Machu Picchu – it’s a legendary name, hushed on the lips of backpackers; an essential box to tick off on any self respecting Peru Itinerary. When trying to pick a trek to do to Machu Picchu my friends Grace and Kate and I were faced with quite a few options. It’s very rare that you get the place to yourself and the original Inca trail is booked out months in advance and the costs are extortionate so that was an easy one to discard. Then we had to decide how many days we wanted to trek for and whether we wanted to just walk, ride a bike and/or catch a train. We decided on a five-day trek over a snow capped mountain; Salkantay, and back down through the jungle until we reached the base of Machu Picchu.
All of the tour places will try their hardest to price-beat. If you want to get the lowest possible price on a tour spend a couple of hours going between tour operators and have them write down their best price on a pamphlet. Once you get to the place that very reluctantly beats a price and tells you that you need to “promise not to tell anyone on the tour how cheap you got it” then you know you have the cheapest price. When we went in 2009 we managed to get the five-day Salkantay trek down to 475 sol (approx. $170 USD), which included food, tents, mats and sleeping bags, entry into Machu Picchu, all transport and our own tour guide for the trip. This was with Peru Travel Cusco. NOTE: Their website now advises that the cost is $470 USD, however you should be able to get a discount as long as you put in the work.
With a 5-day trek in front of us we decided we definitely would not drink the night before. The next morning with our killer hangovers we surprisingly started off in good spirits. The scenery on the first day was pretty average; mostly scrubland and hills. But what did stick out to us were the vast array of gum trees – a famous Australian tree. We asked our guide; Nikko, why there were gum trees in Peru? He replied; “because most of the dry areas in Peru do not grow trees with wood good enough to use to build houses, so they import gum trees”. We joked that we hoped they got the koalas as well (that really was a good joke, right guys?)
Peruvian food is largely regarded as the best and most diverse in South America. Check out the Essential Peruvian Cuisine Guide from our friends-in-blogging over at Travelwkly.com; blog covering traveling destination around the world. The food on the trek however was nothing amazing but still really good. An entrée (usually a packet soup), a main (usually a fried snitzel with a side of soggy chips) and something sweet for desert. I was impressed with the variety and the cooks’ ability to constantly serve fresh, hot food that didn’t give us food poisoning (wait..?). Over dinner we were told that the next day would be the hardest part of the trip. Something like 10km of vertical, steep, rocky mountainside. We were offered an “Emergency Horse” costing $30 USD for the hillside trip. Because of my exercise-induced asthma, my aching knee, my ever-worsening altitude sickness and my food-induced stomach aches and diarrhoea I opportunely accepted.
The next day everybody left early and I lounged around with the cooks while they packed up the camp and the horses. They presented me with my “horse” which was more of a stunted pony at best. I feared for its safety with someone my size on it’s back, but I shouldn’t have; those Peruvian ponies are strong. I overtook my group, and several other groups on my way up the mountainside. It was nice seeing the grateful look people gave me as my “horse” meandered past them on the narrow, crumbly mountainside as it gave them a chance to stop walking and have a rest. I arrived at the peak of Salkantay and waited around for my group. At this peak we were 4,500 meters above sea level. By now my sicknesses were worsening and I needed to go to the toilet ASAP! However due to the whole “top of a mountain” thing there were no toilets and nothing to hide behind when going au-naturale. I told my guide and he pointed at a small rock that would barely cover my white ass from mooning the group as I went about my business. But I was desperate, so the 1-foot high rock it was! My diarrhoea was so runny by that point that it squirted and splatted out and due to the mountainside inclination I got runny poo on my pants and shoes. Gross. With no water to wash it off and no leaves or grass to try and scrape it off, I just left it there, used a small tissue I had in my pocket to wipe my butt and continued on…. With poo… On my leg.
I skipped lunch that day because I felt so sick and when we got to camp that night I fell asleep without eating any dinner either. By now we had started descending into the jungle and the biting bugs were getting pretty bad. This being our first ever trek we were totally unprepared and these small bugs were completely going to town on our exposed legs (by now I’d changed into my other pants; shorts). The little bastards were everywhere, and once they got you the bite became unbearably itchy. At one point I looked over at lunch and saw Grace taking to her legs with a fork. Now that I was getting closer to sea level I was feeling a lot less sick. That was until we wandered along our path to see that some sort of avalanche had happened and our narrow mountainside trail was completely covered in crumbly, rolley death stones. “Not to worry,” chirped our guide; “it is just from the road they are building above, they’ve just thrown offcuts down the mountain”. “Perfectly safe” he says as we cling on to scraggly trees poking from the rubble and clamber our way over the 500-meters or so of mountainside death-trap. Half an hour later we see a cow on the opposite side of the river precariously balanced on a similar edge of the rubble mountain, only this area was just short of a 90-degree angle and the cow didn’t have hands! It was clearly attempting to reach a very meagre amount of grass and looked so dangerous that the group stuck around staring at the cow for at least 10-minutes; waiting to see if it would lose its footing and plunge into the rapid river below. When the cow didn’t fall off we all got bored and continued on.
L to R: Me and my “horse”. The Salkantay Peak with Grace and Kate.
That night we realised much too late that our bites were turning into pussy, weeping, tiny volcanoes on our legs; and there were hundreds of them. Every time I scratched them I knocked the tops off and clear liquid would trickle down my legs and pool on my socks. Fast-forward six-months into the future and I still have tiny scars all over my legs. I’m not sure if they will ever heal. Moral of the story: Bring ‘Bushmans Insect Repellent’ on any sort of jungle related activities.
By nightfall the next day we had walked along some beautiful, old, dormant train tracks through the middle of the jungle and arrived at Aguas Calientes; the town by which you access Machu Picchu. This is our first night on the trip that we stay in a hostel and have warm showers. Words can’t describe the immeasurable bliss that is a hot shower after four days of filthy trekking.
L to R: My legs after the unforgiving bug attack. The view of Salkantay.
3:45am. Why am I awake? Oh yeah, to race to the entrance of Machu Picchu to guarantee our tickets to Wayna Picchu! Wayna Picchu is the mountain next to Machu, which is taller and when on the top; it ensures the very best photos of the eagle shape that Machu was built in. It’s pitch black and cold and there are flashlights and scrambling and madness everywhere. It’s hard to describe the walk up the mountain. It’s a tiny dirt trail that is in part steps so steep that you need to cling to the sides of the mountain so as not to pummel off the edge. If you are wondering why this dark race is necessary, it’s because the buses don’t start operating until it’s light and by then the limited tickets to Wayna Picchu will surely be gone. Look, I don’t deal with steps very well. It’s not that I’m unfit but when I push my lungs too hard they retaliate by gifting me with an asthma attack. Because of this I was going sloth-slow and Grace and Kate became restless and told me they’d meet me at the top, taking off into the darkness with our only flashlight. For a time I clambered on, probably looking much like a mole in the sunlight, feeling my way along the edge of the mountain. Luckily I was saved by an American couple who were going the same pace as me and allowed me to steal their light until the top.
Everything about Machu Picchu was amazing and made every single aspect of the trek worth it! …Even the poo on my leg. Wayna Picchu was just as epic. The climb up stayed true to the rest of the trip and didn’t disappoint with its paper-thin trails, 90-degree incline and sketchy ledges. On the way back down as we were nearing the bottom I actually saved Kates life.
The lack of OH&S was bound to catch up with us sooner or later. As we tiptoed along the edge I hear a rustling in the grasses above my head. It sounded like a monkey but no one else seemed to notice it. It concerned me so I stopped still, straining to listen. The sound was that of a large rock falling and rolling down the steep edges at quite a speed… And it was going to land right where Kate was standing! At the last milli-second I managed to pull Kate out of the way as a rock about 20cm in diameter crashes in the exact spot that Kate had been. It smashed onto the pathway, threw itself over the edge again and continued down the mountain. It was definitely big enough to have caused a serious head injury had it hit her. As there were at least 30 people on various parts of the trail directly above us I’d figured someone had kicked the rock over the edge, stupidly endangering everyone’s lives. I screamed up the mountainside some obscenities and demanded to know what they were doing. No one had the balls to reply. Later that day a trekker came up to us to apologise and explained the they had lost their footing and the rock simply rolled over the edge. Kate so owed me a life-save after that.
L to R: Gorgeous Machu Picchu (with no tourists, cause it’s like… 6am). Topless at Wayna Picchu (this photo was taken in 2009 so I’m pretty sure we started that topless craze). Vegemite makes it to Machu. Me and Machu. And a llama at Machu (the llamas there are real friendly, and such posers!)
Looking for More Epic Stuff to Do in Peru?!
Our friends over at Flight of the Educator wrote all about Other Things To Can Do in Peru besides Machu Picchu!
Currency: Peruvian Nuevo Sol
1 USD = S/2.96
I was here: September 2009