The Inca trail and Machu Picchu were way up there on my list for many years, therfore when Jonathan from Concern told me that Concern Challenges where organising a trip to Machu Picchu I signed up immediately. The fact that Earth’s Edge was guiding the trek sealed the deal. I have already been on two trips with Concern Challenges and Earth’s Edge, the first was a tri adventure in Uganda, where we climbed Mount Elgon (4,321m) cycled on dirt roads with impossible hills and kayaked on the White Nile. A year later another tri adventure, this time climbing the scenically beautiful Mount Kenya (Point Lenana, 4,985m) cycling through a game park, with giraffes, elephants and antelope for company, and rafting on the river Tana.
I knew I was in very safe hands with both Concern Challenges and Earth’s Edge. There is comfort in knowing we have a doctor on hand when taking part in this type of challenge, although the hope is never to need one! I’ve also found that the sort of people who sign up for an adventure like this are usually my type of people, so I wasn’t concerned that I knew no one else taking part.
Day One was possibly the longest day of my life, until day Seven! I got up 1.30 am, arriving at Dublin airport for our 3 am rendezvous. There was quite a big group traveling, 23 in total and most, like myself, were traveling alone. Our first flight took us to Amsterdam, for a four hour stop over. By the time we had breakfast, got to know each other a little better and browsed the duty free we soon found we were boarding our 12 hour flight to Lima. It was my first time flying with KLM and I was impressed. Five meals, five movies and 40 winks and our plane was touching down in Lima, Peru. Although we arrived at 6.30pm, local time, it was already dark. It felt warm even though there was quite a wind blowing. Taking in the sights and sounds on the short bus ride to our hotel, I decided that all major cities have a common denominator; advertisements for Coca Cola. By now I’d been up for 24 hours, and had only slept 3 in the past 48. While the rest of the group opted for pizza in the lobby I instead chose a hot shower and an early night. The next day we were flying to Cusco, landing in the Andes at over 3,300m.
Day Two another early start, 4.30 am, to catch another flight. This time a nice short 1 hour journey to Cusco, a small city situated at 3,300 m in the Andes. The views from the plane were spectacular, elevating my excitement for the big hike. Sunshine, heat and the smell of dry air, never gets old. Cusco central is really pretty, with a town square dominated by two large cathedrals, many narrow side streets and an abundance of market stalls. I was tempted to purchase trinkets, handmade crafts and the multi-coloured alpaca wool jumpers, hats and gloves, but remembering how often I’ve done this in the past, and how out of place they look at home, I settled for some ornate Christmas decorations, a leather hat (it’s very cool) and some pretty jewelery. Cusco is also home to Starbucks and ‘Paddy’s Irish bar’.The group met for dinner and we were treated to fine dining at fast food prices. I stuck to a protein my body recognized and it may have been the best chicken I have ever eaten, while the more adventurous dined on alpaca and Guinea pig! I was then faced with the task of condensing my 23kg bag down to 8kg as this was our limit for the hike. We carried a day bag ourselves, with light layers, rain gear, snacks and water, but our main bag was carried by mules so it was important that we didn’t over pack. With the weight of my sleeping bag and thermorest it didn’t leave much room, and once again I astounded myself at how easily I can adapt to basic living. Bedtime was 9.30 pm, wake up call was 2.15 am.
Day Three began with a 2.15 am wake up and a 4 hour bus journey, stopping for breakfast in a small village. By now it seemed like days had passed since we’d left Dublin and we were all ready to begin our hike. We began at Soraypampa (3,850m), where the altitude was already taking its toll on the group, slow and steady were the order of the day. The spectacular rolling mountains as far as the eye can see, all dominated by the majestic Salkantay glacier, standing at over 6,000m, helped to distract us from the challenge of the trail.
We climbed, we rested, we ate, we drank and then we climbed some more. The scenes grew more and more beautiful. It was tough for everyone that day and I was very grateful for the hours of training I had put in with Monday Mountain buddy, Teena Gates. Nothing really prepares you for altitude, however spending eight or nine hours on a mountain in Wicklow prepares your body and more importantly prepares your mind, for those long, long days of trekking. Just when I thought I’d spent all of my energy I heard Michelle say “I see a tent”. Suddenly I got a surge of new energy, it was the same feeling that I get when I see the finish line in a race, and I trotted into Camp One. 7 hours of trekking and at an altitude of 4,450m we enjoyed a well-earned late lunch. The food may not have been fine dining but the back drop to our camp was breath taking.
Later, the lack of substantial sleep, 7 hours of trekking and the plunge into high altitude began to take it’s toll on us weary travelers. Half of the group didn’t make it to dinner, while the rest of us struggled to stay awake for the three course meal. Having trekked in beautiful sunshine and highs of 18◦C all day, we were in for a cold night, temperatures dropped to -5◦C and there was a light snow shower, which just added to the beauty of our surroundings. Cuddled up in my sleeping bag, thermals, fleece hat, with a hot water bottle at my feet, I slept well.
Day Four I awoke at 5 am and had a little stroll around camp. The fresh snow was crisp under my boots, the air, though thin at 4,450m, felt fresh and clean. The group were beginning to stir. Dr David had been working overtime the night before, and his treatment certainly did the job, as all of the group were looking refreshed and ready to take on another day of hiking. We ate a quick breakfast and began our trek to the highest point on the Salkantay pass at 4,630m. Again we took a slow, steady pace, all the while enjoying the spectacular views, as we drew closer to the majestic Mount Salkantay. Before we knew it we were on the summit. Cheers, hugs, high fives and lots and lots of photos. As a wise mountain man, Pat Falvey, once told me the summit is only half the journey, and never more than today did those words ring true. Four hours of descending took us to lunch.
The weather was changing and we layered up in our wet gear for the rest of our hike, trekking through the jungle pass and home of Paddington bear. This trek brought a different beauty and lots of wild life. We encounter bushy tailed rabbits (can’t quite recall their actual species), a family of black pigs, a condor and humming birds. The rain was relentless but didn’t spoil the beauty of the trail. We crossed rivers and got very close to a waterfall. We were all very happy to arrive at Camp Two at 6pm, 11 hours after we had left Camp One.
Day Five we said goodbye to our chefs and horsemen. They had made a very difficult few days a whole lot easier for us, providing tasty nutritious food, and carrying the bulk of our load. We thanked them and shook their hands, and happily contributed to their tip. This was a short hike, just 5 and a half hours, although the itinerary suggested 6 so it seems we had really come together as a group, to the delight and tireless efforts of our Earths Edge guide Aodhnait. We hiked through dense jungle, over wooden slatted bridges, up steep inclines and down again. Our local Peruvian guide, Willie, gave us a guided tour pointing out the banana, avocado and passion fruit trees. We spotted humming birds and parrots, and many unfamiliar tropical birds in the trees above. Stopping for lunch at a small coffee farm we were treated to superb Peruvian delights. After lunch the farmer gave us a tour, proudly pointing out the various coffee bean trees and explaining the different flavours they give. His farm is completely organic and we even got to pick, roast, grind and drink our own coffee. Yum!
We then boarded a bus and took the slightly hazardous road trip to our last camp site. It really wasn’t a road as we know it but rather a mountain pass. Those who fear heights had their eyes closed for most of the trip. I quite enjoyed it really.
For some reason, that afternoon, I became incredibly homesick. It’s hard to explain, because I didn’t feel I wanted to be home, I was having the adventure of a lifetime, but I needed contact with home. I kept checking and rechecking my phone looking for signal. Just as we arrived in camp I heard my phone spring to life. I instantly dialed home. It was the boost I needed to keep going. I had only hung up when the signal died and it didn’t return for another 24 hours. We had a quick change at camp and back on the ‘fun bus’ to the natural hot springs. This was our reward. First we showered in freezing cold water, but it felt so good to be clean again. Then we had a couple of hours to relax in the natural hot, spring water, while surrounded by the beauty of the Andes. Back at camp another fab meal and our first camp fire. We spent the next few hours having a good auld sing song, led by our two singers Mags and Stephen. A mix of traditional Irish, modern rock, even an Abba medley, were enjoyed by our fellow campers, who’s nationalities represented all corners of the world. We enjoyed local beer, chatted and laughed for hours. All the while a serious soccer match was taking place on the site pitch, Italians against the rest of the world. I never did find out who won, but I know who my money was on.
Day Six our wake up call was 7 am, however I woke at 3.30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was relaxed though, I think I was just used to the early mornings, and really hadn’t adjusted from GMT. Another exciting bus trip took us to the starting point of today’s hike. We began with a steep zig zag incline in blazing sunshine, it leveled off and the rain began. We layered up in our water proofs and 5 minutes later the sun came out again. It reminded me of hiking in Wicklow, although the rain was significantly warmer. We followed a railway line for the entire 5 hour hike. I’m very familiar with walking on railway sleepers but this was the first time I had walked on sleepers with a rail still attached. Towards the end of this trail we had our first sighting of Machu Picchu. It was still quite a distance away however we all began to feel that we were almost there. We walked all the way to our hotel in Aguas Calientes. It’s a quaint little town built on a hill, actually everything in the Andes is built on a hill, and resembles a Swiss Alpine village, except warmer and very colourful as everywhere we looked there were stalls selling Alpaca wool products. It seemed crazy that this was only day six, I had lost all sense of time, in fact this day was a bonus day as I’d thought the day after the hot springs was Machu Picchu day. I had a whole day of trekking in Peru that I hadn’t expected. This brought much amusement to the rest of the group, and it became the Lost Day of Machu Picchu.
Day Seven back to the more familiar 3.30 am morning call to catch the first bus (6am) to Machu Picchu. A quick breakfast and then we joined the bus queue. I don’t normally do queuing or busses but for this I was very happy to make an exception. By now we knew each other intimately so the chat and laughter meant the time passed quickly. Once on board it was a short journey to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We were lucky to still have our local guide Willie with us to give us a tour of the ancient city. The Incas have been a fascination for me for many years and I now feel I understand their culture a little better. I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself that I was actually standing in The Lost City Of Machu Picchu. The training, the fundraising, the travel, the lost sleep, the long hike, the nights spent in a tent, the lack of everyday comforts, it all melted into insignificance. I was standing in the Lost City Of Machu Picchu.
It was always my ambition to stand at a height and look down on the lost city with the spectacular mountain in the background, I’m sure you know the iconic photo I am speaking of. After the guided tour a group of us hiked the steep steeps to the Sun Gates. It was hot, we were tired, covered in mosquito bites, with aching muscles, swollen ankles and blistering feet but there wasn’t any complaining and there was no way that anyone of us was not going to make to the Sun Gates. One final push, each encouraging the other, eventually we turned a corner with the realization that we were at the top. A dream became a reality, I stood on a height and looked down on the Lost City Of Machu Picchu, and it took my breath away.
Thanks to Stephen Frawley for allowing me to borrow some of his amazing photographs.