Today is the 27th of October 2011. It’s 4 am. I’m in Cusco, Peru, hanging half out the window of our hostel room at Pisco & Soul and searching for distant headlights. It’s so quiet here at this time. Not a tourist in sight. It’s serene. The cobbled street below is basking in rays of moonlight. We’re about to start a five day trek through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, the famous ancient Incan ruins in Peru. I’ve been wanting to do this for months now. I’ve always thought it looked magical on the television and in the pictures. It’s just so bloody early. I’ve been popping saroche tablets the entire time we’ve been here. Nothing illegal, just the Peruvian answer to altitude sickness, along with cocoa tea – which I have been drinking like it is going out of fashion. It’s easy to feel the altitude here as Cusco is positioned at 3,300 metres above sea level. Something I have never experienced before.
We’re waiting to be picked up and taken to our bus. I was slightly worried we wouldn’t get here as Justin and Eddy have both been sick, suffering from food poisoning due to the llama steak they ate last night. Along with the breathlessness and general tiredness this altitude can cause, they must be feeling like crap. At times like this I’m glad I’m a faithful vegetarian. I’ve definitely dodged the llama-steak sized bullet. I hope we don’t have to pull out of the trek at the last minute, they both look slightly green around the mouths.
I see headlights in the distance and grab my day pack. We hurry down the stairs to the street where Eddy is already waiting. The driver of the minivan jumps out and takes our packs and crams them in the back of the van. “Buenas dias” he says with a smile. My Spanish is questionable at best. At least I am well acquainted with the word for thank you which is “gracias”. I love the sound of it on my lips, it’s sexy. Don’t ask me why. We travel in silence through the dark streets of Cusco. There are two others in the car and we’ve all tentatively said hello. I pick up on English accents and another I can’t place.
We drive through the empty centre square. The church towers above all other buildings with its beautiful form. I love this time of day: without the tourists everything seems more majestic. Less interfered with. We are dropped in a smaller square and when the bus arrives we all climb enthusiastically aboard. There are about fourteen of us in total and two guides. The main guide is Edwin. He is the bubbly sort and of Incan descent. He tells us it is going to take two hours to get to the destination where we will start the trek. The bus starts rolling into action and the lights dim. I close my eyes and welcome the possibility of two hours of sleep. The more adventurous half of me is practically bouncing with the desire to look out the window and drink in the amazing scenery of the Sacred Valley. She can wait.
I wake to find the bus is at a halt. I look out the window and see a stunning view of mountains in the distance, covered in a thick layer of cloud. Everyone around me is stirring and I become aware of an engine struggling. I realise, in my drowsy state, that the bus is bogged down in mud. The two guides are outside digging it away from the wheels. Half the bus has disembarked to stretch their legs or take a cigarette break. I decide to join them and jump off to see what is going on. I run into two guys. One is the English bloke from the minivan and another has a mysterious accent. They stop talking and introduce themselves to me. There is Jostein from Norway and Dan from England. Behind me the rest of the bus is pouring off to get a glimpse of the drama. The guides and the men from the bus have started pushing it, while the engine struggles noisily. I consider helping but my measly short ass self will hardly be of assistance. They try this for ten minutes before the bus starts to crawl forward and everyone races back on before our luck changes. I notice that this incident has given people a sense of camaraderie. There is now more chatter on the bus as people lean over their seats to talk to each other. Nothing like a bit of drama to kick-start a bonding experience.
Half an hour later we arrive in a small down. There is a church and a few stalls catering to tourist walking needs. There are trekking poles, water bottles and rain-jackets. We rush over to purchase a waterproof casing for our packs after being warned our possessions might end up a rained-on mess without it. We file into a “cafe” where a long table is set up with bread, jam and cocoa leaves. A lady is asking me in Spanish what I want to drink.
“Hugo de Naranja por favor.” Orange juice please.
I love orange juice in South America. Instead of being a sugary, sickly mixture like it is in Australia most of the time, it is always the fresh stuff straight from the ripe orange. The bread is stale but I hardly mind. At least they are offering bread and not some foreign looking meat dish that would have me gagging for the hills. And there is no bloody coriander in sight, thank God. As I spread jam on my bread I listen to the chatter around me. There are people boasting about their spanish skills and others asking the most popular travel questions. Where are you from? How long have you been traveling? Where have you been? I am in conversation with the Norwegian couple, Jostein and Iris. They are fascinated by the fact we are from Tasmania.
Midway through breakfast we are interrupted by the guides who give us an overview of the trek. They are asking if anyone has special dietary needs. It’s embarrassing to raise my hand and inform them I am a vegetarian as it’s a slightly misunderstood concept in South America. It attracts looks that practically say “strange, strange child”. They divide us into two groups: the Spanish and the English. All the proud Spanish speakers raise their hands and the rest of us say nothing, desperate to be among others who speak our own familiar language. They tell us to get our five kilos and pack them on the horse. I am relieved that they are taking some of our luggage. My back could do with a break from dragging around heavy packs. Though I do feel sorry for the horses taking on all our excess kilos. Once they are packed, the guides inform us that the beginning of the trek has been severely affected by the rain season and that we will have to take the truck for the first few kilometres. I’m a bit skeptical when I get a glance of this truck. There are no seat-belts and a lack of railing to hold onto. I cram myself next to Justin and the English couple, hoping the ride isn’t too bumpy.
It’s completely insane! I feel as though I’m on a roller-coaster and about to go upside-down without a harness on. There are huge, sharp branches coming straight at us and thankfully Dan the English bloke has started yelling duck at the appropriate times. I’ve already got a scratch on my cheek thanks to my lack of timing. The bumps are amazing, I am trying desperately to loosen my neck so it doesn’t jar with the sudden and sharp movements. I duck quickly as I hear someone yelp and thankfully I do because that branch was menacing. Despite this, I have to say I am thoroughly enjoying this experience. It would never be allowed in Australia and that’s why I love it. The lack of regulation gives me a high. I could lose an eye to a sharp branch here and the thought is completely exhilarating.
Half an hour later, the fourteen of us crawl off the truck feeling more than windswept and beaten. A few of us have sustained minor scratches from the branches but there still seems to be a positive atmosphere buzzing around us. Right now, we are at 3,600 metres. The air is thin, but fresh. It’s a relief to have my feet on steady ground again. Edwin has started walking and we follow him through a cloud forest. It is stunning. I feel like I’m stuck in a fantasy land or part of the set of The Lord of the Rings. Edwin has stopped and is pointing out some eucalyptus trees. He asks us what they are and Justin, Eddy and I recognise them immediately. It is a small reminder of home and for the first time in a long time I experience the smallest twitch of homesickness. Edwin is explaining how his people, the Incas, rely on natural means as medicine when they live so rurally. He says that just a few hundred metres away there is a community of about thirty people who utilise nature to provide themselves with health care.
There are wild horses on the hill. They look different to our pack horses, more rough around the edges with knotted mains and thick coats. The air is cold today, but the view is spectacular. We walk next to a violent cliff-drop and Edwin points to the place where the Inca trail is. We are walking the Salkantay trek which runs alongside the Inca trail. The Inca trail had been booked out for months but the Salkantay was a great alternative as it only cost a quarter of the price and was longer than the Inca trail by a day.
After walking through the clouds for half the day we stop to have lunch at a small house on the side of the dirt track. There is a stall on one side selling Gatorade and chocolates. Around me is a hilarious scene where a dog owner is chasing his dog around with a vaccination. The dog has a limp and needs a needle but appears to be just as scared as me before a blood test. At least I’m not the only wimp around here. I sit down next to Justin and opposite two fellow trekkers called Jay and Rob. Jay in a young English chap and is all walking-gear, muscly calves and looks like he has just stepped out of a Kathmandu advertisement and Rob is a shy Canadian with a friendly accent. We share our experiences of South America and discover we have all been on a similar backpacker route. Meanwhile I am served a bowl of something that smells slightly suspicious. I can sense it a mile away. It’s that horrible coriander. Justin and I share looks of dismay and try politely to force down as much as we can without being rude. The next course comes out and my spirits lift a little. It is a typical Peruvian dish of rice, potato and vegetables. I take a welcome bite before blanching. Is there a dish in Peru that exists without coriander?
We trek again for another hour before stumbling across a wonderful sight. There are snow capped mountains in the distance. The size of them is terrifying. They are the Salkantay mountains and I discover that we will be camping at the base of them for the night at an altitude of almost 3,800 meters. The air is noticeably thinner. I ask Edwin whether anyone has climbed one of the highest mountains of the Salkantay at 6000 meters. He tells me that two Japanese tourists attempted it once but never were seen again due to an avalanche.
The campsite is pretty basic. There are smelly but working toilets and another one of the ever-present stalls selling the traveler’s sustenance. I sit next to the rest of our group and become absorbed in a conversation with Dan and Sarah from England, Diana and Tyler from America and Jay and Rob. We have been left behind while the more adventurous of the group have gone to explore a lake a further hour away. The real beauty of sitting here is drinking in this awe-inspiring scenery.
We have dinner inside a huge blue tent. It is now absolutely freezing outside under the shelter of the Salkantay mountains. We are again served a dinner of soup and coriander with a side of rice and vegetables. By this stage I am forcing down the coriander with pure determination. I have already dug into vast amounts of popcorn that they provided us with before dinner. There is definitely no lack of food on this trek. I am partaking in a strange conversation at the dinner table. We, the Australians and English, seem to be attacking Rob about how Americans and Canadians eat strangely with their cutlery. The conversation somehow escalates when Rob reveals that he had his cat de-clawed. This turns to a heated debate between the English and Rob about cruelty to animals. I don’t say much but I find it entertaining. I kind of feel sorry for Rob who looks like he would like to take back that little revelation.
We go to bed in our tents around ten pm. I shiver violently the entire night. It is even worse when I had to go the toilet in the rain. I am wearing every layer I own but have never before been so cold.
I am woken by the cook yelling “buenos dias” outside our tent and briskly shoving in red, plastic cups of steaming cocoa tea. I wrap my hands greedily around its warmth trying to thaw out my near-blue fingers. I am tempted to pour the boiling water all over me. Justin is still feeling ill from the food poisoning so I drink his as well. Outside the tent, a steady curtain of rain is falling and my insides clench at the thought of walking the entire day getting soaked from head to toe. I am still freezing after enduring the coldest night of my entire life. I throw on some more layers and unzip our tent. A wall of this cold hits me and I am immediately awake. I stroll over to the breakfast table and seat myself next to the English couple again. They are friendly and share a similar sense of humour to us. I am impressed by the breakfast spread. The cooks have made us pancakes with caramel topping and fresh bread rolls with jam. I drink another few cups of cocoa tea, relishing in the warmth of it. Edwin informed us last night that today’s walk will be ten hours, including 3 hours uphill and 3 hours downhill. This news is a little startling to me.
We grab our packs and clear them out so the helpers can take down the tents. We leave at 6:30 am and head toward the beautiful snow-capped mountains of the Salkantay. Edwin explains to us that the Inca’s used to run for miles carrying messages to the next settlement. I can’t imagine running at this altitude but he explains they could because they had vast red blood cells and strong lungs. We are now at about 3,900 metres and I am feeling slightly dizzy. My balance is off. It is an intense walk this morning up the mountain and the altitude makes it ten times harder than I expected it to be. At least I am not riding a donkey like one of the girls from another group. The scenery around us is breathtaking and the clouds are creeping in on us from every direction.
We pause for a snack next to a lake about three quarters of the way up the mountain. They have packed us some food and I take a bite of a strange orange flavoured biscuit. Edwin tells us it is only a further thirty minutes to the top of the mountain. As we climb higher it starts to snow and my cheeks turn a violent red. The top of this mountain is the highest part of the trek and is an astonishing 4600 metres. This is the highest I have been in my life. It’s freezing up here too and the snow is heavy. Edwin engages us all in an Incan offering ceremony. He offers cocoa tea leaves to Pachamama and we pile small rocks on top of each other and make a wish.
Next is the 3 hours of downhill. It is bloody muddy. My walking shoes are sinking into the ground with each step. We pause and marvel over the skeleton of a horse lying abandoned in the snow. It is a haunting sight. We arrive at the lunch place saturated and my spirits are down. My socks and shoes are saturated and the weather is freezing. We enthusiastically take our bowls of steaming vegetable noodle soup and eat barely noticing the hint of coriander.
The afternoon walk is much more pleasant. We are now in a tropical area and the air and ground is drier. It’s amazing how many climates we have witnessed in the same day. I take a wealth of photos of the surrounding scenery. We are now at a lower altitude and it’s much easier to breathe. We reach our campsite which is situated under a wooden shelter. Our tents are crammed side by side and there are chickens, pigs and hens wandering around outside. The boys run off to play a soccer game and the rest of us sit talking about China under the shelter. I have taken my shoes off and it’s a relief to be without the wet socks.
Our dinner is somewhat romantic tonight. It’s in a dark room that is only lit by the faintest candles. We fall into easy conversation with the lovely Italian couple from the Spanish group. Their English is fluent and I marvel at some people’s ability to speak three or four languages. I thought I was doing well with two and a half. They present me with a delicious vegetarian omelet which I eat ravenously after the long trek. I feel much warmer in my tent tonight.
I am woken again by the cook shoving in cups of cocoa tea. It’s 6 am which is virtually a sleep-in. I drink both our teas again as Juz is still ill. We quickly pack up our tents and saunter our way downstairs to the romantic breakfast room. They have given me a ham omelet for breakfast so I pick my way around it. This morning they have presented us with flasks of a thick brown drink. I adventurously take a sip and realise it is some kind of liquid porridge and it’s sweet and delicious. After, they rush us outside so we can say bye to the horsemen who are leaving us this morning. Edwin engages us all in a formal ceremony to say farewell to them. It is honestly a bit much for me. A simple seeya later would have sufficed. We give them some tips and they make their way around the group to shake our hands. As they go to leave Edwin reminds us all that this is not goodbye but rather see you soon. He is an optimistic type of person.
We start to walk again and this morning it is an easy stroll. We pass a peaceful waterfall and wander across a shonky rope bridge that rocks violently thanks to Edwin. This morning he tells us that many locals have to trek every day for hours to get to school but the government does nothing about it. He also tells us that there are Spectacle bears in the area that are just like Paddington. I desperately hope that we see one. From a distance. Also, it’s news to me that Paddington Bear was initially from Peru. The rest of the group look at me like I’m a bit of an idiot for not knowing this vital piece of information. We continue our walk down a steep cliff and I slip and slide my way down. Sometimes I think I have two left feet. Once we reach the bottom Edwin takes a photo of us all on a rope bridge.
We continue on in this tropical climate for two more hours and Edwin points out various flora along the way. We stop at a shop in the middle of nowhere that sells us strange-looking passion fruit. There are cute puppies running around among a group of chickens. The ground is dotted with bright orange butterflies. We cross a waterfall and I bravely jump onto a rock mid-way across it. I lose my footing and dunk my entire leg and camera in the water. I am instantly pissed off as this is the third camera I have broken during my trip. However, I am relieved to find that after drying it out it still works.
In the afternoon we are picked up by a minivan that takes us to our lunch place. We have potatoes in every form and chat animatedly to Diana and Tyler. I learn that Diana is half Mexican and her spanish proves as a helpful tool to communicate with some of the helpers on the trek. After, we are taken to our campsite in a place called St Teresa where we get ready to go to some hot springs. Diana is panicking because she fears there will be too many germs in the water. I inwardly roll my eyes, secretly happy to find someone who is much fussier than I am.
I am surprised to discover that the hot springs are smack-bang in the middle of a construction site that is there due to a recent landslide. I don’t have bathers and am forced to bath in my bra and undies. It’s humiliating. I don’t know why but I’ve always found a difference between wearing a bikini and strolling around in my lacy underwear. The springs are extremely hot and provide instant relief to my stiff joints. My mosquito bites sting under the water. There is a guy from another tour who is attracting attention because of his Sponge Bob Square Pants boxers. At least I’m not that embarrassing.
After our swim I join Diana for beers at the makeshift bar by the springs. It is a fascinating environment set in the middle of a recent landslide. There are five different mini bars and people yelling at you to come and have a drink at theirs. Half an hour later we are joined by the others and we all talk randomly about anything and everything that comes into our heads. We have developed the close kind of friendship that only occurs from sharing a once in a lifetime experience in a short period of time.
We catch the bus back and I realise I’m drunk. After two beers! It’s no wonder they called me a one pot screamer back in the day. But It’s been a while since I’ve had a drink. I’m glad that by the time we get back to the camp we have dinner waiting. There is loud music pumping from a set of speakers that belong to the owners of the camp. It’s like a badly dj’d disco here. There are also flashing red and green lights and the owner’s son is busking for us. I have to admit he is one of the worst buskers I’ve ever heard but 100 points for trying. That night we are offered three options for the final day of our trek. We can go zip-lining through the forest, we can hike the intense walk or take the normal walk through the villages and along the train track. Justin, Eddy and I opt for the easiest option, the train tracks.
We go to bed with the sound of music outside our tents and the flashing of the lights. I don’t mind too much because I’m exhausted and easily drift into a deep sleep.
It’s boiling in the tent this morning. We are well and truly away from the freezing cold of the Salkantay. I quickly unzip the tent and throw myself out into the cooler air outside. I realise with a lurch that it’s seven thirty and those of us who opted for the train tracks have been given an unexpected sleep in.
The altitude is only around 2000 metres now and it’s comfortable. I am glad to see that Justin and Eddy have almost fully recovered from their food poisoning. For breakfast they offer us gourmet pancakes with caramel topping again before we pack up our tents and bags ready for the final day of the trek. I start to get excited and suddenly desperate to see Machu Picchu.
We walk leisurely through the village of St Theresa. There are local children playing on the street and tropical trees with bananas hanging ripe from them. There is a man constructing a house that is being held up by thin branches. We walk past a river and along a dusty road. In the distance there is a view of the mountains including the famous Huayna Picchu, the backdrop to Machu Picchu.
We stop for lunch at a restaurant on the side of some train tracks and are met by the others who went zip-lining or woke early to embark on the more difficult trek. They tell us they had a misty distant view of the famous ruins.
In the afternoon we continue walking along the train tracks. It is now hot and I am sweating. There is an intense uphill walk for five minutes before the track becomes smooth again. As we walk along the train-tracks I notice a sign that says “No walking.” That’s comforting.
The further we walk, the more tropical the environment becomes with hundreds of palm trees and exotic flora. In the distance we can see the terraces of Machu Picchu and we walk past rocks that are metallic white. There are groups of school children walking toward us from the other direction. They look curiously at us and giggle into their hands. We stop to rest on the side of the tracks and buy some of those strange passion fruits from a lady selling them. They are delicious and sweet and I like the consistency of them in my mouth. We are now on the home run to Aguas Calientes, the landing spot for visiting the ruins. There is a general feel of excitement in our group and we are all ready to see the ruins that we came here for.
In the distance there is a small village that is surrounding by high mountains. They are blue and green from a distance. Aguas Calientes has a stunning backdrop but as we get to our hotel I discover the town has little cultural appeal. It has only been built to accommodate the thousands of tourists each year who visit the Incan ruins. There are hostels, hotels and restaurants everywhere. There are locals dressed in traditional costumes to act for the tourists. It is all a bit much for me. I like the authentic life.
Tonight we have dinner at a restaurant in the town. It is the final night of our trek so Edwin makes one of his famous emotional speeches and we dig into a three course dinner. I treat myself to a drink of Pisco which is a strong alcoholic drink specific to Peru and Bolivia. It is bitter. Dinner consists of an entree of asparagus soup and the main is trout. When we return to our hotel after dinner I have a freezing cold shower and it feels horrible. Everyone else has used up the hot water and as it is my first proper shower in days I am disappointed yet relieved to be clean.
Tonight we sleep in bed and set our alarm so we don’t forget to wake early in the morning. Our guides will meet us up at the ruins and it’s up to us to get there on time. Easy.
We wake to the sound of people outside our door. I can hear the English couple wondering aloud whether we are awake yet. I jump out of bed with a start and reach for the time which says it is almost four forty am. We were meant to be awake and ready by now! We throw on whatever clothes we can find, quickly pack our bags and sprint outside. We assume Eddy has already left and start to run into the darkness to make it to the ruins in time.
We walk along the train tracks and eventually reach a solid brick wall. It’s a train archway and not one I remember from the day before. We realise with a lurch that we have walked in the wrong direction in the dark and turn and start running along the tracks back in the right direction. We both use our torches to light the way. We half run, half walk to the place we are supposed to be and quickly show the security guard our site passes. He points us in the direction of the steps that lead to the ruin and we are off and racing again. Edwin told us there are over 1000 steps and I wonder briefly what that will feel like. We start to run up them, sometimes taking two steps at a time.
In a matter of minutes I am completely breathless. I forget that we are still at an altitude. Justin takes off his shirt and takes my bag off me. I feel terrible that he is carrying both our packs but selfishly relieved. We walk briskly up the steps, passing other tourists on the way and desperately trying to make it to the ruin by 6 am. By the time we get there we are both covered in sweat and my hair is frizzy. We rush over to our group at the top. Eddy is not with them. Apparently he didn’t leave with his roommate. Edwin goes off in search of him and returns ten minutes later with Eddy in tow. He got lost, like us. What on earth is wrong with us Taswegians?
I stand bouncing from one foot to the next, excited to enter the ruins. I hand over my ticket and do the touristy thing of having my passport stamped with the picture of Machu Picchu. Justin is rolling his eyes at me but I can’t help myself. We finally enter and are walking past the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. They are high and their peaks are covered in cloud. We turn around a corner and past the edge of the ruins are are greeted by the site of Machu Picchu. It is spectacular. It rises from the morning mist like something magical. I feel like I have stepped in to a completely foreign world, and an unknown culture. I imagine what it was like to live in this kind of settlement.
I hand my camera over to a couple standing next to us and ask them to take a photo of us. I momentarily wonder what I will look like in the sweaty state I’m in but all that is clouded by my excitement. We are here!! I notice that the cloud is starting to cover the ruin and Justin and I along with Dan and Sarah sprint up more stairs to get a better view of the ruins. It is a painful sprint and I can feel my muscles protesting as we race against the mist. By the time we get there we’ve missed the view as it is now covered in cloud.
We saunter casually back down to where our group is and where Edwin has started the tour. He is knowledgeable about the ruins as he has done this tour many times before. He answers all our questions with ease as he shows us the different parts of the ruins and explains their uses to us. I drink in his explanations and marvel at the ruin as it appears from behind the cloud in its greatness. I want to remember this moment forever. The rest of the group are equally as excited and we all buzz with enthusiasm. This is why I travel. This is where my passion comes from, moments like this where I am thankful to be here. It makes the previous year of long working hours and study seem worth it. It was a hard year. I had many personal struggles but now I’m here and I’m uninhibited and the kind of happy that I hope to be.
We spend the next four hours exploring the ruins and I waste time staring endlessly out at the surrounding mountains. We walk to see the Inca bridge which is not as impressive as I hoped, and up to the Sun Gate where people who do the Inca trail arrive from. It’s a breath-catching view from the Sun Gate. Machu Picchu looks small in the distance surrounded by never-ending mountains and cloud. This view would have to be one of the best in the world on a sunny day. We are just lucky the ruins have been mostly clear today. I imagine it would slightly ruin the experience if they were cloud-covered the entire time.
Late in the afternoon we traipse back down the thousand and something steps to Aguas Calientes. We are all exhausted from the excitement and the five day build up. We spend most of the time sitting on the roof of our hostel and basking in the warmth. We have hours until our train leaves to Cuzco so we explore trashy tourist markets and have a less than impressive lunch at a place with too-loud music and questionable food. I’m looking forward to the train ride.
At 6 pm we are finally leaving. We board the train gladly and all drift quickly into a deep sleep. This is the first half of the journey, after this we will spend another few hours on a bus back to Cusco. We are interrupted by a train-attendant who provides us drinks and snacks. I stare briefly out the window as we hurry past the scenery we saw yesterday. I try to make out the terraces of Machu Picchu in the distance but it is too dark to see.
We hurry from the train to the bus. I stay awake for a while, watching as the bus takes sharp turns and makes erratic corners. I look at the dark shadow of houses as we pass small communities before drifting off again.
When I wake we are back in Cusco, where we started five days ago. It feels like a lifetime ago now. I grab my bag and with Dan and Sarah we start walking toward Pisco and Soul where we will be staying for the night before leaving Peru for Bolivia tomorrow. I am relieved to be in a comfortable bed tonight with a warm shower. I lie in bed and drift off to sleep thinking of the past five days and finding it difficult not to smile at my new memories.