Cusco, Machu Picchu, Cusco and Machu Picchu – Pivotal places and destinations for at least a country if not a continent before now. The classic image of a perched citadel is both a draw and a deterrent, with thoughts of floods of tourists the worst of the latter. Earlier, below Kuelap, some propose that we shouldn’t go there at all – “the fabric of Machu Picchu is being worn out by too many feet” – there are other places less trodden and maybe as spectacular. Others say that even so it should not be missed
We can’t resist – it has been a dream for too long.
Joe, our intrepid scout, has already been along this route. He’s realised a more direct line to Cusco via Machu Picchu – not the other way round. It is an attractive combination of challenge and the lack of a backward side-trip having already passed by. We cannot not follow.
Mollepata ends an extremely bitey, insect-ridden 10+km climb from the highway and valley floor. We almorzar – are spontaneously offered directions to the road upwards in the main square – no-one mentions trekking passes, so we don’t either (US$50 per person, we’ve heard). A pleasant, steady, upward dirt road winds us to Soraypampa and a gratis tent-spot sheltered from the threatening rain.
The ‘fun’ begins – our most recent foray into bike-trekking would have warned off most sane people – we patently don’t fit into that category. Ponies pass us carrying the packs of people loaded only by their walking poles. Jealousy hints. A promising switch-back up the lower moraine backfires – lug-a-bike time.
Above Pampa Salkantay, complete with little man selling local knitwear, we spot real trouble. There’s not been a lot of riding yet – maybe 20 minutes total. Looking up the group of hikers are working their way up a daunting series of twist-backs – rocky and steep. An undetermined while later we’re up – doubling the ‘while’ as we resorted to unloading and carrying bikes and baggage separately. We have to do this again to make the final haul up to the pass.
Life only improves after the pass in that we then begin to manhandle the bikes downwards – still no riding! I’m cursing myself because I’m doing this on a failing set of front v-brakes, not my usual effective disc brakes – a black grinding paste is developing – I can almost feel my rim melting – not happy. Cause – lack of foresight – nothing to do about it now – the poor bike stutters and crunches down stone chutes and over drops. The ongoing rumble of avalanches down the looming face of Nevado Salkantay punctuates my, at best, semi-controlled ‘progress’. Light-failing we come to a cluster of adobe buildings – checking them all we can’t raise anyone – no choice – the tent goes up inside the open one with the driest floor – time for hot chocolate. A little while later a couple of porters with loaded pack animals arrive – barely comment on our presence – they are greeted respectfully by us – tacit permission. They set up some tents and without another word a mobile kitchen in the room next to ‘ours’. After dark the trekkers arrive – effusive, boisterous Yanks and a silent and retiring group of (maybe) Japanese.
We’re quicker the next day – riding is better – still mixed with frame-scraping rock-beds. A dirt road appears further down and suddenly we make yesterdays distance in less than an hour. Jungle now – hot sun and humidity – Santa Teresa and a right turn towards the train tracks after a ‘chicha-stop’ (home-made, slightly fermented maize drink).
We time things very badly indeed – a train is about to leave Hidroelectrica – we can’t sneak in amongst the people setting off to walk along the tracks. An unjustified sense of failure clouds a stunning train journey – our bikes in the equipaje (goods carriage) – the track we should have been riding looks great. A non-peak hour approach another time? We’re not helped – Aguas Calientes cows us – a stunning setting amongst vertical granite with everyone shouting above each other to draw us into their restaurant. Knowledge that up there is something special helps us to endure – maybe.
Walking up, entering (passports scanned), and seeing; we know coming was right. There is child-like wonder as we explore. A private ledge and some story gives much relaxing while still absorbing. The Cusco train disgorges – we are enveloped in a tour group, but their leader is interesting and we enjoy learning. A retreat upwards gives space, more story time, surreptitious bananas and more viewing. Rain approaches, photos are taken in better light and we move to begin our walk down. We’ve been there about 9 hours.
The intended train (this time) to Ollantaytambo drops us off at coffee and brownies. Some market indulgence for lunch provisions, a few km of highway and we’ve turned off to follow the railway-line gorge.
As we’re making kms into Cusco we meet Percy, a local bike-guide. He thinks I’m very lucky to have a wife who wants adventures.