A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Kim Bouwer
I spend my first night locked in a cycle of discomfort – the point where I have invested sufficient body heat in my patch of stony ground to be able to sleep, is the point where my aching muscles cry out for an adjustment (probably chiropractic). The following morning, a friend confesses that he, unable to sleep, spent the freezing night watching the shooting stars. I ask him about wishes. “Yes” he replies. “I wished I wasn’t here.”
Why would a luxury-loving acrophobic with low blood pressure (read, really hedonistic unfit person with a fear of heights but a talent for excuses) ever embark on an adventure holiday in the mountains? Even I can not resist the Lost City of the Incas, and so find myself standing at the side of a Cusco road, at dawn, waiting for the bus to Mollepata and the start of our trail. A recent survivor stumbling from a nearby nightclub guesses what we were up to. “Good luck” she says, describing unprecedented pain. “You’ll need it.”
What she don’t know, is we need it more than she ever did. While the pot of Incan gold at the end of the arduous rainbow – Machu Picchu – is a world heritage site, the Inca Trail is also a protected site. Both are busier than the M25 at rush hour and consequently at risk of degradation. A number of sustainable tourism companies offer alternatives treks past Incan sacred sites. Sadly, it seems that most only book these for the same reason we did – not having booked the Inca Trail in time.
The Cusco based Llama Path offers a variety of routes to the abovementioned pot. Our trek is named after a tremendous mountain, Salkantay – “the Savage” – and enjoys a higher difficulty rating than the Inca Trail. We spend the first two days walking uphill for 14 hours, at a speed and gradient similar to being on the left hand side of a London Underground escalator. The heartrending beauty of our surroundings is echoed by the rending of my cardiac (and all other) muscles, as I struggle to lug my backpack and body along mountain passes, across plains, over rocks. Terror occasioned by the sheer drops and precarious footpaths provides a welcome respite from the pain and I identify another use for the of the ten sol walking stick that Ramiro our mosquito resembling mountain obsessed guide, urged us all to purchase in Mollepata – it prevents that invisible hand dragging me over the edge. The first two days each offer in excess of 14 hours uphill hiking. We are jolted from sleep (or hyppthermia) before dawn each morning with a cup of hot coca tea (which certainly does help with the altitude) and Ramiro, spurring us on with the words “Come on Amigos! Inca time!” Despite being a sadist, he offers very good value for his knowledge of the mountains and the Incas. He takes a strongly revisionist view of Incan history and tries as much as possible to ensure that the Peruvian perspective on the culture, history and customs comes across – often a very different version to what we’d already read in our Peru guide books.
On the afternoon of the second day, we stagger over the 4,600m Salkantay pass. By this stage, battling with the altitude, I feel a strong urge to cry but don’t have the energy. I reflect on my amazement to be alive, and my amazement at our porters. Unlike the official Inca Trail, this trek does permit horses, which with the amazing porters carry most of our stuff. The trekkers carry daypacks, which is more than enough for me. After each stop (there are lunch camps and the evening camps, when our sleeping tents are erected) the porters tidy away, including the delightful task of disassembling the “toilet tent”, decamp and pack up the horses, getting to the next stop to set up – including the preparation of a delicious three course meal – by the time the hikers limp in. It certainly is humbling, to see a 50 year old man in sandals, carrying 20kg of equipment, run past you with a smile.
After the Savage it’s all downhill – quite literally. For the next three days we descend from this tremendous peak, through the river valleys below. The stark rocky hillside on the ascent gives way to increasingly lush vegetation, populated with mosquitoes that seem to think that Deet is some kind of salsa. This offers its own unique brand of terror in the form of rough, handrail-less bridges (really just a loosely joined collection of planks) slung across each river, sufficiently gappy for a good view of the rocky streams below. A fellow hiker shows me how to deal with these crossings – by holding onto a trusted friend’s backpack with diminishing levels of fervour, I manage to wean myself off any form of support until I can cross alone, if not confidently, as least without hyperventilating.
On the fourth day, we are given a choice between an ascent to the Incan site of Llactapata, or the hot springs at Santa Theresa, crossing the Urubamba river on a rope bridge the following morning. We opt for the latter and spend a luxurious few hours, clutching cerveza decanted into waterbottles, soaking our aching muscles in the natural hot springs. The next morning we are pulled across a vast expanse of white water, in a basket slung from two ropes. Our choice of route means that we miss the hot springs at Aguas Calientes (Spanish for hot water) but we are told, in any event, that they do not compare with our heavenly Santa Theresa.
Despite having had favourable weather for the entire trek (we go at the end of April, the dry season in Peru) we are slightly nonplussed the following morning at sunrise, as Ramiro, gestures into the impenetrable fog behind him and exclaims “This is Machu Picchu!” But as the stony structures emerge from the fog, we do experience the wonder of these mysterious buildings. Our guides take us through temples, sanctuaries and residences, describing their probable purpose and, to the extent known, the artefacts that were found there before their removal by “explorers” to Yale University, where they remain.
Was the real pot of gold Machu Picchu, or was it the limitation and fears I had overcome to get there? A bit of both probably. But when faced with the option of a further climb – Huayna Picchu, which offers a terrifying ascent in exchange for panoramic views of the ancient city – I elected to go back to Aguas Calientes with the other slackers, for pizza and a golden cerveza.