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Published: October 7th 2013
The alarm went off at 4am and I got up ready to be picked up and driven to Mollepata village, the starting point of the Salkantay Trail. I greeted some of my bleary-eyed companions as I boarded the bus and tried to get some more sleep on the journey. We had breakfast in the village, before each introducing ourselves. The group was made up of: couple Briohny and Graham (I'd been confused at breakfast when I kept hearing my name) and Edward, all from England, Antoine from France, Vincent, Jean-François, Sophie and Dave from the French speaking part of Canada, Erik and Gillian from the English speaking part of Canada, Nora and Dakota from the USA, Helene and Kristian from Denmark, sisters Ceciel and Danielle from Holland and two students from Hong Kong, Dominique and a guy who correctly told me I'd forget his name. Our guides were Nilton and Climaco.
The weather was fine and clear as we set off on what was mostly and uphill day, as we had to gain 1000 metres to reach our camp at 3900 metres. By lunch we had climbed a fair way and had a great view of the valley below. In
the afternoon, the glaciated peak of Tukarway came into view and towards the end of the day, Salkantay, the tallest mountain in the region at 6271 metres above sea level appeared behind it. We reached camp on the slopes of Tukarway late in the afternoon and I had a wash in the icy cold stream running alongside, to the amusement of a couple of our porters. Dinner was a basic meat and rice affair but it did the job. I shared a tent with Edward, an entertaining chap who had lived in a few different countries working as a windsurfing instructor. He introduced us to "Perudo", which was a bit like poker with dice - each player covers their own dice and you take it in turns to guess how many times a certain number is on the table, with plenty of scope for bluffing! I was told the temperature outside fell to around -10°C but thankfully my hired sleeping bag did its job and I slept well.
It certainly felt cold when we rose before sunrise for breakfast. In the morning, we climbed to the pass between the two aforementioned mountains, which was the highest point of the
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
trail at 4629 metres. Briohny had a case of altitude sickness the night before, while Nora was suffering with a stomach parasite and had left it as late as possible to start the trek before she had to go back to the USA, and so both reached this point on horseback. Although I was well acclimatised to the altitude from my time in Bolivia and Cusco, the drinking and lack of exercise told and I was unable to keep up with the French Canadians who set an unrelenting pace. At the pass we had a group photo and took in the stunning view of the valley into which we were about to descend. As we did so, the temperature warmed and we reached the jungle, which provided a remarkable contrast, with the icy peak of Salkantay still visible. At our camp at 2900 metres I queued for a cold shower, played some more Perudo, had dinner, then finished the evening with a beer.
On the third day, it started to feel tropical as we descended another 1000 metres to our camp at 1900 metres. Our guide Nilton, who was good humoured and knowledgeable, talked to us about the plants
growing in the area that have been used as remedies for centuries, and a flower which caused psychedelic effects. After arriving at the camp, we went to some thermal baths. Unfortunately, my stomach had started to feel uneasy during the afternoon and got worse throughout the day, so I went to bed shortly after we returned, skipping dinner. Helene had a similar issue, although nobody else seemed badly affected. My theory (based on the adverts of a well known yogurt brand) is that my stomach was sensitive due to a lack friendly bacteria, which would have been killed by the antibiotics I took in Cusco. The best solution for the long term, then, would have been to not take any more antibiotics and recover naturally, however, I was in the middle of a trek to South America's most famous historical attraction and I wasn't going to be ill!
In my enthusiasm when booking the trek, I took the option of going zip lining on the morning of the fourth day. I was joined by Parissa from London, who was doing a different trek. It was a tough walk up to the first line, which ran 200 metres above the
valley below, however, the pain in my stomach was useful in reducing the fear I had that I was about to cross that valley suspended on a piece of wire. We did five lines in total, adopting the superman pose for one, where I narrowly avoided being sick. Afterwards, I was reunited with my group at Hidroelectrica, and we followed the railway line to the town of Aguas Calientes. It felt like the longest 10 kilometres ever and even though it was on flat terrain, I was struggling to keep up with the others. Thankfully we had a proper bed in Aguas Calientes, in which I spent as much time as possible and took more antibiotics and Imodium.
The climax of the trip started with another 4am alarm and after a light breakfast we set out on the 20 minute walk to the main gates. Waiting for us 500 metres above, on a saddle between the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains, were the ruins of the Inca citadel, Machu Picchu. My stomach was feeling much better although I felt exhausted and struggled with the climb, arriving at the entrance just before it opened at 6am. I started walking
in pitch darkness using a torch I'd got as a free gift from work which wasn't quite up to the job, then the sky began to lighten, revealing the stunning mountains surrounding. It was going to be a fine, clear day.
I entered together with the group and we climbed yet more steps until at last Machu Picchu was revealed before us. We had some time to take in the view before Nilton talked about the history of the Inca empire and how the exact purpose of Machu Picchu and the reason it became a forgotten city are not fully understood. We were then given a tour of the site's main features, including the Sun Temple, water fountains and Royal Palace. Nilton pointed out how the stonework of the walls changed depending on a building's importance - for a typical dwelling the stones were arranged in a random pattern, whereas for the palace, they were carved with straight sides of the same width such that they formed straight lines. We were the first people to enter and for a time it felt like we had the site to ourselves, suggesting it really was worth the effort of getting up
so early. It wasn't long before the hordes of daytrippers began to arrive, and although the number of visitors has been limited to 2500 per day it still felt overcrowded.
I had a permit to climb Machu Picchu mountain, however, I was exhausted just from the walk up to Machu Picchu and didn't have much water left, so I decided against it. Instead, Ed and I walked up to the Sun Gate, which is the point at which the sun first appears on the summer solstice and the point of entry for those doing the official Inca trail. This gave us an excellent view over Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. When I was satisfied I'd taken it all in, I walked back down to Aguas Calientes and ate at one of the many pizza restaurants there with a few others from the group. Then we caught the train to Ollantaytambo, before taking a minibus back to Cusco, thus completing the 5 day adventure.
The location of Machu Picchu is itself stunning and would be worth a visit even without the existence of the Inca citadel. Given that this was at the end of a hike in terrains
ranging from glaciated peaks to dense jungle made the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu a real highlight of my year.
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