Perú: a series (Salkantay Trek Day 4)

Machu Picchu rising from the fog at the end of the Salkantay Trek.

After all we had read and heard about this ascent to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, Mitchell and I were super worried. (Ok, I’ll be honest, mainly I was worried because Mitchell dominated those uphills, but even he expressed a bit of fear and mentioned asking the guide if we could just take the bus - which we did not.) Our guide told us to expect it to take 45 minutes, and that it was basically all stairs, straight up.

Mitchell and I were first in line at the checkpoint in the morning, at 4:15. A sweet dog followed us all the way from the edge of town to the checkpoint (about a 20 minute walk), and then laid at our feet as we waited until they would open the bridge at 5am. I felt this was a good omen, and that he was protecting us and giving us some peace. (Ok, I know the photo below is terrible, but I kept scaring him with the flash, so I finally gave up and this was the best one I had.)

Our protector from Aguas Calientes to Machu Piechu entry point.

By the time we were let through, our adrenaline was pumping, and I was feeling immense pressure from the growing line of people behind us - probably between 100-200 - that I just knew would be annoyed by my slow pace and passing us left and right. Because of all this, I think I started out too fast, and within 5 minutes I was dying y’all. It was awful. I kept seeing Mitchell way above me, and hearing people behind me so I just kept thinking, “One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.” It had also started pouring rain at this time, but I didn’t even care to get out my poncho and just got soaked. At one point Mitchell said, “Hey, I think we’re halfway now!” and I wanted to punch him in his throat. However, from that point on it did seem to get slightly easier. I think it also helped a guy from Germany met up with us and started asking us questions, which distracted us from the physical brutality of it all for a bit because before I knew it, we were finished! It took us 40 minutes, and our guide who said he’d be waiting on the last step for us didn’t show up for another 20 minutes. (Just for the record, I looked at my iPhone health app, and it was 283 flights of stairs.)

Joy of joys, we were done climbing! Hahaha, just kidding. Once we entered the park strictly at our 6am entry time, (the first to do so) it was MORE climbing! Guys, I was not happy. Oh, and it was still raining, but now we were on top of a mountain so it was also windy and super cold.

We got to the amazing photo spot our guide had told us so much about, and timed it so there would be no one in our photos, but wouldn’t you know it, dense fog covering everything. Mitchell had a sense of humor about it later though (definitely not at the time it happened) and created this awesome image. Yes, it really was pure white, he just added the lines.

Me in front of Machu Picchu…fog.

We waited for a while hoping it would clear up, but it didn’t, so our guide took us around, explaining the significance of different places, as we wound our way to our 7-8am entry time spot at Waynapicchu. Waynapicchu is the taller of the two mountains you always see behind Machu Picchu. It is restricted to only 400 people per day (so book way ahead) due to the nature of the steep and narrow path you must take to get to the top. I had also been dreading this part. Mitchell was actually thinking of not doing it at this point because we were so cold and it was still super foggy, but I had made it this far, damn it, I was going to finish the thing!

We made it to Machu Picchu! And had a break in the dreaded fog for this photo.

The brochure had explained this climb as "very steep and narrow” and that you must “use the cables when available so that you don’t fall into the abyss.” Um…what? Yeah, definitely a huge abyss once on the thing. It was basically more stairs straight up. When I say straight up, I mean at some points I was literally using my hands to pull me up, and at least 75% of the time my body was parallel to the ground. I was dying, y’all. It only hurt my pride more when finally at the top, I would watch others summit, and see some of them in their 60s and 70s. How? Just how?

Machu Picchu covered in fog.

Mitchell and I waited at least 45 minutes for the clouds to pass, but they were being rude, so we had 0 visibility, thus no reward for our hard climb. (I guess that’s not entirely true - my buns of steel tell a different story!)

Foggy view from Waynapicchu/Huyanapicchu.

Back at the bottom we realized the whole area is one-way, so we couldn’t go back to our original viewpoint to try to get photos. Mitchell was about to lose it, so we started booking it to the exit, hoping they would let us back in, even though we would be there after our 10:30am deadline. Luckily the guy remembered us and let us through, but then - you guessed it - more climbing. I really don’t know how I did it. I am so impressed with myself.

Machu Picchu and its many layers.

We finally got back to our starting spot and the waiting game began. Still so much rain and fog, but every now and then there would be a 5-10 second window where you could furiously snap away hoping to get that elusive photo of this incredible sight. After an hour we decided we got what we would get, and started our way back to Aguas Calientes, where we ate lunch, and then caught our train to Ollantaytambo, where we would catch a bus, that would take us back to Cusco. Whew.

So…Machu Picchu was pretty magical and all, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that my favorite part of the whole thing was the 2 hour train ride out of Aguas Calientes. Guys, it was spectacular! They gave free sandwiches and hot tea, had windows covering most of the car, and then a “balcony” car that was all glass and had the windows open for you to hang out and take photos of the incredible, sweeping views of the Andes. I’d never seen anything so majestic and wondrous in my life. I thought I’d be so tired I’d sleep the whole time, but I didn’t even attempt to, for fear of missing out on this magic around me. Love, love, loved it.

View from the train ride to Ollantaytambo. It was spectacular as the scenery kept changing.

I did however, sleep on the 2 hour bus ride back to Cusco, and was never so glad to have a hot shower, and hot water bottle warming my bed.