Lucy's Machu Picchu Adventure
In August 2015 I had the pleasure of taking my team of 35 students out to Peru to take on the 6 day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. Having completed Kilimanjaro already, I was heading out to Cusco with the mindset that this trek would be just as amazing and challenging.
At 3,399 metres above sea level, Cusco is bound to “take your breath away” quite literally. It was nothing like the UK, a beautiful courtyard immersed in culture; from the bustling markets selling alpaca wool jumpers and questionable sun hats to the beautiful architecture and art on display. We spent our free day acclimatising in Cusco, exploring the markets and trying the free tasters in the coffee and chocolate museums. As the day drew to a close we were starting to feel slightly apprehensive for the trek ahead. Our amazing head guide, Chino, knew exactly how we were feeling so he sat us all down for a full briefing before we went out for a pre-trek dinner.
Before we knew it, we were trekking along the dusty paths of the Andes. The hardest part of the trekking most days was the heat, I love the sun as much as the next person, but walking uphill at altitude suddenly makes the sun a little less attractive. The shaded patches provided a wonderful breeze and break from the heat before beginning to trek again. Following lunch, the afternoon brought a well-needed coolness which seemed to continue as we made our way toward the Salkantay Glacier and its snow-topped mountains.
Each evening spent in the camp followed the same pattern: popcorn, biscuits, hot chocolate and a selection of card and improv games whilst waiting for our dinner. Dinner consisted of potatoes, pasta, meat and all sorts of other delicious foods, and the team were excellent for catering for the vegans and vegetarians amongst us too. I was really pleasantly surprised at how well we were catered for considering we were perched on the side of a mountain! Afterward, we would have a full briefing on what to expect the next day and we’d each fill up our hot water bottles and follow the head-torch-lit path back to our tents. Each night I’d spend as much time as I could looking up at the clear skies, the view of the stars was like no other and if it wasn’t so cold I’d have stayed there all night!
Day 2 arrived, and after loading up on breakfast and snacks for the day, we had our team meeting. Each member of our crew introduced themselves to us, and we were asked to do the same. It was a great way to become get to know the team that would be looking after us over the next 5 days. We then all set foot for the big grassy hill, a steep ascent at times, but the views of the Humantay glacial lake at the end was well worth the effort. The lake was incredible, like nothing I had ever seen before and we were lucky enough to have plenty of time to take photos have a little paddle and just take in the peaceful atmosphere. Before making our way back down, Chino performed a short ceremony to Pachamama (mother nature), we each picked out a “perfect” looking cocoa leaf to sacrifice and give thanks for a safe passage through the mountains. It was a great insight into the culture and beliefs of the Peruvian people and was a special moment to share with the team. We had a short trek after lunch, arriving at our next camp early afternoon, leaving plenty of time for snacks and Irish snap.
The third day was the big one, we’d be going up to 4,600m to the Salkantay Pass. An early wake-up, breakfast and a quick pep-talk from Chino and we were off. Taking it slow as we were trekking at higher altitude, it was a steep climb, but our usual improvisation games made the time pass quickly. We were now sat alongside the Salkantay Glacier, which not only made for a fantastic photo opportunity but also was extraordinary to finally be so close to a natural phenomenon. The scenery changed dramatically as we walked toward our lunch spot- from snow-capped mountains above the clouds to green grass and little flowing rivers. And further changed from there as we made our way towards the rainforest to our camp for the night. The rainforest was one of my favourite parts of the trek (minus the mosquitos) as it was a forever-changing environment, with dusty paths, overgrown plantations and powerful rivers we had to cross via small wooden bridges.
After a restful night at a relatively warmer camp, the team were filled with energy for the fourth day of trekking. We had a steep descent onto the flat valley path we were set to walk the rest of the day; past strawberry bushes, banana trees and high above a hectic river at the base of the valley. The trekking this day was a pleasant treat, not only was it a beautiful route, across small wooden bridges over waterfalls, but it was also continually shaded which made all the difference too. After a morning’s trek, we arrived at our camp, a coffee plantation, in time for a late lunch. We then had the afternoon free and Chino had arranged a trip to the thermal pools for the team. What better thing to rest our aching muscles- than a large bath with some of your best friends and some fabulous guides too. That evening, we were treated even more, as our host at the coffee plantation gave us a show all about the way they make coffee in Peru- complete with tasters too.
The penultimate day was probably the hardest day trekking for me. We had a steep 4-hour ascent through the trees which was tough, especially in the heat. We stopped at the top for a snack and rest, before setting off downhill for three hours to our lunch spot. Passing by the Machu Picchu Viewing Spot, we could see the mysterious site in the distance on a hillside this really helped motivate the team to keep going- after all tomorrow morning we would be seeing Machu Picchu in person! After lunch, we were delighted to see there were ice creams for sale, and after a sugar-boost, we were determined to follow the train track along the dusty path and over bridges to Aguas Calientes. The town itself was littered with trekkers, locals and tourists, all there to see one of the wonders of the world in person. We went straight to the hotel, checked in and enjoyed a hot shower, and free wifi which felt amazing after 5 days without it. We went to a local restaurant for dinner, loading up on pasta, pizza and lots more to give us plenty of energy to get to Machu Picchu itself the next day.
At 6am, with head torches on, we set off trekking through the now quiet streets of Aguas Calientes and up the seemingly 10000s of steps to the entrance to Machu Picchu. We went through the turnstiles and wound through paths and small gaps between ancient walls. At this point, the fog was so thick I could barely make out Chino leading us in the distance, let alone make out any of the features I expected to see in Machu Picchu. This all helped to build the anticipation of seeing the lost city of the Incas as we were led to a grassy patch, where Chino introduced us to Machu Picchu; the history, the myths and rumoured ancient uses of the site. Following Chino’s words, the fog seemed to part as if on cue. Suddenly, the classic Instagram-worthy image of Machu Picchu was straight in front of us. It was amazing to now actually see the mysterious site in front of us, one of the seven wonders of the world and it was even more beautiful than the pictures. I looked amongst my team and everyone was now completely silent, just taking in the spectacular piece of history we had trekked five days to see.
We had the day to explore the sites, learn more about the history, and obviously take photos to rake in the likes on Facebook. After exploring, we had some time to relax in the sun and meet the resident alpacas before heading back down on the bus early afternoon (we didn’t dare walk back down like some others in our group). A small group of us spent the rest of the day in a bar, playing Irish snap and drinking ridiculously cheap mojitos (6 for $3?!). The rest of the team slowly joined us, and we then headed for our celebratory late lunch.
After the meal, we grabbed our bags and some snacks before jumping on the train. The journey was the perfect end to our trek to Machu Picchu, the team took over one large section of the carriage, we laughed, snacked and reminisced whilst surrounded by stunning views of the landscape. Before arriving back at our hotel in Cusco for some well-needed warm showers and rest.
The trek to Machu Picchu was easily the most stunning trek I have ever done, and despite the mosquito bites, sunburn and dodgy tan lines I would go back in a heartbeat. The ever-changing landscape, the wonderful guides and the mysterious history behind the sites comes together and makes the trip even more magical.