Our jungle trek to Machu Picchu begins with a street-corner minibus pick-up. Here we meet our first comrade, a twenty-something-year old American Chris. His adventure started North in Mexico and sadly he is coming to the end of his trip (talk of which always gives me a stomach ache). We hop on board and take in winding mountain views as we head up in altitude. A surprise to some, but Machu Picchu is significantly lower in altitude than Cusco by almost 1,000m – the ancient Inca settlement sits at around 2,400m above sea level. Our tour however would begin with down-hill road biking and the bus takes the effort out of our legs escorting us to over 3,000m. Here we suit up in our bargain £10 waterproof(ish) jacket and trousers that we purchased last minute in the UK, pop on a helmet and hi-vis and get partnered with our two-wheeled companions.
The fog had really set in at this point and there was almost a taste of Cornish mizzle (mist + drizzle) in the air. We set off and chaperoned at either end by the minibuses, we race down the mountain roads in ignorant bliss of the sheer cliff faces looming under the fog. It’s surprisingly cold, and as the rain increases its intensity, the wind chill gives the legs some extra power to throw ourselves around the corners in an attempt to generate some body heat. The mountain road is intermittently a stream bed for intersecting waterfalls and even the most careful cyclist doubles their soaking as they splash through the flowing water.
After a good two hours of racing through the elements, the cloud lifts and the humidity sets in. We really are heading into the jungle. The sun evaporates the surface water, and our cold, foggy ride ends in a hot and steamy sprint. Though just a well-tarmaced winding mountain road, a small sense of adventure is injected by the decidedly manic driving of passing traffic, the limited visibility thanks to the eerie fog, and the occasional aquaplane makes for a few spikes in heart-rate. We deposit our bikes back at the truck, hop back into the minibus and head to Santa Maria for a late lunch. Here we get a clearer idea of our group. A late twenties, early thirties something couple from the North of England (Nick and for the life of me can’t remember his girlfriends name so we’ll go for Sarah), two Chilean students, Sabrina (a Bavarian who quite comfortably sits in my top ten favourite people of our travels) two dutch girls and a huge group of Israelis. Israelis (a common theme observed by most backpackers in South America) tend to stick together and so we are quickly separated into two groups, them and then everyone else. After lunch we head for our next excursion; white-water rafting. It’s a decidedly miserable day and already getting dark as we bundle into our inflatable boats wearing little more than a life vest. Having been lucky enough to raft in Queenstown when visiting New Zealand a decade ago, the rapids were less of a rollercoaster than my previous experience. However, the occasional miss-timed stroke got the boat rocking and Sarah quickly jumped in as an honorary coxswain to synchronize our crew. As dusk set in we floated along a tributary and headed to the vans. Soggy and windswept, but all wearing tired smiles, we grabbed cold showers, dinner and a few beers before turning in.
The next morning was another early start. After breakfast we headed out onto a riverside trail to begin our eight-hour day hike to Santa Teresa. As the river path meandered into jungle our guide Jimmy (a pint-sized pocket of Peruvian fun) stops to show us the wonders of the Achiote plant, otherwise known as the ‘lipstick tree’. Contained within the small waxy seed arilds is a red dye that was used by Native Americans including the Incas for body paint as well as ground seeds used for spice. Jimmy wastes no time in displaying his somewhat questionable artistic flair, painting each of us in his interpretation of an Inca design.
Glowing like sunset moons we continue our trek, stopping at various cliff-edge viewpoints to take some pictures of the truly spectacular mountain views – and also wait for the other half of our group, who appear to treating the hike as a leisurely Sunday stroll. We soothe the hunger pains by feasting our eyes on the luscious green surrounding the glistening river as it slinks through the valley. Our first true rest break comes in the form of a spontaneous cafe nestled within the mountain trees. Here we sample raw chocolate, honey and shot tequila infused with dead snakes. An interesting combination on an empty stomach, we turn our attention to the various animals dotted on perches. A Squirrel Monkey, an Emperor Tamarin and a Macaw gaze at us unimpressed, and I would be lying if I said I was one hundred percent OK with animals being harnessed up and used as tourist attractions. Instead I turn my attention to the one animal that seemed to be enjoying the experience even more that we were. The baby Coati. This little fella made up for his small stature with one hell of a outlandish personality. Flinging itself from person to person, this social butterfly loved nothing more than scrambling all over you, snatching clumps of hair, nipping at ears and rolling around all over you until you gave his fuzzy baby belly a scratch. Life goals.
From the cafe we temporarily (for 1km to be exact) joined the real deal official Inca trail.
We were now high in the mountains, and for some of our group the narrow and stony cliff-side path turned their strong backpacking legs into wobbly limbs of goo. Our pace further slowed. The wait for food was almost interfering with the beauty (especially as I am a chronic suffer of hunger induced rage) and as we stopped at one of the highest outcrops to throw Coca leaves into a mountain crevice, I included a quick prayer to the food Gods along with the ritual donation to the Pachamama.
Finally we made lunch. Spaghetti bolognase of all things – not quite what you would expect from a kitchen deep within the Peruvian jungle – but at this point I probably would have eaten tree bark if it had filled the aching hole that had become my stomach. Full to burst, we lazed in colourful shaded hammocks, the surrounding wild birds and the occasional rooster adding a strangely, entrancing lullaby to our siesta.
An hour later we returned our tired feet into our hot boots ready for the final leg of the hike. Having hugged the mountains West of the Urubamba River, we crossed what I liked to refer to as the ‘Russian Roulette Bridge’ to walk a few kilometres along the East bank. This suspension bridge was intermittently missing wooden slats along its walkway, leaving gaps most definitely bigger than my undersized shoes. Most of the remaining slats were in various stages of rot and this combined with the sway of the bridge caused by our walking motion as we crossed, our passage became a game of hopscotch. Across the bridge we continued low alongside the river, until we had to cross again. Crossing B was equally as interesting. Suspended on wire high above the fast flowing river, is something I could only describe as a wooden kids trolley tray (think of a baby’s trolley walker, one that might contain wooden blocks or some other toy, minus the wheels and handle), with a pulley to shift it across the wide river expanse. The trolley took three at a time, you sit on the bottom of the wooden tray with you feet dangling over the edge. More joy for the height-haters. Steve, Chris and I settle into our wooden carriage of doom and the two Peruanos on the other bank begin pulling us slowly across the river. With legs dangling high above the rapid river water, I break into fits of giggles at the sheer random and downright stupidity at the fact that at after 26-years, a lifetime of education and a semi-professional career, my existence has amounted to being sat on a piece of chipboard suspended on rusty wires, above a menacing looking Peruvian river. That’s when you know you have made it folks!
Eventually after we had all taken the high wire and reconvened back on the Western bank, two primary school aged children approach us with the offer of drinks. For some unknown reason I decline and get instantaneous beer-envy as we walk through a large concrete tunnel passing under the mountain and I spot Sabrina loving life, sipping on a cool-box fresh, chilled bottle of Cusqueña beer. We walk for another half an hour or so before we arrive at our penultimate destination, the thermal baths. The sun is well into its set when we arrive and so it becomes a night swim for our aching bodies. The pools vary in temperature, and we opt for a middle one in an attempt to avoid too many children and the inevitable urine they produce when swimming. We float around relaxing our muscles in the steamy water for an hour before shivering back into our clothes and noticing that despite our careful planning, the pools are staggered with one flowing into another. So the light coating of child’s pee was unavoidable. There is an option to take a taxi from the thermal baths to Santa Teresa the next town within which we would spend the night, or walk the final forty-five minutes. The taxi was only 10 soles each (around £2.50), but there would be no access to an ATM until Aguas Calientes, so we opted to penny-pinch. The two Chileans, Chris, Nick, Sarah and Sabrina, joined Ste and I in an uphill dusty-track night walk to the town. This was a bad time to realise we only had two head-torches between the group and phone batteries were completely depleted at this point, so the decision to walk along this narrow and at times only one-way track was rather stupid. We laughed our way through our adversity and made it into town before the taxi, smashing the last leg of the hike in just thirty minutes.
After freshening up we headed to a local restaurant for dinner. Initially this restaurant appeared like any other small-town cafe, however after our meal the tables were cleared, the budget disco lights came out and the Reggaeton was blared at full volume. Now I would have taken more time here to explain Reggaeton, but thanks to some jumped up Canadian attention seeker, (who constantly overestimates his clothing size), Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’ has done the job for me. We order the house special of four pisco sours for 20 soles (£5) in an attempt to loosen our awkward British limbs and embrace our inner Latin dancer. Pisco as well as Chile is also the national spirit of Peru. Pisco is made from fermented grapes and then distilled to give it its clear colour and its 48% proof. It’s taste is synonymous of brandy or whiskey, and it packs an equally warming punch. Our cocktails have the desired effect and everyone soon begins to embrace the salsa vibe. The second half our group had decided to bake a batch of rocket fuelled happy brownies and we watch in amusement as they, one-by-one, they are overpowered by their chronic concoction.
The next day is a lie-in. After a 7.30am breakfast we head to the next adventure, the zip-line. We adorn our harnesses synonymous of sumo nappies and climb the large cliff to the start point. Somedays I am scared of heights and others I am fearless (I have concluded it’s hangover dependant). Despite last night’s antics, today is a hangover free affair and so I seize my opportunity why the rest of the group are organising themselves and take the second spot to throw myself across the valley. This zip line is advertised as the biggest in South America (I’m sure many other companies say this) and I am suitably impressed as I hurtle across the valley. The zip line consists of four wires crossing back and forth and you take one immediately after another. I glance back to see where Ste has slotted himself in the line and find him strapped upside down speeding along the wire. I chose against the inverted posture. The zip lines terminate at a final challenge – the bridge of hell. Essentially it is a wooden ladder bridge with large gaps between each slat, suspended on ropes around meters above the valley. This description really doesn’t depict how its intensity. The large gaps combined with the sway of the bridge caused by multiple individuals crossing together, meant a poorly timed step would result in the reverberation catapulting you off your current slat and it was pure luck as to whether you made it to the next. The bridge easily surpasses the zip wire when it comes to fear factor and the jelly legs got me good.
After the zip line we are driven to Hidroelectricas. Here the final 12km stomp alongside the famous railway line to Aguas Calientes begins. We start with a quick lunch, our final included within the tour, and then slowly march along the ballast. Huge trains pass hourly and it’s amazing how many tourists are just ambling along the rails with us. South America does not have the same cotton wall culture we endure in the West and to be honest with you at times their attitude is more logical. So yes you are walking along a live railway line, but here’s the thing. The train gives constant warning blasts of it’s horn, it’s bloody huge and noisy and when it comes, well guess what? You just move out of the way. Simple really.
Around two hours later we arrive into the breath-taking mountain town of Aguas Calientes. The rain clouds have arrived in full force and the darkened afternoon sky causes the town’s lights to dance across the river as we peek through the hoods of our emergency rain ponchos. (Not just for festivals folks, here in hot humid climates these throw-away plastic sheets are actually valuable items of clothing for the locals. Crazy cheap, lightweight and functioning as well as any North Face jacket – though of course less fashionable). We arrive at our final hostel (another private room, that’s two out of three) head for our final dinner, grab some celebratory beers and turn in.
The next morning is not a lie-in. Jimmy had informed us that the bridge to cross the river to climb up to Machu Picchu opens at 5am and the queuing begins at around 4.30am. Subsequently the alarms screeches us into consciousness at 3.45am. Ouch. We arrive at the bridge around 4.20am and there are already a good fifty zombies in the queue. After the bridge opens we begin the long march up the hill to Machu Picchu. There are two options to scale the final 1000m up to ancient Inca settlement. A bus winding up the mountain for $24 each way, or climb the two thousand plus steps. Being budget travellers is pretty obvious which we took. I fall into step behind Chris and power up the endless stone steps cut into the mountainside. The thigh burn is real, but Chris and I power past people stopping to catch the breath and race to the top resulting in being second in line to enter. I keep looking back for Ste and am unimpressed by his fitness. I remark to Chris that Ste probably needs to work on his cardio as I see him around twenty minutes later cross the final step, drenched in sweat and stark white in colour. Ste joins us and the gates open – annoyingly there is a cock up with our guide. He skips the watch tower and so despite our prompt entry, we miss the perfect empty Machu Picchu photo opportunity. Here’s the weird thing about Machu Picchu. There’s a one way system, you can’t return to where you have been without exiting the site and re-entering through the main gate. You also are only allowed three entries. Luckily the route our guide takes us is full of llamas who are yet to reach their threshold for human interaction and we feed the banana skins and pet their fuzzy necks.
Our guide has an unique accent and as a group we understand little of what he is saying. Ste is slowly looking whiter and whiter and decides he needs a bathroom break which are also located outside the site. We head out and I do the classic tourist activity stamp our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp whilst I wait for Ste. Sometime later Ste rejoins us and he’s gone from white to ash grey. Something is seriously wrong. I beg him to re-enter once more, grab a photo at the watch tower and then we’ll leave. He agrees and we head in, him grimacing as we pose for photos while I try and pass off propping him up as an affectionate hug.
The low-lying cloud lifts and the lush green mountain views across the township almost sparkle in the dawn light. The intense spiritual power of the place is humbling and despite the increasing flow of tourists as the morning wakes into the day, the wonderment does not become too lost in the crowds. The ever increasing footfall does eventually take some of the magic with it as the selfie-sticks arrive and so advice to any of those heading to Machu Picchu climb the watch tower first thing. Sit and watch the sun rise and the clouds dissipate over the empty city and just bask in the reverence of it all. Ste lasts another half an hour before the grey in his face becomes too thunderous to continue. The rest of the group have an earlier train so they join us with our decision to exit. Ste is barely shuffling and so I pay $24 to stick him on the bus down as I trudge back down the steps with the others.
Now here’s my favourite bit, the when you marginally win an argument and then fate comes along and throws all its weight into your corner. I had wanted to pay an extra $60 each for the train, whilst Ste wanted to save and take the bus. Now as he sat shivering with fever, drifting in and out of a dazed sleep, it dawned on me that by winning my argument Ste would have to walk from the hostel around one hundred meters to the Aguas Calientes train station. If he had won then there would have been an impossible 12km hike back to Hidroelectricas. Sadly my gloating was not able to surface through the pure concern at the state of Ste. It was a real one-thing-at-a-time situation and right now I just needed to keep him hydrated and get him back to the hostel.
Aguas Calientes is beautiful, hosting charismatic markets full of all manner of tourist tat, trinkets and treasures. Machu Picchu is (well for the first hour or so) a spiritual wonderland. The train ride back was elegant and luxurious. But sadly the final day of our hike and Machu Picchu became a blur. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, when someone close to you is sick everything becomes a bit pixelated and out of focus. In a place of real spiritual reflection I was reminded of what really matters. A short-arse hobbit man.