A journey through a mountains pass, dense jungle and coffee plantations to finish with nearly two thousand steps leading to the heart of the Incas.
The minivan arrived at 5.00 am. A bit early, yes, but we had a long journey ahead. It was six of us, including our guide Ivan, and our destination was Machu Picchu. We were excited, the skies were not.
We were about to start the Salkantay Trek, five days through mountains and jungle before arriving at the famous Inca site. Luckily, the clouds soon disappeared and we understood why this was going to be a special journey.
For lunch, a selection of pasta, rice, choclo – corn – trout and vegetables. Delicious, but way too much. I am sure other people love it when they go on a tour and there is so much food on the table, but I hate it. After a quick nap, we followed Ivan to a small lake. The sun was almost gone and so were the other groups.
Alone, on the edge of the lake, we opened a bar of chocolate and enjoyed the views. The perfect way to finish the day.
It was getting dark when we headed back to camp but we still managed to catch the last rays of sunlight reflecting on the mountains. Things were getting better by the minute.
At 3880 metres, our campsite was rather cold. Nothing that a few extra layers and a hot tea could not fix though. On the flip side, being in such a remote place, far away from everywhere, meant stars, many of them.
A mountain pass
In the morning, two of our fellow hikers awoke to some pretty bad altitude sickness and were forced to catch a horse ride to the next mountain pass. A reminder that, despite not being the Everest or the Annapurna, this trek was not to be taken lightly. Fuelled by a suntuous breakfast, the rest of us headed off without delay.
Our goal was to get to the pass at the same time as the horses, so that we could enjoy the views together as a group. Like the previous day, the clouds disappeared gradually and it was not before long that we were presented with the mountain that gives name to this trek – the Salkantay.
As we got closer to the mountain pass, our lungs’ struggle for air became something we learnt to live with. Maybe it was the training in [Isla del Sol] or perhaps it was the coca sweets we bought in La Paz – whatever the reason, our bodies were taking on the challenge with dignity and courage.
At last, and at the same time as the horses, we reached the top of the pass. At 4600 metres, it was the highest our legs had ever taken us. We were happy.
With our group reunited again, our guide led a touching Quechua ceremony where we thanked Pachamama – Mother Earth – with a small shrine made of rocks and coca leaves.
The actual Salkantay summit, at 6271 metres, will have to wait for another day – or another life. For now, we would have to make do with the views. Not bad I would say.
It ain’t over
Since our group was the first to reach the pass, we had it to ourselves. As other people started to arrive, it was time for us to leave and head, once again, into the clouds.
The hardest part was behind us, but the day was far from over. Encouraged by a cheerful group of locals that we crossed paths with, we marched on under a glorious sun.
It was as if the weather gods wanted to compensate what they did to us in El Chalten. We would stop every now and then to give our knees a break – or as we said, “to take some pictures”.
After another copious lunch and the corresponding ten minute nap, we still had a whooping 1000 metres descend to our campsite. It was green, quiet and above all, beautiful.
I can see you
We woke up to a completely different scenery. No more snow capped mountains, altitude sickness or cold nights – we were in the jungle.
The following two days went by very quickly, learning about coffee and discovering new fruits of all sorts of colours and shapes. Until the fourth day. An early morning start fooled – once again – our exhausted legs and so we climbed up without pain, this time through a dense subtropical forest.
Only a few other travellers shared that path with us. Most other groups skip this visit and head to some hot springs on a bus instead. Which is probably what our knees would have loved to do. Instead, we forced them to take us to Llaqtapata, a rather unknown Inca site.
It was from there where we had our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The end of the trek was not far now.
After a couple of hours walking on the rail tracks we arrived in Aguas Calientes, where we would spend the night, on a comfy bed for a change.
Up, up, up we go and then…
The alarm went off at 04.00 AM, which probably was not such a bad thing as our legs were still asleep. Ahead of us, one hour worth of stairs to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
Whilst the sunrise certainly had plenty of charm, I can’t help to think that it would have been a much glorious feeling to arrive at Machu Picchu at the end of a long day trekking through the jungle, instead of waking up at stupid o’clock in the morning to fight the crowds at the gate. Each to their own I guess.
Much to our surprise, the site is actually a rather big place, there is room for everyone, even for a very confused spectacle bear who decided to make an appearance at midday. Having walked for four days to get here, we decided to spend our time – seven hours! – in just a couple of spots, admiring the views and letting our imagination fly.
Yes, it is a special place. However, for us it was the journey that made it so special, specially our own little moment of glory when we reached the Salkantay pass.
Not happy with this trek, we decided to head to Huaraz, in the heart of the Andes. But something did not quite work out as we expected.