Machu Picchu & the Salkantay Trek

…And so the adventure begins!

We had organized our Machu Picchu expedition many moons ago via a ferocious ongoing online conversation. After much debate, we decided to go with the Salkantay Trek, recommended to us by several other travelers as well as convincing online reviews. The selling points were that the trail was more demanding and less peopled than the classical Inca Trail. Our group, composed of tough and adventurous individuals, welcomed the challenge with open arms.

The night before we were due to depart on the hike we had an orientation scheduled with our tour guide. We hurried home from our field trip with Greg the Shaman and made it back in time to be briefed on what to expect for the next four days over a “carbo-loading” pasta dinner at the hostel.

Jimmy Jhon, our seemingly reluctant tour guide, was sweet but timid in his introduction—which was basically a list of what was “not included” in our tour. He made it clear that of course he would be our reliable trail guide, but hoped to be, first and foremost, our friend—an idea he incorporated in almost every sentence: “And so my friends…”

JJ passed out maps and explained our route, noting that we would be hiking on average 7 hours each day. He named our group the “Sexy Llamas”—a title I’m sure he uses for all his tours, though I’m also sure none rock it as fervently as we did! He let us know that there would be horses carrying up to 8 kilos per person, including our sleeping bags and mattress pads, and that we had two cooks coming with us to prepare all our meals. Those two aspects were our luxuries—the rest of the trek would be pretty rugged but beyond gratifying.

Day One:

5:00AM wake up call… Let’s do this! We were all geared up and ready to go, notwithstanding our puffy eyes and inability to converse with one another (sleep still had its hold on us at that ungodly hour.)  After a nap on the quick drive to our starting point, we all bounced back to our spritely selves and excitedly gulped down the tar-flavored instant coffee we purchased at a ramshackle cafe nearby.

IMG_0316We were just getting started on the walk up a hill to the trail when Jimmy Jhon stopped us to point out a cactus on the side of the road. He told us that the seeds inside the cactus’s flower were used as a natural remedy for indigestion and that there was something else on the plant that could be used for dye and face paint. JJ scraped the white barnacles from the cactus and then went around the circle, mixing the concoction in his palm and drawing tribal stripes on our faces. Halfway through the circle we realized he was actually squashing bugs and smearing their blood on us. Regardless of my initial impulse to be disgusted, the bug gut war paint looked badass it felt right!

We were expecting the weather to be cold, so were all defensively dressed in pants and long sleeve shirts; but the sun shone mercilessly, bombarding us with heat and strong rays. Insect blood mixed with sweat dripped down into our eyes and mouths. None of us was as uncomfortable as Jason, dressed in black snow pants and furiously overheating. The horses were way ahead of us, so there was no option to change clothes. Instead, his only choice was to tie his side-snap pants up like a diaper, cut off a shirtsleeve to use as a sweatband and put on a happy face. As we learned the night before, “a positive attitude is also not included.”

IMG_1375Most of Day 1 consisted of set trails, but every once in a while JJ would veer off track and lead us up makeshift shortcuts—which were typically straight uphill and left us gasping for air. At the top of one such shortcut we were rewarded with a dazzling view of Salkantay Mountain, snowy and stoic in the distance. Our first glimpse of the sparkling peak was energizing and inspiring!

There was a wooden shack with water bottles, coca leaves and other hiker necessities for sale. JJ convinced us to buy natural energy balls, which looked like lumps of charcoal and didn’t taste too far off either. You’re supposed to pinch off a tiny bit and wrap it in coca leaves which you chew and tuck up in the pocket of your gums. Skoty got overexcited and bought five, which I imagine is a lifetime supply. We all joked that they were probably balled up cow turds or something suspicious that tourists like us were suckered into purchasing and eating.

IMG_0364This is where we met our first canine companion, Benji, a scraggly old pup. For the remainder of the day he thoughtfully trotted ahead of us, intuitively leading the way. He would calmly wait for us to catch up or would sprint back to check on the group if there was any distance between us hikers. At some point in the day Benji passed the baton to Consuela, and she stayed with us all the way to our camp for the night.

After a delicious meal and a siesta we set out again and hiked for hours and hours. We were all under the impression that the day would be about 7-8 hours, but as the sun set behind the mountains we started to get nervous. We had to trek in the dark over giant unstable rocks, through rivers, and over rickety bridges for what seemed like an eternity.

Baby Erica was feeling really sick. In a moment of true relaxation the night before, she swallowed a few mouthfuls of Peruvian shower water, and Montezuma’s Revenge was setting in full-force. She couldn’t eat anything at lunch and took a strong lead in the Sexy Llama Trail Poop competition. Poor Baby Erica was hanging on by a thread, severely dehydrated, nauseous and without having eaten all day.

We finally arrived, cold, wet, exhausted and otherwise pissed off. I honestly wanted to punch Jimmy Jhon in the face. We decompressed quickly in our tents and Murray fed me chocolate cookies until I no longer felt like I was going to cry.

After dinner we all laid on the ground together and looked up at the sky. I have never in my life seen the stars so clearly—it was one of the most beautiful sights I could imagine. The Milky Way was a giant brushstroke of silver along the navy canvas. The glittery stars formed well-defined constellations and we made wishes on those we caught breaking free from their stationary posts. We were able to recognize many of the obvious patterns, like Orion’s Belt and the Dippers, and JJ taught us about traditional Inca constellations like the llama and the frog. We even made up some of our own, playing connect the dots in the sky. What a wonderful way to conclude our first triumph!

Day Two:

We woke up before the sun and grumpily discovered all our shoes and socks were still wet. We knew from our orientation that Day 2 would be the most challenging, so any unnecessary setbacks were unwelcome. I had an even more disappointing surprise in store: major blisters! I suppose I didn’t do a good job of breaking in my new sneakers, and I was paying the price for it dearly. Baby Erica, still in recovery-mode from the tap water fiasco, hired a horse to ride up to the top and I think more than a few people were slightly envious.

IMG_6378We set out in the opaque fog and within ten minutes were hiking up a steep incline. Chris and Jason took off like pack mules while the rest of us climbed at a slow and steady pace. This was by far the most difficult part of the trek. Halfway to the top my lungs were working overtime and the altitude made me feel like I was on the verge of fainting. I honestly didn’t know if Skoty was going to make it. I kept pace with Kyle who was doing an amazing job of setting small goals. He’d say, “see that rock up there? Let’s just get to that spot and then we can take a 30 second break.” If I tried to think beyond his landmarks I would have wanted to throw in the towel!

We climbed up that damn mountain through rain and sleet—pebbles of hail attacked from above and bounced off our hooded heads. Even though it was tough we were having a great time pushing ourselves and supporting one another. The camaraderie, paired with the feeling of triumph and the indescribable view from the top, made Day 2 unforgettable.

IMG_0335We summited at 4600 meters—higher than any of us had ever been—right up against Salkantay. The mountain was almost too powerful to take in with human eyes, and photos couldn’t even come close to capturing its greatness. Despite our fatigue and the cold, we were revitalized!

Jimmy Jhon led us through a ritual offering to Pachamama and a traditional Inca ceremony in which we released all the skeletons in our closets (a lot with this group I’m sure!)

The rest of the day was downhill, which was much appreciated but not necessarily easy. The scenery was beautiful because the afternoon took us through many different landscapes. At first the countryside looked like it was from Lord of the Rings—green everywhere with a heavy looming mist and boulders strewn about haphazardly. There were sporadic wild horses and cows that couldn’t be bothered with us. After a couple hours the ground transformed under our feet and turned to mud so thick and deep it felt like quicksand. We learned to love our walking sticks!

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The sun was starting to dip below the looming peaks, so we prepared to buckle down and power through to our campsite. Just when we figured we had a couple more hours to go, Jimmy Jhon and Jason surprised us with a trick they’d been planning all day—we had actually arrived! We absolutely killed it on Day 2, trekking much faster than expected and really pulling through on the hardest part of the hike.

We were all in high spirits so we decided to build a campfire. Unfortunately the wood we purchased from the locals was damp, so it was a constant battle to keep it going. We huddled together around the smoky pit and laughed uncontrollably as Jimmy Jhon told us some of the worst jokes of all time.

Day Three:

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In the morning we had the option of hitching a ride to the non-touristy hot springs near Santa Theresa. Apparently the pools at Aguas Calientes are crowded and dirty, so JJ didn’t think we would enjoy them as much. We had to pile all together in one rundown pickup truck. I still don’t understand how we all crammed in there… The four of us girls squeezed into the backseat behind the driver and our cooks. Jimmy Jhon and the boys, along with all our gear, had to sit together in the bed of the truck. We drove down narrow windy roads, dodging cows and cliffs—but eventually we made it!

The drive was totally worth it—when we arrived there were less than ten people and the hot springs were fantastic! There were three giant pools and the warm water felt soothing on our sore muscles. We got to relax there for a few hours before trekking out to our next campsite—the famous town of Aguas Calientes.

Day 3 was our chance to hike on the classical Inca trail, which in my opinion was pretty weak compared to the Salkantay Trek. We were basically just walking along gravel next to a train track, with countless other tourists surrounding us. We hardly saw another soul on the Salkantay Trek, so the Inca Trail felt claustrophobic and invasive.

Aguas Calientes is comparable to a ski town—a likeness we all observed separately. There are lots of shops and restaurants, many tourists. We arrived at night and didn’t have much time there, but we could actually feel the magnitude of the mountains surrounding the village.

Day Four:

IMG_0390Finally, our Machu Picchu day had arrived! We woke up at 3:30AM in order to be the first people there. The weather was miserable—cold and rainy—and it was so foggy we couldn’t even see the sunrise, which was the whole point of going so early! The dark gray sky just suddenly changed to bright gray in a supremely anticlimactic fashion. Regardless, it was amazing to be the first people inside. We had a beautiful view of the ancient city without a bunch of tourists peppering the panorama.

Machu Picchu is absolutely amazing! It’s incredible to think that it was built so skillfully such a long time ago. Much like the meticulous city planning and architecture of Cusco, everything is well thought out and constructed with specific intentions in mind; each angle has meaning, every stone placed perfectly. JJ gave us a thorough tour of many different areas including the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Condor, Temple of the Virgins. He showed us where the priests sacrificed women and llamas to Pachamama and the Espejos de Agua (water mirrors) where the people stargazes and searched the reflection of the constellations.

We boarded the 16:22 train from Aguas Calientes feeling fulfilled and inspired, albeit exhausted. The ride back was beautiful and I tried to fight impending sleep and keep my eyes open so I could continue looking out the window at the scenery.

The trek was a great success and I feel so lucky to have shared such a rewarding experience with the Sexy Llamas!.

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Peru

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