The Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu

Trip Start Jul 12, 2012
Trip End Jun 21, 2013

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Champions coming through!" yelled Isaac, our remarkably eccentric guide, as our group of hardy trekkers passed some heavily-laden mules and their drivers on the trail. We were champions from the start for Isaac, although we had yet to show our trekking prowess on the 5-day Salkantay trail.

Our group of 6 Americans, 2 French Canadians, 2 Irish, an Aussie girl and an English girl (me) began the first day with a bone-shaking ride in an open-top truck. Clever me wangled a seat in the cab with lovely Eddie, the second guide, while everyone else was herded into the back where it was standing room only along the pot-holed track. I felt every bump for them. Then we had an easy walk up to the first campsite, a wild spot beneath the white-tipped Salkantay peak that had dubious toilet facilities but stunning views of the mountains all around. Here, the Champions were pampered by the cooking team - head chef Alejandro, sous chef Rodrigo, and general dogsbody/complete angel Vehelio. They had a 3-course feast waiting for us on our arrival: steaming soup, local trout and tasty vegetables plus rich chocolate dessert etc. Every meal was cooked to perfection and they were always ready on time. The group became obsessed with mealtimes and greedily gobbled everything up.

After a cold night, I woke to see the hand of Vehelio thrust cups of coca tea into the tent that I shared with Emma from Melbourne. We peeled open the tent to see the valley covered in snow and donkeys shivering outside. After a massive breakfast of pancakes and dulce de leche, the trekkers climbed steadily up a steep rocky path to the Salkantay pass (4600m), sucking in the thin air at this high altitude. The photo session here was quick due to a biting blizzard, so we trudged on down the other side of the mountain through heavy rain, thick fog and finally into warm and most welcome sunshine. Later that day, we entered jungle where the heat became intense.

The rest of the trek continued through jungle passing villages and plantations of avocado, cocoa beans and passion fruit. Isaac continued to entertain with his tour guide explanations that were regularly punctuated with the phrase "just in case" and his "llama laugh (hee hee hee)". He also bossed Vehelio around beautifully, calling out sweetly: "Oh Ve-heeel-iiiiooooo!", then demanding "More coca tea!"

The trek ended with another steep climb to the "Lost City", which is another Machu Picchu-type site that the Peruvian government can't be bothered to unearth from the jungle overgrowth. From here, there were awesome views Machu Picchu in the distance.

The night before visiting Machu Picchu itself, we stayed in the Disneyland-esque town of Aguas Calientes. The hostel's warm showers were essential for us very smelly trekkers. Before dawn, all of the town's visitors piled into shuttle buses that ran back and forth to Machu Picchu. Once there, Isaac gave us a whirlwind tour of the main features. As each tour group was rudely moved on from each site every two minutes by park rangers, there was hardly time to take the information in. The crowds in the central area were unbearably full of people snapping photos in every direction (and snapping if you got in the way!). What a shame I didn't visit this amazing place years ago when you could camp beside the ruins and the stonework wasn't quite so pristine. After the tour, I was relieved to walk with Emma up to the tranquil Sun Gate for a birds-eye view of Machu Picchu.

The tourist train back to Cusco was a surreal experience. It began quite normally and we were served free food and drink. But later, out of nowhere appeared an Inca clown that danced up and down the aisle to traditional music scaring people with his big clown's stick. This was immediately followed by an Alpaca-wear fashion show modelled by the pretty stewardess and tubby steward. I'm not sure what this was all about and I wasn't going to ask. It's probably quite normal for Peru.

Twelve weary trekkers arrived back in Cusco on on the fifth night. We had definitely earned our Champions title. And what does every Champion deserve after surviving Machu Picchu and a high-altitude trek? A burger and cervezas in Paddy's Irish Pub, of course!
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