A Journey Through The Salkantay Pass To Machu Picchu

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It was a long 18 hour bus ride through some hard terrain to reach the renowned city of Cusco.  The bus ride left Sally feeling awful; it was the high altitude and the tight corners that we zipped around at dizzying heights as the cliffs fell away below us. Sally had to close the blinds and force herself to not think about it as it was giving her some major anxiety. Eventually she dozed with the help of some sedatives, and I spent the whole evening trying my best to sleep and failing miserably as I always do on night bus rides. I listened to my music and only snagged about an hour of sleep around sunrise. We rolled into Cusco at 8am and stepped off the bus into a frigid morning, our breath misting heavily in front of our faces. Sally quite literally screamed as she desperately tried to layer on more clothing as quickly as possible. 

We cabbed it over to Intro Hostel, where we had made a reservation. I was so happy Sally and I were continuing our travels together, but thought this is where we would be parting ways as I had every intention of doing the five day Salkantay trek to reach Machu Picchu and Sally wanted to do a one day trip. We dropped our gear and were lucky enough to have arrived just in time for breakfast- delicious bread with butter and jam, yogurt with puffed corn, juice, coffee tea and a fried egg. Yum! I ate so much bread, I ended up asking Sally to get me some more because I was too embarrassed to go back myself and get more since I’d already eaten about six of the buns.  She was a darling, and even with the sudden case of vertigo she was battling from the altitude, she went the six feet over and grabbed me three more buns.

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We decided to hit the town. Who needs sleep right? Cusco. WOW. I Love you! What a vibrant and vigorous city, full of energy, colour and noise! On the drive in, I saw the more abrasive side of the city – huge piles of garbage 40 feet wide dumped on the side of the road, wild dogs wandering in packs, and streets and buildings covered in filth. Where we were staying – the heart of Cusco – was the tourist center; the buildings were old and Baroque from the Spanish conquest. Colourful doors dotted the ancient brick walls. Cobblestone streets left your teeth chattering after you got out of your cab. The sun peered through clouds to beat down on the throngs of people milling about the streets. It was clean and full of character.

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There was so much to look at in this city it was nearly overwhelming. Sally and I dropped our dirty laundry off first, then went and soaked up some of the sunshine and sights around our barrio. I started telling Sally about the Salkantay trek, what I had heard about it at least, and she showed some serious interest. We popped into a great, cheap little place for lunch just off the main square and I could see my tales of adventure of climbing through the most stunning of scenery to reach Machu Picchu were intriguing her. I worked my magic on her and slowly but surely could tell I was convincing her that she needed to join me on this adventure. I definitely wasn’t ready to part ways with Sally yet, and I think she felt the same, for she warily agreed to tackle this adventure by my side. I was ecstatic! We set out on a mission to find a tour office to book our tour. We checked a couple which all gave virtually the same tour for the same price, so we ended up picking the first office we checked mostly because we liked the guy working.

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Sally’s only condition was that we do the trek the following day, so we could be back on Saturday night so she could check out the party scene in Cusco. I had wanted at least one day to acclimatize to the altitude here (we were at a staggering 3400m), but it was an easy concession to make to have her by my side. We booked our tour for a departure the next morning at the ghastly hour of 4am. We had a lot do today to get ready. Luckily the tour supplied nearly everything – three meals a day, tents, sleeping mats and a guide. We needed to bring snacks, water, all our personal belongings and rent a sleeping bag. Our laundry was luckily all being washed, but wouldn’t be ready until 7pm so we couldn’t pack until later. We ended up spending most of the day in the tour office dealing with some unpleasant complications with Sally’s card- which in the end turned out to be complications with the brain of the woman working the card machine.  Long story short, we spent two hours calling banks, parents, more banks, changing PIN numbers etc. all because the woman was telling Sally to enter her PIN when it was asking for the last four digits of her card…!

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Sally moments after conceding to come along on the 5 day trek…pumped!

In the end we got it all sorted and hightailed it out of the office to pick up supplies. We didn’t end up getting home until 11pm and had to then pack our bags. We made the mistake of having a cup of coca tea before bed as our heads were aching from the altitude. I hadn’t slept the night before and thanks to the tea and nerves/excitement, I didn’t sleep a wink that night either. Not a great way to start a five day trek into high altitudes. I turned off the alarm at 3:40am and rolled out of bed and grabbed my things in a funk. I wasn’t grumpy from no sleep, I was just really worried about how this would affect my health, trying to hike 6 hours at 3800m going on no sleep for the last two nights. I sucked it up and we piled into our bus for the two hour drive up the mountainside. The bus was absolutely freezing cold and I huddled desperately into Sally. I was wearing every piece of my clothing and hoping I could catch just a little sleep, but the cold kept me awake, shivering. I felt better when the sun came up and we got a little basic food into us and some more coca tea, but I knew it was going to be a rough day.

Day 1:
The bus dropped us in Mollepata, a small village in the mountains where we took breakfast and distributed our bags. We were each allowed to send one 5kg bag on horseback and then would carry our small day pack on our backs. Sally and I picked up two excellent walking sticks which I became especially thankful for the entire trek. I highly recommend a walking stick, if not two. Plus, ours came with adorable little colourful knit toppers! From here we drove up, up, up to our starting point Marqoqasa. We would be walking six hours this first day, 17km to reach Soraypampa at an altitude of 3850m.

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Not even having started our hike, I was already exhausted, but the fresh, crisp air, the prefect sunny weather and the energy of our group of 12 motivated and excited me. We set off. Those first two hours were difficult and my ears throbbed painfully in my head, the altitude and lack of sleep making itself heard loud and clear.  I struggled uphill, gasping for breath the whole time, and trying my best to invoke my yogic breathing to calm my heaving lungs. We stopped now and then for brief rests, but kept a fairly steady pace. We finally reached the point where the path levelled out and everyone was grateful the hard part was over for the day. I could have kissed that flat path, my lungs, legs and head were in agony and needed the reprieve desperately.

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I savoured each step on that level ground, my body thanking me profusely for the reprieve. I was also at last able to concentrate more on the stunning vista surrounding me instead of staring down at my feet to place them in the right place as I trudged ever upwards on the uneven ground. It was breathtaking. I mean, the altitude and the exertion were quite literally, breathtaking, but I’m quite sure the beauty I was seeing also played a part in leaving me breathless! We lucked out and had perfect weather, and so thanked pachamama for this blessing. It was sunny and crisp, with hardly any wind. The skies were clear, hardly a wisp of could to be found on that big blue blanket above us. Vivid green pastures draped over the steep mountain sides all around us. Cows and horses dotted the hills, grazing lazily, adding life to the otherwise still scene. As we rounded a corner, the huge snowy capped peak of Salkantay came into view and we all gasped – what a vision! A small wooden gate made of old gnarled sticks laid in my path and as I crossed through it I was transported to the Shire and couldn’t help but lay down the first of five days of Lord of the Rings references.

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Unfortunately the break my body was experiencing from the uphill battle didn’t last long. There was no more incline, but my body began to break down. I think the adrenaline from the incline and the excitement of starting this adventure that’d I’d been dreaming about for months now, had aided in my inability to feel the complete exhaustion that my body was battling from not sleeping for two nights and struggling to get enough oxygen at the high altitudes. On we trudged and I began to get worried. I felt like absolute shit. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt so wretched in my life.  Okay maybe those two days in Colombia where I was sure I was dying from the gastro bug that afflicted me for over a month (read about that fun time here!). It was such a struggle to lift each foot and keep moving. My legs ached with a burning agony. My chest and lungs were sore from gasping for the last three hours. My head spun sickenly. Waves of nausea swept through me over and over. I was positive I was going to either puke or pass our, or both at the same time, but I resolved to keep putting one foot in front of the other until that moment came. If I was going down, I was going down like a champ.

I let the group slowly but surely all over take me until I was straggling at the very back. The only thoughts in my mind were “oh my god I think I’m dying. Oh fuck, everything hurts so bad. The world is spinning, make it stop. Ughhhhh I’m going to barf. Swallow. Nope, close call. Oh shit, if I sit down, will I be able to get back up?”. It was like being in a swamp of molasses – every movement demanded colossal effort and I pulled from within me energy stores I never knew I had, to keep going. I was positive I would have to ask our guide to get me a horse or just leave me to die on the side of the trail if a horse wasn’t possible. I just wanted to cry.

There was no way I would make it another hour. I was beginning to get worried that I had altitude sickness and that if I kept pushing myself it would only get worse. I just needed sleep. I just needed rest. I would sell my soul to the devil 10 times over if I could just curl up on the side of the trail and sleep four two hours. Hell, I bet I could run the last hour if I could just have a two hour nap. Your brain on no sleep for two days, at 3500m, depleted of much needed oxygen for days, exercising vigorously, is a scary and confused thing; it was making deals with the devil without my consent.

But I just knew I couldn’t be beaten on the first day. I am a prideful person, there is no doubt about it. I will often push myself far past my limits of comfort, health and safety in order to prove a point, to myself or others. This was one of those times. I never felt my limits pushed this hard in my life, and I knew it was unsafe, but to be honest, I didn’t have any other option other than to drag my ass, crawling if I had to, to the first base camp. Those last 20 minutes were torture. Sally had stayed back with me. She was starting to feel the exhaustion pretty bad too. I was so thankful for her company, because I thought there was a chance I would pass out and no one would find me until much later. We complained vigorously to each other about how awful it was, how we could see the camp but it never seemed to get any closer, about how much our bodies hurt – our lungs, our legs, our hips, our backs, our shoulders, our knees- our eyelashes for christ sake.

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I climbed about seven stairs worth of an incline and when I reached the top I simply couldn’t stand and I fell over, my body aching for the earth, to feel her on every inch of me. Her warm dirt welcomed me like the sweet hand of death, coaxing me to lay down completely, to just surrender. A small Peruvian woman getting on in age, carrying a small child in the hood of her shawl came behind me on the incline, without a hitch in her breath, and saw me topple over. She looked at me with concern (or perhaps it was pity) and simply said “No!” Meaning, don’t give up, don’t sit down here, keep going. The only Spanish word I could bring to my foggy brain was ‘cerca?” (“near”). She understood and affirmed that yes, I was close. Sally came stumbling up the incline after her and I forced myself to get up. We both rolled into base camp five minutes later and I was sure I was dreaming. I have never ever been so happy to sit down in my life. The nausea, the swimming head, the thick, no longer dull, but pronounced throb in my head, the shooting pains through every fibre of my being – every warning sign in my body was screaming off violent warning calls to stop, stop, stop! retreat! surrender!

And at last, I could. I dragged my feet, very literally until I was close to the main tent and then just fell over and nearly cried for the 10th time that day, but this time in relief instead of pain and desperation. Holy shit. I made it. I don’t know how in god’s name I did it, but I made it. That was undoubtedly the longest two hours of my life, stretched into an insufferable eternity. It’s incredible what pain can do to your perceptions of time and sanity. Everyone had already moved into the tent to get ready for lunch but all I could do was take off my shoes to give my throbbing feet a moment to breath and stretch and stop the shooting pains in them. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to do anything. I had told myself over and over that the second I got to camp I was crawling into bed. I hadn’t let on to anyone (other than Sally, and not even to Sally did I let the full extent of my struggle be known) how bad things were for me on that last half of that day. I tried to keep up the pretence and forced myself to join them for lunch. I didn’t feel hungry because I was so ill, but when they brought out the mouth watering lunch, my body suddenly remembered it was ravenous and needed fuel desperately almost as much as sleep. The ripe juicy stuffed avocados. The roasted chicken and hot rice. The beet and potato salad. The hot, sweet coca tea and the fruit juice. It was a feast.  I couldn’t eat too much, not near half of what I would normally eat, but it did feel good to get a little something inside of me.

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After lunch most of the crew was heading an hours hike up the mountain to check out a lake. As badly as I wanted to go, I knew my limits and I had already well passed them. I was starting to get a touch of life back in me, now that I had some food and was able to just sit and not move. Two other girls stayed back with me, Jaclyn and Eve and we had a great chat about all sorts of things and I found out Eve had been struggling really bad as well, also feeling endless moments of being sure she was going to vomit, pass out and cry. I felt so relieved to know I wasn’t the only one who went through hell that morning. We tried to practice just a touch of yoga to stretch our haggard bodies out, but the local herding dog – as dogs always do when yoga shows up – got curious and especially involved with Eve, showing us up with his own downward dog. We fell down in giggles from the dogs antics and gave up the practice.

I was proud of Sally for hiking up to see the lake; she was sure she would never survive this hike and here she was surpassing me on day one! You go girl! Katia came down and said that she didn’t think that the strenuous hour hike was worth the view at all. The sun had already begun going down and didn’t shine on the lake so it proved rather lacklustre. That made me feel better! If everyone had come down and said it was utterly spectacular I would have been pretty bummed. We got popcorn, crackers and hot chocolate for a pre dinner snack, and by the time dinner came an hour later I wasn’t hungry at all. Compared to lunch, it was a bit of a disappointment, but honestly, that lunch was going to be damn hard to top! We chatted among our group, getting to know each other a little better, playing funny games with our names: each person had to pick an animal from their country that started with the same letter as their name and this became their new name for the trek. We had a sting ray, bear, sheep, lizard, eagle, seagull, cat/cow and more – and many laughs. It was a fun way to get more familiar with each other and get a feel for our group dynamics, especially for me since I was a lone ranger for the last half of my hike that day, battling what felt like the end. After dinner and our game we all went to brush our teeth and crawl into bed. It was 8pm

We had been warned that tonight was going to be bitterly cold. We were at a very high altitude and it would possibly dip down to -10C. All we had was our tents huddled together under a large tarped structure where we took our meals and our down sleeping bags. I hate being cold and I made sure there was no way I would be cold that first night. I wore every piece of clothing I brought with me: 3 pairs of thick socks, two pairs of leggings and one pair of hiking pants, a tank top, a merino wool long sleeve, an alpaca sweater, another double thick alpaca sweater, my alpaca scarf, my buff, my wool mittens and my wool toque.  And then I dove down into that sleeping bag and assured Sally that if I felt cold I was coming over for snuggles! I had a really hard time falling asleep and laid awake in a strange state for the next 4 hours, getting up to pee twice. Typical me. You’d think after two days without sleep and such a strenuous day, I would pass out right away. Nope. Typical me again. And around midnight I got so hot I actually took some layers off!  I think this helped me relax, knowing I wouldn’t freeze to death and I finally fell into a fitful sleep, but sleep nonetheless.

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Day 2:

We were woken up at 5am from a light shake on our tent. We bolted up and unzipped, knowing what was waiting for us. Fresh hot coca tea to drink in our tents – talk about room service! We stayed snuggled in our bags, sipping the piping hot tea, helping us to wake up and keep warm as our stiff bodies began to feel the aches and hardships from yesterday. We packed up quickly and met at the table for breakfast at 5:30. Cold pancakes (it’s impossible to keep some things warm in that cold weather!) with dulce de leche, stiff bread with butter and jam, and hot tea/coffee/hot chocolate. We filled our bellies and got ready for day two. Even though I only had about 5 hours of sleep in the last 3 days (all of them the night before!), I felt like a new person. Everything was sore and ached dully, but my head had cleared and the nausea was gone. I felt like I had boundless energy. I was so excited for this day! We were warned that today was the hardest day of all- we would hike 22km today, compared to 15 yesterday- and the first four hours (9km) were all uphill, slowly but surely taking us to our peak height of 4600m (15000 feet). I took the lead of our group and promised myself a nice slow and steady day, taking it very easy on my tender body.

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Channeling our inner animal names we came up the previous night! (I’m ‘bear’!)

The night before we had debated getting horses as this was the one day they would let people have a chance to pay extra to have a horse take them up the pass because it was so difficult. I felt great and knew I could hike the whole day without needing a horse, but last night I felt like I had been through a meat grinder, and had no idea what the morrow would hold, so I played it safe and paid for the horse. Eve and Sally also got a horse to be on the safe side – we’ll call it insurance. I walked terribly slow, a snails pace, but most everyone seemed to be happy with the pace and we all slowly trudged on together as I led the way. I came to an older man from another group and he asked how much coca tea I had this morning and said we were cruising!  l laughed because the truth was, my pace was achingly slow, but the thing was, so was everyone elses, and some were even slower. I found out most of our crew didn’t sleep well the night before as they were all really cold. I felt awful for them – I did day one on two days without sleep, so I knew how hard today would be on minimal to no sleep.

After a couple of hours the sun finally crested the staggering mountain sides that we were nestled between. The four hours cruised by and soon it was time to decide if we wanted to take our horses the last little way up. Thus far we had powered through. Sally and Eve were excited to get on the horses and ready for it. I wanted to keep going on foot, and knew I could finish no problem on foot, but I had paid a pretty penny for that horse. But more than anything… I had never ridden a horse in my whole life before (okay, 7 years old with a cowboy in the Dominican Republic doesn’t really count). I had a chance to ride a horse (okay, it was a mule, close enough!) for my first time, through some of the most majestic mountain scenery in Peru on my way to Machu Picchu- how freaking cool is that?! I had to come to terms with my decision; I had to believe in myself and know that I wasn’t taking the horse because I felt tired and defeated and could no longer walk (where the hell as that damn horse yesterday?! I would have paid ten times what I did then!), but because I had already paid and I could get the exceptionally unique experience of my first horse ride being in this beautiful place. I felt happy with my decision and the three of us mounted up and began to canter uphill.

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So pumped to be on a horse (mule)!

So, Sally doesn’t like horses. No, I mean Sally freaking hates horses. She told me a horror story from a couple of months ago in Cuba, where her horse tried to take the lead when they were riding and the horse her friend was on tried to bite Sally’s horse, but chomped her leg instead and left her with a nasty lump and bruise that lasted weeks. Needless to say, Sally now had a pretty bad fear of horses, but she was bagged, and we did our best to convince her it would be fine, so she finally conceeded. As we started off it was fine, but a few moments later things got a little hectic for Sally. The mules were working it out between them who was leading and it took a couple of minutes of them walking close by each other and then trotting to get ahead of each other. At one point all three of them started to run uphill. I grabbed on and began to howl with hysterical laughter, and Eve followed suit, and so did Sally. Or so I thought. It wasn’t laughter coming from Sally, it was hysterical crying. The poor girl! She was scared out of her mind, no doubt having awful flashbacks to the horse biting her, and was convinced it was going to happen all over. Luckily our horses calmed down and got their pecking order sorted. Sally had tears streaming down her face and was crying that she wanted to get off now. I did my best to help calm her down and tell her that was doing awesome and that it was going to be okay. She slowly started to calm down, but was still a tense, jittery mess the rest of the ride up.

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The horse ride was definitely a highlight for me. It was so incredible to be on this beautiful, strong animal for the first time, to let her pick her way through the trail and fully put my trust in her. It was so nice to be able to stare at the mountains surrounding me since the entire morning I had been staring at my feet to ensure that I didn’t twist an ankle in the rocky terrain we were summiting. It was only about 20 minutes on horse, but it was unforgettable. We got to the top of the Salkantay pass, with the staggering hulk of Salkantay mountain (which means ‘savage mountain’) on our right, and the backside of the beast of another mountain on our left. Ahead of us, our path fell away into the descent of the valley, loose rocks, and scree snuggled in between the sloping valleys. Behind us lay our conquests thus far. What a day this had been! We stopped for lunch an hour ahead. We feasted and talked about the morning – the struggles, the tears, and the victories. Our group all settled in for a nap on the grass (except me, I was too excited!) and then we pushed on.

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Victory!!!!

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The rest of the day was actually the hardest part.  We still had five hours to go, with four behind us. And it was all. down. hill. Easy right? No way. I remember after climbing Volcan San Pedro in Guatemala, I thought uphill was the worst thing in the world and that going down was a piece of cake. Others were always saying they preferred uphill and I thought they were batshit crazy. Well I get it now. Yes, uphill is hard on the thighs and lungs, but you can go slow and pace yourself. Downhill hurts your knees no matter what you do, there is no easing that discomfort. And five hours of it was hell.

To make matters worse, after lunch my stomach started to act up and I knew what was coming. I was all too familiar with the nasty feeling brewing in my guts from spending five weeks with it not long before. Noooooo how could this be happening?! Not on the trek! I sucked it up and stocked up on toilet paper. It made for a much more miserable second half of the day, and I was lucky to have Sally by my side. My insides were exploding, but there were people everywhere on the trail and I couldn’t just let the pent up air pressure come blasting out! I was also scared that more than just air was a brewing…!

Sally, as I mentioned before is a gem. She screamed loudly and brazzenly to cover the sound for me as I released some of the awful pent up air that just kept brewing. Thanks Sal! At one point I stopped and asked a man if could use his bathroom for a coin. He allowed me, though I wouldn’t call it a bathroom… It was a hole in the ground with two foot holds. Alright then. Let’s get it done. Towards the end of the day, I just so desperately wanted to get to camp to be close to a toilet that I picked up my pace until I was nearly running and set off with my headphones in blasting the Weeknd’s “Cant feel my face” over and over. I made some serious time and was so happy to get to the toilet. Ugh. It was feeling like Colombia all over. But at least I had a great morning!

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We dined that night and I was feeling like I was really getting to know this wonderful group of people that I set out on this adventure with. We had such an awesome crew! We had come up with funny knick names for each other- our animal names from the first night, and then we all figured out our stripper names by sharing our first street name paired with our first pets name (Mika Anson right here).  We had endless laughs and were really bonding over this incredible journey we were on together that was filled with both so many struggles and feats already only two days in. We felt like we had really accomplished a lot today, the hardest day being in the books.

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Day 3:

The next day three of our crew were out; one with bad knees, one with a revenge of his gut infection and another with a brand new gut infection that left her totally incapacitated. I commended them on taking the transport that was arranged; it was stupid to mess with serious illness or injury when you’re out here. We bid them farewell and were reunited with them at third basecamp. Day three was pretty, but a different kind of pretty. That’s the beauty of the Salkantay trek; each day you get this drastically different terrain to walk through. We had now moved out of the high, rugged mountains, and into the jungle. It was much warmer and we were surrounded by vegetation of all sorts. This day was mostly up and down in little parts and then flattened out. The day started out decent, even though I had hardly slept the night before; I was so cold, and couldn’t seem to get warm all night. My gastro bug was still present, yet not too over active. But I was not prepared for the sun. I brought a toque but not a baseball hat. I was expecting hot, not cold. We found ourselves in the sun for the majority of the day and while I had sunscreen on to protect my skin, I couldn’t protect my body from the effects of the heat and sun exposure for hours on end in other ways. I began to feel exhausted and nauseous.I was having intense heat waves racking my body. I was shaking. I was having chills.

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Soon we came to an ice cold river and I desperately thrust my head under it. It was so relieving. I was on the point of losing consciousness or throwing up again, like on day one, but this was different. I knew what this was. This was an old friend I’d spent much time with over the years. This was heat stroke. Lior was kind and stayed back with me as the group surged past and my energy leaked out of me like a sieve. As I explained to him what was wrong, he suddenly understood and told me the Hebrew word for Sunstroke, which literally translates to ‘a blow from the sun’. I found this little piece of information strangely funny and it comforted me. I found the translation and the word to be far more suiting than the English one, because that’s exactly how I felt- like I’d just had a fist fight with the sun and he kicked my ass!

The cooling effect from the water I had dunked myself in had worn off and I was beginning to feel desperate again as the sun beat down on me with all his fury (now I understand this phrase, “the sun beat down”, quite literally, as if with fists).  There was no escape; the trail was constantly in direct sunlight, with hardly ever any sections of shade and when there was, it was only a ten foot stretch. I would stop in these areas and take a moment to let my head stop pounding quite so hard and my give my stomach a rest from the somersaults it was doing. It was so relieving in those spaces that it was hard to make myself push on back into the swelter of the sun. But push on I must. Sally came back to check on me and saw I was having a rough time again, a totally different person from this morning! She saw how sick I was and did what any best friend would do: she gave me a t-shirt from her bag to wet at the next water source, and took my bag. I almost cried with relief. I didn’t want to give her my bag, as I didn’t want to seem weak, but I was struggling so bad that I knew her taking my bag would help tremendously, so I set my pride aside and let her take my pack on her front, in addition to hers on her back. Sally saved my ass on this day of the journey, there is no doubt about it. Thanks Sally!

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Best company you can ask for on a trek is this babe ❤

I was feeling delirious when the next water source came into sight. If I could have run, I would have, but I had nothing left in me. I stumbled to it, and nearly fell entirely in the stream. I submerged my head and the t-shirt that Sally had given me. I draped the soaking shirt over my head and shuddered in relief as the cool water dribbled down my whole body. There were two more water sources along the rest of our trek, and I can confidently say that without those little streams to cool me off, I never would have made it. It wasn’t even that hot out, but the heat stroke had already done it’s job. Add the altitude, the lack of sleep and the extreme physical exertion on top of it, and I was done for. I was on fire with fever. I remembered that I had some advil and popped a couple. I had drank every drop of water I had and was now sharing Sally’s. I knew I had to drink as much as possible to avoid even worse illness from the sun stroke. Our guide saw how bad I was suffering and offered me his ball cap, which also helped tremendously, and I cursed myself for being so silly as to forget to bring my own. Another from our group was also having a really hard go of it, and our guide could see that we needed a break badly. We still had a solid hour ahead of us and he was quite sure we wouldn’t make it, so he arranged a bus to pick us up at an earlier location just 10 minutes ahead and we would drive the last couple km to base camp. We were all pretty thankful, and a few other groups also got this option. I ensured I sat next to the window on the bus as I was worried I might throw up. The ride was a blessing and I kept my breakfast down.

When we arrived to lunch I was feeling better but still debilitated from the exertion and fever. The advil had kicked in luckily and was working wonders on that part. We were reunited with the three from our group who took transport and I told them they made a great choice, and that I was terribly envious! The downhill was so horrible on the knees that our whole group was feeing the throb and ache of their knees in every step. Erica, who had taken transport wasn’t doing well at all. She sat down with us for lunch but simply couldn’t stomach anything. She went below the deck we were on and found a mattress on the ground and went to sleep. Poor thing looked like a homeless person had crawled on there for a nap!

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Poor Erica!

The food helped bring a little life back in to me as it usually does. But everything still hurt. I just wanted bed! My gastro bug started acting up again just as we were making our way down to some hot springs. Just my luck. But I wouldn’t let it stop me. I popped some drugs so I could still enjoy (if not in somewhat discomfort) the heaven that was the hot springs. Our aching bodies needed the warm water desperately. Our stinking, unwashed bodies, also needed the bath desperately! Luckily they had these incredibly powerful showers that used the hot spring water that we could shower off with before hopping in the springs. We spent an hour relishing the water, the heat (though they definitely could have been hotter!) and the relaxation.  

Then we hopped back in our bus to head down to a camp located in another area of this little town that was base camp for night three. It was so strange to be back among people and buildings and civilization! That night after dinner they set up a bon fire and blasted some awful music as a sort of party for us. We had completed the hardest part of the journey; it was time to celebrate. Tomorrow we would go zip lining in the morning and then had only a three hour walk ahead of us to take us to Agua Calientes where we would get a hostel for the night in preparation for climbing to Machu Picchu bright and early. I didn’t want to partake in the party as I had come down with sudden chills and couldn’t get warm, the sun stroke returning with a vengeance. I popped some more advil, some gastro pills as my guts were still a disaster as well, and went to the tent to put on every piece of clothing I owned again as well as dip in to my emergency stock of hot pads- little oxygen activated heat pads me warm you. 

I came back out and hung out with our group a while longer at the table, shivering. Lior gave me his large jacket and I slightly resembled a blue marshmallow with the ridiculous amount of clothing I’d layered on. The idea of a fire was inviting to help bite out the cold, so I moved to the roaring fire to steal some of the heat. It was so lovely to be by a fire! I spend much of my summers back home fire side camping, and hadn’t been near a fire for ages. The blazing heat of the fire penetrated through my chills and I began to warm up. The advil must have started to kick in too.  The first song to come on was none other than the Macarena. Every one of the girls squealed, jumped up and began doing the dance we all learnt when we were 10 years old. We started making a big circle around the fire and danced the entire song. I was roasting by the time it was over! Note to self: there is no better way to warm up than to put all your clothes on and do the Macarena next to a roaring fire for five minutes! I stayed as late as I could, trying to be social and meeting others from other groups, but I finally had to bow out around 11pm, which is an exceptionally late night for the Salkantay Trek!

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Day 4:

I slept much better this night thankfully and we all got to sleep in until 7am, wow! We had breakfast and all of us except Erika, who was still sick, made our way by vehicle to the other end of town for our zip lining adventure. I’d been a few times before, but honestly, I wanted a break from walking and this was how you got that break, so I signed up! Plus, it’s zip lining, what’s not to love?! We got to zip back and forth between the valleys from one mountain to the next. I offered to go first as Sally was having some serious anxiety (she had never been and was terrified of heights). I tried to reassure her as best as I could and tell her that she was going to have a blast – which she of course did! We had five zips and on our last one we could choose to go superman style or spiderman style- upside down- my favourite! I had done it my first time zip lining in Jamaica, on a much shorter line, and had been wanting to try it since, but the other zip lines I tried didn’t allow it. I offered to go first and as I went out into the abyss, I looked back at my group standing there and threw out best spiderman wrist flick and sent imaginary spider webs at them as I zipped quickly across the valley.

sally zip zip

We had a three hour walk ahead of us this day, mostly along flat ground which our knees were grateful for. It was an easy walk, though after days of this, our bodies were pretty beaten and tired and it still took a lot out of you. The idea of having to do more than three hours was implausible, I don’t think I could have done much more! It was a beautiful walk as we were nuzzled deep in the mountains, and followed train tracks that wound through the peaks to Augas Calientes. I actually caught sight of Machu Picchu far off perched atop a mountain in the distance. Sally and I ended up starting out walking together, but she marched on when I took a break and she ended up taking the wrong path, following the train tracks, when the rest of us went down. It was around the same distance, but she ended up in the city at a totally different spot from the crew. I found all this out from a man at the intersection who told me which way she went, but advised me to be careful if I went that way as the train tracks go through a tunnel and if a train comes it’s quite dangerous. I opted for the safe route. I powered ahead and was among the first to reach our meeting spot, just wanting to get to the hostel and have my first real shower in four days. I’d been wearing the same clothes for four days, changing only my underwear and socks, and even that was a chore to change each day (when it’s that cold, you don’t want to take anything off!).

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Half an hour later the rest of our group showed up and we all walked to our hostel together while I explained to Freddy that Sally had taken the upper route and that we needed to find her. Luckily he found her and we all went to get our rooms in the hostel. To say the shower was glorious in an understatement. We had hot water and I broke my tiny bar of soap in four pieces and shared it out. We borrowed shampoo from the Lior’s (we had two with the same name in our group!) and did our best to get days of sweat, dirt, and illness scrubbed from our aching bodies. The heat felt wonderful on the sore muscles and it was terribly hard to get out of the shower. We all met for drinks and nachos before dinner and felt proud that we had finally made it to Aguas Calientes and had only to climb the million stairs to Machu Picchu in the morning and we would be finished our trek. We had a nice dinner at a restaurant that evening with some other groups- all part of the package – and got wildly excited at last at what tomorrow would bring. We all got our tickets into Machu Picchu and a surprise entry into Machu Picchu mountain if we wanted to climb it, as well as our train tickets back to Ollantaytambo. This would be my first train ride ever! First horse and train ride in one trip – epic!

We crawled into bed around 11pm and set our alarms for the painful hour of 3:45am since we were meeting at 4am to walk the half hour towards the gates which opened at 5am. You wanted to be there early because hundreds of people who had been on treks would all be lining up bright and early for the summit. That night Sally ran back to the restaurant because she left her hat. I was still awake, unable to sleep, when she made it home an hour later and crawled into my bed to tell me the story of her adventure and put me in stitches. I gently advised her we should get some sleep, and she agreed and hopped into bed like a little kid. I only got about an hour of sleep that night unfortunately, and was not feeling so hot on the march to the gates. I met up with Eve and Eleanor who I befriended along the trek, even though they are from another group.  Eleanor had the same awful gastro bug that I did, so I felt connected to her in our struggles. I had loaned Eve my black underwear the day before for the hot springs since she didn’t have a bathing suit –  what else brings two people closer?! Eve was feeling like shit this morning as well since she had come down with a cold on the trek and it was causing her to sleep poorly. So the three of us ill folk tried to stick together on the last of our climbs on this epic trek. 

We chatted in line and agreed we wanted to take it slow and steady up these stairs for the next 45 minutes. They opened the gates at last, checked our tickets and let us pass through to begin the seemingly endless climb of old stone stairs up the mountain to reach the city. We, along with and endless stream of hundreds of others climbed up, up, up. It was difficult, especially on no sleep, but I felt determined to not take breaks, to just set a slow pace and put one foot in front of the other, over and over again until that last step. Eve fell back and Eleanor and I kept up together, and eventually we made it, triumphant and soaked with sweat even in the cool, pre dawn morning.

We were advised by guide to bring an extra shirt because he promised us the one we wore in the morning to climb would be soaked through. Even though the sun was not out and it wasn’t that warm, he was right- I was drenched with sweat and once I stopped moving that sweat cooled terribly fast and left me shivering without the heat of the sun to help keep me warm. I swapped shirts quickly and was thankful I had brought my sweater and toque along to keep warm. We set off with Freddy and our group and entered, at long last, the hard earned Inca city of Machu Picchu.

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The sun was still below the horizon and the entire place was subdued in a grey cast, lending an eerie feel to the place. It was beautiful here, even as the throngs of people filed in. People kept quite quiet, as if they could feel the power of the place and wanted to respect it. We huddled in our groups as our guides told us about the city and the history of certain areas. Slowy but surely the sun began to breach the horizon and bless us with his might rays of warmth that only a day ago had beat me to a pulp. As he appeared from behind the string of mountains, he seemed set there as if by the hand of God.  He was so perfectly placed and as he crested the mountain top he began bathing the city in warm yellow light. It was such a mystical site, the grounds only moments before shrouded in the muted grey of predawn, now glowing warmly as the sun spread his radiance slowly over the entire city. It changed how the place looked; it went from a strange, cold, desolate, abandoned bunch of rock to a suddenly inviting and lively little city, full again of people, only hundreds of years later.

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When I researched Machu Picchu and saw how old it was, I was taken aback. It’s only just over 500 years old. What’s the big deal? I mean, there are so many ruins all over the world, why are these among the most famous of all, a wonder of the world? Until you get to Machu Picchu you can’t understand nor appreciate why this place holds such a title. The way the surrounding mountains climb like reaching fingers all around the city, 360 degrees, their vibrant green slopes thick with heavy vegetation of the jungle creating a tremendously dramatic effect. The city seems as if it is cradled within the palm of the reaching peaks, a safe haven, exceptionally difficult to reach. To the left the high reach of the famous Huayna Picchu looked down on the town. Behind us in the distance we could see the snowy peaks of the mountains we crossed through in the Salkantay pass to get here. To the right Machu Picchu Mountain towered above the city. The grass was a lustrous green from all the rain this place receives. Once again, Pachamama smiled down on us and gave us a perfect day of sunshine and blue skies. Llamas – yes the famous llamas were here! – milled around and I realized how they kept the grass in check here- llama lawnmowers! The town was in exceptional condition, so perfectly preserved.

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mowing the lawn and taking a nap, tough life at Macchu Picchu

We toured around for two hours with Freddy learning about the city before we were set out on our own. We bid a sad farewell to our guide and thanked him for everything and then set out as a group to immediately get lost thanks to Sally and I leading the way which led to some dead ends. We explored a little together before breaking off into smaller groups for bathroom and food breaks, and made plans to all meet for lunch around 3pm back down in Aguas. Sally and I set out together and determined to climb Machu Picchu mountain. It was an hour and a half of stairs in terrible condition as they were original Inca stairs, sometimes nothing more than crumbled rock pieces and they only continued to get steeper the higher you went. We went nice and slow and I would put on our theme song now and then to have a dance party break, which we invited other hikers to join in on, but mostly they just laughed. That is until we came upon another group who loved the dance party idea and busted out the most amazing invention I’ve ever seen – a fanny pack that has built in speakers! Theyethrew on Macklemore’s “And We Danced” and let me tell you, we danced and had a really, really, really good time! Sally hit record on her phone and we howled with laughter later when we saw it. I doubt anyone has had a better time climbing this difficult summit! Feeling rejuvinated after the dance party, I went on ahead alone picking up my pace and Sally came up a short while behind me.

I met Eleanor up at the top by chance and we all settled in to catch our breath and take in the incredible vista around us. I can’t speak for Huayna mountain, as I haven’t summited it, and it’s booked months in advance, but I can speak volumes for Machu Picchu mountain and I don’t know why more people don’t climb this beauty. It towers over Huayna mountain, looking down far below at Machu Picchu city. It’s actually quite dizzying, as you are on the absolute summit and it’s a fairly small area with a lot of people milling about, getting their pictures and catching their breath and simply soaking it all in. 

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This is how you feel after 5 days trekking, and especially after 7 billion Inca stairs!

This was a place I didn’t want to leave any time soon. My Machu Picchu experience was heightened dramatically by looking down at the city and the surroundings from up here. It gave me time to reflect on the journey of the last few days and to feel the energy from miles around me. Hawks circled and swooped around us. The wind blew strongly, the crisp breeze forcing us to put our sweaters back on after the sweaty climb. When I got close to the edge I felt the strange pull of vertigo and felt my world begin to tip sickeningly. The side of the mountain simply fell away into nothingness far below. I stepped back, respecting the power of the mountain and the altitude and let myself feel safe and grounded again a safe distance from the edge. It really did feel like you were suddenly on top of the world up here. We were higher at the Salkantay pass, but that was a pass- this was a mountain top and I was soaring above everything around me. I stayed up here for over an hour savouring the reward for the hard work I’d put in these last few days. I pulled out my journal and began writing, I chatted with friends, took pictures, stuck a yoga asana, stretched, relaxed and reflected.

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Machu Picchu from way above on Machu Picchu mountain

What an incredible journey these last five days had been! This grand adventure was the most challenging and yet by far most rewarding undertaking of my whole journey so far. I felt proud for doing something I’d never done before, especially under my health circumstances. Sally wanted to take her time so she headed down earlier while Eleanor and I lingered a while longer, wanting to savour every minute of our time up here. We worked pretty damn hard for it, after all! Eventually we decided if we wanted to get down in time we had best begin now so we could take our time. As we began our descent I started sniffling and sneezing and with a frustrating certainty, realized I was coming down with a cold, likely the same one that plagued Eve on the trek. With each passing minute it worsened, and an hour later, when we reached the bottom, I had a full blown cold. My nose was plugged, my head was throbbing, and the congestion was thickening behind my nasal cavity making me breath like a pug dog. Well, on the bright side, it happened at the end of Machu Picchu, not the beginning, so I could at least enjoy it more!

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llama winning at Machu Picchu

We made our way down to the town of Machu Picchu, out to the gates and met up with Sally again. We used the last dollars we had to buy bus tickets to get down- fuck that, we were walking NO MORE! We all met for lunch and then gathered our things from the hostel and headed to the train station- eep, a train! I was so pumped! And it was such a pretty one too! On the downside, we were departing in the dark so I wouldn’t get to enjoy the views. By the time I got on the train I was a sniffling, groggy mess. Our crew was playing heads up and having a blast and I was doing all I could to keep conscious, sitting, looking like a fool with my mouth hanging open so I could breath, constantly wiping my dripping nose. I felt AWFUL! I really wanted to go out with Sally that night, but we didn’t get home until after 11pm, and all I could think of was bed. rest. sleep. SLEEP!!!! and a shower! But I was honestly too knackered to shower, and simply crawled into bed wearing my same clothes and passed out.

I picked up a load of medicine the next morning as I worsened over night. The cold began moving down into my chest and I developed a nasty cough, deep in my lungs. I sounded like someone dying who had smoked for 60 years of their life. The cough attacks were wretchedly painful and left me gasping for air and reeling from the pain they sent screaming through my chest cavity. We had wanted to take off for Bolivia after a days rest in  Cusco, but I was so sick I just couldn’t. I needed one more day to try and recover. I wasn’t much better the following day, but we headed out anyway. 

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I bid goodbye to Cusco. The trek had done a number on me. I was massively sleep deprived, I got mild altitude sickness, heat stroke, a gastro bug and a nasty cold to top it all off. I was an absolute mess! But no matter how sick I was, how beaten down, how full of aches and pains, bruises and maladies – nothing could dampen my spirits nor diminish the incredible feat of hiking the Salkantay pass and seeing the magnificent landscapes of Peru that I was so blessed to see. Nothing could take away from the strong bonds that were forged between our group who started out as strangers and ended as dear friends, some of whom I’ve already been lucky enough to visit again along my travels. This adventure was undoubtedly the highlight of my journey thus far. Peru, you hold boundless beauty within your borders, and I know that beauty only spills over those borders into Bolivia, where that next bus just so happens to be taking my tired, sick, but inspired and eager self.

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One thought on “A Journey Through The Salkantay Pass To Machu Picchu

  1. Pingback: Ninjas, Laser Tag and Chocolate Pancakes: A Week With My Favourite Swedish Girl! | BorealBlonde

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