Travelblog SA#38: Chiloé Island – Chile

17th-20th January 2019

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In many ways, Chiloé reminded me of Wales, my home back in the UK. Although it is an island, it is so close and well connected to the mainland it feels more like a peninsula, and it is a domain of grassy hills and cows and sheep, with intermittent forests and quaint towns and villages, where time seems to pass a little slower than the rest of the country.

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I spent my first day in Castro, its biggest city which wasn’t actually very big, wandering its streets. I soon saw some of its famous palafito houses, perched over the water, and also paid a visit to its church which is of the distinctive Chiloéan Jesuit style, built from wood.

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I also made a little trip in the afternoon to the islet of Quinchao and walked around the village of Achao, which also had churches and views of the mainland.

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The following morning I ventured out to the island’s west coast for a hike through Chiloé’s National Park.

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For any other travellers thinking of going to this area, I will quickly explain how to get to the Cole-Cole beach trail, for both the Lonely Planet and websites like Wikitravel do so quite poorly. They make it sound like all hikes around Cucao region begin from the same place, whether you are heading to Laguna Huelde or up the coast to Cole-Cole, but this is not actually the case.

When you catch the bus to Cucao, the bus driver will likely try to coax you to get off at the entrance to Chiloé National Park headquarters, because that is where most of the gringos who come to this area go to but, if your destination is not Laguna Huelde but actually Cole Cole, stay on the bus because you do not need to pay the entrance fee to the park for this particular hike and the bus can drop you off a little closer to the trailhead, saving you a good hour of walking down a concrete road.

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I will be honest, the first hour or so of this trail was not awe-inspiring, but I have been spoilt recently, spending the last month hiking some of Patagonia’s finest parks. The path begins along a rather flat beach. You do have a fairly good chance of seeing some interesting birds and there are little hamlets along the way, but it is very samey for a long time and you soon get bored.

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There are also the bugs. I believe they may by some kind of breed of horsefly, but this particular kind are huge and much more annoying than anything else I have come across before. I am used to things like mosquitoes and leeches from my travels but these things, whatever they are, are truly one of nature’s worst abominations. They are very noisy and I didn’t actually realise they bite at first, as it seemed that they lacked any other purpose but buzz around you, clumsily and aimlessly, but eventually I discovered that if you stay still for too long they do bite and it’s painful. On some occasions I had over twenty of them chasing me down the beach. After over an hour of it, I threw a tantrum and went into a rage, swinging my hat in the air around me and screaming curses.

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Once I reached the village of Huentemo, I crossed a bridge and the trail became much more enjoyable. I entered a series of hilly woodlands with coastal views.

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The flunts, as I named them, were a little less in number, but continued to be an annoyance. At one point I smacked one with my hat and it fell to the ground, dazed. I crushed it with my shoe, and it was the most satisfying moment of my entire day.

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When I reached Cole-Cole, I set up my tent by the beach and I actually felt a little wistful. I realised this was my last overnight trek in Patagonia. I guess it was a great way to finish it, with a view like this.

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The sunset was pleasant too.

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In the morning, I wandered outside and there were lots of interesting birds out on the beach, including this group of (what I believe to be) curlews (video here).

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I finished off my time in Patagonia by spending a couple of days in Chile’s Lake District. Puerto Varas was the place I based myself. It was perched upon the shore of Lago Llanquihue and, although it was a bit touristy and there wasn’t actually too much to do there, it did have stunning views of the Volcanoes Osorno and Calibuco.

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This area is an old German colony so it has lots of interesting architecture. The following morning I went for a day trip to the village of Frutilla to walk around its neighbourhoods before I caught a night bus back to Santiago, where I would spend a few days shopping and seeing friends before I crossed the border into northern Argentina.

 

For more photos from Chiloé, click here, and for more from Puerto Varas, click here.

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Travelblog SA#35: Torres Del Paine – Chile

24th December 2018 – 3rd January 2019

I spent Christmas in Puerto Natales, a little town by the banks of Señoret Channel where the Magellan Strait begins to ford. After months of staying in dormitories (and on occasion, my tent) I treated myself to my own a room and spent a few days drinking wine, watching movies and catching up with friends and family, as well as taking occasional walks along the water front. It was a time of recuperation, but I also prepared for my upcoming trek, the Torres Del Paine Circuit, an eight-day journey through Patagonian forests, mountains, lakes and glaciers.

 

Day 1

It was a two-hour bus journey to reach the headquarters and then I had to queue for ages while the rangers checked everyone’s reservations and documents to make sure all was in order. They are very strict and spaces are limited. The park’s growing popularity has caused it to become infamously difficult organise if you want to stay there overnight, and the situation is not at all helped by the fact that the campsites are privately-owned and have separate (and confusing) booking systems. I reserved my spaces several months ago and even then the process was so hair-tearingly frustrating that I almost gave up.

But I was glad I didn’t. I had to wait behind a French guy for twenty-minutes because he had a night missing from the bookings he needed for the three-day trek and thought he could just make do, but they were having none of it and wouldn’t let him in. It made me realise that I was very lucky, for I had a full eight day to explore this natural wonder.

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Despite how many people were at the headquarters, once I began on the trail I found myself almost completely alone for most of the day because most of the visitors to this park are only here either for day trips or a shorter trek known as ‘The W’. This northern region I would be spending the first few days in is quieter.

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My backpack was heavy. Carrying not just a tent, sleeping bag, stove and all my other gear, but also eight days worth of food. Luckily this first day was fairly short, taking me just four hours, and the terrain was reasonably flat. I passed through meadows, intermittent patches of woodland and snaked along the side of the River Paine for a while. There were strong gales, but I had expected that. This area is famous for the bitterly cold winds which peak during the summer months.

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I reached Serón by the mid-afternoon, set up my tent, prepared dinner, and started getting to know the other people who were also trekking the same route as me. It is called ‘The O’ and it circles around the quieter regions of the park before joining up with the more trodden ‘W’.

 

Day 2

I slept well that night and was awoken by rain. I waited for it to break before I started to get ready but I was still forced to pack my tent up wet.

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It was a tougher hike that day. The terrain wasn’t as flat and there was intermittent rain. The gloomy light created an eerie atmosphere and, a few hours in, I reached Lake Paine and the sky cleared, revealing ice-capped mountains in the distance.

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The highlight was at the end when I curved around the side of a mountain to find myself looking down upon Camp Dickson, where I was staying that night. It was beautifully perched upon a peninsular jutting out onto a lake of the same name.

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Day 3

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This was my favourite day so far, waking up in Camp Dickson to sunshine and a backside view of the Torres. Finally, we had good weather. I lingered for a while, taking a walk along the lake after breakfast.

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The air got colder as I reached higher climbs and the bitter winds returned in the afternoon. The trail went through lots of different kinds of forest and I saw many wonderful views.

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Not just of Lake Dickson, behind me, but glacial mountains and Los Perros ahead, which I reached just after lunchtime.

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I took some photos but didn’t linger for too long as it was very windy. As I walked away, I heard a thunderous roar of ice breaking from the glacier into the lake.

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Of all the campsites, Los Perros was not my favourite. Despite how close it was to the lake, you couldn’t actually see it as there was a huge mound of earth in the way, but I guess it was sheltered from the extremes of the weather, clustered within the trees. A good thing, as not long after I settled it began to rain.

I was, weather permitting, crossing Paso John Gardner the next day. It is the most challenging part of the entire trail and it is not uncommon for the park to close it if it gets too windy.

 

Day 4

I woke up at 5am. As it turned out, it was windy that morning but none of the rangers came out to stop me and the other early birds as we left the campsite.

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So far, during this journey, I had hiked alone and enjoyed solitude. The lack of noise meant I saw lots of birds, but I had been getting to know some of the other trekkers during the evenings and that morning I decided to walk within the company of a group of Americans I had befriended.

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The first hour was uphill, through wetlands and alpine woodlands, but as we got closer to the peak it was rocky, exposing us to winds. The trail was slippery and, combined with the winds, you had to be careful to maintain balance. I could see that it would have been quite easy to slip, but it wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as the Rangers made out.

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When we reached the top we were rewarded with a breathtaking view. We had reached the Patagonian ice field of Glacier Grey.

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According to the rangers the trek was supposed to have taken us six hours that day but it actually took us not much longer than four – and that is including plenty of stops along the way to admire the ice-field. When we reached Camp Paso, our destination, it was still morning so we ventured to a nearby viewpoint for a while but otherwise spent the rest of the day chatting and relaxing.

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I ate dinner early that evening and went to my tent to read a book. In some ways, I actually like the way I had to book all the campsites in advance and follow the park’s strict rules because it forced me to take my time and enjoy the experience. I have, in the past, had a tendency to rush through treks.

 

Day 5

Much of this morning was spent trailing alongside Glacier Grey. There were several viewpoints along the way so I got to see it from all angles as I got closer to where it merged with the lake.

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I was hiking alone again that day and saw lots of wildlife, including a caracara and even a giant woodpecker, both of which I have videos you can watch. For the first few days of The O Circuit, everyone stays in the same campsites but once we across the pass it joins up with The W where we have more options. That morning I said goodbye to some of the friends I made.

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As I passed Lake Grey, with all of its icebergs and views of the glacier, the wind picked up. It became so strong by the afternoon that I actually felt it pushing me along the top of hills. I felt sorry for the people heading the opposite way, having to fight against it.

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It began to rain too shortly before I arrived at Paine Grande. I saw a rabbit which I managed to catch for a few seconds on my camera but as the downpour got worse I rushed to the registration desk where I sat for a while waiting for the winds to calm down so I could set up my tent. They never eased completely and the day transitioned to a blustery evening. I did manage to set up my tent in the end though, and then I had my first shower for three days.

It turned out that some of the friends I said goodbye to that morning were at Paine Grande too, using the ill weather as an excuse to not venture further. Despite having strict rules concerning reservations before you enter the park – as well as several check-points along the way – the actual campsites themselves can actually be quite flexible, particularly when it comes to safety concerns.

We were on ‘The W’ trail now, and it was much busier than the northern reach of the park. The Refugios were bigger and more modern. Most of them even had hotel rooms and restaurants.

But those weren’t the only changes. There was a different energy in the air. There were a lot of people wearing trainers and tracksuit bottoms and carrying just small day packs. I hate to be snobby, but there was a greater sense of comradery between people who trek The O circuit, there being so few of us and most being quite experienced hikers, whereas a lot of the people who trek The W seemed a little out of place. Many of them were – for reasons which I will never understand – walking through the park with earphones in (or in some cases, rather annoyingly, playing their music on loudspeakers) instead of enjoying the sounds of birdsong and the wind stirring the trees.

It was New Year’s Eve and the communal kitchen was packed with more people than I had seen for while a while and, after days spent on The O trail, I found it jarringly loud. I and some of The O People sat in the corner together and I think some of us missed the serenity we’d become accustomed to.

 

Day 6

I was woken up a few times that night, both by strong winds and drunken people stumbling around the city of tents. I couldn’t really afford to binge at the prices the campsite was selling their beers so I just had a couple of and went to bed early. It was very quiet in the morning because most of the people were hungover. I spotted an Andean Colpeo fox wandering through the campsite, looking for food.

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The wind calmed a little since the previous day and I had the trail mostly to myself. It only took a couple of hours to reach Camp Italiano and, once there, I set up my tent and ate a quick lunch before setting on the trail into Valle de Franco. I got to leave my backpack behind and just take a bottle of water in the pocket of my jacket, which was heaven after six days of carrying the thing.

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An hour in, I reached a viewpoint for Glacier Franco. I have not just photos of but also a video (which can be viewed by clicking here) to appreciate it in its full glory.

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It was another hour or so to reach Mirador Britanico, climbing through rough rocky terrain and patches of woodland. It was snowing, and the wind, which I had become all too familiar with by now, was persistent.

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Unfortunately, because of the clouds, I didn’t get the best view of it, but the Britanico range was very impressive. I took a panoramic photo, but it doesn’t quite capture its full majesty or the awe you feel seeing it surrounding you from all sides.

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Day 7

By this day, I was spoiled. And I knew it too.

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I had reached a point where I had seen so many breathtaking sights that the azure waters of Lago Nordenskjöld, with views of Bader Valley along the way, woodlands, and everything else I saw that day did not awe me as much as they would have a week ago. Magical, surreal landscapes had become the norm for me.

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This was one of the longer days and the last couple of hours were a bit of a slog. For some reason, despite the fact I had eaten most of my food by that point and it had been getting lighter, my backpack felt heavy. I was happy by the time we reached Central for my final night of camping. My friends and I sat and made ate dinner together one last time.

 

Day 8

My alarm went off at 2am, and I started to get ready for my walk up to the Torres. I met my friends outside and we left, lighting the trail by torchlight as we made our way up the valley. It was steep, but we were quite fit after a week of hiking and this day we weren’t carrying our backpacks.

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First light was at 5am, and by then we were at the final part of the ascent. When we reached the Torres they were partly obscured by clouds. We waited, and it was very cold. I found a little niche within all the rocks which was sheltered from the wind. A French guy who had brought his stove with him gave me a little bit of his coffee to warm me up. The clouds began to clear and, later on, sunlight hit the rocks, illuminating them.

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For more photos and videos from the Torres Del Paine, click here.

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.