It was still dark when we the van arrived to pick us up at our hostel the morning we began our Salkantay Trek. My eyes were still half closed but luckily we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us. After a few hours on the road and a bit of driving along a cliffside we reached the starting point of the trek in a small village called Mollepata. It was now 9am and we were awake enough to run a last minute check on our day packs and introduce ourselves to what would become our new family for the next few days. We were joined by a Dutch couple, five British gals on a two week holiday, and our fearless leader KJ, a local from Cusco. We quickly made friends with our lovable group as we all bonded over the lack of oxygen. We hiked for only a few hours that first morning until we reached our first base camp in Soraypamapa.
It was there we set our eyes on the much anticipated igloos, beautifully placed in the basin of the valley with the snowy caps of the mighty Salkantay Mountain visible in the distance. We had seen photos of these glass igloos from a friend, but we were excited that these little sky domes would soon be our rooms for the night. Also included in the tour package was a porter and two chefs. The porter would arrange for our second duffel bag to be carried on the backs of horses or mules along with the dinner supplies. The chef and su chef, or as KJ called her “the assistant to the cooker”, would then hike ahead and be at the camp before us preparing our next meal. Pretty amazing. Not only were they preparing delicious multi course meals, but they were beating us up the mountain to do it. They must have had incredible lungs and endurance. The first meal we would get to taste was lunch that first day. Warm soup and tasty treats lined the table along with all the coco tea or hot chocolate you desired. Our insides were now warm and our bodies already wanted to rest. But it was only 2pm and we still had another afternoon hike to complete before the sun went down. The second half of the day was a completely uphill hike up the base of Humantay Mountain to a lake that sat at the foot of the glacier. The steep grassy covered grade left us stopping every 50 yards to catch our breath, finding a rock to sit on or lean against our very helpful trekking poles. We would wait for everyone to catch up and change in and out of jackets and gloves every time the sun decided to peek out from behind the clouds. On our way up KJ encouraged us to look across the valley at the different colors going up the side of the mountain. The colors changed from green to yellow to black because of the lack of oxygen as we climbed higher and higher. The lake at the top of the hill appeared to be an oasis. The sun was shining just bright enough to capture the cool blue of the water against the glacial mountain. It was breathtaking, and we felt quite accomplished for day one. At the top KJ handed out our Salkantay trekking keepsake t-shirts as a congratulatory gift and said we had officially earned them.
That evening he told us to meet for happy hour… A happy hour without alcohol that is. Little sweet treats of popcorn and tea awaited us as we sat and got to know one another a little better and acclimatize. We shared another delicious warm meal that night and hurried off to bed by 7:30pm. It was pitch black in the valley and the stars were bright. Unfortunately we didn’t stay out too long to admire them as the nights dropped to nearly freezing temperatures. We thought we might get a peek out through the sky dome, however, the condensation from our mere body heat fogged up the glass above and we could just peek out the sides at the stars until our tired bodies fell asleep in just minutes.
The next morning we were awoken by a knock on the door at half four. The su chef was on the other side bringing hot cocoa tea to each of our igloos and a warm bin of water to wash our hands before breakfast. We layered up and headed into the main dining hut to collect our small drawstring sacks filled with snacks we would need for our big day.
Day two was said to be the hardest as we would be hiking a long 9 hours until we reached our next camp. The first ascent would be to our highest point of the Salkantay pass. Stopping every ten minutes or so to catch our breath and chew on some cocoa leaves or cocoa candy to help with the altitude. The girls even made up a motivational chant to help with each step saying aloud “I can” with one step and “I did” the next. Simple yet good reminder that even our small steps were moving us towards the top. Because, “It’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude!”
We made it to the summit that morning at 9:50am. We were so relieved and happy that each of us had made it and didn’t have to head back. Salkantay Mountain in the native Incan Quechua language translates to ‘Savage mountain’. And savage it was. Once at the top we gathered for a group family photo. “On three”, KJ yelled, “Everyone say, never again!” A reminder of just how special and once in a lifetime this experience really was.
We sat at the top of the pass for sometime as KJ explained to us the religion of the Incan people and how connected they are to nature. He explained to us about the Inca cross called the Chakana and how each of the side has three steps. Each step representing one of the worlds. Hana Pacha, the upper world, represented by the condor. Kay Pacha, the middle step or middle world is represented by the puma. And Uku Pacha, the underworld represented by the snake. Lastly he pointed out the circle in the center of the cross that he said represented the city of Cusco, which to the Incas was the center of the earth. Cusco actually comes from the Quechua word “cosco” meaning navel or center. KJ said they believe if you look at the globe, Cusco is essentially the belly button of the world, where life comes from.
The decent from Salkantay pass felt almost more difficult than the climb. Five and a half additional hours of downhill trekking on often steep paths. Rocky loose gravel testing the support of your boots and strength of your ankles. The decline shoving your toes towards the front of your boots with every uneven step. I kept tripping because my tired legs weren’t lifting my feet high enough to step over the rocks. You know that hot flushed ‘fight or flight’ sensation you get when you trip and your body is preparing to stop you. It was that, over and over again as my body temp rose each time under layers of alpaca sweaters.
After lunch and a quick nap in the dirt, we rounded off the day with a trek through the high jungle. Lush greenery covered the landscape and sprawled up the sheer cliffsides. When we stopped to look around it looked like we were on the set of where they filmed Jurassic Park, or in this case it felt a little more like an episode of Lost. Whenever one of us had to use the restroom, where of course there wasn’t, KJ called it the “Inka toilet”. Having been trying to stay hydrated as much as possible this was quite frequently used, and I have to say I didn’t mind too much because I’ve never peed with more beautiful views 🙂 The temperature and humidity quickly rose as we got deeper into the jungle, along with the potential for mosquito bites. We stopped for an outfit change what felt like another dozen times as people were constantly shedding clothes and adding layers of insect repellant. After a few hours we finally arrived at camp, just before dark. That night we would be sleeping in tents surrounded by thatched A frames for protection from the elements. We freshened up, as much as one can with baby wipes, and changed into our comfy clothes for the evening. Mountain fashion that night included giant alpaca ponchos, headlamps, and socks with sandals. Dinner was shared at a long table lined with quinoa soup. The perfect way to end the day. We played a few silly games to wind down before I nearly fell asleep at the table sitting up. Day two had worn me out, and tomorrow would be just as long.
The next morning we awoke to the roosters crow. As we unzipped our tent we were greeted with more warm tea and a peaceful view as the sun melted the darkness and the clouds crawled in and suspended like a bridge between the mountains. We shooed chickens out of the bathroom, brushed our teeth, and laced up our boots for another nine hour day. Today we would be hiking along the river. And by along the river I mean on paths hundreds of feet above the river often scaling the side of a mountain on a path not even as wide as your hips. KJ had asked us in the beginning of any of us had a fear of heights or vertigo and now we had figured out why. We crossed the river multiple times, over bridges and even a few cascading waterfalls.
Lunch that afternoon was served at a tiny coffee plantation. Ceviche and glasses of chicha morada (a tasty drink made from purple corn) were on the menu. Clanking forks and music in the background was all you heard that afternoon. The sound of a tasty meal. After lunch we quickly toured the plantation, had a cup of expresso, and hit the road. We were driven by van for this portion, since we chose to do the 4 day trek instead of 5. The van dropped us off 45mins later at a place called Hydro Electrica. This was the end of the train tracks, and a place visitors who had chosen not to hike could pay to take the train into Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Macchu Pichhu. This is where it got crowded. For the last 3 days essentially we were in the middle of nowhere. Away from crowds and in the middle of nature. And now it was back to tourist town. We had the option as well of hopping on the train there for $25 USD but our group had decided we weren’t taking any short cuts, we would walk the whole way. Those train tracks were five miles long. Five long miles of flat tracks that were visually not as stunning as what we had seen the last few days. So to keep up our spirits Cody introduced country music to the group and I practiced my cross stepping on the tracks. A few miles of that and I should surely have enough balance to walk to the nose of my surfboard when I got home.
We arrived in Aguas Caliente after dark. Tonight we would stay at a hostel so we would clean up before our final ascent up to Machu Picchu. But this wasn’t your average hostel. It was essentially a hotel. Which meant Cody and I had our own room and our own full size beds with pillows. It was heavenly.
The next morning we had our last 4 a.m. wake up call and walked in the dark with our headlamps lighting the dirt path ahead of us towards the entrance. There we would patiently wait in line until the gates opened at 5 a.m. for us and thousands of other travelers and tourists who had taken the train into town would complete the final 2,000 stairs to the top. This was no easy stroll to the finish line. These steep steps on day four really tested our endurance as we sweat our way to the top just as the sun was rising. I remember walking up the last couple dozen steps and nearly breaking into tears as I saw the view before me. So many emotions rushed through my body. Exhaustion, amazement and accomplishment as we had traveled over 50 miles the past 4 days to get here. I stood there, just still and in awe, trying to take it all in. It was truly a moment I will never forget.
While at the top KJ proceeded to give us a final tour of the sacred site and explained just how it remained a hidden to the world for over 400 years. Built in the 1500s, yet not found until in 1902 by an American history professor, and then later shared with the world in 1911 by National Geographic. The Incan people were wise beyond their years with their architectural design, precise cutting and stacking of stones, and the deep meaning behind each room they built. I think thats why I loved it so much. Finding out the deeper hidden meaning within each piece they created. These sacred walls weren’t put together at random. Each stone was carefully thought out and placed. Rooms had a certain number of windows to represent the Gods, stones were cut and placed into unforeseen shapes, with their true meaning not revealed until the sun cast a perfect shadow to complete the other half of the image. It was all in the details. This site took nearly 100 years to complete. People dedicated their lives to the precision and beauty of what they were creating. I guess its just incredible because you don’t see this too often anymore. Anything that takes a great amount of time we often pass up, or try and find a quicker and easier way around it. But this, the art of setting stones by hand, was just hard to fathom just how they could be so precise without any modern tools or shortcuts.
While on top of Machu Picchu there are a couple other hikes you can do as well. We decided to walk around the back side of the mountain to the Inca Bridge. A narrow bridge placed on sheer side of mountain hundreds of feet above the ground. When going to this side of the mountain, one has to sign in and out of a guestbook. At first I thought this was neat, so they could see how many people chose to visit this side of the mountain. However, come to find out it was so they had a record if someone didn’t come back, they knew they went missing, and probably over the edge.
After we spent another hour touring the site, we stamped our passports with the official proof that we had made it to the top and headed back to Aguas Callientes. There we would collect our bags and begin our long journey that evening back home. But before we hopped on the train, our little trekking family decided to have one last meal together followed by a walk about the little town in search of a cheap massage for our tired legs. Mission accomplished. I sat on the train for seconds before falling asleep, and then again on the connecting bus back to Cusco. We arrived back to Pariwana at nearly midnight that night exhausted but fulfilled knowing we had challenged ourselves in a way we never had before and made some incredible memories along the way.
Before we left Cusco we had one last thing we needed to do. And that was make our way to the Sacred Valley. The heart and national agricultural center of Peru. We decided to take a bus that would take us through the towns of Pisac, Urubamba, Ollayantambo, and Chinchero. The first village was Pisac, were we were able to walk above massive terraces that were once home to three thousand different types of potatoes. We then drove through miles of farmland and back and forth up the side of mountains looking out onto the beautiful valleys below. In Urubamba and Ollayantambo we were able to walk about the small towns narrow alleyways paved with cobble stone and observe the women weaving intricate pieces along the aqueduct. The last stop was one I had been looking forward to in the town of Chinchero. There we were able to visit a Women’s Weaving Co op and learn firsthand how the women create and dye the alpaca yarn from start to finish. We observed the all natural dying process and how different flowers and plants were used to create the yarns bright colors. And then how each piece is meticulously woven together, and can take months to even complete. Each different in their own way, using symbols to tell the story of the history of the region.