The majority of the tourists who came through Cusco were only there for about a week. This is just enough time to land, stay a night or two, then head off to trek to Machu Picchu, come back, and take off for their next destination. Traditionally, people tend to do the Inca Trail, the original trail hiked to Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail tends to be incredibly crowded and a bit more expensive, so a few of us started discussing doing another trail called the Salkantay Trail. We had heard it was longer, harder, less crowded, less expensive and more spiritual. For the adventure type like myself, that sounded like a pretty good deal. So, I ended up organizing three Remote Year groups who would leave on consecutive days to trek the 75 km to beautiful Machu Picchu.
My group, which consisted of eight other Remotes and myself, started on June 16th, 2016, and we reached Machu Picchu on Monday, June 20th. Here’s a look at my experience over those five days.
Day 1: Our first day we were picked up bright and early from our houses, mine at the time was R House. We drove a few hours to the starting point in Challacancha and then completed a short three to four hike from there to Soraypampa, our camping ground for the first night. Once we arrived at camp, we hiked to a lake at the top of the mountain, which a few of our boys actually jumped into despite the freezing temperatures. The highlight of the first night was definitely the glass-roofed igloos we slept in out in the middle of nowhere. We could see all the stars covering the sky while we dozed off in bed. Our boys also made a bonfire where we congregated a bit before we all crawled into our igloos to rest up for Day 2.
Day 2: We were told this would be the hardest day. Looking back now, I definitely don’t agree. But, that’s not to say it was any stroll in the park. The first half of the day was basically straight uphill with the highest elevation hitting 4,650 meters. That’s no joke, especially since we hiked 22 km that day. We took quite a few snack breaks and eventually made it up to the top where we had a small ceremony to give our thanks to Pachamama, the earth goddess. After we poured out one for Pachamama, we took a ceremonial swig of some rough alcohol, made a small cairn of rocks we gathered along the hike and then continued on. After this, it was mostly downhill, which was definitely little rough on the knees. Eventually, we all made it down to the first lunch stop. We ate some delicious food, took a quick nap and continued on. At this point, we were moving into more jungle landscapes, which meant more bugs and humidity. JP, Eric and I took up the lead and got to camp first where we promptly purchased some wine, beer and snacks. That night our group joined the rest of camp to watch one of the soccer playoff games and then crash out in our tents with a nice little buzz to fend off the cold.
Day 3: We had another early wakeup call to prepare for the full day ahead of us. We actually had a cake for breakfast, which was fun surprise. After breakfast, our tour guide Freddy told the group to “follow guide Paige,” and then wasn’t seen until our lunch stop. Despite the lack of guidance, our group powered ahead and successfully found our way. This was my favorite day, personally. Once we found the actual trail, it was basically a rolling path along the side of a mountain with small waterfalls leading down to the river that flowed alongside us. JP, Eric and I again took up the lead and ran a good portion of the day. During one of our stops, we got to hangout with a very friendly and hungry donkey, which was incredibly entertaining. We found out firsthand that giving a donkey an apple will quickly cause a rain storm of apple juice, so that was fun. Along the path some of the guys also found strawberries, passion fruits, avocados and bananas that we were snacking on along the way. After a long morning, we finally came to our lunch spot where we kicked off our shoes and enjoyed some delicious food by our local chefs. Lunch also included beer since our hiking was done for the day and we were heading off to spend the afternoon at the local hot springs. We relaxed in the springs and then headed back to camp for a boozy dinner, an awkward interaction with our tour guide and an early night to bed.
Day 4: It could have been the alcohol the night before, or maybe it was the humidity, but Day 4 was by far my least favorite day of the trek. The morning we hiked what seemed like straight uphill through coffee plantations. Every time we hit what I thought was a downhill reprieve, it was just the mountain teasing us. Finally, after lots of moments close to tears, we hit the top of the mountain where we could see the waterfall in the distance that marked our lunch stopping point. The lovely part of going straight uphill for hours is that eventually you’ll have to come straight back down. And I’m not talking gentle rolling downhills. This was like straight downhill; use your poles of you were going to fall on your face sort of downhills. Nonetheless, we finally made it to the lunch spot where we all sat sullenly eating our lunch. Thankfully, we had a quick nap break in some hammocks outside of the restaurant before continuing on. The afternoon portion of the trek ended up being my least favorite part of the entire five days. We spent the four hours walking on a rocky path along train tracks all the way to our next stopping point in Aguas Calientes. There was really no change of scenery and all of us were in some sort of pain. About halfway through, I started carrying my backpack by my side because my back was in so much pain, another one of our guys kept having to run to the bathroom because of stomach problems, another one was limping due to the massive blisters he had developed from the three previous days; you get the idea, we were a hot mess. Finally, FINALLY, we made it to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We all immediately broke off and went to grab drinks, went to the hotel or just roamed around before we had a big group dinner later that night. We were told we’d have a three or four o’clock in the morning wake up call, so the majority of us called it an early night and passed out.
Day 5: Our handicapped group decided to bus the trek up and down from Machu Picchu. We got to the top of the mountain right as it opened. Our guide, who had mostly stayed away from us due to some unfortunate interactions, gave us a rapid-fire 30-minute tour around the grounds and then said he had to take off to make his bus home. So, there we were, with a noon reservation to hike Huayna Picchu, the mountain in the back of the iconic Machu Picchu photos, and about five hours to kill. As most of us were sick of each other by this point, we broke off into groups and roamed around looking at all the amazing passageways, structures and buildings in the city. For a while, we just watched the clouds roll in and out of the valley. With every few minutes, the entire view would change. Finally, it was time for us to hike up to the precipice. Imagine the most insufferable set of tiny stairs that just kept going up, up, up. That was basically Huayna Picchu. But, it sure as hell was worth it. It gives me chills just thinking about getting to the top and looking out of Machu Picchu and the journey to get there. This was truly the climax of the trek for me. After we made it to the top, we were mentally exhausted and decided it was time to drink, play cards and hang out until our train back home where we continued to drink, play cards and hang out for a few more hours. After the train, we had another few hour car ride back to Cusco where we all half-asleep dragged our smelly selves out of the van, into our homes and into bed. I was exhausted, but there are no words to explain how incredibly grateful I was for such an amazing experience with such an amazingly diverse and talented group of individuals.
As for the Snickers bar reference, our group apparently has a massive sweet tooth, because Snickers were the coveted snack along the trek. Each day, we would bring a few and celebrate hitting the highest point or finishing a difficult part of the trek with a delicious nutty chocolate bar. Between this and the amazing food served to us for each meal, I don’t think I attained my goal of losing any weight during the experience, but hey, what can ya do.
Moral of the story, I have no doubt that when I look back on Remote Year, this five-day adventure will stand out as one of my most memorable and challenging experiences, and I wouldn’t trade any of the horribly ugly blisters or tan lines for a single minute of it.
With love, Paige