That time we hiked to Machu Picchu.
Where? Between Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru.
When? August 2018
With whom? Martin and the rest of the group.
Most tour companies have a briefing the night before you leave for your hike. Here, we met 6 rambunctious Canadians, a German and a Taiwanese. It is a good opportunity to go through the itinerary of the trip and ask any questions that you have.
Day 1: Humantay Lake and Igloos
At 3.50am we met our guide, Romiro, who came to collect us from our hostel. He walked us down to a van via other hostels to collect the rest of the team. We awkwardly said hello to these near strangers, bleary eyed from the lack of sleep.
Then started the hike. The morning only climbed 300m in altitude, which was all pretty much immediate while the rest of the trail was flat to our camp. At points, the trail was very narrow with a drop that would probably do us some real damage. Condors are famous in this area, and they are so huge. Their wingspan is longer than I am and some regular-sized humans too! We watched as they circled and dipped, hunting for their next meal.
The Peruvians around here all chew on coca leaves to relive altitude sickness symptoms. It’s the same plant from which cocaine is made, but you would need far more coca leaves than a human being could carry to have enough to make any. For the gringos, Romiro gave us some black minty sugar to roll inside the coca leaves to make the taste less offensive. We noticed the guides of different groups would roll themselves some new leaves every few hours, so it is probably addictive. We gave it a go to help with the altitude.
After an excessively large lunch, we embarked on an optional hike up to Lake Humantay, which was mostly uphill and rocky, to the extent that one of our Canadians took a horse up but not down, as it was too steep. The lake gave us incredible views as the sunlight made the water twinkle. There were a couple of view points that required a further 10 to 15 minute walk up a steeper climb but they did have the best view of the lake, because it allowed you to look down into the valley.
When we got back down to our igloo camp, we were called to “happy hour”. This wasn’t BOGOF on cocktails, it was platters of popcorn and other things that I barely noticed because there was popcorn. We had another lavish meal ending with a pisco soaked banana. (Pisco is the spirit of Peru and it’s unpleasant.)
We were in bed by 7pm with our early start that morning and the prospect of a 4.30am start on day two. The stars were incredible, and we lay in our igloos admiring them before we drifted off.
Day 2: The Salkantay Pass
4.30am is not a fun wakeup call, but we did as we were told. It was cold but we didn’t layer up too much as we were going to warm up on the hike and with sunlight. So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, don’t be that guy who makes the rest of the group wait because you’re not ready on time. We were less than impressed with that guy.
The path started with a shallow climb and got steeper and steeper, seemingly correlating with how awake we felt. We passed some llamas and onto a terrain with a steep gradient but few protuberances, which becomes problematic if you want a wee, as many many groups of hikers have eyes on you at all times.
The pass stood at 4,600m and was surrounded by glacial mountains; it was very beautiful. We stopped for some coca tea and our free (more like included) tee shirts, boasting that we had made it to the Salkantay Pass.
Our descent took us through different climates. When we entered the cloud, everything was grey so we thought of Scotland. Later, once we were beneath the cloud, the sun came through lighting up the green surrounding us from all sides, and our new Taiwanese friend Audrey said it looked like Taiwan.
Our accommodation for the evening were called jungle huts. It was a small cabin and a hot shower for 10 soles. We were much lower down than last night (2,900m as opposed to 3,900m) but it still wasn’t warm enough for me to take my clothes off so I decided to skip the shower. We each had a well-earned beer with our dinner tonight.
Day 3: Peruvian flats and Aguas Calientes
Another 4.30am wakeup call for the longest day of 27km hiking to Machu Picchu’s tourist town of Aguas Calientes. Our morning consisted of Peruvian flats, ironically named for its constant undulations. Every time we climbed, our hard work would be undone by the immediate downhill stretch that followed.
It was a nice hike with narrow points where rock slides had taken out most of the path, a few bridges over thundering waterfalls, and great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
We lost half of our group at the train station because they decided to fork out for the train ride instead of walking. At 33 USD, we decided against it and finished the hike. While we were waiting for our Canadian friends to buy their tickets we observed the bizarre way the train station was running. The tracks were covered with people and market stalls until a man with a whistle came running down the track with a train in tow, in attempts to move the people out of the way.
The rest of the hike was flat and we followed the train tracks all the way to Aguas Calientes. It had been a lovely morning so at the train station we had given our waterproofs over to save us from carrying the extra weight. This was a bad idea. The weather is so changeable in this part of the world, so despite our beautiful suncream warranting morning weather, in the afternoon the heavens opened. We got very very wet. I suspect our Canadian counterparts enjoyed passing us on their warm and dry train. We got a wave, they got the middle finger.
Aguas Calientes is a town that exists solely for tourists to stay before they head up to Machu Picchu, so you can expect things to be very expensive. After many showers, our newly clean group celebrated our efforts with a pisco sour each, the cocktail made with Peru’s delightful spirit. I discovered that it isn’t so bad if you drink a lot of beer beforehand. Our dinner had a lot of laughs and a later night than we should have with our earliest start yet tomorrow for Machu Picchu (more on that next week!).
Info: This was the one thing we booked in advance for our two months in South America, and we booked it with Salkantay Trekking from the UK before we left. We were not risking missing Machu Picchu! This did mean that we paid more than most people. This included things that other groups didn’t have, like the glass igloo accommodation on the first night, the tee shirts at the top of the pass, and the copious quantities of food for each meal. Overall, I would recommend this company. They claim themselves to be the best trekking company that does the Salkantay Pass, and I can believe that, but I think Machu Picchu reservations would have suited us better because it was half the price and camping accommodation. Having said that, the glass igloos were so cool and definitely a highlight. This company were booked up until the end of August but other companies will have spaces if you want to book a day or two in advance from Cusco.
There are 5 day options that include hot springs rather than the long 3rd hiking day. Most companies require some sort of briefing meeting in Cusco the night before you leave, where you can double check you have hired a sleeping bag. If you are able bodied I would say don’t bother with the hiking poles but if you have a dodgy knee or similar, then these are probably well worth the extra cost. The sleeping bag, on the other hand, is a necessity. It is so cold on the mountain at night and these sleeping bags are obese, which is exactly what you need!
Product of the week: You haven’t really been to Cusco if you haven’t haggled over some alpaca wool goods. I was grateful for my alpaca wool gloves and fleece for that extra layer of warmth. The San Pedro Market is a good place to play the stall owners off against each other for the best price.
Tip of the week: Acclimatise in Cusco before you go! When we first arrived I had what felt like growing pains in my legs and Martin had headaches and felt sick. Having a couple of days for your body to adapt before you spend each day hiking 20 plus km is a very sensible idea. Most tour companies recommend it and it is advice to be taken seriously.