On my fifth day in Peru, I woke up at 6am and waited to be collected by my adventure company. Starting in high sprits we drove for 3 hours through the beautiful valley, with panoramic views of the Salkantay Mountain. Zig zag we climbed higher and higher, eventually onto rocky dirt roads, finally reaching our drop-off point close to 12,000 ft above sea level. We got up, stretched, took a group shot, readied our gear and water pipes, and began our trek on a dirt track snaking up.
In less than 5 minutes my face was flushed, my lungs burning and my heart pumping so hard against my chest that I could feel my vision pulsating – a state my body usually comes to after half an hour of running. My guide, Diego and the rest patiently waited for me as I huffed and puffed for the next to 2-3 hrs till our lunch spot of Soraypampa. We were walking by stunning views but my screaming legs kept terrorising me. After a fantastic lunch in our tent, and a small siesta in the strong sun, we started again. This time I noticed that the more seasoned traveller Bram was also getting slightly uneasy. His was an onset of a terrible headache and rough breathing. Diego explained to me that we were both facing typical symptoms of altitude sickness, and that he was keeping a close eye on us to detect if it worsened.
That night we camped at Salkantaypampa, the basecamp of the Salkantay glacier, at almost 13,000 feet above sea level – a small enchanting valley surrounded by towering mountains and looked over by the majestic glacier that glowed numinously in the night. An icy cold brook gushed through, and grazing horses dotted the green yellow slopes. This would be the coldest night of our trek, Diego warned us. We set up our tents, unpacked and rested our feet. Tea was served, followed soon by dinner served in a larger tent. All nine of us huddled in the small space under a solitary gas lamp, rubbed our hands, ate good warm food and played rounds of Uno, in Spanish. No one really spoke Spanish, which in turn made the game more amusing. Diego narrated fantastical tales of trekkers losing their minds to altitude sickness and wandering off into the night.
A spectacular star-gazing session afterwards was cut short by the need for sleep and to get away from the biting wind and sharp dip in temperature. Exhausted prematurely, unbelievably cold and suffering from altitude sickness, I started having breathing issues by 9pm. Every time I fell asleep, I was jolted awake because of the lack of oxygen in my lungs. Gasping quite unceremoniously, I scampered off into the pitch dark looking for Diego while his zombie stories circled round in my mind. The moment I found him he strapped on an oxygen mask on me, forcing me to breathe in as deeply as I could. He then made me rub a potent herb oil, monia, in my palms and sniff deeply. I coughed violently as my lungs expanded again and without any control over myself, I broke down into hysterical sobs. I quietened almost immediately, but was mortified by my display of drama. It happens, Diego said, to the best of them. It wasn’t much solace, but just being able to breath again brought me some comfort and I went back to my tent where I spent the rest of the night trying to keep my body from freezing.
On my second day of the trek we woke up at 5 am to coca tea, breakfasted on warm porridge and pancakes and packed up our tents and bags. It was a fresh and absolutely beautiful morning but Diego advised me to take a horse for the first half of the day, as we were going to go through, what was locally nicknamed, The Gringo Killer. Gringo is a term, mainly used in Spanish-speaking countries, to refer to an English-speaking foreigner, especially an American. If it kills them, I thought, I wasn’t likely to survive it at all. So I put aside my bruised pride and jumped up on Bolero, my able but very whiny horse. Bolero kept neighing for his friends and at one point I was pretty sure he would shrug me off at the corner of the mountain and go join them. We rode on narrow routes spiralling up, beside and above the Apurímac River, which is actually the source of the Amazon River, the world’s largest river system! Soon a cloud came over the sun, and it started drizzling. Within the next half hour, the drizzle turned to sleet and then we rode into full on snow. Soft white flakes filled every possible space and reduced visibility to a minimal, with the temperature now getting very cold. I soon overtook my group, naturally, with the horse being more adept at making these trips, and made a solitary journey with Bolero and another guide into another smaller still valley.
Serene and immeasurably quiet, the land sat still and peaceful up there, with misty clouds hanging low. At one point I decided to get off the horse and brave the walk up to the Apacheta pass. It was unbelievably hard, and my lungs fought with me, but I fought back and very slowly made it to the top. At over 15,000 ft above sea level, it’s the highest point of the entire trip, and possibly the hardest, but it brings one as close to the Salkantay glacier as possible, and right into the clouds. As the team joined in later, we took celebratory pictures and partook in the ancient tradition of piling a stone each, gathered along the route, atop each other into small totemic prayer offerings.
Another hike down 3 hours or so through surreal landscape led us through silence and desolation where the vast and barren land was littered with boulders and shrouded in a mysterious fog. We finally reached our lunch camp where Bram showed more signs of altitude sickness but was unfortunately unable to get any oxygen. After lunch we began again and continued to descend. The more we trekked down, the warmer it got – until we found ourselves slowly moving into warm jungle territory. In a stark change from the morning, our clothes were now dripping with sweat and we were finding solace in the cool shade of the trees, the sporadic waterfalls, and the bittersweet wild strawberries growing in the bush. That night we slept in a shared campsite in torrential rain, while I nursed my swollen joints with Deep Heat. The most challenging day had taken 10 hrs of trekking from snow to sweat to get to this camp. I passed out as soon as my back hit the sleeping bag.
Day Three however took a different turn. We continued hiking further down and made our way through what is called high Jungle zone, where we saw a rich variety of indigenous flora and fauna. After about 3 hours of trekking, we stopped to lunch and then began moving again downwards till the end of that particular route, where the tourgroup bus took us to our next campsite near the little town of La Playa. Passing through the town, which is a popular tourist spot, I saw the most delightful mix of hippy tourists – all pajama pants, braids and oozing adolescence. We heard they would be partying tonight at a communal site where many tour groups would assemble for a night of drinking and debauchery. We, however, moved further out and set up our tents in an isolated site, from where we headed for a while to the natural hot springs at Santa Teresa. Being immersed in hot, healing water, after three days of gruelling hiking, left us dizzy with relief and pleasure. It took a lot of convincing to get us all out of there. That night in the tent was not so bad. I took a couple of Tylenols, slathered on Deep Heat, and passed out like the village drunk.
We woke up to Day Four with a slightly different agenda. The change in weather and unpredictable hiking conditions due to the frequent rains meant we decided to stay in the La Playa area and go zip lining. This being my first time, I was excited but also a bit terrified. Hanging hundreds of feet high by a brief harness on the waist, and gloved hands holding on to the main wire, while zipping from one mountain to another unaccompanied is enough to get anyone’s blood rushing. The canopy zip lining in that area consists of 6 sections and starts as high as 500 ft. It is Peru’s first zip lining setup and apparently the highest in South America. Alternating between praying and cursing, I dived into the valley. As the wind whooshed past my ears, I literally felt light as a bird and the adrenaline rush was immense. I gave this experience a place next to hang gliding, one of the few true extreme sports activities I’ve tried and loved. That afternoon we packed in a final lunch, said goodbye to our camping support crew and equipment and drove down to the hydroelectric station. From here we were to continue our trek towards the last bastion – Aguas Calientes.
[quote]This entire trip had been in the memory of my mother, and it seemed like somewhere in the mystical universe, it was acknowledged[/quote]
The trek was long but along the train tracks of Peru Rail, so pretty simple to follow. We decided to trace the metal strips all the way and it offered me a few hours of reflection. This was my final day of trekking and tomorrow I would see Machu Picchu. The journey had been immense in all senses – but the harder parts already seemed dim in the light of the stunning sights and natural marvels I had seen, heard and even tasted. Eating freshly picked passion fruit, getting a birds eye view of the Andean valleys, looking into the green-blue icy, glass-like blocks of the glacier roots, seeing dazzling night skies and listening to sound of untouched nature – all moments from a larger picture. And I was yet to reach my destination. Well into my trek I started noticing the Bird of Paradise flowers on both sides of the path – my mother’s favourite flower. As I walked more, they seemed to multiply in numbers. This entire trip had been in the memory of my mother, and it seemed like somewhere in the mystical universe, it was acknowledged.
[quote]My groupmates began singing a ditty about going to Machu Picchu and Inca blood running through the rivers[/quote]
Machu Picchu Aug 10
Upon reaching the small hill town of Aguas Calientes, we made our way to Hostel Viajeros for the night. The next day we woke up at 4:30 am, got a quick briefing, picked up our snack packets and stumbled outside in the cold, dark night to make our way to the bus queues. The line was surprisingly long already. It took a while but we finally made it into our buses and start going up a winding road to Machu Picchu at about 6 am. It seemed surreal to be taking this transport after the blood, sweat and tears put into the journey so far. Every turn on the meandering road up revealed a stunning view of the valley, and the mountains all around. My groupmates began singing a song they had made themselves – a ditty about going to Machu Picchu and Inca blood running through the rivers.
The queues at the gate of the site are even longer and a bit messier, but it was beginning to get light now and a heightened sense of anticipation filled the air. We clocked our tickets, picked up our site map and walked in. One of the reasons our guide got us on the first buses out of Aguas Calientes was that this is the only time in the day when the site is less crowded. This also meant that when we finally climbed steep steps and were well into the site, our first view of one the most famed picture backdrops in the world was…blissfully empty. We quickly took pictures while our guide took us even higher, to the human sacrifice altar, and it is from there I saw the most majestic sight I have ever experienced. The sun broke across the mountain top, and laser sharp, its rays began to pierce the ruins, while we watched from above. It was silent, breathtaking and surprisingly swift.
I was again reminded of a very strong spiritual connection to all that was around me, and it suddenly hit me – from the day my mother had passed away, and every single day ticked off with a struggle, this was my way of expressing my ultimate tribute. I was standing there, at that spot, watching the most magnificent sunshine and I cried a flood of tears that wouldn’t stop. People have often said to me they don’t understand how such trips are a spiritual experience and that it must be a coerced emotion. I can’t speak for anyone else, but there is an awe that one experiences which may or may not be enhanced by the actual journey they took.
The next few hours were spent exploring the site. Believed to be the estate of the Inca king Pachacuti, the site was built in the 15th century and had the king’s quarter, lodging for the nobleman and their families, and a harem for the beautiful virgins that were kept for the king, or conversely for sacrifice. There were temples devoted to the gods but there were also scientific devices – the compass, the timekeeper, maquette studies of surrounding mountains – and a terrace farming system to self-sustain the estate. The sacrifice altar and the lookout point were at the top. Two exceptional hikes out of Machu Picchu are the Sun Gate – dedicated to the cult of the INTI, the Sun god – providing a view of the site, and the Huaynapicchu mountain view. The latter is a more coveted hike and view, and allows for very limited traffic, hence it is ticketed allowing a couple of entry windows, before and after which you cannot go. For this reason permits run out months in advance and although I had been lucky to purchase my pass in time, on the actual day I decided not to make the climb. From what my groupmates tell me, it is a very steep climb through thousands of steps, which include climbing out of holes, and enough to induce vertigo in the bravest of climbers. However I had decided at this point to leave the group and sit and just…absorb. I had climbed up and down for 5 days to get here and this day would not be spent anywhere but at Machu Picchu.
[quote]Tourists and selfie-monsters were now cramming every spot in sight[/quote]
It started getting crowded by 10 am and I thank my guide for his insightful pushing. Tourists and selfie-monsters were now cramming every spot in sight. I managed to find a calmer spot at the edge of the sanctuary and sat there observing the site and drawing in my sketchbook. As I got up to leave, I discovered on my way out, quite by accident, that they allow you to stamp your passport with the Machu Picchu stamp. To have unauthorised stamps on your passport is not considered a legal activity in many countries, but that didn’t stop anyone from actually doing it, and I didn’t even think twice before I put that beauty on my document.
This was it. After spending 6 hours atop, I bought a ticket for a bus down. I waited in line for what seemed like an eternity, contemplated walking down the Inca trail steps, quickly gave that up, got back to the hostel, and met up with the team. Red, steaming, sweaty and happy they made it down – the champions that they were, they did both the Sungate and Huaynapicchu, and I think half of them actually came down the Inca steps. How in the world did they get stuck with an inept hippie like me is really anyone’s guess! We then got our tickets to the Expedition Train, rushed to the hydroelectric station in time, and got into a beautiful bogey with a glass roof and panoramic windows and an illustrated map of the Cusco region wallpapered to its sides. The journey took us to Ollantaytambo, from where we caught a private bus that took us to the main plaza in Cusco. As the bus rode into Cusco from above, night had fallen and the whole town twinkled with city lights. We got dropped at different locations and said our good byes and I headed back to my little inn to sleep for the night. And bring the momentous journey to an end.