Incas and his anecdotes kept Franco and I alert as they were frequently embellished and occasionally plain wrong. Others in the group admitted to drifting off. On this occasion a loud rhythmical roar started up and we looked around for the source. Ervin was fast asleep, snoring merrily. Rosel threw a walking stick at his aid but otherwise didn't hold a grudge.
Machu Pichu (centre left) seen from Llactapaca
Rosel treating his nose bleed
The next morning Alex had made a cream cake for breakfast. Although not really early morning food, the achievement had to be admired, not only at altitude but without an oven. He had cooked it very slowly in a saucepan over a gas hob and it tasted fine.
The chef with his breakfast cake
Our final hiking day brought us to Aguas Calientes, the dreadful tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. It reminded Franco of some lousy ski resorts in the Alps but Chris described it as a steeper (even) tackier version of Aviemore which sums it up nicely. By now six people in our group of eleven had diarrhoea though Franco was on the mend.
We booked into a nice hotel and after dinner, prepared by our team in a local restaurant, those of us still walking met up with Ervin for a Pisco Sour (Peruvian national drink: sweet alcoholic lime beverage). He led us to the top floor of a restaurant on the main square which was an excellent decision as within minutes the procession celebrating the 76th anniversary of the town filled the square with colourful costumes, dancing and music.
Later, outside the church Ervin performed a small ceremony, uniting Robbie and Francesca in the name of the Pachamama (the Earth Goddess). He fastened 'friendship' bracelets around their wrists and Chris filmed the proceedings on Robbie's camera. Francesca was delighted but Robbie didn't look quite so enthusiastic. At least he now has no doubt that if he broaches THE QUESTION, the answer will be yes. The happy couple wandered off with Francesca announcing they were going to celebrate.
The next morning we had an early start. Rosel had assured us that if we were to stand any chance of getting to the archeological site before the hordes, we needed to be in the bus queue at 2:30am. As we were checking out at 2:15, Francesca came staggering in followed by a very pale and exhausted Robbie.
Queuing at 2.30 in the morning, if you don’t get the first few buses you don’t see the sunrise
"Gosh guys, you look like you've had some night!" I exclaimed, impressed.
They had. Shortly after leaving us, both had come down with diarrhoea and vomiting. This left only Doc Hannah, Chris and I that had escaped the dreaded lurgy.
Not much is known about the Incas as nothing was written down and the Spaniards, intent on destroying what they perceived to be heathens, were unreliable witnesses. We wandered around:
"Fine stonework," we muttered.
Fine stonework, note the earthquake damage on the right, not bad after 500 years
Machu Pichu at sunrise with Huayna Picchu in the background
Inca Bridge on the now disused part of the Inca Trail
Franco and I had tickets for Machu Picchu Mountain so at our appointed time slot, we headed uphill once again. Climbing up 2,000 Inca steps made Franco grateful we had chosen Salkantay over the Inca Trail, which he was told was 60% steps.
Inca Steps on Machu Picchu Mountain
Machu Picchu seen from Machu Picchu Mountain
Ruins with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background
Our group rejoined at the station for the train ride home.
Although Franco and I were reluctant to join an organised tour, we did enjoy the company of our travel companions and the light load we carried on this, our first trek. Alpaca Expeditions were a pleasure to do business with, organised and efficient, from the day I contacted them to the drop off outside our hostel.