Machu Picchu: a paradise in the clouds

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.

  

  

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Trekking the Colca Canyon 

The Colca Canyon in southern Peru – the second deepest in the world – is three hours from Arequipa by bus, meaning we had to wake up at 2:30am in order to arrive at sunrise with our tour group. A bumpy journey and some local breakfast later,  we were greeted with breathtaking views from 5,000 metres up at the beginning of the Canyon.

It was well below freezing and a blustery wind battered our stiff, sleepy bodies as we stumbled around looking at the magnificent snowy mountains before us. We hadn’t expected such cold; before long we were adding extra layers back in the van. 

A short time later we had descended 1,000m or so and the temperature increased drastically (thank God). We stopped to photograph soaring condors and admire the incredible Andes, and the Canyon itself really is unmissable. Wrinkled green mountains poke high into thin blue air while the Colca River cascades, brown, through the the v-shaped valleys far below. It’s so spectacular you feel giddy. We were very lucky with the weather – we’d heard reports of mist obscuring the sights and of heavy rain blocking paths. Yet our first day was divinely sunny, warm for the most part and exceptionally clear.

    
    

   

   

  

  

    
We hiked a good 12km across six and a half hours, stopping for a simple lunch organised by the guide and included in our price ($45). Most of it was a knee-jarringly steep downhill trek, with sections of tricky uphill and more relieving flat. We passed through little hamlets of just 40 or so people, looked in on pig and guinea pig pens, and enjoyed the vast scenery ahead. It wasn’t an easy trek, but it was beautiful. As usual in these environments, I felt a certain peace settle over me as soon as I took my first step down into the Canyon.



  


After an incredibly steep descent, we arrived at our log cabins deep in a valley and had spaghetti and soup for dinner, just as it began to pour with rain. We were in bed by 9 and up again at 4:30!

The second day was shorter, but began with an intensely difficult hike up a steeply-inclined stone track for about three hours. We ascended through the Canyon from 2,100m to 3,300m up the winding path, using our torches to guide us before the sun came up.

When we eventually reached the top we were close to collapse, so we celebrated with a delicious breakfast in a nearby village.

   
   

Once recovered, we headed off to a little market and met a pet alpaca named Monica as well as  what looked like a domesticated hawk.

   
         
     

Feeling high at Laguna 69

Today we undertook the most difficult, but rewarding hike of my life so far: a seven-hour gruelling trip to Laguna 69, an incredible azure lake nestled high in the Huascaran National Park deep in the Andes. 

We took a three-hour bus ride over bumpy dirt roads from our hostel in Huaraz at 5am, arriving shivering and tired but excited about the challenges ahead. Huaraz is a great base for hikers as it’s surrounded by mountains, on one side the dry Cordillera Negra and the other side the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. As we’d found out the day before, there are some fantastic and demanding walks you can do in the area to help you to get acclimatised (Huaraz is 3,100m above sea level).


the majestic Huascaran Mountain, Peru’s tallest peak

The hike to Laguna 69 would be challenging even in normal conditions, with its steep twisting paths more comparable to climbing than walking, and unpredictable terrain and weather – but beginning at 3,800 metres, the overbearing problem is the high altitude (context: Mount Everest is an astonishing 8,848m). The pristine lake lies beneath an elegant waterfall and Peru’s tallest peak – the Huascaran, which stands at 6,768m.
If you’ve never experienced high altitude, let me try to describe it. First, as our bus ascended to base camp, I was bombarded with chest pains – as though my lungs were close to exploding with every deep breath. Once I started to walk, my mind became foggy with aches and intense dizzy spells, periodically leading to spotted vision. I consider myself pretty fit, yet every step was a concerted effort as I climbed higher and higher. The thin air means you can physically feel the shortage of oxygen in your tired muscles, so every ragged breath must be sucked in for as long as possible to squeeze out the o2. In addition, it can adversely affect your appetite, meaning you don’t feel hungry at all. But you must eat – and more importantly, drink. Dehydration led to a terrible headache for hours after we had finished. 

Although I’ve hiked at altitude before on this trip, this was an entirely different experience – I truly felt like my body was under immense strain to a point where it was difficult to keep going. I cut myself some slack and took it fairly slow.

I did manage, though, and on the way saw some wild chinchillas, several majestic waterfalls and lush greenery flooding the area with life. And that climb, whilst it nearly killed me, was well worth it for the stunning blue view. If you’re considering doing this hike, don’t hesitate – you will not be disappointed!

  
We were followed by a hardy cow which, as well as nosing around in our bags of nuts, just insisted on being photographed.


We enjoyed some hot coca leaf tea courtesy of our trek guide, which helped hugely with relieving the effects of the altitude.




On the way back down – which itself took over two hours – we were treated to beautiful views of the National Park as the sun crept out.




   
   

Walking among clouds

After a seven-hour overnight bus we have arrived into bustling Huaraz, getting closer by the day to southern Peru where the most eagerly-anticipated adventures (Nazca lines, Colca Canyon and, of course, Machu Picchu) await.



But there is much to entertain the eye here, and so after a nice breakfast of omelettes on the roof terrace of our hostel, we set out to walk up to the so called “black mountain” nearby. Walking through town there are plenty of food markets and vendors; we even saw one with a monkey on his shoulder. Lines of plucked chickens hang by their heads from stalls where salesmen shout out to passersby, while women in vibrant traditional dress haul small children over their shoulders in striped woven slings.







Huaraz stands tall at 3,052 m (10,013 ft), and the elevation makes for difficult climbing! We made our way up 350m of steep, rocky ground, looking back on stunning views of the city, and finally caught our ragged breath atop the mountain ridge after 1.5 hours. It was an amazing sight.









We weren’t so lucky with the weather on the way back down. After nibbling on bananas, nuts and Pringles for half an hour we noticed some ominous black clouds rolling in across the white-topped mountains to the west, and after the thunder clapped above us it was time to go. 







We ended up totally soaked to the bones and cold to the core in an enormous hail storm. Rain ran in muddy rivulets down the path we had ascended earlier in the day while we got pounded with pea-sized stones from above.

Now, back at the hostel, our sodden coats are hung up by their hoods like the limp chickens dangling from the market stalls we passed this morning. I think I’ll be spending the rest of the day in bed…

Going back in time

We visited some awe-inspiring ruins today, just outside the city of Trujillo on the coast. It’s one of Peru’s biggest cities and the ruins were fascinating. I finally got to put this song into context!
We were driven by our guide to some stunning desert temples to learn about the civilisation which built them. The Moche people lived 2,000 years ago in a society not dissimilar to that of the Ancient Egyptians. Ritual sacrifice, worship of the elements and an unnerving belief in the afterlife were all characteristic of this successful people. 

  

 

Then it was off to the city of Chan Chan, which is recognised by UNESCO as the largest mud brick city in the world, at 24 km squared. The city flourished in the dry heat, existing for 500 years before it was destroyed by invaders and buried beneath layers of sand over time. Its people created beautiful line engravings in the sides of the sandy city walls, a staggering 12m high.

   

   

These civilisations believed in the worship of the natural world: tangible elements they could see, interpret, and appreciate. They revered the stars and oceans, built temples (huacas) for the sun and the moon, and fell to their knees at the sight of a rainbow – joyful at the promise of rain in this arid land. 

The simple beauty of belief in such reciprocity is overwhelming when you see the vast, intricate ruins which were once the people’s metropolis.

It’s not too late to resurrect it. I think I’ve found my faith.