Today was the hardest day. It took a lot of grit, determination and a few tears to get through. We woke up to rain on our tent (like every other morning). In fact, due to the sloped angle of our campsite it would be more accurate to say it rained on and in our tents. Breakfast was our last sit down meal cooked by the amazing Herman. After we appropriately thanked Herman and the three porters, we headed off towards Aguas Calientes.
Our first hour repeated the hike we had taken yesterday to see the view of Machu Picchu. Luckily we had been able to see it yesterday because today the sky was heavy with clouds. We continued another thirty minutes until we came to the Incan ruins of Llactapata (8,758 feet / 2,700 meters). Puma told us all about these ruins and hiked us through the undergrowth to see just how big this former city had been. This area, now covered in greenery, including bamboo taller than I, had been used for storage and as a “hotel” for travelers headed to Machu Picchu. The walls were completely covered and other than one small area which was completely exposed, it would have been easy to miss.
We watched as the clouds moved across the sky through the mountains and eventually exposed Machu Picchu. Once again we were privileged to have the side view of Machu Picchu that most visitors don’t see.
After visiting Llactapata, we continued on, coming to a beautiful open space where Alpaca Expeditions used to camp, but due to governmental regulations no longer can. As much as we thought it was a nice space, we were glad that we had camped on the edge of our cliff last night.
We then started what a sign claimed to be a 2 hour hike to Hidroelectrico. It consisted entirely of switchbacks, muddy, steep downhill switchbacks. I was going as fast as I could, but still my group, with their long legs, were way ahead. Quite frankly, it felt less like I was hiking and more like I was semi-controlling a downhill fall. Speaking of falling, my butt hit the ground A LOT!
Towards the end of this downhill switchback route, my guide Puma was playing his Peruvian flute for inspiration and I had the silly “just keep swimming” song from Finding Nemo in my head.
Eventually I made it to the bottom and rejoined my group. We walked across an amazing, long suspension bridge over a raging river. The rainy season is nearly at it’s close, so the rivers and waterfalls are powerful, full and brown with sediment. Apparently this year’s rainy season was drier than normal, so I can only imagine what it must be like during a typical rainy season!
We continued on our hike, taking an alternative route because the river covered some of our intended trail. We passed a massive brown waterfall that was feeding the river and finally we made it to Hidroelectrico.
At this point we began to encounter other tourists. Before this point we had seen very few Quetzal who live in the mountains and even fewer tourists. We had to cross through a barb-wired fence and a group of Israeli youth helped us. I must admit that as much as I appreciated their help, I immediately missed the solitude of our group and the trek.
Hidroelectrico (Hidro) is the checkpoint for entering the protected Machu Picchu lands. We checked in, then stopped to eat our packed lunches. After eating, we headed out for the final leg of our hike to Agua Calienties, also known as Machu Picchu town.
I blister quite easily and I had come well prepared to deal with them. I also have well broken in hiking boots. Over the last 3.5 days of the trek, my feet had touched a variety of terrain and had gone through a lot of mud and water. Despite this, I had only three small, well-managed, pain-free blisters. I was quite happy with this.
The three hour hike from Hidro to Agua Calientes changed that. Nearly 4 days of hiking behind me, up and down mountains, cold, heat, humidity, pouring rain and blazing sun; I had loved every minute of it, even when it got tough, I loved it. I hated the last three hour hike. We had faced danger with rushing water and falling rocks, but the last three hour hike had four bridges that I would say were not safe. The last three hours was, for me, miserable. This hike was alongside the railroad tracks between Hidro and Agua Calientes. Sometimes there was an established path, but often we were simply only the small, pointy, ankle-rolling, blister-causing rocks that lined the trail. We encountered the first bridge, it spanned the raging river below and was probably 50 feet long. Several of us immediately though of the train scene in the movie Stand By Me. There was a footbridge that ran alongside the tracks. One side had a rusted railing and the other was up against the trestle. Some of the metal planks were solidly welded, others had connections made by spot welding or twisted wire. Some of the planks were solid, others had rusted holes and/or ‘popped’ as we walked across. All of us were glad to get over and off the bridge. Later on we would encounter three more spots where the tracks crossed the river. These did not have set footpaths, instead we walked over active tracks and step from wooden beam to beam. Not all of the beams were equidistant and one was extremely high up. Like the first bridge, all of these crossed the raging river. Quite frankly, these bridges scared me.
By the end of the hike my feet were a mess. I had gained four new blisters and enlarged an existing one. They were aflame. I really wished that the last group hike had not been one that was miserable, especially after everything else had been so wonderful. We finally made it to Agua Calientes (6,561 feet / 2000 meters)
Throughout the journey, Puma had spoken highly of the hot springs we could visit in Agua Calientes. We were all looking forward to it. We arrived at our hotel (a hotel? Yes, a real bed and not a tent in the rain — but let’s be honest, I knew I would miss the tent in the rain!), I quickly rinsed off with a hot shower and then Sandra and I headed to the hot springs, excited to soak. Much to our chagrin, when we arrived they were closed due to natural disaster. That’s right, the rain, mud- and rockslides had struck again. We returned to our hotel, and later met up with the guys for some Pisco Sours and Cervezas. Later that evening we had a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant and were given “I survived Salkantay” T-Shirts. We headed to sleep, excited for our next day - our visit to Machu Picchu!