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Salkantay: Trekking to Machu Picchu

Trekking is one of those bittersweet activities I spend almost as much time dreading as I do enjoying. That small but persistent part of myself that would prefer to spend most days with my duvet over my face, half-listening to some Netflix series, questions why I’d put myself through such a thing. The sheer effort of it, imagining it, exhausts me.

But coming to Peru – to Cusco – one of the most desirable and beautiful places to trek in the world, I couldn’t give in to this disheartening part of myself. Missing out on the renowned and hugely popular Inca Trail, which books out six months in advance, me, my brother and my mum – who had flown in to visit – were booked on to the Salkantay Trek. That’s five days of intense walking, going up to 4630m and all ending at Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca village counted among the world’s Seven Wonders.

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After my few stagnated weeks getting to know the polished cobbles of Cusco’s historical centre extremely well, I’d been looking forward to getting started. During my time there I’d met endless people who’d already completed Salkantay or one of its counterparts, all returning with stories and mosquito bites and new profile pictures boasting snow-capped mountains or Machu Picchu in the landscape behind them. As frustrating as this had been, it gave me a string of recommendations and the time to shop around various trekking outfitters. This meant finding a price $800 less per person than we were originally quoted in the UK.

The alarm goes off at 4am for our first day. I wake exhilarated and in that childish mood which always seems to dominate at this time of day, mainly annoying my family members with this cheerfulness as we navigate the first and complicated hours of assembling our group and driving to our first check point. Breakfast is a silent and rather sombre affair, our group of twenty or so made all the more anti-social by the hour and the prospect of the challenge before us. This silence endures as we troop back to the van for the last assisted journey before trekking begins.

We have two guides, the charismatic Miguel and the quiet and rather sweet Michael. The first gathers us into a circle, outlines the next five days and forces those awkward but obligatory individual introductions that always seem to be necessary for organised activities. There’s quite a mix of people and nationalities as we go around the circle – those travelling alone, couples, cousins. As we start walking, many break into groups to chat properly, but as the first section is a solid half hour of ascent and at considerable altitude, I remain as grim-faced and anti-social as I was over breakfast.

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For some reason, no matter what my state of fitness, uphill is always a particular challenge, complete with asthmatically shortened breath, deep-set nausea and a pervasive hopelessness – and the altitude only amplifies my struggles. I walk slowly and divert my attention away from repeated thoughts cursing the trek, the whole business of walking and my own limited abilities, with various audiobooks. This proved extremely effective, and I managed to work my way through almost all of To Kill a Mockingbird during that week.

After the initial uphill push, we have a lovely and thankfully flat few hours navigating the side of a viaduct, marred only slightly by wet weather which obscures what would otherwise doubtless be a somewhat spectacular view. We arrive at our first and freezing camping spot for lunchtime.

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It’s here we have our first meal provided by our cooks – and where I discover another gluten intolerant among us – I bond with Cecile over our sad food depravity and am grateful there are two of us as we’re more likely to be catered for. The food proves both delicious and sensitive to my abnormalities, warm and welcoming on a freezing mountainside with the clothes still damp around us.

Whilst not really believing this was the sum of effort required that first day, I’m still quite devastated to discover we have a hike up to a lake to entertain us that afternoon before returning to camp. I look up into the steep mountainside, its summit obscured by heavy swathes of mist and grit my teeth, pushing myself through various insistent mental and physical complaints. The lake is stunning, and definitely worth this last effort, although on a clearer day the sight would have been all the more breathtaking.

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I shiver more than sleep in my inadequate sleeping bag later that night, waking far from rested for the second and by all accounts hardest day. We’re woken with sweet coca tea delivered to our tent doors, a welcome if premature beginning to our day.

What makes today particularly difficult is the two hour climb up to our highest point – the Salkantay pass. We also have to walk further now than on any other day – a total 19km. I put my headphones in, picking up with Scout’s narrative, and stare intently at my walking shoes and their slow but steady progress. This gets me to the summit with relative ease, although I sense I’m behind the bulk of the party. We’re all quite scattered, some girls choosing to rent donkeys to take them up this more difficult of stretches, others reaching our lunch spot on the other side of the pass a few hours early.

The turbulent weather cuts out any possibility of delaying or celebrating at the summit, and after a quick photo, my mum, brother and I hurry on to join the others. I lose all respect for Miguel at this point, who says the rain, an enduring drizzle, is ‘woman’s rain’ and may last some time.

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After lunch the walking becomes significantly easier, losing height and therefore items of clothing as the temperature climbs. There’s some relief among the party as we reach our second camping spot, set idyllically beside a farm, and beneath the now lush greenery of the hills surrounding us. Here we while away the evening playing cards, and I begin to get to know our fellow trekkers a little better. I even find a hot if slightly temperamental shower.

Day three starts a bit later, and also with tea at our tent flap. The weather has finally cleared, and we spend a beautiful morning walking along the valley through a densely forested path, picking strawberries from their bushes and trying not to step on the bright butterflies that flirt courageously around out ankles.

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The walking is brought abruptly to a halt before lunch when we’re driven to our camp for night three in the small village of Santa Teresa. After the substantial effort required those first two days, this is a bit of a surprise, but not altogether an unwelcome one. The afternoon gives us the opportunity to swim in the hot pools, where I discover large and discoloured blisters on both of my big toes, glad that they only have to survive two more days of walking.

The pools are extremely welcome after the days of trekking, few showers and clothes changes, but my experience is slightly effected by the countless stories I’ve heard of people being attacked here by clouds of vicious mosquitoes. I’ve seen their bites. I’m so paranoid about this that when getting out of the water I spray myself immediately all over with deet – which actually proves an effective strategy and I escape relatively unharmed.

That night we’re treated to a night of entertainment at our campsite, consisting of inexplicably loud music, a few sad disco lights, a bonfire and a small hut selling alcohol. After discovering a mutual craving, Cecile, Kashi and I share a bottle of wine. This costs about the same amount as it would do at home, but is totally worth the money as I feel myself relax with each sip and talk with the others late into the night. Wine is excellent.

Day four starts disappointingly. The quinoa pancakes we’ve come to expect as special alternatives to a normal breakfast are conspicuous in their absence. Without Miguel there I raise the question with Michael, who misunderstands and brings me a whole plate of sugar puffs, which I can’t eat. Cecile and I have to content ourselves with a small fruit salad, sugar puffs scraped from the top, hardly an amount to fuel a morning’s activity. Miguel appears later without our breakfast but with the explanation “the cooks forgot” – a little baffling after three days cooking for the same people. Caroline, our new Kiwi friend, gets angry on our behalf and manages to win an extra banana for us apiece, but I still leave the camp hungry and dissatisfied.

There’s another slight roadbump for the trek as we realise our morning’s ziplining has been booked with a different company from the rest of the group and we slope off to our own van resentfully.

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Now there may be a lot of things a bad mood can endure, but whizzing along a wire at high speed across a beautiful valley is not one of them. I get far too excited trying all the various upside down variations and at one point reach up early and burn some exposed skin on my forearm. Ziplining is optional, and means no walking that morning. Some of our group – just three – opted to trek instead for the short distance to the lunch spot. We’re driven – and I can’t help feeling slightly smug about this.

We eat in Hydro Electrica, the town closest to Machu Picchu and accessible by road. Most people visiting the Inca village on a budget catch a collectivo to this spot and then walk to Aguas Calientes – the town directly below it – stay the night and return late the next day. This is the final stage of our journey, a pleasant, flat and rather beautiful few hours walking along the train tracks.

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But Miguel, now in a strange and distant mood, has other ideas. At first I dawdle at the back with my camera, taking my time and my photographs. But I soon realise our pace has quickened and am forced to try and catch up. We’re practically marched along this last section, our guides hardly glancing backwards. What makes this new pace worse is for the first time we’re carrying all of our weight, an extra five kilograms apiece. We arrive in the town exhausted, covered in sweat and a little confused, wondering why we needed to rush, the afternoon now spread out empty before us. It is nice to arrive in our hotel though with the prospect of a proper bed and hot shower.

But my newfound disappointment in our guides isn’t over for the day. Cecile and I are left short again when we’re handed our breakfast ‘packed lunches’ for the following day, which consist mainly of gluten. One heated negotiation later and we’re given four boiled eggs each to compromise.

This, however, is where things start to go wrong. Or perhaps it was the chicken I had for dinner. Either way, something hits me as I tackle that last gruelling hour ascent up to Machu Picchu at 5am the following morning, rendering the walk clammy and nauseating. By the time I reach the top, I hardly have time to appreciate the view and take one obligatory picture before I collapse in the shade, nauseous to the point that I can’t follow much of Miguel’s tour and eventually abandon the group.

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The day is perfect, the view incredible, despite its notoriety. Yet my sickness means I spend most of it asleep, hiding from the sun and willing myself not to be sick.

We’re forced by my newfound immobility to take a bus back to Aguas Calientes, and I wish away the afternoon in a similar state on a hotel sofa, the evening train and bus journey back to Cusco long, claustrophobic and unpleasant.

Altogether, Salkantay was a great way to see one of the world’s most beautiful places. It was a lovely challenge to face with my family and I met lots of wonderful people I hope to keep in touch with. It was just my bad luck to spend the highlight incapacitated.

I’d probably advise those looking to do Salkantay to go as cheap as you can, because the result is the same, no matter the outfitter. We had people from many different agencies on our trek, all paying significantly different prices. Train tickets are an expense worth avoiding, as they add significantly to the cost, and the train is far from an exciting experience.

Just make sure if you have dietary requirements to give your guides an early heads up, and maybe bring a few of your own snacks – or you could find yourself trying not to vomit all over an ancient heritage site.

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