Landslide Victory: Trekking to Machu Picchu

14 Apr

Topping up the levels with a hearty dinner in Jacks cafe in Cusco we’re in both in an apprehensive mood; it’s the night before our 5 day / 4 night, Salkantay Trek to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. We’ll be camping for most of the trek, and although the rainy season is supposed to be petering out, every night for the last three, has seen massive thunderstorms and huge downpours. It’s been cold too. We’ve shivered ourselves to sleep, after gasping for breath in this high altitude city following the nightly climb up to our hostel on the hillside of San Blas neighbourhood. These factors, combined with the feeling that walking for 5 days just to see one of the new 7 wonders of the world could be an anti-climax, Machu Picchu can’t be that good can it? Well happily, it turns out, that it can..

After having attended our pre-trip briefing and having spent 3 days in and around the former capital of the Inca Empire, we are ready to leave this tourist mecca. It feels about as undiscovered and off the beaten track as Disneyland. Cusco receives over 2 million visitors a year and it shows. Tourists, touts and hawkers are everywhere. So much so that it is impossible to hold a conversation at an outdoor table in the Plaza de Armas. We are approached literally every minute by vendors of tat various, but most of all by shoe shiners, which is especially annoying as we are both wearing very tired trainers.

A couple of days before, we had escaped Cusco, taking a tour of the Inca’s Sacred Valley to whet our appetites for the trek ahead. It certainly did the job, the terraces and stonework at Pisac & Ollantaytambo (hard to pronounce, but does score very highly in Scrabble) were amazing, both in scale and condition. Designed to maximise available land for cultivation and allowing for variations in micro climate associated with their elevations, the terracing enabled many types of crops to be grown – 4000 different types of potato alone we learn.

The condition of the ruins are especially impressive when one considers that following the collapse of the Inca civilization, and then the subsequent Spanish Conquests of the 16th Century, many Inca sites were dismantled to provide material for the new churches and public buildings. Those that remain have survived four centuries of weathering, and earthquakes, which are very common in the region. In Cusco itself the stonework was so resilient to being dismantled that the Spanish gave up and simply built their buildings on top of the existing Inca foundations.

From the Sacred Valley we called in to Chinchero to see how locally produced textiles are coloured and assembled, one of us at least found this interesting!

So it’s 2.30am on the first morning of our trip, and we’re both wide awake. Although we’re not being picked up until five o’clock, a combination of a freezing night, and a healthy dose of anticipation sees us packed and ready well before the doorbell rings. We’re met in the darkness by Reinaldo, our guide’s assistant. He grabs our duffel bags (which we’ve been told can’t weigh more than 6kgs inclusive of our rented -10C sleeping bags) and darts down the many flights of steps like an alpaca to rendezvous us with the minibus. We follow and jump in and after a couple more stops our group of 16 has been assembled. No-one speaks much on the bus, though the journey is quite eventful; we’re stopped twice by landslides, unable to continue until the road ahead is cleared.

Three hours later we arrive in Mollepata where Cokes and Coca are bought, we then transfer to an open backed truck for the next 7 kilometres uphill along a winding bumpy road to our start point.

Freddy, our charismatic Peruvian guide, talks non-stop all the way to the start of our trek in Cruzpata (3400masl), pausing briefly only to reload some more coca leaves into his mouth. Coca, the raw material for the production of cocaine, is taken legally in abundance in the high Andes – its benefits include suppressing appetite, resistance to the ill effects of altitude sickness and, ahem, being a mild stimulant. We’re taking no chances with the altitude sickness, and so are travelling with 3 bags full, sir.

Today’s walk is set to be relatively short, about 8 kilometres uphill to our first campsite. The group sets off, with Reinaldo leading and Freddy lifting spirits from the rear. The group soon splits into 2, with Kelly and I are amongst the others at the front. The scenery goes from stunning to breathtaking (literally) as we begin to ascend more steeply.

Halfway up, with the rain beginning and the cold enclosing, we stop to purchase a bottle of rum at the last shack we’ll see for a few days. We don’t get far before some bright spark suggests we should try it (just to keep the cold out of course). Well I thought it was a good idea…

We arrive at our first campsite, Salkantaypampa, which (as so does the Trek) takes its name from the second largest mountain in the area, Mt Salkantay (6264masl) whose snow capped peak towers above us. As Kelly and I are the first to arrive we get to choose our tent, after a brief look around, we decide on one without a small stream running under it. The light is fading fast as the other members of the group arrive, John a 65 year old Englishman is the last to arrive on the back of a horse . He and his son Gary had arrived in Cusco only the day before and John is struggling to acclimatise with the altitude. I recommend more coca, whilst our guides fetch him an oxygen mask and tank.

As it is gets darker it is also gets colder, the temperature is expected to be well below zero tonight and it feels close to it already. Kelly is trying to keep warm, frantically putting layers on as dinner is served in the mess tent. It’s a hearty feed, but no-one lingers long after the Hot Toddys and Rum are finished. It starts to rain as we turn in, pulling woolly hats down over our ears and sleeping bags up over our heads to keep warm. Kelly I’m sure wonders whether she will survive the night, she has never been this cold before she says.

Day 2 dawns, the tent begins to fill with half light and the sounds of a campsite spluttering into life as coca tea with sugar and bowls of hot water are delivered around. It’s a nice touch and it takes the edge off the early start. Some of us, add mucho, mucho coca leaves… Well, we can’t take any chance with the altitude sickness now can we?

After breakfast hermanos, we set off for the summit of Apachete Pass, the highest point on our Salkantay Trek at 4600masl. It is a cold, steep climb to the top, where we are greeted by the site of snow and views of, well, er, not much really. The cloud has come in, obscuring the mountain beyond, and it starts to rain as the obligatory group photos are taken. I stand patiently before finding more interest in throwing snowballs…

It is now time to begin our descent, walking poles are broken out to assist in the wet, slippery conditions. I reluctantly accept, saying that I think they are only for old dears on walking holidays. “Probably especially best that you use them then”, says Kelly, much to her own amusement.

The walk down is hard but stunning, we follow streams pouring out of the hillsides and cascading down a Dartmoor-like valley. Unfortunately for us most of the time the water seems to take the trail we are following. It is slippery, our feet are soaked, and we’re going to be walking like this all day.

Kelly is so cold that she can’t speak, after a couple of hours we eventually drop down from the moor through a cloud forest. It gets wetter still as the heavens open, but at least it’s warmer. Kelly’s voice is back by the time we reach Collpapampa campsite, 8 hours after originally setting off this morning. Our first couple of beers don’t even touch the sides as we are entertained by Reinaldo and his hypnotise poultry act (not a typo) before heading to the mess tent for dinner and not long after turning in.

After breakfast we say ‘Adios’ to the four horsemen who’s mules have hauled our camping gear thus far, they will charge off to the next campsite, and will have left by the time we arrive there this afternoon.

We start walking, following the raging Rio Santa Teresa along its course. Freddy has decided that we ought to follow the track on the right hand side of the valley, as given the heavy rain we’ve had, the path on the opposite side is likely to be impassable.

About an hour into the walk we meet an American tour group sporting hard hats at the instruction of their molly coddling guide. Kelly, in between giggles, concludes that he must be trying to inject a sense of adventure and danger to this part, one of the tamest sections of the trail, just to give the folks something to talk about when they get home.

These artificial ingredients are however not required for our group, as an hour or so later Freddy decides that in pairs we should try out a gondala (basically a shopping basket suspended by ropes about 30m over the gorge for locals to ferry their goods to and fro), so as to pick up the previously ‘impassable’ path on the opposite side.

As an experienced hand, he sends Reinaldo over first (maybe the gondala isn’t as secure as it looks?). He then sends Kelly and ‘Rambo’ as he keeps calling me, over so that one of us can help Reinaldo haul the group accross.

It is much fun crossing the gorge, and then a fairly decent workout for the next 90 minutes hauling the group over two at a time. Reinaldo and I quietly agree that the basket containing two of the Dutch girls may have been the heaviest.

Exhilarated, we eagerly set off along the new and much smaller trail, but it’s not long before our progress is halted, shouts of ‘landslide’ work their way back along the group… it appears that a section of the path has recently disappeared. The landslide has happened at best only a day or two before, and there are no footprints offering any surety that anyone else has made it across safely. Our guides hesitate for a second or two, Freddy and Reinaldo assess the situation (concened parents may wish to look away now), reluctant to accept defeat and have to spend another hour and a half crossing back over river with the gondala. Freddy again gamely sends Reinaldo over first to test things out. He does so cautiously, and then slowly, but surely, between them they manhandle our group accross. The ground is really loose and seems to give a little each time it is tested out, I begin to think that being the last in the queue wasn’t such a great idea…

Now even more thrilled than before, we set off but it’s no more than fifteen minutes later before we are stopped again by another recent landside. And then again, at another. As with the first, it takes time and patience to get everyone across safely, eventually we arrive at our third and last campsite, La Playa, several hours late.

Everyone is pretty bushed by now and beers are suggested. However, Freddy & Reinaldo want to play soccer on the local pitch. They ask for participants, I gamely sign up, unfortunately, no-one else does, so we end up playing 3 a side with some local lads. It’s much fun, as are the after match beers, over which we try to fathom how we were all completely out played by an 11 year old. I bring Kelly home a $2 souvenir of time spent in the village, a kilo of coca leaves, in a bag the size of a pillow case.

Our last full day of hiking dawns, and about two kilometres from La Playa we pick up a trail constructed by the Incas, as horses are not allowed on this section of the trail. It is still in amazing condition, which is more than can be said for the group. It is hot, steep and humid as we huff and puff our way up from the river. We climb for three hours to the ruins of an Inca fort at Llaqtapata, and the promise of a distant view of the lost city at Machu Picchu.

Freddy launches into a theoretical description of the lost city, its significance, and why it wasn’t discovered until 1911. Some have said that the city was a unique place for the Incas, that it was a place of learning for the elite, a university of sorts, where skilled and gifted members from the empire would learn and exchange ideas. Suggestions as for why the Spanish never discovered it vary: Freddy’s speculation is that the knowing that the capital, Cusco, had been sacked, the Incas abandoned the site for what was to be their last stand at Vilcabamba, and then concealed Machu Picchu’s whereabouts. Others suggest that the principal route to it, ‘The Inca Trail’ was known by only the elite members of society, who had already been swiftly disposed of by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Unfortunately it’s a theoretical description, because the distant ridge, on which the city is perched, is totally obscured from view by mist and low cloud. Then, as we are preparing to leave the fort at Llaqtapata, the veil of cloud lifts, and we are treated to the mystical sighting of the lost city far away on the other side of the valley. It is a view that has changed little in over four centuries, and is a real treat. It feels all the more worthwhile to have walked this far and to be able to see the city from this unique vantage point.

We linger awhile before beginning the two hour descent to the valley floor beyond. It’s the hardest part of the walk so far; the path is really slippery and our legs so, so heavy. But soon enough we cross over the river, skirt a hydro-electric powerstation, and then after lunch, board the train to the town of Aquas Calientes where we check into Hostal Viajeros for dinner, a comfy bed and fittingly enough, no hot water.

We’re awake at 4.30am on our last day, as the buses up to Machu Picchu leave Aquas Calientes from 5am. The idea is to be at the site well before the hordes begin to pour in through the gates. By 6am we’re inside the lost city and beginning to take in the size of the place. Freddy, loaded up on coca leaves begins a three hour talk. We learn of the explorer who discovered the site in 1911, Hiram Bingham. Searching principally for precious antiquities, he was led to the city by a local indigenous boy. Bingham reported that little of value was found at Machu Picchu. Bingham’s grandson, however, who visited the site many years later, let slip of having dined from golden plates at his grandfathers house, which was, so say, more akin to a small museum.

Freddy then goes on to show us some of the Inca craftsmenship, the quality of the stonework, the ingenuity of the designs at the Inca Sundial, and at the Temple of the Sun, from which the solstices could be recorded and observed.

We see the Inca King’s house, the Ceremonial Baths, the Priests Altar, and the Quarry at the top of the site, from which the stone was carved to construct the city. The blocks were hewn leaving handles on each corner to help move them, before being smoothed off once in their designated position. The unfinished edges of some of the blocks, adding credibility to the theory that the site was incomplete when it was abandoned.

It is fascinating, as is the notion that with so much revenue currently being derived from the site, in Cusco, Aquas Calientes and Peru as a whole that little is being done to halt the subsidence occuring on some of the main sections.

After Freddy’s tour, the group splits up, some of us climb up to Huayna Picchu, the hill which overlooks the lost city. Kelly and I drag our weary legs up the near vertical steps for over an hour to marvel at the dizzying view. From Huayna Picchu we can appreciate the size but also the design, as Cusco was originally designed in the shape of a Puma, Machu Picchu is said to have been in the shape of a Condor, another creature which was sacred to the Incas.

Slowly we make our way back down for one last look around the site, before taking the bus back down to Aqua Calientes. Over lunch we bid our guide farewell and then take a train to Ollantaytambo (which we still can’t pronounce) before catching a bus back to Cusco, where we say goodbye to the group. It’s 10pm by the time we jump in a taxi and head for our hostel. Tired, but massively fulfilled from the last five days walking, we go to sleep dreaming of the lost city and the wonders of the Inca empire, all definite highlights of our trip so far.

Cheers for now

Matt x

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One Response to “Landslide Victory: Trekking to Machu Picchu”

  1. Craig May 24, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    WOW! this is definitely a place on my bucket list. look forward to hearing all about it when you come home.

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