It was always central to the plan. Fly transcontinental to Peru. Once in the capital, randomly follow compass points leading out of Lima in all directions but west, which would be suicidal as it would leave me adrift somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean. But whatever I do, the golden rule stands: don’t fly home without first having taken the long trail to Machu Picchu.
Many roads lead to Rome. So too are there a fair few routes to Machu Picchu. The Inca, like the Romans, were master road builders after all. You can opt for what most do and that is to fly to Cusco, board a mini bus from that old Inca seat of power to the sublime surroundings of Ollantaytambo in the even more sublime Sacred Valley of the Inca, board the train from the terminus there 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Macchu Picchu, and from there board another bus that winds up and up until it reaches, at 2,430mt a.s.l., the ticket booths standing like sentinels at the entrance to the eighth wonder of the world.
Or you can pay Atahualpa’s ransom and trek the three nights, four days to Aguas Calientes on the famous Inca Trail. Equally, you can step out of the ordinary and hike the Lares Route running along the valley to the north of the Sacred Valley. But that plonks you down at Ollantaytambo and from there you’ll still need to ride the packed train to Machu Picchu. For the even more intrepid there’s the Vilcabamba Traverse route, which basically follows in the now well-trodden footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu Picchu with a little help from an unheralded fellow who happened to farm land in Aguas Calientes and knew all about the strange ruins in the thick undergrowth at the top of the mountain. At ninety kms long, descending into canyons, crossing raging rivers and back up mountains so steep you tip your head backwards just to see them in their entirety, the Vilcabamba can take well over a week to traverse. And then there’s the Salkantay. Free but definitely not easy. That’s the route I took. It turns out, with unintended consequences.
They always say, don’t they, that certain actions have unintended consequences. The more extreme the action, the more consequential. By the standards of some, walking a full five days and sixty kms to the foot of Machu Picchu over a 4,600m (15,090ft) pass is pretty extreme. Especially so when you happen to be fifty years old on your next birthday. Anyway, i digress. For five days I walked the walk and talked the talk and in between saw deep time cut deep into rock and cappuccino brown waters froth and fury on the valley floor because the mighty, near-mythical Urubamba river could not run down to the Amazon fast enough, pushed on as it was into incandescent rage by mountains pressed hard up against it, bullying it and blocking its light.
It was raining as the ten of us flooded out of the mini bus on the trailhead. In reality, the official start to the 75km Salkantay Nevada was 20km back down a very inundated road-cum-track. Ordinarily, day one of the Salkantay would involve a trek up and up that rutted track, waterlogged by weeks of summer rain and spun into mud by the endless turning of Mercedes minibuses wheels ferrying sightseers up to Humantay Lake. We were cutting to the chase on our five day dash to Machu Picchu by skipping the boring bits.
Our guide, Jorge, told us to get suited and booted. Raincoats and plastic ponchos would be the order of the day. My Texan friend and I clambered onto the muddy ground. Walking poles were doled out in exchange for rent money. Essential item. $10 for the duration. Our walking group – at that point still a bunch of strangers, mainly from Germany and Holland – formed under the rain, almost by accretion. Bedecked in plastic ponchos of the most garish colours, they readied themselves for a 2-hour detour to Humantay Lake, before bracing for a 3-hour climb up to camp 1 at Soraypampa. As usual, I was first off the bus and last onto the trail. The Texan and I rolled a smoke, buckled up and in our own time started this great overland journey with a single step. The young bucks and hinds in the group were already visibly ahead within minutes. But the Texan and I were not lone stragglers. Beside us we noticed a girl.
I had seen her when i first boarded the bus back in Cusco at 4am that morning. There she was all alone with only a covid mask covering her eyes, depriving me of the totality of her pretty face. She sat alone, not feeling the urge to befriend others, as so many solitary types do when they’re on the road. She slept, and when she woke she kept herself very much to herself. Much as I tried not to, i found myself constantly stealing a glimpse of her while trying to act all natural. Physically, she was nothing like us. I guessed Brazilian due to these fulsome lips and coffee complexion. She certainly wasn’t Peruvian, with their proud Quechuan noses. Nor Chilean. Nor Argentinian. Definitely not Bolivian. Ecuadorian? Hmmm. Nah. They too were ruled by the Inca, as their faces testify to. She could have been Colombian, or Venezuelan. I deduced that much. Anywhere in the Caribbean, the genetic blend of European, African and Indigene created this unmistakeable exoticism, verging on the absolutely beautiful. But, no. I settled upon Brazilian, as there are 150 million of them, and only 50 million Colombians and 25 million Venezuelans (there used to be 30 million, but 5 million are now refugees).
As we ambled, tortoises off the blocks, she drew abreast of us. Slightly discomfited by the presence of two jackasses who – as i was to later find out, she found irksome when they boarded the minibus at 4am singing, joking and generally ignoring the protocols of getting on a night bus – it took me to break the ice.
‘See my friend here, he doesn’t think you’re Brazilian. But i do. Am i right?”
She was. And I was. And that was the first time we were right together.
At Humantay lake, the surface water was a bioluminescent paint pot. The color was electric blue-green. Around it the land rose sharply, a browned earth soft as shale where the land had collapsed in. And on top of that sat a crumpled mountainous mass of black rock and ice. The Andean giant flitted in and out of sight, behind a veil of cloud and Scotch mist. It was summer, but the Andes being the Andes and defying definition, this was the rainy season. And for anyone who knows the high mountains, everything is exaggerated, even the intensity of the rain.
I could see the glass domes – our beds for the night – on the ridge up ahead far in advance of arriving. The others were all there, but she and I had fallen far behind. Our footsteps slow, deliberative, rhythmic. We were tired beyond belief, for here at nearly 4,000 metres (or 13,000ft) the air was reed thin and the angle of ascent deceptively steep and seemingly without end. For every gulp of air, disappointment ensued. And as the occluded sunlight dipped on a fading afternoon she and I became more and more talkative. Gassing while climbing at these altitudes is not always the right strategy. So for every sentence a pause for breath that doesn’t readily come the way it does as sea level. Our legs could not catch up with our tongues but I knew that something had clicked between us, language barrier or no language barrier.
Up on the ridge with the Salkantay mountain looming in the twilight behind a wall of white cloud, she and I slumped down. We were exhausted, the right kind of exhaustion that combines the very tired with the very happy. Eagles flew sorties in the valley beneath and every now and then a huge wall of granite would flash into view through the gathering night. Magic all around. This, I thought, is why I damned near killed myself to get here. And in the process i made a friend, a beautiful friend.
Day one not even drawn to a close, and this adventure was already shaping up to be a classic. It’s in the nature of duality that with pain comes a degree of pleasure that makes the pain bearable. Altitude and steep gradients might be the root cause of the pain, but the pleasure was all mine with her by my side. I have a fridge magnet back home that reads, ‘no road is too long in good company‘. Never was this Turkish proverb more true than the moment we collapsed into camp 1.