The perilous road to Machu Picchu
Trip Start Sep 03, 2007
106Trip End Jul 03, 2008
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Where I stayed
Cusco is very pretty and colonial with a few amazing Incan walls thrown in for good measure - how they fitted them so well I will never know. It is also the most touristy place we have been in South America. Two elegant stone cathedrals frame the Plaza de Armas; graceful colonial buildings with wooden balconies, shutters and terracotta roof tiles line the narrow cobbled streets. On the Plaza de Armas (the main square) and for about 4 blocks in every direction around it all the shops are tourist related: tourist restaurants, bars, tour operators, internet cafes, native craft shops etc... and as you walk down the street people try to entice you into their establishment or try to get you to buy their crafts, paintings, have a shoe-shine (even if you are wearing trainers - albeit mucky), it is quite exhausting after a while!
We were on a mission to organise our trek for the next day, I was straight off to the South American Explorers Club to map our route and find out all the ins and outs of the trip. While I was there I bumped into 3 American guys that were hoping to do exactly the same trek as us leaving the next day. So when I found Jamie we went round to their hostel to organise our trek. We thought it would be a good idea to go with them as Lars could speak fluent Spanish and safety in numbers came to mind. They introduced us to Omar a local guy who they had met who wanted to come along as he wanted to train to be a guide and had only done half of the route before. There were instant problems with going as a group as Orma was giving conflicting info about hiring an arrerio (a man with a mule), Lars who was the only one who speak Spanish couldnīt organise a piss up in a brewery and the others didnīt really have a clue what they were doing. None the less we decided we would start off with them and if we got fed up of them we would ditch them en route. I was suffering from a major headache from the altitude so Jamie was left running around in a mad rush to buy all the equipment and food for our camping.
Next day we got the local bus to the little village of Cachora 4 hours away. The bus dropped us off on side the ride and from there we got a taxi (which was very lucky as only one car passes along that road about every 30 mins). 7 of us wedged into the taxi, me sat on Tobyīs lap in the front seat with my head hanging out of the window and Lars in the boot with the bags. Cachora is a tiny town West of Cusco near the beautiful Aramac Gorge, very basic, with only a couple hospedajes, we stayed at Punny Wass where the people were lovely and so accommodating making sure we were fully prepared for our trek. We found the only place in town that served food and sat down for lunch with Megan and James, a Canadian couple we had shared the taxi with. Walking back down the dusty street back to our hostal we passed a pony collapsed on the floor from exhaustion, as the owner had obviously overloaded the poor thing with too many logs. Animals everywhere were ominously strolling the streets, cows, horses, chickens and of course stray dogs - you can imagine how rustic this village was.
Day 1 of trek
The first of many early starts, we met Aristides our arrerio and loaded our mule up with our bags, the mule didnīt have a name so we named our trusty companion `Dudeī. For those of you who thought Jamie was the mule, you were wrong - for only 25soles (5pounds) a day and 20 soles for the arreiro we couldn't go wrong - we thought!
The first couple of days was going to take us up to the impressive site of Choquequirao - an Inca ruin set high on a mountain ridge. Visited by Hiram Bingham on his first visit to Peru, Choquequirau was what inspired him to look for other ruins and eventually Machu Picchu. It lies some 30km south of Machu Picchu and unlike its more famous brother is somewhat more difficult to get to. However the rewards are more than ample. The only way to get there was to walk a round trip of 4 days (56km). Starting at 2800metres we would descend 1000 metres into a valley and then climb out on the other side .... back up to 2800 metres to this castle in the clouds. Obviously we were not going to be happy trekking 2 days up there and then turning around and coming back so we planned an ambitious extra 6 days of trekking on from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu - we had no idea what we had got ourselves into!
We all set off enthusiastically, with the Americans and our mules following on behind through the snow capped peaks of the Vilcambamba mountain range. The scenery was stunning but everytime you looked around you ran the risk of breaking your ankle on the rocks falling onto the path. 20km of solid walking down steep hills was taking its toll on our knees, relieved to stop for lunch we were not impressed when we found out that Toby ( one of the Americans) was ill and couldn't carry on anymore - basiaclly he was suffering from altitude sickness, and although that wasn't his fault he should never started the trek. After a lot of deliberating, my straight talking told the Americans we were not going to stop our trek for them and that we would carry on with our mule without them. So off we went up the steep hills (1800m in only 6km), it was the first time I have seen Jamie's energy levels struggling and he had to stop more times than me! Eventually we made to Santa Rosa, a tiny free campsite on the mountain pass. Within 10seconds of arriving there Aristides (the man with the mule) was demanding we cooked his dinner - hmmm I could see this was going to be an on going problem; his impatience. After Jamie cooked dinner we decided I would cook all the food from now on because Jamie didn't like being watched intensly by Aristides every time he cooked, whereas I didn't mind making the greedy bugger wait. We sat back and watched the most impressive display of stars we have ever seen and hit the sack by 8.30pm.
Climbing out of the tent into the clouds we could just about make out yet another massive hill we had to climb before getting to the ruins. After 4hrs of trekking up hill we made it Choquequirao camp site, set up tent and wondered how the hell our legs were going to make it up to the actual ruins (10,062 ft.) but were rewarded when we did. There were only a couple people there so it was so quiet and chilled walking around. Choqueqirao was only recently re-discovered (it was known during the time of the Spanish Conquest but the jungle reclaimed it and it wasn't found again until recently). Only 15-20% is believed to be uncovered and as we explored a bit in the jungle around the site we found stone walls and arches overgrown with jungle and invisible until we were literally right on top of them. I took advantage of the tranquility of the site and had a little lye down while Jamie did more exploring. The whole site was largely agricultural, but while it doesn't have the religious significance of Machu Picchu, it certainly makes up for that in scenery and scale.
Back at the camp site Omar (the Peruvian friend of the Americans) turned up so now we had to feed him as well, we were starting to get a little worried we didn't have enough food for everyone for the whole trek and as we were trekking far far away from civilisation and wondered what we were going to do. Some tour group were camping next to us which didn't help our spirits when we saw them pile into the tent for their 3 course meal that had been cooked by the hired cooks.
5am wake up again, after our tasty porridge slightly dreading the day it is supposed to be the hardest day of all. Jamie and I set off into the cloudforest, which is exactly what it sounds like - a rainforest shrouded in cloud. It was very cool to walking by ourselves in the clouds though, Jamie was not so impressed when he found his vertigo kick in as we were walkiing on the edge of the mouintain pass that dropped away to a sheer 3600m drop. After reaching the top we had to descend all the way back down to the river bottom, again causing havoc with my knees. As most people turn around after Choquequiao we were looking forward to trekking alone with the only bypassers being locals with their cows or mules. Lunch by the river was crackers and tuna, Arsitides was not impressed with his lunch but luckily the language barrier meant we could ignore him when he was being fussy.
Not looking forward to the 3500m acsent, our tired legs set off and made to the top in 4hours, using the colourful bugs and butterflies as an excuse to stop when ever we could. The ardous climb left me feeling absolutely exhausted at the top, Jamie was very sweet and set up camp keeping Aristides happy. By now itv was apparent that a small group of a couple Swiss people and a Ecudorian girl were doing exactly the same route as us, so our arrerio and theirs (Carlos) joined up with their mules and Omar shacked up with the Swiss girl. Delighted with this, as Omar had not said a word to us since we cooked him his dinner last night so we decided to try and ditch him as he was of no use to us and fob him off with the other group - which worked very successfully. We were camping on a mountain with the most amazing view from our tent surrounded by cloud forest, a glacier in the near distance, and a powerfull waterfall thundering into the valley. We used the nice lady's hut and fire to cook our dinner, obviously there was no electricity but just sitting in the candlelight in her house with her and the children and their 30 Guinea pigs squeeking around our feet was very surreal.
Again 5am start and headed up the rest of the mountain through dense jungle and along precarious slopes scarred by landslides. By now the path had got quite hard to trek on, basically it was the cows that roam the land that had made the path so after constantly treading in donkey and cow shit we arrived at the top after 5 grueling hours and stood at 4200m. Jamie was loving the experience thinking he was the next Indiana Jones, using the head torch to go into old Inca mines and explore seeing if he could find any remanants of gold or crystals the Inkas may have left behind. We were straight down the other side of the mountain (are you seeing a theme yet... climb up one side... down the other.. again and again!!).
Having the afternoon off was a welcome delight, we even treated ourselves to a cooked lunch served by the lovely lady whose hut we were sleeping outside of. We were so excited when we heard there was a store in town. In actuality, it was just a small dirt room with few items in dusty boxes. Our hunger got the best of us we asked the lady to cook our dinner as well and we bought more supplies to stock up on our diminishing supply. Camping in Yanama that night was absolutely freezing, you couldn't sleep properly as it felt like every single part of your body was going to drop off from frost bite.
Knowing this was going to be the last 'hard day' of trekking; Jamie had studied the topographical map the night before to discover we had to climb a 4800m mountain !!!! We set off even earlier using the moonlight to shine the way following the river for the first hour. Walking through the grazing cattle, donkeys, ponies scattered on the path I couldn't help but realise just how remote we really were. Locals riding their mules with their string of donkeys following on behind would pass us on their way to do their days farming work, ploughing and planting crops by hand, dressed in their colourful ponchos, every one who passed us said hello and good morning to us (obvouisly in Spanish).
It was time for the last mountain to climb, I was finding it really hard to breath because of the altitude, Jamie even tried to push me at one point, even the arrerios and their mules had slowed right down but we were so pleased when we made it 4800m to the top. Of course once we were up it was all the way back down again, we passed an old lady in the fields milking her cows by hand, she even stopped to say hello as we walked past. We then had to walk another 3 hours to get to our spot for lunch, stopping at Tortora. On we went again for another couple of hours along the easy path to our campsite.
After such a tiring day we were not pleased when Aristodes was once again demanding I cooked his food asap, so again using the fire in an old lady's hut to cook our pasta we were surrounded by guinea pigs and a friendly family asking us all sorts of questions.
Aristides slept in our tent that night and when Jamie was awoken by him crawling out of the tent at 4am to do a runner with the mule we were not best pleased. Basically we were not supposed to be leaving until 6am yet he very suspiciously had packed everything up and tacked the mule up by 4am -. We can't prove it but it was obvious he was going to do a runner as the route back to his village went directly from that campsite yet he was supposed to be taking us 4 hours the other way as that was what we had paid him to do. Also the night before he had asked for extra money to take us those 4 hours the next day even when we had paid him more than enough already to take us to that point.
So off we went, once again using the moonlight to guide is along the rocky path not letting Aristides out of our sight the whole 3 hr way to La Playa. La Playa was the first village where there was transport links that we had been to for 6 days so after we said goodbye to Aristides and his mule, Jamie carried on walking another 4 hours to HydroElectrica passing yet more ruins and I took all the bags and waited for a combi (minibus taxi which fits as many people as it possibly can in) to take me to Santa Theresa and then caught another combi to HydroElectrica. I waited for the train to take me to Aguas Calientes and Jamie walked the train line determined not to use any form of transport until after he had been to Machu Picchu.
We luckily met up in Aguas Calientes (the tourist hot spot of south America) and found a campsite en route to Machu Picchu. By now we were feeling pretty gross, no shower for a week, legs bitten and scratched to shreds but looking forward to Machu Picchu tomorrow.
Early start as we walked up the path to Machu Picchu (unlike 99% of the other lazy tourists who caught a bus up there) and eagerly waited for the gates to open at 6am. There was no chance of seeing the sun rise as the clouds covered the sky. Jamie will write the rest later as I think my fingers are going to seize up from so much typing!