Everyone hikes to Machu Picchu along the ancient Inca Trail, but in fact there are six ancient trails that lead there and the Salkantay is a lesser known and therefor less busy one. The Salkantay trail can be hiked independently, but we joined an organized group hike. We were packed and waiting for for our bus outside the hostel door by 5:30 am – but the bus was almost an hour late. We were last on the pick-up list and I guess there were some dawdlers in the group. We all met yesterday at a pre-meeting and I’m incredibly intimidated. I have hard enough time with elevation, now I am in the company of a group of very fit young athletes. We will have horse support for our equipment and food, so all I need to carry is my personal clothing.
Right from the beginning I am struggling. With all of the acclimatization and stair climbing in Cuzco, I still can’t catch my breath. Myself and Jeremy, a young fellow from Quebec, keep the back of the line occupied. By the time I reach our first campsight, at Soyrococha, I can barely breath. It is, however, absolutely stunning! We are camped in tents that have been erected inside grass huts. The backdrop for our camp-sight are two beautiful snow-covered glaciers, the Salkantay and Humantay glaciers. The staff arrived ahead of us so by the time we arrived our tents were set up and a gourmet lunch was prepared. Most of the group went on an acclimatization hike up to Humantay Lake, at over 4200 metres, but there were a few of us that clearly couldn’t make it. I laid in my tent and found myself panting just to roll over. The bathroom was down a small hill (very small) and I had difficulty even with that. I want to be friends with the mountain, but mountains don’t like me.
We had a very special evening up here. When it got dark an amazing sky appeared. It was very cold but very clear, and for the first time in my life I got to view the southern cross. I made the mistake of commenting, in the company of Australians, that it was smaller than I would have thought. I managed to offend an entire nation, who apparently all have southern cross tattoos on their bodies somewhere. At one point, as we all stood out in the cold admiring the sky, the moon rose from behind on of the glaciers, lighting the entire valley up like a black light poster. It was amazing and we all just drank it in.
I slept fitfully, from the thin air and the worry of hiking over the pass tomorrow – 4600 metres.
I was not alone with my elevation problems and the guides found everyone with problems horses to ride over the past. There were four of us from our group and a couple from another group of hikers that rode that day – thank goodness. Everyone, except our guide Carlos (who chews cocoa leaves with some kind of ash constantly), found this day difficult – even our horses. At one point we decided to dismount and lead the horses up for a while, but I could barely get back on afterwards. As we ascended it got colder and colder, my fingers were frozen in my mittens at the top. When I finally arrived at the pass I was sick to my stomach and completely disoriented. We dismounted and the horses were led away immediately, this elevation was difficult even for them who were used to it. I wasted no time in starting my descent. Jeremy, who rode up with me, actually ran down the other side of the pass.
The other side of the pass was a surreal hike. We walked through the cloud forest, literally walking inside a cloud. From the barren cold pass at the summit, the trail passes through the wet and foggy cloud. Not only does it get warmer and wetter on this side, but the vegetation turns from completely barren to jungle and orchids and vines and flowering trees. Carlos constantly stops us to point our different plants and birds. By the time we reach our next camp-sight everyone is exhausted. ray, who hiked the pass on his own steam (quite easily by the look of it but he too was partaking in the cocoa leaf and ash ritual) was so sore he could barely climb the few stairs to dinner. It’s warmer here now, but still not balmy.
Every morning on trail we are awoken by our cooks with a hot cup of cocoa tea. They call at the tent door and pass it into us. Somehow these cooks prepare gourmet meals for us. Breakfast is porridge AND pancakes with fresh fruit and juices. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, followed by an evening tea. Today we hike an easy 18 kms and finish by lunch time. We are done with high elevation and end up lunching at a restaurant – that serves beer and wine. I bought a bottle of wine for later.
This evening we slept in an orchard on soft grass. A bus came and took us to the Santa Theresa hot springs, where we whiled away the afternoon and evening. By dinner time, the wine was open and dancing happened. It was a wonderful day. It’s now warm and green.
Today we are offered a choice – would we like to hike along the road, go by bus zip-lining or take a crazy high-altitude alternative hike. We all split up and agree to meet at the train station, to hike along the train tracks to Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, together. The hike along the train track is busy with hikers and hippies. We all split up in Aguas Caliente, everyone sleeping in different hostels. Ray and I decided to sleep in the basic one, no upgrade and it turned out to be the nicest of the lot. We spent the evening exploring the very interesting and touristy town of Aguas Caliente.