Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu

We arrived during a hot midday in Cuzco after some rather cold evenings around Lake Titikaka. It was day two of my raging strep infection, which I hoped meant that soon things would start to clear up, but little did I know the swelling would follow me all the way to Machu Picchu. The thing was...we had a 5 day hike before we would get there.

Our trek through Salkantay pass is named after the highest peak in the Vilacamba mountain range near Cuzco, Peru. We decided to do this more nature inspired hike, rather than the more popular 3 day Inca trail. Despite my illness, I am glad we endured 5 days of hiking prior finishing in Machu Picchu, because it made the city feel all the more mysterious, awe-inspiring, and spiritual. Although, the photos are a tad more sweaty.

Alright, but let's go back to the beginning. After a restless night of sleep, our trek began with our hotel pick up at 4:15 am. Restless because apparently celebrating Catholic saints in Peru means lighting off fireworks and parades in the street into the early hours of the morning. As we stood outside in the dark, hearing the pops of fireworks, our guide arrived in a taxi, paid the bill and promptly told us to follow. Still half asleep we obeyed, our first experience with our guide's quick pace. We met the rest of our group; Three other young couples from Canada and the Netherlands and two brothers from Belgium. Our guide named our group the "Pachamamas," meaning Mother Earths in the indigenous languages of Quechua and Aymara. He told us we are now a family, to which we responded with quiet awkward nodding, oblivious to the solidarity we would come to feel with our group.

After a 3 hour drive from the city of Cuzco, we began the hike in a sunny valley following along a water canal. Having driven this far outside the city, we were starting our hike at a much higher altitude in preparation for the following day when we would hike the Salkantay pass. I can't remember how high we were, but it was high enough to start the conversation with our guide about the all powerful coca leaf.

"Coca is not the cocaine guys," he explained, "cocaine has the chemicals that are bad, guys, coca comes from the earth, the pachamama." Its better with his wonderful accent, but you get the point. Coca leaves are an important part of Andean indigenous culture and remain important to many people in Peru and Bolivia today. It is used medicinally and recreationally as a stimulant, analgesic, and to prevent altitude sickness. It can be consumed raw by chewing or in a tea, and contains many essential minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, B and E vitamins, wikipedia tells me. The leaf is also used in many religious practices and offerings to mother earth. The alkaloid content of the coca leaf, the part that gets you high, is only about .25%-.77%, according to wikipedia, and we can stand by not really feeling much from consuming it. Despite this, coca leaf crops have been highly regulated and outlawed in most countries. The United States specifically had a huge role in cracking down on coca leaf farmers in Bolivia as part of the war on drugs. Now consumption and production are legal in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador, but not without controversy which we quite frankly feel is overrated.

Ari embraced the coca leaf:

I didn't enjoy the taste as much:

We had chosen a pretty lovely tour company complete with built campsites along the trek, cooks who made exorbitant amounts of food for our tired bodies, and horses to carry our bags. We completed our first day with a hike to a lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks and went to bed promptly around 7 pm, cause we know how to party.

The second day was one of the hardest. We awoke to the knock of Walter, our guide, at 5 am, greeting us with hot coca tea. In the cold we started our trek for a an hour or so before arriving to a steep ridge with a number of switchbacks, "the seven snakes challenge." Competing for space with horses along the path we struggled to the top, our breathing becoming more strained as we gained altitude.

Soon, the peaks were covered with snow and we made it to the highest point on the pass. We were greeted by our guide with coca tea and left three leaves as an offering to pachamama, mother earth, who gave us the strength to come so far. We had made it to 4600 meters, 15,091 feet.

We felt really proud of ourselves and our group of Pachamamas for being the first group of all the other trekking groups to make it to the top of the pass. In particular, we were glad to beat these two bros, who despite having the chiseled bods one sees in fitness magazines, arrived gasping for air and flopping on account of their chicken legs that were unable to carry their massive upper beach body muscles. Ari's words, not mine ;)

We then began a very very steep decent down. Hours of down down down, pressure on the knees. We hiked about 22 km, 13 miles, total that day. Ari arrived to our scheduled happy hour and promptly consumed ALL of the popcorn.

The third day was a bit of a rest. We hiked only in the morning along a new landscape. Now at a much lower altitude we passed waterfalls, rushing streams, and were surrounded by greenery. In the afternoon we visited a local hangout of hot springs which were constructed pools that used the natural hot spring water. Ari gave his new Belgian friends a rundown of the civil war and American politics while the rest of us listened a little glazed over. Also, did I mention I still had really terrible strep? Luckily, Dr. Nahum kept me medicated with ibuprofen and Tylenol around the clock, and was able to purchase some more antibiotics in the town we passed through.

We experienced a little mishap that evening when the tour bus in front of our van broke down as we were returning from the hot springs. Problem was that, akin to the death road in Bolivia, the road was quite narrow. So narrow that in many places, two cars could not comfortably pass, so one would have to back up to reach an area with enough space to pull to the side. With a breakdown, passage became impossible. Fortunately the problem was quickly solved by people just trading van taxis on each side of the broken bus. I still think the breakdown happened cause the bros were on that bus.

On day 4 I finally was feeling some relief from the strep, which was good because we had another long hike ahead. Again we began with a steep hike up followed by what felt like an endless shlog back down a mountain. From a viewpoint at the top we were able to see the far off terraces of Machu Picchu and surrounding Andes mountains. The layers of blue were breathtaking, and we were feeling the excitement of being close to the end.

Except we weren't there yet. There is no road one can travel by car or bus to enter the nearby tourist town of Aguas Calientes next to Machu Picchu. Rather, persons enter via train, or by walking...alongside the train tracks, and here's the kicker: its about a 3 hour hike. This will come into play a little later in the story too. While the surrounding scenery was beautiful, this part of the journey felt quite uninteresting and all the more strenuous. The roar of the train whistle was relentless. Our guide, Walter, seemed to want to get it over with pretty quickly too, and we had a tough time following him through crowds of tourists, but we made it through and were rewarded with hot showers in the end.

Finally, it was day five, the one we had worked so hard for, the day to see Machu Picchu. Entrance to the site is limited to 2,500 tourists per day and there are two entrance times. One at 6 am and again at 12pm. We decided to hike up the mountain side in the early hours of the morning, again, to really feel a sense of accomplishment upon entering the park. Hundreds of other tourists also elect to walk, rather than take the bus from Auguas Calientes to the park entrance, but they are not all as zen as Ari and I. No, apparently 4:30 am is an appropriate time to blast Maroon 5 and eye of the tiger from your portable speaker for all to hear. Luckily we had worked hard for this moment and ran right past those assholes with the two Belgians from our group, though not without some serious evil eye shade. The hike was literally and hour of climbing stairs, but we did it!

So sweaty:

Machu Picchu was historically a religious, royal and agricultural estate. It was relatively small Inca city in comparison to others in the sacred valley, Cuzco being the capital after all. The city was abandoned around the time of the Spanish colonial period, potentially due to disease. As a result, it was never found or known to the Spanish and for this reason holds such high importance and is so well preserved. Although farmers lived in areas around Machu Picchu its discovery is credited to a historian from Yale University, Hiram Bingham, who was looking for the lost Inca city. While not the first to visit the site, Bingham brought it to international attention and organized clearing and excavation of the site. Unfortunately, he removed many artifacts from the site for study at Yale, and for which Peru is still seeking repatriation.

Ari among the ruins:

Stones from more important or religious buildings are more perfectly cut and fit:

Terracing was used to grow a variety food and plants, more than could otherwise be done because it raised soil temperatures. Now there are llamas on the terraces for us tourists:

Following a tour of the area with our guide, it was time to give him some tips and an awkward goodbye, as well as complete our last hike of the journey. There are two peaks to hike in Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountain. We went up the higher one, Machu Picchu mountain, because we heard it was less crowded and because Huayna Picchu was sold out.

Ari was not a huge fan of the narrow path, uneven stairs, and mainly steep drops off the mountainside. However, we decided as long as there was some "vegetation" we would probably be alright.

That mountain!

So many stairs:

But the views were pretty epic:

We made it to the top just in time to sneak a peak before the clouds rolled in, and of course made better time than the bros. Ari even took a super cheesy photo with me.

Afterwards, we had some time to explore on our own before returning to catch the train. It had started to rain a bit, but the mist gave a mysterious air to the experience as well. We took a short walk along an Inca trail leading to the city, indulging in more panoramic views and sheer cliff drops.

Returning to the city for a quick carb loaded lunch, we gathered our belongings and made our way to the train station where we hoped to encounter the rest of our Pachamama group. The station was PACKED with tourists. People were reclined on the ground, drinking beer and playing cards in circles, clearly camped out for quite some time. While none of the grounds-workers told us the situation when they checked our tickets, we quickly discovered that the trains were heavily delayed as a result of a crash that had occurred earlier in the day. Allegedly, there had been a protest by local people who were unable to gain entry to Machu Picchu and as a result blocked the train tracks, which as I mentioned is the only way into the area. Not realizing the delay another train crashed into one which was stopped. Luckily there were no fatalities, but the event caused significant delay, chaos, and general lack of communication. Oddly, however, the other pachamamas were nowhere to be found. We lingered a while, finding some other tour groups (the bros, ick) that we recognized, who's guide assured us the trains had to leave some time today, because "what would the city do with all these people." An announcement finally came on saying something like "We are sorry for the delay, at this time we do not have an estimate for when the trains will leave."

In exploring the station, Ari and I found a somewhat empty waiting room that appeared to be for first class passengers, but was clearly not being monitored. We made ourselves comfortable, but could still not get over the fact that none of the pachamamas were at the station. Eventually, Ari went to go look for our comrades, and found them at one of the hostels we stayed at. They were discussing a plan to walk the three hours along the tracks until there was a bus station, resistant to wait for the train. Not an ideal plan, we thought, but at least we had found them. They decided to reunite with us at the station, and there was rumblings in the air of some movement. Perhaps there was a train? The two Belgians in our group had a flight the next morning, and were discussing the option with staff about getting on the first train that would leave, as many would have to depart through the night in order to get everyone out.

We settled in together, for what we expected to be many hours of waiting. The first class waiting room was packed at this point, as was the general waiting area, sidewalks, and garden surrounding the station. Then, magically, a random man appeared asking just our group if we had tickets with the IncaRail train company. He informed us that the train was immediately about to depart. We gathered our supplies, searching for all of the members of our group and miraculously the train had just enough space left to seat all 10 of us. Looking back, I think our Belgian friends may have spoken with the man about leaving early on account of their flight, and perhaps assumed we all needed the same. Regardless, somehow the pachamamas were able to stick together, and as a family, we all returned to Cusco, leaving the bros behind.

A somewhat fantastical end to a splendid journey. We will never forget our family of pachamamas and Walter who brought us together, but never was able to learn our names.


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