After all the “preparation”, the trek was finally here! I arrived in Cusco the evening of June 11, from Trinidad, two days ahead of Aarti and Ujwala, who were making their way in via the scenic route. I refused to take an altitude pill as I wanted to see what would happen, and am very happy to report that nothing did. I was just fine. But given the fact that I had never been at such high altitudes (11,200 feet) before, and was about to go higher, I decided to finally take it on June 13 – a good 48hrs before the trek was to begin.
June 13th brought a great deal of excitement as Aarti and I were finally going to see each other after a very long time and after many failed attempts (or, as Aarti would say, the lack thereof) on my part. So, needless to say, it was great to see her and meet Ujwala that evening. Before I forget, I spent the morning, productively, walking 10kms, a very teeny portion of which involved a bit of an uphill climb, and navigating 224 steps linking two roads.
However, as would be greatly underscored later, all the prep we did (a sum total of 14 days for me, and a month or so for Ujwala and Aarti) was a mere drop in the ocean compared to what we should have done – and hence the word in quotes in my opening para. 🙂
We spent the evening of June 13 shopping for some essentials, while June 14 was earmarked for a warm-up trek to Sacsayhuaman. It was a beautiful day and we became tourists instead of trekkers!
After a morning well spent taking tons of photographs, it was on our walk to lunch that the enormity of what we had signed up for finally hit us – the trigger being a poster displayed outside a local shop with the picture of a group standing at the Salkantay Peak, in what looked like very daunting terrain. We looked at each other, shook our heads and smiled sheepishly while telling each other that well, we would do the trek now, no matter what.
June 15, day 1 of the trek, dawned bright and early – we were picked up at 4am from our hotel, and 4 stops later, were on our way to Mollepata, where we ate a nice breakfast and were introduced to the trek support team – our guide Amoroso, our cook Andrea, and her 18 year old helper, Juong. There was a team of horsemen too who would carry our overnight duffel bags and the camping gear. We also spent the time at breakfast getting to know the rest of our fellow trekkers. It was a wonderfully diverse group – A couple from Denmark and Romania, another from Australia and Poland, two school teachers from Alaska, a young techie from Germany. They were all experienced trekkers.
After a short drive to Challacancha, the trek began. With a quick ascent through a narrow stretch. We immediately fell behind, but caught up with the group who had stopped for Amoroso’s introduction to the mountains and a small ritual of holding up coca leaves as a mark of respect, before rolling the leaves up and putting it inside our mouths – this was to help with any potential altitude symptoms. The rest of the trek to the skydome campsite was similar – a mix of ascents and flat terrain on narrow tracks with stunning scenery accompanying us the entire way. We reached camp at lunchtime.
The plan was to climb up to the Humantay Lake, after lunch – a distance of 2kms and an ascent of 352meters. We decided to shed some of our day-pack backpack weights as we were carrying way more than we needed. And, we began the climb. Boy, was it hard! While Aarti and Ujwala kept fighting back the desire to quit and go back to camp, I was convinced that I ought to abort the entire trek altogether! It required a great deal of mental effort to do the climb – mine was bolstered with some U2, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Bruce Springsteen music to keep me company! When we finally made it up to the lake, it was well worth the effort.
But one thing was clear, we were going to take the horse option the next day. The horse option, called Uber (!!), involved completing the first 7kms (which was a straight ascent of 800m) of the 22km stretch, on a horse, and then trekking the rest of the way. The night of June 15 was beautiful and very cold (minus 5 degree Celcius) and involved some star gazing.
When I woke up at 4am on day 2, I was sure that I wanted to walk, at least part of the way up, and then maybe hop on the horse later. This required some logistical jugglery with Amoroso and once it was all set, that is what I did, while Aarti and Ujwala, took the horse from the get go. Approximately two kilometers into the ascent is when the horse train caught up with me, and so, I finally hopped on. And thank God I did! The ascent from that point on was brutal, but then again, being on the horse was no piece of cake either! Each of the animals had a mind of his own and many were very competitive, wanting to get ahead of the horse in front. My horse, Wycho, wanted to lead the pack and finally when he did manage to push and shove his way ahead on the narrow track, he was a little steadier than earlier. Not that it helped exactly, as the slope we were navigating was a narrow path at 45 degree angles at times, with a sharp drop on one side.
When we finally got to about 1 km from the peak, the horseman stopped the horse train and asked us to get off. It was too icy for the horses to proceed. From that point on, we climbed up the 100m elevation ascent.
We were thrilled to make it to the top – 4,600meters.
A quick cup of coca tea and a couple of bites of a cheese sandwich later, we started the long trek down. If you are wondering where the coca tea and sandwich came from – well, that was Juong, the 18 year old helper, who had trekked ahead to be there with the large flask and sandwiches! The first part of the trek down took a while. We reached our lunch spot at 2pm and after a sumptuous meal, began the second part of the descent.
If anyone is thinking at this point that a descent must be easy, well, think again. Narrow, gravel filled tracks, at a steady 30 – 45 degree angle poses all kinds of challenges – knees, shins, and for me, it was my big toes which kept hitting the front of my hiking boots. Soon, I was in tremendous pain. The three of us were also slower and while Amoroso waited to guide us at the first milestone point, he told us that he would have to go ahead and would be back later with a light as it would get dark. We had made the rookie mistake of not keeping our headlamps with us! And as it got dark, it also started raining. To say that the last two hours to the Andean hut camp, of which about 45 minutes was in pitch black darkness, was a real challenge, would be an understatement. It was a relief when Amoroso came back with a light and walked with us the rest of the 30 minutes to the campsite. At that point, my pain level was so high that I had no idea how I would manage day 3. I went to bed without taking any painkillers as I wanted to see how bad my condition would be the following morning. I had trekked 17 kms and we had ascended 800m and descended 1,800m that day – no mean feat.
Day 3 dawned better than I expected. My pain had reduced some and this time I was armed with some good tips on how to tie my boots, how many pairs of socks to put on, etc. We began the day with a lovely breakfast and a warning from Amoroso that we would hit some landslide areas with extremely narrow trails and sharp drops. The trek started along a motorable dirt track, but we soon turned into the mountainside and from that point on, the trek became a mix of sharp ascents, flats and descents on very narrow stretches winding our way along the face of the mountain. The landslide areas were way harder than even Amoroso could describe them.
16kms later, we were at our jungle camp. We ate a lovely late lunch cooked by Andrea, and the rest of the group drove to a hotspring, while Aarti, Ujwala and I sunned ourselves, and relaxed. And yes, we managed to get wifi! And spent some time letting our worried families know that we were okay. Dinner was early, as usual, and fun with some great conversation. By now, we were all very comfortable with each other. The ongoing FIFA World Cup was also a rather important topic of conversation!
The three of us had already decided to skip a tough and time bound portion of the hike on day 4, which involved a straight up ascent and then a sharp descent, all to be completed within 6 hours or less – something we knew we were not conditioned for. Amoroso agreed. We would have been able to do it in 8 hours maybe, but that wasn’t an option. We were joined by 2 others from the group who also opted out due to the speed requirement. Hence, day 4 started late for us. While 5 in our group left at sharp 4.30am to complete this time-bound hike, the rest of us stayed back and took a van ride around the mountain and waited at a little restaurant for our 5 fitter trekkers to join us. We then continued the rest of the trek together along the train track to get to Aguas Calientes – the little village below Machu Picchu.
14 kms later we were at the village. Of course, this portion of the trek wasn’t exactly easy either, and we were happy to finally hit the shower! We decided to take the bus up to Machu Picchu the following morning as opposed to doing another time bound 50 minute hike up the almost vertical steps.
Day 5 was finally here! For me, highly exciting as Machu Picchu had been on my bucket list for an incredibly long time. We began the day at 4am where we met in the lobby. Only 4 of the 10 of us were going to walk up the “stairs of death” as they are called. The rest of us then stood in line for the bus. The early queuing helped, as the line for the bus soon became a mile long. We took the first bus at 5.30am and were at the Machu Picchu main gate at 5.50am. For those of you who have been to Machu Picchu, you will know that inside isn’t a walk-in-the-park either. But it was super fun as we stopped at various places along the way and took tons of photographs.
Finally, after relaxing on a lovely grassy vista, we made our way out, stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp at the exit gate and took the bus back to the village.
The trek had finally ended. I have to admit, I was sad. But, as they say, all good things come to an end. We ate a quick lunch and made our way to the hotel to pickup our overnight duffel bags and get to the train station. The train ride in the vista dome was wonderful and our transfer was waiting for us to drive us back to Cusco.
Once in Cusco, we quickly retrieved our luggage from the hotel concierge, repacked and made our way to the airport. A 1.5hr delayed flight later, we landed in Lima at 11.00pm and finally got to Aarti’s place at 11.30pm.
The three of us had trekked through ~60kms, navigated tough ascents and descents through tricky terrain, and were none worse for the wear. Needless to say, we are extremely proud of what we achieved, especially with very little preparation! We made new friends and now have a WhatsApp group for sharing pictures and continuing to stay in touch. Several of the pictures in this blog came from our other trekker friends.
In short, it rocked!