I’m not overly enamoured with traipsing around ruins and have thus far passed up on visiting some places along my route through Ecuador and Peru. I had wondered, for instance, about Chan Chan, but was reassured when another traveller told me that ‘the photos are great, they show it at its best, but when you’re actually there its just a bit boring… and shortlived‘.
Machu Picchu is, however, a whole different thing: famous, revered, a place of intrigue and cultural and historical interest. And if its good enough for Mick Jagger, who bought up all the tickets for the morning session a few weeks back, well, then it’s more than good enough for me.
I, along with over half the group, took the bus up to Machu Picchu. Tired and worn down, the 05:00am start was a significant effort. Rain swept the bus windows as we took the winding road up into a lush mountainscape, and I wondered how the others were getting on climbing the many, many steps in these miserable conditions.
We all met up by the entrance. They were soaked through but pumped up, physical challenge completed.
We all headed into the Parque Arqueologico Nacional Machu Picchu, and through misty, mystical wafts of cloud we saw those infamous views, the site of Machu Picchu spread out beneath us; quiet, green, impressive. A moment to be still and breathe and take in the wonder.
06:00am at Machu Picchu
Window positioned for view of Huayna Picchu
Every day at the Parque Arqueologico Nacional Machu Picchu there are only 400 passes available for those who wish to go to the summit of Huayna Picchu, a one hour climb up from the city ruins. I would recommend spending the additional $10 for this privilege. With two available entry times of 7am and 10am, I was in the second group, queuing just as the strong sun broke through, meaning that once I reached the top, all morning mistiness had been burnt off and the views over the Machu Picchu site were wide reaching and breath taking. I imagined that for the earlier group it must have been a more awkward climb with wet, slippery steps and less of a spectacularly clear climax.
Parts of the climb were difficult and steep and cables bolted into the wall were useful to support or launch yourself up to the next level. One young woman stood crying about half way up, her husband trying to persuade her to continue. The sign by the entrance had stated: This climb is for the fit and healthy only.
A little cave section near the top meant a fun squeeze and duck through chunky rocks before emerging back out into the sunlight, and the actual summit itself was a scattering of boulders inhabited by happy, puffed out people.
Made it! Views down over Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
And after Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu and the whole spectacular jungle trek with all its funny, sometimes scary experiences, we finally departed Aguas Calientes aboard the PERURAIL train heading for Ollantaytambo. A high roofed, comfortable and smooth train with complimentary peanuts and mate de coca and tables for every seat, this felt like a luxury ending to an amazing few days. The feelings of exhaustion kicked in as many passengers on board nodded off, only to arrive to chaos in Ollantaytambo for the final bus ride back to Cusco.
Memories and moments that will live with me forever. What a trip.
I’ve always wished that I could fly. As a child I loved flying foxes in playgrounds and swings at the fair, as a teenager the rollercoasters that left you dangling facing downwards and whizzing through the air as though free from gravity. Zip lining was something I’d done only a little bit of in the UK, most recently as part of a fun day with friends at Go Ape, Exeter. When given the choice to spend the morning walking for three hours to our lunch spot or going ziplining, well, it was a no brainer.
At $30 it wasn’t a cheap option (in Mindo, Ecuador, for example, you can do a similar round of cables for just $10) but this was supposedly the highest canopy experience in South America and I was happy to give my legs a rest.
No such luck. To get to the first run involved a twenty-minute steep scramble up mud paths through bushes and trees. People stopped regularly, puffing and red-faced and sweaty in the strong sun. My legs hurt like hell.
The guys at Cola de Mono Canopy Peruhad given us a quick briefing and kitted us out with all the gear. The gloves freaked me out. We were expected to slow ourselves down with our gloved hands by pressing onto the cable. Really?! I expected the worst: sparks and smoke, or at the very least some serious sores to the hands. (Nothing happened).
The first run was a gentle start building up to the fourth, the longest, where creativity was encouraged (spin, turn upside down, video, photograph or just cruise with your arms out).
I wasn’t the first or last to try a run upside down… but what a rush
On the fifth, the fastest of the lot, I nearly crash landed, mistaking the guide’s gestures to slow down as a sign to stick out my arms and legs. I arrived at the platform full speed, nearly knocking a few people out. It worked out okay, really, some nervous laughs and disbelief but no one was hurt. All good.
A bus ride later and we arrived at a little random office in the middle of nothing else near the Machu Picchu National Park to register our entry to Machu Picchu before taking a short walk and climb up to a restaurant in Hidro Electrica.
Taking a lunch break near Hidro-Electrica
Some people found the afternoon walk boring: a steady pace alongside the rail tracks with little variation in scenery. I loved it (even if I did lose the second sun hat of my travels so far). Maintaining the momentum was easy with nothing to cause serious pressure on muscles or joints, and at only 1,000-2,000m, no altitude problems to worry about. Ideal. Sometimes there was a pathway, sometimes just gravel, and sometimes you had to walk on the actual train tracks.
Along the railtracks to Hidro Electrica
The path didn’t deviate from the track, trees lining one side, lush mountains and a fast flowing river on the other. It was nature at its truest: calm and ferocious and powerful all at once.
Approaching Aguas Calientes
And after nearly three hours, we arrived into Aguas Calientes accompanied by the gentle patter of rain. Supposedly an ugly little town, I was surprised by how much I liked the place. It was dusk and lights shone out of the damp mistiness from a host of hostels and hotels and tiendas that lined the high street.
I love early mornings, I’m just not very good at them. Breakfast was at 06:30am, back in the cafe from last night’s supper, a five minute wade back through mud piles and slop. It had rained all night and we were all dreading a full day trekking in constant downpour. It was a miserable prospect, our clothes and shoes still soggy from yesterday. Plastic bags over our fresh socks and we were ready to go. The rain stopped.
Crosses in the older section of Santa Maria
The first hour took us along a track by the flood destroyed buildings of the old part of Santa Maria and the clothed memorial crosses for the dead, and onwards into the jungle along a little pathway framed by coffee plants, mango and avocado trees, and coca plantations. The rain held off.
The sound of insects and birds filled the air, and I couldn’t fully understand why some people plugged themselves into their MP3 players and shut out this part of the experience.
By 09:30am we started to climb, reaching the entry point for the part of the Inca Trail that we were going to trek. After twenty minutes of hiking up steps cut out into the mud, we took a breather, rehydrated and hung out with a crazy, greedy monkey before continuing our ascent.
Entry to the Inca Trail
The longer break was at Casa del Mono (Monkey House), a further half hour of climbing and shortness of breath and burning calf muscles. At this point Rodrigo, our guide, showed us a load of local produce including cocoa beans, organic chocolate and achiote (which is used for body painting and food colouring). We got painted up. Well some of us did, wannabe Inca warriors.
Wannabe Inca warriors
And then we started on the Inca Trail for real, up and down steps and pathways perched on the side of the mountains, winding through woodland patches, by bright, red flowers and over fat stick bridges.
The Inca Trail
The views across the green, green mountains were breathtaking whilst the drops down from the path made you hold your breath and tread carefully.
How the Incas managed to run this path, I don’t know, but the magic of this place gave me some energy and I had a spring in my step. I tried to stay at the front of the group, my views undisturbed by human presence and my mind working through a million and one thoughts. It was a calming place to question and battle and deal with some of my demons, nature healing and helping me to make some sense of the world.
Self indulgence aside, this section of the trek was a favourite of many of the eleven in my group and even the steep drops down to the valley below didn’t detract from the enjoyment of this path (on many occasions people have frozen, stopped dead and refused to continue out of fear, so, ‘if you have this problem‘, Rodrigo had said yesterday, ‘then I need know now because it is a problem to stop’).
Walking the stretch down by the river
After lunch, we left the Inca Trail behind and wandered along the river bank for a further two hours, a fairly flat and occasionally awkward walk over big pebbles and makeshift pathways that had at times disappeared under a splattering of falling stones. Just before the final steep climb up and down the hillside, we did a river crossing in a man powered cable cart to avoid the rushing, frothy river below. Sandflies feasted on my legs as I awaited my turn, little bloody dots with swollen red surrounds adding further decoration to the prominent bruising from my bike incident.
River crossing near Santa Teresa
I didn’t join the rest of the group in the hot springs at Santa Teresa. Open wounds in hot, sulphuric water in which people had been lounging all day didn’t seem like the smartest move to me. Maybe it would have been just the thing for a speedy recovery?
The hot springs at Santa Teresa
Food followed not too long afterwards. We had been walking for nine hours, a total of 22km over some difficult terrain, and we were a hungry, thirsty group. Briefing for the next day completed, we wandered over to the recommended ‘disco’ which turned out to be a non-starter, so after a few shared beers we all headed to bed. Tired.
´Did you pay the extra for fancy gear?’ asked one of the girls in my group as I pulled on a full face helmet. ´Because we get to wear these ones´, she said, pointing to a pile of standard helmets. ´Nope,´ I said, ´I´m with you guys. Nothing fancy for me.´ I took off the comfortable protective headgear and wandered over to where the majority of the group were gathered.
In hindsight, maybe I should have paid the extra for the upgrade.
We had spent two hours in the minibus travelling away from Cusco along gravelly roads and through passes cut out into the mountainside. The further we got from Cusco, the more lush it got, huge mountains covered in a dry, dense greeny-yellow blanket, red earthy rock faces exposed intermittently.
The road had followed along the bottom of the valley and close to the train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, but once we passed by the busy little town of Ollantaytambo we started to climb into and above patches of misty cloud. The road became yet more windy, twisting and turning back on itself, making for a lengthy ascent. The rain became heavier, adding fat splashes to little mountaintop pools. By the time we reached our intended drop off point at 4,350m, Rodrigo, our guide had pretty much decided that we should drive down a little further to see if the rain would ease lower down. No one argued with him. The driver crossed himself a few times before we started to descend at speeds that would be considered fast on a dry day. Maybe the crossing stopped us from slipping off of the road, or maybe we were just lucky.
At the new start point we donned raincoats and got kitted out with helmets and mountain bikes. Everyone also got a reflective safety vest to wear over the top, and it was only as I was flying down the hill, barely able to see for the rain and the spray in my face, that I realised I was without. A second sign? On flatter sections I peddled along, wriggling my toes in the puddles that had formed in my shoes and moving my fingers to stop them freezing up. Some people´s brakes were dodgy, another person´s chain was loose, but my bike was tickety-boo.
A few people bailed and jumped back in the van that was trailing us, but I was soaked through already and decided to stick with it. Taking corners carefully, I rode on through big pools of water and saw how the runoff from the road channelled down thick concrete drains. One wrong move, I thought, and one of us could fall into there and end up in a mess.
A friend was having a few issues with his bike and the support team gave him a hand. I slowed down a little and glanced back to see where he was at… and then everything went slow mo as my front wheel hit the lip and I met the concrete head first.
My head bounced about in the half metre deep channel, my face smashed into something, my nose bent and my limbs collapsed, tangled in my bike. I started to move. I could see, my eyes were okay. Relief. I clambered up and out of the ditch and touched my nose. Surely it was broken? And the rest? I could stand. My arms and back were okay. My jaw and teeth were intact. And although there was blood, I was alive.
Later that day at the hostel in the little, muddy jungle village of Santa Maria I assessed the damage. Cuts and scrapes on my hip, bit of a mashed up elbow, bruises and deep grazes on my leg, a bit of a headache and sore teeth. And a fat, cut and blocked nose. But not broken.
People monitored me for symptoms of concussion and came with plasters and ointments and arnica. I barely knew these guys, yet they wanted to help to make me feel better and to check that I was okay. After a bit of flatness in the week leading up to the trek, it was a little reminder of just how good and kind people can be (maybe too sickly for some of you, but in a moment like this, allow me some saccharine).
It could have been so much worse. It was one of those times where you´re reminded of just how quickly your life could completely change. My first thought when I crashed out was ´thank f*** for the helmet´. Without it, this would have undoubtedly been a whole different travel story.
That night it took a while to unwind but I finally fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and the lullaby of crickets chirping and frogs croaking. What a crazy day.