In the early morning of the fifth day of our trek, I awoke thinking that tomorrow we would make the final climb to Machu Picchu. It was a good feeling knowing I’d made it over the mountain and the previous days of the trek. Before I left for Peru my family and friends were warning me that my complete lack of preparation would see me hurt or killed, so it was nice to shrug off the previous days as challenge overcome.
The first leg of today’s trek would see us follow the path, climbing up the valley wall 700m above us before making the steep descent into the neighbouring valley. Leaving so early in the morning meant we would be sheltered from the sun’s heat for the duration of the ascent, which was a small mercy. Setting off through the narrow, forest lined trails from the plantation and back onto the trail, we waved good-bye to our last jungle campsite and made up the way we had gone the day before.
The climb took all of three hours of constant hiking and clambering up stone stairways. Even in the shade and morning chill, it wasn’t long before our group was panting and peeling our t-shirts from our slick skin. The walk was constant and punishing, but every now and then, rewarded us with a break in the jungle and unrivalled views out over the beautiful green valley as the sun rose over the ridges.
Sadly, we couldn’t stand here forever. And so continued on, hiking along the narrow path, fringed by dense jungle and punctured with sudden breaks in the forest or waterfalls cascading down the valley wall. As we approached the day’s zenith the temperatures rose further, leaving us wiping our faces of arms of sweat and flies. We were in sore need of a break by the time we reached the last 50m or so of ascent, which rapidly went from a gradual path, to a climb on a steep, dirt stairway more like a dried river than a path. This was a hard climb which broke the lines of our group as we had to go at our own pace to reach the top. I’m proud to say that I was able to stay up near the front and managed the final struggle to the top.
The change was instant. We went from a path on a steep valley wall, to a small clearing in the middle of some incredibly dense forest. Tall, moss and vine covered trees reached upwards, their feet buried by ferns and carpets of greenery and plant life. It was cold under the canopy. The sweat leaving us shivering as we dried ourselves out and had a break as our group came together one by one. It was then that I heard this deep, guttural breathing sound above us. Rolphy announced that it was the sound of a sleeping howler monkey up in the trees, though nothing could be seen curled up in the dense green, roof.
Once rested, we set off along the top of the ridge before beginning our steep descent down a path similar to the rugged river bed-type we covered in the final climb – such a descent is very hard on your legs and knees, and ours was no exception. The path was fringed by forest in the same way the ascent had been, offering brief glimpses to faraway ridges and mountains. Suddenly we were dumped out on a small clearing where a small Inca ruin sat.
As Rolphy described to us that small sites like these litter the hills and valleys surrounding Machu Picchu, we wondered around and found a small collection of buildings on a lower terrace. We took it as a photo opportunity and started snapping. We were shocked when Rolphy pointed to the ridge across the valley, towards a long, light green mark on the ridge line – Machu Picchu! We could see it from across the void, perched on a sharp ridge which plunged down into the valley below. It gave us a boost to see our target after a few days of hard slog.
We continued on our steep, punishing descent with slightly more excited yammering than before. However it wasn’t long before the suffocating heat, lack of wind, and unrelenting sun soured our moods and all chat died away for the three hour climb down the sheer valley wall. It wasn’t long before mozzies, flies, and wasps were whizzing around us, adding to our discomfort.
Note: the wasps in this part of the jungle are not the little yellow and black things that pester you back home. These are big, black, evil fuckers the size of your thumb that can easy keep up as you run away like a child.
Despite the slightly miserable conditions, we were once again treated to views of a jagged landscape of valleys and mountains, all carpeted in verdant green forest. The beauty of the landscape always catches you off guard, even after hours of hiking through it. The descent was hellish but it eventually ended. Leaving us at the bottom of the valley where the Riu Urubamba river surged past in a white torrent. Once the group was together we crossed the narrow suspension bridge strung across the wide river, and followed the path through tall rushes and bushes.
This section was just as hot as the descent but was lightened by a slight breeze coming over the river, making this walk most pleasant. Once again it was the landscape which I most admired as I hiked along in the pounding heat. A sudden break in the valley wall revealed a huge waterfall thundering down and over the valley wall and into the Riu Urumbamba. Waves of spray washed over us as we passed on a bridge and onto a dirt road leading around into the next valley, where the road gave way to a huge industrialised track along the river, ending at the hydroelectric plant. This final stretch of the walk seemed to take ages as we made our way along the dusty road in the searing heat.
We came to a train stop near the plant where we could stop to get refreshments and have lunch. This break was sorely needed, though by now most of us had finished our water and were forced to stock up from a small shop for the hours ahead. The walk began parallel to the train tracks before suddenly merging with them, forcing us to walk on a narrow gravel strip – dangerously close if a train came along.
We followed the tracks in the relentless heat for a long time before reaching a rust-red bridge crossing a bend in the river. The pedestrian crossing here, was little more than thin sheets of metal laid over metal beams. Some were barley fixed to the frame, bouncing wildly as we crossed. It was now that a great freight train came upon us, thundering over the bridge, shaking the entire structure and us with it. The long blue snake was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving us shaken but unfazed as we continued on into the tunnel of trees which fenced the tracks. Here the only noise was the rustle of leaves in the wind and birds over the river. The line stretched away from us, following the river through this deep ravine of a valley.
When the trees finally ended, they gave way to sheer stone walls and a glaring sun over head. I began to bake in the heat and quickly became dehydrated. The supplies I picked up at the train stop were long finished and I was starting to get the headaches and cracked lips I’d been warned about at the start of the trek.
The tracks seemed to go on and on, with little relief from the heat and no water to relieve my thirst it was a punishing afternoon. Suddenly the forest opened up to reveal a busy road of backpackers, buses, and locals. We had arrived at our campsite at the base of Machu Picchu and just a fifteen minutes walk from Aguas Calientes. We made the last stretch of the walk, following the twisting river around a buckle in the valley before reaching the tiny tourist town.
The Riu Urumbamba cuts through the centre of the town, leaving little ground to build on. As a result there are few buildings shorter than 4 stories, separated by narrow alleyways lined with market stalls and crowds of locals and tourists milling throughout. There are only a handful of roads, all congested with buses ferrying people up and down to the Inca city high above. Aguas Calientes struck us as having a very lively atmosphere with music spilling out from all the bars and restaurants which fringe the streets. We were led up to a tiny place overlooking the river where we had drinks and supper. We rewarded ourselves with beer and pizza after days of soup and rice. We earned a break and rightly took it before heading back to camp in the evening.