So wet even the chickens wear ponchos.

Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Jul 24, 2011

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in a tent

Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Monday, April 4, 2011

Sitting in the Llama Path tour operator's office getting a briefing for our upcoming 5 day Salkantay trip, we didn’t quite realise what our guide Raśl meant when he described the trek we would face as "adventure tourism, my friends". The Salkantay trek is a longer and higher alternative route to the classic Inca trail, winding through the Andes amid different terrain before finally arriving at Machu Picchu. We were to be tackling it with 11 others, all of whom were American so Amanda felt right at home. As well as the understated warning of the difficult walking we would be facing, Raśl also delivered the good news that we could take a maximum of 6kg of clothes and other items (including sleeping bag and mat) and that we’d also be starting the next morning at 4:30am. Happy times!

Day 1

We met with the rest of the group after a few hours of poor sleep to board a bus from Cusco to our starting point in the village of Mollepata. After a quick breakfast the bags and tents were loaded onto our support horses and we set off up the green Andean hills after Raśl and our other guide the brilliantly named Elvis. The first part of the morning was easy, with plenty of pauses to appreciate the stunning panoramic views as we got higher. But soon we got a taste of what was to come, as we headed up a near vertical path covered in deep mud thanks to the wet season rains. As we climbed higher over the following hours the vegetation got sparser and the landscape more rugged. We finally arrived at the campsite at dusk, though luckily the tents were set up thanks to the amazing porters and a huge 3 course dinner was waiting. It was freezing cold once the sun had gone down as this was the highest campsite along the route. However wrapped up in numerous layers of clothing in our sleeping bags and exhausted by the day’s efforts, as Raśl predicted we slept like a baby alpaca.

Day 2

Another pre-dawn start meant that we got to appreciate the sight of the sun rising over the surrounding mountains, although it was quite a struggle to pull myself out of my toasty warm sleeping bag. This was to be the hardest day, with a long relentless uphill walk to the highest point of the 5 days; the Salkantay Pass at an altitude of 4600m. The sky started clear (a contrast to the rain of the previous day) which meant we had some incredible views of the mountain and glacier as we struggled up the zigzag path. By the time we eventually reached the pass after 4 hours walking the clouds had descended and things had gotten chilly so we didn’t want to hang around long. Raśl performed a short Andean ceremony to give thanks to Pachamama (mother earth) where we all placed coca leaves in a small cairn and it was time to descend, as a number of the group were suffering from the altitude.

Going down was a lot quicker than going up, and we soon left the mountain highlands and entered the cloud forest where huge deciduous trees somehow clung to the steep slopes, exactly like a view out of National Geographic. Unfortunately this is where the rain really began in earnest (hence the lack of photos) and we were quickly soaked through despite waterproof coats and plastic ponchos. The narrow path had also turned into a muddy quagmire, churned up by horses, which made walking slow and hard going. Think Glastonbury 2007 but without Radiohead. It was at this point we all started to question why we were doing the trek, and Raśl’s comments about 'hey, this is adventure tourism’ didn’t have the desired effect! We eventually staggered into camp after nightfall, thoroughly exhausted and collapsed into bed in a rather damp tent.

Day 3

Waking up early again we discovered yet more rain, with the added discomfort of all our clothes still being wet from the previous day. After another delicious meal thanks to the ingenious chef, we set of on yet another path covered with ankle deep mud. After skirting round a rather ominous landslide that had taken out the entire path we found ourselves on a gravel track and started to pass isolated houses. Outside one we saw the odd sight of chickens running around with yellow plastic bags tied to their backs. Raśl assured us this wasn’t because of the rain (I’m still doubtful) but instead to deter any passing eagles that fancied them as a light snack.

In contrast to the previous day the path was much better, although we were still soaked by the constant rain. We also had the numerous streams to wade through and recent landslides to negotiate to keep the excitement levels up! After dropping down into the tropical jungle we arrived in the oddly named village of Playa by mid-afternoon, so had the rest of the day to rest. Unfortunately I was coerced into a locals vs gringos football match, held on the renowned venue of ‘the road outside the campsite’. I’m going to blame our rather embarrassing performance on the altitude and unusual playing surface (spotted with areas of chicken s***). As it was one of the other guys’ birthday that day the chef had rustled up something special for dinner. Firstly a cake, amazingly cooked completely on a camping stove (!) and then the traditional Peruvian dish of whole roasted cuy, otherwise known as Guinea Pig. It honestly tasted quite like chicken (although greasier and with a tougher texture), though I did pass on trying the head. Amanda played the vegetarian card but I’m not sure what Anna’s excuse was for not tucking in…

Day 4

Amazingly we woke up to blazing sun, which carried on through the day. The walking was also reasonably flat, alongside the Urubamba River, so much more like our kind of trekking! I think my walking boots almost dried out. Our destination was the town of Aguas Calientes in the valley below Machu Picchu, so the route took us round the base of the mountain. It was so exciting to finally get a glimpse of the ultimate objective of the whole trek, albeit from quite a distance! We also saw a new site which has just been discovered and excavations are in the primary stages – it is rumoured to be even bigger than Machu Picchu which really makes you think what other secrets the jungle is hiding. The final stretch into the town was along some railway tracks, not disused but complete with the odd slow moving train to be avoided.

It was a huge relief to arrive to our hostel, with hot showers, dry rooms and a real bed all waiting for us. We had a quick dinner then headed to bed to get some sleep before the main event the next morning.

Day 5

We had the earliest start yet, up at 3am to make sure we were in the first bus up to Machu Picchu at 5:30am (surprisingly no one took the option of the 2km uphill walk!). The sky was just lightening as we drove up the steep winding road, though the valley was still filled with mist. After the efforts of the 4 previous days and with the nervous excitement of getting up so early it was a magical experience when we arrived to the funerary rock and saw the famous view of Machu Picchu spread out before us, devoid of visitors, with clouds rolling in and out. Yet another example of where photos don’t do the actual experience justice. Still we gave it a good try and then Raśl proceeded to give us a tour of the ruins, taking in the agricultural terraces, Temple of the Sun, Royal Palace, sacred plaza and the most important shrine for the Incas; the Intihuatana or Hitching Post of the Sun. Following his explanations of Inca and Andean culture throughout the trek it really felt like I understood the purpose of the city and sights throughout it.

By now the place was busy with throngs of other tourists and once our tour had ended it was time for Amanda and I to expend some energy climbing Huayna Picchu (the ‘small’ mountain in the background of the view). This was via a precipitous path cut into the sheer cliffs, seriously lacking in sufficient handholds or safety barriers. Amazingly at the top the Incas built a series of incredibly steep terraces and buildings that seem to defy gravity, clinging to the rock. I dread to think how may Quechua people plunged over the edge constructing them.

Sadly it was eventually time to leave – its testament to how stunning Machu Picchu is that the 7+ hours we spent there just flew by, and it has definitely entered my top South American experiences so far.
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