When people talk about trekking to Machu Picchu, the most common method people think of is the classic Inca Trail that take groups four days along a route that’s been rebuilt to cater for a lot of tourists. Only a limited number of permits are released each year, thus driving up prices due to the ever increasing demand to see the famed city of the Incas.
There are several alternate trails that have spawned as result of this over demand. Two others are the Salkantay trail and the Jungle Trek. The Salkantay is a much tougher trail that can go up to 7 days, taking you across higher altitudes and bone chilling conditions, but rewards the trekker with pristine views of the Andes. I opted for the jungle trek as my ankle was still a bit sketchy from twisting it on the boat on the Galapagos Islands. At initial thoughts were that most modes of getting to Machu Picchu were already expensive anyway (just getting a train there wasn’t much more of a saving than the jungle trek) and this would be something I could tick off without admitting it was the easy way out. However, by the end it actually was a pretty cool and interesting experiencing with the usual WTF moments that Latin America always dishes up.
Day 1 – Cusco To Santa Maria
The started with a 6am departure to Abra Malaga at an elevation of 4,200m followed by a 2,000m decent on mountain bikes to where we would then hike to our accommodation for the night near Santa Maria. As soon as we leave Cusco, everybody pretty much fall asleep instantly for the two or so hours. After we stop for a quick breakfast, we drive up and past the ancient town of Ollantaytambo which is in the Sacred Valley. The ruin structure is simply stunning and I begin to kick myself for not seeing it before while I was staying in Cusco.
Shortly after, we begin the breathtaking ascent up into the mountains. Within minutes you can feel the change in the air and surrounding landscapes. After about an hour, we finally reach out destination. It’s pretty cold and we put on all of our layers as well as body protection: Helmets, chest protection, elbow and knee pads and gloves. The views are incredible but Amoroso, our guide pushes on with getting everybody ready. Another group of jungle trekkers stop up the road right in view of a snow capped mountain ranges which would have been a good spot to stop to take photos as there aren’t many opportunities to do so on the way down in order to keep up with the group.
We finally begin the descent which twists and turns and the air moisture is quite fresh on my face. I’m thankful the kit came with gloves but after an hour of basically riding the brakes and descending in the cold weather, the sun finally appears and the temperature warms up. After a while the landscapes and conditions change from grey and cloudy to sunny and tropical as we arrive to the tree line and ride through streams that cascade over some parts of the road and down the mountain into the river.
After lunch, a few of the others went off white water rafting. I wasn’t in the mood for rafting so the rest of us were dropped off down the bottom of ‘hill’ by the river where we commenced our hike to our mountain accommodation for the evening. Amoroso said it would take 20minutes, but an our later we were still hiking. After seeking advice from three other people along the way, an old local lady gladly helped us in the right direction and we finally made it to our simple yet humble accommodation in the mountain for the evening.
Day 2 – Santa Maria To Santa Teresa
The day starts at again around 6am with some bread, jam and cocoa tea. Kelly, another Aussie traveller has a tub of Vegemite which hard to refuse after 5 months away from home. The bread isn’t the freshest tasting but when you’re as remote with no other way of receiving goods but to go down to river level and haul up food and drinks on your back, then I’d happily scoff it down it with much appreciation.
After breakfast we say goodbye to Alicia our host and immediately commence our trek to Santa Teresa. The first part of the trek is incredibly steep for twenty minutes but spits us out to the top of the canyon where we hike along a part of the original Inka trail. Amoroso tells us that it was an important trade route and was also used for the messengers who would hand deliver messages by foot as far north as Ecuador.
From here we begin our descent down to the Urubumba river level passing numerous farms along the way and identifying various fruit trees. Unfortunately it’s a bit too early in the season to forage and eat away as much as we want. Eventually we need to cross the river and come across a sketchy cart that requires two people to pull themselves across. Finally, at the 16km mark we hit the hot springs of Santa Teresa which marks the end of day two.
Day 3 – Santa Teresa To Aguas Calientes
We had the option to walk or zipline in the morning which everybody chose. Now I had done zip lining in Costa Rica and that was pretty cool and a lot higher in some parts. However, these ones were zig zagging across the river and towards our next destination so it was bound to make things a lot easier. Compared to their central american brothers, the safety procedures felt a bit lacking and the fact that there were crucifixes at the side of the road next to the second zip line didn’t instil me with any confidence at all. Instead I just powered along in an upside down monkey position.
Eight zip lines later, we hop into the car and then power on to the hydroelectrica station where we have lunch and hike along the railroad lines for three hours to the town of Aguas Calientes. Along the valley, we follow the river that circles Machu Picchu and from the bridge we can see the backside of the Machu Picchu and Machu PIcchu Mountain. Despite being shrouded in fog , it still looks quite impressive from the railroad level.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu / Huayna Picchu To Cusco
The day started at 4am in order to beat the crowds both at the steps to Machu Picchu as well as well as at the main site which opens at 6am. Already, there were people walking down the main street of Aguas Calientes by the time we turned out head torches on at 430am. At the base of the mountain there is a check point where they check passports and tickets. There was already 30 people waiting in line but moved by fairly swiftly. We presented our tickets and passports for verification and then the hike began. Immediately there was a silence and nobody dared to say much as it felt like every breathe was precious and wasn’t to be wasted on trivial matters.
For the entire way, the steps would zip zag at a steep angle and it was brutal. Those who hike a lot can attest that they would prefer a steady or even steep slope than have to deal with steps. Apparently there are approximately 1772 steps from the bottom to the top. I put my headphones on early and cranked up some techno. It seems to be my preferred choice in genre when it comes to hiking up challenging places. At the half way point things felt pretty good and as much as I felt like it was sucking the life out of me, I just kept powering on. Exactly 1 hour and 10 minutes later, I arrive to the top and there was already a huge lineup from those arriving by bus. Surely there should be exemptions for those sweating it out the hard way 😉 ?
Tips for the Jungle Trek and Machu Picchu:
- Buy some hardcore DEET. There are millions of Midget Flies or whatever you want to call them. The bites are painfully itchy
- Pack lightly. you only need a few items of clothing and you need to carry it yourself. Store the rest of your gear at the hostel in Cusco as they will have storage facilities.
- You are in the jungle so it will rain. Bring a poncho and bag covers for your bacpack. If you don’t have a bag cover then make sure everything inside are in plastic bags or dry bags.
- Bring snacks. Energy bars go a long way.
- Don’t expect the greatest quality in food, however appreciate that you are in the middle of nowhere. You can get wome decent food in Aguas Calientes though.
- When arriving at Machu Picchu, head straight to the top in the direction of Machu Picchu Mountain. This will allow you to get that post card shot of the city early with the least number of tourists in the shot. After that you can mess around with getting your selfy shots as well as of the Llamas.
- Bring plenty of water and food on the day you go to Machu Picchu. Water and food is about quadruple the price.