It was around the time I turned 39 that I thought “Bugger it. I’m going to have my midlife crisis on another continent. I think I’ll trek Machu Picchu for my 40th.”
I chose the Salkantay trail, and we started our 5 day / 4 night trip from Cuzco on the day I turned 40. Bamba offers around a dozen or so options to get to Machu Picchu, all via Cuzco. For the most part, Bamba Experience operate their own trips here, seeing an opportunity to provide better value and quality options than existed previously.
Treks range from one day up to ten or more days if you string a couple of the routes together, and for those that prefer to take it easy, there are also several options by train. The Inca Trail is easily the most famous, but I chose the Salkantay for the extra stunning mountain scenery. And the fact I didn’t want to share the Inca Trail with 499 other people – there was a total of 35 people on the Salkantay when I trekked, including 8 support staff. Our group had five trekkers, a superb guide, Frankie, two miracle working chefs, and a horseman to carry the bulk of our gear.
A very early start took us out of the city in a van, before stopping for breakfast in a small village, and a last chance to buy supplies. A little further on we met our horses and the start of the trail proper. “Any chance of seeing Condors Frankie?” I asked as we unloaded our gear. “Maybe, but it’s quite late in the season, you’d have to be lucky.”
“Um… is that one there?”
“Wow. Yes. Can you ask for beautiful women next? That was a good trick.”
So it was a good start – sunshine, and birds to look at. Cuzco is at over 3400m, and Machu Picchu only around 2400m. But to get there, we had to cross the Salkantay pass at over 4600m. In the rainy season. The first day was relatively gentle uphill, great scenery, a little sprinkle of rain, and at our campsite by early afternoon.
All the other operators or tour companies had lumped their clients into one big group of 22, with the same amount of support staff that we had for our group of five. On paper I guess the itineraries looked about the same, but as each day passed the larger group was more and more envious of our experience. Not that theirs was bad – just little details on our trip made it better. Frankie was amazing, talking and encouraging us the whole time. He made sure we got to know our other staff by ceaselessly translating for us. They dined with us, pointed out things we wouldn’t have noticed ourselves, and worked their arses off making us as comfortable as possible.
The afternoon was a rest and acclimatisation period before Day Two. (26 kilometres, 6am start, more than 2000 metres of altitude gained by lunch, 4600m pass to get up and over).
In our group we had German Nick, who was 19 and a serious, but really nice kid. Then we had Edward, a tall ginger English Engineer / farmer, and a Swedish couple Abdi and Yazemin. Abdi was originally from Somalia, and Yazemin was from Turkey, and they had recently married in Sweden. Abdi makes films, and had a kick ass drone that he used to take seriously good footage during the hike. Also, an all round top bloke.
Campsite on day one, Mt Salkantay looming.
The two of us decided to hike up a side valley during our rest afternoon, to a glacial lake that was about 500m higher in altitude, so close to 3000m. There was a storm threatening but we took our chances, as did a number of the other group. And this was our reward.
I decided to get down to my boxers and swim, which lasted about 1.8 seconds. I was feeling pretty accomplished until a blond Swedish guy with an eight pack of abs did the same, but swam around leisurely as if it was a heated pool and not a lake fed by the glacier about 50 metres above it. He didn’t get bumped off a cliff, but I feel like he deserved to.
Best birthday cake ever (sorry Mum)
I had accidentally let slip, repeatedly, and to anyone within earshot, that it was my birthday. We were already on a hike in the Andes though, but somehow our wonder chefs whipped up a damn tasty cake. Plus a hearty soup as an entrée, meatballs and pasta as a main, a salad, and some fruit.
We watched the glaciers turn orange in the sunset, and headed to bed to ride out a night that dropped to minus ten degrees Celsius. Comfy enough with the rented sleeping bag, and our tents were pitched for us under the thatched shelters shown above. There was at least a western style toilet at every campsite, so we weren’t roughing it by any stretch, but the attitude and cold were definitely noticeable!
Not gonna lie, this is a tough day. You NEED good footwear including proper socks, ideally a bit of fitness, and layers of proper outdoor clothing. We were woken with hot coco tea, and while we had a cooked breakfast the crew packed up our tents and gear, and wrapped them against the elements for their journey on our horses. By noon we had all reached the pass, at our own pace. Yazemin was struggling but showed inspiring stubbornness to get through the entire trek, especially with a soft tissue injury to her knee that she picked up. You’re sweating heavily on the walk up, even though it drizzled most of the time and was pretty cold.
There is horse rental available for the climb, but happy to report we all declined it and had immense satisfaction reaching the pass. We also had a little swig each of Johnny Black Whiskey that someone had thoughtfully packed, including a small offering to Pachamama, (Earth Mother / the mountain) and then got the hell down the other side, as it had started to snow.
This guy was at our campsite on day two 🙂
It’s all downhill from here
By late afternoon we had descended down to below 2000m, and the air was warm. Lunch was in a freezing (but dry) hut, and we were all soaked to the bone, starving and absolutely stoked. Hot soup and solids never tasted so good, and we all drunk a couple of coco teas to help with warmth and altitude. The constant rain meant the path was basically a stream for the whole afternoon, but the scenery evolved beautifully from alpine to grasslands, forest then almost a jungle like canopy.
Our campsite again had a little shop, and we pitched our tents on the second floor of a basic structure giving us the chance to dry some wet gear. A beer or two and another three course dinner (turkey drumstick casserole) and we all slept VERY well.
Days Three and Four
Mostly fairly gentle up or down hill, walking on a combination of dirt roads and paths. Evening of day three was a small village, camping in an enclosed property, and an optional visit to local hot springs. Optional. As if anyone was going to say, ‘Na, I might just sit here and ignore the chance to soak muscles and have a shower.’ It was great until the local kids turned up and were noisy, boisterous and childish.
Then we went back to have dinner, a bonfire, and discovered ‘Inca Tequila’, and proceeded to be noisy, boisterous and childish. Andrew fell asleep OUTSIDE his tent. It was fairly warm. Bugs like warm too. This is Andrew. Don’t sleep like Andrew.
Morning of day four, we blew away the cobwebs by ziplining. The longest was 900m, and highest was 600m above the canyon floor. A van transferred us to lunch at the tiny town – a few restaurants and a parking lot really – of Hydroelectrica, where we had lunch, and then walked along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
We had farewelled our support crew, and just had Frankie for the last 24 hours or so. The lunch was fine, but by the high standards our chefs had set, we were slumming it 🙂 This guy didn’t mind though, and I may have taken a bullocking from the restaurant for letting him eat my leftovers…..
Day Five – Machu Picchu
You will not be disappointed. No, you’re not going to have the site to yourself, but get up early enough to catch opening time and you can easily get pictures like these.
We took a shuttle bus to the entry, and Frankie showed us the main sights and gave us a good rundown on the little that is known bout the ruins. Then he left us to explore at our own leisure. We had a return shuttle back to Aguas Calientes, where the train leaves from, and a late afternoon train booked back to Cuzco. We wandered around for as long as each of us desired, then made our way back to town for lunch and to board the train.
One thing Frankie told me that day is burned into my memory.
“Machu Picchu means Old Mountain. It is sacred to us. It is pronounced ‘Ma-chew Pick-chew’. When you say ‘Ma-chew Pee-chew’ it means ‘Old Dick’. I’m not sure what you came to Peru for, but I’m hoping it was the mountains.”