South America is a rugged place, and Peru embodies every geographical possibility imaginable. It has barren desert, thick rainforests, and unforgiving mountains. Especially in the Andes, it is a land that must be walked. Think twice if you want to rest your legs and go for a drive. The roads are mostly unpaved and rudimentary speed bumps appear almost everywhere. The one lane mountain highways wind nauseatingly with cliff face on one side and deadly drops on the other. No one feels rested after these rides. The land was made for hiking.
With this mind, I was anxious to start my five day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. We did the trek through a fantastic company called Alpaca Expiditions. Along with two guides, a chef, and three porters, my group of nine “supertrekkers” began our adventure. Day one started with a grueling hike up to the Mount Salkantay pass at 15,253 feet. The steepness of the trail was not as severe as in the Colca Canyon, but the lack of oxygen made it arguably as difficult. I focused on every breathe as my group maintained a very slow pace. By lunchtime, I already had a slight altitude headache which was assuaged by the feast that our outstanding chef had prepared.
The weather became increasingly frigid as we ascended the mountain. I put on every extra layer of clothes from my day backpack in an effort to stay warm. We were hiking between the two glacial mountains of Humantay on our left and Salkantay on our right. The incans named Mount Salkantay after the Quechuan word for “savage”. When we reached the pass, three hours after beginning our trek, it was evident that Salkantay lives up to its name. I have never seen a mountain so jagged and fierce. We rested on the pass, listened to our guide play the Inca flute, and admired Salkantay’s glory. The surreal quality of that moment was coupled with altitude-induced exhaustion and loopiness.
The hike quickly changed as we walked down the backside of the valley between Humantay and Salkantay. It consisted of rolling green hills peppered with massive boulders. Rivers carved up the landscape and it seemed like we had entered a movie set from the Lord of the Rings.
Three hours later, the land became flat and a dense fog enveloped our group. We reached the Huayracmachay campsite situated at 12,467 feet. Everyone had intense frontal headaches by this point. Thankfully, our porters and chef beat us to the campsite and had already set up tents with coffee and tea to enjoy while dinner was being prepared. We gobbled up our meals along with some NSAIDs before passing out fully clothed. I awoke the next morning to a piping hot mug of coca tea delivered to my tent. The fog had subsided, and I saw that our campsite was surrounded by massive glaciers.
Day one of the Salkantay trek was a microcosm for the entire experience. The Andes mountains create many different microclimates which we encountered on route to Machu Picchu. By the third day, we were hiking through dense tropical rainforest. I’ll never fully understand how so much humidity and oxygen can exist at that altitude, but I am thankful that it does because breathing in that climate was much easier.
The Incan people inhabited the Andes mountains and maneuvered them in the 12th century. Much has changed about this land since then, but some things still hold true. The Incan trails we hiked on, traversable only my foot, are still the best way to get through these mountains. Led by guides whose ancestors paved these roads, I appreciated the land of Peru more and more with every step on our 52 kilometer journey.