Tales from the Salkantay Trail
It was the type of altitude that had my heart beating in my throat. Standing, walking, sitting, keeled over with my hands on my knees, it didn’t matter; up here, my heart raced and my lungs burned.
- Evan Ruderman
I’m at 14,000 feet on the notorious Salkantay Trek, a route to Machu Picchu that dates back to Inca times in the 1500s. Along the way, the enormous Salkantay peak stares down at my friends and I as we struggle to make progress up the trail. Stemming from the Quechua word “sallqa,” meaning “wild, savage, or invincible,” it hasn’t taken me long to understand why the Incas gave it this title over five hundred years ago.
However, the journey didn’t start here, with a marathon level heart rate and sore shoulders, but rather many days ago. A bus to Santiago, a second bus to the airport. A long night of waiting on the cold airport floor, some visa troubles, another wait to board the plane at 5:00am. An overpriced taxi in Lima, a second flight to Cusco. A cramped bus filled to the brim with locals, a search for our hostel without phone service, finally a brief arrival. A day of exploring, a sleepless night, and a 4am pickup to set out for the trail head. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, right?
Still covered by darkness, we slowly traded buildings for trees as we left Cusco behind to head deep into the Andes. Peering out our van’s windows to the monstrous mountains that surrounded us, there was little doubt that I was on my biggest adventure yet. Foot tapping with nervousness, I couldn’t help but smile. 4,000 miles from home and no civilization in sight – I knew this is what I came for.
There’s something inexplicable about feeling small in the mountains.
Hitting our peak height of 15,000 feet, we knew Day One would be a battle as we left the comforts of our van behind to set out on the trail. Stopping to catch my breath more than I would’ve liked, altitude got the best of us, forcing us on a slower pace. After hours of torturous switchbacks and a few false summits, the summit rock pile finally came into sight. With wind howling in our faces and clouds hovering around us, we took in our surroundings as we stood on the pass with the Salkantay Peak just out of reach. Loopy from the altitude, we tossed our heavy packs back on and continued, thankfully downhill.
As it was the longest of our four days, we pushed on until darkness. By 6:30pm a drizzle had started. It was then that we were lucky enough to meet Antonio, a rugged Peruvian with Inca blood living deep in the mountains. Although less than ideal, we graciously set up camp for the night in his yard. Too exhausted after a 14-hour day and 11 miles at high altitude to make food, we climbed into our tents as the rain opened up – just after learning the tent we brought didn’t have a rainfly.
I spent the night in a wet tent to the sound of pouring rain and heaves of throw up, as the altitude had gotten to Veronica. A miserable night to say the least, I muttered “and to think we did this by choice” to her as I rolled over into an equally uncomfortable position.
The rest of the night was spent restlessly turning over every couple minutes and checking the time. Anxious to get out of the wet tents, we were up at the crack of dawn. Without exchanging many words, we all simultaneously started to pack up. This trek quickly taught us that altitude really can kill your appetite regardless of how hard you’re working, but we did our best to stomach some granola bars before taking off again. Just to cap off the long night, we spent a few minutes chasing off a wild pig, which ultimately ate a hearty breakfast - the corner of Veronica’s sleeping pad.
This energy carried us through the day, which was mostly flat or down hill, until we encountered our biggest challenge of the trip - a river crossing. High up in the valley, we watched the water furiously rush over an assortment of rocks. We nervously looked at each other. Luckily, after a period of confusion, a native Peruvian we had met on the trail the day before caught up to us and showed us the way. He led us down a steep, virtually nonexistent trail that lowered us further into the valley. My eyebrows scrunched together when I noticed a metal cable hanging between each side of the mountains, a couple hundred feet over the water. And my jaw dropped when I saw a small cart hanging just below it on our side - piecing together that this was our mode of transportation.
Although rusty and definitely lacking a safety inspection, it was the only option. In pairs of two, we crossed, with a mix of pushing, pulling, and gripping the cart for our lives. Having received my adrenaline rush for the day (or year), there was only one thing to do - carry on. We pushed through the last few miles until our second pick-me-up of the day: hot springs. Just outside of the small town of Santa Teresa lies a group of natural hot springs. After seemingly endless hours of hiking, we treated ourselves to the States-side equivalent of hot tubs.
Equally importantly, following this we set up our tents at a real campsite, with level ground and a common area to meet other hikers. Trading stories over warm food and coca leaf tea, spirits were high. Dry and well fed, we got a real night’s sleep.
Once again awakening at the same time as the sun, we crawled out of our tents. Legs feeling like Jello, we had motivation knowing the end of the trek was near. We dragged ourselves through the final four hours to arrive at Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. While celebratory pisco sours and a big meal were priority number one, another 4am wake up awaited us tomorrow to get to the final destination: Machu Picchu.