Hola amigos! I left you at mid-afternoon on the second day of a five-day hike to Machu Picchu via Salkantay mountain. As the day wore on we started to pass alternative campsites along the route. In need of quenching our collective thirst, we stopped in at one such place but, no sooner had we finished placing our orders, an excited shout turned out attentions to the patch of lawn near the campsite outhouses. The Brits had found a rudimentary football pitch.
Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that a game of footie at altitude after 8 hours of hiking would not be very appealing but, when our guide, Wilson, appeared moments later with a ball in hand, the fatigue flowed from our legs and battle was inevitable. England and China versus the US and Peru: the match everyone had secretly been wanting to see for decades.
The Anglo-Sino desire was strong in the first half and we were aided by a fairly steep downhill slope. After minutes of sustained pressure the ball eventually ricocheted out to the trusty left peg of Johninho (me), who calmly nutmegged keeper Casey to give the good guys the lead. This was, however, to be the last time Casey would allow herself to be beaten: converting herself into the Gandalf-on-the-bridge of goalkeepers: “NONE SHALL PASS”.
After the defence had been wrong-footed by a molehill, Juan-Carlos on the American team seized the opportunity to put in a cross which found the outstretched foot of New Yorker Tom as he slid in at the back post. 1-1. A nervous hush descended on the crowd.
As the game entered the second minute of extra time a shot was deflected wide for an America corner. The ball was whipped into the box, the keeper fumbled, and there to capitalise on the error, like the great poacher he is, was Juan-Carlos. 2:1! Sweet victory for US-Peru, bitter defeat and significant soul-searching for Chingland. We could not treat those two imposter both the same!
With several miles to go before reaching camp and sunset soon upon us, we resumed or trek, some elated, others forlorn.
We finally arrived at the campsite and there was a feeling that we had gone somewhat further than the 18km suggested in our trek information. After consulting fitness apps on three separate phones, the real figure seemed somewhere closer to 35km! High fives abounded.
Day three was to include several hours of relaxation, either at the next campsite after a morning of hiking or, at a hot spring close to our current location before hiking to the campsite. The hot spring option received majority support and so it was that, early the next day, we bundled into a minibus to make the journey to the springs. Given our legs were all quite sore from exertion, entering the pools was blissful.
Several hours later, and several degrees more relaxed, we boarded the minibus to be driven to a coffee plantation at the start of the day’s hiking trail. We were introduced to the farmer, a great personality with a mischievous grin who said things like: “We drink the good coffee and the shit stuff we sell to Chile.” He showed us the entire coffee process which ended in a delicious espresso and a large number of coffee bean orders from the impressed audience. I can still taste it now.
None of us knew, at this stage, how important the espresso energy was going to be. We began hiking uphill from the plantation, chattering to each other on a caffeine high. The talk soon stopped. It’s not so much that the climb was steep (and it was), it was more the fact that it was interminable. It gave no hope, no respite.
After perhaps an hour, I came across Federico, one of our porters, who was carrying a bag of pots and pans on his bag that looked painfully large for his 53-year-old, 5ft frame. Although it’s clearly something he had done many times on many treks, the fact that these pots and pans were for our benefit elicited pangs of guilt. I offered to swap my bag for his and he accepted. I then immediately regretted it. Not only was the pack about 55lbs (I learnt this later from him), it’s shoulder straps were just loops of a sheet and lacked any padding whatsoever. To add to this, one of the metal dinner plates in the bag was positioned so as to do maximum damage to the kidneys!
Still wearing a frozen smile to hide my consternation, I set off, Federico walking with me. After what seemed like a week of lung-busting, thigh-burning, kidney-prodding torture, I stumbled into the campsite and flung the offending pack to the floor. As my panting subsided, I raised my head to check the view. And the bag became a distant memory:
We marvelled at our first sighting Machu Picchu until darkness hid it from view and then we marvelled at another Alberto-the-chef masterpiece. Tomorrow’s hike would bring us to Machu Picchu village, striking distance from one of the seven wonders of the world.