It was still pitch dark outside as we waited for the van to pick us up outside our campsite. We had spent 20 minutes the evening before explaining to the tour company where we were staying and how to get to our campsite – they couldn’t quite understand that we weren’t staying somewhere on their list of hostels and hotels… So there we were, 4am, standing in the dark rain in the hills outside of Cusco.
When our ride was more than 20 minutes late we started calling the agency, hoping that we hadn’t been forgotten. We didn’t have many days to spare and couldn’t really afford to wait another day just because the driver didn’t know our campsite. Just when we were about to give up, our guide, Steven, pulled up with a big smile, reassuring us “No worries, my friends!”
With that, we were off. By the time we rounded up the rest of our group from various hotels in Cusco, we were a group of seven starting off on our Salkantay trek together. Arriving at the village where we would start our trek, we all had a bit of breakfast and got to know each other for a few minutes before Steven led us in his version of an icebreaker. Ciaran, Anas, Wolf and I had decided on a 4-day Salkantay Trek that would end in Machu Picchu. Since the Inca Trail was closed for maintenance during the month of February, we’d decided that since we still wanted to do a multi-day hike this would be the next best thing.
The first section of the trail we chatted and laughed but pretty soon we were huffing and puffing, and for the rest of the day we had a pretty steady uphill climb to contend with.
The combination of the altitude and the impressive incline meant we were all struggling to keep up with our guide.
Needless to say, we needed lots and lots of breaks, which actually were a nice opportunity to enjoy the scenery – jungle-like greenery turning to rolling hills, turning to mountainous terrain with rolling fog…
By the time we arrived in camp the first night we were all exhausted, but our guide Steven was running around trying to figure out what happened to the horses who were supposed to bring our food supplies.
Eventually the horses found their way and we all reluctantly shivered our way through dinner. The altitude was no joke – it was certainly sucking the energy out of us and a cold night made it all the more painful.
The next morning we hit the trail bright and early. Today we would climb to the Salkantay pass at 4,630 meters. Steven, our guide, kept calling it the “gringo killer”, which obviously instilled a lot of confidence in us.
The day was lovely, if not challenging. For much of the walk it felt like we were walking through the Shire; I half expected to see hobbits along the trail.
By the time we reached a series of aggressive switchbacks, I began to understand the trail’s nickname.
One foot in front of the other, slowly emerging from the fog, we all made our way towards the summit.
And slowly but surely, we each made it to the top.
Cheering each other on, we celebrated with chocolate and trail mix.
Even though the heavy cloud cover obstructed our view of Salkantay peak, we were all still so excited to have arrived.
We left a traditional offering of coca leaves before leaving the summit.
The afternoon brought us back down towards the neighboring valleys. And our path had some interesting sights…
As well as more gorgeous scenery.
At our lunch stop, Wolf made new friends and contemplated alternate forms of transport.
By the afternoon we had pulled off all our winter gear and were squarely back in the jungle.
It was amazing to see the landscape change so rapidly over the course of just a few kilometers. Warm showers at the campsite that night were much needed and we good time getting to know the others on our trip – including a couple from Munich who we hope to catch up with back in Germany.
Day three started off beautifully as we strolled through the jungle and along a river most of the day.
The traditional route had been washed away by a landslide so we found ourselves walking along a service road. A few interesting river crossings kept things entertaining when we waded through icy water or flagged down a van to help us across.
Tons of butterflies lining the trail kept us entertained.
We stopped to sample local passion fruit, which to me felt like eating alien brain, and enjoyed our snack under a canopy of dried meat – totally normal :)
By the time lunch rolled around, Ciaran, Anas, Wolf and I were starting to say our goodbye to the rest of our group.
After lunch we’d go our separate ways – the other three members of our group would be spending another day in the jungle area with our guide. Our group of four had opted for a four-day trek, so we would be hiking on to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu on our own that afternoon, meeting another guide once we reached town. I had asked our guide over and over again about what would happen once we were on our own, without a guide. I asked what to do, and where to go, and how long things would take, and was there a map available, and how would we know if we were on the right track… I tend to err on the neurotic side when it comes to planning and knowing how things will work, so I wasn’t super comfortable when his only response to me was, “Don’t worry, my friend”. Stephen was nice and friendly but certainly left me desiring a bit more. I have high standards for tour guides, as Wolf knows all too well :) He told us he’d help catch transport to the Hidroelectric train station, and then from there we should “just follow other people” for the three hour hike to Aguas Calientes. We’ve done plenty of trekking and hiking and backpacking on our own, so I have no problem going it alone, but the difference between this and our solo hikes was that a) this time I was paying for a guided tour, and b) when going it alone, I’d exhaustively researched trails, weather, dangers, preparations, etc.
So after lunch, all of a sudden Stephen started getting antsy about how much time we had for the trip to Hidroelectrica where we would start our hike. He tried to explain what was going on, but something was lost in translation so we had no idea what was going on. We dropped the others off, said our goodbyes, and then jumped in a cab who raced off along the river. We still didn’t understand why we were speeding along at breakneck speed, passing buses on precarious cliffs, and pushing the limits of my comfort level when driving.
When we screeched to a halt we were surprised to see the road ahead packed with cars and minibuses and all sorts of vehicles waiting around.
For what, we weren’t quite sure. Stephen rushed us out of the car and we all ran with our bags a few dozen meters down the road, where we finally realized what was happening. Ahead of us were hundreds of people in a long line, and dozens more milling about on the river banks; behind them, amidst the rushing river, we could see the remains of a bridge. Even the nearby footbridge had been washed away.
Finally we started putting the pieces together. Stephen had learned at lunchtime that the bridge had been washed away, which meant that our transport could no longer take us across the river to the Hidroelectrica where we were supposed to start our hike to Aguas Calientes. He knew that because the bridge was gone, crossing the river by car would no longer be an option. And now we realized why that meant we had to rush. Now that the bridge had been washed away, the only option to cross the river was to climb into a steel cage attached to a thick cable spanning the river, and with the help of onlookers, hurl yourself across the river, hoping someone on the other side would pull you the last 20 meters to safety. Like ziplining in a cage.
Stephen made sure we got in line before saying his goodbyes and heading back to the rest of the group. At this point it was a bit before 3pm and Stephen was reminding us that when we got to the other side we should hurry and just follow everyone else. Incredibly reassuring.
The line was already hundreds deep by the time we arrived, but it was so novel and bizarre that, at first, we didn’t mind.
But, with only one cage and one cable, it was slow going, and between the crowd gathered on the opposite bank of the river, and the minibuses that kept arriving with more people on our side, it turned into a bit of a race against the sun for all the people that wanted to cross the river. The bizarre part for me was that there were dozens of uniformed military on site, but they didn’t seem to be doing much to help.
Wolf and Ciaran took a turn helping push and pull the cart across the river, sending tourists and locals and luggage and supplies across in the tiny steel cage.
By the time we made it to the front of the line, it was around 6:30 and getting dark.Wolf and I climbed into a cart with our backpacks and before we knew it we were dangling in the center of the cable, waiting for random tourists on the other side to pull us across. We watched Ciaran and Anas zip across the river as well and finally, 3.5 hours later, we’d crossed the 50 meter river.
At first we were exuberant – we’d made it, we’d had an adventure, we had a good story to tell… and then we realized we had no idea what to do next. We could see the hints of the Hidroelectric station and, since we had no idea what else to do, we started walking in that direction. At the next fork we chose a right turn that seemed right, but a few hundred meters later the military police turned us away and sent us back in the other direction. At another fork, just as clueless, we chose another direction. We even crawled through a barbed wire fence. By the time we actually arrived at the train station, it was pitch black. Pitch black and we were just starting our hike with no idea where or how to go.
At this point, I was fuming. It was ridiculous that we’d ended up here clueless about how to proceed. When we asked the railroad workers where to go, they told us to just follow the tracks. So we did. And then the tracks dead ended into a cliff. So we backtracked and asked again. This time they told us that we should just follow the trail on the right at the end of the tracks. So we turned right which actually meant climbing up the cliff side. We were lucky because we each had a headlamp, but a few other clueless people who latched onto us for our scramble up the cliff were attempting the hike without any light. By the time we reached the top of the cliff, we had spread ourselves out so that the few of us who had lights were walking between the others to help identify the trail and dangers along the way. At the top of the scramble we reached more railroad tracks. Hoping we were selecting the right direction we set off, walking on the tracks in the pitch dark. At this point, it had started to rain; what began as a drizzle turned into heavy, steady rain that didn’t stop for the next three hours. We slowly picked our way along the railroad tracks, crossing bridges over rushing rivers, and balancing on tracks spanning deep rifts. Along the way we ran into a few more people without lights who must have started before it got dark, but had camped out along the trail when it got too dangerous to continue without light. They joined our pack of hikers as well and together we all trudged on along the muddy tracks, in the pouring rain and pitch darkness, hoping no train would come and ru us off, and hoping we were still going the right direction. The whole thing was very reminiscent of Stand by Me.
For a solid three hours we walked and walked. Finally we did actually see a train as it was pulling out of what seemed like a station.
But the whole place was deserted. A few minutes later we came to a campsite with lights and lots of infrastructure, and again popped in hoping to get directions or assurances of where we were, but it too was deserted. We trudged on, now almost 10pm, and finally caught a glimpse of Aguas Calientes. We couldn’t believe it. At the edge of town we stopped to ask for directions and a few minutes later found the restaurant where we were supposed to meet the other guide. I can’t express how frustrated I was when the first words out of this guy’s mouth were “Where have you been?”
At this point we were all completely drenched. We’d spent the last 3+ hours walking in the mud and rain. All we wanted was to get our tickets to Machu Picchu from this guide, change into dry clothes and get some warm food. The last thing I needed was for this guy to somehow reprimand me for our late arrival. We got the info we needed from him, found our hostel, and found the only place that still seemed to be serving dinner.
A couple of pizzas and beer went a long way and we sat and watched trains rolling through Aguas Calientes; and finally, rather than wanting to cry about how the day had turned out, we allowed ourselves to laugh, admitting that while we may not have enjoyed every moment of our adventure, we certainly would never forget it.
After a few hours sleep we were up before dawn and in line for the first bus up to Machu Picchu at 5am. Initially we’d planned to hike up from Aguas Calientes, but after the night we’d had, we felt we deserved a bus ride. Arriving at the top, we ran into friends from our Salar de Uyuni tour, and together we all entered into Machu Picchu. We rounded a corner and caught our first glimpses of the ruins, shrouded in misty clouds and just warmed but the first light of day.
There was certainly something magical in the air. And it made our adventurous arrival seem all that more worthwhile.
We were so glad to be there so early in the morning, with clouds settling on ancient terraces and endless stairs leading into the mist.
We latched onto a quick tour, listening to the history but also allowing ourselves to soak in the relative quiet of the early morning in such a unique place.
At the end of our tour, we each went our separate ways, wandering through passageways and between ancient walls. Slowly the clouds burned away, revealing what felt like a whole new place.
Meeting up again we climbed higher to get a view of the ancient city below us.
Further down in the valley we saw the train tracks we’d walked along the night before, realizing that Machu Picchu had been towering above us in the dark the entire time.
Being there felt amazing and refreshing and worth all the effort. And the sunny day seemed to reassure us that we were in the right place at the right time.
After a few hours of easy wandering we were ready for a bit more activity and made our way to Huayna Picchu where we climbed up the steep and windy path until reaching the fortress perched on a rocky peak, high above the ancient city. Climbing the steep, slippery, and slanted Incan stairways up and down from the peak was precarious if not terrifying, but the view was worth it. I just couldn’t imagine how the Incas had built all this.
We held on for dear life as we climbed our way down, and by the time we climbed back down, we were feeling as though perhaps we’d done Machu Picchu justice.
We’d explored and wandered and watched the cloudy early morning turn into a perfect sunny afternoon, followed by a few more rain showers to finish things off.
Satisfied, we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes and sat down for a late lunch, running into our friend Laura from the beginning of our trek, and spent the afternoon regaling the story of our bizarre trip to Aguas Calientes, comparing notes on how she had arrived, eventually running back into our friend Simon, and enjoying many, many rounds and chips of guacamole. Eventually we said our goodbyes to Laura and Simon, grabbed a few supplies for the road, and headed to the train station to catch our train back to Cusco.
A few card games later we arrived in Oyatatytambo where we got off the train and onto a minibus for the rest of the trip back.
Within seconds of leaving the entire bus was fast asleep. Back in Cusco we grabbed a taxi back up to our campsite and crashed hard.
I was so happy that we’d made it to Machu Picchu, that we’d been able to do a trek, and that the whole thing had turned into an adventure. And despite all sorts of weather along the way, our day had been absolutely perfect. Back in our van, camping one last night with Ciaran and Anas, I fell asleep once again feeling overwhelmingly grateful.