Sunday, September 17, 2017

We Survived the Salkantay Trek!

Salkantay Pass - altitude:15,255 ft. - attitude: 100% positive!

It was 3 in the morning when my alarm abruptly split the silence in our hostel in Cusco, Peru.  Our guide would be here to pick us up in an hour and we were sooo not ready to get up... but as soon as my mind registered that, shoot, we're going to start the trek today, I bounded out of bed and into the shower.  This would be the last shower I'd be able to take in a while, so I figured I'd sacrifice some sleep-time to get it in.  Somehow it also hit me that it was the day of our second wedding anniversary, so I remember mumbling, "Happy Anniversary," to which Wes sleepily replied, "Ugh."  We had stayed up too late the night before to pack our duffels and we had spent most of the day yesterday recovering from being sick.  It had just barely been a full day since Wes had been able to eat without throwing up and I was still having unstoppable traveller's diarrhea.  What we were about to do (yes, on our second wedding anniversary), was going to be the most physically challenging thing we've signed up for: the Salkantay Trek.  That is, forty-six miles and four days of almost non-stop hiking in the Andes, from one ecosystem to another, from little farm to little farm, from alpine lake to alpine lake, from campsite to campsite...all the way to Machu Picchu.

July 28th - Peru's Independence Day, behind Machu Picchu Mountain in Llactapata!
Of course we were super enthusiastic once we came to our senses and boarded the van to pick up the various members of our trekking group.  It was all starting to feel real, at last!  We had trained for this much-anticipated trek, going on long hikes almost every weekend, asking people who'd done it before lots of questions, and loading up on some trusty gear.  I guess we could never really prepare for some issues that come with being in a foreign country at a high altitude, but we did what we could and we felt ready, but nervous.  It didn't help that we had been practically running on crackers, gatorade, and tea for the day before, and I also wasn't sure how my messed up ankle and Wes's messed up knee would hold up for four days in a row of hilly hiking, but we just tried not to even think about any of that and in the end we were fine!

The beginning of a 9-mile descent from the Salkantay Pass
This trek is actually ranked as one of National Geographic's Top 25 Treks in the world.  It's clear to see why.  Each moment was completely spellbinding, the path was always challenging, and the views never got old!  I didn't think that it would be possible to go from a freezing cold mountain pass to a humid, lush cloud forest, and then strike off a Wonder of the World in just five days' time.  Actually, we couldn't have done it without our trek chef, the porters, and the horses that carried everything from gas tanks to sleeping bags.  It was really a luxury to be able to look forward to multi-course, family-style Peruvian meals every day - and obviously, we documented every dish and have posted it all here!

Climbing Huayna Picchu, with Machu Picchu down below.
Sunrise at the Guard Tower, where the view of the Lost City is best.
We were also so fortunate to have been set up with such a fun group of people from the U.K., the Netherlands, and Texas (which may as well be a country, right?), and we loved our knowledgeable and humorous guide, Edgar.  

Edgar's team!
I jotted down a few impressions at the end of each day, so here's what I wrote down, along with the photos that Wes took on the Sony RX1.  We both would recommend doing this trek with Salkantay Trekking - our guide was awesome, the food provided was excellent, and the accommodations exceeded our expectations. 

Edgar: "I am the puma!" "Hello, hello!" "Packs on!" "Wanna see another lake?"
Cooked by our wonderful and softspoken trek chef, Ivan, and his team.

The "sky lodges" - where you could see the stars through the ceiling!
So, here's a rundown of the four days leading up to Machu Picchu!  That fifth day will get its own post later... but is it weird to say that the exalted Lost City of the Incas paled in comparison to the rest of the trek?  We were excited to see the famed ruins to be sure, but even now, a few weeks after the trip, we think first of the bright Milky Way, the gaping Santa Teresa valley, the towering Apu Salkantay, and those turquoise glacial lakes.  We also will never forget the genuineness of the local people and the strength of our guides and porters, who showed us more patience and graciousness than we could have ever asked for.  The human interactions and the intimacy with nature were what we will always treasure the most.

Day 1:  (July 25, 2017)

Walking Distance – 12km / 7.45 miles
Starting Elevation – 3350 meters ASL / 10990 feet ASL
Highest Elevation – 4600 meters ASL / 15091 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 3920 meters ASL / 12861 feet ASL

Day 1 wasn't so bad! We slept off and on on the bus for 2 hours, seeing snatches of the beautiful snow covered peaks (Apu Humantay and Apu Salkantay) through foggy windows. We had breakfast in a village called Mollepata and it was so much food, but we were satisfied as we were really empty from recovering the day before.  Immediately started talking about bodily functions with the nurse on our tour - apparently we had two nurses in our group!  Had an omelet with verduras while Wes had one with ham and cheese, some bread with butter and jam, and a brimming parfait with some puffed rice granola on top.  There was also fresh juice and tea of course. But I avoided coca, even though we were already at high altitude at this point, because Edgar our guide told us that it can be somewhat of a laxative too.  Eek, not good for what I had going on at the time.

After another little bus ride from Mollepata to Challacancha, we found ourselves throwing our duffels into a tarp and getting into the hiking shoes. Omg, it was starting. So many emotions! 

It was quite slopey at first but then it was flat until we reached the campground in Soraypampa- totally doable. 

There's our igloo-shaped sky lodges, with Apu Humantay behind!

The glass domes that we got to sleep in were so cool! We had a little tiny doorway labeled with a little stone on top, two actual beds inside, little shelves for our shoes.   They call these the "sky lodges." There were actually toilets at the campsite too - nice ones - and sinks (no mirrors and no toilet paper of course).  

Had our first lunch in a communal dining area under another large glass dome and loved the food! Started with a small plate each of guacamole with a cute Inca-design-shaped chip, chicken soup with pasta in it, fried trout (trucha!), green rice, and cauliflower. Then we got a nap and then got ready to hike to Lake Humantay. 

Now this hike was so steep, and it was a true test to our tolerance of the altitude.  Breathing was hard. Edgar watched us to see if we would be able to handle the big day (tomorrow). Made it up in a huge huff and reached the lake shoreline. It didn't seem all that great at first, but wait 'til you get a birds eye view.  Sapphire blue! Windy up there too.  Coming down was as exhausting as going up, our knees could really feel it. Definitely burned off the big lunch.  

Then we finally got back, changed into our warmest clothes, and sat down for "crazy hour" haha. That's what Edgar calls Happy Hour.  Popcorn (palomitos), crackers with butter and jam, and little fried cheese pockets + tea, hot cocoa, and coffee.  Fun times chatting with the group and getting to know one another - we already felt like family.  Wes and I were eating sooo much popcorn!

We had dinner after that and it reminded us of Chinese orange chicken, some baked potatoes, and broccoli. They always bring an appetizer, a salsa, and soup first, and then 4 main courses served family style on silver platters, and we always end with tea. We even got a flaming dessert of Pisco banana flambe! We eat and drink from cute adobe plates and cups, and get one napkin neatly folded on the diagonal each time.  Exchanged some pills with the nurse. Got some Colace to help wth poop and gave some melatonin to her to help her sleep. 

One of the test shots!  Head lamps, phone light, running around trying to get the other dome lit.
It was around 9 PM and everyone's domes were going dark as campers went to bed.  Wes pulled out his tripod (sorry to the horse who had to carry that thing) and took a few long exposure photos of the Milky Way, which was totally amazing to behold at 12,861 feet up.  Our dome neighbors were cool and let us stick a head lamp into their igloo just for this shot! Thanks Mike and Nelia!

Day 2: (July 26, 2017)

Walking Distance – 22 km / 13.7 miles
Starting Elevation – 3800 meters ASL / 12467 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2750 meters ASL / 9022 feet ASL
Maximum Altitude: 4650 meters ASL / 15255 feet ASL

I didn't sleep well last night, it was negative degrees and I kept adding layers and popping melatonin and nothing could take away from how cold I felt. Meanwhile, Wes was sleeping like a pig.  Eventually Wes hopped into bed with me (it was a twin) and that sort of helped, but I was so jealous that he was able to sleep so easily. I even woke up at 3 in the morning to use the bathroom, which sucked because it was so cold out.  Even Edgar said that this night was colder than normal, ha. 

They woke us up at 5:00 sharp, rapping against the little door of our dome and shoving in two tin cups of hot tea.  Every morning for the rest of the trek, they did this.  Too early to be appreciative though.  I rolled over and was about to be the hardest day of hiking and here I am on almost no sleep, chilled to the bone, and still somewhat constipated.  But hey, at least my ankle wasn't bothering me at all, and I wasn't throwing up from the altitude.  Wes's knee was fine too, and his tummy was back to normal.  When I finally dragged my ass to breakfast, I remembered to pop my meloxicam and my diamox pills. 

They even had someone carry up a full canteen of hot tea up so that we could enjoy something warm to drink at the top.  Too nice.

The 4.34-mile ascent to the Salkantay Pass was brutal, still can't believe we did it!!! "Hangry" might just have been the word of the day as we were coming down, though.  It was a long way to lunch. The other running phrase seemed to be, "you wanna see another lake?"  It was funny because these lakes were all pretty hard to get to -___-

We did indeed see another lake and at first we couldn't find it and thought it had dried up, so we were about to slam Edgar for telling us to hike extra to a nonexistent body of water, but then Mieke actually found it!! And it was so beautiful, like a humble little turquoise gem in the rocks. We four were the only ones there.  We took a grand total of two pictures and then were rushed out by Edgar, who came running to let us know that we were totally behind schedule.  It was nice though, worth it for the seclusion, forget the photos or naptime. 

The way down to Wayracpunku was tiring too but nowhere near as bad as the Seven Snakes and the other steep switchbacks that we had encountered earlier.  It was just long and yes, we were all pretty hungry. Hangry.  We got to the campsite after being fooled by a few other makeshift establishments. Towards the end, I distinctly remember Wes saying that he was going to shit a brick if the next little house wasn't our lunch spot lol.  

We ate in a little structure covered with a tarp and it was windy!  We had maize soup with egg in it, pizza slice (that crust was great), and triple helpings of quinoa broccoli and mashed yellow potatoes and veggies. I didn't like the lomo saltado much, even though it looked so good... the beef was tough and chewy.  Glad to have protein though.  Anyway, I was going to try to use the restroom but there wasn't time and I didn't want to pay another sol.. didn't want to hold up the group anyhow so we moved on to do more downhill knee-killers.

The climate changed to be more tropical as soon as we got into the cloud forest - the upper part of the Amazon jungle. Beautiful to behold, but I missed the high mountains and glaciers.  We shed every layer and sprayed on some sun cream (haha) and deet, much to the amusement of a little local girl who probably had no idea what we gringos were doing to each other with these weird spray cans. 

Finally made it to camp in Chaullay and jumped into the 10-sol shower immediately!!!  It was an awkward setup but we made it work - I didn't care if anyone saw me naked...I was clean! What a luxury.  The shower wasn't even warm, but I was glad to get some dirt off me. Wes washed our pants too. Thank god we brought quick dry towels, and thank god those pants were quick drying too.  Our tents were pitched upstairs from the communal meal area this time in a little stilted two story structure. We could hear running riverwater from the tent, it was very nice! And NOT cold!!! Plus the sleeping bag came with a sock thing and a pillow, and a good pad.  Apparently we were too late to the campsite to claim the little straw huts, but I was totally good with where we were.

Dinner was good and we were all so tired, but I managed to scare people with the amount that I ate, staying behind to finish up what was left on the platters. The chefs were amused, I think.  Beets and potatoes, sweet potato tempura, semolina soup, chaufa (fried rice is a staple here in Peru), passion fruit glazed chicken stuffed with a little sausage, and an odd purple corn fermented dessert that tasted like grape medicine. Ick. Hopefully people weren't mad that we had to take photos of each dish before we dug in!!

Hung up our quickdry towels and wet pants, brushed our teeth across from the kitchen where people were washing up the plates and utensils, and actually flossed (without a mirror).  Whew! I don't think I've ever done so much hiking in one day, and definitely not Wes. Still can't quite believe it and not sure that I could do it ever again.

Day 3 (July 27, 2017)

Walking Distance – 18km / 11.2 miles
Starting Elevation – 2750 meters ASL / 9022 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2400 meters ASL / 7874 feet ASL

Again, I only slept 4 hours and then had to clunk my way down the stairs in untied hiking boots to the bathroom stalls in the middle of the night :( Anyway, just like yesterday they woke us at 5:30 with hot tea and a husky "Buenos Dia!!", but the roosters had gotten to us first anyhow, crowing at 4:30 AM sharp. They were greatly obnoxious.  All in all though it was comfortably spacious in the tent itself and we were able to spread out our things and get organized.  We were the last ones down to breakfast as usual, but I would venture to say that we tend to be the most prepared.  Didn't think that the trail toes and leukotape would be such a hit with the group! 

After some cinnamony porridge, unsweetened cornbread, an apple crepe, and our last dose of altitude pills (eaten in a rush, as always), we got our poles and backpacks and snacks and left camp for a day in the cloud forest, the upper part of the Amazon jungle.  We were not prepared for what delicious fruits and friendly local people we would meet this day!


The Santa Teresa Valley was so beautiful, the greenery was so therapeutic for the eyes after squinting in snow and dust.  We felt so small in these great rolling mountains of green!  We hiked for a good four and a half hours through hills and valleys.  On this hike we almost always had a good view of the river, which was rapidly flowing like crazy.  Also saw some waterfalls that were awesome, and there were parts of the trail that were quite vertigo-inducing if you focused too hard on the sheer cliffs directly beneath your feet.

Palta.  Passed right through a small family-run farm (well, they're all family-run out here) and bought ourselves the best avocado ever.  In Wes's opinion, best bite in Peru.  He took the liberty to add his own cancha - Peruvian corn nuts - into the pit, ha!

Granadillas.  Passion fruits, three for 1 sol.  So sweet, just like the lady who was selling them!  She's farmed granadillas her whole life, and now her son runs the farm.

Farm animals!

Edgar was always showing us various fruits and plants along the trail and telling us of their uses and superstitions. We picked frutillas - tiny strawberries - growing out of the cliff face and popped them into our mouths. Not that good. We also saw a fuzzy caterpillar. 

Lunch was at a little gem of a coffee farm in Lucmabamba.  After we ate, we got to personally pick some Arabica coffee cherries and participate in the process of turning them into a nice, strong, and much-needed cup of coffee.

This was probably my favorite lunch. We had red pork (why red?), noodles with hard boiled egg, a squash soup, trout ceviche with choclo, barley rice with little chopped hot dogs inside, a crunchy cabbage slaw, and chicken. And chicha morada, the essential drink of Peru made of fermented blue corn.

Then we picked some actual coffee cherries from an Arabica tree right near where we were eating and learned how to process them to separate out the seeds from the rest of the fruit in a big hand crank processor.  Then we took the seeds (what we know commonly as "coffee beans") and roasted them in a clay pot over a charcoal fire, mixing with a long wooden rod. After that, the roasted seeds are ground by hand into a powder and brewed into a strong, sour noted coffee. We all got to have some.  I bought a bag of whole beans for 20 sols!  Then we took another short hike to some buses and were bussed to the campsite - I had no idea that we were going to get a bus, but I guess it was a pleasant surprise.

We were given just a little bit of time to move into our little green globes, which they call "jungle domes."  They actually were quite large. You can stand up fully inside of them and even hang towels and wet bathing suits and things in the structural beams! The kids that lived there were really cute.  We went to the Santa Teresa hot springs immediately after dropping off all of our things here, taking an hour and 20 minute bus ride, on which I tried to sleep. We didn't know if we really wanted to go to the hot springs or not at first, but then we realized that there wasn't much to do around camp anyway and there was a lot of time to kill before dinner.  Plus, our muscles probably needed it. 

After paying no more than 10 sols to get in (it's government run), we three couples hung out in the hottest corner of the hot spring. It wasn't really terribly hot, it was perfect.  We saw a double rainbow from there!  Then Wes and I took advantage of their cold showers (we brought our shampoo!) and had to immediately reapply deet. So many bugs. We got into dry clothes and back on the bus, but later found out that we did not escape unscathed... I think we both had about 15 mosquito bites per leg :(  Worth it for second shower?  Yes, I think so.

Went back to the campsite and sat down to dinner soon after. Started with the usual popcorn and crackers and tea for happy hour, and then we had chicken soup with noodles, some fried yucca stuffed with chicken, some white rice with a beef and red pepper cream sauce, and veggies. It was wonderful! They also gave us a mini Pisco sour afterward and we toasted the chef.  It was bittersweet because this would be the last dinner cooked by him.

After enjoying a campfire chat with everyone, we packed for tomorrow, the last day.  Couldn't believe it was going to end.

Day 4: (July 28, 2017)

Walking Distance – 18 km / 11.2 miles
Starting Elevation – 2450 meters ASL / 8038 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2000 meters ASL / 6561 feet ASL (Aguas Calientes hotel)

Last day of major trekking.  Today is Peru Independence Day and so Edgar wore a big flag on his backpack all day, and we used it to pose for photos. We also got little red and white ribbons to wear for Independence Day. We pinned them to our backpacks.  I later lost mine at the airport after wearing it all over Peru after the trek ended, qué pena!

Today's trek through the jungle was a lot more tiring than I expected - I thought that everything was supposed to be much easier after Day 2.  But these hills were huge!! And we also walked on some original stone Inca stairs - just a small taste of what the Inca Trail would have been like.  (We were glad that we hadn't done it.)  And then the downhills were pretty hardcore too.  At least we started out super early to beat the heat and humidity.

There was also so much exquisite flora and fauna to feast our eyes on - officially in the Urubamba Valley.

We also took some breaks along the way at little family-run stations.  We played with some traditional musical instruments and weaponry.  Nobody was hurt.

Alain is drinking Inka Kola!

Shoes off, feet elevated.

We arrived for another longer break at Llactapata, where there is a small cluster of ancient ruins - we did not camp here, but apparently people do.  This is also where you can get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu!  On a clear day, you can even see a few stone towers peeking out.  The clouds parted and we could make out the distinct points of Machu Picchu mountain to the right and Huayna Picchu mountain to the left.  We also learned of the Putucusi, the "happy mountain," which is the rounded bump in between those two.  I think I like Putucusi the most :)

After much hiking and a stop at a small cluster of Incan ruins and walking on a small part of original Inca-laid stone stairs, we arrived at in Hidroelectrica, a city run entirely by water.  Its plant powers all of Machu Picchu too. Yup, we were finally getting close!

This is not a natural waterfall.  It's manmade - part of the power of Hidroelectrica.

It was dusty, okay?

Wow, officially in Machu Picchu territory.  Tourist registration.

We registered at this little stall here, a sign that we were reentering tourist territory.  The rest of the trek would be six miles alongside some train tracks, much more monotonous and much more foot-traffic, all the way to Aguas Calientes, a.k.a. "Gringo Town."

Boom chicha wow wow

The set lunch we got at Hidroelectrica was such a small and sad lunch at a crowded place right by the train tracks, so impersonal compared to what Ivan the chef made us out in the mountains :( We had bidden farewell to our chef and porter earlier that morning (after they presented us with a legit chocolate cake), so from now on we were going to be eating at restaurants.  We ate and then put on more bug spray and sunscreen and decided to walk the 3 hours along the train tracks rather than take the train for 30 USD.

The walk wasn't bad at all.  I plugged in earphones partway through but then ended up chatting with people, so I didn't need them. We also had some scary bridge crossings that we had to do, walking over rails with wide gaps in between.

Arrived after 3 hours in Aguas Calientes, where the dogs are way too cool with the gringos.

After a pretty slopey walk to the hostel, we checked into our room and I literally just sat there on a chair against the wall and didn't move. Wes wanted to go explore - I have no idea where he was going to get the energy.  After a bit of zoning out and a nice shower, I put back on that sweaty sports bra and the dirty pants, dirty socks, and dirty shoes to go out for dinner, since all of our duffels were still in transit via train.  Wes was smart and packed a clean set of clothes in his daypack.

Pretty charming for Gringo Town.

We celebrated the end of the long trek at a restaurant a few minutes away from the hostel with our lovely group.  This was our last time all eating together like a big family.  Again we missed the food that our trek staff would make, but I had a pretty good alpaca filet with fries and ate every last fry.  Wes had trout with fries.  Tres leches cake was not that great, but we went to get some artisanal ice cream and passion fruit cheesecake afterward!  Edgar talked to us about how the next day in Machu Picchu was going to go and we received our victory T-shirts!

Lucuma and maracuya ice cream and granadilla cheesecake to end it all.  It was still surreal to think that we'd see Machu Picchu tomorrow!  Even more surreal was that we were officially finished hiking (if you don't count the hiking that we did in Machu Picchu).

Day 5: (July 29, 2017)

Last day.  I'll have to dedicate a full blog post with more photos from Machu Picchu.  We had permits to climb up Huayna Picchu up here, so we opted out of doing the 2,000 stone stairs up from Aguas Calientes before sunrise and hitched a ride on the bus instead.  Sure, we could have done those stairs after all that we'd been through...but it would have been pitch black and crowded - the opposite of what we had loved so much about the trekking experience.

There must have been thousands more stairs to scale despite the fact that we skipped that first set, though.  The hike up to the guard tower was pretty intense too, but we were super excited to be the first few there to see the sun rising over Machu Picchu.  Then after the last tour with Edgar and stamping our passports with the Machu Picchu commemorative stamp, we made the grueling climb up to the top of Huayna Picchu.  In forty-five minutes' time, we ourselves at the very top, covered in sweat, dust, and burning mosquito bites from those stupid hot springs.  

Machu Picchu, with its great stone walls and terraces, was no more than a lego city imprinted into the trees.  We dangled at eye-level with the forested mountain range that we crossed, the glaciers we faced were now far away in the background, the glorious river that kept us company for so long was now a tiny shoestring winding below us, and the train tracks that we followed from Hidroelectrica to the base of Machu Picchu were barely noticeable, had Wes not pointed them out.  We thought of those tiny little family-run establishments that were tucked in there somewhere, like the coffee farm we visited, the wooden shacks with the popsicles and beer, and the homes bordering our campsites.  We thought of how terribly far it felt from the beginning to the end and the many different experiences along the way, but then we also realized that 46 miles is really not much of a distance, relatively speaking.  How amazing is Peru, that it can offer so much in such a short expanse.  We couldn't stop thinking about how it was so worth it, and so magical, to walk through this largely unfrequented part of the country and to be able to stop and appreciate everything - from the tiniest plant to the highest mountain pass.

We ended on a celebratory lunch at the nice buffet up at Machu Picchu and REALLY pigged out.  It was the first time we were eating just the two of us, so I was able to take my sweet time.  Clearly we didn't try too hard on the photos here... too dead tired and hungry.  Lined up for the bus afterward and completely knocked out on the ride down.

Back in Aguas Calientes, I had just enough time to purchase some postcards and filled them in while Wes took some photos of some neighborhood kids playing marbles.  

The train ride to Ollantaytambo was not bad- they even gave us tea and snacks like on an airplane.  We were met by a person holding the Salkantay Trekking sign at the station and then from there, we took the van/bus all the way back to Cusco. We all slept deeply in that hour-and-a-half bus ride.  Drooled all over Wes's arm and my own.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 4

Day 5

Day 5
It was sad when we had to say goodbye to everyone as they got off the bus one group at a time.  We were blessed with a truly a great group of people for the past 5 days.  It couldn't have been better.  

We were the last two out, since we lived the farthest up in Cusco.  We stumbled back up to our hostel in the dark, up the steep stone streets of the San Blas neighborhood with our duffels over our shoulders, and it was so tiring that I don't even know how we did the Salkantay Trek... reached the front gate and I swear this was the most exhaustion I've felt all week.  Almost was too lazy to shower but glad that I did before dying in our bed. Thank goodness we booked the same hostel for our return! It was very nice to go back to familiarity after a disorienting five days. Can't believe that we were in Machu Picchu earlier that same morning!

We had so much fun on this trek and it's definitely something that I'm glad that we did together while we still have the exuberance and energy to get 'er done!  To be fully immersed in nature and to get a glimpse of the way people live and have been living in the mountains made the Salkantay Trek an amazing alternative to the traditional Inca Trail, something that we feel extremely lucky to have been able to experience.

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