On the train back to Ollantaytambo from Machu Picchu, to which I and my husband, along with nine others, had spent four days trekking through mountains and rainforest to reach, I felt a sense of sadness.
Watching the trees and river rush past me on the refreshingly air-conditioned train, feeling nice and warm inside from the two glasses of white wine I’d drank quickly at lunch, I was sad my whirlwind encounter with Machu Picchu was over. I wanted to absorb, explore and take in more of it.
I felt the same way when waiting at the tiny airport of the Polynesian Island Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, with other defeated passengers adorned in Polynesian garlands and medallions made of feathers and shells hanging around their necks. We were all a little bit sad and unreasonably, but understandably, upset because we knew we were leaving a special place and didn’t know when we’d be back, if ever.
Like Easter Island, Machu Picchu is a place I’d always wanted to visit but never knew if I’d be lucky enough to do so. When I finally reached the ancient citadel I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype accredited to it, but I really shouldn’t have worried at all.
Not to sound too hippie-traveller about it all, but it wasn’t just the destination, but the journey to Machu Picchu that made the whole experience an unforgettable one.
As I mentioned before, our trek to Machu Picchu had started four days earlier when we started the Salkantay Trek, an alternative trek to the Inca Trail that can be booked with less planning ahead (the Inca Tail needs to be booked six months in advance).
As a group of 11 we set off early Monday morning from the beautiful historic town of Cusco with our Alpaca Expedition guides, aka the self-titled ‘The Green Machine’ (the company’s branding is green), driving the three hours it takes to reach the Soraypampa trail head.
The first day trekking was beautiful but challenging. We walked for about five hours uphill along windy, stone filled mountain paths, passing breath-taking views of the Humantay and Salkantay mountains.
My thighs stung and I struggled a bit as we reached the Salkantay Pass at 4,650 meters high, the highest point of the entire four-day trek. At the time, this was the highest altitude I had trekked to, but this was surpassed by the gruelling Rainbow Mountain trek I did a week later.
As we climbed to the pass many avalanches could be heard crashing down in the distance.
Once we reached the pass we stopped for lunch which we ate under a green tent to shield us from the potential rain and wind. Nearby the mountain horses who transported our bags feasted on the grass. As well as the mountain horses, the porters also carried a lot of equipment on their backs and deserve a special mention for doing the same trek as us but with around 24kg of weight on their backs. I honestly don’t know how they do it.
Lunch was a surprise. Every day we had a three-course delicious feast for lunch and dinner, usually consisting of an appetiser, a soup and six or seven different dishes to share for the main meal, all whipped up by hand in the mountains under a tent by ‘The Green Machine’. I got to try local foods such as chocho bean, guinea pig cheese, traditional fermented potatoes and fruit from the rainforest. I can honestly say it was some of the best food I ate in Peru.
After lunch, three hours of easy downhill walking brought us to our campsite for the day – a beautiful green valley between the mountains alongside a little stream. All our tents were up and ready when we arrived.
Joel the guide
The space between arriving at camp and dinner, between 5pm and 7pm, was reserved for ‘Happy Hour’ – tea, coffee and snacks around some rickety tables under a tent – or, as I liked to call it, ‘An Audience with Joel The Guide’.
Our chief guide Joel was quite a character. Peruvian short with the build of a man who clearly enjoyed his food too much, but managed to keep the weight off due to the physical demands of his job, Joel was always full of energy. A constant joker and storyteller with an infectious laugh, his face, it was obvious to me, could hide a thousand secrets and fool even the Spanish Inquisition.
I could never tell if he was joking or not until, after what seemed like quite a long pause, he fell into a belly laugh. He had countless hilariously brilliant stories about customers from his six years as a guide that he told with perfect pace, keeping us all transfixed and in anticipation for the punchline, which was always worth the wait. I have no idea if any of his stories were true or not, but I’m certain that if there was any truth to them, it was perfectly embellished, exaggerated and manipulated for entertainment purposes, which is perfectly fine by me.
My husband and I both agreed that Joel reminded us of a younger Peruvian version of my father who also has a tendency for exaggeration, embellishment, terrible jokes (sorry dad) and vigorous storytelling in a thick foreign accent (he’s Maltese). This usually results in people warming to him instantly like our group did to Joel.
Day two – 9 hours walking/24km
The next day, after I had a surprisingly good sleep in our sturdy and spacious tent, we woke up at around 5 am, had breakfast, and set off for our longest day of trekking, around 8 – 9 hours and 24km in total.
It was painfully cold. My feet were frozen and my fingers stung with the cold. I just kept walking and walking and telling myself that in an hour the sun will have fully risen and I will feel warmer.
It was downhill for the first half of the day until we reached our lunch spot at a little house where we could take off our shoes and rest our feet. By this point it was boiling hot and everyone started de-robing, taking off their Long Johns and layers.
After another gourmet lunch we had the choice to go on for five and a half more hours walking or to walk for two hours and get a bus to some hot springs. We all opted to walk.
Unfortunately one of the girls on the trek was very sick with a fever and other ailments, but fortunately she was able to take a bus to the camp at this point, otherwise the five-and-a-half extra hours walking would have been out of the question.
The walk was through jungle territory, along, across and around a gushing river, the sort good for rafting. The weather was humid and hot but not so strong to be unbearable. The track was intermittently up and down hill.
I did notice that the path got very narrow in parts due to erosion which I think is made worse by walking sticks. Some of the paths are so narrow I think tours will either have to pick a different route in the near future or the mountain will have to be cut further into to widen the path. After the second day I decided not to use my walking sticks because of this and because I also think they caused me to have some back pain on the second day by using them instead of my stomach muscles to support myself.
To reach our accommodation for the night we passed through a little village where children were playing with a hairless breed of dog I have seen before but is very rare. For some reason I saw this type of dog all over Peru.
But what fascinated me the most about the primitive village was the massive CAT road digger the size of a house plonked at one end by a river, surrounded by forest and mountains on all sides. How on earth they got it in there I will never understand.
This campsite had a little shop so we decided to buy some Pisco and Joel whipped us up some Pisco Sours. We chatted and listened to music until around 9pm when a girl from another group complained that she had to be up at 4am so could we please turn off the music, so that’s what we did and headed to bed for another early night.
The other guide Irvin
I haven’t mentioned our other guide Irvin yet.
Irvin is less stocky than his more experienced counterpart, Joel, and was in training for the role of Chief Guide. You also couldn’t help but warm to Irvin, but for different reasons to Joel. Irvin was very gentle in the way he moved and spoke and carried himself. He was always quietly in the background smiling and carried with him what I can only describe, as I don’t know the proper name, as a Peruvian version of the flute or recorder. Irvin would play this instrument, which produced a serene, soft music that seemed to belong to civilisations past, while we were all breathlessly staggering up a curve in the mountain. Sometimes he’d stop us and explain the story behind the song which was usually something to do with a much coveted women, a small town, some men and a mystical event.
At the end of the trip, after our final dinner together in Aguas Caliente, as his final parting gift to us, Irvin performed on his instrument a sketchy rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion. It was very sweet and kind of awkward and just thinking about it now makes me want to both chuckle to myself and give him a hug.
Irvin also showed Neil and I a video of a cockfight he went to on the Sunday before the trek. It looked absolutely brutal. At first Irvin said the cocks don’t die but after watching the video it was clearly evident one of them did.
‘Look, he’s finished’ he said as he pointed at one of the cocks lying motionless, its stringy feet unceremoniously pointing to the ceiling. Apparently, razor blades are tied to the cocks’ feet making it a bitter battle to death. Proving how seriously Peruvians take the sport, the cocks fought in a professional ring with a referee who actually counted down in case the slain cock miraculously rose from the dead.
Joel and Irvin told us all sorts of traditions, sports and rituals that Peruvian mountain people follow.
Possibly Joel was making some of these up, which I wouldn’t put beyond him, but I honestly couldn’t tell if he was because he kept the most straight face as he delivered stories that sometimes required the suspension in the belief of science or were just plain silly.
My favourite was the story about a mosquito in the mountains that if it bites you the only way to save yourself from death is to have sex with someone other than your partner.
‘Oh yeah, did a man invent that one’ my husband and I sniggered.
But Joel then went on to explain how this apparently happened to a woman in a neighbouring village to his. When her husband came back from working in the mines for eight months and she was three months pregnant she explained she had been bitten by this mosquito. Her husband accepted this explanation.
More to follow soon…the last day of the trek and reaching Machu Picchu.
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