Wednesday morning, time to hike across the Andes to Machu Piccu.
A small minivan provided by our tour (Bamba Experience) picked me up from the main square at 4.45am, cold and dark and all kinds of silence bathed an early morning Cusco. In the shadows of the cathedral I met the group that i was to spend the next six days of absolute euphoria with. Our guide, Rodrigo (a human encyclopedia of Incan knowledge, and super friendly to boot) Catherine, a young girl from London that had been working with children in the north of the country, Renan and Murillo, two painfully handsome Brazilians spending their holidays from work in Peru, Monika, a quiet Ecuadorian girl on vacation alone, and Yves and Suzanna, a forty something French Canadian couple on their honeymoon.
We drove out for three hours or so, catching sunrise on the outskirts of the city, heading for our starting point. At the foot of the Andes, facing a dense jungle ascent, we made our pleasantries with the group and the guides and headed off steep into the green. The heat hurt on the first ascent, i mean really hurt. Catherine dropped out around an hour in, wholly unprepared both physically and practically, a mule would carry her to base camp well after dark that evening. The views were impressive as we peered through glimpses in the jungle and as we cleared the green, but nothing would prepare me for what waited as we cornered the mountain we had been making our way up. Our base camp lay somewhere around 10 kilometres down the canyon we gazed at, a giant peak sat in the distance like a guardian at the doors flanked by two majestic glacial peaks glowing bright white. Real brochure stuff.
It took us three hours of hard hiking to reach our frozen camp site, past huge waterfalls that coursed the opposite side of the canyon like an ice white circulatory system, we ate spaghetti in our tents, braved the continually plummeting temperature to try to peek at the stars through the cloud ceiling, and headed to bed three to a tent for warmth.
Our aching bones moved out at 5am to the mouth of Salkantay (our summit point), steadily up and down for the first hour with the cold biting exposed skin, the path began to ascend rapidly until we were literally looking at an almost vertical ascent into cloud. Our group dispersed up the face, I passed a small tarn in the clouds and pushed on to the summit at around 8.30am. The rain blew aggressive, bitterly cold and sideways. I found a stranger to take my photograph the 4,900m summit point and then raced down the other side of the mountain to relative shelter and to await the rest of the group. We reconvened an hour or so later for dinner just below the cloud line, we shook hands and embraced each other in almost CV worthy expression of the team work that had been the glue of our adventure thus far.
I left dinner ahead of the group to prevent my muscles from seizing up.
I descended alone into the valley with Salkantay at my back, not a human in sight, a purposeful silence was only broken by my footsteps. The two glacial peaks that sat 10 kilometres down the canyon yesterday now sprawled either side of me all the way to the horizon, their faces scarred with a thousand white waterfalls. As the clouds cleared i listened to the song Vanderlye Cry Baby Cry by The National
“Leave your home, change your name.
Live alone, eat your cake.”
For a fleeting moment in time and for the first and only time so far in my life i had a very real moment of absolute euphoria, subdued but very real. An ephemeral moment of clarity impossible to describe as a succession of events, because it wasnt a succession of events. It wasnt a good day where everything seemed to fall into place, where you eat some great food, drink some wine with friends, sleep like a baby and wake up thinking everything is great. It was a self destructing moment in spacetime without coordinates, without dimension. Ancient civilisations built pyramids to try to replicate how being in the mountains brought them closer to their Gods, and i think i kind of got it for a split second, then it was gone, and i felt kind of stupid for even thinking such thoughts.
We rested that night at the bottom of the valley, facing the path around the next mountain that would take is through though the cusp of the amazon jungle in the morning.
By comparison, the next day was a breeze. We followed a snaking ridge above the river, through clouds of butterflies, strawberry bushes and dense expanses of coffee plantations. Some of the paths had collapsed, small pigs slept at the side of narrow roads that ended where a bus picked us up. We drove to Santa Teresa and our campsite for the evening, ten minutes away we bathed in natural forty degree hot pools in that shadow of circling birds of prey.
Our group went zip lining over the Rio Bamba, five lines of varying distances and speeds, traversed jungle suspension bridges and repelled down onto the jungle canopy. The afternoon was our final trek, to Machu Picchus constituent town ‘Aguas Calientes’. From the train tracks that led us there, you approach a strange tourist hub in the middle of nowhere. After four days of almost isolation and reflection, it was the perfect place to go to bed alone and early.
I awoke at 4am to be at the bus station for 5.30am, it was already busy. That didn’t sit well with me.
I kind of liked that it was bathed in cloud when we arrived, as one of the first in it kind of felt like I had expected it to for a few fleeting moments. The viewpoint didnt blow me away (probably because I’d seen that image a million times’, the beauty was in the details.
Sitting high in the clouds, this ancient citadel carved without modern tools to absolute perfection, to where you couldn’t fit a piece of paper between fifty tonne pieces of rock that were mined hundreds of miles away, temples that point due north to within a a breath of a degree, windows that mapped the waning of our star through its equinox’. I sat alone by a temple, drinking in the history and mysticism that enveloped me. Around 9am it all went to shit, the trains arrived, packed to the gills like it was Poland in 1942. The fat americans poured out with the pressed slacks and freudian camera lenses. They pushed and fought over that obligatory photo opportunity, then pissed about on their phones and ate cheeseburgers at the gift shop.
Feeling like a god amongst men, but looking like a tramp that never even tried, i left the site alone.