Trekking 90km past “Savage Mountain” to Machu Picchu

Made it! Machu Picchu

“Give me my wallet, you psycho b****”, the deep male American voice growls through the darkness, soon replaced by the sound of a woman whimpering.

If there is anywhere I would like to avoid having a blazing argument with a loved one, three days into a gruelling five-day trek to Machu Picchu would probably rank pretty highly.

But for the more than slightly inebriated couple in the tent next door, it seems 2am in the middle of a campsite is the perfect opportunity to discreetly clear the air.

Phil and I lie wide awake, sleeping bags pulled up to our ears, half scared we will wake up to the scene of a bloody massacre the following morning and half secretly wishing we had a coke and some popcorn to fully relish the Jerry Springer style-drama underway.

A pic as bleary as our 5am eyes

Eventually the sparks fizzle out and we manage to get a bit of shuteye before our guide, Niko, wakes us up with a cup of steaming coca leaf tea at the eye-squintingly early time of 5am.

Having been too disorganised to book a spot three months ahead on the sacred Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a few days ago we signed up to do the equivalent of the Incas’ secret “back door” route, Salkantay.

For years, traders would lug corn and other crops along the gritty and unforgiving trail carved out beside the imposing mountain of the same name.

The road to Salkantay

These days, the 90km Salkantay trek stands in its own right as among the 25 best in the World.

It steers us up grey gravelly paths rising clear of sweeping green valleys to the dizzy heights of snowcapped mountains, before descending into misty cloud forest and finally plunging into humid, lush rainforest.

Puffing along the way, our 17-strong group naturally divides into two – the quickies (including Phil) and the slowies (including me).

We merge at various stops to share a snack or drink, catch our breath and admire the startling views.

At every break there is always a token dog, chicken or duck patiently awaiting a scrap of food.

Food attracts fans

Collapsing on a plateau at the highest point of the trek (4,600 meters above sea level), Niko tells us more about the area’s history.

“The Incas saw the surrounding mountains as gods, giving them names and making offerings and even sacrificing their own children or animals in times of difficulty, such as a drought, earthquakes or heavy floods.”

He points out high piles of small grey rocks that appear by the wayside from time to time. Arty travellers sometimes put these together for a nice picture, he says, but originally the Incas left them as offerings.

The structures comprised a specific combination of minerals and materials so the right energy was created.

Inca offering before Salkantay

Apparently locals still practice these offerings as Inca traditions remain popular in the mountainside.

Salkantay is Quechua for “Savage Mountain” – a fitting name as no climber has ever reached its peak.

Niko recounts a few past efforts, including a group of Germans who tried and lost their lives in an avalanche, while a troupe of Japanese set up camp nearby for three months during a more recent attempt but failed to conquer the inhospitable, icy slopes.

We watch Niko pick up his walking stick and start drawing the zig-zagged mythical Inca symbol of Chakana in the dirt.

He explains: “The symbol was comprised of three levels embodying the Incas’ three sacred worlds: the heavens, represented by the condor, the earth that was represented by the puma, and the underworld, represented by the snake.”

Our knowledgeable guide finishes with a small circle in the centre of the design, depicting the city of Cusco as the heart of the empire (its name comes from the Quechua for ‘navel’).

Descending into the green valley after around ten hours altogether, we arrive at our next campsite and knock back a Cusqueña beer in celebration.

The boys start a Peru vs The World football game and nearly lose the ball several times down the steep hillside.

By the next morning, my feet are killing. My big toenails are seemingly levitating above where they should be thanks to some angry-looking blood blisters that have sprung up beneath. It makes every step feel like someone is trying to cut off my toes with a razor-sharp pair of scissors.

Alright, who left the tap running?

Thankfully we find ourselves back in richly verdant valleys after an almost imperceptible transition from cold to warm.

The springy green grass underneath is a welcome relief from the bulky gravel, while the swimming-pool-sized thermal baths we get to splish around in at the end of the day feel incredible.

Proving he is officially well within the World’s top 25 greatest guides, Niko lends me his comfy sandals the next day for the sun-drenched schlep alongside a rainforest railway line from where we get tantalising glimpses of Machu Picchu peering down at us.

Just as the heavens open we arrive at the small town of Aguas Calientes, which clings to the breast of the thundering Urubamba River, and enjoy a slap-up meal and pisco sour before sinking into wonderfully comfy beds at our small hostel perched above a minimarket.

Phil at the Inca bridge

Then it’s a painful 3.30am wake up call for the final leg of our journey uphill to Peru’s own wonder of the world.

It is pitch black and I clutch Phil’s arm in one hand and a tiny torch in the other while slowly hobbling along the path.

Dawn gradually seeps through the sky and illuminates the surrounding mountains in a peachy pink haze as we begin ascending the stone steps up the hillside.

An hour later, and with sweat pouring off us, we suddenly emerge at the entrance where dozens of other excited early-risers sit waiting for the doors to open.

We are ushered in and finally find ourselves face to face with the mysterious sprawling stone city that was only used for just over 100 years before being forgotten for centuries, narrowly escaping the conquistadors.

Trying out life as an Inca mummy

Even today’s stonemasons and builders would struggle to recreate the perfectly smooth structure of the large earthquake-proofed stones heaved and shaped on top of one another – no filler needed.

The Inca stronghold retains its spiritual reputation to this day – Niko encourages us to hover our hands over a large sacred rock to “feel its energy”.

After an extortionately priced but much-needed coffee, Phil and I head over to the entrance to nearby Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”, to Machu Picchu’s “Old Mountain”) and prepare for one last hike.

Toothbrushes look down from Huayna Picchu

Beside a sheer drop, steeply stacked steps wind around bends where metal rope is rigidly attached to the mountainside.

It is a tough 45-minute slog to the top, but the views taking in the historical citadel in its full glory below are well worth it.

Salkantay’s savagery and the arduous five-day trek has certainly made drinking in the beauty of Machu Picchu all the sweeter.

The moment’s tranquility is jarred by a group of pale-skinned, new-age travellers who start hugging one another as they hum in unision. It’s a bit weird, but then again I suppose it’s marginally less irritating than listening to a fiery, late-night row in a tent…

The team that smashed Salkantay

About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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4 Responses to Trekking 90km past “Savage Mountain” to Machu Picchu

  1. Thanks for sharing – love the photos:)

  2. Pete says:

    You did the real thing! (Not like easy peasy last time). Look after those toes!

  3. Lesley and Ian says:

    Another fab post worth waiting for and the pics are great – prob just as well there are none of Sophie’s toes. I’m guessing Phil’s toothbrush is the one on the left ….

  4. Tony C says:

    Boo! I am now officially jealous of your fabulous trip now you’ve been to Machu Picchu (and Lake Tittycarcar in a later post). It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, and now you’ve made me even more determined to get there – although I think I might give the 5-day trek a miss!
    I was exhausted just reading it.
    On a more serious note, how did/are you coping with the altitude, or did you gradually become acclimatised before you got there? It’s the only thing that’s put me off in the past.
    Apart from eating more liver, or is it kidneys, because of the extra oxygen, have you picked up on any remedies on your travels?

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