Icy peaks, Monkeys and ruins, we were determined to show Leah all that Peru had to offer. Without super powers our only option to see all of this was a trek to Machu Picchu, and not on “the” Inca Trail. Opting instead for the Salkantay Trail, an alternative 5 day trek to Machu Picchu, we didn’t realize how much we would walk and walk and walk. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our travels its that things are never exactly what they are made out to be. Originally we were told our trek was 28 km, which over 5 days is hardly any trekking. We immediately questioned the distance, but decided that our tour operators numbers didn’t account for any vertical distance.
At quarter to five in the morning, we set out from Cusco to the village of Mollepata. Bleery eyed we met the rest of our trekking group, a couple from the Netherlands, two British-Americans and two teenage Ecuadorians with their Dad.
After a quick breakfast of bread and jam, we left our heavy bags behind and set off up the road. Not 20 minutes later our trek had its first casualty. Turns out hiking boots come to Peru to die, as one of the British-Americans lost both shoe soles. Taping together the bottom of his shoes, we plodded on up a dusty road for the next 8 hours to our campsite. I’m pretty sure that in 8 hours we did at least 40% of the distance we were told we’d do in total. Hmmm….
Filling ourselves with popcorn and mate de coca (tea made from coca leaves) the three of us fortunately showed no signs of altitude sickness. Others in our group were not so lucky and spent the night in their tents. With the moonlight reflecting off the snow and an army of cooks and horsemen to do the difficult work, it was a perfect night of camping, even if it was freezing cold. Perhaps the best surprise of the trek was the next morning when the cooks woke us up with tent side tea service. I think the last time I was served hot tea at my tent was the weekend we got engaged! (Danny’s Note…there was no tent side tea that morning…it was hot chocolate)
Never successfully summited despite several international attempts, Salkantay Mountain is not nearly the highest peak in South America, but from below it certainly looks it. Fortunately we didn’t have to summit the mountain, just cross through the Salkantay Pass (4600m), so we got to sleep until sunrise! Although Danny and I climbed higher in Huaraz , it doesn’t seem to get any easier to breathe at high altitude, and we huffed and puffed our way to the pass.
I’m not sure what the exact threshold is, but at some point, no matter how acclimatized you are, it gets really, really hard to breathe and continue uphill. Your lungs just feel like they aren’t getting any air, and in reality they aren’t. I’ll admit, I took a few puffs of my asthma inhaler, something I haven’t done since being diagnosed with shortness of breath a few years ago. Breathless just short of the pass, I declared to our Ecuadorian friends, “no tengo ganas para subir mas.” (I don’t want to climb further). Cracking a smile, we finally made it to the pass and even the clouds took pity on us, parting to give us a view, if only for a few seconds, of Salkantay’s summit. A natural col, the pass was inhospitably windy and cold even at 10 a.m. The only objects at the top besides the sign and some rocks was a skeleton of what we think was a horse. Clearly the distance calculation from our operator was way off, for we walked uphill to the pass for almost 5 hours and like race walkers downhill for the next 3 hours. Others hikers on the same trek told us that they “trained” for the hike. Missed the memo on that one.
Thankfully the three of us are in good physical condition, for the next morning we were achy but still able to move. Unfortunately everyone in our group looked like they caught chicken pox overnight. Definitely not from normal mosquito’s, the bug bites covered our arms and legs in small red welts, which at least for Leah and Danny resulted in some very swollen elbows and ankles. Even with 100% DEET Leah was unable to keep the bugs off her and as we continued the march on the third day (another 6 hours), our rhythm was frequently interrupted with swatting and slapping the bugs away.
Continuing through the mountains along a riverbed, the elevation change wasn´t as drastic, but the scenery was incredible. From a snowy mountain pass the day before, we had descended down into a sub-tropical climate. Banana trees, orchids and humming birds, we couldn’t be further from the icy climate of the day before. Hiking with a purpose, we made it to our campsite by lunch. Greeted by Paco, a domesticated monkey, who took interest in our very dirty bodies and bags, we waited for lunch. Unfortunately for Leah, Paco took a real interest in her curly hair, touching her braids with his hands and even trying to gnaw on them.
Thankfully after our exhausting climb the day before, we spent the afternoon soaking in hot springs and the evening splitting a bottle of Pisco Now tell me you don’t want to come camping with us? 🙂
In the end I’m not exactly sure how far we walked, but I can tell you that for four days at least 6 hours a day, that is all we did. Uphill, downhill, and across riverbeds, the hike was a test unlike any other. The monotony of hiking for so long each day only to get up and do it again is really a testament to the strength of the group and our ability to keep each other interested and occupied. Sure the scenery is varied and fantastic, but for the most part the terrain kept our eyes firmly planted on the ground, leaving us only our rest breaks to really appreciate the mountains and forest around us.
And then there was smoke. Lots of smoke. On the last day, from the valley we had just walked out of, we saw a cloud of think smoke. Within minutes black and gray ash began to fall, and our guide decided it was time to move on. Striking out towards Aguas Calientes with determination, we walked along the railroad tracks away from the fire. From the opposite direction, a group of local men armed with machetes headed into the smoke hoping to destroy some of its fuel before it reached homes. Unfortunately forest fires are not that uncommon in the region as fires set by locals to burn trash frequently burn out of control. According to our guide, Machu Picchu itself has been threatened several times by forest fires in the last decade.
By the time we hauled our bodies into Aguas Calientes we were exhausted, plain and simple. No matter what the tour agency says, there is no way the hike was only 28 km. Though not particularly challenging at any one point the hike was overall draining and as we crashed into bed that night we declared no more! If only we knew…