Where to begin? This blog entry will focus exclusively on the 5-Day, “60 km” (turned out to be 80!) Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu that Piper and I recently completely. It is a very personal and lengthy entry, you have been warned.
The last 5 days have been a blur of sweet bliss, awe, joy, camaraderie with a healthy dose of complications, rough times and hard-core challenge. Our adventure began with Piper and I waking up (if you can call it that, neither of us slept a wink) at 3:30 am for a 4:15 am pickup by Alpaca Expeditions, our fantastic trekking company. I had such positive vibes about this experience, having met our teammates at the previous evening’s meeting. We were 8 trekkers, 4 porters, 1 cook and 1 guide. Our team was made up of Piper and myself, two awesome dudes from Germany ~ Jens and Rolf ~ and a beautiful family from France, but residing in Morocco: Julie, Jean-Noel and their two 13-year old twin sons, Pierre and Clement. I was incredibly stoked to dust off my German and also put the old French skills to good use, and further stoked that each one of these individuals were absolute top-drawer, first-class humans (in other words: no assholes on the team).
Feeling the kind of nervous energy similar to my previous mountain climbs, I said some silent prayers as our bus pulled away from Cusco and began a winding, 3-hour journey up to an elevation of 3,800M. Though I felt fairly well-acclimatized from our time in both the Sacred Valley and Cusco itself (Cusco proper is 3,300M), I secretly worried about this first day, as we were warned it would be the most challenging given the gain in altitude. It seemed that we all had similar thoughts and our guide, the amazing Felix, attempted to quell nerves by reminding us that we were all stronger than we realized and so much of the struggle would be mind over matter. On the bus, he also enlightened us about the recent Peruvian election. I had been seeing graffiti and signs everywhere on behalf of the female candidate named “Keiko”. Apparently, she was the daughter of the previous President, who was actually sent to prison for 25 years due to some corruption and many other “bad” things. Despite all of this, the past President (who was also Japanese but married to a Peruvian) was apparently one of the best Presidents the country had ever had, taking Peru out of its economic turmoil and manoeuvring it away from decades of violence and internal terrorism. Out of all this, I learned that the daughter, lost the election by 0.5%; indicating a complete split within the country between the new incoming President and this lady. It was fascinating for us to finally get some context for all the campaigning and propaganda we had been seeing since arriving in Peru!
But I digress! We pulled up to the trailhead an were met with incredible vistas in every direction, with the dauntingly beautiful Salkantay Mountain (6,250M) in the foreground. The sun was shining brightly as we all slapped on a healthy dose of sunscreen and peeled away a few layers. Before heading up, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast that had been whipped up in about 20 minutes: scrambled eggs, fresh buns with jam and butter, fruit of all kinds, hot coffee, tea or chocolate and some fried bologna. My initial hope of shedding a few pre-trip pounds on this trip was immediately abandoned… indeed, the food just got better and better!
The first day was everything I could have imagined. One foot in front of the other, up some steep sections, climbing to an altitude of 15,000 + ft; breathing in the crisp, dry air and feeling the sun on our backs. Of our little gang of trekkers, Pierre was by far the fastest and set his pace right from the get-go. On the other hand, I hung out at the back of the pack, reserving my energy as best I could. My joke with Felix was to expect a “tortuga-like” pace…. that of a turtle, but eventually I would get there. Before long, even Piper was way ahead of me and I found myself feeling guilty for not being right by her side. My thoughts were constantly of her, was she drinking enough water (so important to stay hydrated to avoid altitude sickness), was she finding these 45 degree paths brutal, did she regret coming… the list goes on. Alas she was in great hands, my fellow trekkers were on her like white on rice, ensuring she took breaks and had her quota of required water. After about an hour of this separation, we reconnected. Turns out I had taken the “easier” path towards the summit, unbeknownst to me. Meanwhile, she and the others had headed up a steep trail called the Seven Snakes Switchback, a much steeper and longer pass to our first rest stop. I guess I had kind of, unknowingly, “cheated” lol! And I never heard the end of it either!
At the summit or highest pass of our entire trek, we all took stock of our personal well-being. The family from Morocco was feeling strong, having just completed another trek in the Santa Cruz area. They were VERY well acclimatized and strong. The Germans admitted to feeling like complete Scheisse (sure you can figure out this word), as they had only recently arrived from Europe and did not spend much time in Cusco prior to. I had a bit of a headache but otherwise felt unfazed, notwithstanding some shaky legs from the continuous uphill climb. Piper was cold, but good! We all snapped the obligatory pics and didn’t stay too long as it was very windy and chilly up there. About half hour later and downhill, a 4-course lunch awaited us under the protection of a large dining tent. Yes, four courses. This is roughing it, folks! It was delicious. I was floored with our chef and the porters and all they could accomplish in the middle of nowhere and under these conditions (high altitude, difficult passes, lugging all this stuff up on our behalf).
Our day of trekking ended around 6:00 pm as we saw our first campsite off in the distance. I felt so much gratitude and actually shed a few tears over the sheer beauty of this area. What a world we live in! The Andes are majestic and young and full of so much life. How blessed were we to spend some time in their shadows, walking along the same trail built by the Incans hundreds of years ago. I still felt fairly alright, despite this campsite’s altitude of 4,000M and was thrilled with the size of our tents (4-person tent for 2 people!). Piper and I cleaned up and before long enjoyed “Happy Hour” in the Mess Tent, consisting of coca tea, popcorn and cookies, along with a rousing international game of UNO! Dinner ensued shortly thereafter and was nothing short of spectacular. Jeez Louise we were not going to starve on this trek!
At this point in my story is where things started to go sideways for both Piper and I. For her, it was stomach pains. I knew precisely what the problem was (standby for TMI!), total constipation. She is a nervous traveller and with only one functioning toilet at this site and roughly 40 people camped out, she felt under pressure to “produce” and could barely even pee. Along with this, it was freezing cold. Probably 5-7 degrees below 0 and windy. As the camp grew quiet and everyone was quickly falling asleep, her pain grew worse and so did my concern. And then it started with me: anxiety and nausea. OH NO. Roles quickly reversed as I shivered and quaked and stewed inside the tent. It felt like I couldn’t breathe and that the tent walls were growing closer and closer together. I took off nearly all my clothes in an effort to try and get air and Piper attempted to reassure me. I could tell she was worried; probably had never seen her mother “FREAK OUT” like this before. We debated about going to try and find Felix and seeing if we could take a horse down to lower altitude. Yeah, right. It was pitch black… not a realistic solution. We made a secret covenant to leave in the morning; both of us longing for warmth, thicker air to breathe and relief from our other symptoms (her, pain and a stress-free toilet situation and me, no more nausea!). Sometime around 2:00am I felt myself calming down. Piper was still awake as she promised to “watch me” and not drift off just in case something bad happened. That was the last time I had glanced at my watch until 5:30 am the next day when Felix “knocked” on our tent walls to greet us with an Hola and hot tea.
I could not believe we had survived the night. Yes, this sounds dramatic. But it was really shitty. I was perplexed with how I had felt since I had been to altitude so many times previously. I had guilt over not being able to comfort my own sick child and felt this bizarre combination of shame and regret… why did we put ourselves in this situation?? And yet, with the rising of the sun and the promise of nothing but a downhill trek to lower altitude, my own confidence seemed to click back in and I knew we would be ok.
If Day 1 was the “toughest”, in terms of steepness and altitude over 20 km of walking, Day 2 would prove to be the longest and most strenuous, and also the most difficult for Piper. The brochure and web-site indicated we could expect it to be long, with a total of 18 km required to get to our rest stop of La Playa at an elevation of 2,400M. I’m here to tell you that we ACTUALLY walked 30 km…. and I was ready to snap at various points of the journey. It started off absolutely perfect. Who doesn’t like going downhill?!!! With gravity on our side, the only challenge was maneuvering through the rock and stone so as not to break an ankle. I often felt like a little goat, picking my way down the trail. But eventually, Piper’s constipation pain came back, along with two sizeable blisters on her big toes. She was moving so slowly that we were always about 1/2 hour to 1 hour behind the others. At our first rest stop, Jens was kind enough to provide some kick-ass German blister bandages, which seemed to do a world of difference (he saw me whip out the duct tape and would have nothing of it!). Felix informed us that she could go the rest of the way by van, but she stubbornly and vehemently refused, despite the continued burden of constant stomach pain. I understood her rationale, she didn’t want to “cheat” and wanted to be able to say she could push through the challenges and complete the journey. I just had no clue how to help.
Eventually, a solution appeared, about 2/3 of the way into our slow slog to La Playa. Rolf offered Piper three powdered packages of Magnesium, which were meant to aid in muscle pain but had the bonus advantage of “loosening things up” if taken closely together. Unable to check in with my resident Doctor/Sister, I accepted his gifts with only the slightest bit of hesitation and dumped the powder down her throat. Yet we couldn’t keep on like this… though the trail was fairly well-marked, it was going to be dark soon and we were often completely on our own. I just didn’t like that feeling of being alone, in the rain forest in Peru… especially when on occasion we would be faced with a “do we go left or right” decision. Nonetheless, we pushed on, moving at the speed of a herd of turtles. Not too much further in, the Magnesium appeared to kick in and we were IMMEDIATELY in need of a “toilet”. Now, this was NO easy situation. We were in the bushes, trekking along a very exposed route with a huge drop-off to the river down below. Our only option was to try and scramble up some of the cliff above and find a spot inside the bushes above us. Arguing ensued with her insisting she could hold it and me not knowing exactly how much longer it would be until we had a toilet since the others were at least one hour or more ahead of us and I had no clue where this so-called Playa place was. The first spot we found turned out to be someone’s yard and was a total bust. Would you like a human to take a sizeable dump in your backyard??! At length we located the perfect make-shift toilet, and let’s just say that the rest of this story involved my child leaving a very large offering for Pachamama on the mountain. Ayayayayaya. It was insane. We used the entire roll of toilet paper we had carried and were fending off mosquitos and other biting insects as she squatted for a solid 15 minutes.
Aren’t you glad you’re reading this?! In case you can’t remember, I last left off with Piper’s epic “dump” in the woods… And yet, it was sweet relief. Pain ~ instantly gone. With this load off our shoulders, or rather, on the mountain lol, we increased our speed significantly in an effort to embrace our new challenge: finding the campsite before it grew dark. We realized that neither or us had our headlamps in our daypacks and the only light we would have to use would be the remaining 20% of my iPhone, which was always on me as a source of music and distance tracker. After some time, we bumped into a local woman on the trail, carrying her baby on her back. I attempted in my broken Spanish to ask her “Donde es La Playa? Quantos minutes mas?” She told us it was still one hour ahead, at least that is what I understood. Checking my watch it was nearly 4:45 and the sun begins to set at 5:30. We immediately hauled ass. About another half hour in, it seemed like there was literally still no sign of civilization, and we ran into another local. He told us it was still 2 hours ahead. WTF?!!!!!!! Full-on panic ensued and I began to visualize how and where we would spend our night on this narrow little trail. I regretted not paying more attention during the Girl Guide years and wondered if there were any edible berries in sight…
Thankfully, not long after this, we were met by Joseph, one of the Alpaca guides leading the other larger group on the trek. He had doubled back from having delivered his group of 14 safely to the campsite to try and find us. We were super grateful… having virtually zero energy left in our proverbial tanks. By this time we had already trekked 25 km, and most of the last 7-8 had been up steep cliff faces in a switch-back style. Joseph assured us that nobody was upset, and that we were almost there. I was ever so relieved. About 20 minutes later we met up with Felix and also Jean-Noel, who had also doubled back to try and find us. Felix was a bit stressed and frustrated, and asked me rather grimly “why didn’t you tell me she was so sick? Why did you take so long?” I went into immediate defence mode and explained that I HAD informed him she wasn’t well, but that she felt she could still do it. And that things had changed on the mountain, that she had to go to the bathroom and we had to find a spot, etc. My rambling soon evolved into full-on tears. I was angry and frustrated. I was told we could go at our own speeds and we did the best we could. I never wanted anyone to worry about us or compromise their own enjoyment… Jean-Noel was ever so compassionate and fatherly, putting his arms around me and telling me, “it’s ok. You’re exhausted. But you did it. Never mind, Felix. He was just worried.” The tears were mixing with my sunscreen and wind-burnt cheeks. It stung like a thousand bees so I cried some more. Piper said nothing, knowing all this fuss was about her. I could tell she felt distraught but she stiff-upper-lipped it and trudged on. FINALLY, we made it to the camp. When I checked my tracker and it said 30 km, I immediately understood the extreme fatigue I felt. We stood in line to try and have a shower (1 shower for 40+ people, also 1 toilet) and soon abandoned that idea altogether. A few more days of being stinky wouldn’t hurt anyone!!
That night was Jens’ birthday. Our incredible chef whipped up a cake for him and we presented him with a sort-of mobile that Julie had constructed out of bamboo and other natural knick-knacks we had found throughout the day. We all wrote a special birthday wish for him and enjoyed a swig of his special rum he was given. It was a lovely evening, made even lovelier because of the company we kept.
Day 3. SUPER TOUGH. Though a short day, it was ALL UPHILL in the heat. This was the day our trek connected with the actual Inca Trail at a place called Llactapata. It started off surreal and just oh-so-beautiful. Again, I was in awe over the meaning of it all and the beauty of the vegetation and mountains surrounding us. A few minutes into our trek, we were given the privilege of visiting an actual artisanal coffee plantation… right on the trail. The joke in our group was primarily over Piper’s quest to find another Starbucks in Peru (other than the rip-off one we discovered in Cusco). Well, she needn’t look much further as it appeared that we had stumbled right into the LEGIT Starbucks! We all had the opportunity to participate in every process, from the pulling of the beans off the trees to the roasting of them, the ultimate grinding and finally the much anticipated drinking. The coffee we tasted was the best I’ve ever had, made even yummier because it was served with steaming hot, cinnamon plantains and one of our porters serenaded us with a Simon and Garfunkel song on an old wooden pipe. So random!!!
After the coffee treat, we all seemed to separate again, with a 2-hour, uphill difficult slog before us. Naturally, I was the last one. Piper kept up with the quick peeps, but I had to resort to putting on the tunes and just focussing. The altitude was not a problem, it was really the heat and the incline of the path. The sun radiated off the dusty, open trail and created a mini-oven for us to walk in. I estimate it was probably 36 degrees or so. I even passed a number of other trekkers, some of them big, tough men, who were dripping wet with sweat and having to stop and take a swig of water to try and cool down. By the time we made it to our lunch stop, I could barely feel my legs, which were also completely spent from the previous days epic distance. At this little nook in the trail, we took shelter from the sun and enjoyed another scrumptious meal. Mid-way through, our porters started to appear from around the corner. I was FLOORED over how they had just done what I did with more than 65 lbs on their backs. These are not large men, either. They were all young, probably 17-19 and some of them just had birkenstock shoes on, standing at just 4 ft, 10″. The first porter to arrive was completely soaked with sweat. As he put his pack down (which was nearly the same size as him), I attempted to lift it up and it wouldn’t budge. I just couldn’t reconcile how he would have done what I did. I asked our guide to ask him (they only spoke Quecha) if he would like a beer and he perked right up lol! I bought all the porters a beer at that little rest stop and like to think it was immensely enjoyed by them all. Least we could do, My God!
The last hour or so of our trek on this day led us to Llactapata, with our first views of the backside of Machu Picchu. Words cannot explain the sheer joy we all felt. In the background loomed the magnificent Salktantay, putting into perspective the insane distance we had travelled on foot. By this point, we had already travelled nearly 60 km, and all of us felt such pride over our accomplishments. Felix regaled us with the history of the Incans and how Machu Picchu came to be. It took every fibre of my being not to fall asleep in the warmth of the sun as he was talking, not due to a lack of interest, but rather the culmination of emotion and exhaustion of the previous three days just hitting me like a tonne of bricks. Our campsite was just half-hour away and provided the most incredible views ever. We were all elated over the fact that tomorrow we would be in Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu Pueblo, where a hot shower and the promise of our final destination lay so close in site. And for Piper and I, it meant a reunion with our peeps. That night following our meal, we all hung out a little extra at the dinner table to show off our various card trick skills. Rolf was the master, along with Pierre and Clement. Piper’s attempt at magic had everyone in stitches, “was it this one? No wait. This one? No, I mean this one??!” Jean-Noel was busting a gut. It was such a fun evening. As my head hit the sleeping bag pillow that night, I found myself missing Alvi and Saffy deeply. I knew it wouldn’t be long until we would meet up, but I wished they were there with us right in that moment nonetheless.
Day 4! This day rocked! It was a quick 1-hour, down-hill trek to the river-bed, followed by an hour’s walk to the “town” of Hydroelectric. Yes, this is what it was called. Named for a massive, hydroelectric plant in mid construction. Once there, we fuelled up on another stellar lunch and then began the 3-hour hike along the railway tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. Piper and I were both in great spirits, knowing we were almost done and truly enjoying the conversations with our fellow trekkers. I was so proud to hear her trying her French. With just about 45 minutes left to go, and feeling the days of walking straining my calves, I looked up ahead to see this little tiny girl in blue running towards me along the tracks. It was Saffron!!!! As IF we would run into each other like this!!! I knew they were going to be in Aguas Calientes (they took the train early that morning) but never in a million years did I expect to see my sweet little one along the trail. And yet, there she was, in the flesh! She threw her suncreened little arms around me and I whirled her around and around in circles. Alvi soon caught up and dished out hugs to Piper and I. This was the absolute best part of my day!!! Apparently, their guide was taking them to some waterfalls that we had passed. I was immediately impressed; this meant that they still had probably 3km of walking to go and based on how much of a distance we still had to travel, they were poised for a 10 km hike themselves! They asked if we wanted to go with them to which we SHOUTED simultaneously NO!!!! No. No. No. NO! We were done, just wanted to get to our hostel and collapse in the shower lol.
Our first impressions of Agues Calientes were: “wow… no cars!” And, “this place is so cute and tiny!” Walking by a number of hotels and hostels, I began to scour the place for the more dingy looking ones, confident that is what we would be checking into. Alas, we were completely floored when Felix led us to the Hotel Inti Pinkku. It was a dream! It had one of those rain-showers, with beautiful water pressure and hot water!!! Piper and I immediately cleaned ourselves up and then took shelter in the lobby restaurant where she treated herself to a frozen lemonade, and I inhaled a glass of Peruvian red wine ~ my first drink in almost a month! Ahhh it was divine. We then waited around to re-connect with Alvi and Saffy and hear our instructions for the early morning that lie before us.
Day 5 ~ an early wake-up call at 3:30 am, involving standing in a large line-up that snaked around most of the town in order to board one of the first buses up. It was to be a 35 minute ride up to the actual site. For a short while I had contemplated doing the walk up, but when I saw all the stairs and felt the pain in my legs, I thought otherwise. Ain’t no shame in taking the bus, after all we’d already walked 80 km!!! Machu Picchu itself doesn’t open until 6:00 am, so we had some standing around to do while waiting for the buses to get going. But it was super cool to see all the crazy tourists vying for the sunrise glimpse at this sacred location. And, we were hanging with our trekking posse so that in and of itself was entertaining.
And suddenly, there she was: Machu Picchu in all her splendour and glory! Piper was equally impressed and I found myself getting a bit misty as she oohed and ahhed. We had been through so much together and I could see how proud she was of herself ~ I, equally so. It was surreal to stand on the ledge and see the iconic mountain in front of us. (Incidentally, I was told I could climb it by Felix, but later found out they had reached capacity for the number of people heading up… so I settled for a solid half hour stare-down). The picture taking was never-ending, and fortunately our early rise meant getting there before the crowds.
One of the highlights for Piper was the llamas on site, including two babies who frolicked about trying to climb up and over the terraces. And as the heat of the day beat down on us as early as 9:00 am, by 11:00 am we were just about done exploring and learning. Again, by total coincidence, we ran into Alvi and Saffy, who were on their own unique schedule having decided that a sleeping in would be the better option for them. I took half of their outdoor gear off of them, managed to squeak in a few reminders about water and sunscreen and then made a plan to meet back at the hotel for 2:00 pm. We had a train to catch (Peru Rail) at 4:00 pm, all the way back to Ollantaytambo, and then a further 2.5 hour bus ride back to Cusco.
That’s about all I have time for with this post…. it’s super duper long as it is. Thanks for your patience in reading it! There will be another one shortly with professional photos and Saffy’s own perspective of her time with Daddy.