After trying pretty much every single trekking company that guides Inca Trail treks for four months, with no avail, we had to look for another option. Having been mountain biking in La Paz and through the jungle in Brazil and Bolivia, we opted out of the backpacker-favorite 4 day “Inca Jungle Trek”. With the Inca trail being fully booked due to the Peruvian government’s strict standards on trail usage, although there are a few other routes, Salkantay was the obvious choice for us. It would take us 4 days to get to Aguas Calientes, and on Day 5 we would climb to Machu Picchu. It was bound to be both a challenging and beautiful route and rated one of the 25 best treks in the world by National Geographic. We sorted through the plethora of travel agents and tour companies in Cusco before settling on making use of some advice, offered by a friendly German couple we met, and booked a 5 day Salkantay Trek with the small agent inside Eco-Packers Hostel. They gave us a rate comparable with everyone else, and included the rental of the -10 degree sleeping bags we would need (yes, 10 below 0 Celcius). There was no way we were going to risk being cold after our experience camping in Torres Del Paine.
Feeling like we would be spoiled not having to carry our big packs, we packed up our 10kg allowance (5 per person) in my large pack for our horses to carry. We stuffed my day pack with some water and snacks and retired early to ensure a good rest before an early start. The next morning, we stored our spare belongings and set out to Eco Packers at 4:30am. Cusco was a ghost town at this hour, dimly lit and occupied only by the odd taxi and gang of neighbourhood dogs. By 5:15 our ride arrived. After our 2 hours in the van, and a stop for breakfast in Mollepata (2800m above sea level) while we waited for our horses to be loaded, our walking began. It was easy at first, with moderate climbing and spectacular views of the valley of the Apurimac River on our approach to the Cordiller Vilcanota Range, which we would eventually climb. Every once in a while we’d hit a steeper slope, just to remind us that we’d chosen the most physically challenging route to reach the hidden Inca City. By lunch, after seeing our first snow capped peaks and increasing our elevation by 600m, we were ready for a break.
Our chef, his assistant and our horses had already arrived via an easier route on the road, to our lunch meeting spot. We were served a warm mediocre tasting lunch (vegetarian for me) of quinoa soup, potatoes, vegetables and chicken. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t 5 star dining, we were hungry. Physically, we were doing well. Most of the group was. Our three Argentine comrads whom we met that morning were challenged by the altitude, however very keen to continue at their own pace. The others in our group, in addition to our guide, were Chris – an Australian doing his country proud by trekking nearly every peak in South America, and a family of six. Yes, that’s right – Six. Mom (Alexia), Dad (Henry), and four daughters – Charlie, Romane, Juliette and Thea – 12, 11, 7 and 6 respectively – from Switzerland, were on a one year trip around the world. They were all killing the trail so far. We took a thirty minute digestion rest (or “siesta” four our Argentine friends) and we were off again.
We hiked another three hours (bringing the total to 6), awaited the rest of our crew and approached Soraypampa Village together at 3850m, where we would sleep for the night. It was starting to get cooler and by the time we reached camp it had been a full day. Our tents were pitched for us in a wind shelter and tea was being served. It got cold, fast. The wind whistled through the little valley from the glacial peaks above, making us very happy to have a shelter and warm clothes. This was to be our coldest night – sleeping outside at almost 4000m. Yes, our coldest, but certainly our most beautiful. Although we were freezing, on a trip to the toilet after dinner, I paused to enjoy the moon glow off of the mountains. I looked up and was mesmerized by what I saw. I took a moment for myself, then gathered everyone else from the comfort of the shelter into the blistering below zero cold to show them what I had seen. Enjoying the sky that night was a priceless reward for our hard journey that day. The stars blanketed the sky, like sand on a beach. It was difficult to tell where one stopped and the next began. The blackness around us made them shine even brighter. It was so easy to feel small – surrounded by massive peaks beneath the glistening, milky sky. We snuggled into our puffy sleeping bags and fell asleep smiling.
A gentle tug on our tent and we were awakened with a delivery of hot cocoa tea. Not only did the tea aid with digestion at altitude, its heat also made it much easier to pull ourselves from the warmth of our north face cocoon into the frigid alpine air. It was barely an hour before we were finished breakfast (a terrible one I might add) and setting out for what would be our most challenging climb.
By 10am we hit the toughest part of the trail, with steep switch backs and frequent breathing breaks. We were one of 2 groups who started on the trail that day. Henry and Alexia made a wise choice in hiring a horse to help the two smaller children through the steepest patch. Although, we weren’t impressed with negotiation techniques of the locals demanding that 2 horses were needed, claiming the two girls would be too much weight for the horse. Especially when saw two overweight tourists from the other group clop past us on the horses they had paid to take them to the top. If the local logic was valid, then each of them should have had two horses to carry their weight. Regardless, it was a wise choice. By 9am, the trail seemed like endless, snaking path of aggressive, rocky incline. Step, breathe, step, breathe, step, breathe… the altitude certainly showed us who was boss. We were in the thick of it. Two hours of relentless climbing gave a new definition to the term “fuel break” when we stopped in a small valley for a snack. We didn’t rest long – at 4000m sweat freezes fast.
The trail didn’t back down. Neither did we. Step, step, breathe. Step, step, breathe. We were able to pick up the pace slightly, although it was still hard to breathe, for the next hour the incline was tough, then a bit more gradual. Then, again, another steep climb.
An hour later we celebrated at our highest point of 4600m as we overlooked the astonishing peak of the “Savage Mountain” (Salkantay). This is the closest we would come. Many have died trying to reach the glacier capped 6300m summit, buried by the unpredictable avalanches that frequent its slopes. Our panoramic view would have to suffice – but it was perfect. We relished in our accomplishment this far, we were through the most strenuous section of the entire journey. This is the highest either of us had ever been without an airplane. It was a good introduction to what we are in for when we attempt Everest Base Camp next year, which sits at 5364m on the Nepalese side.
After patting ourselves on the back, we began again. This time the sailing was easy. Downward, into the valley. At times it felt good to open my legs up in full stride and run the descent – a sport I used to engage in weekly in Vancouver. I was energized, the air was fresh and as I descended, I got high on the oxygen-rich air. I no longer had to suck in through my mouth to breathe, instead, air easily flowed into my nostrils and flooded my cells. My steps were light, quick and effortless. My mind was steady. I was in my element. Charlie was right there with me, nearly every step of the way. At 12, she may just have found a new sport! The terrain changed from mountainous rock to lush green valley and we were kissed by mist as we coasted down through the cloud cover.
We spotted our chef and horses prepping lunch, so we pulled to a halt. We came in nearly an hour ahead of our group, but were happy to wait. Lunch went down well. We arrived at our camp by 4pm, feeling alive, proud and completely depleted. Dinner that night was entertaining. The rebellion in my stomach had progressively intensified with each meal. Even the smell of dinner being cooked left me feeling nauseated. The night before, although they swore it was vegetarian, I though the soup contained meat or meat base. I could taste the salt. I knew I needed fuel or the next day would be hell, so I forced myself to try some soup, which was “vegetarian”. They were serving everyone the same soup, but I could taste the meat. They insisted there was no meat, and innocently, Juliette looked in her bowl, picked up her spoon and said, “Then what’s this?” There was a piece of chicken on the utensil. It was funny to see the response of our guide… like he was shocked and had no idea how meat got in a vegetarian soup. They offered to cook me something separate. I accepted, but couldn’t eat the powdered mix asparagus msg loaded garb they fed me. I tried some rice and went to bed hungry. The next morning I ate 4 pieces of toast and the cold pancake they put on our plates. I needed it. My stomach wasn’t 100%, but the nausea was gone.
Leaving our camp at Calpabamba by 8am, we started off slow, with tired, heavy legs from our previous days huge trek. The trail was easy, but it turned into mudslide hills and valleys after our first couple of hours in the jungle. We got wet – very wet. It was totally useless trying to stay somewhat dry or clean. The rain soaked us to the core and the muddy trail found it’s way up our legs. However, by the time we reached Santa Theresa for our night stay, the sun was shining and we were dry. We took the option to visit the thermal baths before dinner to relax our tired muscles.
This was our last night in a tent. Our excitement for the promise of a campfire was soon put out when the uber-loud techno beats started blasting alongside the flame. It wasn’t the kind of event we were looking for. Unfortunately, the campsite was jammed with day trekkers from Cusco who had opted for a single day trek to Aguas Calientes. They hadn’t been in the elements, at altitude and sleeping on the ground for what seemed like a week, so they opted for beer and a bonfire. We chose sleep, with earplugs.
We got off to another early start, hoping to make it to Aguas Calientes before dark. The trail was moderate, some road way and some path alongside the train tracks. Other than crossing a white river in a cable bucket and catching our first distant views of the backside of Machu and Wayna Picchu, the highlight was that this was our final day of walking. Although the scenery was spectacular, the sun was blistering. After 7 long hours, we made it to Aguas Calientes – the small town at the foot of Machu Picchu. We checked into our amazing hostel, had a terrible food with even worse service, received our tickets into Machu Picchu and tucked in early. After all, we planned to hike up to the gate, rather than take the jammed bus in the morning. 4 am came quickly.
DAY 5: Machu Picchu… to be continued….