The flight into Cusco, Peru is intimidating, mountains close in on all sides forcing the plane to bank steeply as it dives into the valley. We get our first warning that this trip won’t be as warm as expected when the pilot announces that the ground temperature is 0 degrees Celsius.
Like everyone else we’re here to visit Machu Picchu and we’ve chosen a 5 day trek over mountains and through the jungle to get there.
The first thing I felt disembarking was the cold, the pilot’s forecast was spot on and a T-shirt and hoodie was not suitable attire. The second thing I felt was how thin the air was. At 3400 metres above sea level it takes some time to acclimatise to Cusco. Upon arrival at our hostel we were offered Coca tea, a staple of the Andean diet which helps the body cope with the altitude (yes, the same Coca plant that cocaine is derived from).
Plaza De Armas in Cusco
We spent the next two days is Cusco acclimatising and gathering supplies for our trip including sunblock, insect repellent, flashlights and water purification tablets.
There are hundreds of tour companies offering Machu Picchu treks, with seemingly very little differentiation. Walking around Cusco we were accosted every few metres with offers of Machu Picchu tours and if you’re flexible you can probably save money by signing up only a day or two in advance. Based on a friend’s recommendation and TripAdvisor we booked our tour a few months in advance with BioAndean, a 100% Peruvian company who advertised a maximum group size of 10.
The Inca Trail is the most famous and therefore most popular route to Machu Picchu, unfortunately that means it’s crowded, expensive and booked out months in advance. We chose the Salkantay trek instead which takes a different route over a higher mountain pass than the Inca Trail.
The night before our trek began we met our guide Edwin and our fellow trekkers: A couple from Minnesota, a couple from Washington, DC, two friends from New York plus Som and I made 8.
After two days of acclimatising we were still getting short of breath climbing a single flight of stairs and the rest of the group seemed like experienced trekkers so confidence was not high. But it was far too late to turn back.
Day 1: Warmup
3:30am is a completely unreasonable time to wake up. We rushed our last hot shower for 4 days and headed out to wait for our van. Breakfast was a 3 hour drive away in a tiny village halfway up a mountain. By 9am we were at the trailhead donning rain pants and ponchos under a light rain.
Here we met the rest of the team helping us on the trek. As well as our guide Edwin there was Amazing (real name: Amansio) the chef, Alfredo the assistant chef, and two horsemen.
Most of our gear was carried by mules led by one of the horsemen, who sped ahead with the chefs to prepare our meals and campsites. The other horsewoman led an extra horse requested by one of our group with a leg injury. So our trekking party consisted of 8 trekkers, 1 guide, 1 horsewoman, 1 horse (mule) and 1 dog.
The trek begins! Keeping our feet dry so far
We walked for about 4 hours before lunch, mostly uphill on a track, sometimes on a 4WD road for patches. I wasn’t sure what kind of food to expect on the trip but lunch was definitely amazing. We started with a tea, then a cauliflower pizza entree, then a soup, and then the main course: four huge platters of food in the middle of the table. The chef Amazing had earned his nickname.
After lunch we walked a few more hours to our first campsite where we found our tents set up and our thermarests inflated.
Our campsite for the night
Day 2: The mountain pass
By the start of the second we’d learned everyone’s names. Noah and Amanda from Washington, both mathematicians working for the government. Luke, a murse (male nurse) and Keegan (a doctor) from Minnesota. Lauren and Julie, both therapists from New York.
The second day is the hardest, we had been warned. On the first day we walked only 10km, the second day called for more than 20km. That meant an early start, we were woken at 5.15 with hot Coca tea.
After an amazing breakfast of fruit salad and pancakes we set out to climb over the Salkantay mountain pass. The light rain quickly turned to snow. We walked uphill for 3 and a half hours as the gentle snow turned into a blizzard.
Climbing up in the snow
Edwin showed no sign of concern though and we reached the top of the pass without incident, took some quick photos and rushed down the other side towards lunch.
Brief celebrations at the top
Lunch was a low point of the trip; we were freezing cold, wet and had terrible headaches from the altitude. After lunch things started to improve, we walked down the mountain until we entered the jungle and its mosquito inhabitants.
Heading down into the jungle
The rest of the way to the campsite was a pleasant stroll through the jungle with amazing views around every turn.
Day 3: The promise of hot pools
The third day was a recovery day which meant a sleep in - until 6am. The schedule called for 5 hours walking before lunch, then the afternoon was free for visiting the local hot pools.
As we continued to trek through the jungle Edwin pointed out various orchids, edible plants including wild strawberries and poisonous white caterpillars which suddenly appeared everywhere. There were caterpillars on the track, around the track and even dangling in midair above the track.
A natural thermal spring we passed on the way, a teaser of hot pools to come
All our campsites featured some facilities and a tiny shop, which was super helpful when I misplaced our toothbrushes and toothpaste. This time the campsite was on the outskirts of a small village which meant more amenities including a flat screen TV!
Time for some shopping
After another amazing lunch we piled into a van to take us to the hot pools. Some locals rode on the roof. Edwin had neglected to mention that we had to drive “the road of death” to get there, with a massive cliff on one side. We survived, and the hot pools were worth it (photos to come courtesy of Luke’s waterproof camera).
Hot pools at last!
That night Chef Amazing managed to bake a very impressive cake in a pot which I hadn’t seen done before but apparently this is called a Dutch oven.
Day 4: The Inca Trail
As Edwin explained to us there’s the ‘Inca Trail’ and then there are other Inca trails, 16,000 kilometres worth on total. On the fourth day we walked on an Inca trail through coffee plantations and past waterfalls. We also saw banana plants, lemon-orange trees, passionfruit, avocados, and several varieties of wild potatoes.
Just before lunch we passed a set of partially excavated Incan ruins which used to serve as a lodging house for Incan messengers who would carry coded messages between Incan cities. Archaeologists are constantly rediscovering Incan ruins to this day and as they do so our knowledge of the Incan civilization continues to evolve.
Incan ruins we passed along the way
After lunch we walked along train tracks (we were also given the option of catching the train) to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of Macchu Pichu. Having finally returned to civilisation we dined at a restaurant and had palta rellena as an entree, a fantastic dish consisting of an avocado cut open and filled with other vegetables.
Walking along the train tracks
But that’s just the first of the luxuries we experienced in Aguas Calientes. We stayed in a hostel, in a private room with an ensuite and sometimes-hot showers. And of course Wifi.
Day 5: Machu Picchu
Another 3.30am start. Luke, Keegan, Som and I elected to walk up 2,000 stairs to Machu Picchu. The others caught the bus up. That’s how we found ourselves at 4.45am chatting to an Australian while waiting for the gate to open. It’s not a race but it felt like one as we overtook other groups climbing the stairs.
There’s was a predawn fog hanging around the mountains giving everything a mystic feel as we walked up. We reached the top well before dawn but instead of burning off the fog closed in. We donned rainjackets and missed the sunrise.
The fog before closing in
By 8am the fog finally started to clear much to everyone’s relief and we started taking lots of photos.
The fog clears
Then we started our climb up Waynapichu, a small peak overlooking the main ruins. This took about an hour and involved climbing some very steep steps with terrifying drop offs. We were rewarded with amazing views down on Machu Picchu.
The climb up Waynapichu
The view from the top
By 2pm we’d been awake for over 10 hours, 8 of which were spent at Machu Picchu. We’d visited all the sites on the map and taken hundreds of photos. Mission accomplished, time to go home.
2,000 steps down, 2 dinners, a train ride and a van ride later we were back at our hostel in Cusco. All up we walked over 80 kilometres.
I highly recommend visiting Machu Picchu and also BioAndean as a tour company. I think the Salkantay route was the best for us but they have many different routes with different focuses (cultural, adventure, etc). I also highly recommend Waynapichu which is an optional extra.
There are plenty more photos from the trip on Facebook:
Day 1: Warmup
Day 2: The Mountain Pass
Day 3: The promise of Hot Pools
Day 4: The Inca Trail
Day 5: Macchu Pichu