After a week in La Paz, our plans changed slightly and we set off once again – this time for Cusco, Peru. Historically, Cusco was once the capital of the Incan empire before it was taken over by the Spanish and turned into a Catholic city. In fact, within the city itself it is hard to see any Incan ruins due to the fact that almost all of it was built over (including a large cathedral built on top of a hugely important Incan burial site…) as well as suffering from many earthquakes.
So, after catching some rest after the 15 hour bus ride and packing our bags for some more hiking we set off to start the Salkantay Trek. We were both really looking forward to getting back out into the mountains and out of the city, getting some fresh air and seeing more amazing views. This trek takes five days, with the first two days taking you up to and then through the snowy mountains, then the next two days go down to the bottom of the rainforest with the final day spent at the ruins of Machu Picchu itself. One of the biggest differences compared to our hiking in Patagonia was the fact that all of our gear (sleeping bag, tent and food) was carried for us by donkeys and horses!
We did the trek with a guided group meaning all food and accommodation was taken care of for us which was quite a luxurious change, it also meant we were with other hikers for the five days. In total there were fifteen of us which sounds a lot but it didn’t feel like it at the time. Our guide was really relaxed and as long as there wasn’t more than 45 minutes between the first and last person we didn’t need to hike together. This was great as everyone has a different pace and so every so often we just stopped for a snack break and waited for the group to come together again.
The first day we hiked for only about three hours up to our first campsite which was also the highest campsite. We were once again so thankful for our amazing North Face sleeping bags as without them we would have been freezing like several of the other hikers were. We were so happy to be back under the stars and yet another glacier – it is such an amazing feeling!
On the second day we didn’t mess around and without any hesitation hired a horse to help get us up the mountain. The Salkantay Pass (where the horse dropped us off) is at 4900m above sea level and its hard to describe altitude sickness but it is horrible. It is like you can’t breath fast enough and yet still there isn’t any oxygen reaching your lungs, all your muscles are weak and even the smallest effort leaves you exhausted. We have both suffered quite badly from it even though we have been in La Paz and Cusco for a while now and so should have acclimatised. In the end half our group got horses and so the eight of us set off for about three hours riding up to the mountain path. The horses were all pretty wild and just picked off the mountain – Oscars’ was particularly so and had to be lead the whole way up with a blindfold!
Once we reached the Salkantay Pass it was time to start walking with another five hours until the campsite for night two. At the Pass we saw a couple of small avalanches like the ones we saw in Torres Del Paine which was really fun. It was incredible how once we got over the mountain how quickly we descended towards the Amazon Rainforest. Within only a couple of hours we were taking off our thermals and applying multiple layers of 50% Deet bug spray! The health and safety levels in Peru are definitely not European standard – we had a lot of rain on day one and the morning of day two and so there had been a big landslide on the path. We had to walk for about 150m along a very narrow (one foot wide) track with a sheer 500m fall on the other side. At one point Oscar almost fell and it was terrifying – I am not scared of heights normally but when he stumbled my heart was beating out of my chest! Luckily everyone made it across and we finally reached camp for the night which was a lot lower in altitude and so warmer as well as having spectacular views across the valley within the rainforest. All we needed was Sir David Attenborough to turn up!
Day three was a shorter hike with about four hours in the morning through the rainforest where we stopped at several small farms. Each one was so beautiful with a view across the valley and a few acres of arable farming. We could both picture ourselves staying forever and growing all our food, making coffee and having a menagerie of animals. We walked talking over plans of how we would make our farm comfortable and what home improvements we could engineer. By lunch we had reached our final campsite which was within a town and had a big dining area which was fun in the evening when they lit a big bonfire for us. However, before that we headed over to the natural hot springs. We got to go in four different pools each with slightly different temperatures but all lovely and warm. It was perfect after a few days hiking especially as we finally got to shower!
On the final day we woke up to an unexpected visitor on our tent – a parrot! We actually opted out of hiking in the morning in favour of going zip lining which was a fantastic decision! We had so much fun doing the series of five zip lines and one swinging bridge. We got to do lots of different poses whilst zip lining from the Condor to Superman – Oscar even going upside down almost 300m above the valley bottom! After the zip lining we got dropped off at Hydro Electrica where we met up with the rest of the group who had decided to walk and continued for another three hours hiking until we reached Aguas Calientes. The hike was all flat and followed the railway line through the valley of rainforest mountains. It was stunning and so much fun for the first hour and then it got slightly repetitive! By the time we reached Aguas Calientes we were ready to go straight to the French bakery there and order two pastries each – we then ordered even more for the next day to take up to Machu Picchu with us!
We both really like Aguas Calientes, it is definitely a tourist town and it wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t the jumping off point for Machu Picchu however, it also has a charm of its own. I think it comes from the train tracks going through the town and the way the trains seem to give life to the town through the drop off of goods every day in the centre. We got to experience this ourselves when we went to collect our belongings from the train that night. Our small backpacks which had been on the horses were delivered by train on the last day and it was such a rush collecting them amongst the crowd of locals – it kind of felt like an old movie with the steam and the hustle and bustle, I loved it!
The next morning we were up at 03:45 to make it up to the entrance gate for Machu Picchu for 06:00 it wasn’t too much earlier than our 05:00 starts the last few days but it felt a lot harder! Once we were all at the top and ready to go we started our two hour tour explaining the significance of different parts of the ancient city. It was quite funny when we got our first view of the ruins and could see NOTHING! It was so foggy we couldn’t see two metres in front of us! We learnt so much about the history of the Incas and why and how Machu Picchu was used however, throughout the whole two hours couldn’t get a view of the city as a whole – only the part right in front of us! Very wet and cold we all went to get a hot drink once the tour had finished and kept our fingers crossed the mist would clear. Oscar confidently told the group the fog would clear by ten or wouldn’t clear at all and so with that in mind we decided to head off for an hour hike to the Sun Gate. With 10:00 nearing Oscar was correct and once we reached the gate we got our first clear view of Machu Picchu! We saw the end of the Inca Trail where the Incas traditionally entered Machu Picchu and then headed back down to get our iconic photo of the city. Next we headed over to the Inca Bridge which was used to get to the next Inca city which was where the Incasfgj§ fled during the Spanish War. By this time (around mid day) the crowds were thick and we felt like sheep being herded and so we decided that we had seen everything we wanted to see and got the bus back into Aguas Calientes.
We would recommend the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu to anyone who enjoys walking. You get to hike through both the mountains and the rainforest within just five days with all your food and accommodation provided! It is a tough trek however, it is only day two which is really difficult and even then you have the option to horse ride up. It was also great being a part of a group, all fifteen of us got on really well, we have kept in touch and met up again in Cusco several times.