In this second part on Peru, Mark Strijbosch visits Machu Picchu. Unlike millions of travellers to this place who see it as the destination, for the adventurous young traveller it was all about an enduring six-day journey.
Machu Picchu has been done before by millions of travellers. Each have their own selfie, and each had their own way of getting there. They view it as the destination, but for us it was all about the enduring six-day journey there.
Our plan was simple: head for the Salkantray trail, but do it blindly, with no guide and no additional help. This was the budget option, even cheaper than any price we could negotiate from the clever tour operators.
We would have to pack our bags with everything. Clothing for extreme weather, thick sleeping bags for those long nights in near-zero degrees temperature, a tent for pitching wherever we deemed acceptable and also food and cooking equipment. Trying to keep things light was half the battle, particularly as we wanted food that would cost next to nothing, but that would give us plenty of energy – queue a daily overdose of avocados and quinoa, the staple diet in budget mode.
The three of us had limited outdoors experience, but you do discover that instinct is perhaps the best guide. All we did pack was the most cartoonish map we could find of the region, which gave us a rough indication of where we should be. It was about as accurate as a blind man playing darts, but still this sounded like the more fun option – and that’s precisely why we did it.
The day before our adventure, sickness hit me like the first thunderstorm of the year. Our base camp was the high Cusco. Dizzy and sweaty, all my gut feelings were to postpone to another day, but we were running out of days, and I gave the boys the green light. The night was cold, four degrees, with no moon to guide us and no stars to motivate us.
I slept on a stranger’s shoulder through a two-hour car ride to the starting point of Mollepata, where I was lucky enough to be able to sleep in another stranger’s bed while we waited for the next car to pull us up to the beginning as we hitched our way up.
High on tea and a warm curious apple/cinnamon juice with the consistency of baby food, I climbed up to the pick-up truck and headed to the back, along with some local farmers. We were hitchhiking in the wild, and we knew nothing could go wrong.
Early on day one we saw little groups of smiling tourists with no bags and not a care in the world as they skip-jacked the route freely. What we saw made us giggle, what they saw made them sweat: the figures of three giant bags being moved along by three scruffy, dirty guys. Nice people though they seemed, we were in polar, opposite situations.
Where they had donkeys to carry their bags, a local to keep them en route and happy, their professional-looking guides would even pitch their tent – pure luxury, but we weren’t jealous. While they followed each other in single file, we made our own way up the mountain, creating new paths and memories as we navigated the tough terrain, often just a wee slip away from a 30-metre drop.
It was wild, and it was free. The mountains hugged us and we were also initially lucky with the weather – leaving us to enjoy a beautiful day of trekking. Our target was Salkantaypampa on day 1, with an altitude of 4,000m and we were the last of the tourists to arrive. What greeted us was a dark, soggy campsite and with my fever rising, I was quick to pitch the tent and head straight to bed, conserving energy as Simone and Xavi trekked further to enjoy Humanity Lake.
It was wild, and it was free. The mountains hugged us
Regrettably, my energy was depleting and after a feverish night, morning came too soon. It was now time to hit our highest point, hitting Salkantay Mountain, peaking at 4,630m. Not an ideal altitude for a sick trekker, but the adventure that awaited me was beyond imagination.
Sick and falling behind, we knew we had to peak by 3pm to make it down the mountain on time before dark, but with lead weights for feet and zero energy in any muscles I knew this was a tall order.
We found the tiniest wooden shelter being used as a mini shop by a local farmer and I lay down to catch some more trippy dreams. As I was slowing the trio down, it was time to make a decision. I would send Simone and Xavi up the mountain without me, in hope they would find a donkey to drag my body up the peak – and if they did not return I would camp the night.
As my friends slowly disappeared over the hill, the thick mist make them vanish in a slow and painful way, I turned around to see that even the local farmer was too cold. He gathered his belongings and left me to my own devices. Lying down on a damp, flat piece of rock, surrounded by nothing but wilderness, I was completely alone, and all I could hear were my own chattering teeth. I layered up, slept and was soon awakened by sickening fear which literally forced me to spring onto my clumsy feet, fetch my bag and start my own hike uphill, with no sign of the promised donkey, or indeed my buddies.
Rain clouds were gathering, threatening to open fire and as soon as I hit my first 100m, glorious rain fell down on me, feeding my energy drop by drop. I felt alive, I was alone and for some reason deliriously happy. Each footstep was heavy and painful, but purposeful and as soon as I saw the first donkey on the hill top I automatically gathered speed.
It’s amazing what the right dose of adrenaline can do. That donkey, however, came and went, as his farmer was too busy hoarding some 20 of them besides me. It was like being an all-you-can-eat feast, but you simply cannot eat.
Stubborn and very angry at life, I carried on uphill, cursing my luck as the day grew shorter. I had two choices: climb to the peak alone, sick and in pain or head back to my hut which was now out of sight. I marched on, thankfully knowing the tides of my fortunes would turn, and when they did – it was glorious. I never knew a donkey could look better than Machu Picchu and I never knew I would be so excited to get on one of these wild animals.
Marco, his owner, tried his best to tie the donkey down so I would be able to haul myself and my bag up, and immediately the beast ran away with me on top – luckily heading in the right direction. On the donkey I slipped in and out of conciousness several times, being roughly awakened as he almost slipped on the wet terrain. Marco, loosely dressed and wearing crocs, yes crocs, in this wild weather, caught up and dragged the both of us to my peak – the peak of Salkantray, where I was never so happy to see my friends greet me with wide grins and cups of warm tea and rum.
The silent Marco soon vanished back down the hill and that 20-minute donkey ride literally saved my trip. On the peak, the mountain which motivated us three to endure the adventure saluted us and made all our troubles go away – and we all know, heading downhill is much much easier. We made the 3pm deadline and now had only the final 22km to go to our next camp site.
The pattern continued until we finally reached Aquas Caliente, an area all travellers are familiar with. Heavily bombarded with tourists, it was our rest of the night, keeping our legs warm to tackle the thousands of steps leading up to Machu Picchu. I have never climbed so many steps and setting off before the break of dawn was the perfect idea.
We were among the first to reach the wonderful site, did our exploration and soon turned our back on her as the hoards of buses arrived unloading camera-happy tourists who quickly filled the place. For us, the journey was complete; we made it in the most extreme circumstances, but still had the final 16km to go.
Tired of aimless and endless walking, we broke up the final journey by zip lining our way down the mountain range for a fun-filled afternoon. It was a break we deserved and thought it was all about having fun; we yearned for a little rest but loved the rush.
(To be continued)
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