Where do I even begin?
The last five days were so many things, it’s hard to put it into words. Challenging, beautiful, intense, unforgiving, incredible, painful, rewarding, and so much more.
Our first morning started after less than three hours of sleep. I had trouble falling asleep after we finally finished packing for the trip at 11:30pm, and woke up at 2:20am unable to fall back asleep. Our alarm went off at 3:30am, and thirty minutes later we were the first ones on the van. Over the course of the next 45 minutes we would pick up three other couples and a mom and her two daughters. All in all there were 11 of us, and our leader Roy gave us some blankets so we could sleep a little more on the two hour drive out of Cusco.
We arrived at Mollepata, a tiny town up in the hills of the Andes to stop for breakfast. It was here that we started to get to know the rest of our group. The other couples were Joseph and Andrea from Colorado, Avinash and Victoria from New Jersey, and Jeroen and Kristal from the Netherlands. The mom, Suellen was from Massachusetts, and her two daughters Tiama and Frances live in California. After an overpriced and mediocre breakfast, we continued the last hour or so of our van ride to the drop-off point where our bags were loaded up on horses and we hit the trail!
We started at around 11,500’ and began working our way up switchbacks almost instantly. Being at Cusco elevation for the last four days, it wasn’t too much of a challenge fortunately. Roy lead the front of the line and Erik held the back. The skies were clear and we were presented with an incredible view of the massive Humantay Mountain in the distance at 17,655’. We took occasional breaks when Roy would tell us about certain plants, or the mountains, or about Incan beliefs. It was exercise and a history lesson all in one! Roy is very proud of his Andean ancestry, and his native language of Quechua - that of the Incan people.
The switchbacks leveled off after about an hour, when we found ourselves trekking alongside the Inca canal - a manmade canal used by the Inca to divert water from the Humantay glacier down to the valley below. The rest of the trek until lunch was relatively flat, only gaining several hundred feet or so before we arrived at our first campsite, Soraypampa at 12,800’. We were nestled in between two valleys with perfect views of both Humantay and Salkantay Mountains. Here we were greeted with our accommodations for the night, the sky huts! These are geodesic domes composed of stone and glass, igloo shaped with a glass roof for admiring the starry skies at night. We had a nice leisurely lunch, and a little while to relax before heading off to our second trek of the day - Humantay lake.
This was not only a hike to a beautiful blue-green glacial lake, but also meant to serve as a training hike to get us used to higher elevation, and preparing us for what our second day would bring in terms of steepness and difficulty. The trek took about an hour and took us up to a little over 14,000’. The sun was just setting over Humantay mountain, but we still had plenty of light left to explore the lake after Roy shared more of the Andean history and beliefs with us.
We arrived back at camp after sunset, with a pale glow still in the sky. Sierra began to exhibit some early signs of altitude sickness, feeling a little nauseous and dizzy, and a complete lack of appetite. We hoped that it was just setting in a little late from our earlier jaunt up the mountain and that with this return to lower elevation, the effects would subside shortly. We had tea time with some snacks before dinner, and a big family style dinner with the group. Sierra could barely eat at this point, and when we informed Roy he told us that she had to do everything she could to put some food down, and get as much rest as possible. He told us that 90% of people who suffer altitude sickness on the first day end up being even worse on day two, so he informed us of an option to take a horse from the campsite up to the pass in the morning if her symptoms were really bad.
There were several other groups with Salkantay Trekking sharing the same dining area, so it was a lively dining scene. Roy gave us the details on tomorrow’s trek up to the Salkantay Pass, telling us of the 3 1/2 hour uphill we would have, proceeded by a 2 hour downhill, lunch, and 3 more hours of downhill for a total of about 16 miles. I took some long exposure shots of the Milky Way before bed because the sky was lit up like a Christmas tree! There were no clouds, no light pollution, and crystal clear skies.
The morning of day two began with a 5am wake up and 5:30am breakfast with the crew. Sierra slept with a trash can next to the bed, and reported not sleeping very well. She decided that she had the strength to pull off the trek and opted out of taking a horse. I was relieved first of all because she was feeling slightly better, and second of all because it meant we got to trek together! It was probably in the low 40’s when we began hiking at 6:30am, a bit chilly, but we warmed up soon on the gradual uphill through the valley. The looming Salkantay peak grew closer and closer throughout the morning, as the uphill got more and more intense. We passed 13,000’, then 13,500’ and the terrain began getting really steep. Around 14,000’ the trail turned to switchbacks, known as the “7 Snakes”, a series of increasingly difficult switchbacks leading to a small flat area just before the final push to the pass. At these elevations you can feel every breath, and it becomes a task just focusing on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Putting one foot in front of the other isn’t the issue so much as getting enough oxygen to your brain to keep going. We took short breaks every 5 to 10 minutes, which never seemed like enough. Roy knows how to make sure everyone sticks together and that we all reach the summit together.
Finally after 3 1/2 hours of trekking, the summit was in sight. We would break every time a group of horses would pass by, thanking them for allowing us the opportunity to stop and breathe, as well as for carrying all our stuff! The last few hundred feet felt like forever, but hand in hand, Sierra and I made it to the Salkantay Pass at just under 15,200’! The air was thin but our smiles were big, and we set our bags down amongst some rocks as Roy passed around coca leaves for us to leave as a gift to the Apu, or mountain spirit.
The view of the mountain from here was unparalleled, it loomed another 5,500’ over our heads and was covered in ice and snow. We were blessed with a cloudless day, bright blue skies, and filled with a sense of accomplishment. After taking some group photos and spending about an hour at the highest point of our trek, we began our 10 mile downhill trek.
The view grew gradually less snowy and started to turn more lush, as we wound through a valley with several streams running through it converging into a larger river. After about two hours we rolled into our lunch spot amongst the horses, in what could barely be called a village. A few ramshackle tin roofed huts dotted the countryside, as the horses grazed around us.
We had another 3 hour hike downhill to our next campsite, and this was when the pain started to creep into my knees. Fortunately we had walking poles, but regardless it’s tough on anyones knees going downhill for so long. The flora gradually changed into lush jungle, as a river rushed below us and we went from zero shade to covered paths lined with flowers and lichen, even stepping through running water at points.
After ascending 2,500’ and descending 5,500’ over the course of almost 16 miles, we pulled into our second campsite in the small town of Chaullay at 9,700’ just before dark, where we had our tents set up for us underneath straw huts. Hot showers were available for a price, so for about $5 we cleaned up a bit before sitting down to dinner. After almost 11 hours of trekking we were completely exhausted so we crawled into our tent and promptly passed out.
Day 3 began just as early as any other, with a 5am wakeup. We said goodbye to our horseman Ruben, as our bags would be transported by van from here on out. We began by hiking down the local road through the town of Chaullay, then took some switchbacks down to a path that had us following a rushing river - the convergence of several rivers which all joined here to form the Urubamba River. This same water will flow through Aguas Calientes, our final stop, and then continue on to feed into the Amazon River.
I started off feeling a little groggy but chalked it up to the fact that waking up at 5am every morning was just starting to wear me down a bit. The terrain was mostly flat for the first half of the day, until we reached a point where we had to cross the river. Roy led us to a makeshift cable car that was basically just a platform suspended from a cable linked to both sides of the river, maybe 200 feet long. There was a rope attached to each side of the platform which was meant to be pulled by one side to transport people over the river, two at a time. Erik ran down to a small bridge made of wood, straw and mud, crossed over to the other side and ran up to the opposing end of the cable. He was supposed to grab the rope and then push the platform across so Roy could pull it the rest of the way, but unfortunately he forgot to grab the rope, therefore leaving the platform stranded halfway over the river. Out of luck on our daring river crossing, we instead had to walk down to the shore and cross the makeshift bridge.
On the small farm across the way, Roy cracked open a Granadilla for us (related to a passion fruit), telling us about how this fruit is the main source of income for families in this valley. This location is the perfect temperature and elevation for this tropical-like fruit to grow. It's round and orange-brown on the outside, with a white flesh inside filled with black seeds covered in the gooey, passion fruit like gel. After a short break here, we continued along the narrow and steep path alongside the river. It was about this time that I started to feel like I was having stomach issues, a little weak and not quite up for hiking. It was only 9am and we still had 3 more hours to go. We crossed over many places on the trail where landslides had washed it out, and new paths had been cut through the slides. We passed through shady areas covered in vegetation, and open areas with no protection from the harsh sun.
By the time we reached our second to last stop around 12pm, I was really feeling the effects of something nasty. I knew it couldn’t be the elevation, since we were under 9,000’ now, but I started to feel like I had no energy to move on and my stomach was churning. After sitting on a bench in the shade with the rest of the group for a few minutes, the feeling you get when you’re about to vomit hit me like a wave, and I quickly left the group to go purge whatever was in my stomach. Sierra brought me some Gatorade which helped a little, but I knew I was dealing with something nasty at this point. Fortunately we only had 20 more minutes to go until the end of our trekking for the day, so if there was any day to get sick I guess this was the one. We had vans waiting for us down by the river to transport us to our campsite at Lucmabamba, at the extremely breathable elevation of 6,500’.
The van first took us to a coffee plantation, where there were organized tours intended to sell you their product. This doesn’t appeal to me much when I’m feeling my best, let alone wrenching in pain. I skipped the tour and laid down in the van while the rest of the group took the tour. After another 20 minute bumpy van ride down a dusty road, lunch was waiting for us at the campsite, but there was nothing I could do to put any food in me. I barely felt like talking to anyone, my brain was foggy, my stomach was churning, and all I wanted to do was lie down. I had one more bout of vomiting in the bushes, when Tiama offered me some of her extra stash of Cipro. At this point, being almost positive it was a bacterial infection, I took her up on it. Suellen gave me some soda water which helped to settle my stomach a bit, and I left the lunch table to go get horizontal in one of the tents. It didn’t help that it was an actual oven inside the tent, but being horizontal at this point was more important than staying cool. I slept for a little bit, but before long it was time for the van to depart for the afternoon’s activities.
We had two options, zip lining or hot springs. Seven of our group opted for both, but four of us chose to do just the hot springs. Sierra and I already did one of the best ziplines in the world in Thailand, so it just didn't make sense to pay the 100 soles (about $32) per person to do the one here. We already made this decision long before I got sick, not that ziplining at this point would’ve even been an option for me! Our van dropped the majority of our crew off at the zipline and took the rest of us up the road to the Santa Teresa hot springs. Being in a big crowded place like this wasn’t very appealing to me at this point, but I felt like getting in the warm water would help. Joseph, Andrea, Sierra and I got into the hottest pool we could find, which also happened to be the least crowded. The next two and a half hours we all just soaked and relaxed in the natural springs. The bottom of the large pools were comprised of soft gravel, and we found a warm spot near the edge where the heat seemed to be coming from. We were gifted a beautiful view of the mountains and clouds as the sun was setting, turning the puffy white clouds a bright purplish-orange. Almost two hours later the zipliners joined us in the springs. The van ride back to camp after dark was a long, 45 minute ride back down the same bumpy, dusty road. We even came to an impasse at one point with a large truck that couldn’t back up, and with cars lining up behind our van, it took more than 5 minutes for everyone to work out how to squeeze around each other on the narrow road.
My appetite began to return around dinner time, and I was able to put down some popcorn and soup. Roy had the chef brew Sierra and me some tea that would help settle our stomachs, as Sierra was having some stomach issues as well. Fortunately falling asleep in the tent was easy this night, regardless of the fact that another group of campers apparently stayed up until the wee hours of the morning drinking rum and wine, playing guitar, and singing songs around the campfire. Roy had us up at 4am the next morning for the longest day of all, 27km or about 18 miles of trekking. I knew that in my current state this was going to be one hell of an unpleasant day, or I was going to have to find a different solution, given that the first 3 hours were all uphill, and the next 3 hours were steep downhill. Roy offered me the option of taking a van with the cooks from the campsite to the beginning of the flat part, Hidroelectrica, from where we would follow the train tracks on flat ground for the last 3 hours.
Taking the van afforded us a little extra time to rest at the campsite, and by the time it left around 8:30am, Sierra, myself and Suellen all joined a group of 4 other trekkers who weren’t feeling up to the challenge as well. The hour long bus ride was just about the best $6 I’d ever spent, delivering us to the restaurant in Hidroelectrica where Sierra and I relaxed in the hammocks in the shade until our group finally arrived around noon. I was slowly starting to feel better but still had a nasty feeling in my stomach. We had lunch with the group at an overcrowded tourist-stop restaurant, then began our three hour trek along the tracks.
The path was lined with trees and comprised of large chunks of gravel making it difficult to walk too quickly, and the occasional Perurail train would come down the tracks leaving a trail of noise and fumes in its wake. We were afforded several gorgeous views of the river and the towering mountains over our heads, at times even catching glimpses of the edge of the Machu Picchu ruins, thousands of feet over our heads. The majority of our group seemed to be in quite the hurry to get to Aguas Calientes, and we don’t blame them - they spent the first six hours of the morning slogging up and down incredibly steep terrain in the heat and humidity. We took few breaks and rolled into town just before 4pm, and even though the sun was far from setting, the mountains cradling this small town made it seem like dark was near.
Aguas Calientes is a town built on tourism, with an odd mix of five-star luxury accommodations and dining, and shanty-town style buildings lining the streets. A huge market in the center of town creates an almost labyrinthine path between the main road and the side of town where our hotel was located. Roy led us through the market, weaving in and out of narrow, shop-lined paths all seeming to sell the same wares, and we eventually emerged on the other side. We got checked into our hotel, and everyone darted for their rooms - showering was the number one priority at this point. The rooms weren’t bad, but the hot water did cut out altogether at one point and we could hear pretty much every conversation going on in the other rooms on our floor - regardless, we were happy to have a nice bed and be truly clean for the first time in 4 days! Dinner was at a restaurant back in the main part of town, where we filled out questionnaires about our experience with Salkantay Trekking. Thumbs up all around from us! We felt like we couldn’t have had a better guide with Roy, and that the experience was more than we could have imagined - and we haven’t even seen Machu Picchu yet!
Day five, the final day, the magnum opus, the grand finale! Roy told us last night that the two options were either to hike up or take a bus up, but no matter what we do, we’d better start at 4am sharp! The gates to the site open at 6am, and guaranteed people will be lined up en masse by then, so whether you take the hour and a half to hike or the 25 minute bus, we needed to start the day as a group, and doing so required a 4am start. We decided to take the bus to the top, with 7 of the 11 in our group opting for the same (we wanted to have energy to hike around and not be exhausted!), but even though the first bus left at 5:30am, the line was already quite long by the time we got in it a few minutes after 4. We waited out on the sidewalk in the chilly morning air for an hour and a half before the buses began loading. One by one they scooped up sixty or so passengers and began ferrying us up the steep switchbacks to Machu Picchu. We would occasionally see the hikers crossing the road in front of us with their headlamps on, feeling grateful we weren’t tackling a 1,200 foot vertical gain on foot.
Roy wasn’t kidding about the line, even though we were one of the first buses up, there were already hundreds of people in front of us waiting at the gate. We saw Jeroen and Kristal further up in line, impressed that they had made it up so fast on foot! Once we scanned our tickets and passports, the whole family reunited on the other side of the entrance. Roy began the two hour walking tour around the ruins, as we marveled in awe at the magnificence of this ancient city. Clouds swirled through the mountaintops at a blistering pace, the backdrop of Roys history lessons changing completely before our eyes. One moment the sun would peek through and create golden patterned clouds, and before you knew it the whole of Machu Picchu would be enveloped in thick white clouds.
We roamed through the narrow paths and peered through windows to the valley below as we learned of the ancient hierarchy of priests and commoners dwellings, denoted by the style of stone masonry involved. The most sacred places would have perfectly symmetrical, straight lined stone blocks, while the quarters of the highest members of society would be slightly less perfect, yet still be comprised of excellent stone work, and the quarters of the commoners would be made from much rougher and less polished rocks. We learned of the special stones where everyone would leave offerings on June 21st, the winter solstice, and of the guard house at the highest point looking down over the valley to prepare for attacks.
Machu Picchu was never found by the Spaniards thanks to it’s remote and elevated position, instead it was destroyed by vegetation. Abandoned a hundred years after it was first conceived, the Incas left to fight the Conquistadors and left the city to ruin. It was discovered by several people in the early 1900’s, two unknown men who carved their names into the rocks, but the man who brought it to prominence in the Western world was one Hiram Bingham, a professor who understood the importance of this archeological site and who was dedicated to restoring and protecting this incredible place.
As our tour wrapped up, we took one last group photo and said our goodbyes to Roy and Erik. We were now left to our own devices to spend the rest of the day exploring the site. Today is June 29th, and tomorrow will be the last day that visitors are allowed to explore Machu Picchu in full, with or without a tour guide, all day long. Starting July 1st, 2017, entry will be separated into two separate time slots, and all visitors must be accompanied by a tour guide. Most tours last 2-3 hours, and once the tour is over the visitor must leave as well. They are changing the rules to combat the wear and tear on the grounds, which sees somewhere between 4,500-5,500 people a day. Roy told us to take our time and enjoy all of our time here, as we would be some of the last people to take in Machu Picchu in it’s entirety.
There are several hikes within the archeological site available, some of which are free, like the Sun Gate, and others which require advanced ticket purchase, such as Huayna Picchu mountain (the main prominence seen in most photos of Machu Picchu) or Machu Picchu mountain, the highest peak within the site, another 1,800 feet or so above the city ruins. We pre-booked our tickets for Machu Picchu mountain, as did several others in our group, so a few of us took to the trail and began our trek up the Incan stairs. What proceeded was thousands of stone stairs built into the side of the mountain, pushing our legs to the limits as we climbed higher and higher, which only afforded better views of the site and the surrounding valley. A little over an hour later we reached the top of the mountain, 10,161’ in the air, with 360 degree views of the entire valley. We could see all the way down to Hidroelectrica where we had our lunch, as well as the full 11km pathway along the train tracks that we had hiked the day before. Machu Picchu looked like it was swarming with ants from this elevation. Sierra and I had another ceremony for Kiki, where we spread her ashes from the top of the mountain. After eating our lunch that we hauled to the top, and about an hour of relaxing and watching the clouds swirl by, we headed back down the steep and uneven rock staircase to return to the main part of Machu Picchu.
Exhausted, we found a nice flat grassy area to fall asleep for a little while. There’s no shade here however, so after 30 minutes or so we were both sweating and feeling like we needed to get moving again. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around new parts of the site that we hadn’t seen in the morning, taking the occasional llama selfie here and there, which is of course obligatory for anyone who takes their time at Machu Picchu seriously. We finally called it a day after 9 hours of taking it all in, wondering how long it might be before we return to this special place.
Originally we had planned to hike down the hill to Aguas Calientes, but after all we’d been through, decided that the bus was definitely the best option. We were shuttled down the hill in cushy seats and air conditioning, not regretting our decision or the $12 fare one bit. When we arrived back in town, we went back to the hotel to find our duffel bags waiting in the lobby, and did a quick change of clothes in the lobby bathroom to freshen up a bit after our long and sweaty day. We ran into Joseph and Andrea on our way to grab some food, who ended up joining us a few minutes later at a craft beer house called Mapacho. Sadly, the only thing that sounded good was smoothies, pizza and salad, so we passed on the cerveza and filled our starving bellies.
Our group reunited at the train station just before dark, as we talked about our days and waited for the platform to open. A mass of bodies was clustered in the waiting area of the station, a chaotic mess of travelers shoving their way to the front to be closer to the doors when they eventually opened. We separated into our respective cars for the two hour ride through the Sacred Valley to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we arrived having not achieved our goal of getting a little shuteye on the train. We were greeted by drivers holding Salkantay Trekking signs, and led to our van as a group. The two hour ride back to Cusco was relatively smooth, albeit a little chilly with the A/C on full blast. As we arrived back in the city, we were dropped off at all of our respective accommodations. It was hard saying goodbye to this family we had grown so close to over the last 5 days, but we all agreed to stay in touch. Sierra and I were the second to last to get dropped off, at our hotel for the next two nights, a B&B called La Escala just south of the main plaza.
We’re not sure if it was just coincidence, or if the company notified him of our arrival, but there was a nice man named Martin waiting outside for us to help us in with our bags. He showed us our room with a huge King-sized bed, and we were happy to see the rest of our bags had already been delivered earlier in the day. We made cups of tea, had a proper hot shower, and got in bed for our first truly restful night of sleep in almost a week.
The Salkantay Trail taught us many things about ourselves, about our limits and physical endurance. Gasping for air as we peered up at the towering Salkantay Peak covered in glaciers above us, feeling every step in our knees as we plodded downhill for miles and miles, and wiping the sleep from our eyes before sunrise every morning did nothing but add to the experience. This trek is a true example of the journey being more important than the destination. So many people visit Machu Picchu by van, train and bus, without ever really expending that much energy to arrive there. Not that there’s anything wrong with this method, but there’s something about trekking for days alongside massive mountains, rushing rivers and lush jungle terrain that makes arriving at the destination that much sweeter. This has truly been a journey, one that has brought the two of us even closer together, taught us so much, and left us feeling humbled in the presence of this beautiful, sacred part of Mother Earth.