The 11,152ft high (that's 3399m for most of the world) old city of Cusco was shrouded in rain and clouds when we landed, the cobblestoned streets of the historic center drowning beneath the deep puddles. The cold was manageable, but the weather was not looking good for our trek to Machu Picchu, our sole reason for visiting the area. In a few days, after we had a chance to acclimate to the altitude, we were set to take off on the four night, five day Salkantay Trek to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. We were desperately hoping that weather would be on our side!
As we got out of the cab and climbed a few doors up the steep street, we were thankful for the three days we had to relax and acclimate - we were already out of breath and feeling the altitude! After walking right by the door three times, getting our workout in for the day going up and down the stairs of the sidewalk (not to mention, it was pouring down rain), we finally found Intro Hostel and walked through the heavy wooden door. The hostel, once an old mansion, was renovated restored in the early 1900s. Before the restoration, the once gorgeous building had fallen into a state of ruin. As the renovations were underway, the builders discovered jewels and art that had once been stored in the walls for safe keeping! The building now, of course, is a hostel, with several bunkrooms and also a handful of private ones, that all open up to a central interior courtyard with outdoor, covered kitchen and pool table. It was a funky little place, and our private room had a great big window with a nice view of the hills surrounding the city. It was also just above the bar in the hostel, so we got to listen to Bob Marley, The Grease Soundtrack, Shania Twain, and some hits from 2005 on repeat the whole time we were there. The best parts? Free breakfast of eggs, fresh bread, yogurt, tea, and coffee, and HOT showers! It doesn't take much to make me happy!
In our down time, we took the opportunity to explore the adorable town of Cusco. Sure, it's touristy and overrun with chocolate shops and massage parlors catering to trekkers who just returned from Machu Picchu, but it's charming and full of pretty architecture as well. While the free walking tour provided by the hostel was terrible (really, it was SO boring - the guy had absolutely no energy or enthusiasm, he didn't really speak to the group but rather only to whoever happened to be walking next to him), I was happy that it took us through the central San Pedro Market. While there are big grocery stores in town, most locals bought their meat, bread, and produce from the covered market. As soon as we walked in we were hit in the face with all kinds of smells - fresh bread over here, cheese over there, and a lingering raw meat scent the hung heavy in the air. The meat department was my favorite stop - the people of Cusco sure know how to make use of every single piece of an animal! Basically nothing was wasted. In between the typical cuts of meat that we all know were tongues, snouts, hooves, intestines, colons, spleens, kidneys, livers, and brains. Yes, brains! And in case that stirred up an appetite, you could buy your breakfast or lunch from the stalls across the way, serving up dishes made with all of these things. Brain soup, anyone? The most interesting thing for sale at the market, though, was not edible. The people of Cusco sell dried llama fetuses. I know, I know - it looks as weird as it sounds. But the story is that they llama fetus brings good luck to homes and businesses, and they are often put into the foundation of new homes, or walled into existing structures. Our guide assured us that the mama llama is not killed solely for her fetus, it's actually a surprise to the hunters. When a female llama is killed and discovered to be pregnant, it is considered good luck. vegetarians should probably steer clear of this market.
Ok, enough with the yucky stuff. Back to the good stuff. Ice cream! Of course we found some fantastic, homemade, organic ice cream in town. And that's not all we found - we found our buddy Yuriy from the Santa Cruz Trek wandering around town as well! We had no idea he was going to be in town at the same time! So the three of us spent some time together catching up over our artisanal ice cream cones. The food around town was pretty delicious, too. Our favorite spot was a teeny tiny pizza place that had two tables and a giant wood-burning brick oven called Chez Maggy. Our second favorite was the trendy Morena Peruvian Kitchen where we splurged on fancy sandwiches and ceviche. Yum
But let's get real, we weren't in Cusco for the food. We were in Cusco for Machu Picchu! When Jake and I first started planning our trip, we both wrote down the top things we wanted to see or visit. Both of us had written Machu Picchu, so it immediately turned into a pillar of our journey - we absolutely were doing it, and since it was so important to both of us, we were doing it right! No low budget, thrown together, "four people per tent in a three person tent" outfit for this. For this trek, we booked Salkantay Trekking, one of the best reviewed companies I could find. And boy was it cushy!
- The chef was fantastic and we had a three course meal every time we sat down.
- We were woken up every morning with hot coca tea brought to our tent, plus hot water and a wash cloth.
- We had three person tents for each couple, so there was plenty of space.
- The tents were always set up beneath an A-frame bungalow so it was protected from wind, rain, and cold ground.
- We each got two sleeping pads that were each at least two inches thick, so sleeping was comfy.
- The crew was really nice.
- It was a small group.
- We didn't have to carry anything except a water bottle and a day pack for snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray.
We were pretty excited for the trek, and eager to see what luxury backpacking was all about!
What's Salkantay? I'm sure you're asking yourself. The Salkantay Trek is an alternative route to Machu Picchu from the very popular Inca Trail. There are pros and cons to both routes. Here's why we chose to do Salkantay:
- Permits are not required for Salkantay as it's not regulated like the Inca Trail is. Permits for the Inca Trail sell out quickly, and reservations cannot be modified. Some horror stories we heard include people who booked a trek with a guide and a reputable company only to discover later that the company was unable to secure the necessary permits!
- The Salktantay Trek is less popular, so it's less crowded. While we did see a few groups on the trail, we were mostly on our own. We heard that you are constantly walking with other groups on the Inca Trail.
- The Salktantay Trek is "harder" than the Inca Trail, thanks to the very high mountain pass that must be climbed on Day 2, and the route is just longer than the Inca Trail. Jake and I are always up for a challenge, so of course we picked the harder one! (Although, the Inca Trail is also all stone, which would have been hell for my knees…so maybe that would have been harder. In any case, I'll choose more physically demanding hiking over physically painful hiking!)
- We knew we could get whatever dates we wanted. The company has daily departures so long as there are at least four people.
- We had some friends who had done Salkantay and loved it, so we were sold.
We booked our trek with Salktantay Trekking in August with the intended departure date of early November. Thanks to the flexibility of the company, we were able to change that date about a dozen times while we finalized our travel plans through the northern part of the continent. In retrospect, it probably would have been easier and cheaper to have booked this trip in person last minute rather than so far in advance. It was still the off season and Cusco was quiet. But since this trek was so important to us, we're glad we nailed it down ahead of time.
At the orientation the night before our departure, we got to meet Roylee, aka Roy, our guide, and Matt, a nice guy from the South who was traveling with his girlfriend, Bethany. Bethany was battling some food poisoning that night and wasn't able to make it to the orientation. Over about an hour, Roy gave the three of us the rundown of what to expect for the next five days. By 10pm we were packed, ready to go, and in bed - the van was coming to get us at 4:30 am and I wanted as much sleep as possible!
At 4:30am on the dot, the energetic Roy knocked on the front door of our hostel, and off we went! A three hour drive (a three hour nap for me) took us to our starting point, basically the middle of nowhere. As we pulled up to the trail head, Matt, Bethany, Jake, and I all looked out the windows, concerned draped over our faces - it was pouring! This was certainly NOT the way we wanted to start our trek! Roy, however, was optimistic, "Don't worry! This will change in 20 minutes. I promise!" And wouldn't you know it - he was right. Within 20 minutes the rain was gone, the sun was shining, and giant puffy clouds replaced the dark, wet blanket that had just covered the sky.
The first day was relatively easy - just a three hour walk to camp where we had a fantastic lunch and set off for a nice three hour loop to a gorgeous green lake beneath the mountains near our campsite. I say it was a relatively easy day because that little jaunt to the lake was no joke! When Roy pointed it out, the lake didn’t seem very far from camp, and the incline of the hill didn't seem so great either, but OH MAN, in the altitude it was TOUGH! We'd walk 20 steps and have to stop to breathe. The next four days were going to be tough! We went to bed that night excited for the next day, what was supposed to be the hardest day, when we would climb over the Salkantay Pass at 12,250 feet. The climb was supposed to take about three hours, followed by another two on the backside until lunch, and then another three hours to camp. It was going to be a really long day!
Jake and I both noticed something that first day - Matt and Bethany are SLOW. Like, really slow. Tortuga slow. In fact, they even called themselves "Las Tortugas" when as we started hiking on the first day! Roy, Jake, and I found ourselves waiting for them around bends quite frequently. It wasn't just that they were slow walkers, they also took pictures of just about everything (which we can't really complain about!). The three of us would take a load off and wait for them for five minutes and they'd come up exclaiming about some hummingbird they saw, or a butterfly they chased the wrong direction, or a cloud that they just had to analyze. Hey, it's their trip too, they can take all the time they need.
The next morning, my worst backpacking nightmare came true. At 3:45 am I grabbed my headlamp and a roll of toilet paper and ran through the rain to the bathroom (thankfully there was actually a toilet at the campsite). Something did not agree with my stomach, and I had diarrhea. UGH. "No, no, no, this is not happening!" I kept thinking. I cannot have this happen on the trail all day, on the day when we had 24 kilometers to walk! Here are the highlights of this day:
- Every two hours I had to run off the trail to find some sort of private point to go to the bathroom.
- It was raining, and snowing, all day long. So I had to go in the rain and snow all day long.
- At one point, as I'm relieving myself yet again, I bumped my leg against a bush. I thought it was just a normal bush, but I was wrong. Turns out it was a stinging nettle bush, and those little suckers stuck right through my pants! When I kind of fell over onto it it got even worse - for the next 10 hours I had itchy and slightly painful welts all over my legs and hands!
- Within 200 yards of our lunch spot, I sprained my ankle. Awesome.
- I had terrible cramping all day that forced me to stop and bend over.
Seriously, it was the most difficult day. It was probably the most difficult day of our whole trip, even worse than when I got sick in Thailand - at least that time I could stay in bed the whole time and use the bathroom whenever I needed it! This was, really, just awful. I will say, though, that even though I was dealing with all that, I was still faster than Las Tortugas! Bethany, apparently, had a bum ankle and had some serious trouble coming down from the pass. Las Tortugas were going even slower than they had the first day. And even though sometimes the extra breaks were helpful for me in my condition, I was still starting to get pretty annoyed that we were wasting so much time waiting for them to catch up. We could tell Roy was getting pretty irritated with them as well. After all, he had a schedule to keep and was in charge of getting us from place to place. As the three of us sat down in a shady spot on the trail, yet again, to wait for Las Totrugas, Jake asked Roy how slow our group was compared to others he has had. "Pretty slow," he said, and then he instructed us to continue on to camp and he would wait for Matt and Bethany and try to light a fire under them. We arrived at camp around 5 and expected them to follow us about an hour later. Roy must have given them some talking to, or a really great pep talk, because they arrived within 20 minutes!
By the time we were all settled at camp I was totally exhausted. I hadn't been able to eat all day - I tried, but I just couldn't do it. I had a couple spoonfuls of rice at lunch, and drank some electrolyte tablets in my water to stay hydrated, but that was about it. At dinner, since I had barely eaten all day and burned a ton of calories, I forced myself to down some chicken and noodles. Besides, if I wanted to take the Cipro that Matt and Bethan gave me, I was going to need something in my stomach! Since they had a veritable pharmacy in their bag with antibiotics to spare, I took them up on their offer to take one with the hope that it would kill whatever was tearing up my insides. I wasn't so annoyed with them and their molasses-like hiking pace to turn down meds! Moments after dinner, at about 8:30pm, I crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out.
Day Three was upon us and I felt…HUNGRY! YAY! With 10+ hours of sleep and no more diarrhea, I felt great! I stuffed my face at breakfast, making up for my lack of nutrition the day before. The hike in front of us was much shorter than the day prior, too - just six hours to the next camp. But the snow and rain, now long gone, was replaced by heat and humidity. As Roy had promised, the terrain changed completely - the first two days were mountainous and snowy, and now we were descending into the jungle, complete with beautiful jungle foliage like orchids, bromeliads, and bagonias. Our walk was really beautiful, full of bright colors and dancing butterflies. The only thing that was starting to weigh on us was all of the waiting. Every 30 minutes or so we had to stop and wait for Las Tortugas to catch up. "There was a beautiful hummingbird! I had to watch it for a few minutes! There were butterflies, I had to stop!" I know I said earlier that it was no problem waiting for them, that it was their trip to and they should enjoy every moment. But c'mon! At least try to keep up. At least don't always keep us waiting. In fairness, I think they were using these photo ops as excuses to give her injured ankle a break. But I'd rather they be honest and let us know her status instead of blaming it on the innocent hummingbirds.
They picked up the pace when Roy told us about the hot springs waiting for us once we reached camp. This night we slept in tents in a small village, and the local hot springs were nearby. If we made it in time, we would all be able to go for a dip. The Santa Theresa Hot Springs turned out to be pretty great! After three grueling days of trekking, even Jake was excited for the chance to relax in the hot mineral water. Matt, Bethany, Jake, and I floated in the hottest of the three pools for about an hour while Roy chatted with friends and waited for us. As we waited for our ride to pick us up and take us back to camp, we got our first taste of the mosquitoes. I know I said the bugs in Santa Cruz were bad…these were WAY WORSE. Within seconds of getting out of the water we were swarmed by the little biting gnats and mosquitoes. We all covered ourselves in bug spray and kept moving until the van came to pick us up. But of course, the bugs were waiting for us at camp, too. There was no escaping them! The bugs kept up at the campsite, too, until we built a bonfire. We sat around the fire, enjoyed some Salta cervezas, and shared stories with Las Tortugas. Wait beers? How'd we get beers? Well since the camp was in the small village, and had a little counter with beers, chocolate bars, and TP, we indulged. Being in a town isn't quite our idea of camping, we typically prefer to be away from civilization when sleeping in a tent, but at least we could see the stars in between the power lines.
Breakfast on the morning of Day Four was the last meal we would have with our cook staff. That night we were eating dinner in a restaurant and staying in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, the town beneath Machu Picchu, so our chef pulled out all the stops for our last meal together - he somehow was able to bake a cake on the wood burning outdoor stove! I was quite impressed with his cooking and baking skills, and very excited to have cake for breakfast! Yum!
When researching the Salkantay Trek, we always read that the second day over the pass was the most difficult - I disagree. Day Four was definitely the hardest for us. Two options were presented to the group: option 1 was ziplining with another company for 3 hours for $30 per person and then driving to the midway point to start the three hour walk along the railroad up to Aguas Calientes, option 2 was to walk the whole way. Roy basically told Las Tortugas that they had to do the ziplines because they were far too slow and, if they walked the whole way, we'd never make it to Aguas Calientes on schedule for dinner (he was also at his wits end with them and really just wanted them to go away for the day). Having done ziplines before, Jake and I chose the option to walk the whole way. So off we went, with instructions from Roy about where to go while he hung back to make sure Matt and Bethany were on time and taken care of for the ziplines.
Boy was that day HOT. The first three hours of our walk was on a dirt road with no shade, and the sun was blazing down. So while it was one of the shortest distances, it felt like the longest two to three hours of the whole trip. For the second half of the day we were joined by Roy, Matt, and Bethany for lunch and the five of us set off for another three hour hike along the railroad, around the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu resides. As usual, Jake, Roy and I walked a bit more quickly than Las Tortugas (and shameless ego boost… we had walked all morning in the hot sun while they were ziplining around Peru!). Before making the final stretch up to Aguas Calientes, we three sat down on the platform of the tiny train station at the fork to wait for Matt and Bethany to catch up. As soon as they approached, we heard "Ready Freddies?" in an, up to that point, unheard chipper tone. Jake, Roy and I looked at each other, all sharing the same thought - are you freaking kidding me?? Ready Freddy? Of course we're ready, we've been waiting for YOU for the last three days! And at that, the three of us silently decided that the race was on. Roy picked up the pace on the last stretch of road to town, and Jake and I followed on his heels. Sure, I may have been just about out of breath when we arrived, but I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of arriving first! "Ready Freddies"… Please.
Well we finally made it to Aguas Calientes, the base for Machu Picchu visitors! The town, while incredibly touristy, is also super adorable. The river runs right through the middle, so bridges were built every two blocks or so to go back and forth between the small, hilly town, making it look like something that belongs in Disneyland. We checked ourselves into our hotel, which definitely did NOT look like Disneyland - it was a rather strange place. It was damp and dark, a pile of rebar laid on the walkway out front, and the rooms didn’t have any windows. The hot water in our room was working just fine, but apparently the Incan gods decided to withhold hot showers from Las Tortugas. Eventually they switched rooms to one that had a properly working shower. You know by now how displeased I would have been if our hot water wasn’t working. I really only need two things to keep my sanity - plenty of food so I don't get hangry, and a hot shower. And then I think of all of the people who don't have either of those things and I realize how much I take for granted. But it's true, after a few days of trekking, if I don't have a hot shower I'm likely to burst into tears. I can be such a baby.
After a rather nice three course meal in a cute restaurant where we dined on grilled aplaca, we all went straight to bed for our 3:30 am wake up call. Roy had told us that it was really important that we get to the gates at the base of the mountain by 4am to get in line to hike up to the archaeological site, otherwise we'd be stuck behind hundreds of people slowly climbing the stairs. Roy would meet us at the top as he had some business to take care that morning, so he would take the bus. (In fact, you don't have to hike all the way to Machu Picchu at all - you can take the train to Aguas Calientes and then the bus from town to the site!)
While it was tough waking up at 3:30, it paid off. We were first in line at the gate! And, believe it or not, even the Tortugas got up on time! As the four of us waited for the gate to open at 5am, we got to see the line Roy was taking about. Soon enough hundreds of people were lined up behind us, ready and raring to go. At 5am on the dot, the gates opened up and we started our ascent up to the site. The sun rose as we climbed the giant stairs for an hour-long climb. Sure, the climb was less than 2km, but it was STEEP, 1,280 feet (3890 meters). Jake led the charge with Las Tortugas right on his tail, as well as every other hiker. I did my best to keep pace but was so out of breath by the halfway point that I had to take a break. They kept up a good pace, but eventually got passed by some super eager people. Little did everyone know that we had another line to wait in at the top. But since Jake, Matt, and Bethany were so fast up the mountain, they secured a front spot in line for our group at the turnstiles. We were among the first people into Machu Picchu when they opened the gates at 6:30.
The light was perfect - the golden sun was shining through the dissipating fog, llamas roamed the terraces, and we looked around in awe, eager to take pictures in the perfect light before the site was crawling with people. Roy, however, was on a tight schedule and needed to catch the morning train back to Cusco. Since he wouldn't be able to explain the history of the sit and tell us the interesting stories about the Incas later, we postponed our photography for later in the morning and, instead, took in the gorgeous sight with our eyes rather than behind a lens. Even though the place was pretty busy by the time we said goodbye to Roy and took off to explore on our own, we still got some great shots! And it was beautiful - the whole structure is rather breathtaking. The stones were perfectly carved rectangles, they fit as tightly together as puzzle pieces. It's hard to imagine how the Incas cut the stone, and how they we able to get all the stone they needed to build the houses, shrines, and terraces. The whole place is incredible.
The toughest part of the day was definitely our extra climb up Machu Picchu Mountain. Despite the protest from my knees (they were screaming already, and it's usually worse on the way down), we made it all the way to the top of the mountain for an entirely worth-it view of Machu Picchu below. We even lucked out with the weather - while the top of the mountain was shrouded in clouds and fog during our climb up, it was nothing but clear as we enjoyed our sandwiches and the view at the top.
Shortly after we made our way back to Aguas Calientes, climbing all the way back down the mountain and into town where we grabbed dinner and caught the train and transport back to Intro Hostel in Cusco. I don’t think I've ever fallen asleep more quickly.
And just like that, we got to check off one of our pillars from our trip check list, something we'd dreamed of doing for years. As boarded our night bus the following evening, we reflected on just how lucky we are to have done the Salktantay Trek, and how fortunate we are to be able to be on this trip. Thanks to our health, our budgets, and our sense of adventure, we trekked the whole way to Machu Picchu! It's an experience we will never forget.