One thing I must stress about our Machu Picchu adventure – the highlight of the trip was definitely the journey itself. Don’t get me wrong, Machu Picchu was amazing, but it pales in comparison to our painfully rewarding adventure hiking through the Andes.
There are two main ways to hike to Machu Picchu. The traditional Incan Trail is the most popular, a path of rocky stairs ascending much of the way. We decided to hike the lesser traveled path, the way of the Salkantay Trail. We were well rewarded, encountering a total of 6 people the entire journey! This was one of the most dynamic and refreshing experiences of my life! Disconnecting from the world completely and immersing ourselves in Pacha Mama was truly good for the soul.
It all started with a 4AM, 3 hour drive from Cusco to the small town of Mollepata. We were welcomed by the sounds of music and sights of dancing Peruvians still partying from the night before.
From town, we followed a dirt road to a farmhouse in the foothills where we collected supplies, packed our caballos, and met up with our crew. What does it take to lead 2 gringos on a 4 day trek through the Andes? Apparently the answer is 4 horses, 2 horsemen, 1 cook and our amazing guide, Jorge. We prepared breakfast in the farmhouse before setting out on our big adventure. The family that owns the property, like many Peruvians in the area, makes money by welcoming campers to stay on their land and use their facilities for a small fee.
At 8AM we began our hike, and let me assure you the first day wasn’t easy. Jorge warned us that this day would likely be the hardest because we’d climb to the top of the Salkantay Pass (an elevation of 13000 feet) before descending to the valley to make camp. The intense altitude changes can present a dizzying challenge. I knew the hike would be an exciting challenge right from the beginning. Jorge told us we needed to cross a river, but “not to worry, there is a bridge“. This ‘bridge’ consisted of 2 skinny, wobbly logs laid across the water. We watched Jorge easily side-step across before following his lead. No paths paved the way, and without Jorge we would have been completely lost!
The landscape is beautiful, with deep-green, snow capped mountains covered with confused cows scaling the cliffs mistaking themselves for billy goats. The start of our hike reminded me of the green hills of Scotland, but we would soon learn how drastically the landscapes change with the varying altitude.
As we continued, grassy hills turned to rocky cliffs covered in wet snow. We stopped briefly to rest on a flat, snowy plain where we watched chinchillas playing. It started raining. It was cold, muddy, and somewhat miserable as we scrambled for our ponchos and and continued towards the peak.
The descent was difficult in the rain storm, with hundreds of streams now rushing down from the melting glacial top of the mountain. We hopped from rock to rock in effort to avoid wading completely through water – not an easy task given the intense fog rolling down the cliffs! The landscape changed dramatically as we descended the snowy, rocky peak and we were suddenly surrounded by an unbelievably lush environment; filled with mossy boulders, and surrounded by beautiful waterfalls peeking through the fog.
The crew was ridiculously fast! They kept up with the horses, following along at an unbelievable pace. They had passed us early in the hike, and we found them waiting for us, with shelter from the storm and warm soup for our bellies. After a quick break, we continued on in the rain with 4 hours to go before making camp for the night.
As we descended to the valley, the rain eased up. We were leaving what is known as “The Highlands” and entering the “Elfin Lowlands” where small trees and bushes were again scattered across the green hills. The descent continued into the “Lowlands” where we left the land of miniature shrubbery and entered a tall jungle of bamboo trees. The tiny streams that were rushing down from the glacier peak had now, in the valley, combined to form a giant river that roared below us.
Our first camp was a surreal setting, but we were too exhausted to enjoy. On a grassy plain surrounded by fog, we collapsed to the sounds of our horse friends just outside our tent.
To be continued…