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Published: September 13th 2015
Van out of Cusco
Our bags on top.
Our second day in Cusco we spent preparing for our five-day trek on the Salkantay trail, an alternate hiking route to Machu Picchu. Unlike its famous counterpart the Inca trail, no guide or permit is required to hike it. The Salkantay trail is established but rarely marked, and in our five days of hiking, we met only two other backpackers doing the trail without a tour group. Because the trail has been spared the curse of commercialization and popularity, there is barely any published information about it. Add a dearth of knowledge about the trail to our dearth of knowledge about backpacking, and you get the following mierda-fest:
~ We had two maps: brightly colored, highly simplified, grossly inaccurate, tourist versions we got for free from a tour agency. The Salkantay trail runs roughly north to south, over daunting changes in altitude and terrain. The maps delineate the trail as a circle, dotted with campsites and photos of flowers and happy hikers. When we asked the tour agent if she had any real maps, with such useful features as topography and scale, she laughed and said, “Oh, why complicate things?”
~ Between the three of us, I had done
Boy with horses.
In taxi car to Soraypampa
one 2-day guided backpacking class trip and Gabby had been on two trips with her dad. Tyler swam and Gabby ran every day for about a month this summer to get in shape, then gave up on the routine. I never even had one. So we were in top physical form to hike the Andes.
~ We spent about $10 each on camp food for the whole trip. We would survive on oatmeal (for breakfast and dinner), carrots, apples, tortillas, nuts, beans, ramen, granola, and canned tuna. Instead of being intelligent and buying lightweight freeze-dried food in the States, we lugged around ten cans of tuna, a bag of beans, ten apples, and several large carrots each. The most sophisticated we got was my small supply of energy chews, which we enjoyed more for the flavor than for the placebo effect.
~ A few days before leaving the States I went to REI with my dad and boyfriend to ask an expert about what to pack. He walked us around the store, adding up a list of essentials that would have cost over $400. Windbreaker, headlamp, iodine pills, compass, gourmet instant meals, top-of-the-line socks...we left the store with
four packs of energy chews and three rolls of biodegradable toilet paper.
~ Finally, instead of a guidebook or group tour, we were completely reliant on a printout of a blog. Sometime in the past ten years (recently enough), two survivors of the traill wrote a highly detailed blog about each day of the trek. What seemed clear and “highly detailed” on paper proved mostly useless in practice. The blog neglected to mention important, unmarked turns on the trail. Our different hiking paces skewed the expected walking times between sites. Our “guide” was a puzzle...especially when I realized I had forgotten to print out Day 3’s instructions...and when my water pouch leaked all over the pages, rendering half of it illegible.
Thus prepared, we left at one in the afternoon for Mollepata, the last town before the trailhead. As we left Cusco in a van with our packs tied to the roof, I felt peaceful for the first time in days. Airport turmoil, language barriers, strange cities--we were leaving them behind and heading towards mountains, where to be lost is to find God, to lose yourself and thus encounter the stunning.
We transferred to
a car that wound its way up a dirt road to the small mountain town. It was a Sunday; women were selling vegetables and hot dinners in the plaza. We bought plates of fried chicken with pasta drizzled with mayo and pink ketchup, saving it in a plastic bag for the trailhead at Soraypampa. From Mollepata it was an hour to Soraypampa by taxi. In both the city and the backcountry, “taxi” usually means a driver’s own car or van. This taxi was driven by a quiet man whose wife sells vegetables at the Sunday market, so their two-year-old son accompanied his father for the day. We spent the hour playing peek-a-boo and babble-Spanish with the beautiful son in the front seat, and asking the father for hiking advice.
I believe the photographs do Soraypampa better justice than I ever could. Let me write then about what they cannot convey...an extravagance of stars, the deep sky arced by two pale ribbons of the Milky Way; how the cold poured its form into your lungs; drinking tea in the dim room of the camp wardens, their five-year-old son bringing us a candle stuck in an old scotch
bottle, and playing peek-a-boo through the candle flame with him, giggling angel who hugged us good night.
We pitched our tent in a tarp shelter, at the end of two long rows of tents belonging to a tour group. The temperature was around freezing, the night devoid of light for miles around.
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