We decided to tackle the infamous Machu Picchu as part of a longer trail – the four-day Salkantay trek, which is a popular, challenging and beautiful alternative to the Inca Trail. We booked a trek after doing some research around the numerous agencies in Cusco’s main square. We paid $210 each, to include rented sleeping bag, all food, mules to carry our bags, porters, accommodation and entry into Machu Picchu. Compared with the Inca Trail, which must be booked months in advance and costs anything from $500, we found it to be pretty good value. We would be hiking around 65km across the course of four days.
We began our first day ascending to ‘base camp’ of the Salkantay mountain, one of the highest in the Andes at 4,650m. It was a really pleasant hike with a lovely group of about 15 people, who we came to be great friends with across the course of the trek.
The second day was the hardest – a challenging three-hour climb to the summit of Salkantay, followed by about six hours downhill towards the second camp. On the way it began to pour with rain and the path turned to perilous muddy rivers beneath our feet.
Day three was simple: sloping gently downhill for five hours, taking a van across perilous mountain roads for two hours and finally walking another two and a half hours along a train track towards our final sleeping spot, the “Machu Picchu town” or Aguas Calientes. This place will probably come as a shock after days of low-key trekking in beautiful surroundings; while at first glance it doesn’t seem like a significant imposition, nestled there in the elbow of Machu Picchu’s sister mountains, its degree of development and ease of access to the architectural gem 1,000m above is somewhat disconcerting. After a pleasant stay in a hostel, however, we slept like babies before the final day.
We awoke at 4:30am to driving rain; eagerly we kitted ourselves in our wet gear and marched swiftly towards the gate which would open at 5am on the dot to let the first brave swarms of tourists in. It’s no easy feat, though, let me assure you: over 2,300 rough-hewn steps separated us from the summit, our ultimate destination. We had been warned of the difficulty of this final stage, and the tour guide warned us with a sparkle in his eyes that we would miss the sunrise if we didn’t make it up there before 6am – so taking this as our motovation, we somehow found the inner strength to haul ourselves up the almost-vertical path in less than 50 minutes.
And there it was. Forget every picture you’ve ever seen; every cliched photograph and description of Machu Picchu you’ve ever been bombarded with. Ignore your inner cynicism, your natural desire to avoid overcrowded tourist honeypots. Because, believe me, the reality couldn’t be better.
It’s difficult to describe the immense majesty of a place like this. Walking to the edge to get my first glimpse of the city, I felt so overwhelmed I began to crumble. My legs were shaking both with anticipation and with the physical exertion of the final climb; my mind was primed to be amazed, my heart aching with someone else’s memory, my eyes spilling over with the wonder of it all. I found myself crying at the sight of the deserted city, taken over by a few llamas enjoying the grass. It couldn’t be real.
Luckily the morning’s rain had disspiated, leaving in its wake the most breathtaking scenes of gently rising mist, lush greenery on the surrounding mountains and clear, sunlit skies. Something you rarely see in depictions of what is arguably the world’s most famous archaeological site is the area around it – the mountains themselves are great round peaks of around 2,400m, adorned in thick vegetation in effervescent emerald shades and providing a haven of beauty and tranquillity. It’s not hard to see why the Incas chose this spot.
As we climbed to the Sun Gate, the historic entrance used by the Incas to descend into Machu Picchu, I heard Che Guevara’s words, brought to life in the Motorcycle Diaries, rise in my mind: “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?”
I have rarely felt so peaceful. This place is an absolute sanctuary of sanity – a place to wonder at human achievement, to numb yourself to normality and crack open your heart to swarming spirituality, and to marvel at nature’s phenomenal ability to keep its most treasured secrets.