By Alice Evans
There I sat outside the M&S at Gatwick airport, with clammy hands and butterflies in my stomach. It was 1pm. No one was there. Had they missed their trains? Had they broken down? Had they decided not to come? “So it begins,” I thought – worrying on behalf of fourteen other students. Because this was my role: Expedition Leader of the 2014 DUCK (Durham University Charities Kommitee) trip to Peru.
Luckily, the whole team did show up eventually: one clutched a spilling strawberry tart (the last safe dairy product to be consumed for the next six weeks), another grasped a guitar – “Customs will be no problem, trust me” – and one more began to ask me which shops in Cusco sold stamps. Bearing in mind that I had never set foot on South American soil before, I doubted that leading was going to be anything close to a ‘holiday’.
And I was right – but mainly because the itinerary I had drawn up for the group was absolutely jam-packed (despite indeed steering clear of strawberry tarts). After forty hours of travelling, followed by just three days of acclimatisation in Cusco (at an altitude of 3400 metres), the team and I embarked upon our first adventure: the five day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. The first four days cover a 50km route, far less touristy than the famous Inca Trail, as well as offering a greater challenge and more impressive scenery.
This was no Lake District, as I was used to back in England. Oh no. Stretch all of those English molehills upwards into the shockingly clear sky until they tower 6500 metres above you. Then steepen the sides so that the Cumbrian scree slopes transform into precipices on the brink of avalanching. Next, suck 40% of the oxygen out of the air, and you’ll have left the Lakes far behind; this is true Andean trekking.
Due to altitude sickness within the group, this first day was cut relatively short, and we arrived at our campsite at around 4.30pm. Campsite is perhaps too civilised a word: our nest for the night was a large grassy plain, pockmarked with boulders, right at the base of the glacier of Salkantay (Quechuan for ‘Savage Mountain’). Our motley crew was the only sign of life. We settled down to eat our evening meal in this exhilarating isolation. The cooks from the indigenously-managed Wayki Treks team (‘Wayki’ is a Quechuan term of endearment, loosely meaning ‘friend’ or ‘brother’) produced all kinds of regional delicacies. A mug of warm bean juice or steaming coca tea accompanied choclo con queso (corn and cheese), pumpkin soup, grilled trout, rice, yuca potatoes from the jungle, lomo saltado (similar to a meat stew), fried aubergine, banana and rum fritters, quinoa, vegetable frittatas, apple porridge, grilled plantains, hot kiwi, stuffed peppers… We ate like Incan Emperors.
After a tough night at -14°, our second day led us up the gruelling Salkantay pass, peaking at Abra Salkantay (4630 metres above sea level). Already awestruck by the foreboding glacial mountains of Salkantay and Huamantay, we were further shocked by an ominous groan as an avalanche cascaded down the mountain above us. Andean legend (according to our local guide) has it that the Mountain God of Salkantay causes avalanches in order to stop evil spirits, condenados, from reaching the top of the mountain and therefore the gateway to heaven. Devil or not, this demonstration of the mountain’s power was enough to catch the little breath we had left in our straining lungs. Luckily, the evil spirits were kept at bay, and for the next two days we descended into deep jungle. It was a fascinating journey through the diverse landscape, from the barren moonscape of the mountains down to the lively and muggy jungle.
After pausing at a coffee plantation to watch the World Cup Final alongside locals (on a postage stamp-sized screen), we began our fourth day. The route took us past an impressive hydroelectric station, and then followed a railway 12km through the jungle to the town of Aguas Calientes, where we would stay the night before visiting Machu Picchu. Throughout the day we caught glimpses of Machu Picchu (‘Old Mountain’) high above us, as well as sections of the Sacred City itself. Morale was high, the path was easy, and as we got closer to the spiralling streets of Aguas Calientes, an electric anticipation sizzled through the group. After an excellent meal at the hotel (included in our Wayki ticket), including Pisco Sours on the house, we hurried to bed. The sooner we slept, the sooner it would be Machu Picchu o’clock.
5am saw our team stuffed in a bus queue alongside every other temporary inhabitant of Aguas Calientes, and two hours later I finally set eyes on the Sacred City. It looks just as it does in the postcards, but what you cannot capture on camera is the majestic and spiritual atmosphere that grips the whole site. The Incan city is surrounded by jungle-cloaked mountains, and the precipitous agricultural terraces sweep down to Aguas Calientes far below. Wandering amongst the houses and temples, the sense of a once-thriving city is overwhelming. The history of this intriguing place clings to you, as thick and tangible as the jungle air itself.
After a captivating two and a half hour tour, we spent a sweaty hour climbing Huayna Picchu (‘Young Mountain’) to gain an alternative view of the city. This was a challenging yet rewarding end to our Andean journey, and gave us spectacular views of the entire route. I gazed nostalgically to the horizon where Salkantay reared its head forcefully above all else, and down into the valley below to retrace our jungle amble. The last five days could be reduced into a snapshot, trapped in time, but the incredible experience I had on DUCK’s trek to Machu Picchu will stay with me forever.
Photograph: Alice Evans