Next up was Cusco to aclimatise to the dizzying heights of the Andes and take in a bit of the oul' Machu Picchu. It could have been the altitude, but Cusco took my breath away. The dignified brown brick buildings - the finest examples of colonial architecture in Peru - interlace elegantly with perfectly crafted Incan stone walls. A wander down a narrow cobbled alley could take you up to Plaza San Blas to hang with the hippies playing music and selling bracelets, or to the main market bulging with fruits, meats, and a whole row each dedicated to chocolate and potatoes (my kind of market). Every day there seemed to be some kind of festival or parade in the main Plaza de Armas, and the nightlife was a force to be reckoned with (more reggae, of course, but here it was mostly live). Cusco is definitely a place I could see myself getting stuck into for a while.
But I was a girl with a mission, and so after a few days living the high life, I was off on a 4-day Salkantay trek, destination: Machu Picchu. Now, I can understand the logical problems some people may have with trekking: "I´d like to go to Point A please. But I want to be left dozens of miles away, spend days walking there, and pay you to do so." But to those with this line of thinking, I offer the following counterargument:
Some of this:
Oh, and maybe a bit of this:
And this, my friends, is why I adore trekking. We started in the valley at the base of the sacred Salkantay volcano, and climbed 1000 metres in the first 3 hours (no small feat with small feet). Once we reached 4,600 metres, we crossed through the Pass and made our way down through the valley. By the end of the day we were at the cusp of the jungle, having crossed from glacier to high grassland. That didn´t mean it was any warmer camping that night; we awoke to a tent encrusted with ice in the morning. Well, they do say camping is in-tents....
The next day we trekked 8 hours along the Salkantay River, through jungle, and finished up the evening with a dip in the Santa Teresa hot springs and a good old-fashioned bonfire at the campsite. Spirits were high among the trekkers, but revelling had to be somewhat curtailed, as the next morning we were up early for another 7 hours of trekking. This brought us into the park of Machu Picchu, and after lunch we followed the railroad tracks that lead up to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to the ruins. It was as though we were sneaking in the back door, seeing a side of the mountain that no one else gets to see (well, except for all the other people doing the Salkantay trek I suppose...). As we marched ever forward and the imposing mountain of Machu Picchu itself towered above us, I have to say I got a bit misty-eyed; it was easy to see why the Incas chose this location as the site of their religious procedures.
That evening was spent in Aguas Calientes, a purpose-built town in constant anticipation of seeing one of the wonders of the world the following morning. It was Peruvian Independence Day while we were there, but there was little revelry amongst the hikers preparing for the early rise the next morning, so after a quiet toast with some Cusqueña we headed back to the hostel for some kip.
4:30 the next morning found us queuing, very much bleary-eyed, with the hordes of other trekkers waiting to board the buses, and then again at the gates of Machu Picchu (the one downside of the Salkantay is you don't get to hike into the site in the morning like you do on the Inca Trail, but then again I also saved a few hundred quid and didn't have to book it half a year in advance). We bustled our way in, rounded the corner, and there it was: the quintessential Machu Picchu shot of the ruins with Huana Picchu in the background, fuzzy around the edges in the sunrise loam.
It was a bit surreal, just sitting there all ruiny, the Machu Picchu, the one in all the pictures, the one that we had been hiking for the last three days to reach, the name that had been on the tip every tongue we met so that it had become almost a mantra, and the trek almost a pilgrimage; here it was right in front of us, all around us, just our little group of four, our guide, and the majestic remains of one of the most powerful empires in human history...and the thousands of tourists that were rapidly flooding in behind us. With this in mind, our guide whisked us around the major sites as fast as he could, leading us up the steps, down the steps, left and right and through crevasses before the place filled up and became unnavigable. It got a bit whirlwind and the most impressive sites more like boxes to be ticked than marvels to be admired, but at least we got to see them before the swarms covered them up.
After our hasty tour, I had to leg it over to the entrance of Huana Picchu, the mountain always lumbering in the background of photos of the ruins. The amount of people allowed to climb this each day was always limited, but due to recent legislation entrance is even more restricted: only 200 pre-booked tickets are released for the morning, and 200 for the afternoon. This restriction meant that it was a lot less chaotic as I scrambled up the thousands of steps to the top, and I was able to catch a few solitary moments observing Machu Picchu from above.
Four days, many miles, and several blisters, and oh so very worth it.
Of course, never one to be sensible about things, the day after I arrived back in Cusco I was on my way to Arequipa and off on another trek, this time to the bottom of Colca Canyon and back up again. I guess some of us never learn...