South America has always had a special place in my imagination. I think of ancient cultures that live on in people’s features today, political revolutions, rugged mountains and lush jungles. So, when I had a chance to travel down to Peru to do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu this summer, I jumped on it.
Endless travel plans and four flights later, I met two friends in Cusco, and we bummed around for a few days acclimatizing (Cusco is at 11,200 ft. and the highest point of our trek was 15,200 ft). We came across this friendly guy while we were exploring:
Sunday night before our adventure we met with our guide and went over the travel plan. It would be a five-day, four night trek. The first two days we were going to be high in the Andes by way of Salkantay peak. The next two days we would spend in the jungle (called the ‘cloud forest’ by our guide) by way of ancient Inca ruins and a hot springs. The last day we would climb Machu Picchu. Below are some highlights of our trip complete with pictures:
The first morning we started hiking while looking at the striking snow-capped Salkantay peak in the distance. Our guide stopped us mid-morning to do a prayer to Pachamama – mother earth of the indigenous Andean people. He offered her three coca leaves (yes, the plant cocaine is made of, but it’s used medicinally and in religious ceremonies in Andean culture) in turn for her protection and good will. Below is a picture of the coca tea we drank throughout the trip to fight altitude sickness and fatigue.
On the first day after lunch we hopped in the back of a rusty old truck filled with bags of potatoes to get to the point we where would start our hike up to a mountain lagoon. Stuffed with nine people, all our gear and thousands of pounds of potatoes, the truck shuttered mightily in protest as the driver started it up. We traveled on a thin mountain road (more like a path) with a sheer 1,000 ft. cliff on one side and a ridge on the other side. At one point, we came across another truck going the opposite direction. After much honking, hand waving and reversing, we got to a point where we would pass the other truck. Our driver gunned it, and I swear only two wheels were on the road at one point.
Late afternoon on the first day we did a steep technical hike up to a mountain lagoon. We had already been hiking for most of the day, and we were above 12,000 ft. We were wiped out, but as we turned a corner, we noticed a cow walking ahead of us through a gate of cairns. I found it strange since we hadn’t seen any other cows that day. We followed the cow and came across the most beautiful lagoon I’ve ever seen. The water was a mesmerizing blue – I’m afraid not even the pictures do it justice. We decided that the Pachamama was in the form of the cow that evening.
On the second day we were hiking way above treeline, with enormous peaks on all sides. Right before we arrived at the highest point we would reach on the trek (15,200 ft.), there was an avalanche on Salkantay. Luckily, we were far away, because it was astounding how quickly it traveled and bloomed at the bottom. Soon after we arrived at the highest point of the trek, the base of Salkantay. Our guide told us that this was a sacred spot in Incan culture, as we looked around and reflected for a moment, we could see why.
The third and fourth day we descended into the mountain jungle, lush will all kinds of flowers and vegetation (including coffee plants!) We passed many coffee farms, with beans drying on large tarps. On the fourth day we climbed a mountain peak where we were able to glimpse Machu Picchu in the distance. Even from far away, it was stunning. The mountains we were trekking through we so incredibly steep and so dense with foliage, it was amazing that anyone was able to build an entire city there.
On our fifth morning, we got up at 4:00 am to hike up to the ancient city before sunrise. When we arrived at the top of the climb, the mountains and valley below were shrouded in fog. As it started to clear, we got our first glimpses of Machu Picchu. When it cleared completely and the sun was shining, it was breathtaking. It was so intricate and extreme, and everything was so steep (even the terraces they farmed on!) It was hard to believe it took the Incas thirty years to build Machu Picchu and they only lived there a hundred years before they abandoned it to escape from the Spanish Conquistadors, during one of the bloodiest conquests in history. Ironically, the Spanish never did find the city.
Later that day we climbed Montaña Machu Picchu, a 10,109 ft. mountain next to the city. The ascent was steep and brutal, but when we made it to the top, it looked like we were suspended in mid-air. There wasn’t much ground at the top of the peak, and there were huge drop-offs on all sides. Machu Picchu looked miniature in the distance. I felt pretty far away from mundane activities like checking email and commuting to work. I guess that’s a sign of a good adventure and a good vacation!
Want to know how the OPL gear I tested on the trek performed? Stay tuned for reviews!