So this post is mainly about the amazing experience we had on the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, incase I haven’t stressed enough how much fun it was!
We arrived in Cusco 4 days before our trek. Cusco is a high city, 3400 meters above sea level, having been told horror stories about altitude sickness in Cusco we braced ourselves for feeling dodgy which I did as soon as we got off the bus! I don’t think iv ever had altitude sickness before so was not used to the feelings of constant headache, dizziness and not able to walk two steps without being completely out of breath! So that was my first few days in Cusco! I just kept thinking how on earth am I going to be able to hike for 5 days at a higher altitude when I can’t even make it up the stairs without feeling like I’m going to pass out! Cusco itself is a beautiful town with a lot happening. Nearly all backpackers here are either coming off or heading on treks to Machu Picchu and a lot of the chat is comparing experiences on the different tracks, so after a few conversions we quickly realised that we had unintentionally booked ourselves onto the tough trek! Salkantay trek goes higher and lasts longer than the traditional Inca trail. Thinking back to us sitting in sta travel I remember us saying ‘well that 1 lasts longer and it’s cheaper’! Complete suckers for a bargain not considering that means we have to hike for longer! But the more we talked to people and had our meeting with our guide we realised it was actually a blessing. 500 people a day hike the inca trail while only 50 hike Salkantay, being one to chose the less travelled route, this suited us well!
So we packed our bag with every warm piece of clothing we brought and anything we could find that had any trace of Coca leaves! Coca leaves are used by locals and visitors alike to combat altitude sickness and many other illnesses. The native grown leaves are said to help the body balance itself to a norm in high altitudes. They are also used to produce cocaine but obviously that wasn’t the reason for our consumption, obviously!
Our trekking group was made up of 5 other travellers who turned out to be the most lovelist people and quickly became dear friends. Day 1 arrived and the 8 of us, including our lovely local guide set off. This day was explained to us as an easy day, just 3 hours walking uphill and downhill to get to our 1st camp. Walking poles in hand off we went. After 5mins we stopped! I was so relieved to hear heavy breathing from everyone else as I was getting a bit paranoid that it was only me who felt like I was going to die after 5 minutes! I haven’t done much exercise this year at all so knew i wasn’t in great shape but I don’t even think that even matters as it’s hard for anyone to catch a breath when you’re that high in the mountains! It’s hard to explain the feeling of not getting a full breath, I just imagine its like a 70 year old who has smoked 20 cigs a day trying to climb stairs! Eventually, with many breaks, we made it to camp! Over a cup of coca tea we all expressed our anxiety for the next day. Day 2 was notorious for being the toughest day with 10hours of walking mainly uphill to reach the summit of Salkantay mountain, a mere 4629 meters above sea level! I just thought to myself I was struggling to breath in Cusco and after 3 hours of an ‘easy’ day I feel like I could collapse, how the hell am I going to do this! It was a massive comfort to hear that the rest of the group also felt the same. We quickly became like a team who needed to conquer the climb! So bright and early, 5am to be exact, we set off. It didn’t take long before the panting was on again! During the climb there was times I had serious doubt in my head of I could make it. At the steep climbs I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath, I never knew it was possible for my heart to beat that fast! Everyone was the same but with encouragement, jokes and regular breaks no one give up. We were at our last leg to the summit, breathing was difficult, the climb was steep and my body was tired. For the first time I put in my ear phones and switched my mindset. When I could no longer hear my heavy breathing and got into a rythem of walking along to the music (lucky for the group I could barely breath never mind sing!) my head was clear with none of the doubts I previously had and before I knew it I was at the top! With Florence screaming in my ear I took a look around and had a tear in my eye. Never in my life have I experienced such an intense feeling of personal achievement, I literally felt like I was on top of the world (I still think I was)! One by one our team made it to the top. Lots of high fives, hugs, cheers and even jumping photos (I dont know where we found the breath for that!) It was a beautiful moment. Then we had the long path downhill. At the beginning I thought happy days I can at least breath this way but pretty soon this became sore on the feet and knees so it definitely wasn’t easy peasy likeI had hoped! But 5pm that night we had made it to camp number 2 YAYYYY!!
The next few days were a mixture of up and downhill, some tough climbs but nothing as intense of day 2, thankfully. Over the 5 days our team became very close and even got the opportunity to bound over a few beers around the camp fire on day 3! Our guide was a local guy, he was great at keeping spirits high and looked after us all very well. I also leant a lot from him about the Inca people, their traditions, culture and legancy that still lives on amogst the local people today. The thing I found most interesting was how he explained their religion. Rather than beliving in an organised religion with 1 god and all that the Incas worshiped a pantheon of nature gods and goddesses. The most important were: Inti (the sun god), Viracocha (the creator), Illapa (the weather/thunder god), Pachamama (the earth goddess), Mamacocha (the sea goddess), and Mamaquilla (the moon goddess). So when we ate our guide would first give some food to the ground for Pachamama. When we hoped for a dry day during our trek he advised us to give offerings to Pachamama, a few coca leaves on the ground seemed to do the trick as we had perfect weather, thanks Pachamama! I really like this way of thinking and got a lot of peace and comfort from it. Walking through the mountains gives you a lot of time to think. I found myself reflecting on life (deep I know!) I often had an overwelming appreciation for the experience I was having. I felt like, and still do, the luckest person in the world!
This was reinforced even more when we reached the imfamous Machu Picchu. We woke at 4am to make our way their before the crazy crowds came. Located at the top of a mountain, we were literally above the clouds! The morning was very cloudy which created a real atmospheric setting. We got a great tour around the ruins, many of which still in their natural state. It was great to piece together the information we had got about the Inca people to imagine how life was for them in this special place. As the day went on the clouds lifted to create breathtaking views, I felt like I was in a postcard! The crowds did come which made it feel at times like the top tourist distination that it is. I asked our guide how he felt about this. He was torn as he understands the opportunities that tourism brings, however he feels the Inca people would not appreciate the huge number of tourists, some 3000-4000 a day, trailing over their sacred land. I was left with mixed emotions about this, I hate to see tradition disrespected for tourism, but then again I’m a tourist and absolutly loved the experience of visiting this new ‘Wonder of the World’. I was glad to hear about some restrictions put in place to try and conserve the grounds and trails such as a max of 4000 people allowed to visit Machu Picchu a day, I hope these restrictions continue and people remember this was once a city built and maintained by a civilization I think we can learn a lot from.
So if you get the chance do visit it was incredible. And do the Salkantay hike, I dare you!!