This is Part II which is a follow up to Part I of our adventures in Peru. This time you can read about the incredible time we had on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. It’s not the only way to get to the mystical ancient ruins, but it’s one of the most adventurous – just our style. Read below for our account of the trek and the impressive site of Machu Picchu. Enjoy!
The Salkantay Trek
On April 7th, We set out alarm for 4:10am, though we didn’t get up until 4:17 for our 4:30 pickup. Oh yeah, this trek starts off with a 4 hour van ride to the trail head. And, it’s a mountain ride with enough curves to turn your stomach to mush, or more precisely, Jenny’s. She managed to bolt out of the van to spill her empty stomach onto the sidewalk. Not the best start. We arrived at the trail head Soraypampa, ate our first delicious meal of many on the trip, met the staff and then headed out (or more precisely, up).
The goal of the first day is to hike up to the Salkantay Pass, which is at roughly 4,630m/15,190 feet above sea level, and then calmly descend until you reach camp a little ways down the pass. A side goal is to take advantage of good weather and make it through the harsh– keep in mind that any time of year the weather around the Salkantay peak is highly unpredictable and we’re hiking at the end of rainy season.
The morning hike was beautiful, with the clouds clearing for breathtaking views of the massive mountain — Salkantay is 6,215 meters/20,390 feet above sea level. As we ascended we began shedding layers and enjoying the sunshine. After nearly 3 hours of continuous climbing we reach our lunch spot. It was here where we really got to see what our master chef was capable of. We ate stuffed avocados, delicious fried trout, veggies and more. While the food was delicious, it was also the time when things turned a little for the worse.
First, the weather switched and it started to be rainy with a chilly, cold breeze. Secondly, Jenny’s stomach started acting up and we believe it was disagreeing with something she ate the day before; and for that her stomach wanted everything out the back door. The altitude didn’t help either.
As we pushed onward and upward towards the aforementioned high point of the pass, the rain continued and Jenny started to lose a little steam. The ponchos that were provided by our guide company, Alpaca Expeditions, kept the core of our bodies dry, however the cheap gloves we bought in Arequipa were wet and our shoes had begun to soak thru. We snapped a few photos at the peak of our ascent, and gladly headed down.
On the way down, Jenny’s cold feet and upset stomach only let her go so fast. After the sun set we still hadn’t hit camp, and a thick fog was moving in; we were late. As Jenny stopped to use mother natures restroom once more, I snapped a couple photos to show how much water we were walking through, and the fog, too. We arrived late to camp and were cold, hungry and exhausted. Our guide, Abel, really helped us get through the evening, helping Jenny stay warm, bending barbed wire fences for easier passages, and keeping us in as best of spirits as we could. Thanks Abel!
Thankfully the guides were there to make us comfortable even when things were going bad. Hot water to wash our hands (and soak Jenny’s feet), hot water and tea, cookies and popcorn, all within 5 minutes of arriving at camp. A short rest later we were eating hot soup, rice, chicken stew, and biscuits. Also, to our shock, we finished with bananas fosters! Completely exhausted and now fed, we crashed hard, hoping for both better weather and improved health.
Day 2, 5:30am wakeup
After 9 hours of fairly restful sleep, we were awoken with coca tea and hot water to wash our face and hands. Our pancakes with bananas and chocolate sauce went well with coffee. If that wasn’t enough the fried plantains and veggie egg scramble was. Such a great way to start the day, especially since Jenny was feeling much better after good sleep and there was no rain.
We knew the day would be a long hike, and it was! The hike was on a muddy trail and we often had to stand to the side to let horses, mules and donkeys pass. 4 hours of gentle downhill combined with gentle downpour later we arrived at lunch. The rain didn’t effect us as much today for a few reasons: we were at lower elevation, we were in the jungle, we were used to it, and it was off and on rather than constant.
After another fantastic lunch (my favorite dish was the beef and french fries) we said goodbye to the horsemen who had been carrying all of our gear. He had used 3 horses to haul our food, camping gear, and of course all of the same gear of our guide, chef and assistant chef. The second half of our 8 hour hiking day was fairly uneventful except for the abundance of water crossings, learning about passion fruits and throwing around jokes with our guide.
The evening consisted of hot tea and snacks followed by a mango tart before a lovely dinner with kabobs, rice, potatoes with cream of mushroom and custom lasagna of wontons, veggies and chicken.
Day 3 – Inca trail to last camping spot
Today was the day we thought we would have sun. Why is that? Because we both woke around 2am to a really strong rain, and so naturally we thought it would rain overnight and then be clear the next day. As you’ve guessed, that wasn’t the case and we began hiking (after a lovely breakfast) in the rain once again.
The hike today is on one part of the Inca trail, a series of trails found in Peru that so far is over (40,000 kms??) long. Our section was only about 6k but with the rain, mud, and elevation gain it felt longer. Both of us were feeling frustrated with another day of rain; Jenny dealt with it by speeding up the trail and leaving myself and our guide in her dust, err, mud. I tried to focus on the beauty that was still all around us, how lucky we were to be there, and by putting my mouth in the form of a smile, as I’ve heard that helps boost your mood. A thought that I had to put things in perspective was a couple of simple questions:
- Would I rather be hiking in the rain or in the sun. A: in the sun of course.
- Would I rather be sitting behind a desk or screen (or any number of other things) or hiking? A: I’d much rather be hiking
We arrived at the top elevation for the day and finally reached an archaeological site which had a very cool view of the mountain range that contains Machu Picchu. It was our first view of this mysterious place.
Our camp site was situated on a hill that had the same view, and while we rested in our tent before dinner we were able to look out the bug screen upon Machu Picchu. After our cooks outdid themselves once again for dinner (pizza & pasta), the sky was perfect for viewing – the clouds had cleared, the moon was absent, and there were no real cities nearby. I stayed up and enjoyed the sky while taking a few photographs. My favorite part of the sky was the Southern Cross that was situated above our tent.
Day 4 – Trek into Aguas Calientes
I awoke before the 6am coca tea wake up call by our chef to view the sunrise over the Machu Picchu Andes. Initially I was hopeful of a view of the sun, but I soon realized that the clouds would spoil my hopes. Not to worry, the early morning birds and peacefulness of the mountains got my day off to a great start. Not to mention while I was waiting and taking photographs, my hot coca tea arrived.
Our hike today was one part exciting and one part long. The exciting part was so because we were slipping and sliding down the side of the mountain on the mud that had been building up over the past 4 days of rain! We were, however, finally hiking I the sunshine. The second part was a long stretch along the railway that we just wished would end. The last few kilometers felt very long. We did mix things up a bit by taking the more adventurous route through two railway tunnels through the mountains. We were close when we stubbled upon a litter of puppies that Jenny wanted to pack along with us.
In the afternoon we relaxed our bodies in the hot springs, which were cleaner than we’d heard about and warmer than our hotel shower. That’s likely because it was early in the tourist season. An hour soak, dinner and a real bed was just the stuff we needed before heading to Machu Picchu in the morning.
FINALLY! It had felt like a long time coming. Our trek was complete and our day to see the ancient Incan site was upon us. The sun shone brightly as we arrived via bus to the gates of one of the seven wonders of the modern world… then we awoke from our naps and stepped off the bus into the rain once again. Time to spend the day in our bright green ponchos again.
Despite the weather, the site was just incredible. The skillful work done by the Incas 500 years ago was done with such precision it was hard to believe it was done with modern technology and tools. We started off with a thorough three hour tour given by our guide, Abel. With so much to describe and share, I’ll focus on the two things that really impressed me. The first was the structures they built and used to study the sky: their stone compasses and mirror pools used to study the stars. One compass was simple and used just to point out directions, the second was set atop a hill and used the sun and the shadow to tell the seasons (in addition to showing the directions).
The second aspect that left an impression was how they smartly used existing stones and landscape to their advantage rather than wiping the slate clean. This wasn’t only done in the walls and the terraces of which there were many examples, but also in the temple of the sun. A giant rock that existed in the landscape was used as the base and exquisitely carved and polished stones formed a temple on the top. The base rock represented ‘pachamama,’ or Mother Earth, while the top temple represented ‘pachatata,’ or the universe (sun, stars, planets, etc), and them together represented the special connection between the earth and the sky. Another example was with the temple of the Condor, where giant wings made of existing rock were used and then a carved head and body was on the floor. Simply beautiful.
Post-tour we visited the Inca bridge which was built to provide a way to block attackers from entering. Simply burn the wood planks and the passage became incredibly hard to navigate. We then walked the tourist loop one more time before making our way out and passing the time before catching our first train of the trip heading back to Cusco.
Post-trek: 3 days in Cusco
After our trek and visit of Machu Picchu we stayed in a lovely AirBnB which was one room in a traditional old Peruvian colonial house. We didn’t have too many plans, since we didn’t know how we’d be feeling after the hike, but we ended up filling our time with some really fun activities, in addition to getting good sleep in the comfy bed. Here’s a few of the highlights from our last days in South America:
- Pedicures – Yep, we both went in for pedicures for our tired feet for cheap
- Walking tour – Took a free walking tour of Cusco and learned how the Spanish ruined most of the Incan sites in Cusco in order to build churches
- Ate great vegetarian food – at a little place called Green Point for only $6 total and five courses
- Rode horses & went in tunnels and caves – On a whim while on a walk we decided to go horse back riding! Along the way we went to a cool spot that had tunnels and caves through the rocks that the Incas used.
- Visited an animal sanctuary – This sanctuary helps care for animals that have been abused or abandoned. They have pumas, parrots, condors and a few others as well. Very cool experience.
- Took a run in the evening up to Christo Blanco which overlooks all of Cusco
- Visited the markets – San Pedro and a few other handicraft markets to get a few gifts (our packs are stuffed!)
- Caught up on blogging
- Researched Costa Rica travel plans