There are many ways to start a 4-day hike, with food poisoning isn’t one I would recommend (the result of a dodgy meatball burger in Cusco the night before). The only saving grace I had was our well packed medical supplies and the copious amounts of gastro-stop and antibiotics our travel doctor prescribed us for our trip. With the drug ingested, there was nothing else to do but hope and start the hike.
Luckily the first day was the “easiest” day according to our guides from Salkantay Trekking. I can say that the first day for me was the absolute worse. Dealing with food poisoning alone would have been hard enough, factor in high altitudes (which I have already shown to have a low tolerance for) and a 12km hike uphill and, looking back, I have no idea how I did it. Dave was amazing and definitely helped me keep going. I’m also very stubborn once I start something, I don’t want to stop until I have accomplished it. A good trait to have on this particular day.
The scenery we covered on the first day was incredible. High mountains, low valleys and blue skies. Once we reach camp, we caught our first glimpse of the hike’s namesake – Salkantay Mountain. It was a towering giant, but incredibly beautiful and snow-capped. Luckily this hike didn’t conquer the mountain, it bypassed it through a lower pass. I think the guide said that no one has yet been able to summit Salkantay.
Once reaching camp we had a short break and then began hiking again to Humantay Lake. It was a steep climb to the left of camp to watch the sunset over the mountain range. That hike was an absolute struggle but stubborn Cassie came into play so I couldn’t turn back and eventually made it to the top. The lake itself was a beautiful blue/green colour. The sort of water you didn’t need to touch to know it would be freezing.
The first night we stayed in these incredible glass igloo huts. It was freezing cold but to be able to see Salkantay and the stars from the comfort of your own bed. I would do this hike again (maybe without the food poisoning) just to stay in those igloos again. All the other companies had tents so we were incredibly grateful that we had the opportunity to stay in the glass igloos.
We were up early the next day and feeling a bit better, I ate a little breakfast which gave me the energy to tackle the most difficult day of the trek. It was pretty much 4 hours uphill and not just a slight incline, it was pretty extreme. It was a slog but it felt so much easier than the first day because I didn’t feel like passing out from lack of food or being sick. The scenery changed from high in the alps in the morning to be at jungle level for the night.
Once we reach the top of the pass, we had an amazing view of Salkantay and the downhill trail to our lunch spot. We had snacks up the top and our guide, Angel, performed a traditional blessing of the Quechua people (the native people of the land we were walking on) to Pachamama.
From there, it was mostly downhill for the day. The rock formations and the changing landscape were a highlight for me. Going from high altitude to the jungle in one day was something I have never experienced before. Our camp was at the edge of the Peruvian Amazon Jungle. It was a nice change from the freezing cold temperatures of the first night. We even splurged and bought a beer to celebrate the close of the hardest day of the trek. We walked 23km and I survived.
Our third day started with a very hungover guide (or at least we suspected). It didn’t impact on his ability to lead us or to give us the information we needed, he just was a little bit slower than the previous days. On our trek through the jungle, we learnt a little bit more about the traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies. Through our research, we had heard of this hallucinogenic used in coming of age ceremonies which has become part of the tourist trade. Angel had such a respect for the ceremony and, going through it himself, really emphasised the need for the participant to be ready and willing for everything that came from using Ayahuasca. He said he saw his whole life being played out before him like a movie and he found out a lot of answers. He also said to find a proper Shaman in the Amazon, rather than those that are in and around Cusco. Otherwise, you may just find someone trying to cash in on this growing trade and not provide you with a safe and traditional experience.
We also learnt a bit more about different medicinal plants traditionally used. One such plant was had a little red berry fruit. I can’t remember the name of it but it could be used as a dye for textiles and also a natural sunscreen. Angel picked the ripe berries, squeezed out the juice and painted our face. I didn’t trust it as a sunscreen, but it was a very pretty colour.
The third day took us through the jungle and past more than a few landslides (from heavy rain). The benefit of these landslides was that the quartz in the soil was exposed and gave the path a shimmer which I thought, was a little magical. The last full day of trekking ended when we made it to the train tracks of Peru Rail. These lead us straight to Aguas Calientes and the hotel where we would be staying for the third and final night. To have a hot shower after the 3 day trek, was amazing.
The next day we would be getting up early to explore Machu Picchu. What we didn’t realise was how early the guide wanted us up. Honestly, we thought he was joking when he said we needed to be up and ready to go by 2.30am. We wouldn’t be trekking anywhere though, just lining up for the bus to take us up to Machu Picchu. The reasoning behind the incredibly early wake-up, was so that we could wander around the archaeological site without masses of people.
Once our group was ready we walked to the place where we queued up for the buses. There were people already lining up. It was crazy. Plus the buses didn’t even start heading up until 5am. It was a long and sleep-deprived wait but once we made it to Machu Picchu it was well worth it. Just looking at the location of the site is enough, but when you factor in the advanced construction methods they were using in the 15th century, it is awe-inspiring.
After the guided tour we had the rest of the morning to explore Machu Picchu. We walked up to the Sun Gate and got a spectacular view of Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. By the time we went back to the main site there were so many people. I have never seen so many selfie sticks and poses in one place. It was a bit sad in a way – like I totally understand wanting to take photos and remembering the place (like we have been doing) but the way some people were acting, it was like going from one photo location to another, rather than just taking it all in. While it was incredibly early, I was thankful for the 2.30am wake up as we got to experience the site with fewer people.
We headed back down into the town, Aguas Calientes for an early lunch. Aguas Calientes is very much a town built on the tourism of Machu Picchu. So prices were higher and the food quality wasn’t the best either. After lunch, we had more than a few hours to kill as our train didn’t leave until late afternoon.
We ended up just wandering around, looking through the markets and taking a seat just outside of the main area. While sitting there, we befriended a very affectionate Mexican Hairless Dog. I don’t think I have ever had a dog so friendly and wanting pats so quickly after meeting them. It took a shining to Dave, trying to jump on his lap whenever Dave would stop patting him. We also were included in playtime with a young Peruvian girl which was a bit problematic as our Spanish was terrible so we couldn’t follow the game as well. It didn’t seem to matter too much to her though. While we were sitting outside (the one time I forgot to apply insect repellent), I was eaten alive by mosquitos around my ankles. I reacted really badly to the bites and it took weeks for them to heal. Aguas Calientes was the first place we had gone in our trip which had mosquitos but I was definitely on my guard from there.
Going on a trek was never in our original plans. I wanted to see Machu Picchu again, as the last time I was there, our tour was cut short and we were evacuated due to landslides and flooding. While looking at our options, a one day tour to the site was going to cost about the same as the hike with Salkantay Trekking (the benefit of travelling in low season is that most tour costs have been discounted). I think this trek was better than the traditional Inca Trail and think that Dave wouldn’t have liked the Inca Trail as much. Mind you, there were 7 years in between so a lot may have changed, but Salkantay had better accommodation, it wasn’t as busy and the landscape was more diverse and beautiful. I would 100% recommend Salkantay to anyone going to Peru.
BONUS – the llamas of Machu Picchu