Here follows a tale of rain, pain, fun and adventure from my just-completed tour of the Urubumba Valley and Machu Picchu. As I have said before I chose to do the jungle trek rather than the “classic” Inca Trail trek for various reasons, but mostly it boiled down to me not wanting to be stuck on a 4-5 day hike with a bunch of package tourists fresh off the plane from wherever. Also the jungle trek came in at $160, or about 1/3rd the price of the Classic Inca Trail. And it involved some mountain biking the first day, so there was some variety and it wasn’t just a 3-4 day hike up the same trail. So it was right up my attention deficit suffering alley.
Day 1: Mountain Biking
A woman came to collect me from the hotel at 6:45AM, and we walked down to where a small bus was waiting in a square. We collected 4 Argentinean guys (students hereinafter referred to as “Los Chicos”) and 2 Argentinean couples, an older couple (Mauro and ?) and a younger student couple (Rodrigo and ?), a crazy Korean guy whose real name we later learned was Hwong, but wanted us to call him Salvador, and finally an Australian couple (Lewis and Jane). Well we thought it was final, but the bus wouldn’t leave. We sat around for ages and the final passenger showed up, a blonde Dutch doctor named Mieke, who had been misinformed about the departure time by her agency. We met our guide, a cheeky young Quechua named Angel (‘but everyone calls me Angelito”).
We set off towards Ollantaytambo, the jumping-off point for almost all tours heading in the direction of Machu Picchu. There was our last chance for the day to buy necessities (water, co
ca leaves, biscuits, etc) before we headed up into the hills. The weather began to worsen somewhat as we ascended, and the clouds closed in as we got into the mountains proper, to the point that visibility was seriously affected and all of us became somewhat uncomfortable at the driver’s speed and seeming lack of fear. It rained sporadically and we came across the occasional rockfall that had to be cleared away before we could proceed.
We headed upwards into thicker cloud and finally dismounted in a parking lot on a high pass (4300m / 14000ft) where some pretty old crappy mountain bikes of varying makes were unloaded from the top of the bus and left out in the increasingly heavy rain. As were the helmets and gloves, so that by the time you got to put these on they were soaked and freezing, and remained so for the rest of the day. For some reason I was nominated as the leader, and the guide told us to just ride down the other side of the pass on the same road we had just driven up. I was a little annoyed at this, as I hadn’t realised this would be a road ride rather than cross country or on paths. But as we were to see, there were still challenges to confront.
The first challenge was the weather. It was raining in heavy and light patches, but always raining, and at that altitude it was a cold rain. Almost as soon as we set off we were soaked through from head to toe (except for my chest under the raincoat), and freezing to the point of numbness (a couple of people didn’t complete the ride due to not being able to control the brakes with numb hands). And at different points the visibility dropped to as low as 20m so you just couldn’t see which way the road was going.
The rain was also causing all sorts of rock falls, so my initial disappointment at riding on a smooth road was quickly dispelled as we ended up having to thread through regular rock falls and emergency road works being carried out, and thread between traffic jams on either side to boot. The going got pretty unpleasant at times but once I got into it I was actually beginning to enjoy myself, in a perverse way, and from time to time the ride got easier. That is until we got to this:
We had a couple of test steps to see if we could push the bikes across, but the water was thick and very strong, and was carrying all kinds of debris from further up the mountain, including rocks of up to 6 inches across, at the same speed. It was clear we would have to wait for the support van to catch up with us and ferry the bikes across the road/river. While we were waiting several vehicles attempted to go through, with some of the smaller vehicles having close calls. One very intrepid motorcyclist attempted to cross it slowly, then got stuck and nearly came off the bike in a disastrous miscalculation. He asked for help getting across the river, but when I and another guy started to walk out we quickly changed our minds and shrugged. He managed to gun it through in the end but I am sure he needed a new set of underwear afterwards. The van finally showed up (already containing several people who hadn’t made all of the journey so far) and through common consent we all agreed to skip ahead to the lunch village in the van. On the way there we passed several more areas where gullies had become raging rivers, though none as bad as that first one. We did have to thread through several more rock falls as well.
I am not sure how it happened, but at lunch, somehow it was decided that we would put a stop to the biking for the day. I was of two minds about continuing with the bike thing, but I guess I was secretly happy that I could put on some dry clothes. I was worried about my hiking boots, which had had water streaming into the tops of them for the entire bike ride. They’re waterproof, but unfortunately that applies equally to water inside of them. There were lakes inside of my boots, and I had 2 days of hiking and an ascent of Machu Picchu still to come.
We continued by van, but had to stop for an overturned truck full of soft drinks, which had blocked the road. The local solution was to hack away at the inside bank of the road with spades and shovels and to remove any stubborn rocks and boulders by rolling them across the road (a 4 man job) and down the side of the mountain until a lane wide enough for one vehicle to pass was opened. It was at this point my little camera (the S90) had enough of the moisture and humidity and decided to fog up from the inside. Great.
On to Santa Maria, a half-built town of newish but cheap-looking buildings, where we were to overnight. It continued to rain but not quite as badly as before. We got there a little earlier than planned due to the aborted bike trip, and settled ourselves into our hospedaje in this little outpost town next to the Urubamba River. Shoes and clothes were hung out to dry, but with the humidity topping 80-90% we were not hopeful. With our spare time, some of us had a little walk through the town, down a little path to the river, and across a foot bridge, which seemed to just fade off into the jungle on the other side. We marvelled at the rain-swollen Urubamba, which was throwing up plumes of water all over, and you could hear thundering booms as large rocks were tumbled invisibly down its river bed. Clearly falling into this river would be a death sentence, and it would be our constant companion for the next 2 days. Back to the hospedaje’s attached bar/restaurant for a simple meal of soup and estofado before an early retirement. It was good to start to get to know the rest of the group a bit – they seemed a good lot.
Day 2: Inca Trail t
o Santa Theresa
An earlyish start, breakfast, and it was onto the first full day of hiking. We were only to cover 19km/12mi but it would take us 7 hours due to much of it being on an old Inca trail with lots of ascent and descent. We set off back the way we had come slightly, and went across a road bridge, though still made of loose slats of wood with the raging Urubamba clearly visible beneath. We crossed into the ghost town of Santa Maria Viejo, or Old Santa Maria, which was the original location of the town until a flash flood destroyed it in the 90s, killing 300 people outright. Three crosses stand near the bridge, representing the men, women and children who perished in the flood.
We continued on down a dirt road, alongside the river, ascending slightly but having a pretty easy time of it for the first day – or so I thought at the time. We passed old pulley-driven basket bridges, and disturbed a flock of parakeets, who screeched off into the mountains.
We left the road and took a very narrow mountain path, at times only 18 inches wide, up the side of the hill and down again, over boulders, into a gully by the river, and up a slight rise into a clearing. There we were informed that we were soon to join the network of Inca trails (28,000km covering the former empire) soon, and the going would get tougher. To use the Inca trail we would need to be marked. Angelito broke open a kind of nut which had a rich red interior, and one by one he marked us with the natural pigment, so that by the end we were all covered in orange tribal markings.
We carried on a little further, at times entering dense jungle, and came across several coca fields. Angelito stopped to tell us that these were not the same leaves we all had in our little baggies, which we bought for 1 or 2 soles ($.30/$.60) a pop. These were the cocaine-grade coca leaves, sought after by the immense Peruvian narco-trafficking organisations for their unique blend of 14 alkaloids. Reputedly these were the strongest in the world, and the same size bag would sell to the narco-traffickers for 35 soles, or over $10 a go.
Soon we came to the point where we could join an Inca trail for a challenging 75 minute ascent punctuated by a rest stop.
I would replace the word “challenging” with “punishing”. I am typically near the front of hiking groups due to my pace and the fact that I like to have time to take photos and not get left behind – but this climb handed me my ass on a platter. I don’t know if it was the altitude or general unfitness but the first 45 minute section saw me fall further and further behind and my lungs were on fire from start to finish. I ended up towards the rear of the group with the others who were having trouble. We finally emerged, gasping, up into the collection of huts that was the hiker’s rest stop (“the Monkey Lounge”). I took some time collecting myself and trying to feel human again. To amuse the resting trekkers, not only did the Monkey Lounge have the requisite monkey on a string, but they also had a wombat on a wooden perch, a large dog-sized rodent who we initially saw standing on hind legs and draining a bottle of Gatorade held in its front paws. Later he was let off the perch and snuffled around the hikers, begging for food here and there.
We slipped our packs back on, and headed back out onto the trail, this time for a gentler ascent, and we broke out of the tree line into the sunshine and the high Andes, where we got a fantastic view of the rest of the valley and the trail. The trail had perilous sections of thin ledges and precipitous drops, but it was too nice a day at the time to worry about such things.
We stopped at a magical, wind-lashed outcropping called Condor Point, where we all gingerly climbed and and basked in the sun as Angelito regaled us with the history of the Incas, their empire, and their network of trails. We heard the story of the elite group of North American athletes who had come to do a time challenge of the last section of the Classic Inca Trail and managed to cover 32km in 8hrs. And then had been roundly beaten by a Quechuan porter who had completed it in 3.5hrs… with a pack on.
We continued on down the trail and ventured back into the jungle, where we all began to notice small insect bites appearing without any associated pain or itch, in any place we had failed to apply repellent. These welts became a badge of pride, until the second or third day when they actually started to itch and became a source of irritation. We carried on down through the jungle to our lunch stop, almost at the river’s edge, a collection of small rustic buildings in which we were served a very hearty lunch of with a starter of popcorn, bread, and very tasty guacamole, followed by a creamy vegetable soup, and topped off by a basic but very edible spaghetti bolognese. There was even some music to accompany our meal. All the time we were eating, various hens, chicks, ducks, and ducklings clucked and quacked outside and inside, and we were glad that we had not had chicken as a main course. Afterwards was a bit of a siesta, with several hammocks to be had, and a couple more that could be had if you could be bothered to string them up to the trees. One of the Argentine guys did exactly that, but was not using his brain, and roped one end to a banana tree. Queue one broken banana tree, a sore bottom, and much hilarity at his expense.
We rallied the troops and continued on towards Aguas Termales, were we were to enjoy a frolic in some hot springs. But first it was more jungle, more Indiana-Jones style bridges, and some easier walking and a chance to enjoy the scenery.
We finally arrived at the Aguas Termales spa complex as it was getting dark. We paid our 15 soles entrance fee, changed, deposited our bags (cue one idiot cloakroom woman dropping my bag full of camera gear on the floor) and dropped into the large hot spring pool. This was a great experience as there was still enough light to see the massive Andean peaks towering over us. The pool itself was bounded on one side by a mountain, whose rock face continued right on down into the pool, where you could sit on boulders and lean back against its bulk. We made our way up into the properly hot pool, and alternated between it and the ice-cold dunking pool nearby, to get the blood flowing of course. We made our way in bits and pieces (and via a 10 minute power cut) into the changing rooms and eventually we all got in a bus for a short trip to Santa Theresa.
There’s no way to beat around the bush; Santa Theresa is a butt-ugly town that exists merely as a waypoint on the jungle trek to Machu Picchu. It’s a town of half-finished projects, and many of the streets are simply two sets of pavement on either side of what is basically a ditch. We checked into another basic alojamiento and then made our way up around to where we were to have dinner. This place, called Carnal, was a little can’t-be-arsed cafe whose owners seemed just to be in it for the little money that got thrown their way. The food was epically bad, and Mieke had a large and obvious hair on her plate. The bastards just didn’t care and we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We headed for the only place to be in town, the disco, where a bad DJ was beat-mixing so ineptly and so often that all the action on the dancefloor would come to a halt every time he changed tunes. But as is so often the case, alcohol seemed to ease the aural pain and soon enough everyone was dancing away. One of the Uruguayan guys from another group made good dancing buddies with one of the Argentine girls from our group, who turned out not to actually be the girlfriend of Mauro. I made it till about 1-2AM but apparently some of the Chicos and the Argentine girl were there till 4 or 5AM. Which didn’t seem to make much sense given our 7AM start, but horses for courses I say.
Day 3: Santa Theresa to Aguas Calientes
Another early start to the day, and some fairly flat trekking to be had for the morning. We were to cover 22km or so today. We hiked towards Hidroelectrico (yes, the real name of a place) where we would enter the Machu Picchu National Park. The morning’s walk was pretty easy, with nice if somewhat hot weather and beautiful scenery, and the most Indiana Jones-esque bridge yet. The Urubamba continued to flow strong and hard as the heavy rains of the past days drained from the mountains around it.
We stopped to register for entry into the Machu Picchu reserve in sight of the great mountain itself. In the distance you could just see an Inca train cutting across its face. We continued on to a lunch rest stop next to the hydro-electric power station, and waited ages for food or even cups to arrive. After lunch it was a walk along active train tracks (we had to get off the tracks 5 times to dodge trains and locomotives) towards Aguas Calientes, the staging point for Machu Picchu.
Unfortunately, as we walked along the tracks, sporadic rain began and some heavy spells meant that further photography was impossible. Negotiating the rocks in the track bed became a bit tiring in the wet, and it was not possible to walk on the spacers as the Peru Rail folks seem to have thrown them onto the ground with no detectable pattern and nailed them down where they fell. Nevertheless I spent most of the afternoon in a private world, iPod half in (other ear open so I could hear oncoming trains) and for the most part I was usually at least 100m in front of everyone else. We were glad, 3 hours after lunch, to be able to leave the tracks and head up the final tiring hill to Aguas Calientes. Along the way Angelito showed us the path up the mountain that we would need to walk if we chose to hike up to Machu Picchu rather than take the bus up. It was 1700 steps up. I remember thinking distinctly, in my end-of-day fatigue, “bollocks to that.”
We got into Aguas Calientes, a raging ripoff of a town full of fake Inca-stone hotels and package tours, and were shunted into various different hospedajes of very basic standard. This was a little disappointing as we were told we would have a higher standard of place in Aguas. But hey – at least it had hot showers. We hung out our increasing loads of wet gear as best we could, with little hope of it drying. We had some down time which I used to check the internet, and then all met up for a pretty decent dinner/briefing in which we met our new guide, Jon, and got the low-down on how the next day would pan out. Basically you were looking at a very early day, and a march up the mountain. For reasons to be explained, I opted to walk up. A quick trip to the shops to stock up on food for the next day, and early to bed for a struggle to sleep between nervousness/excitement and some loud partying nearby.
Day 4: Machu Picchu
Day 4 started with a shock as the alarm went off on the stroke of 2AM. I had dressed, packed my leave-behind clothes (mostly wet, but one dry pair of jeans that would be a life saver later) and grabbed my day pack and was off. I was supposed to meet Mauro and his friend at 2:30 in front of last night’s restaurant but no sign of them, so I set off down the road at 2:45, alone. There was almost nobody to be seen in Aguas Calientes itself, and as soon as I got down the road and past the bus depot, I was utterly alone. This was an eerie experience as I had only my headtorch for illumination (there were no streetlamps). The head lamp’s beam shone through the early morning mist and the spray in the air from the nearby rapids, and every so often a glowing pair of unknown animal eyes would stare at me briefly before disappearing into the undergrowth. It was an unnerving experience. All the way down the road to the foot bridge and across to the trail head I was alone. It was only after I had prepared myself for the ascent up the 1700 steps that I finally saw two other headlamps appear back at the bridge. The wolves were at the door. It was time to ascend.
The reason I had gotten up so early was that you needed to be one of the first 400 people in the queue if you wanted to get a pass to hike up Wayna Picchu, the little mountain behind the city itself that you had to climb if you wanted to get the “classic” Machu Picchu photos. Since I had fared so poorly on my last big climb I thought I might get a properly early start just to give myself time to go up at my own pace. As it turns out I needn’t have worried much. For some reason my pace and endurance was much better this time, and I made a decent show of it, definitely not the fastest but not near the slowest either. I was alone for part of the ascent, until the steps crossed over the vehicle road and I lost the other trail head and had to walk around a long switchback in the road to pick the trail back up again, by which point the first group had caught up with me, including Mieke and Salvador. By this point a heavy rain had set in, and I broke out the poncho to cover me and the craptacular day pack I had bought in Cusco. The ascent was much easier than I had expected, and I was actually surprised to reach the top in just an hour when we had been led to believe 1hr20 or so.
We reached the entrance gates in the pitch darkness and rain, at 4:15 or so. An hour and a half to wait before they would start looking at tickets, and and hour and 45 minutes until the gates opened. There were around 20-30 people there already, most of whom would have passed me during my little “lost period”. I stood shivering with Mieke and Salvador and we attempted to dry out our rain gear, and generally huddle under the guard shack roof as the rain backed and fulled, and the early chill set in. More and more people arrived, a queue began to stretch off down the road, and it became clear that even those arriving on the first bus wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the prized Waynu Picchu tickets.
Eventually, though, the time came, our tickets were checked, and we triumphantly requested the 10AM Waynu Picchu slot. I was number 17 in the queue. We went through and waited for all of our group to assemble, and those of us whose English was stronger than Spanish went off with a rather indifferent guide named Washington to get an early-doors tour of the site. He was a bit surly, and it rained off and on (and got stronger and stronger) over the course of his 2-hour tour, but who cares? As we pushed through the masses of tour groups at the entrance, and climbed through to the first set of terraces, we finally saw what all the fuss was about: Machu Picchu. Staggering. The city seemed to just fall off the edge of the world on every side. It was encased in early morning fog and cloud which seemed come and go, and you had to be sharp with a camera to catch details. Unfortunately the rain made camera use a very hit and miss affair. The S90 was already fogged out and the SLR showed signs of impending moisture damage, so I was only able to grab the odd shot here and there:
By the time we got to the end of the tour, it was bucketing down, and we hid in one of the temples. My wide angle lens was beginning to fog from the inside, not good. I had to put the camera away, finally.
We made our way to one of the peripheral temples that actually had a roof (a rare thing in Machu Picchu) and had a bit of lunch while our ponchos dried off a bit. The rain backed and filled but never quite stopped, and we headed back out the entrance to grab a hot chocolate and use the bathroom. While having our chocolate the rain turned it up a notch and became torrential showers. We waited it out for an hour or so. The girls headed back into the site, but I reckoned I wasn’t getting any drier, and I was concerned about my camera gear, so I decided to cut my losses and head back down to town. It was disappointing, but only mildly, as I was still awed by what I had seen, even if I couldn’t preserve it for posterity.
It seems a great number of other folks were also ready to call it a day, because the queue for the buses reached gargantuan proportions. So, together with 2 British doctors (Chris and Paul) from another group, we decided to hoof it back down the 1700 steps in the driving rain. This was easier for obvious reasons than going up, but complicated by the fact the path was now a river. We arrived, soaked, in Aguas Calientes, and stopped off for a meal in a touristy pizzeria. It was noon, and I had been awake for 10 hours already. Our train reservation was at 6pm. What to do with the rest of the time? I ended up back at the internet cafe for a bit, and then went to change into my dry jeans. Every single other piece of clothing I had was wet, as was my passport, and much of my money. I sat with the Argentine guys and we all dropped off to sleep at various points. Finally we made our way to the train station and settled in for the short journey to Ollantaytambo. Almost everyone slept on the way back, with a brief interruption to transfer to a coach to take us back to Cusco. We said our goodbyes there, and a few email addresses were exchanged, but most everyone was dead on their feet, and dying for a hot shower and a warm bed. I returned to the Los Ninos Hotel, where a nice double bed awaited me. Deep sleep ensued.
While the first and final days were somewhat of a disappointment due to the weather, overall I really enjoyed the trek and would recommend it to anyone. And because I have some time to play with here in Cusco, I am going to re-attempt Machu Picchu sometime in the next few days, and hope for a break in the weather. This will be a simple round-trip to Aguas Calientes rather than the full trek all over again, but that will be perfect for what I want to do. At least I can say I’ve tried!