Machu Picchu tickets booked: check. Backpack filled halfway with camping equipment, and the other half with Nature Valley and Snickers bars: check. Tour operator booked: well… kind of. My fellow intern, Killian, and I had talked with our friend Alain, a tour guide who has all sorts of connections around Cusco. We had told him that we needed to do the Salkantay trek on the cheap, so he made a few phonecalls, took our money and passport numbers, and came back half an hour later with our tour booked. I asked him what the company was, and he said they didn’t really have a name or an office. They were completely unofficial, did not pay any taxes, and offered a “very basic service.” In other words, exactly what we were looking for… assuming we would get to Machu Picchu in one piece.
At 4:30 AM on Wednesday morning, we walked to the Plaza de San Francisco to meet our group. Except for the occasional tourist stumbling home from a discoteca, the streets were deserted. Once we reached the plaza, we found a typical white van, with a few Peruvians milling about, and a couple of tourists, easily identifiable by their alpaca sweaters and knit “Cusco” hats. As we waited for the rest of the group to show up, a man walked up to us, selling cake. He must have known that a tour was leaving at 5 in the morning, and had gotten up to exploit this niche market of un-breakfasted gringos. Hey, I thought, that was dedication. I would have bought a piece, but it was banana cake, and I hate bananas.
Once the rest of the group showed up, we drove two-and-a-half hours to Mollepata, the small town where the Salkantay trek begins. We had mediocre (at best) breakfast of bread, jam, and coca tea, and prepared to leave. Each person was allowed to check 5 kg of supplies to be carried by the horses. This was one of the main perks of booking a tour, because carrying all your stuff for four days at altitudes of up to 4.6 kilometers is far from a piece of cake. A sent my sleeping bag, some clothes, and toiletries with the horses. I kept the Snickers bars.
Before setting off, we stood around in a circle and made introductions. I was delighted to find that I was the only American; our motley crew of fifteen was comprised of tourists from England, Australia, Holland, Austria, Germany, and Colombia. And, of course, our wonderful Peruvian guides: Jorge and Leo. Although their English was skirting the boundary of basic proficiency, they were accomplished enough to crack jokes… and crack jokes they did. Jorge kicked off the fun by telling the Austrian couple that he was sorry, there would be no kangaroos on the trek. This led to hoots of laughter from the group, and a proud grin from Jorge. I don’t think any of us explained his mistake.
We set out from Mollepata at about nine. The morning had been cold, but as the sun got higher in the sky, I started to break a sweat. We walked along a dirt road for a while, with not much to look at but a few interesting plants, whose special properties Jorge explained at great length. Eventually, the incline got more steep, and we were afforded views of sweeping mountain pastures and deep river-lined valleys. A road snaked its way up through the hills, providing a shortcut for the lazy, but we took the less-obvious paths that went directly up. I found myself grateful that we had gone with a guide, or it would have been a long morning.
We stopped for lunch at a small field, complete with tables, wooden stumps for chairs, and tablecloths. The food was actually pretty good: sopa de maiz followed by rice and potatoes with beef. I was favorably impressed. Unfortunately, the food was doomed to steadily decline in quality over the course of the trek.
After a couple more hours of hiking, the snow-capped peak of Salkantay Mountain came into view, dwarfing the other mountains around us. The highest peak in the Cordillera Vilcabamba part of the Peruvian Andes, Salkantay got its name from the Quechua word meaning uncivilized, savage, and invincible. It was first climbed by a French-American expedition in 1952, and three members of the team did not make the summit. A couple of years later, the famous mountaineer, Fritz Kasparek, died on Salkantay when he fell through a cornice near the summit. Needless to say, climbing the mountain itself was not part of our itinerary.
We made our first camp at an outpost called Soraypampa, which was under the looming shadow of Salkantay. People had warned me that the first night was cold, and they had not been lying. I wore every item of warm clothing I had, including a fleece, wool socks, hat, and gloves, but still my teeth chattered as we milled about the darkening campsite, waiting for dinner. Luckily, our tents were set up within a tarp-covered structure, providing an extra barrier against the chill. Our cooks brought us hot drinks and popcorn as an appetizer, a welcome snack after eight solid hours of hiking. I stuffed my face so much with popcorn that by the time dinner came I hardly had an appetite.
After dinner, our guides briefed us on the plan for tomorrow. It was to be the most difficult day of the trek by far, with a steep four-hour hike up to the pass. When we reached the highest point, at 4,600 meters, we would perform some sort of ritual, for which Jorge insisted we each bring a coca leaf. He also told us he would sacrifice a virgin, so few of us took him seriously enough to remember to grab a leaf from the tea-tray the next morning. For 100 soles, we were given the option of horseback riding instead of toughing out tomorrow’s four-hour slog. My friend Killian, who already had some nasty blisters from his poorly worn-in boots decided to take the deal, along with seven more members of our fifteen-person group.
So I was among the minority setting out by foot at 6 AM the next morning, still bundled in all the clothing I had brought. The horses gave us a good head-start, which before long I realized would be quite necessary. At this altitude, what seemed like a moderate uphill climb felt more like a moderate sprint, and a steep incline felt like scaling a sheer cliff after smoking a pack of cigarettes. I can’t honestly claim to have ever tried this, but you get the idea. In between bouts of heavy panting and fierce Snickers-eating, I paused occasionally to enjoy some truly remarkable views.
Long after the horse-riders had passed us and after I was sweating in my T-shirt despite the brisk air, the pass finally came into sight. I knew that was the highest point in the trek, and after these last few meters, it was all downhill. I stopped thinking about the horrendously low amount of oxygen in my lungs and kept putting the next foot forward. I was proud to be the first among the walkers to reach the top. As the last stragglers clambered up, we relished in our victory.
Our beloved Jorge took a picture of the group with each person’s camera in turn, including the prized device of a Korean member of the group, Thai, which bore a striking resemblance to the Hubble telescope. Jorge seemed to think it was funny and politically correct to call Thai Japanese because of his obsession with taking photos. Before long, the name-calling had evolved into “Samurai,” despite the fierce protestations of our Korean friend.
The pass was bitterly cold, and Jorge was so preoccupied with all the cameras that he forgot to perform his ritual with the coca leaves that nobody had brought. He didn’t even sacrifice a virgin.
The descent felt like a lazy river ride compared to what had come before. We passed through expansive valleys and into cloud-forest in only a few hours. The temperature rose dramatically, and people started smacking at the tiny flies that swarmed from the bright green foliage. We passed passion fruit and avocado trees, and after a brief and intense rainfall, the path became slippery with mud. It was a long and messy walk to the second campsite, but at least it was not uphill. I changed into dry clothes and settled into my popcorn and crackers, thinking it had been a rather successful couple of days.
The next two days of the trek were a walk in the park. A half day of moderate descent followed by a bus ride to Santa Teresa, where we spent the afternoon lounging in hot springs… well that wasn’t exactly difficult. And zip-lining over the jungle canopy the next morning wasn’t too bad either. The afternoon on the fourth day was a little more strenuous, as we had to carry all our equipment, but at least it was a level walk along a scenic train track, with partial glimpses of Machu Picchu’s terraces towering above us. We reached Aguas Calientes late in the afternoon, fairly tired and more than ready to sleep in a real bed and eat excessive quantities of overpriced pizza.
Indeed, these two activities were about all there was to do in Aguas Calientes, a pretty unremarkable town, entirely catered towards tourists. As the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes was a hive of pasty gringos, menu-brandishing Peruvians, and hideous wooden statues of stereotypical Incas bearing baskets of wooden corn.
We checked into our “hostel,” which was about the sketchiest establishment I had ever been in. The building was sandwiched in between a candy shop and a dirty hair salon, and had no sign outside. Neither did it have a front desk, just a staircase that went right up to the rooms, and an attendant who might be around somewhere in the building if you yelled for him loud enough. Killian, Thai, and I were cramped into a tiny room with unwashed sheets, a freezing shower, and a sink that leaked out onto the floor. Yet after three nights of tents and paper-thin sleeping pads, this felt like luxury. A wasted no time in flopping down on my bed and falling asleep.
Thai’s electronic watch beeped at 4 AM the next morning and we staggered out of bed to get ready for the big day at Machu Picchu. I decided to pack light: a sandwich that I’d bought the day before, a liter of water, and my camera. I expected the day to get hot, so I wore light pants and a T-shirt. The rest of my stuff would stay at the hostel.
In my groggy early morning state, I was hardly prepared for what would come next. Not two minutes of waiting outside the hostel for the rest of the group, and we heard shouts coming from down the street. I was just inside the doorway, so I couldn’t see what was going on. A girl in our group screamed and pointed. “He just pushed that man into the river!”
We rushed out into the street to see. A hulking Peruvian man stood at the wall across the street, overlooking the roaring river, which was a good three meters below. A man with a red jacket sputtered and fought the current, trying to get back on land. “He pushed that guy!” the girl in our group yelled. “Stop him!”
But the large man was already running down the street to where a bend led down to the river. As he ran, he picked up jagged fist-sized stones and started hurling them at his adversary. The men were shouting in rage or fear, but their words were lost on me. Not wanting my day at Machu Picchu to start with a murder, I yelled “Policia! Policia!” at the top of my voice.
The man in red managed to get around his enemy and run down the street, dodging chunks of rock as he went. When it was clear that he had gotten away, the big man sidled towards us, saying in Spanish “To me! To me” along with other jumbled petitions to join his cause. He showed me the blood dripping down the back of his neck, as if that were adequate explanation. I tried to tell him to find a hospital, simultaneously realizing how silly I must seem to these men bent on killing each other.
For a few moments, it seemed that the action had subsided. But suddenly, shouts and screams erupted from farther down the street. Our group rushed for the shelter of our hostel as a mob of at least fifteen ran towards us, throwing rocks and screaming. I could no longer tell who was fighting who. The mob ran past, followed by three policemen in hot pursuit. Maybe my shouts had done something after all. I looked at my tour guide for some kind of explanation, but he seemed, if anything, slightly amused by the whole affair. He gave me a “well, that’s life” kind of shrug, and let it go.
Even factoring in our encounter with the grizzled underbelly of Aguas Calientes, we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu a good half-hour before opening. That was when it started to rain. Lightly at first, but before long, it was bucketing down in torrents. Under a small overhang, I huddled with the rest of our group, most of whom had brought rain jackets. Shivering in my T-shirt, I cursed my brilliant notion to pack light.
When the gate opened at 5, most of our group rushed ahead to make the hour-long hike up to the ruins in the rain, hoping to somehow cath the famous Machu Picchu sunrise. Killian and I waited behind under our scant shelter, neither of us feeling so keen on getting drenched. Killian told me that in the rainforest, it would often rain hard like this for a half-hour or so and then let up. So we waited as scores of poncho-clad tourists rushed through the gates into the darkness.
At 5:45, the rain finally subsided to a drizzle. Our guided tour of the ruins was to start in fifteen minutes. It was time.
The climb up was not easy. Seemingly endless flights of slippery stone steps led up through dripping trees. My legs aching, I wondered why the Incas, who were supposed to be rather small of stature, found it necessary to build such large steps. However, I felt exhilarated by our decision to wait until now, as we shot past soaked and miserable tourists. We reached the top in half the usual time, and just made the guided tour.
The tour was not particularly enlightening. Jorge was at the height of his customary enthusiasm, but his jokes were lost on most of our wet and shivering group. The most memorable “fact” was what Jorge told us about a series of terraced waterfalls. Rumor had it (according to Jorge) that the Incan king would stand at the highest of the waterfalls to take his shower, with the rest of the city standing progressively lower, according to social stature. The lowest pauper, therefore, would be showering in the dirty water of the entire population of Machu Picchu. Clearly one hundred percent fabrication, but amusing nevertheless.
After we said goodbye to Jorge, it was time for our own exploration of the ruins. Killian and I had bought tickets for Huaynapicchu, the famous mountain overlooking the site, which we could enter at 10 AM. We bought overpriced hot chocolates by the entrance and tried desperately to warm up. Killian suggested taking a bus back into town, but I would have none of it. This was my one time at Machu Picchu, and I was going to make the most of it, fog and rain or no. We walked determinedly back into the ruins and magically… the drizzle stopped. Then the fog cleared. And a few rays of warm sun began to poke through the clouds.
I took off my pink plastic poncho that I’d bought at the entrance, sighed with relief, and took out my camera. It had been a long four days to get here, and I had finally been rewarded.