Snapshot of the Week: Macchu Pissing it down

As those of you who have been following our story know (and if you haven’t why not?), we haven’t had the best of luck when it comes to the persistent scourge of the British – the rain. Thankfully, as we headed to Cusco, the dry season was in full swing, so our 5-day hike across the Salkantay Pass to Macchu Picchu would be unaffected by drizzle and downpour, and instead we would bask in glorious sunshine as we soaked up the scenery. Probably.

As we arrived in Cusco, we were pleasantly surprised. What we had half-expected to be a small mountain town, famous only as a gateway to Macchu Picchu and the surrounding Sacred Valley, turned out to be a fairly large city, with a stunning historical centre full of churches, little cobbled streets, great restaurants and beautiful plazas. The only downside to Cusco was the fact that there are so many tourists. I appreciate the irony of a tourist complaining about this but bear with me. There are two types of traveller in this part of the world: Backpackers and holidaymakers. Where there are the former, prices are low. Where the latter tread, prices correspondingly rise. In Cusco, there were both types present, meaning that we (who are most definitely in the former category), have to battle with the prices that those on their 2-week holiday have brought with them. Bearing in mind how poor Peru is as a country, some of the prices in restaurants, bars and shops in Cusco were not a long way shy of disgraceful. That said, there were still plenty of bargains to be had, it just took a good Google before leaving the apartment.

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Before our trek, we had a few days to acclimatise to the altitude before heading off on the hike. Cusco is at 3300m above sea level, so not as high as Lake Titicaca or the Salt Flats that we had previously visited, but more than enough to make you think twice about the six flights of stairs up to the apartment (*wheeze*). We spent those days in the Sacred Valley, at the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Picay with our Canadian friend, Obaid, as well as buying yet more crap made of alpaca fur. We also got our first glimpse of Peruvian rain the day before we left, which was a little surprising as we were in dry season, but it was only a temporary blip, best get it out of its system before the hike. We bought some snacks, rented our gear and went to our ridiculously late briefing before our 4am pickup the following day.

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Sacred Valley

Day one was a cloudy affair, but we had the novelty of sleeping in an igloo under the stars which kind of made up for it. A trek up to Humantay lake was enough to test our legs on the first day and, although the view was stifled by low clouds it was still a very pretty lake. Anyway, it was only a practise for the following day, the 4620m Salkantay pass.

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We awoke at stupid o’clock the following morning to see a blanket of thick, swirling pea soup over the mountain. Trudging up the valley at a glacial pace, it soon became clear that this would not be lifting any time soon. 4 hours later, at the summit of the Pass, we saw absolutely fuck all. What should have been amazing scenery was completely obscured by fog, and to add insult to injury it started hail-stoning through the drizzle. Dry season my arse. Not only was this incredibly disappointing and disheartening, it was depressingly familiar after our misadventures in Patagonia. Surely this couldn’t happen twice?

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Our view of the Salkantay Pass…
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… and what it’s supposed to look like

Unusually, the summit was nowhere near the day’s end goal. We had at least another 7 hours to go, most of it downhill, which sounds easy. Sadly, as we got over the mountain, it became evident that we had been in something of a rain shadow on the ascent side, so on the descent it absolutely threw it down. At the lunch stop 3 hours later, everyone was drenched and miserable. Why had we paid for this? Our waterproofs had long given up the fight and we had still seen nothing of the scenery. Still another 3 hours from our end camp with the rain firmly set in, we departed our mess tent in low spirits, for the first time ever seriously contemplating quitting a hike. We weren’t physical wrecks, but we were so miserable what was the bloody point?

We were heading down to our camp in the jungle. Our guide had warned us that this place was full of insects and therefore had strongly recommended that we get there before dark. This brought us up against the next obstacle of the day – the group’s pace. We were clearly the fastest two of the eleven of us in our party (along with a Canadian girl named Britany who seemed to find the whole thing a piece of piss.) It soon became obvious that if we waited for everyone else there was absolutely no chance we would get there before sun down, and we were not having that, so at the halfway point we told the guides we were off and blitzed it down the mountain.  The day’s rain had turned the paths into something Glastonbury would be proud of, but we were racing the sunset and we had no intention of losing. As we sped off through the quagmire, the rain mercifully slowed to a drizzle (that fine rain, soaks you through, worst kind of rain that fine rain), and we ignored our rapidly-growing blisters on our toes to arrive at the camp just as the last rays of sunlight dipped over the top of the valley. Success. We had a hot shower (amazing) and were clean and dry by the time the rest of the group arrived an hour later.

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Occasionally rain is pretty.

Thankfully the next day was dry, and was only a short one. A five-hour hike along a flat road, the only excitement coming from running over a recent landslide site for fear of death by tumbling boulder. The real problems were from the previous day’s efforts, Sadie’s feet were riddled with blisters and my shins were throbbing with shin splints. Hardly ideal. We arrived at the camp by lunchtime a little battered, and said goodbye to half the group who were doing the four-day version of the trek. Still we had a lazy afternoon which was pleasant, and made the decision not to do the optional Llacapata hike the next morning, simply due to the state of our feet and shins. This unfortunately meant some waiting around the next morning but there was not a lot we could do about that. We then hiked to the pretty (but again incredibly touristy) town of Aguas Calientes, our base for the night before Macchu Picchu the following morning.

4.30 am and we are queuing for the bus to MP, as I shall now call it. The only reason anyone is in this town is to visit the famous Inca city, so by 5am there is a line 500m long, 3 or 4 people wide, waiting for the first buses. I don’t know what the solution is, but this system is absolutely nuts. The only alternative to this is to walk and climb the almost 2000 stairs up to MP, but somehow at half four in the morning we didn’t fancy it, so the overpriced bus it was. I say overpriced, this bus was US$12 and took 20 minutes or so. In Peru you can get a three course lunch for US$3, so it was a bloody scam.

As the bus twisted and turned its way up the mountain, something became quite apparent – we could see jack shit out of the window. Our old friend fog was at it again. What made this even more heart breaking was that the previous day had been absolutely gorgeous. We had bumped into the four-day trekkers from our group at the hotel the night before, and they were all sporting some impressive-looking sunburn to go with their glorious photographs. This would obviously not be the case for us. We were given a tour around the city, unable to see anything more than 20 yards in front of us. Extremely pissed off, we made the decision to head up to the famous Sun Gate, the end of the Inca Trail, where the view is meant to be stunning. Obviously, we could see nothing. There was more fog than a Pink Floyd concert, and now it was cold and raining, so at the top we found a little shelter and waited. And waited. The cloud had to break at some point, right?

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Amazingly, it did. 2 hours of freezing our arses off later, the swirling mist lifted, and the famous view of the city materialised. We were left speechless, not to mention incredibly relieved. We took, at a conservative guess, one billion photographs, met a lovely American bloke from Portland called Steve who insisted we stay with him when we are in the North Eastern USA, and headed back down the mountain much happier. As we troped towards the exit alongside a few thousand other relieved tourists, the fog descended again and the city was lost again. It was visible for about an hour. Only this time with the fog, we got rain. We made the decision to return to town on foot, and arrived absolutely drenched once again. Kind of fitting really.

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