Days 172 to 179: 4 day/3 night Salkantay hike to Machu Picchu, & Chillout Time in Cusco
I guess Machu Picchu is the first thing most people will name when they think of Peru (apart from the over-60s who will likely say Paddington Bear). That probably explains why it’s completely overrun with tour groups and felt like a complete jolt against everything I’d experienced over the past 3 months. In the nearest town of Aguas Calientes (named after their hot springs), even at 6am the queues for the buses up to the ruins stretch several blocks and beyond view. Most of the Peruvians who work up at the site look like they haven’t smiled in their entire lives, and visiting the whole affair has the atmos of some sort of factory being jolted around the ruins via a number of paths which later turn out to be “one-way”. If you missed a bit, that’s tough as you can’t walk backwards until you reach the exit when your £38 “foreigner” ticket becomes invalid.
Despite being the over-touristed Andes equivalent of Croatia’s Dubrovnik in summer school holidays, I was still able to look past all that and appreciate my time up there. Although it’s possible to travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu via public transport, I decided to hike via a 4-day trail called Salkantay. To be fair, I think this trail contributed to salvaging the whole experience as it weaved it’s way past picture-postcard alpine lakes, 6000+ metre snowy peaks, gushing rivers and dense forest. Three years ago in Patagonia, over a few months of cycling I went on 3 separate multi-day hikes, but so far on this cycle trip I hadn’t been on anything more than day-hikes. I’d thus been itching to mission off on-foot into some mountains, and that itch was definitely scratched.
What did surprise me though, was that in contrast to Patagonia it appeared that 95%+ of hikers on the trail in Peru were in organised groups with a guide; in Patagonia I’d say 95%+ were hiking under their own steam. I’ve still not quite figured out in my own mind what drives this stark contrast.
Outside of being thrown confusingly between mesmerising nature and hordes of pushy pensioners waving selfie sticks like lightsabers at their gap-year equivalents, I also enjoyed my time in Cusco; the nearest big city. But be warned: after my hike, to travel back from Machu Picchu to Cusco rivalled UK train prices and timetable..... the 120km journey cost £100 and took 4 hours. But they gave me a free cup of tea and a sandwich, so maybe it all works out in the end. To be fair, it was a good tea.
Cusco itself was a stunner, if a little touristy. The city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and oozes a mix of Spanish colonial charm with ample touristic trappings. I mainly relaxed and reacquainted myself with good craft beer and even a bottle of Peruvian Malbec (good, but not Argentine standard...). I also had a few dinners with a couple of kiwis who have been cycling the Americas for a few years having started in Alaska and spent nearly a year in Peru! They’re about to continue south towards Patagonia where they should arrive in another year. Check out highlux.co.nz for more.
It’s been a nice week off the bike but time to get cycling through the Peru Andes again tomorrow