Cusco – From the Salkantay to Machu Picchu

*Yes, we are still alive! No, we are not traveling anymore! Yes, we definitely want to go back!

We are now back to a “normal” life, so we have a lot of trouble catching up with the blog! Thanks to our notes and memories we’ll nevertheless try to write about our last few weeks of travels!*

Done with the jungle’s humidity and mosquitoes, we flew to the city of Cusco, altitude 3400m, and gave ourselves a few days to get used to the altitude again, and relax before trekking to Machu Picchu. Cusco itself is a good place to have a few calm days before going back to the adventure life style.

Cusco used to be the capital city of the Inca empire and was built in the shape of a puma. Despite being highly touristy, it is actually a really sweet little town where remains of Inca architecture mix up with colonial architecture.

We started our exploration of the town with a walking tour but after standing  80 minutes in front of a stone wall while the guide was describing for the 6th time why the city’s ancient walls were amazing, we decided to go our own way. I mean, the wall was great, and it is true that the Incas’ prowess to built walls without mortar and with giant stones IS impressive, but the guide reminded us too much of Trump so we had to go (seriously, his voice and expressions, added to his fetish for walls really made us think of Trump).

So we ended up visiting the town trotting at random, trying to find hidden restaurants with local specialties. We ended up quite a few times in local markets where a few soles will get you a “grandma is trying to stuff you” kind of daily menu before finishing with a fresh juice or a giant slice of jello-cream-chocolate-strawberry cake (yes, it’s kind of gross but can be good sometimes).

Between passing giant stone walls and seeing alpacas getting into taxis (alpaca = a cuter and softer version of a lama), we organised our trip to Machu Picchu as well as a day trip to the famous Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca, or “Montaña de 7 colores”).

At 5200 meters above sea level, the Rainbow mountain was to be one of our highest hikes, but we were taking the tourist path and a bus brought us a few hours away from the mountain. Still, walking a few hours at this altitude was quite tiring but the view at the top was worth the effort. Sadly, this mountain was unknown until a few years ago as it used to be covered in snow and only the melting revealed all the beautiful colors underneath.

The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

Needless to say that Machu Picchu was on our list on things to see when in Peru. We had made it to Cusco and the question was how to get to the archaeological site. The Inka Trail Trek was way above budget and anyway has to be booked several months in advance. We still wanted to do a trek and opted for the Salkantay course over 5 days. It ended up being a great decision (especially because we got delicious food along the trail!), and this is how it went:

The first day was relaxed as we walked 5 hours with a maximum altitude of 4200m. We visited the Laguna Humantay, dominated by the eponymous peak, and slept in comfy pyramid huts at 4000m. We had a very heterogeneous group so it took a bit of time to get to know each other better, but all of us were amazed by the food that our cooks prepared with the ingredients they had brought on the horses (popcorn, a soup, 5 different dishes including trout and a dessert!). The night was very cold (-7°C, the kind of cold that makes you tighten your bladder until the night it over) and we woke up at 4:30 am to start day 2.

The second day was the toughest (or so we thought until day 4 slapped us in the face…). We climbed to 4600m until we reached the Salkantay pass and a laguna where our guide Cesar did a little ceremony to honour the mountains surrounding us. Then started the harsh 5-hour descent to the altitude of 2800m. Our knees complained a bit but a rewarding beer and a good meal awaited us at our second camping site. We all went to sleep at 9pm, exhausted by the altitude-sun-heat-cold cocktail of the day.

Day three was relaxed for us as we just walked 5 hours down a green valley to our third camping site. Part of our group then left for the base of Machu Picchu as they had opted for a 4-day option. We were a bit sad because in just three days we had already started forming bonds with some and wished we could have done “the ascent” together. On our side, we went to some thermal baths and relaxed in the hot water before returning to the camp where the cook stuffed us with more delicious food.

We were doing this trek in 5 days because we wanted to take a less-visited portion of the legendary Inka Trail. We thus walked the trail up to Llactapata, a resting post for the messenger running the trail 500 years ago. The top gave us distant views over Machu Picchu and we could already look forward to the next day. At this altitude (2500m), walking felt easy and the air full of oxygen. The way down was however very steep, muddy and tiring. 5 hours later we made it to Hydroelectrica, where the train tracks to Aguas Calientes start. We then had to walk three hours on those tracks and their whoobly stones. By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, our legs were shaky and we were exhausted, but happy to be there.

Aguas Calientes is this typical town built solely for the purpose of a tourist attractions: ugly, expensive and unfriendly. The only attractive element for us was the hot shower we had been longing for.

Finally came the day to visit Machu Picchu. We woke up at 4 am and were lining up at the entrance gate at 4:45. We then had to walk for an hour up the steep stairs with hundreds of others while the sun took its time to show itself. We finally made our way into the Inka City that had been lost for 400 years until it was finally officially “rediscovered” in 1911. We were first greeted by a wall of thick fog and for a while we thought that it would never clear up. But suddenly it was there, right in front of us: Machu Picchu, majestic with its crown of white fog, one of the World’s 7 Wonders. Even the masses of tourists around us couldn’t take away the beauty of the show.

First impressions…:

And then it cleared up:

We spent several hours exploring the archeological site or just resting in the sun on one of the many terrasses. We then walked down the mountain and again on the train tracks that we had taken in the opposite direction the afternoon before. We got back to Hydroelectrica to get this time a bus that brought us all the way to Cusco in 6 hours. The accumulated exhaustion of the past 6 days, the painful knees and the feet full of blisters made us realise what we had accomplished in the past six days: 90 km of trail, ascending 2.178 m and descending 4.136 m; but more importantly: a great adventure, new friendships and incredible sights filling our memory.

Becky even got a picture with a local alpaca 😀

One comment

  1. Hahah, nice looking Alpaca…! You guys are heck of adventurers, totally makes one want to go and discover it by themselves… But 4am and -7 degrees… Let me think about it… xD


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