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Published: August 10th 2013
Salkantay was tough. As it turns out, I was tougher but I think I can fairly confidently declare that it is the most physically challenging and one of the most mentally challenging things I have had the pleasure of doing. The toughest part was not the four full days of hiking, or the exhaustion that goes with that, nor was it the steep hills and shortness in breath I experienced hiking at altitude. The toughest part of the trek was reminding myself that it wasn't that tough at all.
Day one. It was early, not as early as it should have been because the cook, Fabian, had some family problems and forgot to pick up the gas the evening before, but nevertheless it was early. For whatever reason, I noticed our driver had abnormally large ears that sat low on his head so from the angle I was sitting it look as though he was sleeping. I chuckled to myself as we drove silently toward the mountain.
In hindsight the first day was by far the easiest, however it was the only day that I actually thought I would not be able to complete the trek. I think perhaps
it was the initial shock of walking up a steep hill in altitude, or perhaps it was because I was with people that I didn’t know and felt pressure to stay at the same pace as the rest of the group. Whatever it was, it took me about 45 minutes to be on the verge of a breakdown - not my finest moment - although unlike my meltdown in Sapa I was able to control myself! As usual, it was Mark who talked me through it and within five minutes I was huffing and puffing my arse up another hill! By the time lunch rolled around, I had found my groove and despite the heat, I was feeling good. Edwar, our enthusiastic guide, told us a tale of a couple of 75 year olds who completed the Inca trail a few years earlier by moving at their own pace and having the right attitude. I am pretty sure it is a story that gets used by most of the guides on the trail, but he made his point, with the right attitude you really can achieve anything. After about seven hours hiking we arrived at our first campsite, in a
valley with a glimpse of the spectacular Salkantay in the distance.
Day two. As you would expect, I had completed some online research about Salkantay before I booked the trip. In everything I had read, the second day was going to be the hardest. It was the longest day with around ten hours hiking and had the biggest ascent to altitude of 4660 m. This knowledge was my greatest motivator and became my biggest weakness – while I knew if I could get through the ascent in day two the rest of the trek should be relatively easy as I could walk all day on ‘Inca flat’ or downhill. Nowhere in any blogs or websites about Salkantay did it mention day four. But I will get to that.
I began the journey focused. My legs were not very sore from the day before and I had a reasonable sleep, albeit a little broken. The air was crisp and the mood amongst the group was positive. We made our way slowly toward the imposing mountain and with each step closer I became more and more overwhelmed. It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. After about three
and a half hours, my steps became as short as my breath and I could see the top. Some of the people who had sped past me earlier in the day were sprawled on rocks only a few hundred metres from the top trying to catch their breath. I totally understood how they felt but I had to keep on moving, one foot in front of another until finally, I made it. The rest of the day was sure to be E-A-S-Y!
Salkantay is not as popular as the ‘regular’ Inca trail but it is becoming increasingly popular. There was about 200 people on the trail that day and the only time that I really felt like we were not trekking alone was once we reached the highest point where many tourists were getting their well-deserved photo ops. But I can’t really complain about that as we were doing the exact same thing. The next couple of hours hiking down to our lunch spot was easy in comparison even though walking over the stony path was a bit rough on the feet.
Over lunch it was difficult not to notice the dark clouds that were forming above us
but I was sure that we would not need to break out the wet weather gear. It was not the first time I have been wrong and I am sure it won’t be the last! Within half an hour of finishing lunch there was a crack of thunder and the skies opened up. It felt like it was instantly pouring and in addition to the fat drops of rain that were pelting down upon us, small balls of ice were falling from the sky! I couldn’t help but laugh, I thought the entire situation was hilarious! I am not sure if exhaustion had kicked in but as we carefully walked over slippery rocks and mud, Mark and I began to sing. There we were, hiking in the Andes, singing and dancing in the rain. It was a beautiful.
There was not much we could do so we forged onward, toward the lush jungle and after about two hours, as quickly as it began, the rain stopped. Hiking through the jungle was wonderful! It was refreshingly cool and unlike most of the other people in the group, I didn’t mind walking down. We arrived at our campsite about 5.30, utterly
Wayna Picchu in the background... yep we climbed that sucker!
Day three. The shortest hiking day of the trek but the one that ruined my feet. It was all jungle trekking over stones for only about five hours. The only problem with this was that my boots were still wet from the rain the previous day and by the time we arrived at our campsite, my feet were wrinkled and blistered. I didn’t realise you could get blisters on the soles of your feet, but now I know and let me tell you, it isn’t pretty! We spent the afternoon massaging our aching legs and playing cards.
Day four. I think I should begin by explaining why most blogs I read made no mention of how difficult day four is. An option that we were given at the beginning of the trek was to catch a bus on the afternoon of day three to some nearby hot springs. From here you stay the night at a village which has a bar and from all accounts a bit of a party, and the next day you catch a bus or hike to Aguas Callientes. Most groups take this option which bypasses a steep mountain that you have to
hike over. The only problem with this option is, that in bypassing the steep mountain, in you miss the opportunity to view Machu Picchu from across the valley. It was a view that I desperately wanted and was not willing to miss in lieu of some hot springs. All but one sick French guy in the group agreed and although my legs and feet were aching, I was up at the crack of dawn ready for the difficult day ahead.
Edwar had briefed us on what was laid out before us, the track was going to be steep, then very steep, then impossibly steep and once we got to the top, it was going to be impossibly steep all the way back down. Around four hours going up, but it was in the jungle, in the sun and therefore in the heat. I had mentally prepared myself over about four months for day two, but had about 24 hours to mentally prepare myself for day four! One luxury I had afforded myself for this day was the ipod. It was the only day that I allowed myself the distraction of music, a distraction that allowed me to forget that
Wayna Picchu in the background.
I was seriously fucking sore. Once we arrived at the hydroelectric site we discovered that our cook, who was supposed to prepare us lunch for when we arrived, had in fact gotten himself drunk after we left in the morning, had a spew on the bus on the way to the hydroelectric site and was utterly useless. He had also spent all the train money on his little bender. Mark, Kate and I found this quite amusing. The four French people who were on our tour, no so much!
We all did it though, Kate with her dodgy knee, Mark with his busted back, Sebastian (another French guy) with a pinched a nerve in his neck from camping the first night. And we all did it while laughing, joking and smiling. It turns out that Edwar was right, if you have the right attitude the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is a piece of Inca cake! That is life though isn’t it? No matter how injured you are, no matter how many wounds you have, no matter how steep the hill in front of you is, you just have to keep moving forward. One foot in front of the
other, little by little and all the while ensuring you are surrounded by good people who will laugh with you and help you admire the view.
Machu Picchu is incredible. It is impressive, grand and gorgeous and everything I expected it to be. What I didn’t expect was the stunning beauty of its location. It is surrounded by mountains that shoot up sharply from the earth below and the clouds that linger at the peak of the mountains create an atmosphere that make you feel like you have escaped to another world – one of peace and serenity. Mark, Kate and I had one more challenge ahead of us – climbing Wayna Picchu – the mountain beside Machu Picchu that you see in all the iconic photos. It was difficult, the steep stone steps that flew up the side of the mountain promised a view that only 400 of the 2500 people that visit Machu Picchu every day had the opportunity to see. Every single step that I climbed was worth it. The view from the top was spectacular, and the best part about it was that we were able to bask in the wonder of this place without
the hordes of tourists that were rolling in and crowding the ruins below. Perfecto!
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