Thursday, December 9, 2010

Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu

The Kingdom of Cusco was founded around the year 1200 and was the historic capital of the mighty Inca Empire. Although it’s been nearly 500 years since the Spanish conquistadors arrived to reek havoc on this amazing civilization, you can still feel the Inca presence everywhere. Nowadays, Cusco has the nostalgic feel of cobble stone streets and ancient buildings – but unfortunately many of those buildings are churches and the style is colonial, not to mention that the town is completely geared toward tourism and almost nothing else. However, it is quite lovely and the night life is downright rowdy, so good times were had both day and night. And then came Nipi!!!!

Another great friend from our time in Amsterdam – the one and only Nicolas Baume. Even though I was lying in bed in the fetal position for 24 hours when he arrived (got too cocky about the amount of tap water my body could take!), I felt as euphoric as one in that (fetal) position could feel. Amazing reunion!

We immediately booked our trek to Machu Picchu – and after some consideration of different paths, decided on the Salkantay Trek. 5 days, about 100 kilometers/60 miles, reaching an elevation of 4,600 meters/15,000 feet! Our group consisted of 16 people from 9 different countries, 2 guides, 2 porters and 3 cooks.

Day 1: Bus at 5 a.m., breakfast at the trail head, then started an intense day of mostly uphill trekking. The afternoon was crystal clear and blazing hot and poor Nipi was getting sick the entire time. Made it to the hut where lunch was waiting – killer views (and killer sandflies)! A much needed siesta after a nice meal of soup & beef stir fry, then back for another 4 hours of hiking. We were continually elevating in altitude, and the view of Salkantay Mountain (completely covered in snow and ice) was getting closer and closer. The last hour was rough; the sun disappeared, temperatures dropped drastically, rain set in. At the camp we had coca tea and popcorn while trying to get dry and warm (although neither was really possible). Coca tea is served everywhere in Peru and Bolivia – it is used to combat altitude sickness and acts as a very minor stimulant. The coca leaves are directly steeped in hot water and sugar can be added for flavor. An early dinner followed, and after everyone immediately went to their tents to try to get warm and get some sleep. Again, neither possible. I was the third of the group to get sick that day, was a rough night back and forth between the outdoor latrine in the freezing cold.

Day 2: Up at 5:30, coca tea delivered to our tents. Ate about 1 bite of breakfast, stomach still with shooting pains. Ended up taking a horse for the first 3 hours of the day, and while normally it would have been a magical ride through the mountains, as a matter of pride it was not ideal. Mid-day we reached the peak of the trek: 4,600 meters/15,000 feet. Was cold and cloudy so high up, but also invigorating and uniquely attractive. Following Quicha tradition, we offered stones to the already existing piles as a gift to the Mountain, and also offered 3 coca leaves with a blessing of our choice for each one. For the next 2 hours descended into an amazing valley; stones everywhere, lush greens, waterfalls, cloud forest, small farms and animals, all part of the rain forest. After lunch and siesta we continued to descend, only this time in the rain. Our pace was fast and no one really spoke, as we all wanted to get to camp for the night and out of the downpour. But the walk was still stunning and felt even more adventurous because of the climate. Finally at camp by dinner time, had more tea and soup along with pasta. Another early night, little bit chilly in the mountains with all the wet clothes!

Day 3: Slept great, up at 6 with coca tea delivered to the tent. The day was perfect; everyone feeling well again, bright blue skies, warm weather, walking along singing “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.” The pace was easy in comparison to the two days previous, but we still covered a lot of ground, just “undulating” in elevation as opposed to straight ups and downs. We walked along the banks of the river for a lot of the time, which was soothing and picturesque. Had a buffet style lunch and everyone happily chowed after hiking all morning – followed by a siesta and a short bus ride to our next camp. As a group we all went to the towns natural thermal baths (hot springs) late that afternoon, and relaxed our aching muscles in the hot water and eased our dry throats with cold beer. At sundown went back to camp for another buffet style meal where we all ate too much and played with the resident monkey, Poncho, before a “late” bed (9:30).

Day 4: Up at 7 and after breakfast started the first half of the day on a dirt road through the mountains, a cloudy day but a blessing to be away from any extreme temperatures. After a few hours, got to the National Park checkpoint and gave our info, with a little extra pep in our step after that. Lunch was relaxing and we continued to walk along the train tracks, en route to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The hours that followed felt like the movie Stand By Me. Following the train tracks on some slightly crazy yet unbelievable journey. The growing excitement of getting so close to your destination – seeing the mountains take the same forms as the ones you know from seeing a hundred pictures of this area, feeling the clouds sporadically sink in around the hills to create a kind of mystical presence, knowing that thousands of years ago the Incas paved the way for the route you’re walking on…and all the build up to see something that everyone in the group has their own personal connection with. Not to mention the feeling of being pursued all the while, as everyone is in a race to be the firsts in the gates when they open for that flawless view. We had a very timely night as our plan was to wake up “early”.

Day 5: Up at 3:30 a.m. The bottom gate of the park is supposed to open at 4:50 a.m., while the top gate opens at 6. If you take a bus you can leave at 5:30 and arrived around 5:50 a.m. If you walk it is 35-45 minutes straight up hill, so you could potentially arrive before the first bus gets there. We arrived to the bottom gate at 4:15 and bribed our way in. Whatever works. The climb up the thousands of Inca stairs was extremely intense and there was no time for breaks; it almost felt like the Spanish conquistadors were pursuing us the whole way, a race against the invisible enemy. Dawn came and the sky started to open, and the whole scenario was beyond words, but the feeling was incredible. The anticipation was adrenalin, and a much needed one after the 4 long days we’d just put our bodies through. At the gates there were only 2 sly French guys ahead of us, so we were #’s 3, 4, 5 etc. to get in for the day. Great success!

Machu Picchu: The “lost” city of the Incas, never to be found by Spanish conquistadors. While they were busy taking everything & everyone they could get their hands on from Cajamarca to Cusco (and all points in between), they never found this breathtaking site. It is so isolated and impressive, so mysterious and magnificent. Because the Incas never developed a form of writing, the purpose of Machu Picchu is not exactly known; although it’s estimated that at one time about 600 people lived there. The first views made me laugh – it was absolutely perfect in its grandeur and sheer beauty. As the morning progressed we had time with our guide who told us all about the different areas of Machu Picchu and more about the history of the people. The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was one of the better experiences of my entire life, and I hope everyone who wants to see this site will take the time to make it happen while they are still able.


Kari said...

I'm enjoying traveling with you Nicole. hehehe

Equipo Imperios said...

Salkantay Trekking is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.

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