Surviving Salkantay (just)

If you had asked me on day two of our Salkantay Trek whether I would trek again you would have been met with a resounding ‘hell no’- the generous family and friends that had paid for us to trek in Nepal next year as a wedding gift would just have to be disappointed. Don’t worry, I’ve since decided that trekking is a bit like child birth (I’m guessing)- a beautiful and rewarding experience coupled with intense pain that your body seems programmed to forget fairly promptly.  This is a small glimpse into our Salkantay experience, which coincidentally is in the top 10 most difficult treks in the world. How did we not read that before we booked!

Day 1.
At 5am we were picked up from our hostel in Cusco and driven to Marcocasa where we started our 8 hour trek. The effects of high altitude are strange. Your body feels heavier than usual and walking uphill is far more difficult than under normal circumstances. As we started our climb to 3900m our guide Lennin explained, with great enthusiasm, the local fauna and inca history. The Inca were incredible and had trails as far south as Argentina and north to Bolivia. The Peruvian government is in talks with other countries to see if they can open up some of these trails.

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At the time, this part of the trek seemed strenuous, however Lennin kindly explained that this was the easy day and boy did we find out what he meant soon enough.  We arrived at camp that afternoon and were greeted by a spectacular backdrop of mountains. We promptly put on layers of clothing, thermals, gloves and beanies as a storm came in. We were told not to go to the toilet between 1 and 2 am that morning because the winds would be extremely strong- of course my body took that to mean this would be the perfect time to need an urgent toilet visit. Oh the joys of slowly making your way through icey sludge then juggling a torch and toilet paper.

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Day 2.
This day I was truly my father’s daughter. A lot of expletives left my mouth as we trekked our way up to 4600m. If I were a kid again my mouth would have been washed out with numerous bars of soap. Every muscle in my body ached. Even my triceps and biceps- I didn’t even think I was using them. I was thankful for every little stop we could take, witnessing an avalanche here, spotting a small chinchilla-like animal there. I wasn’t sure if I was hot or cold. The terrain was horribly difficult to navigate and varied from ice covered rocks to muddy grass and trickling streams.

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Getting to Salktantay was like walking on a slippery treadmill with the incline set to max, in a room with no oxygen. ‘Why the hell did we do this again’ and ‘trekking is not my idea of fun’ regularly went through my mind as I tried to make it to the mountain pass. Niall tried to sooth me with words of encouragement like ‘you’re doing really well’ and ‘just one step in front of the other’. It didn’t help.

Finally we made it to the top and it was spectacular!  Although to be honest I think I was too exhausted to truly appreciate the magnificence of the scene. But I got to sit down and eat an apple- this made me happy. We then made an offering to the mountain god Apu Salkantay. While Niall wished for a long life of happiness for us and our future family my wish was far more shortsighted. Please fix my left knee (it was killing me) and get me through this trek.

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After a short break it was time to get started again- we still had another 11km downhill to go. Our ever informative guide stopped at part of an original Inca trail on the way down. Unfortunately we were not in the state of mind to appreciate how this connected to other trails and how certain details indicated it was Inca built.  On we went for three more hours.  Arriving at our lunch spot we both resembled the walking dead. Yet for how exhausted I was my body refused to receive any sustenance.  I guess it was punishing me for putting it through this kind of exertion.

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So after a most welcome break we were on to the last section for the day. I never thought I would hear myself say ‘Yes! Just another three hours of walking to go!’. Arriving at our campsite in Chaullay, and a beautiful one at that, was the best feeling. The toilet even had a toilet seat! Below is a picture of the most well-earned cerveza we’ve ever had (with our patient guide Lennin,  wonderful cook Locario and amazing horseman Roberto). We slept well that night.

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Day 3.
As usual we were woken up with a cup of cocoa tea. The mountain god had delivered,  my knee was feeling remarkably better, although not completely healed. Today was a much nicer experience with the exception of a few blisters (who knew blisters could get blisters!). The altitude was lower and our walk consisted of minor up and down trails and less mud. We were greeted by warmer weather as we made our way through the rainforest, complete with waterfalls, hummingbirds,  wild strawberries and butterflies.

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Today’s morning tea break was also by far my favourite. It’s pretty obvious from the picture below why.

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After five hours of trekking we arrived at our lunch stop Playa where Locario had again cooked us a feast.
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As we were trekking in the wet season one of the tracks was too dangerous to walk so we jumped in a car and made our way to Santa Teresa. Just past town we saw the last few stones falling from a landslide.  Our driver got through there quick smart. We arrived at the hot springs- easily the best 5 soles ($2) I have ever spent!  We soaked in the hot springs for two hours, surrounded by beautiful highlands, before heading back to camp for our final dinner with Locario. A feast like always- popcorn, crackers, ham, pizza, pasta, soup, veggies and a purple corn dessert. After a cerveza and round of cards we called it a night.

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Day 4.
We could sleep in til 7am today. Unfortunately, the roosters were not obliging and started at 4.30 am. Niall decided to take up the offer of ziplining across the valleys before we started walking. We had seen the wires the previous day and thought they were just powerlines. I have no idea how they got them from one side to the other! Needless to say ziplining wasn’t for me and I found a kindred spirit from Dublin to chat with for two hours.

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After ziplining (or lack thereof) we headed to the hidroelectrica in Mandor and trekked our last 11km to Aguas Caliente. It was a relatively easily walk following the train tracks. About 45 minutes into our walk, five soilders popped out of the bushes holding riffles and, get this, bazookas!  Apparently, Colombians use gringos to smuggle coke. I think the bazookas might have been new toys for them as we spotted them taking a picture with their phone a bit further down the track.

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Something that was sadly less of a surprise was the amount of rubbish along this section of the trek. The path and bushes were littered with plastic bottles and food wrappers. Both Peruvians and tourists are equally to blame. We picked up quite a lot as we went but barely made a dent. We tried to drop it off at a restaurant along the way but they didn’t want to take it as they have to pay (by weight) to have their rubbish removed. It appeared that the locals were less than happy with Peru Rail for doing nothing about this issue, they own this part of land afterall. I don’t know, that seems like a bit of a cop out to me. We finally came across a guy who was a tourism minister, or something to that effect,  and he took the rubbish off our hands and thanked us tremendously.

Finally we arrived at our hostel.  Hooray for a bed, hot shower and wifi! From here we would trek our last hour and a half to Machu Picchu, but I’ll leave that for another entry- I’m shattered.

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