A 70km trek, including a one km uphill walk past glaciers, valleys, rainforest, jungle, avalanches and riots. Not most people´s idea of a holiday and admittedly, there are parts of it (like the riots) I´d have happily skipped. But all in all, sore feet aside, it was a wonderful experience.
I´d originally wanted to do the Inca trail, but dallied around too long, so when I tried to book it 10 weeks in advance, it was fully booked. (The Peruvian government is restricting tourist numbers in order to protect historical sites.)
We set off at 7am, by bus for a couple of hours until we hit the trail head near Mollepata. Straight away, the views were impressive.
There were 10 of us, plus the guide, horsemen to carry our tents and a couple of cooks. Although most of these guys were in their late 40s and 50s, they had the physiques of Olympic atheletes. They ran past us as we were slogging up one uphill bit, without breaking a sweat and disappeared into the distance.
Frank, our guide from Bamba experience was a fantastic guy and entertained us the whole way with his sense of humour and insights into Peruvian life.
After 2 and a half hours and about 8 km, we´d reached our campsite. There was an optional hour´s uphill trek to see a lagoon. The others all signed up, I decided to
be lazy rest my legs for the next day.
This was the coldest night. It hit about -5, but our tents were inside a shelter and with sleeping bags and sufficient layers (thank you Latvian winters) it was no big deal.
At 0530, our cooks woke us up with a cheery ¡Buenas dias! we struggled out of our tents for what would be the hardest day. 22km over 9 hours, including a one hour uphill bit past a glacier. The road ahead looked a bit daunting.
The trek virgins among us huffed and puffed our way up the mountain. At one point another walker said to me “Did we really pay for this torture?!” I was thinking the same.
Even after 90 minutes´ walk, the road ahead still looked challenging.
Halfway up, while I was chatting to an Australian walker from another trek group, there was an avalanche on one of the mountains nearby. I got a video of the end of it (link here.) Was that really where we were going?!
At least in the distance there was hope in the form of snow-free mountains.
Salkantay is 4,700 metres above sea level. As we neared the top, the mists got thicker, our legs got sorer and our breathing felt like that of a 102 year old. Still, we all kept urging each other on.
Finally we made it to the top. Lots of celebratory high fiving ensued, and we all tried to look suitably chuffed for the group photo.
After all, we told ourselves, even though there were still 6 hours of walking to do, it was all downhill, so it got easier from here, right? Little did we know…
The problem is that it was a bit generous to call the path going down a path. It just had a few less stones than the surrounding area. If you´ve ever wondered what having your feet hit with a hammer for an hour, while your toes are slowly mangled feels like, this “path” is just for you.
The mist was coming down thick and fast.
Stupidly, I hadn´t given my boots enough time to be broken in, so when we rested for lunch at the six hour mark, I was in misery, with heels bleeding and a headache, possibly due to altitude sickness. 2 paracetemol later, I felt right as rain and shot off as if I had a rocket stuck up me.
The scenery changed at this point. The misty mountains were replaced by lush green valleys.
Unfortunately, it poured down with rain and the rocky path of earlier became a slushy path.
We camped for the night at Challway, at the foot of the mountains.
The third day presented challenges which weren´t on the trip itinerary. Before lunch, all went well. We set off at 7am, finding the paths and weather a bit easier.
While most of the group headed down the windy path towards the river,
me and another guy kept to the higher path, which was supposedly slower, but we made it there well before all the others. As usual on the trip, we dined like kings. We were well-fed with three meals a day.
Then the problems kicked in. The locals were in the middle of organising a big protest. Basically, they were demanding electricity in their own homes and improvement of the roads. Reasonable requests, but it didn´t help us as they were blocking the roads ahead. That meant that we couldn´t drive through as planned and that our tents, equipment and cooks were stranded. While most of us sat around killing time at the river, 3 of the more active members of our group decided to brave the protests and walk on to our campsite at Santa Teresa. Eventually, with one of the guys involved in the protest, we managed to negotiate a way through the first roadblock, cramming 14 of us into a 10-seater bus, with three more on top. We then got stopped at the second
and just had to carry our bags for the 20 minutes to our camp, passing banana plantations on the way.
That night, most of us went to the hot springs in Santa Teresa, great for the muscles! As our cooks and equipment still hadn´t got through, we had to eat in a local restaurant and we got beds to sleep in that night. It didn´t help so much as the protests went on all night.
As usual, we set off in the morning. The river path up ahead looked deceptively simple
but up the mountain, the protests seemed to be in full swing and part of the mountain was even burning.
Here, there were windy, narrow cliff paths up and down. At first we went down the path towards the river bed, but halfway, got turned back up by riot police. We then headed up the other pathy, to find ourselves stuck behind scores more riot police. (Video.) At this point the protestors on the mountain above had started hurling rocks down a bit further up the path and the police, understandably, refused to let us go up that path. We headed back down again, but here was a problem. I suffer from “fear of falling.” That´s different from vertigo. I´ve stood at the top of very high buildings, such as the Sears Tower in Chicago and Reval Hotel in Riga and looked down quite happily, as there is no risk of falling, but things like ladders, spiral staircases and, in particular, narrow, windy cliff paths can scare the hell out of me.
So when lots more riot police came running (!) down this cliff path and ordered us to stay put and the gunfire started above, I lost my bottle. This was my worst nightmare, as there was just a sheer drop below. I´d already half crawled up the path and had had to have my trek buddies carry my bags.
When we eventually got down the path, we had a discussion on what to do. Some of us just wanted to return to camp and wait it out. Others argued that it could get worse in Santa Teresa and it would be better to get out of dodge. So, in the end we headed down to the river bank, where we watched the riots and gunfire up above. (Video here.)
We later learned that a 16-year-old had been shot dead and that four police had been hospitalised from rocks thrown down the mountain. These adventures weren´t on the itinerary, but I guess they made it a Salkantay trek out of the ordinary!
The only path forward involved sitting in a rope basket and pulling ourselves/being pulled across the river.
This reminded me of Indiana Jones and films like that and was seriously cool. (Video here.)
Across the river, to the disappointment of a couple of our group, our guide decided to make up for the time lost that morning by taking transport to the hydroelectric plant. We all piled in to the back of an open wagon like farm labourers and headed off, speeding along the road with the breeze cooling us off.
From here, it was a three hour walk along the train lines, which got a little monotonous at times.
As it was hot, like the others, I scaled down to shorts and t-shirt, spraying myself with mosquito repellent. It didn´t really help, as the mosquitoes and flies were only too happy to dine at the new Irish restaurant and I ended up with over 20 bites.
Finally, we´d done it. We reached the end of the trek at Aguas Calientes, named after another set of hot springs. AC is the classic tourist trap, overpriced restaurants and tacky souvenir shops, mostly selling the same stuff. It really only exists as a stop off point for Machu Picchu and is a bit shabby in places. The main street, weirdly, is a train line and was full of police on their way to the protests in Santa Teresa when we were there.
It has some nice scenery though
and you do get to get your photo taken beside some nice signs.
Our accommodation was actually pretty good, single rooms at last and we chilled out for the day before meeting at a restaurant that evening. Then it was off to bed, as we had a 4:30am start.
Even at 5am, the queues for the first buses to MP a half hour later were building, even though it was still dark.
We got there just before six am for a two hour guided tour. Our guide told us some interesting stuff. The locals had known about MP for a while, but kept it quiet, as they were selling ceramics from the site to tourists and collectors in nearby towns. It was then discovered by an American in 1911. In recent years, the Peruvian government have been worrying about erosion of the site caused by tourists, so have been limiting numbers and are considering closing the site off to the general public altogether and building a cable car up a nearby mountain to allow it to be viewed from a distance. As it brings in at least $900 million a year in tourist income to the Peruvian economy, I have my doubts that that will happen.
I´m not going to spend too long writing about MP, as it´s one of the world´s top tourist sites and lots of photos and blogs about it are available elsewhere, but all I will say is that it´s worth the visit for the scenery.
It was good that we´d got there early, because by 9am, the tourists started coming in thick and fast. With the tour over, our trekking group said our goodbyes and headed on our separate ways, sore feet and memories of a fantastic experience to take with us.