When they tell you a trek is “not for beginners”, it also means “not for intermediates” and “not for experienced hikers”. Rather, it means “for Indiana Jones if he did steroids”. I was going to start this story at the beginning of the trek, but I decided to start it before the beginning, at 4am the morning of our trek, because that’s when all the shenanigans started.
There’s something you should know about Peruvian culture that plays a significant role in this story. When a Peruvian tells you they’ll meet you at a certain time, you can expect them at minimum an hour after that time. So when our guide texted us to tell us he would pick us up between 4:30 and 5am, we decided 4:10 would be a good time to wake up and pack since realistically, he wouldn’t be there until at least 5:30. At 4:20, a guide was outside our hostel to pick us up, which was both unexpected and strange. We frantically packed and then followed him through the streets of Cusco, picking up 60 other people and a pack of stray dogs. After we’re all settled and about to leave, we’re stopped and told we’re on the wrong bus! Somehow the wrong tour guide from a different trekking company had picked us up, and we were put into another tour group that only had 7 other people. Classic mixup.
After approximately 52 stops to get gas, equipment, food, and probably the bus driver’s sister-in-law’s prescription, we were finally on our way. The 2.5 hour drive was encouraging, especially as we passed another bus who had to stop for a girl puking and a car that fell off the side of the cliff. Eventually we make it to the starting point, and thanks to my doctor’s anti-motion sickness prescription, my breakfast was still inside my body. Somehow, Ryan and I missed the memo that we didn’t have to carry all of our equipment ourselves. And that we didn’t need to bring our own camping equipment. And that water wasn’t available to buy at the start of the hike. Oh and also, that the trek was 5 days, not 4 like we thought. We got our backpacks that were the size of small Peruvian children and started the trek. Well, for about 3 minutes until we needed to stop and recover from the crippling altitude. These 3 minute intervals continued for about an hour, and basically turned into a killer HIT workout (literally and figuratively).
Day 1 continued like this, and when we finally made it to our campsite we had an opportunity to hike to a glacier mountain another 1000 meters up the mountain. For those of you who don’t know how long 1000 meters is, it’s approximately the distance between El Paso and anything else worth noting in Texas. We did it, and it was totally worth the altitude sickness. It was one of the most beautiful, serene, and mesmerizing bodies of water I have ever seen. Also, we met a super cool guy named Andre from the UK who was feeling the altitude more than we were, and we instantly formed a friendship with him and are now altitude-sickness buddies.
There are many names for Salkantay Pass, including “Salkankay” like the original Incan, and “hell” as some of us lovingly refer to it as. We started our trek to hell knowing that Day 2 would be the hardest, but having no idea just what it would entail. Instead of describing it in explicit detail, here are some pictures I snapped of Ryan on the way up that describe both the mood and crippling altitude sickness.
Just when you thought you were done with the uphill, you would turn a corner and see how much worse it was about to get. The top was admittedly gorgeous, but Ryan and I were both so sick from the altitude our tour guide, Carlos, strongly encouraged us to begin our descent. Believe it or not, altitude can kill you, and every second of altitude sickness feels like you’re about to die. We snapped some pictures to prove we were there, and made our way down towards the cloud forest.
Side note: Carlos is truly the reason we made it through the trek, both emotionally and physically. His encouragement, support, and positivity kept us motivated throughout the trek, and his wisdom, coca tea, and advice kept us alive. Literally.
Anyway, so the trail went from the top of the pass, which was a tundra terrain, down to the jungle a few thousand meters below. While passing into the cloud forest, which is the start of the jungle, it started raining. Hard. In fact, for a second I couldn’t tell if I was in Peru or Houston. I also had to ask a random hikers on the trail for Ibuprofen for an old knee injury, and finally met a woman who didn’t speak English but pointed to her knee brace and pulled a pack of pills out of her backpack. I still don’t know what that pill was, but it wasn’t anything too wild because I’m still here writing this blog. We got to the second campsite and ended up camping on a second story porch, which was literally a gift from God.
Day 3 was definitely my favorite day!! The rain had subsided, we were at a low enough altitude to not feel totally miserable, and we mainly followed a dirt road for the majority of the day so it was easy on the joints. The mosquitoes here look like fruit flies and travel in swarms, so I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. While hiking, we visited many little villages that are virtually inaccessible by road, and we were able to eat avocados straight from the tree. It totally redefined my avocado expectations. We made our way to Santa Teresa where we visited the hotsprings, tried Inca Tequila, and enjoyed quality time with our trekking group.
The last day of the trek before Machu Picchu wasn’t inherently awful. In fact, it started off incredibly! We zip lined between different mountains in the Andes, and had a fantastic time. We took a bus to a small train town before Machu Picchu, ate lunch, and began the three hour hike along the train tracks. Almost immediately after lunch, I knew something was wrong. I paid my respects to the porcelain throne and began the trek. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. I promptly stopped at the next available restroom, where I found many fellow trekkers vying for the same toilet. Which by the way, didn’t have toilet paper and barely had running water. It was comparable to a port-a-potty if port-a-potty’s had flooded dirt floors, no lights, and required money to be used. The rest of the trek continued in this manner, and 6/9 of the trekkers in our group turned the hike into a bar crawl, except it wasn’t bars, it was bathrooms. When we finally arrived to Aguas Calientes, Ryan and I did a load of laundry in the upstairs attic of our hostel, by hand, and hung it up to dry. I had to snap a picture because I have never experienced anything quite like this.
I need an entire blog post to properly describe Machu Picchu, so keep watching for it!
Here are some of my final thoughts about the trek.
For every bad thing that happened on the trek, there was someone who showed so much kindness, generosity, and compassion that it ended up being a phenomenal experience. Whether it was Veronica, Cosmo, and Moritz offering us water and altitude sickness medication when we needed it, Carlos offering support and guidance as we tried not to die from the altitude, Hector and Ansay sticking with us during the bar crawl and encouraging us as we went, Ryan being the most selfless, encouraging partner I could have asked for, or Pascal and Jana staying positive and pleasant even when everyone in our group was sick, the people we met made the trip worth it. By the end of the trip, Ryan and I both felt like we had developed a special hodge-podge trekking family in South America that we could count on in our worst and best moments.
Meeting people in these virtually inaccessible villages really changed my perspective on both happiness and wealth. In these communities, wealth is measured by how many animals you have, not by how much money or how big your house is. It definitely made me appreciate what I have more, and see the relatively subjective nature of wealth.
I will never take for granted a toilet that can flush toilet paper again. Or laundry machines.