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Cuzco

First of all I would like to apologise for this veeeeeery loooong post, but I hope you'll enjoy it nonetheless.

We arrive fairly early by bus from Arequipa. Again we have not had the time to do a proper research of places to stay, so we first ask at Milhouse Hostel, where Bamba Experience - our tour operator for the Salkantay Trek - is based but fortunately they are full (I say fortunately because we later heard some less than flattering comments about this hostel). We have a look in our guide and it recommends Hostel Loki, so off we go to have a look. It's up a very steep hill, so in high altitude thin air and with almost 40kg of baggage to lug around it's definitely a test of the respiratory system, and the heart get a good run for its money too. At Loki they have a room free but it's not cleaned yet - Hannah get a bad feeling of the place and thankfully convinces me to have a look around for an alternative place. I can vaguely remember reading about a hostel called Suecia on Tripadvisor and we head there to have a look. It's a very nice building and the room they offer us looks really nice, bright and airy. It's got a very nice bathroom as well, and this at only five Soles (£1.25) more than Loki, where there was only shared bathroom and no windows – Loki we also learn later on is one of the most notorious party hostels in Cuzco – not quite what we were looking for anyways – we want to be able to get some sleep during the night... we don’t mind staying up late partying but don’t want to be kept up all night when we need to get some rest.

When out and about we can really feel the effect of the altitude here in Cuzco, even after a few days of acclimatisation in Arequipa we feel out of breath very easily, just walking about gently and it sometimes leaves us gasping for air. I'm getting a little bit worried about how it will be with the trek. We've both had symptoms of altitude sickness but for me it’s only been minor headaches and slight stomach upset. Hannah however has been suffering with much worse and she’s really not very keen on the trek because of this. She manage to rearrange her booking thankfully so she’ll take the train up and catch up with us in Aguas Calientes on the fourth day.

We’d booked our trek well in advance so all we had to do on arrival in Cuzco was to make ourselves known to the Bamba Experience Agency in Milhouse Hostel to arrange a briefing for the evening before the actual trek. It would have been more logic to have the briefing earlier in the day so we could have some more time to get the extra bits needed for our trek, but instead we have to run around last minute before all the shops close for the evening. Luckily we’re quite well prepared and only need a few small bits. The pickup in the morning is at 04:00 so not much chance to get any last supplies in the morning.

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It turns out our group of fellow trekkers is quite small – we’re supposed to be six in total but as Hannah decide not to do the trek due to altitude sickness we’re down to five. In the morning though one more person is missing and no one knows why. He seemed quite eager the night before at the briefing, but admitted to not being very prepared and need to get just about all the equipment required bought or rented in the short time before the shops close after the briefing, so it could be it became too expensive or maybe he didn't have enough time to prepare and had to cancel.

After being picked up we get introduced to our guide Saul and also our cook Grimaldo before we have some time to sleep in the van on our way up to the start point of our trek, and where we can get some breakfast as well in a village called Mollepata. The breakfast menu is very basic with three options, but it’s quite good with bread, omelette, fruit salad, and a banana too – tea and coffee is of course also included. After a long breakfast with all of us starting to chat and get to know each other we finally get started on our trek. The rest of the group is made up of a German couple Katharina and Sebastian, and Niels from Holland. As we get started it’s a mix of excitement and also a bit of nerves as I'm clearly older – and I'm guessing in not as good shape as the rest of the group – I'm worried I'm going to be the one that slows everyone down. Luckily the pace is fairly slow so my worries are unfounded – PHEW. After a few hundred meters we get introduced to Adolfo, our horseman. He sees that the horses and mules are well looked after and that all the equipment and some of our stuff arrive safely to our camps, and talking about age he is only a few days away from his sixties birthday and with Grimaldo as the second oldest of the team speeds ahead of us to set up for lunch and later setting up camp well in time for us supposedly healthy “young kids” to arrive. The first day consists mostly of gentle walking – it’s only when we occasionally take “shortcuts” that it becomes a bit testing – shortcuts being close to vertical climbs instead of walking along on the gentle path. The scenery is very impressive right from the start of our trek and it just keep getting better and better – I soon have problems keeping up with the rest of the company as I continuously stop for taking pictures, so much so that I occasionally have to run after the rest of the group to keep up – it’s not my fitness that slows me down strangely enough.

A very nice surprise is when we stop for lunch. We camp up on a little plateau with an amazing scenic view, but as if that’s not enough we get a second surprise when lunch is served – the food is absolutely amazing – we’re all astounded of what our cook Grimaldo can create under such basic conditions. After lunch it’s more amazing scenery after more amazing scenery. We reach the first night’s camp at about 3800 meters altitude after a 22km walk that started at about 2900 meters but because the incline was fairly gentle it doesn't really feel like we've gained a whole 900 meters of altitude. After another great meal by our cook and many stories by Saul, our guide, about his forefathers and their traditions it’s time to get some rest before day two.

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On the morning of the second day we wake early and I'm feeling very much energized – must be the fresh mountain air – although I'm not sure if that feeling is shared by the rest of the group. We have the option of being served Coca Leaf Tea as we get woken up – I'm keener on a cup of normal tea but try it out – it tastes a bit like grass and I don’t think it has very much effect.  After a large breakfast we gather our stuff and get ready to start walking. The second day, we've been informed, is the toughest of them all with the longest leg and the steepest incline. We’re a bit nervous as to how tough it will be and how we’ll cope with the 800 meters steep incline to 4629 meters in a just over three hours as opposed to the gentle incline the day before and the 25 km total distance to get to the next camp. So we start the first few hours with a constant up-hill finishing with a very steep 500 meters climb at the end where we have a well deserved break and the chance to soak in the amazing scenery. I really liked the challenge of the climb, but not so sure this view is shared by the others in the group.  We’re on the ridge between the Salkantay and Umantay mountains called Salkantay Pass, it’s the highest point of our trek so from this point it’s all (almost) down-hill and hence much easier to walk.

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It’s still quite early in the day when we start descending from the mountain and although it’s much easier walking there is a lot of it to be done before we reach our lunch-spot. The light is continuously changing as the weather can’t decide whether to be sunny or rainy and this gives the already stunning scenery even more life – it’s really breathtaking and again I'm taking way too many photos while walking along. As we’re nearing our lunch-spot though the weather is starting to make up its mind, and it being the rainy-season there is no big surprise as to which way that decision goes. We’re in luck and get to our camp just as the skies fully start to open its valves, and as soon as we’re under cover it’s torrential. The sound of the rain is incredibly loud, like a herd of buffaloes running past our camp, and we all sit in amazement at how heavy this rain is thinking it can’t get any worse than this... WRONG! The volume is suddenly turned up and we’re again thinking it really can’t get any worse now – wrong again... It builds up to an even more intense downpour and it’s almost impossible to talk to each other now because of the noise the rain makes. We’re now certain it reached its peak only  to again being proven wrong – after this we just give up guessing and just let it run its course and for a while we can hardly hear our own thoughts. As we finish our lunch our guide Saul decide to stay under cover to see if we can wait it out to see if the downpour will stop. It slowly starts to calm down but there is no stop to it and we have no choice but to brave the rain and get going if we want to reach out camp before it gets late and the darkness sets in. The rain poncho I bought in Cuzco the night before departure now comes in very handy as we continue our trek in the pouring rain – although at least it’s not torrential anymore. The previous downpours have however made some streams into rivers and our guide has to re-plot parts of our route to save us having to wade across high current deep waters. After a detour that entails mostly walking steeply up the hill for a while is our next hurdle the mud-baths. Although not very physically challenging it’s an effective way of getting very dirty very fast, which means it’s not the most pleasant and joyful two hour walk. Some clever clogs thought it a great idea to widen and even out the natural path only a few months earlier, and as the rainy-season set in it became the completely horrendous mud-bath it now it – thank you for that, twats!

After clearing the muddy part it’s a fairly nice walk down to our camp. To our surprise the camp is actually in a small village where our tents have been placed on a roofed terrace. We do our best to hang up wet clothes and leave our shoes to dry after which it’s time for a lovely dinner - our cook Grimaldo doesn’t disappoint of course.

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Alongside us on our second leg we've had another group of trekkers which we've in various degrees been interacting with during the day – some of which seem not at all prepared for this trek what so ever – some are anything short of trekking in high heels and a ball gown. They’re really struggling even as it’s only gentle terrain and down-hill. As we’re enjoying our lovely dinner after a nice rest we spot the last stragglers coming into camp long after dark. It’s a mixed emotion of feeling sorry for them as they’re obviously in pain and struggling and the thought of “how stupid are you to do this sort of trek without being at all prepared”. The good thing of course that they do make it to the camp without being on a stretcher and no one is left behind. This camp also have some creature comforts it being in a small village – right next to our tents on the terrace there is a bar and shop and there are a couple of shops scattered around in the village as well. I'm strangely not thirsty for a beer (I know – maybe I should be checked out by a doctor...) and just get myself some water, and quickly gulp down a litre of that. The others in our group settle with sharing a couple of beers. Some of the other group of trekkers seem to be a bit thirstier and up for a party though, and by the sound of it there will be many headaches to nurse in the morning.

Third day and another early start, but this time we talk our guide into serving us a cup of Té Puro instead of the Coca Leaf Tea – it just tastes so much better. Ahead of us is a gentle 14 kilometre down-hill walk along the Apurimac River to a village called La Playa where we have lunch. On our way we learn to sing two songs, one in Spanish – which is fairly easy to understand and therefore easy to learn and remember and then attempting the second song in the Quechua language which I fail spectacularly at. The Quechua song I can’t remember anything of anymore but the Spanish song is a scout’s song and goes a little bit like this:

Como estan mis amigos, como estan, (muy bien)

Este es un saludo de amistad (que bien)

Camineros siempre juntos, con amigos siempre unidos, como estan mis amigos, como estan (muy bien)

Singing our song we walk into the La Playa village where we get served our lovely lunch. And after lunch we get picked up by a van that takes us further to the town of Santa Teresa where we have our camp for the night. It’s late afternoon and we still have one more stop for the day, a trip to the Santa Teresa Hot Springs. There are three large pools here and we have about two hours to get soaked in the lovely hot water. The pools are not their natural formation any more but have been nicely fashioned with slate surfaces and a fine pebbled bottom – parts of the largest pool is still the natural rock-face. When we get there it’s virtually empty – only a few locals enjoying the tranquillity before the surge of tourists. Slowly but surely the pool starts to get busier and busier, as more and more tourists arrive after their day’s trek. A bit before we’re supposed to head back we buy a few beers from the vendors by the pool – beer rarely tastes as good as this and I have to concentrate on not drinking too much too fast. We take the taxi back to our camp a little bit later than planned and come back to a lovely dinner – I can easily get used to this diet but this is sadly the last dinner cooked by our chef Grimaldo before we come back into civilisation. After dinner the other group of trekkers which we are again sharing camp with get a fire going and start a little party – the local store provides beer and music. Niels brings out a bottle of whiskey which keeps our little group happy and we later join the other camp for a little boogie around the camp fire.

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The next day is the last day of trekking but we don’t have a very long distance to go – only a 10 kilometre walk from a place called Hidroelectrica up to Aguas Calientes. We have the option of trying zip-lining before starting our walk at Hidroelectrica. It’s apparently the longest zip-line in Peru with a total of 2.4 kilometres spread over six lines. It’s exhilarating zipping along a couple of hundred meters off the ground and I'm really glad I went for it despite the slightly high cost – although Sebastian managed to haggle it down a little bit for us – well done.

Zip-lining in Peru:

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After a quick packed lunch stop at Hidroelectrica the trek continues with a really easy walk at the side of the train line following the Rio Urubamba all the way to Aguas Calientes. When we reach the end of our trek and get to our hotel Hannah have already arrived by train but as she was a bit hungry she popped out for a bite to eat. I join her at the restaurant but as I had lunch not too long ago I only go for a sneaky beer. Afterwards we go to the hot springs for a little dip which is very nice, but not as nice as the hot springs in Santa Teresa by any standard. It does a good job of refreshing us though. Later in the evening we all gather for dinner at a restaurant called Salkantay. It’s not very great food – compared to the food Grimaldo dished up for us, it pales in comparison. Me and Hannah wish we could have gone for a Menu del Dia (meal of the day) in a little local restaurant off the main tourist drag.

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The last day of the trek is actually without any trekking. We start early with a five o'clock breakfast before getting one of the first busses up to Machu Picchu. It’s pouring down with rain so it looks like a sunrise might be out of the question – it’s rainy season after all so there is no big surprise in this. A little after six our bus arrives at the entrance of the site and we’re all dressed in our very stylish plastic rain ponchos ready to explore this ancient city. Saul takes up to a very nice viewpoint where he explains the history of the city of Machu Picchu, and although not the capital, its significance as the spiritual centre of the Inca empire. At first when we arrive at this viewpoint it’s looking like the clouds are clearing to give us a nice view of the ruins but as we spend more time up here it gets more and more cloudy and at the end of our little history lesson the view is completely obscured by the clouds and it’s started to rain again. We head down into the ruins and Saul takes us around the key temples and important houses and explains their significance. The rain seems to get worse and worse but thankfully not torrential this time. By the end of the sightseeing tour we agree a time to meet up down in Aguas Calientes for the train journey home and the group splits up. Hannah and I are feeling a bit tired from processing all the information, and our legs are tired too from all the walking up and down the slopes of the city – we’re also hungry and need to find a restaurant, so head for the exit. We find some of the most expensive sandwiches known to man and sit down for a little rest. I'm eager to head back and explore more of Machu Picchu and as the weather is improving rapidly it looks like I might be able to get some better views of the ruins. Hannah has had enough of Machu Picchu and is actually very disappointed of the site unlike me and decide to sit it out in the restaurant reading a book. The views have indeed improved and from time to time the sun even comes out of the clouds. As my feet are quite tired I don’t attempt on seeing the whole site again but concentrate on getting some nice overviews. By this time the site has filled up with a lot more people though and I find walking about in certain places slow and difficult because of the crowds – many tour groups seems to be afraid of letting people pass them and they move extremely slow due to people in the group are unable to cope with the steep slopes for various reasons. I'm tipping around behind these slow people looking like a little boy that needs the toilet and they still are refusing to let me pass.

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After my second tour of the ruins I head back to the exit and the restaurant where Hannah is patiently waiting for me. We take the bus down to Aguas Calientes and meet up with the others before starting our journey back to Cuzco. It’s early evening by the time we arrive and it’s time to say goodbye to the group. We head back to Suecia to check in for our last night in Cuzco after which we go to get some food before taking an early night.

We wake nicely rested on our day of departure from Cuzco. We've had to book a flight to Lima for us to have any time there at all before our pre-booked flight to San Jose in Costa Rica. Our flight is in the afternoon so we have time to go for a little walkabout in Cuzco before we head over to the airport. While I've not sampled the breakfast at Suecia before Hannah had a few days of it and wasn't very impressed – it’s the usual bread and jam so we decide to skip breakfast and just have a tea before we go out to find a restaurant. We end up going to Paddy’s Irish Pub at the other side of the Plaza de Armas and have an absolutely amazing Full Irish Breakfast – we've not had such a satisfying breakfast for a very long time. Afterwards we collect our bags and take a taxi to the airport. As we check in we have the option of catching an earlier flight which means we’ll arrive in Lima about an hour ahead of schedule.