Cusco didn’t exactly give us the warmest of welcomes. We arrived in the midst of a tropical storm with rain lashing down our taxi windows and rivers running down the streets. However, even through the blur of the storm we could see this was going to be a beautiful city. We got glimpses of old squares, Incan architecture, cobbled streets and towering churches. Cusco was teasing us. Giving us a little peak behind the curtain before the full performance would begin.
So after around half an hour of navigating the bustling streets by taxi, we were dropped of to brave the elements for ourself equipped only with some seemingly clear instructions of how to reach our hostel (a 2 minute walk down pedestrianised streets). Half an hour later, we stood like 2 drowned rats begging locals for directions to which we would receive the same ‘no entiendo’ expressions back – despite our flawless spanish.. 🤥. In the end we gave up and resigned ourselves to the fact that our hostel (one of the most popular and highly reviewed in cusco) simply didn’t exist or had changed its name. We subsequently settled with a hostel just off the main square which in all honesty, was a great find. It was slap bang in the middle of Cusco, cheap and had table tennis and table football all available to guests. We dropped off our stuff, dried off then headed back out into the storm to a small pizza restaurant a few doors down the road. Here we had a beer, enjoyed some great pizza and played cards until we could barely keep our eyes open at which point we made the short trip back to the hostel.
The next day the rain had cleared to reveal cusco in all its beauty. It’s a fantastic city, the ancient capital of the Incan empire and it really shows. From its Incan architecture and roadways to its statues, Cusco has Peru’s Incan history etched into its very soul. We spent the morning wandering around Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square which was described as the very centre of the Incan empire when it was built. It’s a beautiful part of the city that is dominated by 2 huge churches built by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
Even to this day the square is viewed as a centre of Peruvian culture and thus performances and dances illustrating local life are commonplace. We got to witness such a performance where a dance troop that must have been 300 strong filled the streets and the square illustrating dance styles from every nationality around the world. The costumes, colour and energy of the dancers were all amazing. We were waiting for the British ‘drunken sway with a can of Stella in hand’ to make an appearance in the parade but it never did.. probably for the best.
The square was also the setting for our first experience of a Peruvian power cut. This occurred on our second night during, surprise surprise, another thunderstorm. We were just making our way back after a pretty enjoyable meal out when ‘bang’
Lightening struck the main cathedral and the entire square was plunged into darkness. Immediately people started screaming and running for their hostels. This was accompanied by shop owners boarding up there shops and locals dashing into the nearest indoor area they could find- the reason for the hysteria? Power cuts are pretty common in Peru and are often used by criminals to steal from tourists and shop owners. Having been warned of this prior to venturing out we quickly joined the crowd and ran back to our hostel in pitch darkness to find the owner in the process of bolting the shutters. We were lucky to get in!
So after 3 very enjoyable days in cusco, it was time for the main event, the reason 90% of tourists visit Cusco in the first place and for us, a figure point of our trip from the outset. Machu Picchu.
After days of researching and haggling we decided to book ourselves onto the Salkantay trek – a 5 day expedition that takes you a total distance of 85km across some of the planet’s most impressive and dramatic Andean scenery. In the end we opted for the more intense 4 day option so that we could summit Machu Picchu on Lauren’s 22nd birthday!
The day before our trek our guide arrived at our hostel to give us a briefing. This focused around the physical challenges of the route, the weather we could expect and warnings about how our bodies would likely react to the altitude. Following this, we hit the sack at the unearthly hour of 8pm in order to get a few hours kip before our 4am pickup the next day.
Our alarms sounded at 3:30am on day one. We groggily grabbed our small bags that had been prepared the night before. Somehow, into our small day sacks, we had managed to cram all of the clothes, snacks and equipment we would need for the full expedition. Quite an achievement we thought.
By 4:20am, slightly later than expected, our guide arrived. With very few words exchanged he set off on foot down the narrow streets of Cusco into Plaza de Armas where we met several other members of our group waiting. Before we could catch our breath, he then ran off in an opposite direction to make another pickup. Before long everyone had been rounded up from their associated hostels and we were herded into the back of a minivan which set off at the typical breakneck South American pace (they have no concept of road safety).
After around three very uncomfortable hours we arrived at our first stop: a small cabin in the Andean foothills. Here we were served a breakfast of bread, jam, and omelettes and also began to get to know our group with each member providing their back story and sharing experiences of their travels to date.
The demographic of the group ranged massively in age and nationality. Me and Lauren were the youngest followed by 2 British girls, one of which arrived looking like a Barbie doll, equipped with a bright pink Cagool, designer leggings and brand new suede Timberland shoes. She was also seen attaching her fake eyelashes before breakfast. Whilst they were very friendly it was clear everyone was thinking the same thing.. there’s no chance they’re gonna make it!
Next was a rather strange but completely harmless American called Dustin, followed by a Dutch couple and a Peruvian graphic designer (mid 30s). Then there was Craig. A South African banker based in London, the guy was 40 but looked and acted as though he was in his mid 20s, a great character who we immediately got on really well with. And finally there was Dutch Walter – you heard him before you saw him. He had a booming voice and an imposing exterior to match. He was about 60 and completely crazy but a real gentle giant.
All in all, it was early days but we felt like we’d gotten pretty lucky. The group dynamic was incredibly friendly and open right from the offset with some great characters.
After breakfast we handed over our bags to be put on the back of the horses before jumping back into the van. An hour later we arrived at the start of our hike.
The first few hours were spent meandering our way through intermittent cloud and forest. It was also a tough, gruelling day of climbing that we started at 2400m and finished it at 3800m. Overall the weather was a little cloudy and drizzly, but every now and again the cloud would break long enough for us to appreciate our incredible Andean surroundings that we were in.
We arrived at our first refuge after around 5 hours of hiking. The setup consisted of a main cabin inside which was a long table that we would all sit around later that evening for our main meal. There was also an outhouse inside which our tents for the evening were waiting for us, already fully constructed. Despite its simple appearance, the setting made the site pretty spectacular. We sat at the base of a valley that was dominated at its head by a huge, snow covered, 6500m peak that had never been summited until 3 years previously. An awe-inspiring site.
After a few hours rest we were given the option to hike another hour or so to a nearby lake. Myself and 5 others in the group took up this offer having been assured it was an easy hike. They lied. Before long we were scrambling up a near vertical ascent through thick, grey cloud. It was brutal, our thighs burned and the cold, Andean wind whipped our faces.. and to make things worse, the thickening cloud meant there was a good chance we’d see nothing at all upon reaching the summit.
With this knowledge around half the group turned back halfway.. but we persevered on, and we were rewarded. Upon reaching the lake the clouds cleared to reveal a beautiful, turquoise lake surrounded by an awe inspiring mountain landscape. It’s moments like this that make hiking such a great pursuit in my eyes. It’s hard, gruelling and at times you feel downright crazy for doing it but every now and again you’re rewarded and the pain you’ve expelled to get there make those moments all the sweeter. After taking a few pictures we skipped back down the path back to the refuge, somehow our legs feeling as fresh as ever.
we were awoken on our second day at 4am to cups of freshly brewed coca tea. Coca leaves are grown everywhere in Peru and are probably most widely known for their use as the principle ingredient in cocaine. However, in their pure form they are widely used as a remedy for altitude sickness as well as for a quick energy boost. They can be boiled to make a tea or alternatively, as most of the guides choose, they can be chewed raw for around half an hour at a time. We tried this – it’s disgusting. They disintegrate in your mouth to form a bitter paste that you’re supposed to suck on. We politely spat ours out at the first opportunity.
Anyway, day 2 – the toughest day. Unfortunately for Lauren she pulled her groin on day 1 which stiffened over night to the point she could hardly walk in the morning. She subsequently decided to accompany 2 other members of our group and do the journey to the 4700m summit on horseback. The rest of the group set off at around 6:30am into near perfect hiking conditions. The clouds of day one had cleared to reveal a cold, crisp crystal clear Andean day. The scenery was incredible.
Lauren and I were reunited some 3 hours later upon reaching the summit at 4700m. Not so much a conventional summit, the Salkatay Pass is more a walkway between 2 gigantic peaks. It’s an incredible spot offering 360′ views of the surrounding area. Here we took a few pictures before continuing onto another lake as a group (Lauren was much better by this point).
Upon arriving at the viewing point we all sat down and took a more extended breather. Here the guide taught us about the importance of Pachamamma (mother earth) to the Peruvian culture. He explained how each time he comes to the mountains he always offers coca leaves as a thank you to Pachamamma for allowing him safe passage through the mountains. These are placed at the base of rock piles as a mark of respect. As a group we all did the same after which the guide said a few words of thanks in Spanish before we proceeded. Whether you believe stuff like this or not you can’t help but think that the planet would be a much better place if nature was respected in this way across the world.
The rest of the day was spent descending through initially rocky outcrops that quickly transformed into green meadows before becoming dense, Peruvian Forrest. Within the space of 4 hours we could have been in a different continent. It was an incredible experience but was all the same, pretty exhausting. The sight of our hostel at 6pm, therefore, a wooden lodge in the forest, was a very welcome one. And it got better.. they sold beer!
So there we sat, 12 exhausted hikers that were strangers 2 days previously but now sat around drinking beer, laughing and swapping stories in the middle of a Peruvian forest as if we’d known each other for years. We really did get lucky. These were some of the kindest, funniest and genuinely nicest people we’d met on our trip so far and through the aches and pains of the Salkantay trek we’d become a well oiled machine. Slower members were helped along and encouraged by the group, if one person stopped, we all stopped and waited. This was the case with Barbie and her friend.. from the outset you got the impression the whole group was willing them to succeed. Words of encouragement were common place and they received a round of applause when they arrived at the cabin.. 2 hours after the rest of the group!
We were awoken at 4:30am again for day 3 and were out and on our way by 6am, following the usual coca tea awakening and breakfast. This day was much easier right from the outset. Having completed the majority of our ascent and descent on day 2 (very tough day) the morning was spent meandering our way down flat forest paths that hugged the side of the valley. As there was just one path, the guide left the group to do the morning walk at their own pace. This meant everyone pretty quickly dispersed into small groups leaving me and Lauren to do the hike on our own. Whilst we loved our group, this was a welcome relief after living out of each other’s pockets for 3 days!
This was also the day where the group would split between those of us doing the 4 day hike (6 in total) and those doing the 5. This was a genuinely sad moment as we’d forged some really strong friendships over the past few days. We enjoyed one last meal together at our afternoon stop, over which we swapped Facebook information and phone numbers before taking a group picture around an pole camp fire.
We then jumped in a minivan and set off on a trip that would take us half an hour down the road to Hydroelectrica, an old town to the east of Machu Picchu. Here we embarked on possibly the worst part of our trek. While the rest of the group relaxed in hot springs and went down zip wires, we walked for hour after hour down an old railway track (we refused to pay the $30 train fare – how bad could the walk be?). It stretched on forever. By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, it was dark and we were exhausted.
The town itself though was beautiful. With golden fairy lights and wooden lodges, it more closely resembled a French ski resort than a Peruvian mountain village. It was also clear that it catered for a more wealthy clientele. Covered in 3 days worth of sweat and dirt, we gazed longingly as we passed the restaurants, the fancy hotels and the up-market bars.
Finally, at 7:30pm, some 15 hours after we’d woken up, we arrived at our hostel.. and it was pure bliss. To a normal onlooker, you would see a very basic room with pretty standard features. Not us. We saw a comfy bed with fresh bedding that wasn’t the floor of a tent, we saw a clean toilet with an unlimited supply of toilet roll, we saw a hot shower that you didn’t have to pay for. We were in heaven. Unfortantly we couldn’t enjoy it for long as we had to drop our things off and head out for dinner with our new group. This was situated in a small restaurant on the other side of town. Here we were given our tickets for Machu Picchu and informed of the order of proceedings for the following day. After this we wandered back to the hostel and collapsed unconscious in bed.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu – Lauren’s Birthday
The 3am tones of Lauren’s phone alarm marked the beginning of Lauren’s 22nd birthday. Yes.. 3am. In a tired haze I fumbled around the pockets of my jacket and retrieved a crumbled, slightly damp postcard that I had bought as her birthday card back in Cusco. This marked the beginning of a birthday that Lauren definitely won’t forget in a rush!
Once ready we ventured downstairs, picked up our breakfast from reception and set off into the darkness. You’d think at 3:30am the town would be dead. Wrong. Machu Picchu is basically a massive race with everyone trying to beat the crowds to the ancient Incan town. We were on the ball and one of the first out the blocks but there was still at least 20 people ahead of us at the bridge that marks the beginning of the hike. We were initially pretty disappointed with this but after half an hour the que stretched as far as the eye could see. We had done well. At 5am the bridge was opened and one by one the crowd began to disperse as each member began the long hike up the series of steps that take you to Machu Picchu.
These steps were arguably the toughest part of the whole trek. In the past 3 days we had ascended over 8000ft and covered nearly 50 miles. Our bodies were battered and bruised and our legs sapped of almost all their energy.. and now 1770 steps lay between us and Machu Picchu. With a deep breath we set off.
Overall it was torture.. however every now and again we’d stop for a break and look around and watch the sun rise over some of the most beautiful, and dramatic scenery you will ever see. It offered some relief from the pain..
So after 45 of the toughest, sweatiest and generally most uncomfortable minutes of our lives, we made it. And we were one of the first. We passed through the ticket booth (hardly any queue) upon which we were greeted with the postcard picture view of Machu Picchu. It exceeded all our expectations.
Firstly there’s the scale – not so much a small settlement, Machu Picchu is a city in the clouds. With roads, farms and hundreds of homes it stretches off in every direction. Next thing that hits you is the location – quite simply it shouldn’t be there. It’s perched at the summit of a huge mountain surrounded by other mountains in the middle of a sprawling forest. You’re left speechless.. wondering how?! How did they do this?! With no electricity, no major mechanical equipment they somehow managed to carve rock, transport huge boulders and sustain a community of 500 people in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable. Even with modern technology it would be an impressive feat, Machu Picchu was built nearly 600 years ago. Amazing.
So whilst we sat down and took in the view, Lauren received the first of her presents. 2 shot glasses and a small bottle of Pisco – the local liquor (I was amazed these had survived the past 4 days on the back of a horse without smashing). We poured 2 shots and toasted Lauren’s 22nd while gazing down over Machu Picchu. Not a bad way to spend it!
We spent the following few hours wandering around the city with our tour guide who explained the history of the Incan empire and the significance of Machu Picchu. I won’t bore you with these details as I’ve wittered on for far too long and you’re probably bored reading this. Let’s just say I’m not a massive history buff but I loved it. I’ll leave you to research the facts in your own time if you’re interested.
After a few hours in Machu Picchu, we began our long, arduous walk back to Hydroelectric. In all honesty, this was pretty horrific. The route took us all the way back down the steps and back down the train track we had walked the day before. All in all it took us nearly 5 hours with our only restbite being a short stop to get a burger at a restaurant along the way. We arrived back in Hydroectrica at 2pm where we sat and waited for an hour for our bus that would take us back to Cusco.
The relief of finding our bus was short lived however as it became apparent that the driver was intent upon blasting the most horrendous music you’ve ever heard at full blast for the entirety of the 8 hour journey back. Not exactly how Lauren invisaged spending a pretty big chunk of her birthday. We arrived back in Cusco just after midnight. Like 2 zombies from the Walking Dead, we staggered down the streets back to our hostel where we grunted our greetings to the receptionist before collapsing in our beds.
I’ll go back to something our tour guide said along the way that I think resonates having done Machu Picchu. He said that Mother Earth’s (Pachumama’s) greatest gifts are reserved for those who pay the most. At the time, we all wondered what he meant – was he referring to the $150 cost of the tour (Unbelievable value), maybe angling for a bigger tip? No. He was referring to our aching bones, the pulled muscles and the streams of sweat that we had left on the mountain passes over the past 4 days. That is nature’s currency. It’s true that you can see Machu Picchu without doing any of that. You can jump off a luxury coach in Aguas Calientes, spend a night in a 5* hotel and jump on the bus to MP in the morning but I genuinely feel you would see it in a different light and receive a lesser experience as a result. We had payed for the pleasure of witnessing it, and it made it all the sweeter.
Looking back, Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trek will give you a taste of your entire emotional range. From the lows of exhaustion and cold to the unbelievable high of having accomplished. It’s an experience that tests you physically and emotionally but ultimately rewards you with something that is quite rightly regarded as one of the wonders of our world. Something neither of us will ever forget and truly an incredibly experience.
Day 5 – Lauren’s second birthday
Now those of you reading about Lauren’s birthday would quite rightly feel a little sorry for her. Yes Machu Picchu was incredible but much of her birthday was spent hiking and on a horrendous bus ride back to Cusco. We therefore agreed that we would celebrate her birthday again upon returning back to Cusco. So we did just that.
The morning after we enjoyed a long lie in before I got up to make breakfast in bed. After this we headed out into where we both enjoyed 1 hour Incan Massages. Oils, candles, and hot stones – we got the works. These were incredible – we could physically feel our aches and pains seeping away and it was inexpensive.
Next we had a nice lunch out after which we returned to the hostel and relaxed for the remainder of the day.
Being on a budget I couldn’t afford too many presents so I decided to spread them out throughout the day, starting with he smallest. These included:
,- A llama key ring
– A bracelet
– A pair of llama wool socks
– A Peruvian bag
Overall, the presents went down unbelievably well and we enjoyed a really nice day. We had planned to head out into Cusco for drinks that evening but by 9pm, having averaged 4 hours sleep a night for the past 5 days, we both collapsed and passed out in bed – birthday drinks would have to be reserved for another night!