From Salkantay to Machupicchu

CUSCO, PERU __ I arrived at Machupicchu just before dawn on Friday, winning my race with the sun but tired and dripping with sweat. The steep stairs from Aguas Calientes capped an epic five day trek: we hiked 80 kilometers through a wide variety of conditions and terrain, over a cold and beautiful pass next to tower Salkantay mountain one day, through the rain on muddy jungle trails the next, finally ending the journey at this ancient Inca city that is one of the seven wonders of the world. And as I gazed at sprawling Machupicchu in the soft and fresh sunlight, I was even more awestruck than I anticipated. There really is something uniquely magical about this place.

I think that I’ll need more time to fully process the experience, so for now let me just describe the high points of the journey that brought me there. It began on Monday at 5 a.m. when Marc (my Belgian buddy that I met on Isle del Sol) and I were picked up at our hostel, about an hour later than we’d been told. Then came one of those crazy South American bus trips, with colorful people (including cholitas and a guy with a bag of live chickens) getting on and off in random remote spots and the bus flying along a rutty dirt road past hairpin turns on the sides of steep cliffs with no railing.

Arriving in Mollepata, I met our group over a sparse breakfast, the last meal we would have to pay for until Friday. The group of 11 of us included two young guys from Chicago and two from Southern California, an attractive 28-year-old single woman from New Jersey, Marc from Belgium, and couple from the Czech Republic (although we called them Germans all week, an initial mistake that later seemed to fit their personalities so it stuck) and one from Australia (although Leo lived in his native Bogota, Columbia until six years ago). Five horses carried our supplies and we were guided and cared for by four tough and knowledgable Peruvianos.

We hiked about six hours the first day on fairly easy terrain, except for the steep shortcuts that guide Jose Luis led us through. But it was cold and windy when we arrived at the exposed camp below towering, snow-covered Salkantay. We slept and ate in tents and endured a frigid night that ended mercifully at 5 a.m. to begin our longest and hardest day of trekking: more than 10 hours starting with a climb of about 3,000 vertical feet (which I powered despite being the oldest person — 39 — on the trek) and then a drop of about 6,000 vertical feet over rocky and unstable terrain. Our knees and bodies were worked by the time we arrived at the charming and remote campout, pitching our tents on the lawn of a riverside subsistence farm — albeit one with outdoor bar and snack shack for the visiting turistas. Our meals were always great (tea and soup followed by a complete main course, always with a meat and the two starches that are standard in South American meals) and always prepared by our cooks, whether we were in the middle of nowhere or coopting a room in a farmhouse or restaurant).

That night, we had our first rain, which continued into the next day, making the trail along a roaring river muddy and nearly impassable in some sections. We also had to contend with nearly a dozen creek crossing, some quite treacherous on rickety bridges or hopping along slippery rocks (I and two other fell into the creeks at different points). Yet Jose Luis and the other Peruvians took in all in stride, the porters wearing sandals evne in the cold or rain. But the experience was really fun, made all the more exciting by its difficulty.

After the hike, the horseman (who always had a big wad of coca in his cheek) took the animals all the back back to the start, doing in a day and a half what it took us three to complete. Tough hombres! Because we were pretty well worked by the time we arrived at the hostel in Santa Theresa where we camped on the lawn, quickly changes into our swim clothes for the much anticipated visit to a natural hot springs a short microbus trip away.

This place was fantastic, a must do for anyone visiting the area and better than any resort I’ve visited in the states. For just 10 soles, we soaked for hours in a series of pools of varying temperatures and went under two cool waterfalls. All the stresses and aches were washed away and we came together as a group before a late supper followed by campfire that were used to catalyze conversation and dry our shoes.

The next day’s hike began with a fun ride over the river in a two-person cart suspended by a cable. The six-hour hike was fairly easy by comparison of the previous three hikes, with the first part along a dirt road (where we encountered many other groups making the pilgrammage to Machupicchu), the second part along the railroad tracks that ended at Aguas Caliente.

Despite being panned in the guidebooks as a dumpy and expensive tourist town through which all Machupicchu visitors must pass, I liked how it was built along a section of river with raging whitewater. In fact, we all liked the river so much that most of the group stayed up until 1 a.m. drinking Cuba Libres on a balcony of the hostel (yes, we stayed in actual rooms and got our first showers of the week) despite needing to get up at 4:30 a.m.

But lack of sleep didn’t deter our enthusiasm, desire to hike the final leg of our journey rather than take the bus, or appreciation of Machupicchu and the higher Waynapicchu, both of which I’ll write more about later.

P.S. My trip ends on Wednesday, so at most I’ll do one more post from down here and some reflections when I get back. Thanks for reading.

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