It’s nearly Thanksgiving and cold, dreary November is upon us. Fortunately, we were able to get out and enjoy a little sun and exercise a few weeks ago.
As with many people, we have a bucket list of things we’d like to do and places we’d like to see. On that list was Machu Picchu in Peru. You know, those large, wonderful Incan ruins that sit atop a mountain, overlooking a river valley, surrounded by the Andes Mountains. Most everyone has seen pictures of it, and it was on our bucket list because of the Incan culture, traveling to Peru and enjoying its contemporary culture and being in the Andes.
Going to Machu Picchu takes some planning. One of the major planning issues is how you’ll approach Machu Picchu. The route that most visitors take is to arrive in Cusco, Peru and acclimatize for a few days at the higher altitude. From there, the majority of visitors will take the train from Cusco to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes that is just below Machu Picchu. Alternatively, it is also possible to take a bus or other road transportation to the town of Ollantaytambo in Peru’s Sacred Valley and then take the train from there to Aguas Calientes. The total travel time by driving to Ollantaytambo is slightly shorter. The second most popular way to make your way to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu is to walk the 26-mile long Inca Trail, which starts in Ollantaytambo. One of the people who first made me most aware of Machu Picchu walked the Inca Trail with his wife about twenty years ago. Today, the Inca Trail is extremely popular and crowded; you’ll have the opportunity to share it each day with five hundred of your closest friends – 200 hikers and 300 Peruvian porters/guides, along with their accumulated debris, detritus and flotsam. But, the allure of the Inca Trail is that you’ll also have the opportunity to view and visit several other Incan ruins along the way, and to say that you did it!
Finally, if you’re like us and love your adventures, the mountains and a bit of exertion, there’s a third way – the Salkantay Trail. The route is more difficult and at a higher altitude and, the scenery is spectacular, especially the Humantay and Salkantay mountains. In fact, the altitude is a significant issue on this trek, but not insurmountable. Getting to the trailhead requires a bit more effort as it’s necessary to take small buses from Cusco to the trailhead near Mollepata. You’ll only have to share the route with a couple of dozen folks each day (I suspect, as we didn’t see very many people hiking on the trail). On the Salkantay Trail, along with various guides and porters, you’re also permitted to take pack animals (mules and horses) which can carry your gear (or you, if the situation requires); pack animals aren’t allowed on the Inca Trail. Along the Salkantay Trail there are several minimalist shelters – medium-sized outbuildings surrounded by blue plastic tarps. The wind can blow so fiercely in poor conditions on the Salkantay that we saw backpackers who set up their tents inside of these shelters, just to reduce the savagery of the elements.
Lastly, it is possible to hike the Salkantay Trail while staying in the wonderful Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) facilities. Oh my stars!!! We’ve never done anything quite like this in the past. Yes, we love to travel and camp and eat, but we’ve never thought about a luxury adventure trip until some of our good friends did this same trip a few years ago and raved about it. As much as I like being outdoors and hiking and in the middle of nowhere, I’m also getting “mature” (soft?) enough that I also enjoy a warm shower at the end of a hard day and a comfortable bed. If you’re similarly “mature” or otherwise aligned, then this trek might appeal to you.
Let’s start at the beginning – Cusco, Peru. After traveling for the better part of a day from home to Chicago and Miami, we arrived in Cusco just in time for breakfast. After retrieving my luggage from another American who thought that his bag looked like mine (close, but no banana), we took a taxi to the small B&B where we stayed, the Quinua Villa Boutique. Before the Spanish arrived in the mid Sixteenth Century, Cusco was the capitol of the Incan empire. Even after the Spanish arrived, the major modes of transportation were feet, horses and carriages. The older parts of town are narrow and there’s not much room for a car or other vehicle to drive. Our taxi driver offered to carry our baggage from the nearest street up the hill to the Quinua, but being a tough guy, I figured I could make it a hundred meters with mine – wrong! Who stole my oxygen?! Cusco sits at an altitude of ~11,200′, which is only 11,000′ higher than home. Our two days in Cusco were not easy if an uphill climb was required, and that was the case when we walked downhill to visit the famous Plaza de Armas.
Our second day in the area was spent on a Sacred Valley tour – Chincero, Salinas de Maras (salt works), Moray Terraces, Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley (the valley of the Urubamba River). As much as I enjoyed seeing these various Incan sites, the scenery and just being in the Peruvian countryside was wonderful. For all of the travels that we’ve done, there are relatively few places that I’d like to visit again and get to know better, but Peru is definitely on that short list. Peru has had it’s difficulties in the past with cocaine and terrorists, but the worst of those days are past. Everywhere that we went, we felt safe and people were very nice to us.
We got our formal start on the Salkantay Trail on the third day. Our wonderful MLP guides, Admil and Ricky, picked us up near our B&B at 7:00 am, and we headed west out of town with four other couples. After a few stops, we arrived at a couple of trailheads beyond the village of Mollepata. Half of our group hiked nine miles the first day when they started at Marco Casa, a few miles after Mollepata. The other half of us started at Challacancha and hiked just four miles. We encountered about an hour’s worth of mild rain that afternoon – and that was the last time that we were rained on while hiking for the whole trip – lucky us!!! The first forty five minutes or so of hiking were uphill, but then it was flat after that as we followed a small canal most of the way to our first lodge at Soraypampa. I’ve stayed in several nice places before but none of them was in the middle of nowhere. We had warm water and showers, a nice big, warm bed, a hot tub and mucho gusto food. We stayed at Soraypampa lodge for two nights so that we could acclimatize to the higher altitude, which was about 12,500′. Soraypampa Lodge is at the end of the road, and it was the last time we’d see a road for a couple of days.
After our first night at Soraypampa, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast and then set out on a four- to five-mile “warm-up” hike to Humantay Lake, which also is a climb of about 1300′. Yes, the climbing was taxing, as we still hadn’t fully adjusted to the altitude. The view at Humantay Lake is spectacular! The lake itself is a beautiful turquoise blue, and it’s surrounded on three sides by the mountains. Humantay Glacier’s moraine sits at the south end, blocking the flow of the snowmelt. We were treated to a moving ceremony at Humantay, an offering from a Quechua (native) priest to the mountain goddess, Pachamama, and the sun god, Inti, for our good luck and good health on our trek and in life.
At this point, allow me to tell you about our fellow hikers. First, our guides, Admil and Ricky, were absolutely wonderful, caring, respectful, knowledgeable and fun. Finest kind! Second, we were part of an equally wonderful group of people – four couples from the US and one couple from Perth, Australia. Age wise, the group ranged from mid-30s to about 70. Two of the men were mountain climbers and not phased by the altitude and conditions; they brought their wives on this trip to enjoy the altitude and scenery, but in relatively comfortable conditions. About half of our group had run marathons in their lives, and the group was relatively fit. But, there were a couple of people who had never done anything quite like this before – hiking at this altitude – in their lives and they readily made the trip special for us all. In fact, everyone was most proud of them because these two people climbed the highest mountains on this trip, pushing their personal boundaries to new limits.
The third day was our big day – at least, that’s how we all built it up to be. We were on the trail by 7:00 am and slowly rising toward the Salkantay Pass. The climb was gentle and we all kept a reasonably moderate pace. A small, scenic meadow (pampa) with a shelter and camping area was our last significant stop before heading up the switchbacks to the pass. I seem to recall that it was “only” about an hour after that significant rest stop before we made the pass, but it seemed longer, arriving about 11:00 am. The scene at the pass was very dramatic with clouds blowing around Salkantay, playing hide-and-seek between us and the mountain. While I’ve hiked to over 14,000′ before in Colorado, this was different. In Colorado, we were on the top of Mt. Elbert, the second highest mountain in the continental 48 states, and looking down on everything around us. At Salkantay Pass, we were at ~15,200′ and Montaña Salkantay is still towering over us, another mile or so higher! It was a very humbling, but grand, experience. The pass is filled with hundreds of cairns from past hikers, giving thanks for making the trek and enjoying the experience. We left our own group cairn, complete with a coca leaf for Pachamama. Onward and downward… A nice, warm lunch met us about an hour later, and it was well-received, appreciated and enjoyed by everyone. An hour or so after lunch, we were relaxing in Wayra Lodge, enjoying pisco sours and the hot tub (remember, this was a lux trip – sorry).
Our fourth day was relatively easy and anti-climatic. The “big” day had been the day before and we were all happy and healthy. Since we were going downhill, the weather was warmer – no need for bundling up. We entered the cloud forest at lower elevations (we were still above nine and ten thousand feet, though), and started to attract the occasional mosquito. And, about half of us finished the day by enjoying a zip line across the small valley that we had to cross to get to Colpa Lodge. We arrived relatively early, around lunch time, and enjoyed a late lunch of local delicacies including cuy (guinea pig). OK, not everyone enjoyed cuy, but I certainly did!
Day five was warmer yet, and we hiked down the Rio Santa Teresa Valley. Along this part of the hike, the flowers of the cloud forest appeared more and more, and were a wonderful diversion. Along the trail, there was another warm, tasty, locally-prepared lunch waiting for us. I could get used to hiking like this! Near the village of La Playa, we were picked up in a small bus and transported a few kilometers down and to the other side of the valley. After being dropped off, we made a short ascent to the last lodge, Lucma Lodge, and enjoyed another fine meal and pisco sours. As an aside here, let me also write that most everyone on our trip was very prepared for hiking Salkantay Pass – the possibility of cold, miserable rain and the altitude. But, since we focused so much on that aspect of the hike, we tended to be underprepared for the remainder of the Salkantay Trek – too many cold weather clothes and not enough warm weather clothes!
Our last significant day of hiking dawned beautiful and pleasant. Since this was the day when we were to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from a distance, I brought most all of my camera gear, and this may have been a mistake. On this day, our hike was about 2000 feet up and 3000 feet down. The hike up was along an ancient Incan route. The hiking up wasn’t difficult, but it was still a 2000 foot climb in some of the warmest conditions we’d “enjoyed,” along with some humidity. After we passed through a saddle on the range, we arrived at Llactapata, an Incan outpost, and there it was – Machu Picchu! Seeing Machu Picchu for the first time, whether near or far, is just breathtaking! Standing at Llactapata, it seemed more like an island in these mountainous jungles than in any other image that I’ve seen of it. Seeing Machu Picchu after the many days of hiking was also quite uplifting. After about thirty minutes of taking it all in and resting a bit, we had a rugged downhill hike to our last wonderful, warm lunch on the trail. We’re also very fortunate on this particular day that it wasn’t raining, as the trail from Llactapata down to the Rio Ahobamba was the steepest trail that we traversed, and it was also quite rocky and slippery – which would have been worse on a wet day. And, woe is me, yes, I was still carrying my heavy load of gear down this slope. By the end of the trail at the Hidroelectrica Train Station, my legs were burning and knees quite sore. The good news is that we took the train to Aguas Calientes, which is the hopping off point to reach Machu Picchu, marched through town to the Inkaterra Hotel, and had a hot shower and delicious meal.
On our last day together, we were up early as usual and caught a bus up to Machu Picchu. I don’t feel that any of us was really in the mood to hike up to it. Again, that first full view of Machu Picchu is just breathtaking. It’s amazing to think that the Incans lived here, maybe not for very long, but that they lived here, on top of the world, and the Spanish never knew that it existed. While I could go on describing Machu Picchu in words, the photographs are much more appealing. Our group took in the Inca Drawbridge, a very secure “back” entrance into Machu Picchu, walked through the ruins, and then half of us climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu on the far end of the park. The hike up Huayna Picchu is steep, but there are more ruins at the top of it and the view is overwhelming, and it’s not a view that appears in many photographs that you may have previously seen. After descending, we gathered at the main tourist entrance and that was it – our wonderful group began to go its own ways. One couple stayed on top, while the rest returned to Aguas Calientes for lunch and then more departures. It was sad to part with everyone after having spent such an intense week together – living, hiking and laughing.
Asta and I spent one more day at Machu Picchu so that we could also climb Montaña Machu Picchu, which is higher than Huayna Picchu and affords an even grander view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding Andes Mountains and the Rio Vilcanota that seems like it’s Machu Picchu’s moat. I was very glad that this was the last day, as my knees were quite sore by this time. The hike up the mountain was less steep, but more difficult and longer than going up Huayna Picchu. Inti smiled on us while we were on top, as the sun was out, giving us a dazzling view all around. Unfortunately, there were clouds behind us and we were unable to catch a glimpse of Montaña Salkantay to the south – oh well. After a slow climb down, I took one more lap around the ruins while Asta whet her thirst at the tourist bar with a local Cusqueña cerveza.
Following is the gallery of all images from our Peru trip – lots of photographs of Machu Picchu. Remember, click on the gallery below to view it full screen!
And, there you have it. A wonderful week of traveling, hiking, eating, aching, and laughing in the Peruvian Andes, and being overwhelmed by Montaña Salkantay and Machu Picchu. There was only one thing missing from this trip and I didn’t miss it (them) that much until we returned home – the kids…
I hope that you’ll take your opportunities to check things and places off of your bucket list so that you have wonderful memories to last the rest of your life. In our case, we can never have enough memories and rich, warm experiences and new friends.
‘Til next time, this is 43 N MSN signing off…