Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Peru: The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

The much-anticipated Great Peruvian Adventure, starting with the Salkantay Trek, got off to a rocky start. Chris and I intended to fly out Friday afternoon, arrive in Cuzco early Saturday morning, and then spend our first day in the city acclimatizing and resting up before trekking.

Campsite at Suyroquocha
However, an egregious airport error meant we missed our Friday flight, so we didn’t arrive in Cuzco until Sunday morning. Instead of resting up for a day, we quick-quick dropped off some things at our hostel, stopped by a grocery store to buy trekking food—bread, salami, cheese, granola, trail mix, cookies, peanut butter—and found the collectivo (shared van) stop for Mollepata.

The Salkantay Trek starts at Mollepata and ends at Machu Picchu, and is considered by National Geographic to be one of the top 25 treks in the world. It’s a solid alternative to the Inca Trail and (to our advantage) requires no permits or advance planning. You can do this trek with a guided group (most people do) and they will carry all your things and cook your food and you will have a lovely time I’m sure. However, the route is super simple, so if you’re cool with carrying your own stuff true backpacking style then I vote just do that. Obviously we did the latter.

From Mollepata (sidenote: a town made for me?!) we caught a ride to Soraypampa (10 soles per person), effectively skipping the first (boring) day of trekking up a dirt road. As our car wound up into the mountains, our driver peeling giant tangerines as he went, we caught our first glimpse of MOUNTAINS—the huge Apu Humantay right in front of us. He dropped us off at the edge of a village and we strapped on our packs to start day 1 around 2pm, after almost 24 hours of transit and very little sleep. 

Back side of Humantay as seen from Salkantay Pass
There were other groups hiking up the valley, so we hiked along with them, trekking through llama herds, along a creek, and then up up up towards Salkantay, a Proper Pointy Peak if I’ve ever seen one (though only the 12th highest in Peru, it’s the it is the second most topographically prominent, meaning high compared to the other things around it).

Apu Salkantay
 There was a large group of encouraging and enthusiastic Irish trekkers starting around the same time we did, so w followed them for significantly longer then expected (but if they can do it so can we!?) arriving at Suyroquocha (4480m/14,694ft), the campsite just below the pass, around 5:30 pm.

We crawled into our tent, slowly consumed sandwiches between trembling fingers, and burrowed into our sleeping bags. We were slightly suffering some negative elevation effects due to our rapid ascent from effectively zero to almost 15,000 feet in just 24 hours (plus the Irish trekkers informed us that it got down to negative 9 that night, which in ‘Murican is 17 degrees!!!).

We awoke early for the final assault on the mountain (why is it always called an “assault”? So violent!), fueled by a breakfast of cookies and peanut butter (we didn’t bring a stove since you can’t fly with fuel, and for only a couple days camping it didn’t seem worth the effort). From our campsite to the pass was a short hike very steep up and then THIS.

Salkantay Pass
We spent a while on the pass (4600m/15,090ft), feeling on top of the world (or at least in close proximity to the mountains that seemed like the top of the world).

Salkantay Pass
About ten minutes into the descending hike we saw a couple and their guide coming across the rocks on what was barely a trail. Is it worth it? We asked. Yes definitely!  They said. So we did our own brief off-roading excursion and LOOK WHAT WE FOUND.

Lake at Salkantay Pass
 A million pictures later we began our descent in earnest. At the base of the mountain we arrived at Huayramchay—which is not quite a village but has a few structures catering to trekkers—very tired and pretty dehydrated. I spent a steep but 100% worth it 10 soles on a Gatorade, followed by 10 soles each on an incredibly satisfying lunch of soup and bread and pasta and pollo saltado (us gesturing and looking hopeful: Comida? Dinero? Quantos por favor?)

The rest of the day was spend going down down down, the trek descending from high mountain moonscape to semi-tropical studded with flowers and vines and green. [Pro tip: wear pants or bug spray, the area is rife with sand flies that leave some of the worst welt-like bites I’ve ever experienced.] We finished in the town of Colpapampa, where we set up our tent on someone’s lawn for the cost of 3 soles.

The next day was an up-and-down walk along a river, giving our very sore calfs and quads a semi-break, until La Playa. People do trek all the way from La Playa to Machu Picchu (via Llactapata), but we had neither the days nor the interest (apparently it’s not a particularly beautiful walk), so we hailed a ride to Hydroelectrica, and from there hopped on the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

Bus ride up to Machu Picchu
 Aguas Calientes is a quirky and picturesque little tourist-trap of a place, reminiscent to downtown Siem Reap (next to Angkor Wat). The food is pretty good though and the pisco sours are delish (everywhere is “happy hour” all the time), so it’s worth staying there for a night pre-Machu Picchu. From Aguas you can either hike or take a bus up to the Machu Picchu entrance for $24 USD (everything about the Machu Picchu experience is absurdly expensive so you just have to keep reminding yourself, Seven Wonders of the World, Seven Wonders of the World).

Machu Picchu from the Montana
 And Machu Picchu itself is pretty cool. We had tickets to hike up the montana (of course), which is about 2 hours up stairs on stairs on stairs to see Machu Picchu from high above. 

Always stairs
It was 5 million degrees out (or maybe high 70s, but goshdarnit I was wearing pants as bug protection), but we spent significant time (with significant crowds) wandering the ruins, petting baby llamas, and imagining life as ancient Incans.

Afterwards we enjoyed one last lunch in Aguas Calientes before taking the very fancy train back to Cuzco. The train, though luxurious, was loooong and I felt sorry for the very clean, very not smelly, older couple across from us...thus are the side effects of walking (for days) to get to somewhere...

One last view of Machu Picchu