On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1

I’ve decided: the official “camino de los Inca” (Inca Trail) is clearly a tourist trap designed for over-organised under-achievers: who, seriously, knows what they are doing six months ahead of time?

I was feeling quite virtuous and well-organised when, two weeks before we were due to arrive, I contacted a travel agency (Incapoint) only to find that the official trail was booked out for several months: there are though a number of alternative trails set up since numbers were restricted in 2002: you can mountain-bike parts, take a series of ancient Inca paths at the other end of the valley or, and for some reason this caught our eye, get up at four in the morning to start the four day climb over the Abra Salkantay (Salkantay Pass) that the more adventurous Inca used to reach Macchu Picchu. You need to be young, adventurous and in good physical condition to attempt this trek, and ticking none of those boxes I decided to do it anyway. Seriously, it is described as challenging and although the distances sound quite modest for hiking over flat ground 17km is a long way when you are chasing one of the few available oxygen molecules at 4600m above sea level.

So it was that Éanna (17), Síle (11) and I found ourselves on a bus that was slowly filling up with other passengers while porters and guides outside threw luggage – we hoped ours, but it seemed quite random – up onto the roof. A long bus journey later we were dropped in the village of Mollepata, where we were to breakfast in one of a series of restaurants that, miraculously, seemed prepared with very similar and similarly priced menus. This breakfast is not included in the package (causing our party the first of a number of rows with the tour companies: it had been made clear to us but not to everyone) and was twice the price we had been told by the agent. Still, we ate gratefully and quickly, keen to move on.

The outskirts of Mollepata

The outskirts of Mollepata

Leaving Mollepata and starting to climb.

Mollepata is at 2900m, a height where in Europe we are used to finding glaciers or at least pockets of left-over snow but here in the tropical Andes it is a different story and the town nestles in a fertile green valley, not exactly rich farming country maybe – it is arid, sandy and many of the fields are perched vertiginously on the edge of a cliff – but you can see how it is possible to live and even make a profit from the land.

Setting out

Setting out

Setting out.

Starting out, we introduced ourselves with names and ages, my admission of being a lad of 48 summers provoking a sharp and rather unnecessary intake of breath. Most of the rest of our multinational group – 2 Poles, 2 Belgians, 3 Australians and one New Yorker completed the team – were in their twenties and thirties and appeared to regard such an ancient as a liability rather than a source of wisdom and knowledge.

The first days walk was mostly on a rough dirt road, with occasional shortcuts as Edwin our guide termed them: steep, winding paths that cut off a few bends in the road while also robbing us of breath. It was uphill, not usually steep while following the road but hot, dusty and relentless. Still, slowly but surely the mountain tops that had surrounded us in Mollepata were shrinking to the point where we were looking down on them from a considerable height, though the ones in front of us didn’t appear to be getting any smaller at all.

Mirando atras

Looking back.

Enterprising locals had set up a number of stalls on the route to sell water, fizzy drinks and snacks at reasonable prices (especially considering the effort involved in getting the supplies up there): much welcomed but the accompanying rubbish was a real disappointment. A continuous trail of plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus lines the route. Mostly, according to the guide, this is not the fault of the hikers but of the support teams: the cooks, the porters and the local traders. I don’t know if the hikers can be absolved quite so easily but it is certainly true that the campsites and lunch stops were not well-maintained and it was depressing to arrive at a stop and leave the rubbish we’d collect on the route in a bin, only to find an open tip on the slopes as we left the stopping point.

Agua

One of many stalls servicing the hikers.

As day turned to evening, we continued the relentless climb, the temperature began to plummet and we finally caught sight of the peak of Salkantay and, nestling beneath the glacier, the campgrounds for the various tours.

salkantay_aparece

The snow-capped summit of Salkantay finally appears behind the valley walls.

By the time we reached the camp, at some 3600m above sea level, it was close to freezing if not already below. Any expectation anyone might have had of a session round the camp fire was quickly dispelled: we had neither fire nor energy: we drank tea, ate wearing gloves and collapsed into the tents to try to sleep on the hard stony ground, though not before we managed to gaze in wonder at the stars: the Milky Way lit up the night sky in a spectacular display that far outshone the best I have ever seen it achieve in the north. Little wonder the Incas knew a thing or two about astronomy.

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One Response to “On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1”

  1. Pauline Says:

    Great photoes..

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