Machu Picchu (2430m), the 15th century abandoned Inca city that lies deep in the Andean mountains was one of our trips most anticipated stops. Visiting the Unesco world heritage site (and one of the seven wonders of the world) can be visited in a number of ways to suit most budgets. To reach the site the journey from Cusco can be done as simply as a car transfer, the train (the most expensive train per Km in the world!) or a multi day trek. The most famous 'Inca Trail' is booked out months in advance and was off the cards for us so we decided, after hearing and reading good things from friends, to go for the 5 day Salkantay Trek. This trek promised the usual scenery along the way but with the challenging hike over the Salkantay pass at 4630m along the way.
The tour started off slightly unorthodox; after arriving at the local town of Mollepata (and paying our 10 soles [£2.50] town entrance fee) most of the group avoided the extra cost breakfast and waited around for our personal bags to be weighed. Unlike Patagonia, we didn't need to carry our entire belongings and instead could carry just a day pack with our 'extra kilos' being carried by a mule; a 5kg limit for each person was enforced. Apparently, the bus taking us to the start of our trek had broken down so a local lorry was sourced and we all piled in the back to make the hour or so journey along the dirt road next to a bloody great drop to the starting point. Our guide Wilson, made no attempt to hide the fact that this was a tough trek and was quite stern that if you mess about and hurt yourself you won't be getting medical treatment quick. We had been told.
After a couple of hours hiking a relatively moderate trail we arrived at our first camp for the night and bundled our extra kilos into the ready made tents - all of which were under a shelter. The first camp offered the opportunity to hike up a steep path to a lake which was meant to be beautiful. With my sensible head on, and knowing that steep descents caused knee problems I reluctantly decided to wave the group (including George) off into the distance and sat it out. Upon their return, we all ate dinner and received another briefing about how hard the following day would be so all headed to bed to get some rest. At around 4000m a pretty cold night was in store for the group but thankfully we had bought thermals to sleep in for that reason - failure to prepare and all that...
The second day would indeed be the toughest of the trek (but not that difficult!) and after around 3 hours of fairly slow hiking. mainly trying to catch our breath in the thin air we reached the top of the pass. The highest we'd been on our travels so far at 4630m. After a few group photos and a talk from Wilson telling us about all things Inca we made the long descent (the total descent was 1800m in elevation today) to our lunch stop. One thing we quickly realised about the food was that although tasty, the portions were too small for this amount of walking and that Peruvian people REALLY like soup! More descending through and into the cloud forest after lunch bought us to our second night's camp, luckily just avoiding the monsoon that lasted most of the night
Day 3 meant more descending though the cloud forest with the occasional small village or orchid for a change of scenery to the huge granite peak backdrop that now dominated the skyline. Most of the trek today was along a dirt road as recent floods had all but ruined the normal hiking trail which did grate after a while and its fair to say most of the group were relieved to see the lunch stop, especially with the temperature now hitting well into the 20's with a fairy high humidity to go with it. On the first day I had gotten a fairly nasty bite from something (I suspect a horsefly) on my left hand; i'm not sure if it was the humidity but by lunch on the third day the back of my hand had swollen pretty severely to the point that my knuckles became inverted. George being a worrier made me show it to the guide but he just said keep washing it (?) and it'll be ok. It eventually subsided a couple of days later.
Where the official Inca trail is purely hiking, our version of the Salkantay was also made up of other means of transport, namely a local bus which took us from our lunch spot to our third night's camp which offered a time saving for you to visit the local hot springs if you wanted. I'll be honest, this did feel like a bit of a cheat and theres no way I'd have taken the transport if it was optional but I guess thats what comes as part of the package on the alternative treks.
Day 4 would be our last day of hiking together as a group with the end destination the town of Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo as its also known. The hike would consist of some more of the dirt road followed by around 13km along the train tracks to the town. What our tour operator didn't tell us back in Cusco was that for the first part of the day we would have to carry our extra kilos ourselves. This wouldn't be a problem as we lugged full weight rucksacks 112km around 'The Circuit' back in Torres del Paine, however ours and everyone elses extra kilos were in duffle bags that weren't particularly carry friendly. To make things worse ours was combined into 1 duffle bag at around 10kgs. Fortunately the previous night, a chap from a company called 'Vertikal' zipline came around touting his zip line experience which looked fairly decent and if we took the optional extra we would miss the first part of the hike and therefore not have to carry our extra weight. Obviously my first concern was that poor old George didn't have to carry the extra weight and secondly it did look good so I took one for the team and went off ziplining in the rain with Pieter, a Dutch guy from our group. George got to hike 3 hours in the rain instead. You're welcome George.
The company was a well set up affair, all the correct equipment seemed present and after our safety briefing we headed out to the first of 5 ziplines that traversed the valley; the longest of which was 900m long! Our guides explained the routine - 1st line normal, 2nd feutus position, 3rd upside down, 4th spinning and lastly super condor! I think Georgina might have died if she had seen the upside down go; completely suspended like a bat flying 900m across a good 200 feet drop but it was awesome. Unfortunately my GoPro must have been on in my bag or something because as I extended the pole to capture the action the battery was dead (I am still actually gutted about this). Between lines 3 and 4 was a big suspension bridge with the wooden slats purposely missing; I didn't think walking this would be a problem but Pieter decided to absolutely shake the hell out of the bridge, bouncing it up and down and then tilting it from side to side almost getting the slats 90 degrees to the 100 foot drop below. Its safe to say I pretty much shit myself and couldn't wait to get off - crazy dutch bastard!
A short van ride later we met up with the rest of the group for lunch and then walked along the train tracks to the town. We had time for a little explore before dinner and stumbled across a small shop selling dulce de leche croissants for less than a pound, it was like we had discovered Machu Picchu itself we were that excited. After clearing the shop of most of its stock we headed out for our last supper as a group - more bloody soup
4am was the meeting time set by the Germans for the morning and knowing they would be gone by 4:01 (ruthless German efficiency!) we were prompt and all set off together to queue at the entry to the steps leading up to Machu Picchu. The 1700 steps up to the entrance is not what you'd call a pleasant start to the day and it took George and me the full hour recommended to reach the top. Luckily our guide had suggested to take another T-Shirt to change into so I wasn't dripping sweat all over the ancient ruins. Unfortunately for us it was an extremely misty morning which meant seeing the sun rise was out of the question.
After our brief tour around the site (Wilson blatantly wanted to go home) we were left to our own devices to explore and with our return train not until 6pm we enjoyed a full day doing so. Machu Picchu is a pretty special place, fully deserving its title as one of the 7 wonders of the world in my opinion (George has now been to 6, whereas I keep going to the same ones twice so I've only been to 3!) George was amazed and loved every minute, especially when the afternoon showers came in against the sunshine and we found a rainbow!
The train from town was an experience in itself, expecting a crammed in shoddy affair (similar to the morning train from Huddersfield to Leeds!) we were pleasantly surprised with a glass roof, leather seats and complimentary table service. But the train unfortunately only takes you so far and halfway back we had to disembark and get into a crammed minibus for the remainder of the journey back to Cusco