Venturing Into The Andes

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April 24th 2018
Published: August 15th 2018
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After an eight hour flight from Montreal, my brother Shawn and I touched down in Lima city amidst the darkness of night. We quickly made our way through customs. This was the first time that either of us had made it to the continent and were immediately surrounded by warm tropical air and the sounds of Spanish. We had to wait until 0200, when the Avianca booth opened so that we could get our boarding passes for our continuing flight the following morning, so we found a relatively quiet area and lay on the floor for a while. We were soon roused awake by the greetings of "Buenos Dias", as airport cleaners were trying to mop around us. We moved on from there. Once we eventually obtained our boarding passes, we went through security and then, thanks to Shawn who has access, checked into a rudimentary lounge and stayed until the morning trying to get some shut eye. It didn't work out too well for me.

Peru is a land of about 31 million people composed of various ethnic groups and is extremely biodiverse with many different environments throughout. We would only be seeing a tiny fraction of what this large country had to offer. It's a fairly popular backpacking destination which draws people from all over the globe due to its famous historic ruins and impressive visual landscapes to be found. That morning we boarded our short domestic flight and soon after arrived in the Unesco World Heritage town of Cusco. This town of half a million people was once the capital of the Inca empire and is now one of the most popular tourist stops in the world. Given our time limits for this trip, our goal was to get here quickly so that we could maximize our time in the region and see as much as possible. From the airport we got a taxi to take us into the town center to the Puriwasi Hostel, where we would be staying initially. Since we arrived so early, we couldn't get our beds in the dorm room until after 1300h, despite longing to lay down in a proper bed after such a long journey. Instead we dumped our gear into storage and then went for a stroll in the nearby main square called Plaza de Armas. Along the way we stopped at a local coffee shop for breakfast. The square contains numerous historic buildings and churches, and also plenty of touts trying to sell useless trinkets, paintings, cigarettes, as well as selling tours or massages. "No quiero, Gracias" was my usual response. I would be practicing much Spanish in the coming weeks. The sky was clear and the sun was beating down on us. I would later regret not putting on sunscreen. Being at 3400 meters, and having come from sea level, meant simple things like going up a few steps would quickly become strenuous. I knew all too well that being at such high altitudes so suddenly could be a real bitch. We were sitting on a bench observing the street life around us when a young woman approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of a free walking tour around the town. I had been on free walking tours around other cities and I usually enjoyed them as they are a great way to get an introduction to a city and learn a bit about popular and historic places as well as, depending on the guide, hidden gems along the way. At this point I had hardly slept in 24 hours but I looked at Shawn and said "what the hell let's take advantage!". So we joined the tour in a nearby square. The tour was in English and given by Luis, a young local. A few other backpackers would be joining us. For two hours, we wandered around town and saw some cool spots where Luis would give us local and historic perspectives of places. I learned a lot about the Quechua people, who dominate the Andes regions of Peru and also several neighboring countries. The Quechua are an indigenous people with a distinct language and culture and make a large part of Peru's demographic. Many are direct descendants of the Inca culture that ruled in the region hundreds of years ago. We were learning loads of good tips to navigate within Cusco for our time here. At one point we stopped and tried Alpaca meat. We climbed many stairs heading higher and higher up a hill. Cusco is built in a valley and surrounded by hills all around. I stopped to check my pulse and found it to be at 112. We reached a bar overlooking the entire town, possibly one of the best views we could get. Clouds moved in and some rain began to fall as we entered. We all sat at the bar and Luis gave us a demonstration about how to go about making a Pisco Sour, an alcoholic beverage, and a famous Peruvian dish called Ceviche made up of raw fish, citrus juices and veggies. Since we enjoyed the food and drink so much, we decided to stick around with some of the other walking tour participants and ordered some more. We also wanted to keep enjoying the awesome views before us. We were hanging out with Daman, Maggie and a quiet French girl who spoke in a hushed manner and who's name I can hardly remember. We watched the sunset over the town. We then walked back towards the hostel and Daman came along with us. He was an American backpacker who had been in South America for the past few months. Since he had been in Cusco so long he gave us some good traveler advice for the place. Somehow we got on the subject of how he slept with a chick a few nights back and now had burning ulcers all over his junk. He knew I was a nurse so he told me his symptoms and it sounded an awful lot like he caught a case of the Herp. We passed by a pharmacy and he walked in and got himself some Valtrex, an anti-viral. The pharmacies in some countries are remarkable in that you can get all sorts of medications sans prescriptions, unlike in many developed countries. We then stopped and had some grilled cow heart and potato street food. We got back to the hostel at 1900h and I was fried. I had been awake for 35 hours already but it was a hell of a good first day to get things going. Too bad we had a guy in our dorm who was snoring like a freight train that night!

We woke up late the next morning but we were both still tired since we had woken up several times thanks to Snoremaster extraordinaire who was rocking out the dorm room. We chilled out for a bit in the hostel and then went out to walk the streets of Cusco. We began walking towards the San Pedro market. The weather was perfect and sunny. I made sure to apply lots of sunscreen. Along the way we stopped by different shops to inquire about some tours. We had talked about doing a trek over a few days to reach Machu Picchu. We reached the market and strolled through the lanes. We had lunch here, Ceviche again, but it seemed to have more of a local flair, making it taste better. We left the market and continued along some side streets. Cusco was really starting to grow on me. I was feeling a little more in altitude shape today too. We checked out a few more outfitters. I was keen to do the Salkantay trek as I had heard incredible things about it. Realistically we could have done it self-sustained but we figured with our limited time we may as well spend a bit more to have the logistics taken care of. We eventually settled on a company called Machu Picchu Reservations due to checking out some Trip Advisor reviews. All sorts of outfitters were giving us the same itineraries but I guess the differing factors are guide services and food quality. Luckily our choice would prove to be more than suitable. That evening we went by for a trip briefing and met a few other travelers who would be part of the group. We had to go to sleep very early.

We arrived at Machu Picchu reservations at 0500. Sebastian, a young guy from Netherlands, had been staying at our hostel too so we walked along with him. It had rained during the night and a light sprinkle continued to fall as we went. Technically it was now becoming the dry season in this region but oddly it was still raining more often than was usual. Our two guides, Aurelian and Abel, whom we had been introduced to the evening before, were there. There was to be about eighteen people in our trekking group. We all piled into a large minibus and then drove off towards the town of Mollepata, some two hours away through precarious winding roads going along mountain sides. I was feeling exhausted but couldn't really sleep so I looked out the window while the sun came up and listened to some music. Near everyone else seemed to be passed out. We arrived and ate a tasty breakfast in town. The food was awesome and I was wondering if this was going to be foreshadowing for the meals to come. We began to get to know some of the other people in the group. Typical questions such as where are you from, how long are you traveling for, etc. Pretty quintessential travel conversation starters. I distinctly remember how exciting these conversations are when you first start traveling, but when on a long trip it gets tiring always repeating yourself. Considering how several in our group had been traveling for months now, I wondered if they ever felt that way. A pair of Dutch girls, Eline and Vivian, who knew each other back home but weren't actually traveling together had been on the road for about two months. Asgeir, or Iceland as most called him, since it was easier to pronounce and since that was where he was from, had been on the road for three months. Sarah, from Ireland, was traveling for nine months and had begun in Mexico and was making her way south. Katie, from Long Island, New York, was on the road for about a month. Doris, from Toronto, had been on the road for the better part of a year and a half. Pierre-Alexandre (PA), from Sherbrooke, was a fellow Quebecer on his first trip abroad. Francesco was from Italy and had made his way to South America from the Philippines. Misha, was a Russian living in London, who had quit his job so he could enjoy some time on the road. Ryan was from Ontario and was taking some time to check out Peru in between contracts of working on cruise ships. Amber and Christine were a couple living in the US and were airline pilots. There was also the mother-daughter duo of Lijia and Tenia from a southern part of Brazil. We got back into the minibus after breakfast and continued for another hour towards Soraypampa. From here our proper trek would begin. We got our gear and had a quick briefing from Aurelian, then we were off. We were now at 3900m and so the uphills were strenuous and I, along with many others, were breathing pretty hard. Aurelian would stop us every now and again to explain us things about the area, the people, and the history of the area we were now in. His goal was to also try to keep the group together. This would definitely not be an exercise in physical exertion, which, given the altitude, is probably a very good thing. Shawn seemed to be handling the altitude well considering this was the first time he was at such a high elevation. We carried on for a few more kilometers and made our way over a hill. The view we got was incredible. Ahead of us was a blue glacier lake being fed by the giant mountain known as Humantay. We put down our backpacks for a bit and then made our way up an even higher viewpoint. I exchanged different knowledge with Vivian and Iceland who both seemed to be amateur photographers. We spent some time here and then headed back down the way we had come up. In fact we practically returned back to our starting point before darting to the left and heading towards camp 1. It would be a fairly short hiking day of about 10 km. I was expecting to find tents but was surprised to find a long row of straw huts with glass panel doors. Supposedly our outfitter was one of the few to have this type of accommodation. A larger building lay nearby with some locals. We would be using this for our meals. We had some free time so I snoozed for about an hour in our hut that I was sharing with Shawn and Sebastian. Then I woke up and joined the others in hiking up a nearby hill to get a view of the sun coming down on the distant mountain known as Salkantay. At the top we gathered around while Abel told us tales of mountain mythology for the region. The setting sun cast golden light off the south face of the mountain. We would be heading towards it the next day. We returned back to the bigger hut and ate a hearty dinner. The temperature had dipped and some of us were shivering. I was feeling pretty happy about getting a nights sleep in our insulated huts and thick sleeping bags. That night the sky was possibly the clearest and the stars the most plentiful I've ever seen.

Some support staff woke us at 0445 and served us some tea with cocoa leaves. Cocoa leaves are abundant here and are used to combat symptoms of altitude in the Andes. We had a quick breakfast, packed up our gear and then set out towards Salkantay. It was a chilly morning and the sun wasn't up just yet but the sky was all clear. The altitude would be the main challenge. We began with a large hill. Aurelian took the lead and our group stayed together initially and then, as expected, began to spread out. We were in the highlands and Salkantay was ever beckoning. We carried on for several hours taking short breaks along the way. Every now and then the terrain would level off and we'd get some flat surface to walk on. Eventually we made our way up two final hills and then reached the base of the south face of Salkantay. It was epic. Supposedly no one had ever made it up to the top of the mountain from this side. The word Salkantay is derived from a Quechua word which translates to savage, and thus it is named the Savage mountain (not to be confused with K2 which is also nicknamed as such). Clouds would roll in and out and sometimes cover up the entire mountain. Overall the weather was near perfect and we were now at 4630m of elevation. PA was having a lot of trouble with the altitude and really wanted to go down, but the rest of us were trying to savour every moment. Iceland was taking loads of shots of me and Shawn. We of course took a group shot. Then we headed off to a nearby area and all sat around while Aurelian gave us a lesson about the mountain and area. We then took a short stroll to a hidden high altitude lake that was simply breathtaking. At this point we had only hiked about 6 km and we had another 16 km to go for the day, mainly downhill. It became increasingly cloudy as we continued. About two hours later we reached a group of buildings where we would be having lunch. PA at this point was having some serious headache, loss of appetite and general malaise; classic altitude issues. Though he claimed it was due to being exhausted from lack of sleep over the last few days. Having had symptoms of altitude sickness in the past I knew the altitude certainly was the factor here. Several more hours passed as we hiked. The scenery at this point was changing more dramatically than I had ever seen in my life. We had gone from mountain highlands to high altitude jungle! Life was more plentiful here with various birds and insects about. The clouds seemed to chase us. They finally did catch up and the skies opened with a torrent of rain. We threw on some waterproofs and continued. The rain intensified for some time until we reached some shelter for a break. We eventually arrived at Chawllay, elevation 2900m. Most of us were quite soaked. PA stumbled in and I put him in a tent and did a head to toe assessment on him after he stated he felt like he was dying. He in fact was not dying but needed to rest and continue drinking plenty of fluids. I ended up giving him some Acetominophen pills to take the edge off his headache. I then joined the others in the dining area nearby and had a good dinner. We all went to bed early.

The clouds had cleared by morning and the temperature was already pretty hot by the time we got going after breakfast. We would be continuing our descent for another 16 km. Everyone was feeling pretty good, even PA who seemed to have recovered. Our route wrapped along the cliff side of mountains. We stopped soon after and our guides showed us some berries that we then crushed and made into a paste. And then we began drawing designs with the berry paste all over each others faces and arms. We carried on for many hours, a large portion where I was walking next to Katie, Shawn and Iceland. We stopped and took some photos on the way and at one point Katie made a butterfly friend that decided to hang out on her hand. Eventually we reached a gathering point and surprisingly a truck arrived to bring us along the road to a lunch point. There wasn't enough room inside the truck for everyone so Vivian, Eline and I climbed the ladder and rode on the roof as we went along the precarious cliffs. This wasn't my first time on the roof of a vehicle, not by a long shot. Not sure why we ended up taking the truck since it was only a ten minute ride but I guess the outfitter wanted to save time. We stopped in the town of Playa Sahuayacco (2064m) and stepped into the second level of a big hut where we ate a delicious lunch. After eating we had a short amount of down time and then piled back into some minibuses for another hour ride to the town of Santa Teresa (1550m). Altitude would not be an issue for the time being. We set up in the courtyard of a restaurant where several tents stood. Then we all got changed and headed into another vehicle to a nearby hot springs. Upon arriving I noticed many tourists but also what seemed like a fair amount of locals. It felt nice to immerse myself in the warm waters and have some tension released in the muscles. We spent about two hours here and then headed back to our campsite. The annoying thing about being in jungle terrain was that the insects were now plentiful and this included a species akin to black flies. I got bitten a ton. That night we had a tasty dinner and then there was a fire pit on the grounds that we all sat around. I played a popcorn skewer game with Shawn, Katie and Iceland near the tea station. Many people danced to loud disco like music and we had some Cosquena beer. Aurelian and Abel were both getting drunk. The vibe was a little off because having electronic music while having a fire pit doesn't feel right to me. Eventually we had the music changed for some classic rock including "More than a feeling" by the mythical Boston, but as the solo of the song was about to happen, Abel changed the song back to some rap tune! Ugghhh! I kept the fire going for a little longer and then most of us went to sleep.

The next morning we had the option of doing a zipline activity nearby. Personally I had wanted to continue making the trek as pure as possible, and I was already annoyed at having had those car rides the day before so ultimately Shawn and I decided to hike along to the town of Hydroelectrica. PA, Amber, Christine, Lijia and Tenia were also going to walk. The rest would zipline for an hour or two and then join us at that town. It was another clear day and it got hot ridiculously fast. A sweaty day it would be. Along the way I talked to a young girl about half my size with a massive backpack who was doing the trek solo. We were now building up to Machu Picchu and got some glimpses of the mountain where the famous ruins sat upon. We reached Hydroelectrica and went to the meet up point, a restaurant where we would be having lunch at. An hour later everyone else began to arrive. After we had lunch, we began the trek to Los Aguas Calientes (2050m). We walked along the railway for much of the time. It took about two hours and we experienced some light drizzle at times. We reached Los Aguas Calientes by the late afternoon and my initial impressions were that this was a really cool looking town. A river ran alongside it and the main streets were all cobblestone. Make no mistake though, this is as tourist town as any town can be. And I suppose it makes sense considering that one of the top wonders of the world lies nearby. Our nights of camping were effectively over and we now were checking into a hostel in the town center.
Shawn and I shared a room with PA, Ryan and Sebastian. Once the shoes came off, holy shit did that room become rank. A true man room it was. Apart from the hot springs, no one had really cleaned themselves in a while. We took turns using the shower, and it was possibly the coldest shower I've ever taken. I was screaming and shivering throughout but I guess things like this build character. I went out with some of the guys after that and we bought some food supplies at the nearby small market, possibly the only place that didn't charge crazy tourist prices. That night we ate an awesome dinner at a restaurant close to the hostel. Then we went back to the hostel to prepare for the next day. Shawn used the WIFI there to somehow stream part of an NHL playoff game.

We woke up at about 0330. I remember thinking how it's not everyday you get to fulfill a bucket list moment. Machu Picchu definitely qualifies as one. We had breakfast in the lobby of our hostel. Shawn and I had all our gear with us. We headed out of town on foot and reached a bridge. Everyone began to line up and at 0500 sharp we were allowed to cross and begin the long climb to the ruins. It was still dark as we started. The stairs seemed to be endless but I was having fun powering through and passing everyone ahead. Even though the sun had not risen yet, I could tell it was cloudy. I was hoping the sun would hopefully burn any clouds away as it came up. We finally reached the entrance and had to queue once again. Sunrise was already beginning. Finally we were able to enter the ruins themselves. Had it been a clear day I probably would have raced up to one of the viewpoints but unfortunately mist and cloud were everywhere. We were obviously feeling a little down by this but I don't think anyone was getting their hopes up that it wouldn't clear at some point. We massed around Aurelian and he took us around the ruins giving us detailed explanations. We learned that Machu Picchu was built around the year 1450 and was built for the purpose of being a royal estate by an Incan ruler. Supposedly it was only used for about 80 years before being abandoned, possibly due to the ongoing battles brought on by the Spanish as they annihilated the Inca Empire. Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish and therefore wasn't destroyed like many other high profile Inca monuments and citadels. It was forgotten for hundreds of years before being discovered again only in 1911. We toured most of the ruin sites and then Aurelian bid us farewell as our Salkantay Trek was now over. Many of our group said goodbye, despite the fact that some of us would be seeing each other again back in Cusco. Shawn and I stayed with Sara, Doris, Iceland, Katie, Misha, Sebastian and Francesco and we decided we may as well head up to a potential viewpoint in case we got a break from the clouds. Once we reached the cloud covered lookout, we chatted for a bit and hoped for the best. A few moments later we got the first break from the clouds for the day and had a few minutes where we were able to see that classic view that everyone expects from this site. It didn't last nearly as long as anyone would have liked so we moved on to a higher level, passing some Alpacas on the way up. People flocked about with various colourful ponchos. The rain really began to intensify so we took cover for a while under a hut. Again the skies cleared momentarily but everything was still pretty hazy. We carried on our walk around the upper areas of the site and then descended for a bit. Some of us went on, heading towards the exit because we unfortunately had a limit within Machu Picchu. I was still with Iceland and Katie at this point. We had lost Sara and Doris so Iceland decided to go back up in case they were still there. I found a partial shelter with Katie while we waited for him to come back. I was hoping for one last view of this wonder of the world before moving on and low and behold the clouds cleared again, and we got the best view of the day just as Iceland returned with Sara and Doris. Iceland made a mock proposal to Sara with a ring at this point. We then continued and met up with everyone at the exit before retracing our steps all the way down the mountain. Back at the base, we then had to return to Hydroelectrica and followed the train tracks back. The weather cleared and it was mostly sunny as we got back around 1300.

We had time to grab a quick lunch and then boarded a minibus that would bring us back to Cusco. It was an uncomfortable and at times felt harrowing as we maneuvered along the narrow mountain roads. At one point the heater by our feet appeared to have malfunctioned and was spewing hot air into an already suffocating vehicle. Needless to say I was pretty happy when we finally pulled into Cusco six hours later. It was already late evening and Shawn and I decided to check into a hostel called Milhouse that some of the others had stayed at prior to our trek and were going back to. This would turn out to be an awesome hostel and we booked up into the end of our time in Cusco, into a 6 bed dorm. Misha, Sebastian, Doris would also be staying in our dorm room. Iceland and Sara sprung for a private room together. We all got dinner at an average pizza place across the street that night. The Salkantay trek proved to be an unforgettable experience with beautiful landscapes and some pretty awesome people along the way. And did our dorm room ever smell rank with the scent of everyone's dirty hiking shoes!

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