We were up at “sparrow’s” the next day. After a lot of dicking around – we got to have a catch-up kip on the soft seats of a plush bus which took us up to the lil village of Mollepata. We had a light brekky & got some last minute supplies (cocoa leaves, flower water and the like). We were then thrown into the back of a bone-rattling truck which took us up a wild rocky road to the start of our trek.
It was all very relaxed for the first few hours: a chilled out, mostly flat walk with stunning vistas of the Vilcabamba mountain range.
So far, so good – I thought.
Leading up the walk, I had some little doubts that had tried to creep into my consciousness. Yes, it had been a while since I’d taken on a big physical challenge. No, I hadn’t been doing enough exercise recently. Yes, I had been drinking a bit too much red wine. No, I hadn’t ever done a multi-day hike before. Yes, I had a couple of issues with my poor old feet (tendonitis).
I reassured myself by thinking of all the Things I Never Thought I Would Do – And Did. (Giving up smoking. Doing a triathlon. Completing a 5km swim.) I just needed to have faith in myself. And just get on with it.
And then it started raining.
It would help if it didn’t rain all day every day for the next 5 days.
We stopped at a refuge & had the first of many ah-Mazing meals (no Beans Means Heinz here) prepared by our exceptionally resourceful cooks.
After lunch we were treated to a gorgeous grey sky showcasing a crisply coloured rainbow. The sun came out shortly after that and didn’t go away for the rest of the trip. Except at night. But that’s allowed.
With happy bellies, we continued on through the crisp, clean Andean valley. Admiring the views. Finding our pace. Getting to know each other. There were about 23 of us all up separated into 2 groups with 3 guides.
Some people struggled with the altitude. Shell & I were doing fine, benefiting from our time at Lake Titicaca.
It was all rather pleasant until we came to a big fuck-off mountain which presented us with a good couple of hours of hard work. Never ending switchbacks. It was slow & steady for ‘lmost everyone with the air thinning right out and making it hard to breathe. I’d count to 50 steps and take a breather, but I soldiered on.
Shell was a little ways ahead of me and was sweet enough to come back to get me after she got to the Salkantaypampa camp (3,950m). We had walked some 12km, ascended some 1,100m over a period of maybe 6 hours. I was starting to get tired. Shell coming back was just the encouragement I needed to get that last lil bit done.
The sun had dropped behind Mount Salkantay (which translates to ‘savage’) – and the temperature dropped dramatically.
Within a matter of moments we were all uncomfortably, ridiculously & unnecessarily cold.
Sorry, did I sign up for this?
We got sorted in the tents our horsemen had set up for us, before having a quick dinner and some hot tea. We all went to bed early that night. Too cold basically, to do anything else.
I was inside my sleeping bag (designed for zero degrees at best),wearing pretty much everything I owned, and all curled up around a makeshift hot water bottle.
And I was:
I was an inconsolable shivering little ball. Every muscle in my body was tensed up in self-defence. I had to clamp down on my teeth to stop them from chattering. I wanted to cry.
It got down to minus five degrees that night.
And we were in a goddamn tent. By choice.
I have never ever been so cold or so miserable in my entire life.
The only cool (pardon the pun) part about the night was listening to avalanches. I’ve never heard such a thing before. You know that scene from Jumanji when the rhinos start stampeding through the house. Well it kind of sounds like that. Simply astonishing.
We all got up with the sun the next day. You could hear the communal relief as we all scrambled out of our tents. And it wasn’t just the first pee of the morning kind of relief. More the glad I don’t have to do that ever again in my life kind of relief.
When we got up, we realised what an absolutely cracking view of Cusco’s 2nd highest peak we had. Salkantay rises to an impressive 6,264m.
A muy rapido pack-up & brekky and we were off! Despite 2 coffees and a very strong cup of cocoa tea, I was nowhere near properly awake when we started walking.
It was shaping up to be a glorious day and I was in good spirits but my body wasn’t cooperating … I was a bit of a slow poke all day that day.
When the others split off to go see a glacial lake mid morning – I kept on track with Cristina & Gabby (a bubbly Brazilian mother & daughter duo).
At one point, I walked on ahead on my own. Not another person within cooee. So lucky to get those breath-takingly beautiful mountains & valleys all to myself. Every now & then, I’d stop and just take it all in… majestically jagged snow-capped peaks of the Humantay range in their varying shades of brown & grey… the surprisingly lush mountainside vegetation satisfying the hunger of some very happy cows. Pretty white rivers busily babbling away. And lots of brilliant blue sky setting the whole scene off.
I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I’ve never breathed in air that clean before. It put me on such a natural high. This is what all my mad mountaineering mates were always banging on about!
Although Day 2 had been the longest day (I think we walked some 16kms), it was mostly downhill and easy, and (at the risk of sounding like a pompus git) just glorious.
We got to camp well before nightfall and were able to sit around in the sun & have a couple of long-necks before dinner, which was most civilised. Being at 3000m also meant it was a heck of lot of more pleasant in terms of temperature, too.
Day 3 was another easy & beautiful walk through a mountainous jungly landscape called Ceja de Selva. It was so vastly different in terms of terrain, and flora & fauna compared to the previous days. Lots of greenery and pretty little waterfalls.
Victor our lovely guide took the time to stop and show us some truly special flowers along the way, including a really rare orchid. I really liked him. He was young & fit, but by no means one of those ‘I’m a Legend – Watch Me Hike’ type of blokes. I liked that he was always keeping company with whoever was bringing up the rear. He took every opportunity to stop, sit and just enjoy the environment. He took the time to tell us the stories of the original custodians of the land, and some of his own story as well.
Although I really enjoyed the day, I had a terribly large blister (a good square inch or more in size) on the back of my left heel that was starting to become unbearable. So when the track dried up a bit – I took off my boots & walked in my thongs for the last couple of hours of the day. The last part of the track traversed a lot major landslides. I likened the seeing the sides of the mountains all sliced up like that, like the seeing the insides of the earth’s body.
Just before reaching our campsite, we stopped at a little village and bought avocadoes to make a guacamole. We reached La Playa (2,350m) early in the afternoon.
We had time to make a little excursion to Aguas Thermales de Cocalmayo – some hot springs, maybe an hour or so away. The 3 natural pools with their crystal clear waters were a welcome relief for our tired old aching bods. Tucked away inside a deep cut-away on the side of a rocky mountain – the baths offered 180degree views of more mountains across a great divide. Their silhouettes provided a dramatic skyline.
Later that night we enjoyed a few drinks around a campfire and celebrated a couple of birthdays. I went to bed completely content & utterly knackered that night. I later got up for a midnight piddle and took a moment to enjoy the stars. So many stars. The kind of stars that make you feel such a small part of the universe. But also make you feel big enough to make a wish that might come true.
I know this is gunna sound lame but the next day, I seriously struggled to get my hiking boot over my heel with the ever bulging beast of a blister.
I didn’t want to compromise the next day, the last day – the grand finale of walking around Machu Picchu and hiking up Huayna Picchu. So I talked to Victor. He told me my choice was 8 hours of walking or nothing. He also told me the day would be a bit tough-going and walking in my thongs was not really an option. He encouraged me to take it easy so I could enjoy the next day. I didn’t take much convincing. Having said that I had a little, ‘I’m such a sooky-la-la’ cry.
The bus took me & Cristina (who also didn’t go for her own reasons) directly up to the Hydroelectric Plant at 1,870m where we had the last lunch with our awesome staff & the rest of our group. The arrieros, horses and donkey herders all made their way back to Soraypampa, where we started. And then we caught the super luxe train to Aguas Calientes at 2,000m.
We checked into our hostel, had a much needed warm shower and ‘glammed up’ for dinner. We had some free time to have a poke around, and we all met up later for a few pre-dinner Pisco Sours.
Dinner tipped me over the edge and I wasn’t alone in opting for another early night (and that’s coming from someone who didn’t even walk that day).
Next morning we were up for the first bus at 4am. We were all used to the silly early morning starts now, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Besides we were all super excited. After all, this was what we had come so far to see.
Walking in through the gates of this 15th century Incan site and seeing Machu Picchu open up in front of us was a moment I will never forget. Sitting in between mountains of extraordinary beauty, smack bang in the middle of a tropical mountain forest is this remarkable city.
The place is bloody huge – it spans some 5km2. And is arguably the most un-touched Incan site in the world. There is no sign of the Conquistadors ever having visited the remote city.
The place is thought to have been a sanctuary inhabited by high priests and the ‘Virgins of the Sun’ (chosen women). Excavations revealed that of the 135 skeletons found, 109 were women.
There are some places that when you finally clasp eyes on them, literally make you want to weep. You just can’t believe you’re there, you know…
Victor took us on a really passionate interesting tour. I like that he focused on the Incan significance of various parts of the site.
My ears perked up when he started talking about one of the more important structures – the Room with Three Windows.
I have a little bit of a crush on the number 3. I regularly look at the time when it happens to be 3.33. I like to exaggerate in lots of 3s. (There were 3 million people at the festival!) My birthdate is divisible by 3. I Googled it once. And it has a lot of significance in a lot of different cultures. Generally speaking though, it’s seen to represent balance. Think of your average bar stool, for instance.
So I was interested (but not all that surprised) to learn the number 3 was also significant to the Incans. The ‘chakana’ was a 3-stepped symmetrical cross. They strived to live their lives according to three principals (love, knowledge and work); three commandments (don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy); and three types of work (for others, for the State, and for the Gods).
The three worlds that the Incans believed in were the Uqhu Pacha – which represented the underworld and death, the Kay Pacha – which represented the world of humans, and the Hanan Pacha – which represented the stars, celestial beings and gods
There were three revered animals: The snake, living underground, representing the lower world; the puma, a powerful land animal represented the middle world; and the condor which represented the upper world in the skies.
After the tour, Shell and I went up with Cristina and Gabby for the optional climb of Huayna Picchu.
Huayna Picchu is actually the mountain that you see in all those ‘hero shots’, the one you see in postcards, accompany travel articles etc. The mountain Machu Picchu is actually what you see when you’re standing on Huayna Picchu.
Everyone I had met on my travels, who had been, had told me climbing Huayna Picchu was a ‘must-do’. And they were right. It was just a very steep climb with a lot of unsure stairs, and it took me a good while.
We were exceptionally fortunate to have a really clear day. The views from there were nothing short of spectacular. And it was there you really got the best sense of the sheer scale of the site.
I could describe the site in painstaking detail, I could regurgitate lots of interesting facts & figures, I could re-tell some of the stories I’ve heard until the llamas come home. But for me –it comes down to this:
This is a place you’ve been seeing images of all your life and it somehow strangely feels familiar. This is a place that has seen countless sunrises & sunsets. And will continue to do so long after you’re on the bus back home. This is a place which has held so much meaning for so many generations of people – from the original landowners who conducted spiritual rituals here, to global visitors who come to meditate during the Solstices. This is a place which was built by an incredibly intelligent race of people who we have a lot to learn from. This is a place which you can’t really know, until you go. So if it’s not on your Bucket List, I’d suggest your list needs revising.
To write this post, I referred to the SAS Travel website (we trekked with these guys & they were great). The section about the significance of 3s to the Incans was lifted (and re-worked) from a 3rd party website.