This 3-day trek through the Andean mountains will stay with me forever. I completed this trek during my month-long stay in Peru in November of 2017. I booked Salkantay through a small company in Cusco, called Destiny Peru. I was charged $200 USD for transportation, food, tent and the guided trek, which was a really good deal. This was because I had booked a quad tour the week before with the same company, and I was with a local Peruvian, which meant I got a lower price. It’s funny how there’s such a huge difference between the tourist and local prices.
Salkantay is a 6,271m (20, 574ft) sacred mountain for the locals of Peru. The quechua meaning for Salkantay is the "Savage or Wild Mountain". For years, mountaineers from all over the world came to climb it, which was considered inappropriate and disrespectful. Eventually, the Peruvian government made a law against climbing to the top of that mountain. The Salkantay Trek's highest point is 4600m going over the snowy pass, where hikers can see the brilliant mountain peak just behind them, if the weather allows. Mountain weather is so unpredictable and can change so rapidly that most hikers just see cloud and rain at the top. Our group was lucky enough to arrive at the top as the sun came out and clouds cleared. Here is a daily recap of this adventure:
Day 1 - Oct 25th, 2017
Up at 4am. My Peruvian friend and roommate also had to get up to go guide the Lares Trek that morning so we taxied to the Main Plaza together. I was thankful for this because many taxi drivers sleep in their cars overnight on the side of the road, so if you need a taxi at any time of the night, you just tap on the window to wake them up. I was glad he could tap on the window and ask instead of me; we also got local prices since I was with him. When I first arrived to Cusco, I was charged 40 Soles for the taxi ride to my accommodation from the airport. Usually you can barter for a lesser price, but since I had just come from 24 hours of travel, I said yes to the first safe-looking taxi driver I found. A local would have been charged 5-7 Soles for that ride.
My guide met me at the Main Plaza and led me to the bus. Around 5am the group was onboard and the 2-hr drive began. I surprisingly slept quite well, despite the snoring from one of the cooks who sat beside me. We had breakfast in a small village where everyone seemed confused, but eventually we got our food (about 7 Soles: $3 CAN). I got talking to people from the Netherlands, Britain, China and Calgary. We weighed our duffle bags to make sure they were less than 6kg. Similarly to the Inca Trail, the duffle bags had our sleeping bags, nighttime clothes, extra shoes, and toiletries, but instead of porters carrying them on their backs, the Salkantay Trek had horses. Another 50-min on the twisty road and the hike began. The first 30-40 min of the hike was fairly steep with gorgeous views of the snowy glacier. The next few hours were all flat and easy. I chatted with people from Vancouver, Australia, and a really nice older couple from Colorado, USA. The man (Rick) and I talked for a good hour about mountain biking and his family travels. He was super excited that I was starting this travel journey on my own.
The camp spot was nestled into the valley with mountains standing tall on all sides. A field of horses, cows, alpacas, and llamas scattered up the grassy mountainside. Our tents were under a roof outside a barn and the eating area set up with 3 big tables inside the barn. After lunch we had a bit of chill time to settle into our tents; there were enough tents that I got my very own. We were given the option to do a small hike from the camp spot up to Humantay Glacier before dinner, which most people were keen on. The hour-long hike up was challenging and steep. My gut and head were both off, but the more I hiked, the closer the mountains were and the more joy I felt. We could all go at our own pace since the trail was the same up and down, so Patrick, a 7-ft tall Irish-man, basically ran up.
Although my head was pounding, I was overcome by peace and amazement as I rounded the corner to this brilliant turquoise glacier lake. I can’t describe the feeling I get when surrounded by mountains. There’s something about them that plucks my heartstrings. I feel calm, yet my heart races. I feel at home, but it’s hard to take in. The mountains are so majestic and detailed. It begins with the crisp edges sparkling in the sun, under the ever-changing clouds dancing over the peaks. Then the fresh glistening snow clinging to the rock, and the rough, jagged lines cutting deep into the mountain’s face. The shadows play hide-and-seek in the crevices as the grey jumble of gravel leads to the dirty snout of the glacier. The lower snout melts, splitting into beautiful streams that feed the lake. The shimmering blue water gets kisses from the wind, and the mountain bases reach out to each other across the soft, lazy valley. On the other surrounding mountains, the snow has given a delicate dusting to cover the stubbly rock faces. They stand proud and defiant.
Pictures never do it justice - you just have to sit there and stare and breathe and let it fill you up; let it surround you and pull you in.
Patrick and I were both keen to explore more since we had lots of time before dinner, so we went up on one of ridges to have a different perspective from a higher vantage point. We sat for a long time, sometimes talking, sometimes not. He’d been traveling in South America for 10 months (which explains why he would run up mountains at 4000m of elevation). As we sat, we watched tiny blips of horses and sheep grazing on the yummiest grass way up the mountain, almost at the snowline. Two stunning condors started dancing above the lake in front of the glacier. They glided and twirled and twisted beautifully. All of a sudden, one was right next to us, maybe 20 feet away. He swooped around, circling us and showing off his massive wingspan and bright white feathers on top of his wings. He craned his thick neck around to watch us as he passed silently, before flashing like lightning in front of the sun to return to his dance partner. Never had I encountered such a huge bird. The wingspan of condors are 10 feet wide. I could hear my heart beat from the adrenaline and I couldn’t stop smiling. The condor is a sign of good luck for the Incans and the Andean religion.
That night, before dinner in the barn, we played a game called Rocks or Sapo. It’s usually a drinking game the Peruvians play in the bars and pubs. It involves 10 heavy coin pieces that you try to get into various holes cut into a small dresser-shaped table. The player stands 10-15 feet away from the dresser and throws a heavy coin, one at a time, into the various holes. In the middle is a brass frog with his mouth wide open; if you get a coin inside his mouth, you win (very hard to do). Each hole has a different amount of points (100-1500) for getting a coin inside, depending on the difficulty of the throw. Most players throw underhand, which is good for control and aim, but you can’t control the position that the coin flies through the air or lands. Those with more experience or more drive to win throw frisbee-style, which keeps the coin horizontal (the only way it will fit into the frog’s mouth).
During dinner it rained and hailed. HARD. The roof of the barn was sheet metal, so the hail was deafening; we couldn’t even hear the person sitting next to us talk. After dinner (soup, stir-fry, rice, chicken and deep fried eggplant for the vegetarians), I was eavesdropping while in the bathroom. One girl, in the stall beside me, was arguing with her boyfriend outside, because he had given her his headlamp and was wondering how long she was going to be. She called him rude and they made snide comments to each other. It made me chuckle and think about how reliant relationships can make people. I was grateful to be single. But then, that thought disappeared as I heard another conversation. The husband of a woman two stalls down from me, called in asking how long she was going to be, because he wanted to run to the tent to grab the umbrella for her - how sweet. She replied by thanking him and saying she already had one. That also made me chuckle and think that relationships aren’t so bad. It really depends on the people and the partnership.
Day 2 - Oct 26th, 2018
4:50am wake up call with coca tea delivered to our tents by the cooks and guides - so spoiled. It was so nice falling asleep to the white noise of rain and gentle murmur of voices last night. I slept with a doggie bag beside me since my stomach had been upset. Luckily, the doggie bag was not needed.
The 22km of hiking was, of course, beautiful. It was humbling to be passed by the speedy horsemen and horses carrying all the gear. My stomach was still being silly during the morning but settled down after lunch. We hiked 3-hrs up to Salkantay pass, in the snow. It was only a few inches deep so not quite enough to wet our hiking boots. The many tracks of everyone in front of us, and all the horse-shoe prints were glistening as they led the way up. We stopped at the base of the steep climb for a snack. I pulled out a pepino melon, which is a yellow and purple fruit. I peeled it with my Swiss army knife and slurped it down. After some mini-snowman-making and playful snowball fights, we began the ascent to the pass. We hiked up a stream of melting snow to the summit of the pass, surrounded by snowy, glowing, and magnificent mountains. On all sides of the trail were huge snow-covered boulders, which many people ducked behind to relieve themselves.
The weather was perfect with blue skies and sparkly white snow. We had time to put on extra layer and take photos. Before leaving, we gathered around and performed an Andean ceremony to thank Pachemama (Mother Earth) for the good weather, for the mountain and the health of our group. Similar to the Inca Trail, the guides gave us all 3 coca leaves and told us to find a rock. At the end of the guide’s prayer, we placed our coca leaves under the rock to make a small pile and each said a silent prayer of our own, then passed around a bottle of Incan Tequila. The clouds started coming in along with a few raindrops just as we were leaving the summit.
I had a really good chat with our head guide, nicknamed “Big Mama”, and our second guide nicknamed “Chinchilla”. She was the first female guide I had seen since my time in Peru. She wasn’t taller than 4ft, but fit as a fiddle. She said she’s always working, doing all the treks around Cusco. She didn’t say much and her English wasn’t great but I still enjoyed talking to her.
Then began the long 3-hrs down from Salkantay pass to the lunch spot. Thank god for poles to save the knees. The valley was stunning and full of horses and cows. As we winded down the grassy valley we could see the tents set up where we would eat lunch. Almost there, with stomachs grumbling, we had to stop at a roaring stream to cool our hot, sweaty feet. This lunch was very carb-heavy with pasta, rice, bread and pizza. With our full bellies, we made our way down the last 3-hrs of the day, down into the rain forest, into the bugs. We got to the camp at 3:45pm and enjoyed some cervezas. There were not enough tents at the camp spot so I actually got to sleep in the guides’ room on a real bed. I was excited at first...then I saw the amount of bugs attracted to the light in the room (moths, flies, giant spiders, mosquitos and centipedes). Safe to say I was freaked out a little and very nervous to wake up with bugs on my face. I covered up as much of myself as possible. The guides and I practiced our English and Spanish before bed. I fell asleep to one of them singing John Lennon’s imagine while the other watched Anime.
Day 3 - Oct 27th, 2017
This day consisted of an easy and scenic 6-hour hike downhill. Along the way, we bought some cheap avocados (paltas) and passion fruit (granadillias) at a farm stand for a mid-morning break. It was entertaining to watch the kids and guides playing soccer in the small grassy patch beside the farm stand. After lunch, we bussed to the camp, which was a tucked away retreat-looking place off the road through a village. There was a bar, a huge eating area, real toilets and the tents were up on the platform above the eating area. After dropping our stuff, most of us jumped in the bus again to visit the hot springs, while jamming out to some loud Raggatin. 10 soles to enter gave us 3 hours to lounge about and relax there. The top hot spring was almost boiling where the water entered the pool. There were 4 more pools that got cooler as they flowed away from the source. They were very nice and relaxing but cold showers actually felt the best and most refreshing. I chatted with the Australian, and we a watched a talking parrot fly by. The parrot would say “Hola” if you talked to him. After deciding to get out of the hot springs, you had to be quick. The bugs were on a mission. I got bitten everywhere.
After dinner we gave the cooks their appreciation (tip) and celebrated with a shot of Incan Tequila. Then the party started. They lit the fire pit, and put on some funky music and cool lights. We passed around beer and tequila shots as we danced. Everyone was doing their own thing and enjoying the music and alcohol; it felt really good to dance and let loose. We had a dance circle going on at one point where quite a few people showed off their moves.
Day 4 - Oct 28th, 2017
The next morning I walked down the street in need of some serious coffee. I was overjoyed when I found the best coffee I’ve ever tasted (and the coffee shop guy gave me half an avocado for free!). That morning, we had the option to zip line for 90 Soles ($45), instead of walking another 3 hours down to lunch. Hung-over zip lining started out badly but ended up being awesome. There were 5 lines and 1 suspension bridge. The company was called Vertikal Zip Lining. I found it funny to watch others getting so worked up and freaked out by the heights. I was fine since I was used to heights and had been zip lining a few times before. This was my first time being able to try other positions instead of only sitting while zip lining. We had the option to go upside-down/Spiderman-style, prone starfish, and superman. Our guide painted our faces red from the guts of a small white beetle for fun. After that fun adventure, was a short bus ride to lunch and the last 3-hour walk along the train tracks to Auguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town). It was nice to shower and lay down in a real bed. The hostel seemed very weird and empty and there was no wifi - not ideal but still grateful. That night the group all got together again and had dinner while drinking, laughing and exchanging information and pictures. The rest of the group was getting up early to see Machu Picchu the next morning, but since I had already seen it after the Inca Trail in September, I just went back to the hostel to wait for my Peruvian friend who was meeting me there from finishing his trek.
Day 5 - Oct 29th, 2017
Before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo, I was on a search for wifi. There were many “Wifi Zone” signs in restaurants and coffee shops, so I stopped at the first one that looked welcoming. After ordering a hot chocolate, I asked for the wifi password. I tried for 10 minutes to connect with no luck, then I asked the server and he said “oh, it might be down”. I chugged my gritty hot chocolate and asked how much it was. He said 12 Soles ($5), which is ridiculous for a coffee in Peru! I expected to pay 2 Soles! I ended up paying 10 Soles but I was still pissed. I just wanted wifi access after 5 days of being out of contact. I was so frustrated and every place I went to the people wanted me to buy something before telling me if their wifi worked. Rudy caught a different train than me because he was a guide and local and my train was part of my tour price. His train cost him 10 Soles. Mine was $45 USD (90 Soles). In Ollantaytambo, there was a ceremony happening where two men riding horses pranced and danced around a Peruvian girl in a beautiful purple dress dancing on cobble stone in her bare feet.
That night back in Cusco we headed down to the auditorium to watch the football (soccer) match of Lima vs Cusco (a big game). The stadium was packed and I must have been one of the only tourists. Cusco’s goalie was a beast - so impressive. There were women and men selling everything: hats, popcorn, chicha, soda, rice chicha pudding, pie, candy, toys, kabobs, and pig fat chips. Two live bands played during the match and the crowd threw confetti into the air with every goal. Cusco won 8-1.
We had pizza for dinner, which later gave me digestive issues. Such is Peru - ha!
This trek was an incredible experience. I gained knowledge, made connections and was humbled, yet again, by the Peruvian Andes. Forever grateful.
April 9, 2018