In sight of Machu Picchu

The river valley far below
The river valley far below

The wake up calls were getting earlier and earlier although, this morning, I was already awake, having slept very well, when the ‘knock’ on the tent came. However, as per usual, we didn’t get away quite as early as planned as, this morning, there were some very tired people, including the cook and Erik. We got underway, nevertheless, at about 6.30am.

Erik had told me this was going to be a tough day but obviously the message did not filter through to some of the others. Laura and Philip did not even attempt to walk but stayed behind, helped clear up the camp and went with the porters in a minivan to the lunch destination. Rebecca walked up the hill as far as the coffee plantation we were scheduled to visit and then caught up with Laura and Philip. The plantation was about 45 minutes from the camp and, when we arrived, I, along with 5 others, elected not to do the tour but continue walking and get a head start.

Looking back to where we have come from
Looking back to where we have come from

This was probably one of the best parts of the walk as, most of the time, I was on my own, without group pressure to rush, so could admire the beautiful valley whose sides we were climbing. Mark, John and Eileen were ahead of me and Renee and Brei behind, as I ambled along, listening to the birds, taking photos and generally appreciating the morning. The track was quite steep in parts but much of it was in shade, thank goodness, as it had turned into a hot morning.

Erik eventually overtook me, having run up from the coffee plantation to catch us up. I continued walking, up to the top of the mountain and part way down the other side, only seeing a group of Germans and Tom, who also overtook me. A little way past the summit, I caught up with them and we then sat and waited for the others for some time.

First view of Machu Picchu on the ridge line
First view of Machu Picchu on the ridge line
Resting place for us and the Incas
Resting place for us and the Incas

The meeting place was the site of an old Inca resting place and had a view across the valley towards Machu Picchu, some of the terraces of which could be seen in the distance. The Incas had a number of resting places all over their kingdom. These were for the succession of runners who carried messages from one place to the next – their form of postal service.

Everyone seemed totally exhausted by the time they arrived with the notable exception of Lisa and Russell. The former did her yoga in front of us all whilst Erik was trying to give us information about the Inca culture. I felt so much better today that I had not found the uphill battle nearly as bad as some of the others. However, it was downhill all the way from here and we were under time pressure as we were catching a train to Agua Calientes after lunch.

The river is our destination!
The river is our destination!

I managed to keep up with Erik for quite some time after the break. Gratifyingly, the others were some way behind with only Ben and Tom overtaking me. I had been told before that it is easier to run downhill when the path is steep but have never felt confident enough to do that. Today, however, whilst not exactly running, I could semi jog and did find it easier on the knees and thighs. The aforementioned persons and I consequently reached the meeting place at the bottom some time before the rest. Here, there was a stall selling tree tomatoes (or, to me, tamarillos), avocadoes, bananas and grenadillas (passion fruit). I think the lady did some quite good business out of our visit that day! One or two people, including the fitness obsessed, were quite rattled when they arrived, as they had found the descent so difficult. I shouldn’t gloat but………….!

After the break, there was another 5 minute walk to a suspension bridge across the river before the land flattened out. We walked along the river bed and then the track to Machu Picchu Park, where we signed in and obtained a souvenir stamp in our passports.

A bit further and we reached the train station where our cooks, Rebecca, Laura and Philip were all waiting with our lunch in an adjacent cafe. This, as far as I was concerned, was the best meal so far. (Admittedly, there were a couple of days when I had hardly eaten anything so am probably not really qualified to make that statement!) There were lots of vegetables, chicken and the best avocado salad I have tasted.

This was the point at which we said goodbye to our cooks and took the 3pm train to Aguas Calientes. It was a very slow trip as the train seemed to shunt backwards and forwards far more than appeared necessary. However, the seats were very comfortable and there were big windows so that we could admire the mountain scenery, not only from the side but also out the top.

View from the train
View from the train

Aguas Calientes itself is one big tourist town. It is the closest to Machu Picchu and all the tourists have to pass through it. Consequently, it is full of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels and not a lot else. We had a 5 minute walk from the train station to the hotel, checked in and headed for our rooms. Once again, I got one to myself even though I hadn’t paid a supplement. All the young people took our their phones and connected with the wifi as soon as we walked through the door as they had been Facebook deprived for 4 days. My phone, however, failed to connect so I remained in ignorance for another day.

Later on, freshly cleaned up, 6 or 7 of us went in search of pre dinner pisco sours. These were found in a Mexican/Italian restaurant and went down very well with the accompaniment of nachos and tortilla chips. Then it was back to the hotel for a buffet dinner and our instructions for the following day. I was determined to walk up to Machu Picchu as I couldn’t bear the thought of going on the bus after walking 4 days to get there. The only other enthusiasts were Lisa and Russell, who, I would have to say, would not have been my first choice of companions but, nevertheless, it was probably better than walking on my own in the dark. As we had to leave at 4.15am to get there by 6am, it was another early night.

Cloud forest and Hot Pools

Packing up the tents in the early morning
Packing up the tents in the early morning
Track around the hot pools above the river
Track round the hot pools above the river

It was an even earlier start today but at least it was only half a day of walking to reach the camp, although that was still 6 hours. For once, I was amongst the faster ones as I was feeling a lot better and, at one point, I was walking on my own, which was most welcome, as the fast ones were ahead and the slower ones way behind. I also did not have to listen to all the chatter from one or two very talkative members of the group.

We followed the river valley all the way down through cloud forest and, whilst it was much more of an undulating walk, it was still quite hard after the exertion of the last two days. We stopped a number of times for breaks and for everyone to reassemble before moving on again. Everyone was walking today and, as we were also feeling the effects of yesterday, it was quite slow. We were all very glad to reach the campsite at about 1.30pm.

After another good lunch, we had about half an hour of free time, which some of the boys used to play soccer with the porters. Then, we were transported to the hot springs at Santa Teresa, which was about 45 minutes drive away along a bumpy road with one or two sheer drops very close to the wheels of the minivan! We were all crammed in to the vehicle with Lisa sitting on the floor as there weren’t enough seats. Luckily, she purported to love it.

Our campsite at La Playa
Our campsite at La Playa

The hot pools are probably the best hot pools I have visited, although maybe that was because the warm water was so welcome to my aching muscles. They had a very unprepossessing entrance, blended in well with the surroundings, had extremely clear water, with stones on the bottom of the pools and were the perfect temperature. Naturally, they were being well used by a number of trekking groups but there was still space for everyone.

We soaked in them for nearly 2 hours before getting dressed and adjourning to the bar for a beer, which we were encouraged to purchase from one particular lady, who was the owner of our camp site. Typically, there were a number of lady vendors, with their buckets of ice and drinks, around the pool. We left to return to the campsite just after 6pm and the journey back, in the dark, was almost as interesting, particularly when we met a truck on the narrow road, and neither driver was keen to give way!

One of the hot pools at Santa Teresa
One of the hot pools at Santa Teresa

Mark and John, who had not come to the pools, were waiting in the camp when we arrived. Happy hour, as usual, was followed by dinner. Afterwards, Erik produced a bottle of rum to accompany the hot, freshly brewed, fruit drink and cake that the cooks had somehow magically baked in their very cramped and basic conditions. The hot toddy was most welcome and varying amounts of rum were added to each person’s cup. Some were exceedingly generous and, as one or two people had already had a couple of beers, there were soon some very merry campers. I decided one was enough as I was desperate for bed (must really be getting old!) but one or two of the others continued well into the night!

Up and over the Salkantay Pass

Early morning at the camp site
Early morning at the camp site

It was a restless night as I had had to force myself to get up a couple of times to visit a rock and, at -10 C, it was extremely cold. However, I had brought enough clothing layers with me so that, together with my blanket, I wasn’t too cold whilst in my sleeping bag. Getting out of it was another matter, of course, but, a small compensation was that I was able to view the spectacularly clear, starry night outside. The others in the group, though, all commented that they had been cold during the night.

Our wake up call came at 6am and was accompanied by a cup of coca tea. It is quite some time since somebody brought me early morning tea in bed so it was much appreciated! Breakfast was at 6.30am but I still did not feel like eating much so just had some porridge. The porters were already taking down the tents and starting to pack up whilst we ate.

The track up to the Pass
The track up to the Pass

Once on the track, along with several other trekking groups, it was upwards and upwards and upwards to the top of the Pass. It was approximately a two hour walk to the summit, which a number of people had reached before us, so there was a lot of milling around and photo taking. I chatted with the three Americans I had met on the walking tour the other day. On arrival, Javier greeted us with a cup of coca tea, which is supposed to be good for altitude but does not help me much, and a sandwich, if we wanted it.

Evidence that I made it!
Evidence that I made it!
Building the stone stack
Building the stone stack

Once everyone was at the top, had refreshed themselves and admired the view, Javier and Ben built a stone stack, which Erik then used for a ceremony to give offerings to the four important mountains on the compass points, which included Salkantay and Ausangate. We all offered three coca leaves, representing the worlds the Incas believed in, these being the upper world of the gods, the land we live in (earth) and the underworld. (The three worlds are, traditionally, symbolically represented by the condor, puma and snake, respectively.) We anchored our coca leaves to the base of the stone stack using a rock and made a wish. The mountains are considered to be very spiritual and the Incas believed that they were very important as, when they were on them, they were closer to the land of the gods, which is where they aspired to be, themselves, one day.

The top of the Pass
The top of the Pass

After the ceremony, we set off down the other side of the Pass and, for the rest of the day, it was downhill, all the way, on a loose gravel and rock track. This was killing for the knees and thighs, particularly as I was being cautious and didn’t want to slip. However, as per usual, we were spoilt by the scenery, which was a beautiful valley with mountains, sometimes cloud covered, towering over us on either side. Everyone walked at their own pace with one of the guides in the front and one at the back. I, of course, was towards the back.

Just starting on the downward track
Just starting on the downward track

After about 3 hours, we stopped for lunch, which, apparently, was again very good but I still couldn’t eat very much. Rebecca, who was having trouble with her knees, and the American family, who were unable to cope with the track, rode horses for the rest of the way and Erik had to hire three horses from other groups, as a result.

Horses on the way down from the Pass
Horses on the way down from the Pass
Our lunch destination is at the other end of the valley
Our lunch destination is at the other end of the valley
The track through the rainforest
The track through the rainforest

After lunch, the terrain changed dramatically as we descended into the cloud forest. Rain threatened for a while but never actually eventuated and the steep track seemed to go on for ever. It got to a point where I was almost in tears with the pain in my knees and thighs and, when we reached a meeting place, where the early young arrivals had found some beer, Erik suggested I use a horse, which, naturally, I refused. There was quite a lot of pressure, at this point, to reach the campsite before dark. I was one of the slower ones, with only Lisa and Russell behind, as they had spent so much time taking pictures of themselves. However, I am glad I refused as the campsite wasn’t too far and the gradient became a lot easier after this.

We had descended down to 2,600 metres, which is a lot more comfortable and, after a shower, I felt able to join the others in a beer and eat a little. It was very good to have a campsite with some facilities tonight and not just be camping in the open at high altitude. We had been walking for a good 9 hours by the time we arrived, just before dark, and everyone was exhausted.

Starting the Salkantay trek

It was an exceedingly early start this morning as I was being picked up at 5.45am to go on the Salkantay trek. Javier, our Assistant Guide, rang the bell slightly earlier than anticipated but, whilst I was ready and waiting, I couldn’t leave the house as I didn’t have a key for the extra lock Mary Jean uses at night for the front door. I had told her that I was leaving at this time but, for some reason, she still seemed surprised at the early wake up! (She had also said she would leave a thermos of hot water for me so that I could have a cup of tea before I left but then locked the dining room so I couldn’t get to it!)

On the way to Molleta
On the way to Molleta

We walked down the hill to meet the bus, which was waiting in a larger street. (The one I was staying in is very narrow.) Three Canadians had already been picked up. These were Tom from Toronto, who turned out to be a nice, quiet young man, and Lisa and Russell, (Montreal and Toronto respectively) who, it transpired, constantly took photos and videos of anything and everything. We then drove around to the plaza to pick up the others. These were Erik, our guide, Ben and Rebecca, an English/Irish couple, who had just walked the Camino so I was able to pick their brains, Eileen and John, the fighting Irish from Kilkenny, Renee and Brei, a couple from Perth, Jennifer, a fairly talkative American from Washington, who used the word ‘awesome’ quite a lot and who taught spin and body pump classes in her spare time, and Mark, Laura and Philip, a family from Chicago, of whom only Mark was keen to do the hike. It was quite a motley group! It almost goes without saying that I was the eldest by some way, although at least Mark and Laura were not too many decades behind.

The view at the start of the trek
The view at the start of the trek
Starting the trek alongside some Inca drainage
Starting the trek alongside some Inca drainage

We drove out of Cusco and onwards for about 3 hours towards the Sacred Valley, through some spectacular scenery, until we arrived at Molleta, a small town off the main road, where we had breakfast. Afterwards, we continued for another hour or so up a gravel road until we reached the starting point of the trek. The horses, supplies and camping equipment were already waiting with our porters. This was where we also left the duffel bags, with our clothes, for the horses to carry, so that we could walk unimpeded by luggage.

We started walking at 3,200 metres, so it was slow and quite hard because of the altitude. Laura was finding it particularly difficult and slowed the group down further so, after our lunch stop, she rode the spare horse that had accompanied us specifically for this purpose. Dining and cooking tents had already been erected by the time we arrived to eat and this set the pattern for the remaining days. Somehow the cooks produced some magnificent dishes in very basic conditions. Our first day’s lunch was exceptional with some delicious ceviche, as well as assorted chicken and vegetable dishes. Unfortunately, due to the altitude, I felt quite nauseous all afternoon and also developed a headache (thankfully, not too severe) both of which conditions persisted for the next couple of days.

The dining tent
The dining tent

During the afternoon, we wound our way up the mountain side with a good view of the Salkantay glacier for much of the way. It was superb. Our campsite for the night was perched beneath this, in a beautiful setting, at 4,100 metres, which really helped my headache! We arrived at about 4.45pm and it was already extremely cold. The porters, of course, had arrived before us and erected the tents and, as Jennifer had paid a single supplement, I was lucky enough to have a tent to myself, thank goodness, as they were not big!

Our lunch location
Our lunch location

We were given sleeping mats and bags and a thick blanket. I found out afterwards there was only one blanket per tent, so someone was looking after me once again as, of course, I had one to myself. This was much needed and there was quite a bit of banter the following morning from the Irish, who had had been fighting over the blanket all night.

The Salkantay glacier
The Salkantay glacier

Once we were sorted, it was time for happy hour in the dining tent. Not happy hour in the traditional sense, though, as it was tea and huge bowls of popcorn! Whilst waiting for dinner, my tiredness was accompanied by such a degree of nausea and a headache that I couldn’t sit there any longer, so went to bed before dinner at about 6.30pm.