While Cusco provides plenty in the way of impressive sights, to see what the Incas were really capable of requires a trip to Maccu Picchu. Nestled among jungled peaks and surrounded on all sides by precipitous drops, it’s surely one of the world’s most spectacular sights.
The Inca Trail is probably the most famous way to get there, but a combination of permits, expense and not wanting to pin down dates too far in advance meant we chose an alternative – the Salcantay trek. As the name suggests, this 72km route takes trekkers past Nevado Salcantay, a dramatic 6,271m peak around which many of Maccu Picchu’s features were aligned. It’s also rather tough on the legs; our route took us over the Salcantay Pass, a 4,600m high point that sits atop a steep, winding path.
That came on day two, after an opener that saw us climb around 1000m from the village of Mollepata, a dusty road taking us up through the vast green valleys that typify this region. A long day’s walk saw us finally trudging into camp as night fell, before hunkering down to a freezing night under canvas.
That second day was the toughest. We reached the Salcantay Pass late morning, having set out at 6.30am. The thin air made progress tough, but the view was an ever-present lure, pulling us up through a boulder-strewn glacial valley, Salcantay and its neighbours an imperious backdrop. High fives, group photos and a cold Mars Bar were the well-deserved rewards at the top, plus our best view of this mighty mountain.
A steep descent took us down a rubble-strewn valley and into the lush cloud forest that flourishes at the lower altitude, and a much comfier night. This terrain was the backdrop for much of day three, an easier hike that saw us ambling into Santa Teresa in time for a well-earned visit to the local hot springs, and beers around the campfire. By this time we realised how lucky we’d been to get such a great group to trek with; the hours spent walking, chatting and eating together had been a real delight.
Adrenaline (and a mild hangover) followed the relaxation. The next morning we took on South America’s longest zip line, one of four cables strung across the yawning valleys around Santa Teresa. It was only a couple of metres before fear turned into fun. A huge rush! Kirst filmed this on the third line, by when I’d had enough time to get cocky:
Back to the trekking in the afternoon. Our path followed the scenic train line into Aguas Calientes (though the town seems to have changed its name to Maccu Picchu Pueblo). It’s a touristy but comfy sort of place – as you might expect for a town sitting directly beneath Maccu Picchu itself, which towers above.
We had a night in a proper bed before finally setting out to see Maccu Picchu for ourselves. Did I mention it’s high above the town? We set out at 4.30am to take on the steep stairs that go up, up up to the entrance. 50 minutes of strenuous climbing got us through the gates in time for sunrise, and it was worth the effort. There it was before us – a view we’d seen in pictures so many times, but which was simply incredible in person, tranquil in the gloom of dawn. And it got even better. We were lucky to be there on a clear morning; watching sunbeams spill over the mountains and gradually light up the ruins was right up there among the best things I’ve ever seen.
We enjoyed a tour of the site, cluing us into the various astrological alignments and symbols that fill it. Once again, I was awestruck by the complexity of Incan design, and the quality of their building. In the case of Maccu Picchu, they effectively rebuilt the top of a mountain to their own design – it’s astounding. I found myself thinking it’s a shame they couldn’t have invented a few guns, mind. If they’d have held off the Spanish, who knows what they might have achieved?
After wandering around for a few hours and climbing up to the Sun Gate, we descended the way we came, hobbling our way back into Aguas Calientes. The cloud thickened on the way, and as we enjoyed a huge and excellent lunch, the first rain of the entire five days began to fall.
Sometimes, when you’ve looked forward to something so long, it’s a bit of a letdown. With the Salkantay trek and its final destination, there wasn’t a shred of disappointment, and doing it with such a great bunch only made it more special. Thanks all!