To Machu Picchu or not to Machu Picchu, that's been the question since I've arrived in Peru. Here is the deal: I'm 70 km away from one of the 7 new wonders of the world, so I have to go. I will be squeezed between thousands of tourists using selfie sticks, which for me is the definition of hell, will spend a pretty insane amount of money compared to my usual visits, while I'm not especially a big fan of old stones and collapsed civilizations. Should I go?
I thus decide to read more about this Machu Picchu to get a clearer idea. And it's quickly gonna become clear. In 2017 the site received 1.4 million visitors, twice the recommendation of UNESCO. In 2018, 1.7 million. This is slowly causing irreversible damages to the site. So much that in early 2019, UNESCO threatened the Peruvian government to remove the site from its list if they didn't take action. They thus decided to limit visits to half a day, with fixed entrance times. If you have a ticket for 8 a.m, you enter at 8 a.m., not one minute earlier, and at noon you have to leave your place to another tourist. Crazy. But there's way crazier. At the moment, for flying foreign tourists, the Machu Picchu is only reachable by a plane to Lima, and a long bus ride to Aguas Calientes. But now the Peruvian government has just started building an international airport in Chinchero, at 3800 m altitude in the middle of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in order to be able to welcome more than 5 million visitors per year. In a few years you'll be able to wake up in Miami in the morning and visit the Machu Picchu in the afternoon. Who will care about the thousands locals with their potato fields and their houses made of earth, they will have to move because hotels will be built. About the insane level of noise and pollution caused by large planes in such a remote and mountainous area. About the vibrations caused by the turbines which, scientists agree on it, would damage even more the ruins.
So it suddenly became crystal clear: I won't give one single penny to visit and participate to the destruction of a wonder of the world.
I thus search for a substitute and quickly find one: the ruins of Choquequirao, the"little sister" of Machu Picchu. It's a 2-days hike to reach it, no road, so there's not 5 million tourists a year, but 5 a day. Sounds much better. But there's even better: one can start an 8 days hike passing by Choquequirao and finishing at the Machu Picchu, so that on the last hiking day you get a viewpoint on Machu Picchu from a mountain facing it. Great!
I read a bit more about this trek, and it sounds like a challenge: some big uphills with some big inca stairs, with the heavy backpack, + a very hot and humid climate (it's the entrance of the jungle here), which means tons of mosquitoes. No way that I spend 8 days in there: I saw there are small villages with basic accomodation/restaurants on the way, so I'll go with a very light backpack, double the hiking days, and sleep at the locals. Light and fast!
The day before I start the trek, I make it to the filthy town of Curahuasi, where once again I don't feel very welcome. I avoid a few scams from taxi drivers and once in Ramal de Cachora, I still have 15 km to reach the village of Cachora, where the trek starts, but the road is blocked until night because of public works. Ok, seems like my trek is gonna be 15 km longer than expected...
I share a room with Yohan, a French guy who works in marketing/business in Calgary, Canada. Very cool. Funny coincidence, he also decided to go light and fast: one day to Choquequirao, one day visit of the site, one day back. So we'll start together. Second funny coincidence, after a moment we realize our parents live 10 km away from each other...
In the evening we don't find much to eat in the village, the only restaurant is out of meat. The next morning, the breakfast is also very light, we have to leave early because we're doing two days in one: 10 km flat, 1500 m elevation down to the river and the same back up to Marampata, close to the ruins. At 9 we start the uphill, which is going to be a long suffering for me: it's extremely hot, and after 300 m up only, I'm dead. I have stomachache, my head is burning, I need to take a nap, eat my last cereal bars, and we go again. Yohan is nice and wait for me. Goes slightly better but I'll need more than 4 hours to reach Marampata. After one day, the incas have already killed me. At this moment I'm thinking, no way I can hike the whole trek so fast, I'll die in the middle. I also realize I've hiked the Colca canyon, the Ausangate and the Choquequirao within the same week, which was probably a bit too much.
And another slight issue is that the next walking day, to the village of Yanama, is super tough: 2700 D+, 22 km, a pass at 4150 m. No hostel before. Ouch.
Marampata is a village completely cut from the rest of the world, it is only reachable by a track. The electricity comes from solar panels. Everything is basic but charming. Still, it seems someone decided to build a pretty cosy hotel there, with beautiful chalet huts for 20 euros a night. Yohan tries a negotiation, which sounds useless to me. But he's a businessman. He gets a chalet for 5 euros. I thought after that much time traveling I had become not bad at negotiating, but I'm still learning...
In the evening we find a woman cooking huge amounts of pasta with eggs, which magically recharge my batteries, but still, the next day, I take it easy and stay with Yohan for a visit of the ruins. Not so relaxing in the end; that weird passion for stairways...
At the end of the day, we see two super fit guys arriving at Choquequirao, wearing a complete Adidas trail-running outfit. We start chatting, and I understand they have exactly the same plan as me, i.e. reaching Machu Picchu in 3 days from here. But they have a slightly different logistics: one cook and one mule driver who follow them everyday, with the mules carrying tents and bags, plus a horse to carry them in case they get injured. Wow, shit.
Diego and Jonas, respectively Peruvian and German professional runners, later invite us for an apero at their tent, and we understand we are facing real machines: they are both in the top 100 of the 2019 world ultra-trail ranking. The Choquequirao trek is just their training for the Peruvian Marathon des Sables the next weekend.
Five years ago, Diego was an overweight guy with an office job he didn't like, and at the death of his mother, he decided he would go running the mountain and become a professional athlete (he calls himself @TheRunningCuy, a cuy here is guinea pig and a fine dish, because "I have the face of a cuy", he says!). He's now competing on all the biggest races on Earth and is dreaming of discovering a new Inca city. You sometimes meet amazing people.
Before going to bed I have decided I'll take two portions of these EPO-pasta and go to Yanama the next day. This time I have a plan B in case I feel as bad as the day before: I have discussed with the mule driver of the two guys: if he finds me dead on the track, he'll put me on his horse and bring me to Yanama.
Alarm at 3:30. I want to increase my chances... And I see a notification on my phone: LAC seminar has just started. In this situation I find it pretty funny.
In the end I feel much better than 2 days before, every hour I take my dose of EPO-pasta, and after 4 hours in the uphill I'm almost at the pass. No doubt that the triad 'lack of food-tireness-heat and sun' destroyed me 2 days ago.
I haven't seen the two machines passing me (I'll learn later that the German guy had a down moment and his injury was painful), but 100 m elevation before the pass, I see the mule driver passing me, using shortcuts, and literally running uphill. Impressive. We discuss at the pass. He is 43 years old, and it took him one hour less than me for the continuous 2300 m uphill from the river to the pass. Congrats...
Yanama is not as remote as Marampata but I spend the evening with a lovely family living in a tiny hut, learning some words of quechua and helping for the homeworks of the daughter, while dozen cuys constantly run in between our legs... They have no cage!
The next day is not really easier: 35 km with a pass at 4660 m. Ten kilometres before the end, under heavy rain, I start to badly experience the aftermath of the day before, when I see two (adidas) rockets passing me.
Life in the "pre-jungle" (I cannot imagine it in the real jungle) is not really my thing. Too hot, too wet (nothing dries here, never!?), too rainy, too many mosquitoes.
After the last uphill on this 5th day, I finally make it to the viewpoint on Machu Picchu... in the clouds. I start thinking that Tupac or another of these Inca emperors has something against me. I've hiked/run 130 km and all he can offer me is a cloudy view. I wait. 2 hours later, the clouds finally rise and it's here, facing me. I have to confess tourists generally don't clump in the worst places. It's magnificent.
This trek was an adventure. Glad that my Machu Picchu experience was one of a slow pilgrim and not of a wallet forced to hurry up. I felt like a young inca who, after he decided he would go for a beer with his friends in Choquequirao 500 years ago, went back home to Machu Picchu. I'd be curious to know how fast he did it...
Diego says ultra-trail is about living a whole life in one day. I haven't been that extreme yet, but I for sure agree we've lived quite some stuff in these 5 days. His next objective is a <24 hours at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) 2020. I'll follow his result closely.
Back to Cusco, good news: Ayoub, Carla and Alicia are arriving, so we'll reform the team we had in El Chaltén, Argentina, 2 months ago! On a Friday night we test some local inca plants and find, by chance, the perfect rock concert in a bar: 4 great musicians going more than wild playing some Red Hot, Clapton, U2, and even The Doors! Magic...
Now let's Break on through to the other side of Peru!