Something wasn't sitting quite right with my first visit to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail trek was amazing, there's no doubt about that (you can read about it here), but part of me wanted to go back again and experience it differently.
I'd been chatting to Kyle, a guy I met in Bolivia and he was on his way to Cusco with plans to do the Salkantay trek to the Machu Picchu, a slightly more challenging five day hike covering roughly 82km and rising to above 4600m (15,000ft). With less emphasis on Inca sites, the trek ambles past mineral lakes and towering glaciers including the Salkantay glacier that lends its name to the trail. I decided there was no harm in checking it out, along with Kyle's friend Nick and a cool French guy called Django (I couldn't pronounce his real name) who I'd met in the hostel the day before.
Fast forward two days and we had negotiated a budget friendly (around $160USD for five days) alternative package which didn't include the $70USD train back to Cusco after the trek. All that remained was to get a good night's sleep. Which we did not.
Allow me to briefly take you back to my pre-Inca trail tips which, as it turns out, also apply to other treks:
- The night before a 6-day tour, don't listen to the people who tell you that 'having a few drinks tonight is a great idea!'
- If you have to wake up at 6:30am, don't spend the prior evening hugging 1.1L cervezas and try to be home before 6:00am.
It was like Home Alone 2 in its trekking form. Awakened to urgent Spanish, I slowly came to the realisation that I'd done it again. With no time to pack a sensible 5-day hiking bag, I grabbed my entire backpack (~12kg) and made for the bus as fast as my legs would carry me.
Thankfully I was allowed to enjoy a blissful two hours of extra rest as the bus climbed out of Cusco to the trailhead along roads sliced into steep mountainsides. The bus jolted to a halt after what seemed like 10 minutes and we climbed out to inspect the town in which we would be changing vehicles in: from a run-down minibus to an open top livestock truck which had all of the appealing features of a scene from Wolf Creek. The safety conscious people in the group smiled awkwardly, hesitated, before realising that our guide Marco was actually serious.
I can't give a detailed account of what happened next, because I wasn't actually there. What we can be sure of is that:
- I'd been quiet enough that morning to apparently go unnoticed when absent and;
- My 'friends' don't care about me. At all.
I'd slipped into a corner tienda to make a local call (I'd left my towel at the hostel) for no more than two minutes while ourselves and our bags were loaded onto the truck. As I emerged from the store and cast my eyes across the dusty Plaza de Armas, I realised something wasn't quite right.
I'd been left in the Peruvian wilderness.
An elderly local woman broke the silence, spitting enthusiastically on the concrete floor at her feet. I looked towards the hillside which our truck would surely now be climbing (albeit very slowly) and considered my limited options. I could walk to our campsite, a boring two hour slog in the sun along gravel road or; stand around all day waiting for a miracle. No sooner than I resolved to walk, another livestock truck pulled into town! The other, kinder, group of trekkers allowed me aboard their unroadworthy death-trap and with a sigh from the ancient engine, we made for the campsite.
With less excitement than I would have hoped, possibly more laughs than sympathies, my group greeted me at our campsite. We had forgone the first day's walking so that we could hike up to a pristine lake at the foot of the Salkantay glacier, a moderate 3-4 hour loop that gave us a reminder of the altitude that we would be working with. Thankfully, the views of the aqua blue lake from the cliffside made the loop worth every second. After partaking in a childish, but incredibly fun, game of Trundling, we descended to the shore of the lake itself. For those of you who don't know it by name, Trundling is that game where you push massive boulders down steep hillsides and watch them explode into a million pieces when they hit the rocks at the bottom. Told you it was cool. Some stone-skipping and one crazy nude swimming Swiss guy later, we made it back to the camp site Soraypampa just in time for a three course meal that confirmed the food on this trek would be just as impressive as the last.
Day two of the trek took us up to the foot of second highest peak in Cusco's region, Mountain Salkantay, after a fairly strenuous three hours of ascending. The beautiful snow capped mountain scenery had me thinking back to the Patagonian mountains in Chile and Argentina's deep southern regions. After pausing to catch our breath and some incredible photos at the peak, we descended past smaller lakes and through the valley for another two hours to our lunch site. Another three hours walking downhill after lunch took us to our campsite for the evening, a lot of walking in one day!
The next day was no easier in terms of distance, between 15-20km, but we had the reward of hot springs in Santa Teresa at the end of the day's trekking to look forward to. Waking up to coca tea, looking out of our tents to take in the surrounding mountains, we were on the trail at a leisurely 7am. We quickly made our way into a jungle niche, known as Ceja de Selva, where the trail blossomed into life. From there it was a few hours of undulating hiking before a short bus ride from La Playa to Santa Teresa, where we would find beautiful natural hot springs and our camp site, the best cure after two days of trekking!
The last full day of hiking was, well, delicious. Among the trees and plants surrounding the trail we saw bananas, passionfruits, wild strawberries and coffee all within reach to pick and eat. I'm convinced that Nick and I spent more time eating than we did walking during the morning before we quickly caught the group in the afternoon for the last few kilometres hiking along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the hub catering for the daily influx of people visiting Machu Picchu. From here, you can walk up to the site (~1hr uphill) or take a bus ($30USD ret.) from 5am.
We had obviously taken the cheaper option. Refreshed by hot showers and real beds we made our way down to the checkpoint at the base of the hill by 4:30am the following morning. What followed was an intense hour of dark, steep stair climbing and a lot of sweat. We were among the first in the queue for the actual site to open and it was totally worth it.
I can't tell you exactly what made it better the second time I saw it. Thinking over it, I've decided that seeing something for the second time is perhaps when you really get to appreciate it. The splendour of the ancient site at sunrise up close was more of a reality the second time, the stillness of the ruins and the vibrant greens of the remaining terraces just seemed to stand out more. We took more time to explore the site than I had after the Inca Trail, even taking the time to climb Montana Machu Picchu: a short climb offering unique views of Machu Picchu, worth booking before you go for an extra $6USD. One of the best things I found to do was find a quiet space of my own among the ruins and just appreciate the almost unsurpassed combination of beauty and history that the Lost City of the Incas has to offer.
Until the next, hopefully more succinct, post from Arequipa…
Photos from our five day Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu (the second time!)