Note: This is not the "Classic Inca Trail" everyone knows and loves but rather an alternative called the "Salkantay Inca Trail". It still takes you to Machu Picchu but is said to be longer, harder and more spectacular than the "Classic" trek. Let it be known I never take the easy option!
Up at 04:00 to finish packing my bags. Carlos blunders in to make sure I'm up for my early appointment and kindly waits with me outside. He's impressed with my system of water bottles, water purification tablets and CamelBak. He thinks I'm a trekking expert. I let it be known it's not my first.
Despite giving X-Treme detailed directions and a hand drawn map to my hostel, a confused woman comes blundering down the stairs looking for me at 04:50, very pleased to have finally found me! I have to follow her all the way up the stairs with all my gear to the waiting minibus. It seems my trek starts here and now! The mini bus drops us off at a waiting local coach where we all pile on with guides and gear. For the next 2 hours I sleep.
Us punters go for brekkie (Coca tea, white bread and jam) at a local cafe whilst the guides sort themselves out. I've been lumbered with a group of 11; 2 Americans, 2 Canadians, 3 Brazilians, 1 German and 2 Irish. The trek is run by Quechua Expeditions, it turns out X-Treme was just the middle man. We start at Mollepata and the morning is largely a steep uphill climb. It sorts the men out from the, um, less experienced! Lunch is then a 4 course meal affair with starters, soup, main and tea / coffee. There's a stall across the way where I try my first Cusquena Negra Malt Beer. No one else was interested.
Expecting to eased into the trek I was surprised that the first day was such a long one, some 24 km. Although the 2nd half was quite flat and rather easy.
Trundling along I came across a small and rather attractive American girl struggling along the path with a large Gucci Northface rucksack. The rucksack was about the same size as her! She was with the "other group" who were doing exactly the same trek as us. They had all left her, speed walking ahead. Knowing what it can be like struggling in last position I slowed and walked with said Patricia, encouraging her to drink more water to get over her heat exhaustion and altitude sickness. She looked so bad I even donated a carabineer clip so she could have her water close at hand, rather than buried deep within her pack. We parted company when she stopped for a wee stop and I raced ahead. Not only did I catch my group up but I lead them too! Along a dirt track with Irish John, who walked at quite a fast pace. He claimed he wasn't fit but just didn't like walking slowly! In fact, we arrived at Sobaypumpa at 16:30, long before the pack horses and had to wait for them (and our tents) to arrive. Being the odd one out (quiet!) I get a little 2 man tent to myself.
By the time dinner came around the temperature had dropped significantly. It was quite literally freezing by bed time. Reports came in the next day that it dropped to -8°C overnight which would explain why in my 0°C rated sleeping bag I wore ALL the clothes I brought. That's 5 layers including my coat (wind / water proof shell), hat, gloves and 3 pairs of socks. Only then was I just warm enough to mentally block out the remaining cold and get some sleep! Brrr...
I'm woken up at 06:30 to Coca Tea and frozen tents. It's hard getting up in the cold - and it was still cold by the time I leave at 09:00.
It turns out I pushed myself too hard yesterday, racing ahead with John - for today I have no energy and lag behind. I let the super fit charge ahead, while I amble along at my own pace.
The morning sees us over a pass next to Salkantay mountain itself. At an altitude of 4,600m it is the highest our trip to Machu Picchu will take us. It's a good height and is much talked about in conversation, but having recently ascended 1½ km higher, I find it difficult to join the enthusiasm!
Nearing the top I pass Patricia and again slow for a chat. She had plenty of rest last night and drank lots as per my advice and today she looked (and felt) a whole lot better. Seeing her water bottle swinging by her side I knew I had lost my carabineer for good, but happy it went to a good cause!
At the top of the pass I meet the fitter half of the group and wait for the un-fit half. (I guess I'm in the middle!) There is much celebration when they do for it's the highest most of them have ever been. I brake out a Hip Flask of whiskey and hand it round. One of the Americans, bemused by the tradition, says, "Man, I love you Brits!" I took it as a complement
Salkantay is a large icy peak, our guide tells us no one has yet climbed it. He said one European team attempted it some 15 years ago but an ice avalanche wiped them all out. As he spoke there was a thundering crash on the mountain, an obvious avalanche sound. But the mountain remained still. Apparently it's common, for what we see of the mountain is just an icy coat on the outside and the dangerous avalanches occur underneath, where we can not see.
Fog rolled in obscuring all views as we descended down the other side. The damp mossy rocks were complete with wet woolly sheep. I swear I could have been in Wales! We followed a path along the side of a valley to reach our next camp. This one was a little settlement of farm houses so come evening we were even able to buy a bottle of beer! Correction - I was able to buy a bottle of beer! No one else was interested.
That night it comes to the guides' attention I have a large stash of Bolivian Coco leaves in my possession, which turns out to be big breaking news. I'm not in trouble, far from it - in fact they're all eager to try some because they've never had Bolivian before! I heartedly hand it out piles of leaves and they all munch away before reaching a unanimous decision that it's not as good as their locally grown Peruvian stuff. I think it was a bit of national pride coming in to play for personally I couldn't taste any difference!
It was a bright sunny start to the day as we set off, crossing the river and along the other side of the valley. Mid morning we stop off at a little shop and wait for the slow coaches to arrive. Our guide introduces us to Monkey Brains! Also know as Passion Fruit, the way to eat them (apparently) is to crack them on your head to split them open and then slurp out the innards! Monkey brains are so plentiful from overhanging trees the little snackettes practically give them away!
From then on it got real hot. And after leading with the super fit Americans for a while I figured I'd proved my worth and decided to hang back so I could unbutton my shirt and cool down. To my surprise I catch up with Marceo, one of the Brazilians. He was limping along on his own, having sprained his ankle somehow. It was late morning and I knew we had some distance to go so I decide to chill and walk with him, keep him company. He didn't speak English and I certainly didn't speak any Portuguese!
After a couple of hours we meet up with our leader, he's very concerned about making it over to Santa Teresa before dark - especially with Marceo and his sprained ankle. At the bottom of the valley the trail meets up with a rough road. Our leader spies a big truck, walks over and strikes a deal with the driver to give Marceo and I a lift to our lunch stop where all the others were waiting.
At first I was a bit put off by the idea - I felt like I'd be cheating if I didn't walk the whole Inca Trail. But then I reasoned this trek wasn't an almighty challenge (considering some of my other more recent adventures!) and it wasn't a sacred pilgrimage either, so... what the heck!!? In the back of the truck I pile!
We arrive for lunch amidst a volley of cheers! People admired our transport! So much so, we arrange to have the same truck transport all of us (and the other group) to Santa Teresa. Now while this may sound like a complete cop out, hear me out!
We get to ride in the back of local truck
We get back in time to visit Santa Teresa Hot Springs
It was definitely the right choice. The truck ride was awesome, we were packed in the back with a kazillion locals, rough riding down dodgy dirt tracks, being pounded from one side of the truck to the other - great fun! In fact, the journey was so long, even in the back of the speeding truck, I don't know how we would have made it if we had walked!
After setting up our tents by a bar we all pile back into the same truck for a trip to the Santa Teresa Hot Springs. The tourist part was still being built but the Hot Springs themselves were definitely hot and ready!
It has to be said the Americans were not only super fit, but ripped and muscle built too. They were also doctors in the making, following their parental foot steps. They obviously spent all their time reading books, guzzling steroids and pumping iron. They were your stereotypical American all-star do-gooders - but I must add they were also very stereotypically boring too. Yup, they always went to bed early and didn't drink.
Marceo on the other hand, as it transpires, knows everyone and is quite the social and party animal. And after helping him out today, I'm his new best friend! Good job the springs also served beer!
John the Irishman felt pretty ill from all his speed walking and was happy to chill by the pools. Though I still poked much fun at him for wearing a English rugby top!
We stayed at the springs until dark where we rode the truck back to town under a blanket of dazzling stars. On return there was lots of drinking over dinner and an attempted bar crawl - attempted because we could only find two!
Today is an opt-out day for those who can't, or won't, carry on. This inevitably included Marceo with his sprained ankle and John the Irishman, whose inability to walk slowly, even at altitude had him throwing up all last night. The large German and the other Brazilians also opted out. There were to be driven to a train station where we would meet them for lunch and they would then get the train to Aguas Calientes; the tourist town at the bottom of Machu Picchu.
Us heroes that were left trotted off through the village and began the days trek with a river crossing... in a cage!
A thick steel line lay suspended between the two sides of the river and a cage hung beneath it. The case was loosely secured at both sides enabling you to pull yourself one way or another. Well that or you get someone to give you a big shove and another to pull you across! Just don't mind the raging torrent below! The crossing definitely made for lots of screaming girly action. Brilliant!
Further along we cross over a fierce waterfall. This waterfall used to pound over the trail, but as they want to turn the trail into a road they dug a big hole through the rock so now it goes under the trail! Woah! Quite an impressive feat considering the scale of the operation and Peruvian engineering (e.g. llamas and donkeys!).
Further down the line we enter the National Park, sign ourselves in and walk to the train station for lunch. The lazy others were already waiting for us with some nice cold, ice cold Inca Colas! Oh boy, my favourite!
Setting off from there we come across a stone plinth and if you stand on it you're able to get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu - our destination! From there we essentially follow the train line all the way to Aguas Calientes. This took many many hours for it was quite some way. Not only was it far, but the ground was surprisingly difficult to walk. The gravel track was extremely broken up by railway sleepers - too uneven to casually walk over. So you walk on the sleepers, but their spacing was too close to step on each one and too far apart to step on every other one! This then just left my favourite option, to walk the line! Yep, walk on the railway line itself! I found balance was basically a matter of finding the optimum distance ahead to focus on.
I walked most of it with Patrick, John's mate and a fellow Irish man. We walked a bit with Patricia too.
The main problems of walking along a train track are... TRAINS! Yep, this track certainly wasn't deserted! Every now and again you'd hear a loud horn blow and you'd jump out the way of a steaming bulldozer! So all this wasn't too much of a problem in its self until we came to a bridge over a ravine and a river below. Where only the sleepers prevented you from falling into the savage river below. And should a train come at the same time... well there wasn't anywhere to go except down! (I had visions of a scene from the film The Lost Boys!) I did the usual Apache Indian trick of sticking my ear to the rail to see if I could hear it coming (?). I then had to coax Patrick over the bridge with me - he wasn't overly keen! Only after crossing did we notice the pedestrian bridge nearby!
We rolled into Aguas Calientes for about 17:00, after observing how hideous it was from the train track. Set below the majestic green mountains was the technicolor tourist town monstrosity! It just looked nasty!
In town I was sent to a hotel to pick up my main bag before trekking to a different location where I was staying. (This was supposed to have been arranged previously by X-Treme treks, but err, they'd forgotten about me!) To my surprise, I was staying in my own luxury room in a hotel, complete with hot showers!
It was obvious most people in town had arrived by train, mainly Americans in white pristine washed and pressed clothes. I was quite happy to tramp amongst them, looking haggard and hard, humping my pack in a fireman's lift, having not showered for days!
A group dinner in the evening presented an opportunity for many beers, culminating in some late night cocktail drinks with the guides. I was disappointed that I would only get to spend a few hours in my posh room before getting up at 4:00 am to begin my final accent of Machu Picchu...
Up at 4:00am to meet the superfit Americans. They wanted to make an early start to ensure they were at Machu Picchu for sunrise. It was an hour's trek back along the train track to reach the bottom of the National Park and then an arduous steep climb to the top of the mountain.
All the guides told us the uphill climb would take 1½ hours, I'm happy to report we did it in 45 minutes! Not bad for short fat Welshman! The superfit Americans didn't have any trouble and were eager to race up as quickly as possible. I was huffin' an' a puffin' behind them but still kept pace!
At the top you have to queue at a security gate to enter the premises. Although not yet open, we were almost the first in line. Only one coach load of American tourists got out of bed early enough to beat us!
Even after we were allowed through the Machu Picchu gates, even though it was light, we still had to wait a good 2 or 3 hours before dawn and the sun itself rose up over the mountain peaks. But that was it, the event everyone had been waiting for. The anticipation of sunrise over Machu Picchu was so great, the tension so immense, I was expecting a magical, no, mythical rebirth! As if a great dragon was meant to burst free from the sun's rays, swoop down through great bursts of fire breath and grab talons of virgins! But no, when the sun appeared over the top of the distant mountains, it just got a bit lighter! Oh well...
Still, the time waiting gave me chance to find the rest of my group (once they arrived on the bus!), chat and chill for a bit. I spent a lot time mooching around with Patricia, who was very pleased to have made it all the way. It was going great and we were getting along famously (yes!), but then I got distracted by Marceo feeding grass to the local Llamas and I just had to join in! Patricia walked away.
After the sun rise non-event and some group photos, the Machu Picchu tours commenced. Every guide on the ground suddenly became an expert and started taking their groups on a tour. It was all good stuff, seeing how they had rock compasses, stone hinges, earthquake proof buildings and sun dials that doubled up as calendars. That and the usual precision interlocked giant boulders the Inca's are famed for. Then rumour got out that the day's tourist quota for climbing Waynapicchu (aka Huayna Picchu) was almost up and I had to leave. The ascent of the lesser climbed Waynapicchu was most definitely on my list of things to achieve.
Only 400 people are allowed to climb Waynapicchu per day. Waynapicchu is the tall hill you see behind all the classic Machu Picchu postcard shots. Machu Picchu itself just being the city of ruins. After bimbleling around some ancillary temples I go for the Waynapicchu ascent itself. But I had been troubled by a decision I'd yet to make. Waynapicchu was just an hour to the top, but a detour around the back of the mountain to the lesser known Temple of the Moon and the Great Cave took 2½ hours. Did I really want to take the path less travelled? Once I arrived at the fork in the trail, clearly marked by a little signpost, the decision was obvious. Leading up the main path was a huge single file queue of panting and wheezing tourists, meandering up one step at a time. To the left, towards the Temple of the Moon, was not a single soul!
I happily bounded down the steps towards the Temple of the Moon. Skip, down, skippedy down. After 45 minutes of bouncing down, and still not seeing anyone, it suddenly hit me; I'm going to have to climb back up all that down and still climb Waynapicchu afterwards! D'Oh! It took about an hour to the great cave and a further 20 minutes to the Temple of the Moon. They're little houses carved into the rock face (but very cool!) and not very clearly marked. Probably because no-one ventures down there. Only on my way back up did I see any signs of life; 3 small groups in total. Although one was a German family whose daughter clung to the top of a particularly dodgy wooden ladder, frozen stiff with fear, crying and definitely not going any further!
I pushed myself to the top Waynapicchu and was happy to reach it in good time. It beheld awesome sights! Not just of the hundreds of mountain peaks in the surround, but of aerial views Machu Picchu itself. I was happy to sit on top for a while, cool down and take it all in.
Back at Machu Picchu I nonchalantly followed a late tour group or two and realised I'd missed out on a lot. There were still many cool aspects to the city I had not yet seen or knew existed. I would have loved to have stayed the whole day or longer but for some crappy reason we had to catch a train at 14:00pm! I stayed as late as I could and hopped on a tourist bus to take me back down to Aguas Calientes. If I'm ever in the area again I vowed I would spend at least one whole day in just Machu Picchu itself, to pick up on what I had missed.
The train must have been operated by a British Rail subsidiary for it was some half an hour late. Still, it gave me time to chat to Patricia who, as it turns out, is not only American but half Peruvian and staying with a friend of the family in Cusco. She gave me the house phone number and mentions we should go out for a drink. I rule! I rule! I suggest we head out tonight and join my new found Brazilian mates for they're all keen on a party night. But alas Patricia was adamant that after today's long day she'll be doing nothing more than an early night. (A bloody cheek I thought as I was the one who was up at 4:00am, hiked up the mountain and then climbed Waynapicchu. She had just taken the bus up and meandered around some ruins! But anyway... Girls, wotever.)
It was a jubilant train journey with the Brazilians cheering and drinking all the way back to... nowhere! We had to exit at some random local train station (with street vendors selling meat on a stick - yummy!) and pile into the back of several taxis for the concluding ride back to Cusco.
No rest for the wicked for as soon as I had cleaned up and handed in my disgusting hiking clothes to be incinerated, err, I mean washed, I had to join the Brazilians for celebratory drinks back out at club Mamma Africas. They had picked up a couple of Asian Brazilian chicks at Machu Picchu who were keen to drink also!
Later on in the evening I was very excited to catch sight of Patricia who had obviously changed her mind about staying in. Hooray! But then I noticed she was dancing with, well, err, grinding extremely closely with, a fellow American bloke from her tour group. I decided not to interrupt the pair just to announce my presence but rather, exhale a long sigh, toss her number in the bin and order another beer.