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Published: August 21st 2012
And so this is the end of the road. The path that we set out on, have been enthralled with and challenged by, shed tears of happiness and anguish upon, have thrived and stumbled upon, the road that we have travelled for almost nine hundred days enters its final chapter. There have not been many things that we have done along this colossal journey that could be construed as taking the easy option, instead choosing to challenge ourselves along the more difficult path whose rewards are often all the more rich for the effort. It was fitting then that we should end our adventure in that exact vein, taking the long way round to Machu Picchu via the mountain pass of Salkantay, a five day trek to reach one of the most astounding places in this world.
Bags packed deliberately, taking care not to take anything we would not need for the arduous trek that would see us ascend to 4600m, we left the remainder of our belongings in the hotel storage in the early hours of our first morning of the trek, where we were greeted by the first of our two guides Leo. In the darkness
and calm of Cusco at 4am, we sought out our minibus and climbed inside to meet the rest of the group that we would be taking this final journey with. It appeared we were in luck as the members of our group, comprised of multiple nationalities, from British to Chilean, Mexican to Austrian, Argentine to American, instantly bonded as we did with our guides, the aforementioned and ever smiling Leo and our pack lead, Mario. Our pre trek stress of selecting an appropriate operator was quickly drifting away, as were we as the 4am waking took its toll.
Our bus came to a halt in the small village of Mollepata, where we were provided with some breakfast and warm drinks before heading out into the sunshine and lush green hills of the Sacred Valley. Our first day was long and consisted of a fairly consistent climb, gaining in altitude as the temperature rose throughout the day. Despite the temperature and humidity, the views were easily enjoyed; beautifully rural, with overlapping peaks of green surrounding us on all sides. Indicating the road ahead was the snow capped mountains of Humantay, standing adjacent to the as yet unseen Salkantay
and the western barrier of the pass we would cross the following morning.
Long after the sun had descended below the mountains, we could see the village of Soraypampa, our home for the evening, in the distance. Tortuously, the village never appeared much closer than that for over an hour and on tired legs and as the cold of the altitude began to creep in, our pace desperately quickened in an attempt to reach our tents and a warm evening’s meal. Amazingly, the food itself was very good and very welcome, as was the hot chocolate and cocoa tea. With full stomachs we, along with some members of our group, ventured out into the cold to view another spectacular South American night sky. Mario informed us that this was in fact the coldest time of the year for Peru and as such, the distant star clouds of the Milky Way formed the shape of a Llama, perfectly visibly in the darkness of night! Our first evening in freezing temperatures and hard ground unsurprisingly brought little sleep and at the altitude, some headaches (though Amy and I were luckily left unscathed!).
The following morning, we
unzipped our tents to find the smiling faces of our cooks waiting for us with another cup of hot cocoa, most welcome after the lack of sleep and cold of the Andean night. We dressed quickly and ate breakfast before departing with Salkantay clearly in our sights. Following the winding path up the mountainside, we were passed by numerous pack trains of mules carrying their heavy loads, the bells around their necks jingling with each carefully placed step along the rocks, the sound reminiscent of that heard in the heights of the Himalayas some months earlier. With each step the altitude forced a deeper intake of Oxygen and the stops became more frequent. Gradually however, the steep mountain walls gave way to an open pass, the top of which was our target at 4,600m.
The view from the top of the pass was beautiful, staring down into a dramatic boulder filled valley, surrounded on each side by snow peaks and cloud forest in the distance. Our attention however, was drawn to the heights of Salkantay, which at 6,271m stands as only the twelfth highest peak in Peru, but one of its most sacred in Inca folklore as
it was regarded by the people as an “Apu” (God) whose spirit influenced and protected the lives of all Incan people. Here we sat and listened as Mario described its place in the lives of his people before encouraging us to each take a cocoa leaf and find a secluded area to place the leaf beneath one of the countless small stones that have fallen from this sacred mountain.
If the lack of oxygen made the climb to this point difficult, the sheer duration of the afternoon and the gradual descent made for a knee pounding afternoon’s work. That’s not to say that the natural beauty of the place went unnoticed – quite the opposite! An endless green valley guided our way down into some dense cloud forest, whose damp and decaying trees and peaks edging out above the cloud line made for an eerily beautiful setting. Along we went, following the river as we descended hour after hour to our camp for the night. Wearily we limped to the days finish, desperate for nourishment and our sleeping bags. Needless to say, after such a long day and sleeping at much lower altitudes, we did not encounter
any of the insomnia-like issues of the previous evening. Perhaps the most well received news of the entire trek was that our third day would be short, only trekking for around four hours and as an added bonus, would end with a visit to some hot springs to help with our increasingly tried bodies.
The fourth day of our journey saw us follow rail tracks, ‘Stand By Me’ style all the way up to Aguas Calientes, the bustling town where all but day-trippers base themselves for a dawn assault on Machu Picchu. Before embarking along the tracks, we came across a small shack where we could replenish our water and buy snacks for the journey ahead. Despite the promise of one of the world’s wonders lying only a few miles in the distance, it was difficult pulling Amy away from this small shack, owing in no small part due to a small cardboard box of three Labrador puppies which either made her forget where we were or made it so she no longer cared! It was an older canine that accompanied us along the railway to Aguas Calientes, a stray dog which I’m sure must latch onto
a different group each day and guide their way into town for the five or so miles along the rail tracks. No matter how often we stopped for water or lunch, he patiently waited by our sides every step of the way (we actually encountered him the following day in the market in town sitting lonely by a step in another heart breaking moment for poor Amy!).
Aguas Calientes itself is everything you might expect it to be, being based at the foot of one of the most famous places in the world – touristy. But, after four days of tiredness and discomfort, that restaurant menu filled with pizzas, burgers and chips never seemed so appealing! We did a little exploring of the town, its markets and its restaurants before getting an early night with tomorrows big day (and very early morning) ahead.
The following morning, the sound of the alarm never seemed so unwelcome and the early morning never so dark. Nevertheless, we rose at 3.30am, dressed quickly and set out to meet our companions to begin another hike for the final time together. It’s not a stretch to say that the most
difficult part of this entire trek came in the forty or so minutes it took to steeply and breathlessly climb up into the night towards Machu Picchu. Dripping with sweat and barely able to draw breath we continued on, not able to see five meters ahead of ourselves. As we went we realised that we were in the front group of people heading up to the archaeological site and Amy, never the most competitive of people, would be the first girl on the mountain that day. Possessed with a sense of purpose she fought on without break or pause, only to be passed barely fifty meters from the top by a South American girl seemingly impervious to physical strain this climb puts on the human body (she flew past me as well!) – I think if Amy would have had the energy, she’d have struck the girl but thankfully, she restrained herself! We did however beat the busloads of tourists who arrive at the top around 5.30am, though the sense of satisfaction was drowned out by mostly sweat!
Eventually, the gates of the site itself opened and inside we went, camera at the ready! A haunting mist
swathed the site and the surrounding mountains, whose features and setting were barely discernible amid the morning cloud. Impatiently we waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Incan citadel, to gain some kind of understanding of its size as all we’d ever seen before were postcards and TV shows. However, in the moments before the sun rose to the east, the cloud parted revealing what has to be one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen.
Machu Picchu was build around 1450 AD during the height of the Incan empire though its purpose remains somewhat of a mystery due to a distinct lack of any evidence, though it is thought that any occupancy of the city at all only lasted for less than 100 years. Early research indicated occupants of the citadel died out due to an introduction of small pox; others believe the occupants to be only women – concubines of the Incan emperor. Others have suggested that the city was everything from a fortress to sacred religious site to a prison (and what a prison!). I suppose a small part of the intrigue comes from the unknown. Of course the vast majority
of the intrigue comes from its unbelievable aesthetic beauty.
For a few hours we walked around its narrow cobbled alleys, along its terraced fields and into its carefully constructed buildings. At one point we happened across a rock shaped like a Llama with an eye carved in the stone. Luckily we arrived just at the point where the sun shines its light through a crack in some rocks casting a perfect beam on the Llama eye, an event that happens only once per year during the Solstice, a time we just so happened to be present – a small example of the oft talked about legend of Incan architecture.
After the early morning and the hours spent exploring the site, our energy was spent, so we found a secluded grassy spot on the tiered eastern slopes of the site and fell asleep before the rising sun as it ascended above the beautiful valleys to the east. It may seem a shocking waste of time in such a beautiful place but waking about an hour later, we looked down to some of the other terraces at discover that we were not the only tourists to
think a quick nap was best idea! We brushed off the grass attached to our clothes before seeking out a different view point of the site (part of the fun being there are countless different views) to again sit, relax and enjoy.
Finally, in the early afternoon, we decided to say goodbye to Machu Picchu, the final amazing site we would see on this journey. We stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu symbol and slowly climbed back down that treacherous hillside in the afternoon heat to earn a well deserved glass of orange juice at the bottom. That afternoon in Aguas Calientes was spent waiting – waiting for our night train and bus back to Cusco, waiting to say goodbye to our new friends and, in many ways, waiting for the end of our trip for this was it, the final wonder and last great adventure that we would embark upon before returning home. Excitement mixed with a definite sadness filled our minds and hearts as we saw out the final few days in Cusco and finally, Lima. There was an undeniable uncertainty that lay ahead; similar to that which we felt when we boarded our
plane 859 days ago bound for Incheon...but as we did seemingly a lifetime ago, the only thing to do was to throw our backpacks over our shoulders, this time for the final time...
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