75km of high-peaks, highlights and a journey finale in the Peruvian Andes...
01.06.2012 - 05.06.2012 -10 °C
A 4am start in comfy Cusco was soon quashed into the back of my memory as we set off on a 5 day trek to the famous Machu Picchu valley. Just two hours drive out of civilization I quickly felt small and insignificant among some of the burliest mountains on the continent and landscape which would demand no less than a 10 page pull out in National Geographic. My last Andes trek was destined to be a goodie...
Having been at altitude in Bolivia for the last 6 weeks I think I took my altitude abilities for granted, while others gasped for air and faltered behind dragging one foot a few millimetres in front of the other (thank you Tupiza, Uyuni and La Paz for the acclimatisation).
Day one took us for 7 hours through lush vegetation, valleys, farmland and picture postcard mountain views until the mighty stark white Mt Humantay revealed itself through the gap between two greener peaks. Before the dipping sun sucked away the last remnant of warmth around 5pm, the moon had risen to meet the dusk beams of light just above the mountain ridge - a sight only to be snapped in a place like this. Camping in Humantay's shady foothill we donned every piece of clothing we had brought, huddled together round hot chocolate and bedded down willing the night to pass at temperatures below -10 degrees.
However luxurious it is to be awoken by hot liquid being brought to your bedside (er..tent), "Buenos dias, coca tea?" there is nothing, I believe, that takes the sting out of that first toe-dipping moment outside of your sleeping bag when the cold air rushes onto your skin and in between your clothes that have been cosy-ed up for the last 8 hours. Strap on a pair Emily!
After pancakes at dawn and alfresco teeth brushing we set off on day two's gruelling ascent up to the 4600m Salcantay pass (the second largest mountain in the Cusco region). Clouds rolled in behind us flooding the valley we'd just been sleeping in, while sun crept round the mountains ahead of us. One leg then the next, feet heavy with altitude we trudged (crawled) up to the peak literally sucking the oxygen out of the air (you know when you're trying to suck a drink through a straw with all the bits stuck inside...). Bites of banana, nuts, anything calorific was necessary to fuel the exaggerated efforts needed to conquer the thin air, temperature and gradient.
Giddy with excitement and satisfaction at having reached the pass after 6 hrs of 'up', we relished our 4600m accomplishment and congratulated each other before pulling on layers against the biting cold that immediately started to cling to our sweaty bodies. Meanwhile, our Peruvian guides Oscar and Jorge were busy preparing a traditional Inca ceremony for us with specially picked coca leaves to say thank you to 'Pacha mama' mother earth and to the four mountains that encircled us by means of offerings (rocks we had brought up from the valley below - yes we did opt to carry more weight for this very reason). We were happy to sit in the biting cold on this exposed summit pass in the backdrop of Salcantay's shimmering whiteness to say 'Sulpaike' (thank you in Quechua) to the incredible land we were exploring and leave our mark in this spectacular piece of wilderness.
Then began the 'down'... woop! Spirits lifted as we walked 3 hours nearer to lunch - snow turned into grass and rock, Humantay and Salcantay slipped out of view, lungs expanded and temperatures rose as once again green valleys rolled out the way before us. After chorizo, potato, rice and salsa followed by yet more coca tea (good for the altitude btw) on the banks of the river, we continued on to camp no. 2 down in the deep valley between Salcantay and Machu Picchu. After freezing temperatures, rock faces, snow peaks and biting altitude it was more than refreshing to walk by the bounty of Andean flowers dotted along the track... none less that the 'mujer bailando' (dancing ladies) in their yellow and red dresses bobbing next to me... love this flora and fauna lark! And, on we danced...
Day 3 dawned too quickly after a much cosier sleep at a much more civil temperature - coca tea to the tent once again still didn't curb the morning shivers though as I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag. Four hours later, we'd covered an epic distance through the winding river path and sunny vegetation and after another lunch of 'sopa and rice' there was nothing we welcomed more than some natural thermal baths to bathe the sweat from our backs, cracks, feet and head... oooooooo... it was all worth it Salcantay... 'salpaike' once more!
Campfire, vino tinto, moonlight and laughter christened our last night in the wilderness before trekking out to our final destination in the valley below Machu Picchu on day four. Exhausted, elated, stinky and satisfied we'd conquered the Salcantay pass (all 75k) of it, with a little help from good ol' coca tea, lots of 'papel higenico' for the dodgy tummies, 10 horses, walking sticks, sun shades and an eclectic mix of international humour from the Argentines, Germans, French, Israelis and Swiss contingent...not to mention a bit of Peruvian magic!
And we weren't disappointed - 6am on day 5 at the gate of Machu Picchu - we entered this sacred historical site with gasps and humbleness. The early morning light struck the old stones and frail ruins with grace as Oscar foretold the story and traditions that make this site one of the most visited and famous Inca legends in the world. Despite a stomach of death and overpowering sleeplessness I dragged myself up my last mountain (the great Mountain Machu Picchu), and dragged I literally was as the energy had been sapped long before, but I was determined and, my god, it was worth it for that last feeling... to be on top of this wonderful world (once more, one more time, but prey I hope not for the last time)...!
'Salpaike' Machu Picchu, Peru and America del Sur... regresare un dia!