The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
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It was 4:30 am, the morning after St. Patrick’s Day and I stood on the sidewalk in the pouring rain. I was not returning from a night out celebrating St. Patrick, I was waiting for a bus to pick me up, signaling the start of my Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. As the cars passed by splashing big puddles on my once dry legs, I was excited and nervous about the journey ahead.
At the briefing meeting the night before, I met the others in my hiking group as well as our two guides for the trek. Our group for the next four days consisted of: three friends from Colorado; a mother and daughter pair with the daughter’s guy friend from Uruguay, and three Swedish women traveling together. As for solo travelers, there was a woman from Mexico, a man from Spain and myself. We would all be together for the next 5 day, 75-kilometer trek with the highest altitude reaching 4900m on the Salkantay pass as we made our way on the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
The rain unrelenting as the bus pulled up with the three Coloradans and three Swedes already seated. We made our way throughout Cusco picking up the remainder of our group. Once we were all present and accounted for, our guides passed out blankets to keep us warm in the early morning chill. Despite my excitement for the upcoming adventure, I huddled under the blanket and promptly drifted off to sleep.
Our guides woke us about an hour later for breakfast. The sky still cloudy, but the sun was up, and the rain turned to a light drizzle. Over a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, and tea, I began to get to know my fellow hikers. Learning how their life paths brought them to that breakfast table. Some, like me, were traveling for a few months and this was a bucket list item on their itinerary. Others came to Peru exclusively to hike this trail. Some in the group spoke only Spanish and I was excited for the opportunity to practice my Spanish with them over the next few days!
We climbed back into the bus and after a 45-minute drive on a very narrow, winding mountain road, we reached our starting point. Our guides unloaded our bags, laying them on a tarp to prevent them from getting muddy and wet. I removed my rain gear from my duffel bag, thankful I’d purchased rain pants the day prior as I pulled them on over my hiking pants. Our guides gave us a snack bag filled with fruit, cookies, and a water bottle which I put in my day pack for the trail. Then we began walking.
The Walk Begins
As we walked in the intermittent rain, we continued conversations left over from breakfast. Learning more about the languages spoken, the different histories and journeys of my fellow trekkers. Although our paths leading us here were quite different, we all came together with a common goal of safely reaching Machu Picchu.
We passed waterfalls, some always in existence, some created from the current rainy season. We walked along irrigation canals that the farmers in the area used during the dry season for their crops, obviously not in use at this time of the year. Our guides paused to check on us as we crossed rivers and streams. They used our breaks to tell us about the history of the area or show us plants used in food or for medicinal purposes by the Incans. After about three hours of walking along the mostly flat trail, we made it to our first campsite.
Our chefs were already there and ready with our lunch. They served family style bowls of soup, plates of rice, bowls of soup, veggies, and chicken. We were given time for a brief nap in our sky domes before our first test of the trek began.
Humantay Lake is nestled at an altitude of 4200m. Our guides said if we could make it up with minimal altitude issues, they were confident we could hike to Salkantay pass the following day.
The hike began just behind our campsite. It was a fairly steep, and very muddy, hour and a half climb up. As I got closer to the top, I had to pause multiple times to catch my breath. Finally, with a sigh of relief, I crossed over the crest and looked down into the crystal blue waters of Humantay Lake. The rain and fog cleared allowing us to fully appreciate the deep turquoise blue waters reflecting the mountains surrounding it.
Here, our guide described to us the Incan connection with the earth. Humantay Lake was used as a place to pay respect to Mother Earth and honor her life-giving forces. We discussed Ayahuasca and its increasing popularity in tourism. He shared the importance of honoring the sacred tradition of the Ayahuasca herbs by preparing the body and mind for the experience. He believed that when the person is ready, Ayahuasca will find the person, and it’s better not to seek it out.
After a few photo ops, we made our way back down. Going down, I realized how important the walking sticks are to my creaky knees.
Upon return to camp, we settled in for a nice family dinner, speaking animatedly about the next day. A few members of our group had issues with altitude on the way to Humantay Lake. They were deciding whether or not they would take a horse up to the Salkantay pass, attempt walking, or maybe just take the bus back to Cusco and meet us in Aguas Calientes.
The beauty of this trek is that there are plenty of options for people of all capabilities. Ultimately, two decided to take a horse to Salkantay pass and one decided to turn back to Cusco.
I turned in to my skydome early, to prep for the following day. These sky domes were the reason I chose this trek over the Inca trail. The glass dome allows you to look into the starlit sky with no other light pollution around. The Salkantay mountain gazing upon you. However, on this night, all I saw were the droplets of water running down the side as the rain poured down.
The Walk to Salkantay Pass
4:30 in the morning, pitch black, no cars, no honking, just a light tap on our door and our guides handing us a piping hot cup of coca tea. Waking us up for the most physically challenging day of the trek ahead. We were to hike for a total of 10 hours, four hours up to the Salkantay pass at 4900m and 6 hours hiking back down to our second campsite. I prayed the rain would hold off for the majority of the day as I loaded up my duffle bags, made sure I had my rain gear and snacks, filled up my water, and headed out.
As the sun rose, we began our hike in a quiet, single file line. Each of us mentally preparing for the physical challenge ahead. The skies were clear as we walked on and we started playing what our guide affectionately called the “layer game”. Taking layers off as we walked only to put them back on when we took breaks.
We made it to the 7 snakes – a section of seven switchbacks where the donkeys carrying our food and our friends finally passed us. Back and forth and back and forth we walked, stopping as much as we needed. There was no rush from our guides. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, we passed through a field with massive boulders from avalanches from the Salkantay mountain. Boulders that had been there ages before me and will continue to be there ages after me. It looked like something from Jurassic Park.
You wouldn’t think that there’s much of a difference between 4600m where these boulders lay and 4900m where we were headed, but let me tell you – every four or five steps, I needed a break to drink water and catch my breath. I had a wad of coca leaves permanently in my cheek. Hoping that the leaves’ anti-altitude attributes actually worked. Yet as slowly as I moved, I could see myself getting closer and closer to the pass. The mountain’s peak coming clearer and clearer into my site with each breathless step.
Then with a last final push, I came to the top of Salkantay pass. A place I’d been dreaming of seeing ever since I booked my ticket. The peak of Salkantay playing hide and seek with the passing clouds. A condor flew overhead, as our guide told us the name Salkantay stands for Wild Woman due to its many avalanches. Only one group of three foreigners successfully summited the mountain, many others attempted, yet did not return. Instead of attempting to summit Salkantay, the Incans paid respect to her power, bringing offerings to this location for a successful harvest.
As we sat, drinking more coca tea, eating sandwiches, I felt humbled by my surroundings. In awe of the people who lived in this valley, their ancestors, and their reverence to the earth. And I felt damned proud of myself for making it up the mountain!
What goes up, must come down
I still can not tell you whether going uphill or downhill is more difficult. My knees are of the opinion that downhill is harder, especially when it’s a rocky, downhill path for about 5 out of those 6 hours. The rain came in and out, sometimes a drizzle, sometimes a downpour. The layer game continued as I tried to decide whether it was worth putting my rain gear on for a drizzle. One time making the wrong choice as the sky opened and I got thoroughly drenched. Our guide trying his best to keep our spirits up, telling us:
Just a little bit further, just a little bit further, ten more minutes, ten more minutes…
For about 40 minutes.
The group began to split up a bit more now. More advanced hikers in the front of the pack, slower in the back. There wasn’t much of a middle. I was proud of my spot bringing up the rear for the majority of the day. It was easier the day prior as we were at lower altitude. But today it definitely felt as though I was running, even though I was simply walking, to keep up with the Coloradoans at the front of the pack. So I decided to just go at my own pace, our guides not rushing us, let us take as much time as we needed despite the rain. As we moved step by step to our campsite.
Just ten minutes more, just ten minutes more
Walking in ten-minute intervals trying not to check my watch. Because the time didn’t matter the only option I had was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. For a total of ten hours, in one day. Upon arrival at camp, it felt amazing to take off my boots and let my feet breath! I’m so thankful, I sprang for my waterproof boots and a good pair of hiking socks, because my feet, though aching were dry and blister free!
That night, we ate another amazing meal, played Asshole, and finally drifted off into a very deep sleep. Only to be woken again at 4:30 in the morning with a hot cup of coca tea and our guides gently drawing us out of our tents and into the break of dawn.
Landslides, Waterfalls, and Hot Springs
Today is the day we were all looking forward to. We would be ending the day in hot springs. That thought helped me put one foot in front of the other as it poured relentlessly for the first hour of the trek. Landslides in the area forced us to crisscross over the ravine. Two by two we would sit in a cable car as locals pulled us across the ravine. At one point we were walking along a narrow path, the mountain to our left and steep drop off to our right when we were told to turn back about 10 minutes to another cable car as there was an unexpected landslide that seemed impassable.
We patiently waited for our turn on the cable car, huddling under a shelter for another game of Asshole. One of our guides was working intensively pulling the cable car as fast as he could, trying to get other hikers across. The second guide disappeared for about twenty minutes, returning with the news that we could climb down the landslide.
We walked back and discovered why we were turned around in the first place. The side of the mountain and path washed away, leaving a pile of very unstable rubble and mud. It was definitely sketchy, but our guides hadn’t failed us yet. So we handed over our hiking poles as sticking it into the mud might cause another landslide and quickly zigzagged down to the bridge below, where we walked across the ravine. Happy to say all of us at that moment made it safely down without any issues!
As the rain dissipated, we stopped a local fruit stand where I happily cut open a granadilla. A perfect mid-hike snack. We paid our soles to use the facilities and continued on. Not more than 300 meters later we came to a waterfall. The mountain dropping to our left this time, we were to cross in its pool just on the edge of the drop. Our guide urging us ahead saying “don’t worry about wet feet, just get across”. Giving thanks again for my waterproof boots I stepped into the ankle-deep water.
There were two government workers at the waterfall, surveying the landslides in the area and ensuring that they would get fixed. One of them held out his hand to help me cross, and as I grabbed it, he started to lose his balance on the rock he was standing and I thought that’s it – we are going down! Thankfully, he regained his balance and I basically ran across the rocks to the other side!
It was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the day. Stopping at a coffee farm along the way to sample the local brew. As I’m not a coffee drinker, I opted out of the sample, but the coffee drinkers of the group said it was quite delicious. Since the walk had taken us longer due to the landslides, a bus appeared to take us the remainder of the way to our campsite. This meant we would not miss the hot springs!
We were able to relax for two glorious hours in the hot springs. I felt my muscles release tension as I stretched in the hot water and then jumped under a cold shower to help decrease some inflammation. There was only one day ahead of us before we would arrive at Machu Picchu.
Joining the Inca Trail
The fourth day after being woken with fresh coca tea, a routine I was growing very fond of, we were presented with an option. If our bodies were done, we could take a van to Aguas Calientes, our day’s destination. As tempting as that van sounded and as much my back hurt, feet ached, and shoulders did not want to carry my backpack. As much as I wanted to spend a few hours in a van compared to six hours walking, that’s not what I came here for. I came here to walk to Machu Picchu. The day that we joined the Inca Trail would not become the day I quit!
So, I filled up my water bottle, loaded up my backpack, filled my head with positive self-talk and walked uphill for two hours on a section of the Inca trail. We passed beautiful vistas of the valley below us coming to a stopping point with a hut selling snacks and beer. I purchased some peanut M&Ms while the guy from Colorado purchased a beer. We all have our needs on the trail!
Before we’d left that morning, I’d switched into a new pair of socks as the ones I’d been wearing for the first three days were still wet from the waterfall. I noticed the new, dry socks, were starting to give me blisters on my heels.
Deciding to ignore it we arrived at our first Incan ruin of the trip, Llactapata. Llactapata served as the checkpoint for Incan messengers heading to Machu Picchu. Across the valley, in the distance, we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Nestled in between the mountains, on the edge of a cliff.
Seeing Machu Picchu from a distance made me wonder – Why here? How did they know this place existed? How did they get there? I hoped that our guide would answer these as I took some photos and switched my socks back to the original pair. Blisters are the worst
My feet feeling much happier and my head still filled with questions, we pressed on. The sun decided to come out from hiding as we walked downhill, mostly under the cover of trees. I realized I preferred the rain the past few days as the sun was incredibly hot. As annoying as it was being wet, it would’ve been worse to have gotten a sunburn! It’s one thing to have sore and achy shoulders, it’s another to have sore, achy, sunburned shoulders.
The Final Push
We finally reached our lunch point, a restaurant that was a well-oiled machine at serving hungry hikers. They had us fed and happy in about thirty minutes, then sent us off to follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. This part of the path was the easiest physically, but hardest mentally.
We were so close to Machu Picchu. Every step I knew was taking me there, yet every step grew more and more painful to make. At one point the guy from Colorado turned on a speaker to play some Reggaeton, hoping to lift our spirits and put a little pep in our step. The group grew quiet, everyone in their own heads.
Finally, we set foot in Aguas Calientes, where we checked in to our hotel and I took my first shower in four days. The water was hot, the pressure strong and if it hadn’t been a hotel shower I could’ve sat on the floor and just let the water run over my sore body. Even though the weather turned back to rainy and cold, I put my flip flops on to give my feet a break as we headed out to dinner. Our last meal together as a group.
Over dinner our guides described the following day: Machu Picchu day! We had two options for getting to Machu Picchu. We could take the bus from Aguas Calientes or we could walk the steps. Our guides told us that the steps were made after Machu Picchu was discovered, so we wouldn’t be missing anything if we opted for the bus. He also recommended that since I was hiking Machu Picchu Mountain, I should take the bus to save my energy. I am so glad I listened to his words of advice, buying my bus ticket after dinner. I returned to the hotel and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
The first bus to Machu Picchu was at 5:30 am and we joined the ten other people already in line at 4:00 am. Vendors worked the line, selling coffee and snacks to those patiently waiting. Our hotel had provided a sack breakfast which I happily ate awaiting the bus.
The bus arrived at the gates of Machu Picchu just as the sun was rising. We were one of the first twenty people to enter Machu Picchu as it opened at 6:00 am.
It was surreal being one of the very few people in Machu Picchu with the slowly brightening early morning sky and mountains as our backdrop; the birds chirping the only sound. The morning fog moved across the buildings giving Machu Picchu an even more mystical appearance.
I got to sense what it was like in the quiet mornings hundreds of years ago. The Incans waking with the sun, surrounded by these mountains, working on these buildings, studying, and going to bed with the sun. Living in accordance with the rhythm of nature.
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”
— Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits
We walked along the terraces that were once used to grow crops for those building Machu Picchu as our guide described the history of this landmark. We learned about the Temple of the Sun and Water without being crowded by other tourist groups. Our guide described how the Incans made the buildings in accordance with the rhythms of the earth. Some buildings perfectly aligned for the solstice, others honoring the shapes of the mountains surrounding them, and even rocks carved in the accurate shape of a compass.
Most importantly, we learned the correct way to say Picchu. The way it is commonly pronounced is “Pee-chu”…which means penis in Quechua. The correct way to say it is “Pict – chu”, the first half pronounced liked “pict” in picture. Which then correctly translates to mountain.
After about two hours, our guides left us to our own devices. They had to return to Cusco to prepare for another tour leaving the next day.
Machu Picchu Mountain
The three Coloradoans and I were the only of our group planning to hike to Machu Picchu Mountain. I had a ticket for 9:00 am to climb Machu Picchu mountain. And as much my body said no, I’d already paid for the ticket and $60 was not going to waste!
So, I made my way through the throngs of tourists and began my climb. Grateful to be escaping the growing crowds as I climbed step after step. The steps up to the top were on the edge of the cliff, rocky, and incredibly steep. At times I used my hands and my feet, basically crawling up the mountain. Machu Picchu growing smaller as I climbed. Each time I passed someone making their way down, I asked how much further?
Ten more minutes, ten more minutes, ten more minutes
Finally, I made it to the top, where the seasoned Colorado hikers were already relaxing with the view of Machu Picchu below and Huayna Picchu just behind it, offering its protection. I stood there in awe of what the Incans built.
The sophistication and knowledge that they had to produce something of this magnitude. Knowledge learned from years of observing the natural rhythms of the earth, then passing that knowledge down, generation to generation. Perhaps they knew that they would likely not see the fruits of their labor in their lifetime. Yet, they still worked on it.
As we were up in the clouds, looking down on this ancient artifact, the thunder started. Could it get any more magical than listening to the thunder in the distance as the fog rolls in and out over Machu Picchu?
I could’ve stayed up there for hours. Yet, we had to return so we began the climb down. Creaky knee after creaky knee down those steep staircases.
The throngs of tourists had decreased during my hike, so I slowly wandered through the rest of the grounds of Machu Picchu. I visited the freely roaming alpacas. I took my time to sit, watch, and listen. Finding quiet spaces where there was no one else to take this experience in as much as I could. Knowing that the past 5 days would soon become a memory as I exited the gates. Returned to my hotel. Removed my hiking boots. And got on the train back to Cusco.
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