Travelblog SA#23: Machu Picchu & Ollantaytambo – Peru

23rd-24th October 2018,

3 am. That is how early you have to get up to guarantee to be on the first bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I felt like a zombie as I put on my shoes and met the others in the lobby. We began the walk to the bus stop. It was a dark and miserable morning. It was raining, and it was a thick, heavy kind which drenching everything. We waited there for almost three hours in all, and it showed no sign of letting up.

About an hour in, hoards of people began to swarm past us, all on their way towards the trailhead for the steep climb up to the ruins. The previous evening, I had toyed with the idea of heading up by foot myself – as the bus is quite expensive – but at the last minute changed my mind. I figured that I am only going to see Machu Picchu once and I didn’t want to be worn out before I even reached it. And it seemed, considering the weather, I had made the right decision.

I was beginning to worry though. This was my only shot at seeing Machu Picchu. Coming here is a very expensive venture and I already had my train ticket out booked for later that day. It wasn’t just pouring with rain, it was foggy too, and you couldn’t see anything further than a few dozen feet.

By the time the bus came, the queue was huge, but we were – thanks to our early rise – the first on. The rain calmed down a little, but the thick fog prevailed.

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Simba – who’d been our guide for the last four days around the Salkantay trek – began to escort us around the ruins. It was still very foggy, so we didn’t get a decent view, but I guess it had a certain eerie quality.

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Machu Picchu is bigger than photos make it seem. It took us around two hours to walk around it. Simba told us some of its history. How it was abandoned by the Inca’s during the Spanish Conquest, and it is possibly thanks to that course of action it can still be admired today. Most of the other monuments of this empire were raided for their treasures and the stones were used to build the churches and mansions of colonial power. But this one, possibly the most treasured and sacred of all, remained hidden within the towering peaks of the Sacred Valley, where the Spaniards never felt the need to tread. It was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911.

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Although Machu Picchu is surrounded by terraces, it is believed that it was not enough land to produce food for all its people so they would have relied upon supplies brought up from other settlements in the valley. A large number of the skeletons found here belong to young women and many of the buildings seemed to have served a ceremonial function. All of these factors indicate that Machu Picchu was a sacred place, reserved for people who served a religious function.

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Simba explained to us some of the areas to give us to give us a better idea of how the people here lived. We were taken to the quarry, where the stonemasons who built this place worked. The Temple of the Sun, whose windows are aligned to where the sun rises and sets during the solstices and equinoxes of the year. There was also a stone platform where offerings were placed to Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The urban sector, whose water-channel system still functions today, is large and home to the Royal Palace, where it is believed the Emperor and his family resided.

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One of my favourite areas was the Sacred Plaza, which is home to not just the main temple, but the smaller – and yet visually more iconic – Three Windowed Temple. The windows represent the three realms of the Incan cosmos; Uku-Pacha (the underworld) Hanan-Pacha (the upper-world, where the gods dwelled), and Kay-Pacha (the present day world humans existed within).

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One piece of advice I would give to people visiting Machu Picchu is to book to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, even if you don’t actually plan to climb them. They have recently implemented new rules which allow visitors to only enter the premises once and created a strict one-way system around the complex. Guards are placed in strategic positions, and they do not let you turn back once you have moved on to a new section. Being such a vast site, it would be very easy to accidentally miss parts of it.

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Weather is also another reason I advise this. The first time I walked through it was foggy, but on the second time, the air began to clear.

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Having a fear of heights made Huayna Picchu not an option for me. Even the path up Machu Picchu Mountain has some cringe-worthy sections which will trigger vertigo but it is doable if you grit your teeth during certain parts. The mist helped, I guess, as I most of the time I couldn’t actually see the drop below me, but this also worried me too. This was a steep and difficult climb, but was it actually going to be worth it in the end? I passed some people who were on their way down, and they said saw nothing at the summit and got bored of waiting for the weather to clear.

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I saw a coati whilst on my way up. It ran across the path in front of me and back into the forest. It was way too fast for me to get a photo of it but, for illustration purposes, here is what one looks like.

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By the time I reached the top the mist was beginning to clear. I drank some water, ate some chocolate and then walked over to the mirador where around a dozen people were all waiting – cameras primed – for a break in the clouds.

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It happened eventually, and I have a video of it here.

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The mist continued to clear whilst on my way down and I even saw some sunshine. When I reached the bottom and was back within the ruins, I finally got the view I had been waiting for.

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Despite my initial concerns, I actually consider myself to be very lucky with the day I saw Machu Picchu. I got to see it in two different lights. All shrouded in mist and atmospheric, and then, later on, in all of its majesty. And the views of all the mountains around it were incredible.

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I made my way back down to Aguas Calientes by foot down along an old Inca trail. By the time I got back, it wasn’t long until I needed to catch my train to Ollantaytambo. From there the rest of the people on my tour were headed on a bus back to Cusco, but I had arranged to be left Ollantaytambo.

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Ollantaytambo was a charming little village set within the heart in the sacred valley. It had old, cobbled, narrow streets and still retains much of its original Incan groundwork.

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I had a bit of a strange experience with the hostel I was staying at though. It came up as a last-minute deal on Booking.com at only 10 soles (about $3) a night for a twin room including breakfast. That is very cheap, even for Peru. Almost unrealistically so. It was a new place and she didn’t have any reviews yet, so I figured that maybe she was just running off a very small profit for a while to build her customer base. I booked it with the mentality that, if she gave good service, I would tip her generously and make sure I leave reviews for her not only on my blog but also Booking.com and Tripadvisor.

When I arrived, her demeanour toward me was a bit strange and cagey. She acted like she was only vaguely aware of my booking and when the matter of the price came up she claimed that it was a mistake and that she didn’t know how it had happened. Her tone was a bit accusative, and I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I offered to pay her double (at 20 soles a night), and she agreed, saying she would still give me the free breakfast.

The thing is, another man (who had booked the same deal) arrived a couple of hours later, and she did the same routine with him too. Acting like she was surprised. She wasn’t a very good actress, and it all started to feel a bit fishy.

To be fair, her rooms were clean and nicely decorated, but that was the only nice thing I can say about the place. When I went to use the shower there was underwear hanging in it and a pile of bathmats on the floor. She kept turning the WiFi off for some reason, and whenever I asked her about it she acted like she didn’t know.

In the morning when I came downstairs for breakfast she pushed an overpriced menu in front of me and asked if I would ‘like to order something’. I asked her about the included breakfast she had promised me, and she pulled a face like I had just slapped her and said, “There isn’t any breakfast, but, out of courtesy, I will give you some papaya.”

That was the point when I decided to leave. I told her I didn’t want any papaya, went to my room, packed my bags, gave her twenty soles (which she eagerly snatched from my hand, in a manner which was almost cartooneqsue) and moved to a place a few doors up the road. They were actually more expensive than her, but they were nicer-mannered, honest, and I didn’t mind paying a few extra soles to not have to put up with her weird passive-aggressive behaviour.

I will name the place on here – it is called ‘Hospedaje Inka’s’ – but I have decided to not write anything on Tripadvisor or Booking.com because I don’t want to sabotage her business. I do genuinely hope she eventually figures out how hospitality works. She is new, so she should be undercutting the other hostels in the area ever-so-slightly and treating her guests well to build a reputation, not luring people in with crazy-cheap prices and then using weird passive-aggressive behaviour to try to extract extra money. I checked her place out on Booking.com a week later, out of curiosity, and noticed she still had not fixed the ‘mistake’, so I can only assume that this is an ongoing tactic she is using.

It is a shame, but I guess what goes around comes around. Like I said earlier, if she had behaved better I would have given her glowing reviews on several platforms, a tip (of my own volition, not because she had guilt-tripped me), and stayed there longer but, because of her behaviour, she got nothing but twenty soles and an early departure.

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Now that I had escaped from the strange lady, I spend the rest of the day exploring Ollantaytambo, which is home to some rather beautiful Inca ruins.

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They are not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu but they had their own charm and, most blessedly, were much less crowded. It has a Temple of the Sun (which Inca temple doesn’t?), but the primary theme of Ollantaytambo seemed to be water. Its complex irrigation system still works, fuelling numerous fountains and channelling all the way to the ruin’s centrepiece, the Temple of Water.

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Ollantaytambo is actually a place I would advise people to not get a spoken tour for (or at least if you do, maybe consider walking around again afterwards alone) as the complex is quite spread out and I think the guides there are a little lazy because they were not taking people to the farther reaches of the complex, such as Inkawatana.

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I enjoyed having these areas to myself though. As I was walking back I saw Pinkullyuna, another set of Inca ruins on the other side of the valley, and decided to head there after lunch.

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Pinkullyuna can be accessed by a steep pathway in one of the back alleys of Ollantaytambo. Historians actually believe them to be a series of storehouses, and they are definitely worth seeing because during the walk you get to glimpse Ollantaytambo from even more angles.

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The next morning I caught a bus back to Cusco, which will be my base for the next few days as I explore more of the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Machu Picchu, click here. And for photos of Ollantaytambo, click here.

 

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Travelblog SA#22: Salkantay Trek – Peru

19th-22nd October 2018

The Salkantay Trek is an alternative to the – now, not only very busy but exclusively expensive – Inca Trail. You do not pass by as many ruins along this road but you do get to traverse a wonderful variety of landscapes, including glacial mountains, lakes, cloud forests and even jungles, whilst on route to reach its penultimate highlight, Machu Picchu.

I decided on this occasion to treat myself and do it as a tour. It is possible to do this circuit independently – and I passed many along the way who were doing so – but, whilst I do enjoy the freedom of roaming alone and hiking at my own pace, carrying all of your own equipment and food for such a long journey can be hard work. Personally, if it is just three to four days, I will always choose to hike independently but, any more than that, and it starts to become questionable how much you are going to enjoy the experience.

Booking Salkantay as a tour also meant that I had Machu Picchu – with its entry fee, reservation for climbing the mountain, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, and the train ride out – all organised for me. It was also a great luxury to be able to carry just a light load of a few essential items each day and not have to worry about food or pitching my tent.

This is one of my last big expenses of this entire trip. When I embarked upon this journey back in June, I set myself a strict budget of $25 a day and I have managed to stick to it most of the time. I did put aside an extra allowance for things such as this, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon jungle and flying over the Nazca lines, but those extra funds are almost depleted now. Machu Picchu is supposed to be one of the biggest highlights of South America, and I wanted to make sure that the week I saw it was special.

 

Day 1

I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco by Simba, who would be my guide for the next five days. I and the nine people I would be sharing this journey with got into a van and dozed for the first couple of hours as we were driven to Challacancha. It was the early hours of the morning and still dark. By the time the sun came up we made a brief stop in a village to have breakfast and started getting to know each other better.

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After breakfast, we climbed back into the van and were driven for another hour. The road became rocky, and it wound through a series of steep mountains until it finally reached the beginning of the trail where we were dropped off.

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We didn’t have too far to walk that first morning. We saw lots of butterflies and Simba explained to us that they were currently in season. He also stopped us a few times to tell us about some of the plants and trees we passed and gave us all some cocoa to chew on to help us acclimatise.

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By lunchtime, we arrived at ‘Skycamp’ – located in a village called Soraypampa – where we were assigned the domes we would be sleeping in that night.

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It was partly because of the accommodation that I chose this company. Each night of the journey, you stay in a different style of shelter, and this first evening was a particularly novel one.

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After lunch, I went to my dome for a brief siesta but I was woken by a crack of thunder. A storm had entered the valley. It was awesome to listen to the rain hammering against the glass above me, but I was also very aware that I was soon to be hiking again.

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Luckily the weather calmed down a little by the time we all met outside to begin our walk up to Humantay Lake. It was still raining a little – and windy too – but manageably so, and the foggy air conjured an eerie ambience.

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By the time we reached the lake the mist had cleared. I and a few of the others climbed up a nearby ridge to get a better vantage point. It was worth the journey but, while enjoying the view, we glimpsed another wave of black clouds looming towards us and decided it would be wise to return to Skycamp.

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After dinner, I got to watch the storm play out from within my dome again, which was awesome, but it would have been even better if the sky cleared for a while so I could see the stars. You can’t have it all, I guess.

 

Day 2

Simba woke me up at 5am by bringing a hot cup of cocoa tea. I drank it down, got ready, and then, after a quick breakfast, we set off. We were crossing the Salkantay Pass that day, reaching the trek’s highest point at 4,630 meters.

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The ascent was actually easier than I anticipated – although, all the cocoa Simba kept giving us probably helped. Within three hours, we reached the top and then it was all downhill from there, through a grassy, rocky valley which reminded me of Narnia (or at least what I imagine it to be like).

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We had lunch in a hamlet lodge along the way and then plunged into a terrain of cloud forests, reaching Chaullay – a picturesque village, surrounded by green, towering peaks and waterfalls – by mid-afternoon. We were staying in small, Andean-style huts that night and the air was considerably warmer. There was the option to have a warm shower and even access wifi there, for a small fee, but I decided to give it another day before I resorted to such luxuries.

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Day 3

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Of all days, this was the easiest of the trek. We were all acclimatised at a much higher elevation so wandering these lower elevations was easy. The air was still cool enough for the walk to be a comfortable temperature and most of the terrain was flat. We were following a path which snaked along a river, heading deeper into the Sacred Valley, and saw lots of orchids.

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We reached Sahuayaco around lunchtime, and the rest of the day was free to our own leisure. Everyone else went for a trip to some hot springs which were about an hour’s ride away, but I was also feeling a little introverted that afternoon and it was beyond my budget so I chose to have a few hours to myself. I sat in the camp and read a book. There were lots of interesting birds in the trees.

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Day 4

This was my favourite day of the entire trek, but it was also the most arduous and long. We were at 2000 meters altitude now, so the air was considerably hotter. We were also walking upon an actual Inca road.

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We climbed up a mountain, rising seven hundred meters in just a couple of hours. It was foggy, at first, but when we reached the top the mist began to clear. We rested for a while at a viewpoint which had a sky swing (video here). The views were fantastic.

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The highlight of the day was reaching an old Inca site called Llactapata. It was a mysterious place. They don’t know all too much about it, but it is situated on a bluff facing Machu Picchu. Its main building appears to be ceremonial and has two large chambers with a series of alcoves in the walls – which in most other Inca sites are used for the placing of offerings. I noticed that its arched entrance has a water duct pointing directly towards Machu Picchu.

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We caught views of the hydroelectric plant on our way back down into the valley. It isn’t a natural waterfall, but it is still very beautiful. I have a video of it here.

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For the last couple of hours of the day, we were walking along the side of the train tracks which run to Aguas Calientes. It was a little strange. It felt like we were on a pilgrimage because we passed hundreds of people along the way, all either on their way to Machu Picchu or back out. Every now and then a train would pass us and we would have to move aside. Most of the seats in the carriages were empty. It is one of those bizarre anomalies of capitalism. Hundreds of people walk this route every day, while mostly-empty trains roll past, and dozens of little restaurants have been set up along the side tracks to refresh those taking this long walk. An entire micro-culture and economy has evolved from of an adamantly over-priced train system which refuses to adapt.

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We reached Aguas Calientes by the mid-afternoon. It was here that we reached the end of the Salkantay Trek. That night, we were staying in a hotel with real beds and hot showers. In the morning, we were going to see Machu Picchu.

 

For more photos from the Salkantay Trek, click here.

Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

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You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

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Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

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There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

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They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

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Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

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Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

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Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

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Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

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Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

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All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

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The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

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When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

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It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

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A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

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It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

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The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.