Niamh's Machu Picchu diary 2017

Our Communications Manager, Niamh Callan, reflects on MND Scotland's trek to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Posted : 19/09/2017

On Saturday 2nd September 2017 a team of 27 MND Scotland fundraisers, including two MND Scotland staff members, travelled to Peru to take on a six-day trek in the Andes, finishing at the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu.

The team battled micro-climates ranging from glacial mountains and cloud forest, to warm jungle and hot sunny mountain tops. Here, our very own Niamh Callan reflects back on a once-in-a-lifetime challenge!

Saturday 2nd September

With a 2am wake-up call it still feels more like Friday night rather than Saturday morning. Louise picks me up in a taxi and the butterflies start to flutter – it’s really happening. Arriving at Glasgow Airport we meet the other 25 people from around Scotland who will be taking on the six day trek to Machu Picchu. Everyone looks very cheery and friendly, albeit a little sleepy.

We have a long day of travelling ahead of us with a flight to Amsterdam at 6am, a connection to Lima at 12.30pm before our final leg to Cusco at 4am on Sunday morning, where we are 6 hours behind Scotland.

Sunday 3rd September

We arrive at our hotel in Cusco around 6am. I already feel the altitude as we climb to 3,400m. It’s very strange; carrying bags up stairs or running to catch the lift takes a lot more out of you than normal and I become out of breath extremely quickly.

The group disperses - some people go for a sleep, some for breakfast first and some for a walk around the city. Louise and I opt for a nap first (priorities!), breakfast second and then a trip into Cusco with a few of the others. The sun is shining and there is a festival of some kind in the main town square. Bands are marching and children are dressed in colourful costumes. Apparently this happens every Sunday but it feels like a special welcoming parade and we love it.

After a  short wander around we are  exhausted so make our way to ‘Paddy’s’ – the highest Irish bar in the world – for a spot of lunch before heading back to the hotel for a rest, quick dinner and early bed.

Monday 4th September

Today we have a free day with some optional tours available. Fifteen of the group decide to go on the Scared Valley tour, an all day excursion. The rest of us opt for the half day city tour and both got great reviews from the team. Our group meet llamas and alpacas, visit various Inca archaeological sites and enjoy pizza and chips as our ‘last proper meal’ – very Peruvian.

Tuesday 5th September – Trek Day 1

After two days of rest and acclimatisation it’s trekking time! We take a four hour bus journey to our start point and began our challenge at 1.15pm. Walking with your head pretty much in the clouds is harder than I expected. It’s hot and up-hill to start, not the soft beginning I’d hoped for.

We walk and walk until darkness falls and the rain starts to trickle down on us, before arriving at camp for a late dinner. We are all freezing and just want to eat and get to our tents to start unpacking and get cosied up. We have a bit of a sing-song and dance while waiting for food to keep us warm – song of choice… Sweet Caroline... I’m sure you’re glad I don’t have a recording!

Wednesday 6th September – Trek Day 2

Waking up at 5am to see the snow covered mountains is unbelievable! A truly amazing sight which we missed having arrived in darkness the night before. Today is another acclimatisation day so we can get used to walking at such heights. We walk up-hill at a slow pace to a glacier lake with the most stunning views and back down to our second camp. We reach almost 4,300m, just 400m shy of the highest point we will reach on the challenge. This was great training and not easy by any means, but the view at the top is well worth it. Statuesque mountains, plummeting valleys and a lake more blue than any I’ve ever seen. Tonight is the coldest night of trek, plummeting to -7 degrees, so we are all cosied up in hats, scarves and make-shift hot water bottles from our drinking bottles.

Thursday 7th September – Trek Day 3

Today we hike the Salkantay Pass and reach our highest peak of 4,680m, followed by a downhill trek through the Cloud Forest to the valley. Up again at 5am, set-off at 7am on our gruelling upward hike. Mid-morning we reach the top of the Salkantay Pass in dribs and drabs. With fast walkers waiting at the top to greet the rest of us with welcomed hugs and words of congratulation, emotions are high for many as we achieve the highest summit of our challenge.

Downhill seems just as hard as the way up with the weather turning sour. Snow, sleet and rain pelts us until lunch time and it feels more like a winter hike in Scotland than an autumn trek in Peru – at least we have done plenty of training in this sort of weather. The terrain is rocky, muddy and slippery and everyone is soaked by the time we reach our lunch point. With a quick stop to reenergise we continue in the lashing rain down the valley for the rest of the afternoon. Not too much in the way of views today.

For once I am in the first group back to camp around 4.30pm where a ‘hot’ shower awaits us… it was not hot… at all! With a well-deserved beer, mushroom spag bol, a few laughs and a warmer climate (we’re back down to 2,800m) we end the longest day so far on a high.

Friday 8th September – Trek Day 4

Another early start today. We finish our walk through the Cloud Forest, surrounded by lots of greenery and vegetation. We walk along the wide river, edging around thin ledges looking down (not the best if you’re scared of heights as a few in the team are). We arrive at our next camp (final night of camping – yay!) around 2.30pm for lunch. About 10 of us use our afternoon to visit the local hot springs for a swim to relax the aching muscles, which is divine, while others stay at camp and learn how to make coffee.

Saturday 9th September – Trek Day 5

After a quinoa and cinnamon porridge breakfast (no thank you!) we set off. This is the first trekking day that the sun is well and truly out to shine. In a way it’s been good not having it too warm, as walking in the heat takes its toll. After a very steep 5km climb through forest we reach a viewing platform where we have amazing views of Machu Picchu, our final destination. It still seems so far away.

A climb back downhill, which was harder on the knees than the up-hill, followed by an 11km walk in the baking sunshine along the railway line completed our fifth day. It was a bit strange walking on a used railway line and just checking to make sure a train wasn’t coming – a bit more relaxed than home! This is our longest day at 10 hours; our feet are throbbing (some blistered) and backs sore from carrying our day sacks. This is the hardest day for me.

We arrive in Aguas Calientes, the main town near Machu Picchu and I’m delighted to have a hotel (a proper bed and warm shower) before dinner in a local restaurant. A few people brave the alpaca starter!

Before hitting the sack, chaos breaks out… a big bug! Two of our lovely walkers found a huge beastie in their bathroom, which I’m ashamed to say I did not help remove (but I did film the antics and offer moral support until another team member came to the rescue). Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!

Sunday 10th September - Trek Day 6

Today is the day! Buzzing to finally get to Machu Picchu we set off at 8am. We are told there are 850 steps up to the check point at Machu Picchu – there are definitely more (someone even started counting!). I haven’t quite managed to find out how many we climbed but it is definitely over the 1,000 mark. It takes the team between 1-2 hours to reach the top. It is a hard slog – step after step after step in the heat – but we all do it! Massive well done everyone – we are all so proud of you for your hard work and effort.

The rest of the morning we take a guided tour around Machu Picchu itself, learning more about the Inca history of the ancient ruins. Photos really do not do it justice and it is hard to describe the beauty that is before us.

We end the afternoon with a team lunch (which was the best of the trip) and few celebratory drinks on the train, followed by a two hour bus journey back to Cusco. We even get a fashion show from the staff on the train which was very bizarre but lots of fun.

Our final dinner is quite low key – I think everyone is very tired and starting to think about getting home to their families and friends. A few did continue the night to the early hours in Paddy’s Irish Bar though.

Monday 11th September

Some of the team head off early doors for the optional extension to the Amazon. The rest of us gather around the hotel reception to say goodbye and start getting organised for our departure later this morning.

Tuesday 12th September  

After a long trip home (although others have further to go than me) we arrive at Glasgow Airport late Tuesday night. I am touched by the groups waiting to greet their mums, dads, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends! There are banners, hugs, tears and lots of emotional goodbyes between new friends.

Thank you all so much for joining us on this amazing journey, for raising an incredible £141,988.68 and to all of our fantastic supporters who have been cheering us on along the way.

What’s next for 2019????     

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