The Machu Picchu Diaries
A newbie trekker huffs and puffs his way up the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu
Day 1 of 5: January 11th, 2016
“Okay chicos, we are going to do this together. We are a family now. Vamos!” says Edwin, our baby-faced 30-year-old guide, as he leads us — twelve tourists from India, the US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Brazil and Canada — up a rocky trail at Mollepata, the starting point of the highly regarded alternative trek to Machu Picchu that passes by the Salkantay Mountain.
The popular Classic Inca Trail, done over four days, books out months in advance because only 500 trekkers are allowed on it per day. I do not possess forethought, so I find myself on the Salkantay Trek, which I hear is harder and longer. On our first day alone, we will walk upwards of 15km and cover 1000m of elevation before stopping at the 3900m high Soraypampa. When I asked at the trekking agency if I could complete the Salkantay, they shrugged and said, “You’re young, no?”
Roberto, our other guide, a friendly, pot-bellied man with an easy smile, hangs at the back of the group and humors me as I practice my limited Spanish with him.
“Salkantay Trek es muy dificil, no?” I ask. (“Salkantay Trek is very difficult, no?”)
Roberto simply smiles in response.
“Claro, no es dificil para ti!” (“Of course, it’s not difficult for you!”)
We take our first break at a grassy clearing from where we see the Apurima Canyon in the distance, and Andean mountains all around, their peaks shrouded by clouds. It’s a bright and warm day, and the morning light makes the cuts and jagged edges of the mountains look even more pronounced and impressive.
As we lounge about, Edwin tells us that Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire and that there were 40,000 trails, just like the one we are on, connecting the various villages to it.
“Many trails were destroyed by the horses that the Spaniards brought,” he says. “There were no horses here before.”
A brown horse, unaffected by Edwin’s comment, grazes nonchalantly a couple of meters from us.
“These trails were used by runners to carry messages,” Edwin adds. “They would each run 10 km in sandals and relay the message.”
They *ran* 10 km. *Ran* in sandals. *Ran* up and down rocky terrain that I had already, in 40 minutes of walking, tripped on.
I’ve huffed and puffed my way so far, even though my backpack isn’t that heavy. (We were able to hand 5kg of our stuff to porters and mules.) My sweaty soles are sore from scraping against my socks. I’ve been chowing down Snickers bars to keep my energy up. But the sights, oh man. It feels like every time I get used to the scenery, something magnificent appears.
For instance, when we turned a corner on a relatively flat trail that ran alongside an aqueduct, we suddenly saw a huge snowy mountain framed by green mountains on either side, and by drifting clouds above.
“That is Humantay,” Roberto said. “Huma means head in Quechua. It is the head of heaven.”
He then pointed out two tiny man-made structures at the base of the mountain that looked impossibly far away.
“We will stop there for lunch, and sleep there in the night,” he said, and added for good measure, “Vamos.”
I was the last one to make it to the campsite, but I made it and I’ve decided that’s all that matters. I’m now sitting outside, airing my feet, talking to Jandi, the most adorable 12-year-old boy who hasn’t stopped smiling since I told him I’m from India.
“India, ahhh India!” he exclaims and asks me tons of questions about the country. Then he asks me what I do. I write, I say, and he asks me to narrate a story. “In a village in India there was a little boy like you,” I say in broken Spanish. “And he was asked to look after a telephone and pass on the messages that were left behind.”
I hit the limits of my Spanish right there, but Jandi says that’s okay and that he really likes the story. Did I mention that he’s the most adorable 12-year-old?
Roberto calls out to the trekkers and says there’s a lagoon that’s a one-hour walk away. I’ve made it this far, what’s in an hour?
What’s in an hour? Every time I get cocky, nature is like STFU. The walk to the lagoon was 300 m uphill, and almost every step was a struggle. My shirt was soaked in sweat, and I felt breathless the way one feels after a sprint. As I cursed my way up the mountain, I kept wondering why the Quechuas kept climbing. What godlike stamina and lung capacity did they have?
Halfway up, I passed a group of trekkers who stood with their hands on their hips, panting, unwilling to take another step. Their guide just laughed and said, “Welcome to the Andes.”
Eventually, I realized why the Quechuas kept climbing. For an hour I couldn’t see what I was walking towards, and then suddenly it was there. A hidden lagoon filled with turquoise blue waters supplied by mini (only in relation to the mountain) waterfalls formed by the snow melting off Humantay. In that moment, all my pain was blown away by pure awe, and all I could think was, “What is this place!?”
When it was time to walk my tired limbs all the way back to the camp, I turned to Roberto for some support.
“Estás cansado?” I asked. (“Are you tired?”)
I’m in my dark tent, alone and exhausted. It’s terribly cold, my shoulders ache, my feet are sore, and I’m quite worried about tomorrow, the toughest day of the trek. 21 km of walking, 750 m of uphill till we reach Salkantay, and I have no idea how I’m going to carry my stupid backpack all the way up there.
A peril of traveling solo is the lack of support in low moments. There is no one to joke with right now and forget the pains. There is no one to complain to, no one to look to for encouragement. Every one else in my group is with a friend or partner, and are in their respective tents.
It’s a little hard to believe, but despite the highs of today, I’m asking myself right now, “Why am I even doing this? There is a fucking train to Machu Picchu.”
Day 2 of 5: January 12th, 2016
Besides our two guides and horseman, three cooks also accompany our trekking group. They walk the same trail as us, except a lot faster to make it to the lunch and dinner stops in time to cook and serve us food. Then they wake up really early to organize breakfast, and then come by every single tent to wake us up with hot cups of coca tea.
As cold rain lashes down outside, I sip my tea with nothing but gratitude for the wonderful cooks. During a fitful sleep — I felt claustrophobic in the zipped up tent — I had wondered if rain would cancel the trek, but I now remember my host in Cusco telling me, “It doesn’t matter what comes down, your hike will go on.”
It’s still pouring down. But Edwin says, with the confidence of a man who’s done this trek a lot, that the skies will clear up in ten minutes and that we can start walking then. So, in the meantime, I look around at my group and think about the different ways in which you can tell the experienced hikers from me:
1. They wear headlamps in the dark instead of carrying a faulty torchlight bought from a shady store.
2. They know, because they hiked for fun (for fun!) as children, not to take off their shoes during a snack break: “That’s a mistake. It’s just going to hurt more when you put the shoes back on.”
3. Their walking sticks do things like fold into themselves.
4. They do not curse when they see an uphill path.
5. They know how to roll up a sleeping bag.
6. They tend to be Swiss, German or French.
In spite of my failings, though, I’m not the most obvious newbie in the group. There’s a guy carrying one of those big convertible backpacks that comes with wheels and a handle. He’s trying to put his poncho on but it keeps getting stuck to the protruding handle.
It is hilarious.
It’s still raining, but we can’t wait any longer.
“Vamos chicos,” Edwin says apologetically.
Edwin holds in his hands three coca leaves that represent the three worlds — the one above, the one we are in, and the one below –, the three sacred animals — the concord, puma and the snake — and the three values — love (“even your enemies”), work (“all the time, that’s how they built Machu Picchu”) and knowledge (“share it with everyone”) — that the Quechuas believe in. The leaves are an offering to Salkantay, and Edwin, after a moving speech about how Pachamama (Mother Earth) is everything for the Quechuas, tells us to close our eyes and join him in a prayer.
As I close my eyes, I feel the cold wind against my face and it sinks in that I’m 4630 m high, that I’m standing in front of the second tallest mountain in Peru, that I walked all the way up here in the cold and the rain, that I’m in a sacred place that the Quechuas have revered for more than 600 years because the mountains brought the clouds, the clouds brought the rain, the rain filled up the rivers, and the rivers allowed the people to live and thrive. I have felt pain, frustration and loneliness, but I have also seen so much thrilling beauty. And I feel so, so lucky.
“Apu Salkantay Sulpayqui,” Edwin says, and we repeat after him.
Apu Salkantay Sulpayqui. Thank you, Salkantay.
I’m at Chaullay, our stop for the night, resting my right thigh that I sprained badly during the uphill trek to Salkantay this morning. I spent the second half of the trek limping through the high jungle where the sights were, of course, magnificent with waterfalls, created by the rain during the wet season, flowing down massive forested mountains. Edwin, whose turn it was at the back of the group, gave me company as we lumbered on.
I found out that it took four years of study — Peruvian History, English, Tourism Studies, and more — to become licensed as a guide. Edwin, who completed his studies about eight years ago, led a Machu Picchu trek every week. Was Machu Picchu still interesting to him, I wondered, after so many treks?
“It does get tiring physically,” he admitted. “But I’m not tired here,” he said pointing to his head. “Machu Picchu looks different every time I go because of the weather. It could be misty, sunny, cloudy, or rainy. It’s always a surprise.”
He then told me that he liked Shahrukh Khan, who many Peruvians are obsessed about, and asked me to teach him to say ‘I love you’ in Hindi.
“Why?” I asked.
“I want to tell my girlfriend when I go back to Cusco.”
Day 3 of 5: January 13th, 2016
There are various things that provide peace of mind on a multi-day trek. But right up there, next to not having a sprained thigh, is getting done with ‘nature’s call’ (number 2 as we called it in school) and not having to worry about it, or unlit smelly toilets, for the entire day.
Last night, Steve, my tent-mate, and I heard a cat squeal as if it was right next to us and we both woke up with a start. It was pitch dark and I frantically waved my flashlight to see if a cat had entered our tent. Steve, clearly fonder of cats than me, saw the situation with more good humor. Once we had established that there was no cat in the tent, he went back to sleep. I, on the other hand, kept waking up in fear at every small movement. Finally, Steve solved the problem by sealing all the openings in the tent, “Now, nothing can enter.”
I have a feeling this is just karma for the terrible Schrodinger’s Cat jokes I’ve cracked over the years.
Edwin’s hands are dark-red, and if you didn’t know he had just crushed some wild berries you would think he had killed someone. He tells us that the locals crush these berries and use it to dye (there is probably a kill-die-dye joke here but I shall spare you) alpaca wool and also as make-up.
“Who wants to have their faces decorated?” he asks.
When hardly anyone volunteers, he taunts, “Come on, are you humans or pumas?”
Well, when you put it that way.
Edwin tells us that Choqueqira, another historic Incan city, is one day of walking away from where we are and that it might become a popular tourist sight in the future. It hasn’t lit up the tourist trail the same way as Machu Picchu because it’s still largely covered by vegetation. Interestingly, it was vegetation that saved Machu Picchu from being razed to the ground. The story goes that to escape the Spaniards, Machu Picchu’s residents moved to Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the Incan Empire. Plants, shrubs and trees then came to the rescue of the abandoned mountain city, slowly covering it and hiding it from the gold and power hungry Spaniards.
There are incredible mountains all around made mysterious by the constantly shifting mist. The Salkantay River, which travels all the way to the Amazon, roars below us. But even in this seemingly unconquerable terrain, humans have somehow built cellphone towers with wires running the breadth of the river. They have cleared parts of sloping forests and set up plantations. Human imagination and will is equal parts inspiring and scary.
As for me, my thigh pain is not letting me imagine much. My plan was to walk at a good clip and use the momentum to mask the pain. But a few minutes ago, I came upon a water crossing where, in my penchant to keep the pace, I slipped and fell awkwardly on the rocks, the fast moving stream soaking my pants as well.
My ego has been deflated so much, I don’t think there’s any more insult to injury possible.
Half our group is doing the trek in 4 days and so they’ve left via bus to Hidroelectrica from where they will walk three hours to get to Aguas Calientes, the town nearest to Machu Picchu.
At the start of the trek, the destination seemed so far away and the days felt so long. Suddenly, it feels like we’re hurtling towards the finish line and half the group has left.
Parting is an unavoidable part of travel, but it never gets easier to say goodbye.
We are staying at an under-construction hotel in Santa Teresa and the tents have been set up on an open floor with unpainted concrete beams. But everyone’s outside right now, dancing and getting drunk, because a bonfire has been set up and Genaro, the owner of this hotel, is serving everyone shots of ‘Inca Tequila’ for 1 sol each from a pot that does not seem to empty. With every shot he sells, Genaro takes one too. Apparently he does this every day with every new trekking group that comes in. I don’t know about his liver, but he’s built a fine tequila belly.
Day 4 of 5: January 14th, 2016
Nothing represents the smell of hiking quite like a wet and sweaty pair of socks that have been left out to dry outside a tent. It overwhelms the senses, eliminating all other smells. It is pure pungency.
Turns out that it’s not the socks this time. The culprit is the puke outside a neighboring tent.
Clearly not everyone’s built to down Inca Tequila like Genaro.
Since lunch at Hidroelectrica, we’ve been walking alongside the train tracks that head towards the town of Aguas Calientes. From near a railway bridge, Edwin points out the high and mighty Machu Picchu Mountain and it feels unreal that we’re so close, finally.
The pounding of feet on the hard railway rocks is uncomfortable, but after walking 15–20 km uphill and downhill every day, I think I can manage three hours on relatively flat terrain. I’m not trying to boast… Okay, I am.
I never learn. Pachamama clearly keeps an ear out for over-confident trekkers. I tripped and the thigh pain returned.
I’m now limping my way to Aguas Calientes. Fellow hikers are terribly kind, offering to wait with me if I need to stop. But stopping and restarting just makes it worse.
I’ve just got to focus on one step at a time, shut out the sights and sounds around me, and make sure I don’t trip again.
I did trip again, but various mind tricks, like making sure I’m not the last one in the group, or focusing so hard on each step that I’m not thinking about anything else, got me to Aguas Calientes. This trek has pushed my mind and body in a way I’m not used to. Walking for hours without knowing where the end is can be daunting, but when the only way to make it from Point A to B is walk, that lack of choice gives clarity and focus, and that is so powerful.
Outside our hostel, I ran into friends from our group who finished the trek in 4 days. They made it clear to me that the final stretch — 1700 steps up to Machu Picchu — is very hard and that it’s unlikely I’ll make it up with my dodgy thigh. There is a bus, however, that goes up from Aguas Calientes.
So after 4 days and almost 75 kilometers of walking, after getting to the doorstep of Machu Picchu, I will have to complete the trek by bus.
It stings. A lot. But probably not as much as my thigh will if I take the steps.
Day 5 of 5: January 15th, 2016
I’m sixth in line for the first bus that will depart in an hour. It is pitch dark, but I’ve already seen several people walk over to the other side of the river to start climbing up the steps to Machu Picchu. I’m reminded of childhood temple trips to Tirupati where there would be a bustle of activity in the too-early morning, everyone speed walking with the same purpose.
I’m nervous and excited. I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu ever since I saw The Motorcycle Diaries as a teen, and I’ve had in my mind the image of the movie’s two protagonists looking out at the incredible mountain city ever since I started my travels a year and a half ago.
One hour to go.
I am here, listening to my favourite song, looking out at the ruins and the clouds, and at the brown Urubamba River cutting in between the mountains. There are markers of my journey around me. The Salkantay Mountain stands to one corner. Earlier, I looked down at the mist-covered railway bridge we crossed yesterday.
When I entered the city more than four hours ago, there was drizzle in the air and heavy fog made the view a white sheet. Machu Picchu was slow to reveal itself, and its character changed with the weather. In the early morning, there was something cryptic and forbidding about it. Now it is warm and sunny, I have the postcard view, and tourists are everywhere.
I realize that my reason for coming here isn’t deep or meaningful. I simply saw the place in a movie and was captivated by its grandeur. But in the years since, visiting Peru and trekking Machu Picchu turned into a rite of passage I had to go through. And now that I’m here… well, its not like I’ve had one epiphany after another, or that my life has suddenly changed.
I don’t feel like leaving; partly because I’m at Machu Picchu, but also because of the underlying emptiness of a finished journey, and the unanswerable question of, “What now?”
Maybe I’ll just sit here a little longer, and gaze at the conical mountain that forms the backdrop of this abandoned city. I’ll sit and wonder how the people here chipped, cut, polished, moved, and assembled rocks so heavy and massive to build a functional, beautiful, incomplete city. I’ll wonder about the skill and effort it took to build the numerous trails that connected this city to other parts of the massive Incan empire. And then what must it have been like, after all those days of hard work, to abandon their incredible home and rush to Vilcabamba.
What would Machu Picchu be like right now if it was completely quiet but for the sounds of nature, a quiet, hidden city lying in wait to be discovered some day, for its history to be told and beauty shown to the world?
Yes, I think I’ll sit here just a little longer.