Salkantay Trek: The (Incan) Road to Machu Picchu–June 8-11, 2012

With less than a month remaining in our “many moons,” the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was really our final big event before flying home to rejoin the daily grind of reality. Machu Picchu is one of those places that you can learn about and imagine in great detail while still having no real idea what to expect when you actually lay eyes on it in person. Needless to say, both Sarah and beheld the five day adventure ahead of us with eager excitement.

Our first morning got off to a rough start, though, when we descended the stairs of our hostel at 5:15 sharp to await our bus to the trailhead. We had made all the necessary preparations the night before, considering we had to be up before the crack of the ass, and woke up ready to rock and roll. The only problem was that the bus didn’t show up; we waited an hour, but still no one came. I waited outside for a few minutes every now and then but saw no one except for a few drunken teenage girls staggering home from their Corpus Christi celebration of the previous night. The poor kid who managed the hotel at night tried to call their office, but of course, the bus leaves before the office opens…allegedly. Finally, I decided to walk down to the hotel beside the office; the SAS tour company owned the hotel, and I figured they could get a hold of someone to help me…if not, at least I would have someone to yell at besides drunken teenage girls staggering home.

I had just stomped through the remains of Cuzco’s wild party…I daresay their port-a-potties could use mending…when I met up with a panicked looking dude in an SAS jacket. Apparently he had been running around everywhere in search of our small hostel. Granted the place, set back in a group of apartments on a road currently closed for construction, was a little hard to find. They had the address, though, and even though the hotel sign was halfway between our door and the next, there were only two doors, and ours had a clearly labeled doorbell for the “Chakana House” (a lovely, cheap bed and breakfast, by the way). Anyway, we were soon piling onto the bus, slightly afraid that 13 other trekkers might want blood after an hour of waiting while the workers apparently ran back and forth in front of our door…although, I found it strange that they looked nothing like drunken teenage girls, but I still hadn’t seen them.

At first, neither of us had been thrilled with the prospect of trekking in a group of 17 tourists and the accompanying entourage of guides, cooks, and horsemen porters…a large group even by Josh Lockerby (our good Mazama friend) standards! J Lots of things can go wrong with so many people, and 17 personalities seemed like a pretty tight fit, but we were soon to find that we had lucked out and were about to make some great new friends. We started to meet people over breakfast halfway through the trip to the trailhead, and were soon (literally) all in the same boat…er truck…that they piled us all into for over an hour of extremely bumpy, curvy roads. It was here that I realized that I had my arm around a nice English chap who looked very similar to our good friend Jonas, if Jonas didn’t spend hours in the weight room! After a few minutes of deliberation about how creepy I would come off if I immediately asked the stranger I was hugging to have a picture with me, Chris and I were officially new friends.

The first two days of our 60 kilometer trek would be the toughest as we would hike to a mountain pass at 4600 meters, where we would hopefully be staring up at stunning views of 6270 m Salkantay. Although, it was currently the dry season here, it had rained in Cuzco the previous two days, and quite a bit of fresh snow had fallen in the hills; our prospects of sleeping at 4000 m weren’t so good then, and we were most likely in for a much shorter first day. Basically, the first section of trail climbed gently uphill on a dirt road with sporadic farms, green hills, and the lovely river valley running below us. As we hiked, we did our best to meet everyone; we had a wide variety of people in our group–Colorado, Michigan, New York, Calgary, Russia, Singapore, England, Holland, and Hungary, as well as our Peruvian crew–and all had interesting stories once I began to get nosy.

After a rainy half hour into our lunch spot, we got our first taste of one of my favorite parts of the trek…the gourmet food! If our first lunch was any indication of the meals to come, we really did have “to feel so lucky, chicos,” as our guide Freddy reminded us every two seconds…although he, having drank too much the night before and then forgotten half his personal gear in Cuzco, wasn’t feeling so lucky himself, and I began wondering about the competence of our chubby trekking guide. Anyway, the menu consisted of cream of spinach soup, cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh avocados (as one hiker noted, the bacon of all fruits), rice, and curried chicken. Everything was spectacular!

We finally got some sun after lunch, and the mountains came out partially as well. So far, the scenery had been impressive, even with the spotty weather and low clouds. When the mountains are around 6000 m tall, partial views are still pretty good. As expected, we slept quite low because of the snow, but at least we would be a little warmer. Thankfully, the clouds lifted just before sunset, and we got our first truly decent views of the mountains surrounding the high elevation cow field we were currently occupying…head lamps mandatory when dodging the land mines on the way to el bano natural…before we popped into the dining tent for popcorn and tea. After a delicious dinner, we shared a couple of rounds of hot totties spiked with the rum our group had gone in on together, and so we went to bed warm after our first day’s hike.

Day 2

Each day began with Milton, our camp coordinator, calling from outside the tent, Hola! Hola! Wakeup Tea! He would then leave two cups of tea for us, joking that it contained rum or whiskey, and two bowls of hot water that we could use to wash our faces. I plan on petitioning the Mazamas to begin this service when I return, but only on climbs in which I do not assist. On this particular morning, though, the cold air had awakened me long before Milton came around, and I was quite happy to get going after slugging down a couple of pancakes and a bowl of delicious quinoa porridge.

Already the most difficult day of the trek, we had piled on a couple of extra hours by sleeping low, so we had to get moving early on day two. I was glad that our group was fit, though, and we made it to the pass with minimal altitude problems among our ranks; Sarah and I must fully be acclimated because neither of us felt any worse for wear as we climbed to the pass, although we did get a little winded during the snowball fight we had at the spot where we should have camped the previous night. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any good views of Salkantay because the weather was pretty cloudy, but we would have another chance in a couple of days when we would be looking from the other side.

Just below the pass, it began to snow, which turned to rain not far below. A soggy couple of hours brought us into our lunch spot, where we also managed to wait out the rain. After lunch (ceviche, and many other tasty treats!), we still had a long hike as we began to descend through a more jungle-like area on our way down to 2800 m Collpa Pampa…a flat spot halfway between the mountains and true jungle. Probably the neatest feature of this stretch was the spider bamboo plant, which grows 2 cm per day in this area (up to 6 cm daily in bonafide rainforest) and truly looks like a family of spiders sliding down a long reed pole. During the walk, we hiked mostly with our friends Kricket, Scott, and Conner (sorry about my Americanized spelling of your name, bud)–all three were extremely nice and had great senses of humor (translation…they laughed at my jokes!), and we really enjoyed spending time with them on the trails!

It was after dark by the time we all reached camp, and it had been a great day. I was disappointed with our guide, though, because he left several inexperienced hikers by themselves; it would be difficult to get lost on the trail, but some of them had been dealing with minor problems on the way down. Moreover, our fearless leader immediately got someone to buy him a beer and hadn’t even taken a head count in camp; he didn’t even know who was still missing! Everyone got in okay, but I have a pretty good idea where that bottle of beer would have ended up if it was the first thing I saw after being left out in the dark in the jungle!

Day 3

Our fearless leader, whom I had privately dubbed Freddie the Flatulent, for all the hot foul air that came out of his mouth, had promised that our third day would be full of fun activities (in addition to another nice trek), and for once, he wasn’t full of it. By the end of the day, we had done all kinds of fun stuff, had a beer or three, and crawled into our tent with that wholly satisfied exhaustion that is so rare and euphoric–the perfect blend of exertion and leisure.

The day’s hike was really easy, a downhill walk through the jungle that descended only 500 meters to La Playa, a riverside village along the Urubamba at 2300 m, which was like sea level compared to where we’d been the past few weeks. By this time, our group had really bonded, and hiking together was loads of fun. We had all packed our swimsuits because there was supposed to be a waterfall that we could swim under; my plan was to be among the first into the falls, which would require only one mad dash and a lunge back out as opposed to those who went later, thus requiring a longer stay as the bar was raised higher…no one remembers the dude who goes first! In the end, the waterfall was not really a place you could swim under, and none of us did anything but appreciate it’s beauty while the suits remained packed.

The scenery in the high jungle, or Ceja de Seha, continued to be marvelous as we descended. In addition to the spider bamboo, we saw all kinds of flowers–purple lupine, big yellow conical flowers that grew out of large shrubs, red teardrop buds, wild strawberry blossoms, and a very pretty pink blossom with purple leaves (bromalia, I think we call it at home) all brightened up the hillsides below us. We also passed through banana and passion fruit plantations, stopping to purchase the latter for a juicy cool treat in the heat of the late morning sun. Also interesting was the sensitive fern, which shrinks from the human touch; apparently, Sarah had a collection of plants in college that she named after her male friends according to the characteristics they shared…the sensitive fern was among them. I probably would have been a skunk weed.

Our adventure for the day was a rickety “gondola” ride in a steel framed box with a wood plank seat across the valley several hundred feet above the river. I think that Freddie the Flatulent tried to sneak across without paying the local guy who was in charge of the car because the man came running down after us and a short but heated argument ensued before we were allowed to cross. I also had one of my more embarrassing moments of the trip here; I had stepped away from the group to take a pee and was happily in midstream when the guy’s daughter came running down the trail. In my haste to tuck it in, I dribbled a good deal of pee down the front of my shorts. Luckily, I was really well hydrated, so I wasn’t the stinky kid for the rest of the day, but I did have to spend a few extra minutes developing a sudden fascination with ferns before it was safe to rejoin the group.

The cable car was quite fun; it just ran on a rope and pulley system that two people would set into motion by pushing the car off of the edge. Momentum would carry the passengers most of the way, and then Eddie the Assistant and Joshuwa, a big strong guy from Calgary, would reel the car in the rest of the way by pulling the ropes…the key was for the front person in the cart to take out the slack by grabbing the ring holding the nearest length of rope to them. Sarah and I rode across with a girl named Maria, a Russian native who currently lived in London; we did our best to scream bloody murder the whole way, although it was neither super fast nor scary, in order to make it extra fun. All the way, we could look down, way down, into the river far below. By this time, Eddie and Joshuwa had been pulling people across for nearly half an hour, so I volunteered to take a turn doing the hard work. Because the car basically came to a full stop before you took the passengers’ weight, hauling the rope in still demanded a lot of tugging. The first group I pulled in made it pretty interesting when the first guy dropped the rope…all of a sudden all tension was gone, and I slowly realized that the edge of the cliff was getting closer and closer! Luckily, reality set in and I dug in at about the same time both Eddie and Joshuwa lunged for me (thanks, guys!), and it was business as usual, except I had a little less skin left on my fingers!

La Playa was an hour and a half down the road, and again I was disappointed to see the guides leave the slower folks behind…this time because Peru had a football game that afternoon, and the campground had a television. The rest of our crew, however, did an amazing job, and it was sheer luxury to come into camp stick our bags inside our tent, and accept a cup of coca tea while our cook and his assistants prepared another scrumptious meal. For all Freddie the Flatulent’s ineptitude, his crew was fantastic! After lunch, we had most of the afternoon to relax, and I had a great time kicking a soccer ball around with the campground owner’s young children.

One of the big things for the day was supposed to be a friendly soccer match, so we all walked over to the local pitch to choose teams. Freddie the Flatulent insisted on betting for beers, which was interesting considering he just helped himself to people’s beers anyway (Chicos, salud!), although he did have the good sense to stay away from mine. That upped the ante, plus we had several competitive personalities and some soccer players too, and the game quickly became more serious than it should have been. The pitch was both our best asset and worst liability; it was the worst pitch I’ve ever seen. Aside from the odd brick or dung pile you might encounter, much of it looked as though the soldiers might be adding barbed wire to the trenches any day now, and any control of the ball was a joke. I quickly tied my boot laces all the way around my bad ankle and resolved to maintain half speed the whole game…most of the time, I remembered.

Julio, the cook, was easily the best player on the pitch, but Milton, Eddie, and Kricket were all good players, too. Freddie the Flatulent’s best talents were cheating and changing the rules, not to mention dirty fouls. After a particularly dirty hit on one of my teammates, my old instincts came back…Freddie simply needed to eat turf the next time I was near both him and the ball. Mission accomplished, he retaliated with a really nasty slide tackle from behind, and so I had to nail him once again. He finally backed off, and I settled down again and remembered that the game was supposed to be fun. Sometimes when you don’t have those competitive moments often as you get older, you let them get the best of you, and I noticed that my wife had a lot better attitude and also seemed to be having more fun. While I was busy puffing out my chest, she was scoring a hat trick (although we might have to have a talk about the offsides rule!) and her giggles and waving arms whenever the ball came near helped some of us remember that it’s just fun and games. Maybe I should have her next to me in the coaching box back home! I found the goal shortly after for a game winner (we played 2 out 3) and then remembered that I am 34, out of shape, and have a mushy ankle; from then on, it was defense only…after all, my wife was killing my team by scoring all those goals!

By the time, the sun went down and we called the game, everyone was all smiles; even Freddie the Flatulent and I high-fived, although neither one of us would be sending postcards after the week was over…but I had already known that by the end of day one. This was our last night of camping, and Julio had outdone himself now that he had more than a propane tank and a two-burner camp stove to work with; it was Italian night: pasta parmesan, veggie pizza, stuffed chili peppers, and stuffed chicken, too! To top it off, he had baked and iced a beautifully decorated, moist tasting cake…Julio truly was a genuine chef (and a damn good soccer player to boot)! After dinner, we had a bonfire and a couple of beers, happily exhausted from a fun-filled day!

 Day 4

Our final day of trekking was more difficult than we had expected, partly because of the extreme heat and also because both of us had burned up a bunch of fast-twitch muscle that had sat idle for months and now was screaming in painful protest! The three hours it took to climb the hill out of the jungle were hot and painful, but we did get some nice views of the valley and surrounding hills. Of course, as with every hill we climbed in a third world country, we would know the summit was close when he came upon a stone staircase with ridiculously high steps in the middle of nowhere. These steps, known as “The Gringo Killers,” left me wondering how the Incas, who were fairly short people even for the time period in which they reigned, ever went anywhere.

After a well deserved rest (and a pledge to act my age…a promise I seem to make often but seldom manage to remember), we walked downhill and encountered the highlight of the day: the Incan ruins of Llaqtapa. Because Sarah already described ruins in the Sacred Valley and will soon post about Machu Picchu, as well, I won’t say anything about the ruins, except to mention that this had once been a village on the Salkantay trade route that we had been following the past few days. The views on the other hand, including Salkantay and all of the surrounding mountains, not to mention our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, tucked in among countless towering green cliffs across the valley, were nothing short of phenomenal…well worth the strenuous climb up that morning’s hill.

We finished the trek about 90 minutes later after zigzagging steeply down the hill and across the river to a hydroelectric plant where we met the railroad tracks. After one last welcome tea from Milton and one final culinary dream from Julio, we said goodbye to that portion of our crew and piled onto the train for the short ride to tourist hub Aguas Caliente. Here, we got a bed and a hot shower; most of the group went to check out the hot springs outside of town, but they are sulfurous and so might make throat close, so Sarah and I put our sore legs up and rested awhile…the verdict upon the group’s return…those springs look and smell like pee. We hit town for a “Gringo Killer Happy Hour” with our friends, and then hit the sack right after dinner. Our 60 kilometer trek had been awesome…great scenery, a few adventures, and new fun friends…but the lost city of Machu Picchu sat awaiting us just up the hill.

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