No words can truly convey my experience on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. It was beautiful, miserable, breathtaking, horrible, amazing, painful, and one of the best experiences of my life.
At 5:30AM it all began. We left the hostel, exhausted, anxious, and so excited. Hopping into the vans, we were on our way to begin the Salkantay Trek. About an hour into our drive we stopped at Quillarumio (Incan ruins). There, we ate breakfast. As I watched our three chefs prepare the table and food, I was thrilled to see that our camping experience for the next four days would be what I call, ¨glamping.¨They had a table cloth and runner for the plastic camp tables! After enjoying our hot meal we got back in the vans for two more hours. I was in the party van, which played all of the American music we have missed so much. I was honestly sad to have to get out of that warm van and start hiking.
At 11:00AM our feet hit the trail. It was not very steep at first, but the high elevation made small hills seem like mountains. Fortunately, we had the beautiful, snow-covered Salkantay to look at while we could not breathe. My feet started to hurt about half way in. By the time we got to camp, around 1:00PM, I knew there was something very, very wrong with my hiking boots. They were far too small and I was already forming blisters. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not wear them for the rest of the trip, and I would have to hike in my Tevas… for 4 days. I rested my swollen feet during lunch, but then we started hiking to a glacial lake about 2 hours up from camp- Umantaycocha. It was a grueling hike, but the view was oh so worth it. It took my breath away (not just because of the altititude). A few people even swam in the lake! I was content with just taking pictures of the icy water.
As the sun went down we headed back to camp, noticing the dramatic drop in temperature. Once we finished the hike, the chefs had tea time prepared in the dining tent and we managed to stay mostly warm while it rained and hailed outside. After dinner we all headed to our tents. I was absolutely freezing, but also exhausted, praying for good sleep.
I have never been so cold, but I was so tired that I managed to get a little sleep. Our guides, Rolo and Gerson, woke us up by coming tent side, banging on the outside, offereing hot tea. Sarah and I were too disoriented to comprehend what was happening. We were not very nice either (sorry Gerson!). We eventually packed up our things and enjoyed a yummy breakfast. Afterwards we began what our guides referred to as ¨challenge day.¨The day would consist of 4 hours up to the Salkantay Pass, 2 hours down to lunch, followed by 3 hours to camp.
The first four hours were tough, but my mind stayed positive. The fog began to cover us about 1/2 way through and it started raining. My Tevas and socks were not keeping my feet warm. I was so desperate that I actually put on a poncho. Though my feet were wet during the hike up, they did not start to hurt until we headed down. The rain continued through lunch. I was so un-motivated to start hiking again, but we trekked on. For a while it seemed like the final three hours were going to be worse than the first six. The fog was still all encompassing and the rain would not let up. I was having to try REALLY hard to stay positive. Finally, about an hour in, I began warming up and the fog started to separate. As we entered the subtropics the sun began to peek out. Ryan also taught us how to look for wild strawberries on the trail edge. By the end of the hike he called me the ¨strawberry monster¨because I ate so many. We entered camp at 5:30PM, tired and sore, but feeling accomplished. The air was much warmer than the night before, and it was not raining. I was so excited to get in my sleeping bag and sleep.
My body hurt so bad. The 10+ miles from the day before took its toll- especially on my feet. I was wishing for well-fitting hiking boots. The Tevas had rubbed my feet raw. Fortuneately, Day 3 was our easy day – only 5 hours of hiking. It was mostly downhill, which was easy on the lungs, but rough on my lower body. Throughout the hike we all had the hot springs we would be visiting that night on our minds. Once we arrived at camp we had a traditional lunch called Pachamanca. We also toured the farm we were staying at – picking avocados, bananas, and coffee berries. I kept about half of the berries I picked for a snack… I am obsessed with coffee berries. After lunch we headed to the hot springs. Ahhhhhh!!! It felt so good to soak our muscles, but the bugs were horrific. I managed to not get bug bites at the Banana Farm or in the Amazon, but my legs are now covered from our time in Lucmabamba! My legs look diseased.
Following the hot springs we did a debriefing meeting with the group, discussing ¨reverse culture shock.¨I am afraid it may hit me hard when I get home, but I hope not. It was so weird talking about going home… I cannot believe it is so soon.
That night it rained. I had water dripping on my face all night. Not cool.
When they said that the second day was ¨challenge day,¨they failed to mention that the last day was way harder. Maybe it was the fact that we all slept porely, or because we got up at 5:00AM, or because we were sore from hiking 3 days in a row… Whatever it was, I have never been in so much pain. My feet were complete disasters. Every singly step I took sent shooting pains up my body.
Fortunately, even in the midst of misery, we tried to make the best of it. For the first half of the hike, Caleigh and I were in the back with Ryan and our guide Rolo. I have not laughed so much in a long time. Poor Rolo had to put up with our shenanigans. We arrived at the top 45 minutes later than everyone else because we stopped for so many laughing breaks.
The second half of the hike was completely downhill. That is when the pain really settled in. My knees, calves, and feet were dying. Thankfully, we pushed ourselves and got done in two hours. After lunch in Hidro Electrica we had a flat walk by the railroad tracks that would take us to our final destination for the night – a cozy hostal in Aguas Calientes (the town of Machu Picchu). We all thought that the last part would be a piece of cake. WRONG. Our minds and bodies began collapsing under the weight of four days of hiking. At one point, about two hours in, I could not do it anymore. I just fell on the ground like a 2 year old. First, I was laughing, then I was crying. I had a meltdown. Eventually, Caleigh and Keely pulled me up. We only had 45 minutes left. It was the most miserable 45 minutes of my life, but we made it!
When we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes I could only think about the hot shower I was going to take. Unfortunately, everyone else was also eager to shower, which resulted in no hot water. I decided to wait until after dinner to turn on the shower. At that point, we had finished the actual trek, but I did not feel at all accomplished. I felt disgusting, in pain, and exhausted. The worst part? I was not even excited for Machu Picchu.
After dinner I got my hot shower and began feeling a little better and excited for the next day. I just needed to rest.
At 7:00AM we walked through the gates of Machu Picchu. The fog was dense and it was raining. We hiked up to the first viewing spot and saw…. nothing. The fog was so thick that it completely covered Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. Everything was white. Ryan claimed that it was normal, and would eventually clear up. I had my doubts, but as we sat up on one of the terraces listening to our guide give a brief history, the fog began to lift and so did our spirits. First, we could see Huanay Picchu, and then finally, we saw what we had all been waiting for – Machu Picchu.
It was breathtaking.
We took so many pictures and learned about the ruins, taking in one of the seven wonders of the world.
All the while, we were looking up at Huanay Picchu, one of the most intimidating sites I have ever seen. Our final challenge of the trip would be to climb that monstrosity. After about two hours of exploring the ruins, we got in line to begin our last hike. I wanted to turn back. I was still so sore, but as we had done for the past 4 days, we trekked on. One step at a time, we made it to the top in under an hour. It was so difficult, but an incredible feeling overwhelmed me as I looked over Machu Picchu. I did it. I actually did it! I hiked for five days and survived.
We took more pictures and eventually made our way down the mountain and out of Machu Picchu. I got my passport stamped, and sighed with relief. We were done, and it felt so good.
Once we retrieved our bags from the hostel, we took a train to Ollantaytambo and then a bus back to Cusco. It was so nice to come back to a place that we know so well. To reward ourselves, we went to our favorite restaurant and got chicken sandwiches and mint lemonade. It was perfect.
Now that we are back in Cusco, we only have 3 more nights left. This will be my last blog in South America. I will eventually post all of my photos from Machu Picchu and a reflection blog.
Please excuse any grammatical errors. This was written very quickly. I have to make it back by curfew!