How do I even begin to put the journey into words? How do I begin to sift through five days of mountains and valleys and cold and heat and snow and rain and fireflies and mosquitos and butterflies and bridges and waterfalls and pictures and videos and memories of beauty and pushing myself to heights I never imagined to see something so perfectly ancient that still defies modern understanding? How do I, in words, choose which steps to share and which to keep to myself (because every epic moment can’t be shared; something sacred and secret always occurs)? I completed an epic 5-day journey; one that many around me have proudly announced they will NEVER attempt and others vow to make , and now my words must recount the beauty of it all.
So I shall begin here, the view from Soraypampa, our first, highest, and coldest campsite.
The day began with a pick-up from our hostel in Cusco and a drive through several villages to Mollepata. Breakfast was served at a local restaurant. Omelets and pancakes and bread with jam and coca tea, known for is energizing benefits and as a fighter of altitude sickness and something that we would become quite used to over the following days, were served. Our group of nine, still sleepy from the 6am pickup became acquainted as we ate and used the last proper toilet we would see until early evening. Once the meal was finished, we boarded our coach and made way to the starting point of our trek…literally a path on the side of a road in the mountains. We unpacked our gear, strapped some on our backs and left the rest with porters who would load it onto to donkeys and horses for transport to our camp ground, and started up a sturdy hill. The walk was quite scenic, uphill to begin, but mostly flat. Curving and weaving along the side of a mountain, streams on one side and beautiful drop-offs on another, sometimes up stairs, sometimes across log bridges, cattle here and there, I acquainted myself with the terrain and the climate. The weather started off cool and gradually became a bit wet and cooler as we ascended to the first campsite. The walk took about 4 hours and prepared us for the long walks that we’d encounter over the next several days.
The beauty that surrounded us was absolutely stunning! Mountain peaks on all sides, horses and donkeys neighing softly and straw covered huts under which our tents would be set up. There were two tiny bathroom stalls and sinks on the outside that provided fresh (cold!) running water. We had a small, tarp covered “dining room” where we took lunch and prepared for an extra little hike to Humantay Lake, truly one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever seen. The walk began with a gentle slope uphill and gradually got steeper as we navigated past boulders in the pasture, the occasional cow or horse and gently bubbling brooks leading up the peaceful green glacier lake. The water was freezing but rather inviting, so inviting that I chose to strip down to my thermals and wade in up to my knees. This was one of those moments that I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, God made and handpicked just for my enjoyment. After enjoying the lake for a bit we made our way back down to our campsite where we rested before dinner. By this time darkness was falling and flashlights were necessary to get around the frigid campsite. It’s amazing how the outlines of the mountains were still visible against the night sky, full of stars; darkness silhouetted against darkness. That was the perfect recipe to wrap ourselves in warm sleeping bags and drift off to sleep.
The next day we were awakened around 5am with coca tea and hot water to…well…wash up as best we could. Since it was still quite frigid, most of us elected to stay in the thermals we’d wrapped ourselves in the night before and just put hiking pants back on. At this point I had already started mentally preparing myself for what was to be the longest day of our trek. We would take a 4-hour walk up to a point between Salkantay and Humantay mountains, approximately 4,650m in altitude, then another 2 hour walk down to our lunch site. After lunch we would hike another 3 hour trek to our campsite for the evening. We were given the option to rent a horse or donkey for the first portion of the trek but I chose to give my hiking boots the workout they were made for. We packed our belongings, had a quick and light breakfast and started on our way. The first part of the hike definitely had its challenging moments, but it was full of beauty which made the challenge worth it. There were two stopping points in a huge valley where local vendors had set up shop for hikers, selling water and snacks and souvenirs of all sorts. But on a trip like this you’re careful of everything you purchase since you end up carrying it all on your back. We took a couple of moments to rest at each stopping point and continued at our leisure. At this point everyone knew the direction to take and there was no need to race, especially since we’d be ascending for a couple of hours up steep switchbacks, sharing the path with other hikers and porters and horses and donkeys carrying most of our camping equipment on their backs. These are the kind of moments where you just keep pushing yourself to climb higher and higher and higher, enjoying the beauty around you while making little deals with yourself: “Okay. You see that huge boulder up there? Get to that boulder and then you take a quick rest.” Three hours and forty-five minutes and plenty of bargains and rests later, I found myself at the stopping point between two snowy mountains. This was an accomplishment in itself. I made a few attempts at a few yoga poses, but the cold didn’t allow me to do much, so I just took in the view. I, along with my hiking group, enjoyed pictures and snacks and a talk with our guide before beginning the descent to our lunch site.
Even though we had to hike for two more hours to get to lunch, descending was much more welcome, especially since the weather warmed up a bit as we walked. What was amazing to me was the fog that still lingered around the mountain that we had just climbed. Of course, it was barely 11 in the morning and the mist and fog played cat-and-mouse with the peaks, hiding what had just been conquered.
The 90 minute hike down to lunch was much easier than the hike up, as is generally the case. It got a bit warmer and the views were breathtaking, as had become the norm. We feasted on chicken soup and hot tea and some original Peruvian dishes and rested a bit before finishing the day with another 3 hour hike to our campsite for the evening. This site was easily the most lush and beautiful. Our tents were set up in a lovely green yard looking out over the mountains and the first thing I did was take off my boots and socks and frolic a bit in the green grass. We had lots of time to relax, eat and prepare for the next couple of days and hikes which would be much easier than the one we’d just finished. Of course, since we were descending into the jungle, we prepared ourselves for warmer temps…and mosquitos.
On day 3 I definitely awoke to the sound of cocks crowing…which is a bit before 5am in case you really needed to know. At that time of morning I heard the subtle stirring of other campers awakening and preparing for the hike of the day, but mostly there was silence punctuated by the sound of roosters and birds at this beautiful jungle campsite. A little while later our Peruvian room service came to each tent with hot tea to drink and hot water to…umm…bathe ourselves. I chose to start the day off with a little morning head stand to get the blood flowing. And this was a beautiful setting to use as a backdrop. Breakfast was porridge with apples, crepes with a bit of nutella, omelets, more tea and fruit to eat at the moment or carry with us as snacks for the day ahead. By this time I had started eating very light in the mornings to avoid having a heavy stomach for the walk. This part of the trek involved some pretty steep descents, but the beauty of the walk, alongside the mountain, crossing the Santa Teresa river several times, was more than welcome. We crossed over several brooks, wooden bridges and waterfalls and were greeted by colorful butterflies and birds along the way. This was a long but leisurely hike ending with a short bus ride (bus ride?!?!) to our lunch site, just in time for the heaviest downpour we’d experienced in 3 days. The lunch site was the first opportunity we’d had since we started to charge phones and cameras, which were in abundance. After lunch we took another 40 minute ride to our campsite. The hardest parts of this trek were pretty much over with all these surprise bus rides! But our legs definitely welcomed the rest and anticipated a visit to the hot springs in Santa Teresa town.
I have to admit, the hot springs, at first glance, were not at all what we had anticipated. We drove through a dusty quarry and were dropped off at a sign that pardoned the appearance of the place due to construction; not really what you want to see when you’ve been walking for three days and just want a nice place to relax. But once we paid our admission and got a glimpse of the pools located at the base of a mountain with other peaks in the distance, we knew we were going to get some relief for our tired bodies. Pardoning the abundance of mosquitos (we were now in the jungle, after all) we took a few hours to enjoy our relaxation in the warm waters. Later that evening we returned to our campsite for a meal and some time around a good ol’ camp fire.
Day 4!! The last day before what I affectionately refer to as Machu Picchu Day (check out Rise to Machu Picchu for the events of the last day of this epic journey!). I had enjoyed the climbing and descending and butterflies and snowy mountains and challenges and triumphs , but today was FULL of adventure and I had been waiting with bated breath. On this day, we were given the option to zipline across the jungle. I was so sure that I’d be taking this adventure that I’d paid for it before we even started the trek 3 days prior. The thrill seekers among the group were picked up a 7:30am and taken to the headquarters where we were briefed on the procedures for a successful adventure and outfitted with all the cables, harnesses, gloves, and other equipment necessary. For about two hours we flew along 5 zips and walked one suspended bridge, up to 800m above the valleys and rivers of Santa Teresa. I’d been zip lining before, but this experience offered the highest adrenaline rush, going at speeds up to 70 km/hr., taking in the valley below and the mountains all around. Fetal position, upside down, and superman style, this adrenaline rush shaved about 30km off our trek and provided a bit of a respite from hiking before meeting the rest of our group for lunch and taking one last three-hour trek through the jungle-along railroad tracks, across tiny bridges, and alongside rivers bubbling and flowing over boulders-to Pueblo Machu Picchu. This town was our gift and reward before the final day. We got to sleep in a real bed, take an actual shower (although the hot water that we coveted was hard to come by), scratch our wi-fi itch and sit and eat in a real restaurant. It was an extra special treat for me as I was serenaded by my fellow hikers for my birthday which was two days later.
Definitely an epic birthday journey on the way to one of the 7 Wonders of the World! It was mentally and physically challenging and soothing and rewarding all at the same time. I’m often asked if I would do it again…and…I say maybe! I think I’d be open to taking another route or opting for a few other excursions. But whether I do it again or not, I can confidently say I conquered the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. The cold and heat and mosquitos and butterflies and climbs and descents were worth every second! The final destination was amazing. But the journey was pretty dope by itself. And isn’t that always the way?