A jungle trek and llamas grazing in the mist at Machu Picchu

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

Trailing vines, a thick jungle canopy, screeching macaws and an ancient pathway to a lost city in deepest Peru – Machu Picchu has forever been my travel dream. Undoubtedly inspired by a drip feed of adventure films, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. Who wouldn’t?!! Yup, as I sat in my office picking the knots out of tangled land titles and contracts, I was happily dreaming a time and a place where I could be wielding a machete, boldly hacking my way through the jungle (and my own cloistered boundaries). So while the photocopier whirred and clicked, my imagination churned and Machu Picchu perched enticingly at the top of my ever growing list of wonderlands.

Highlighter and sticky tabs clutched enthusiastically, I spent hours pouring over the different routes to Machu Picchu. There are alot of options and, honestly, all of them seemed pretty fantastic to me! I have a wildly traditional streak (sadly, no amount of trendy friends has ever helped!) so tracing the footsteps of the Incas through the Andean cloudforest on the classic Inca Trail held predictable appeal for me. However, the more I read, the more I wondered. Was the trail too popular? Jungle or no, a tourist conveyor belt was definitely not going to fulfill my boldly-going dreams! So, happily submersed in blogs and tales, I finally decided that the longer, emptier Salkantay trek through the high passes would be perfect! Damien was game! All systems were go!

And then there’s what they say about best laid plans! Hermen (or “the anti-craic”!) struck (Sick in Bolivia) and left me with all the bubbling, mountain-climbing energy of an old grey dishcloth. On our arrival in majestic Cuzco, we had to reassess my feebster status. Salkantay was out. I didn’t fancy Damien’s chances at carrying me over the Andes! More plotting was required. We wandered thoughtfully through “the navel of the world” (In  Quechua, the language of the Incas, the name of the city is Qosqo which translates as “the navel of the world”, a reason all of its own to love this city!). Past corner-loitering llamas and through the city’s plazas and alleys, we pondered and poked at the alternative options until we finally decided on the Jungle Trek and a cure of constant distraction and adrenalin. Beaming and pocketing our tickets for four days of mountain biking, white water rafting, Inca Trail trekking and ziplining our way through the jungle to Machu Picchu, we headed back to our hostel to rest up in anticipation of adventures!

Llama at corners - Cuzco

Llamas at street corners – Cuzco

Recently, I had started glaring squinty-eyed at Damien, suspiciously speculating how it was that I was feeling so miserable while he was bouncing through South America robustly and obstinately healthy. I just didn’t understand it. We had been eating the exact same food! From the same plates! Where was his health-sucking parasite?! Hiding, that’s where! The night before we were to set off into the jungle, Damien’s very own parasite reared its nasty head and attacked, stealthy ninja style! Following an entire night of Damien hugging the questionable cleanliness of our hostel’s bathroom tiles, I presumed that we’d relegate our Machu Picchu exploration to that elusive someday. But no. From somewhere Damien found the reserves and decided to try out the distraction-adrenalin cure. Much respect, Monsieur Boyeau! Machete and gung-ho resolve conspicuously replaced in our backpacks by electrolytes, Poweraid, motilium and immodium, we set off anyway – a pair of feebsters off to seek perilous adventure!

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The Jungle Trek – Day One

Our motley crew of 4 Frenchmen, a German, an Argentinian and I (the token female…again!) flew down the side of the mountain, gliding over the smooth asphalt on our doubtful steeds. Past waterfalls and through rivers, we freewheeled along the cliffs. Damien led the group, sickness obliterated by speed. Caution obliterated by adrenalin. Then, there was the river. Snaking across the road, she stole his control, his bike and a layer of peachy skin from his right thigh. Unfazed, Damien wondered aloud whether it would leave a scar … “from that time when I was mountain biking to Machu Picchu”…

Mountain biking to Machu Picchu

The road to Machu Picchu…

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…and its scrapes and “perils”.

We arrived at the shack where we were to spend the first night. There was nothing to do but shrug at the general squalor and shimmy into our swimming gear – who can care about dirt when there is white water rafting to be tried?!

The rainy season in Peru meant that the river was swollen, brown and wild. It rushed on savagely behind our guide.  In the storm of noise (and, to be honest, inner panic), we strained to catch his instructions of when to row, to duck, to throw ourselves to one side of the raft and when to cling on for dear life and hope! Damien and I exchanged glances as we stepped into our raft. It was a definite -“is this safe?!” moment. Minutes later, the raft bucking beneath us, we were drenched, shouting, rowing and speeding down the river. There was no time for thinking, everything was the moment. It was terrifying, immediate and, above all, incredible!

After biking, rafting

After biking, rafting

That night, we fell into an exhausted sleep in the shack – day number one was definitely a success!

The Jungle Trek – Day Two

On the second morning, we peeled ourselves out of bed at 5am to set out on the Inca Trail. The paved stone path wound its way at impossible heights, through the heavy, wet heat of the oppressive jungle and along vertiginous cliffs. The six boys set a rapid pace and we powered past the other groups on the trail. I found myself half- trotting to keep up… and still failing! Sometimes I’d just love to be a boy! I wasn’t too disconsolate trailing behind though – the bananas, mangoes, avocados, oranges and pineapples sprouting in the wilderness around me managed to distract me completely from my desperately pumping legs. Bananas in trees! Really!

A jungle supermarket!

A jungle supermarket!

At one point our guide, René, nipped off into the trees, returning with a fistful of strange orange pips – Inca face-paint! Using his fingers, he gleefully smeared it all over us. We were a mess! All of us! Orange-faced and puffing, we continued to hike up the mountain, the dye dripping, never to be removed, onto our white t-shirts.

Achiote seeds - Amazon red paint

Achiote seeds – Amazon face paint & natural dye

We arrived at the “Monkey House” for lunch. Mustachioed marmosets and other strange and coddled creatures wandered around us, plucking at our ankles under the scrubbed plank tables. One dapper chappy nibbling on some pineapple caught our eye –  we still have no idea what he is but he has style!

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The other groups trickled in bit by bit and we get a fair few odd looks thrown in our direction. Once they’re settled in, we see other guides plucking tiny paintbrushes from their pockets and painting intricate delicate Inca symbols on the cheekbones of their charges. Hum! We’re misfits! Though what we lacked in delicate face-paint, we made up in speed and we ploughed into the jungle again.

We continued our hike along the ancient highway to a narrow crossing point in the tumbling brown of the river. As we waited, exposed, on the banks for our suspended chariot, the sandflies took their chance. Distinctly unrepelled by my layers of insect repellent, my bare legs were soon mottled and streaked with blood from 104 vicious bites.  Oh Rebecca you were right – the tiny monsters are to be avoided at all costs! A first encounter and a lesson learned – always, ALWAYS wear trousers where sandflies lurk! The rapidly blooming constellations on my calves spurred me towards the cable car, twitching, hopping and swatting furiously at the poisonous little gnats in a decidedly inelegant escape!

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The great escape!

Following some solid hours of trekking and some spectacular views, we arrive at some wonderful thermal baths. We topple in and float blissfully in the steaming waters, chatting and recuperating under the stars.  No longing for the Salkantay trail stirred in my contentedly floating soul.

Inca trekking and Inca Tequila

That night, happy and completely exhausted after the day’s long trot, I slip away to bed after dinner. My ploy? To store up enough energy to keep up with the boys again tomorrow. I need to be cunning to survive! That and sleep, lots and lots of sleep! Damien, obviously thinking that he had beaten that pesky parasite into submission, didn’t feel quite the same way. At all! Mister Boyeau decided to stay up playing drinking games with René, the French boys and some Inca tequila, culminating in a leaping competition from the bar to a pole-dancing pole at 4am. At our meeting time of 6am, Damien wasn’t feeling so limber anymore and there was no sign at all of our guide!

The Jungle Trek – Day Three

Damien roused and still a little (read completely) hammered, we made for the next stage – ziplining. The high wire course stretched high above the treetops and across a gorge. The river thundered on far below us.  Whistling down the line at 85kmph felt like flying.

Rope bridge above the forest to the ziplines

Rope bridge above the forest to the ziplines

Attached to his harness and hurtling along at speed, I’m not even sure poor Damien even knew what was going on!! Unfortunately, his oblivion didn’t last long and lunchtime found him distinctly green about the gills curled up asleep beside the railway tracks. At one point, a crowd of little Peruvian girls surrounded him wondering whether ” ¿el gringo está muerto?” Eeep!

Damien's kindred spirit at the railway

Damien’s kindred spirit at the railway

Well, needless to say, broken Damien wasn’t going to be able to walk the final 3-hour stretch to Aguas Calientes so, resisting the quietly growing urge to throttle the pup, we waved farewell to our little group and boarded the beautiful Orient Express-operated train to the little town. The journey was beautiful, the tracks winding through junglescapes and mist-capped mountains.

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That evening, at our surprisingly nice hostel in the warren of souvenir shops that is Agua Calientes, Damien slept the sleep of the dead and I desperately dabbed Kenneth & Alma’s magical Canadian insect cream onto my inflamed legs.  Admittedly, at the end of Day Three, it was just as well really that I hadn’t packed that machete!

The Jungle Trek – Day Four

Morning dawned early, very early, on Day Four. This was the day. The crux. Machu Picchu. We sprung out of bed at 4am and nervously minced about waiting for the very first bus to ferry us up to the mysterious citadel. We had been warned not to get our hopes up, that it was over-hyped, a tourist trap, a crushing anti-climax, but those hopes had been building for years. They were a force unto themselves. Cue much lip-chewing, foot shuffling and fidgeting as we waited for the opening of the site gates at 6am. Tummy dancing, my fingers curled and folded around our precious tickets. We were among the first to arrive. The gates opened slowly and we bustled in, like children rushing the treasures of the tree on Christmas morning. The ruins were deserted, a mist crept and hung silently over the smooth Inca stones. Llamas grazed on the abandoned plots. It was just magical.

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Soon, however, the throngs of tourists began to swarm over the “lost” city, splintering the perfect, fragile magic. Transparent blue and pink plastic ponchos clustered around bellowing tour guides as bus after bus arrived. The mythical city of the Incas melted away with the silence and the morning mists leaving a jarringly packed monument in its wake. It suddenly felt like an unconvincing movie backdrop, staged and painfully artificial. We drew away from the jostling crowds of the ruins to the luxuriously wild emptiness of Montaña Picchu, a peak both higher and less visited than Huayna Picchu (also I had sworn off setting foot on any “Huayna” again! Ever! See: The mountain that nearly ate me).

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We climbed the massive, seemingly interminable Inca steps for an hour and a half, reveling in having the jungle-ensnared pathways all to ourselves. The tangled vines, treetop foliage and thick grey cloud hanging low about us conspired to obscure completely any view as we negotiated our way up the roughly placed cobbles. The rough steps are bizarrely massive and we wondered at the compact Incas clambering up and down them. I had read tales of Inca rule, contributed labour, child sacrifice and the destruction of the legendary people but, somehow, it was only when I was puffing my way up this neglected stairway that the Inca people truly began to exist for me – their daily rituals, their skill and, my god, their fitness! We passed this gorgeous little creature and trudged onwards, upwards through the clouds.

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Up and up we climbed, expecting Machu Picchu to be revealed by the clearing clouds at each new twist and bend. We lingered at the summit willing the grey to dissipate, laughing when it didn’t.

What a view!

The view was definitely worth the million steps…

Then, as we wound our way back down, that special fleeting perfection of Machu Picchu struck again. The cloud cleared and the view of the citadel was spectacular. It is precisely at this moment that I understand how special this unique and ancient place truly is.

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