View of the ruins with Huayna Picchu in the back from Machu Picchu Mountain

Haku- let’s go, come on in Quechua

The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was one of the most memorable parts of my trip to Peru. When trying to sum up our five days and four nights on the trail, my travel buddy Sarah and I both struggled to encapsulate the experience. How do we provide enough detailed highlights without simply listing out our itinerary?  How do we share the inside jokes and the quirks without rambling on and on? At last, I can’t procrastinate any longer. Incohesive fragments will have to do.

Our Group: Our core group of eight women and one man merged with a male-dominant group during dinner on the first day. We got to know hikers and guides from both groups well. We were the savage llamas; they were the chasquis. Because I didn’t know what a chasqui was (highly trained and super fit messenger during the Inca Empire), I kept calling them “the jet skis” for the first three days. To my credit, jet skis are also known for their fast speed.  In the larger group, we had three British medical students, two American hippies dressed as locals, a French DJ who didn’t speak much Spanish or English, a French waitress who was with the DJ but didn’t seem to want anything to do with him, a Dutch couple, an Israeli guy who loved canned tuna, a couple American bros, an Australian bro, and a British bro.

Hiking: We hiked approximately 34 miles (55 kilometers) in four days from Challacancha to Aguas Calientes, where we spent the last night before visiting Machu Picchu the next day. We started at an elevation around 11,500 feet (3,600 meter), reached the highest point at Salkantay Pass around 15,190 feet (4,630 meter), and ended the trek around 6,725 feet (2,050 meter). The altitude added an extra layer of physical difficulty, or at least it was our excuse for feeling out of shape. Mules carried our food, tents, sleeping bags, and five kilograms of personal items; we focused on the breathtaking scenery around us, as well as putting one foot in front of the other. “Haku” became a frequent word between our guides and us. When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we were surprised to see other tourists arriving via forms of transportation besides on foot. Duh! To us, hiking the Salkantay trail and seeing Machu Picchu completely melded together into one experience. Sarah would call it Phase II of our trip (Phase I being sightseeing in Arequipa and Cusco and Phase III being spending time with our college friend in Lima).

Our Routine: Our days on the trail shared a similar rhythm. We woke up early usually between 5-6 AM to coca tea brought to our tents. The leaves of coca plant contain alkaloids which- when extracted chemically- are the source for cocaine base. A cup of coca tea contains alkaloids equivalent to 1/5 to 1/6 of a line of cocaine. Drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves are said to combat effects of altitude sickness. Breakfast is usually white bread with butter and jam, a hot porridge drink made from oats and quinoa, and something else more substantial like eggs. We hiked for the morning and stopped for lunch in the early afternoon. Depending on the day, we spent the afternoon hiking to our campsite or to a lake, strolling around a nearby town, or taking a bath at a thermal spring. Before dinner, we drank hot beverages and snacked on salty popcorn. By the dinner was served, I had very little room in my stomach for it. Sarah said we were glamping (glamour camping). And she was right, we ate very well. Peruvian classics that we had included lomo saltado (strips of beef with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and french fries over rice), pollo plancha (grilled chicken), ensalada rusa (beets, potatoes, fresh cheese), and of course different kinds of potatoes. Sarah and I went to bed early while the bros stayed up late drinking Cusquena.

Machu Picchu: Sarah described ascending to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes as ritualistic. Most hostels started serving breakfast around 4 AM or provided bagged breakfasts. People began lining up around 4:30 AM for the first entrance point to open at 5 AM. Then we walked up flight of stairs for an hour and reached the second entrance point, which opened at 6 AM. We were among the first visitors and didn’t realize until much later when tourists came up in bus loads how special it was to enjoy the classic view of Machu Picchu from near the Guardhouse without a crowd. The most difficult thing to articulate or to capture in a photo was the feeling of being surrounded by magnificent mountains and imagining the Incans turning an equally steep mountain into the citadel in front of our eyes. Sarah and I hiked up Machu Picchu Mountain in a drizzle (more stairs) and gained 2,038 feet (621 meters) in elevation. With the view of Hydroelectrica on the left and Aguas Calientes on the right, we snacked on our overly sweet quinoa and kiwicha granola as we watched our Israeli friend eat two cans of tuna. After the descent that turned our legs to jelly, we walked to the Inca Bridge and around the ruins some more before heading back to Aguas Calientes in midafternoon. Twelve hours of the the Machu Picchu journey from door to door felt much shorter.

Salkantay (20,574 ft or 6,271 m), “Savage Mountain”
Soyrococha, near where we camped the first night
Lake near the Salkantay Pass (not Humantay)
Huayracmachay, after descending from the Salkantay pass
Granadillas, a sweeter version of passion fruit, near Winaypocco
In line waiting for the entrance to Machu Picchu to open at 5AM
The classic Machu Picchu shot
Trapezoidal stone windows at Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes

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