Salkantay Trail and Machu Picchu
No matter how beautiful some of the pictures I took were, they don't even begin to describe my experience on the Salkantay Trail and Machu Picchu.
You start hiking uphill on the first day, feeling the high elevation take away your breath, and surrounded by a group of strangers.
By the time you reach the first camp, you have talked for hours with some of them. The lunch food tastes like the best food you have ever had.
A few hours later, it's dark, nearly freezing and next day is the hardest, with 23km (15 miles) ahead, reaching an elevation of 4,600m (15,000ft), so things look a bit gloomy ... until you sit on the table for dinner and start chatting away with your new friends and everything starts looking up.
No one lingers around after dinner as it's freezing by now, but the starred sky is breathtaking and takes away the cold for a a few seconds. Soon after you are in your sleeping bag, which hopefully is warm enough to protect you from the cold and offer you a good night of sleep.
Next day you wake up by someone saying "coca tea", who hands you a hot cup as soon as you wake up. You feel refreshed and ready to take on anything. After a quick breakfast, we start climbing up the remaining 700m (~2300ft) to the Salkantay Pass. My fingers and chin start going numb with the cold, but after the first half hour of hiking up, we warm up. We walk over a frozen stream for a while, and see how the mules carrying some of our stuff easily overtake us on the way up.
On the pass we take some pictures, admire the greatness of Salkantay and the other peaks surrounding us. Our guide points out how climate change is severely affecting the region, quickly melting all those glaciers that had been around for centuries and that are the main source of water for the nearby villages.
From this point, we have a few hours of downhill hiking. First we stop for lunch in a beautiful prairie in the valley. I take off my hiking boots for a while to dip my feet in a nearby stream and then take a short nap while the rest of the group arrives. A playful dog comes to get a scratch and see what I am up to.
After lunch we keep going downhill and the mountainous terrain is replaced by a more tropical one, with lush valleys and waterfalls. A bit earlier than expected we make it to the new camp. We have gone down to 2900m (9500ft) and the temperature is much nicer, being able to take off my hiking boots and wear flip flops for the rest of the night.
While waiting for dinner I buy a bottle of wine and share it with some of my fellow trekkers. The mood is much more festive as the hardest day is behind us and the facilities are much nicer, including the chance of getting a hot shower!
Next day we keep going down into the jungle and enjoy some tasty and refreshing local fruits on the way, while enjoying the company of countless dogs and kittens.
After lunch we get into a bus to go to Santa Teresa ... at this point the group splits as some people are only booked for a three night trip. It feels like have of our family just disappeared :(
The bus is packed to the brim and the atmosphere is amazing, with music, singing, smiles, great views through the window, ... I fall asleep feeling quite exhausted and incredibly happy.
Then we have the most relaxing moment of the whole trip, the hot springs in Santa Teresa, where we just chill out for a couple of hours, and spend 15 minutes trying to get an underwater group picture/video. We don't succeed, but have a lot of fun trying.
Back in the camp we have a bonfire, music, drinks and dancing. I get introduced to Gato box wine, probably the most "bang for your buck" drink alcohol-wise, tied with the 1 sol ($0.30) inka tequila shots. We stay up until midnight and I am so tired that I pass on unpacking my sleeping bag, sleeping straight on the mat.
Next day we go ziplining in the morning, crossing a beautiful valley repeatedly with ziplines 1km long (0.7 miles). Quite thrilling, flying at high speed a few hundred feet over the valley.
Afterwards some more walking along the railway paths, with our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and arrival at Aguas Calientes, which feels like a metropolis after our days in the mountains/jungle. On the way there we meet some of the people who had split the previous day and happily catch up and give another farewell.
The next day is finally our time to see Machu Picchu. We wake up at 4am to be the first ones before the bridge opens. Then we climb the stairs to the top in the dark. The first sight of Machu Picchu is truly breathtaking. It's still completely empty and it puts a grin on my face for five minutes.
Even if it quickly fills up with tourists, it's still possible to get lost on some of the less popular areas and be alone for a while. The hike up to
Huayna Picchu is the cherry on top, with an incredible view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains.
Back in Aguas Calientes it's time to say good bye, as we are booked in different trains to Cusco ... hopefully our paths will cross again and we'll share some other adventure soon :)