Stop two: an enduring hike to the most instagrammable tourist attraction in the world.
The Salkantay trail goes through the Andes. It is similar to the Inca trail but a slightly longer, higher altitude alternative which goes up the Salkantay mountain then towards Machu Picchu. It was mainly chosen because we weren’t organised enough to book ourselves an advanced position on the impossibly popular Inca trail.
The Inca is the coveted trail because it is part of the ancient Inca routes which stretch across the majority of east coast South America, from Colombia down to Argentina. An impressive distance considering that the Incas didn’t have horse and carts, they made do with their own legs and llamas to carry their luggage. It’s safe to say that I’m not this tough.
Our five day trek was structured slightly like a hammock: high and tense at both ends but softer in the middle. The first two days lead us to an altitude of 4600m, peaking at the Salkantay mountain. The heights felt impressive at the time; the videos of me puffing and trudging uphill at an increasingly underwhelming pace as my oxygen resources thinned do not do the ordeal justice. I will passionately protest that it is hard to sympathise with the struggles one faces at thousands of metres above sea level via a camera.
Once we reached the top of Salkantay mountain we gathered for a ritual. You can’t make a trip to the Andes without acknowledging a certian esteemed matriarch: Pachmama, the goddess of earth, a core part of the indeginous Incan religion. Today, Pachamama frequently drinks alcohol from the top of her mountains because sipping and then pouring a beverage towards the earth is the common practice of our tour guides whenever we reach a peak. More often, in the past, black llamas were offered as sacrifice.
Perhaps the offering worked because, after we reached the Salkantay peak, it felt as though Pachumama was on our side. The rest of trek was significantly more downhill towards a rainforest and a warmer climate. It was a relief to no longer spend the nights shivering in our tents. Instead, at midday we were met with a lush, sun soaked resting spot which provided bountiful fresh avocados and grandillas (a larger, yellower version of a passion fruit).
Grandillas are one of those hidden treasures that you never knew you were missing until you found them. Apple sized, with a hard yellow skin. Not particularly remarkable looking things until you crack them open with a deliberate squeeze to unveil their sloppy, seeded flesh. I was able to consume eight in one sitting after a delightful period of undignified slurping. I could have inhaled plenty more were I less concerned about the effects a larger quantity might have on my digestive system.
The other two were playing football as I ate my grandillas. In different circumstances I may have joined, but often there seems to be an unspoken understanding that while every man will be interested in participating with a spontaneous game of football the women certainly won’t. There was an abrupt gender divide amoung our tour group when the football’s presence became apparent.
The downhill trek grew even easier once we were thrown on a minibus. This part of the journey was a test for our nerves instead. Not thrilling because of the pace, we took a slow and steady traverse across the mountain roads. I believe that what I felt was a thrill based on the pure sense of being slightly unsafe as we awkwardly manuevered past opposing vehicles atop crumbling, narrow, cliff edges.
It seems that risk holds an intrinsic pleasure. Psychologists call it “novelty seeking”. Risky activities like gambling or taking drugs lead to a dopamine release in our brain. A bizarre quirk of human nature perhaps originally designed to encourage man to pull his finger out, venture into the intimidating wilderness and hunt.
That’s what I hypothesised whilst my bottom bounced around the back seat of our minibus, my swaying head occasionally fell in sync with the Spanish hits that blared from the speakers. My mind was becoming increasingly drawn to mankind’s former role in the natural world. One of the biggest puzzles to me was how we managed to endure the temperature at night before the era of bedrooms and duvets.
Just as the feeling of warm water against our skin felt like a distant memory, we were taken to a hot spring. We bathed and drank copious amounts of reasonably priced cocktails by the poolside then progressed onwards to a campfire party into the early hours. The initial structured boot camp experience seemed to have fallen away. The 5am starts were creeping further towards 9am. It was delightful.
It may be hard for us western folk to imagine, but I believe there is a way to contentment without wifi. The trick is to go further. Deprive yourself of warm nights, hot showers, thoroughly oxygenated air, the chance to stay in bed until there is a glimmer of daylight beyond the duvet, then slowly introduce a few of these aspects back into your life. They suddenly feel far more gratifying than wifi ever could.
The next morning a jolt back into reality ensued in the form of a vertigo inducing zip line between mountains on a hangover. Slowly we recovered, which was vital because two days later we were waking up at 3:30am to hike 1800 steps from the town of Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu ruins.
Several steep, torchlit strides later in the early morning blackness we arrived. The faint glow of daylight greeted us at the top. Drenched in our own sweat, in spite of the cool morning air, we were ready and eager to feast our eyes on a majestic view.
The final test was patience, the Machu Picchu mountian was initially cloaked entirely with dewy fog. We couldn’t see a thing at the top. Our hearts were in our mouths as we wondered whether we had picked an unfortunately cloudy day, but our guide remained unfazed. He assured us that the clouds would clear. Sure enough, slowly the ruins revealed themselves. They knew that an eager audience was waiting just as there is every morning. They didn’t disappoint.