The Salcantay Trek: Why I Closed my Eyes at Machu Picchu

This is the final installment of a three part series about my trek to Machu Picchu. Read the first and second installments here!

The Incas were blessed with ridiculously small feet. I know this for absolute certain because, while mine are a modest UK size 5.5, I still spent the majority of my time at Machu Picchu certain that these two clumsy things on the end of my ankles were about to be responsible for tripping me over into oblivion.The reason? About a thousand and one steep, narrow, stone steps that beckoned the adventurous, while simultaneously sending me into a shivery ball of panic. Totally unexpected, of course, and something that I really hadn’t anticipated being a problem.Because even after trekking for four days to reach one of the modern wonders of the world, nobody bothered to make it obvious to me just how goddamn high up Machu Picchu is.

I’ve already made loyal readers of this blog well aware that I don’t do well with heights. A fear of falling would probably be the most accurate way of describing it – which is why I’ve been able to willingly jump out of planes twice when attached to someone, yet still hate the moment of take off in one.

So when we finally reached the summit of Wayna Picchu and clambered onto the small collection of boulders to start taking photos of the view below – way, way, ridiculously-far-away below, my head began to spin.

Holy shit, this is high.

“Hey, can you go on a bit?”

A voice boomed out behind me as I took a deep breath. The tiny ladder I’d recently climbed that led upward to my current boulder (and thus only place of safety) was occupied by a burly American. And he wanted to get past.

The crawl from boulder to slightly smaller boulder took an eternity. The crossing to a third boulder took even longer. By the time I gingerly managed to manoeuvre my unresponsive self to a semi-safe sloping rock wall to cling to, my friends were happily sat on the very top of this boulder pile.

None of them seemed to realise what inner turmoil I was going through, but their apparent lack of concern for their own safety led me to the only obvious conclusion.

They were all completely mad.

I closed my eyes, disregarding the unreal landscape laid out in front of me, and tried to breathe normally. There was no chance I’d be getting anywhere near it at this rate. Stop this rock, I want to get off!

But I was all too aware that pretty much everyone at the top of Wayna Picchu hopping from rock to rock, eagerly snapping photos – and they were all having a much better time of it than I was.

“I closed my eyes… drew back the curtain… to see for certain… what I thought I knew..”

Out of nowhere, Jas’s dulcet tones made a sudden appearance among the clouds (forgive my poetic licence, but they were pretty dreamy nonetheless).

The opening number from Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat is a song that’s become well established as part of our group’s repertoire. Initially sung from time to time in Cuenca, it reached its heyday when hastily roared, en masse, on the Salcantay trek to relieve the tension of Fi’s catastrophic accident. And despite her stretcher bearers requesting that we stop that day, clearly the Machu Picchu crowd were another audience entirely.

“It’s like a chorus of angels!” a woman said to her companion, as I watched them slide off their rocks and duck out of sight. Pretty sure they were sad to leave.

But Joseph has a strange power; with its resounding notes echoing supportively in my ears, I was able to clamber to the boulder of prime position and compose myself long enough to get the classic “look-guys-I’m-at-Machu-Picchu!” shot.

(Think that’s a happy grin there? Think again…)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, after the amount of things our little crew had gone through in the last few days, the rest of our Salcantay trek would be plain sailing. But sadly, the hard part wasn’t over at all.

Realising how high up you are often results in the same conclusion, and today was no different: I still had the descent to make.

I was very much in danger of closing my eyes again.

A quick recap: what happened on Day 3?

But before we open that can of worms – I know you’ve all been awaiting the next episode of this Salcantay saga with bated breath, so now’s about the right time to fill in the missing details.

After a night of exhausted sleep in Santa Teresa, dreaming of horses and broken collarbones, we awoke to a confusing and unexpected situation.

Santa Teresa is actually where Salcantay trekkers camp on the third night of their journey; but because we’d raced ahead in the car on our second night to find Fi a hospital, we’d inadvertently skipped out a whole day of trekking. Whoops.

Our guide, Lucio, was still somewhere in the region with Sam and Fi, helping them find the requisite medical attention – so we were left to our own devices. This essentially meant bathing in blissfully warm water at the local hot springs (the first full watery submergence for our sweaty selves in three days), playing a lot of cards and being fed all kinds of deliciousness by Fabian and Rafael, our amazing cooks, who even went so far as to bake us a goodbye cake for breakfast.

In a campsite. With nothing but a gas stove.

Judging on the expert Machu-Picchu-mountain icing, I’d hazard a guess that they appreciated the unexpected day of rest as much as we did.

A normal day on Salcantay

By the fourth morning, however, things were back to normal. As in, nobody had broken any bones in the last twenty four hours, and we’d talked to Sam via a rickety little Internet cafe and knew Fi was in post-operation recovery.

So off we trotted towards Machu Picchu along the train tracks. Careful and safe as ever, clearly.

It’s amazing how quickly time passes when there are no dramas to deal with. In only a few hours we’d reached Aguas Calientes, the little town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, had checked into our hostel – complete with real beds, something we could barely conceive of after three nights in tents – and been briefed on our early rise the next day.

Something which almost didn’t happen, thanks to the previously admired river that rushed furiously past our window, and whose noise almost totally drowned out the first two of my alarms, beeping pitifully into my ear at 4am. Lucky I’m a serial alarm-setter, huh?

Early to rise for a day in the skies

The final ascent to Machu Picchu is not advertised as being difficult. Instead, people seem to harp on about the difficulty of Wayna Picchu – which, excepting my fear of heights, is about the same as a piece of cake. The ascent element, at least.

After an hour of walking straight up Machu Picchu mountain, by way of those aforementioned thousand or so stone steps, in the pre-dawn non-light, silent but for the grunts and footfalls of all the other surrounding backpackers, I actually started to despair a little bit.

We’d been so damn sure that reaching Aguas Calientes was the figurative end of the road, the culmination of all our difficulties: but was someone playing a joke? Were we ever actually going to reach this place?

When we finally broke through the undergrowth and emerged into open space, the realisation that we’d actually made it was amazing.

Noticing the amount of people standing placidly in a very lengthy queue was less great.

So we stood, breathing heavily in teeshirts and rolled up leggings, while the fleece-lined elder generation, fresh off the passenger bus, looked at us askance, to enter the famed gates of Machu Picchu.

After half an hour or so.

A little bit of leg pain

During four ok, three days of trekking, my legs had decided they weren’t happy. We’re talking knees knocking, calves aching, and a very odd sensation in my right leg which basically felt like it didn’t have any power left in it. If anything, that impromptu day of rest only made them a bit more belligerent about starting to exert serious energy again.

So when I stood at the top of Wayna Picchu, fighting vertigo and gazing downwards at the stipulated route for leaving – knowing I had to get myself down it – I wasn’t in the most buoyant of moods.

I’d prefer not to relive this particular element of our day at Machu Picchu. Suffice to say, I spent a large portion of it on my bum, grabbing hold of as many roots and bits of grippable rock as possible. I also consistently apologised to anyone who I thought might be annoyed that I was taking so long and getting in their way.

Why is it that one’s Britishness always tends to come out at the weirdest of moments?

But when my cumbersome feet finally touched a substantial amount of ground again, the hard part really was over. We headed for the eponymous grassy terraces that first revealed Machu Picchu to Hiram Bingham, way back in 1911, where our guide began to regale us with the history of the site.

And I promptly fell asleep.

Far, far away… someone was weeping… but the world was sleeping… any dream will do”

It’s always been a dream of mine to see Machu Picchu. And I guess I could have seen quite a lot more of it if I wasn’t so terrified of falling off said Picchu the entire time – or, you know, sleeping.

But a certain element of madness is surely destined to descend upon a trek like this, and the people that take part in it. The amount of dramas we encountered over the course of four days were enough to result in a general fall from grace: clearly, if I decided it was perfectly acceptable to have a nap on a UNESCO site.

So while I apologise greatly to the Incas of yesteryear, who, in all their wisdom, are probably well aware how much trouble we caused: ultimately, you guys created something amazing. A place that, despite being built over 500 years ago, is consistently visited by over 2500 people every day, from all over the world.

Only a handful of whom probably have a fear of heights, clumsy feet and an inclination to fall sleep unbidden.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t have been a very good Inca.

This is the final installment of a three part series about my trek to Machu Picchu. Read the first and second installments here!

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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12 Responses to The Salcantay Trek: Why I Closed my Eyes at Machu Picchu

  1. Britany June 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Loved this series, Flora! I also napped at Machu Picchu, and I like to think the Incas would appreciate how comfy their grassy terraces can be for the exhausted trekkers. I hope your friend is fully recovered!

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:46 am #

      Thanks, Britany – glad you enjoyed it! I seriously hope the Incas would understand. It takes a lot of effort to get up there after all!

  2. Oliva June 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    What an adventure! You definitely deserved that nap. I think I’ll partake in some leg muscle build up before I attempt this…

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:50 am #

      I wish I’d had about double the leg strength about halfway up when the calves started shaking… definitely a good idea Oliva!

  3. Brittany @ Paws for Beer June 18, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    I agree – after that amazing journey you earned a nap!

  4. Claire June 21, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    You’re a great storyteller! Really enjoyed the series.

    • Flora June 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

      Thanks so much for such a lovely compliment Claire!

  5. Jena August 31, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Flora! What an amazing experience. Trekking to Machu Picchu is a dream of mine and after reading your story…..I wonder if it should remain just that….a dream. I too, have a great fear of heights so wonder if it would be a positive experience for me. Will have to ponder that. Anyway, it is amazing to read your blog and follow you along your adventures. Thinking of you dear and sending you love and light always,
    Jena xoxo

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      Aww Jena my love, I think your dreams should always be striven for – particularly when I know what you’re like 🙂 my fear of heights was certainly present but ultimately surmountable, and you could always avoid climbing Wayna Picchu if the fear got too much.

      Thank you so, so much for reading along with everything I’m doing. Wish I could see you soon! All my love xx

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