Well, here it comes, the infamous disclaimer… TomO, the three French-Canadian girls, and myself are currently all alive and well. Although a few days ago, I could honestly not say that same sentence.
It began with the reunion of our 3 new French-Canadian friends at the hostel Kokopelli in Cusco, Peru. The girls were intrigued by our desire to brave the Salkantay trek guide-less and requested that they come along. The more the merrier, I thought to myself.
Recalling previous events in Cotahuasi Canyon, TomO and I spent a day seeking a real topographic map this time in hopes to not forge any more rivers. We located our map at the South American Explorers Club, plotted our trek, and made our plan. We returned to the hostel and I walked the girls through the 5 day and 4 night route to Machu Picchu.
The next morning at 5 a.m., we just barely caught the only van to our first destination, the tiny town of Mollepata. Here, we stocked up on our day’s carb intake and some last minute reinforcements. We watched a few guided groups head off with their water bottles and onto the road as all of their camping gear and food stayed behind on mules and vans. Together in our 5 man team (well mostly women), we threw all our weight onto our backs and began the long journey uphill.
The very first day was intensely satisfying. We ended up following the alternative trail surpassed by the guided tours. Here, we walked straight up a ridge line. The hike was strenuous and pushed each of us mentally and physically. But once we finally persevered to the top, we were greeted with quite the rewarding view. Both sides of the ridge line were visible for miles as we could see the endless and intricate features of the Peruvian Andes.
I reviewed the map during our lunch break and discovered we were only half way in our first day’s journey. Nevertheless, we trudged on until we stumbled upon our second breath-taking view of one of the glaciers, Neavado Turcarhuay.
Our hopes for an end of our day were lifted as we cruised down the valley to our next mountain in sight. And only after hiking another 3 hours, I arrived a bit earlier than the crew to our destination of in the mountain pueblo of Soraypampa.
When we first arrived to the town, we were greeted by an enormous, all-inclusive lodge complete with a hot tub. Slightly bitter, I walked passed the hot-tubing guests, knowing I wouldn’t even be seeing a shower for the next few days. I continued onto the humble farm town in search for a perfect spot to set up my tent.
While waiting for the rest to find their destination as well, I met a local farmer named Felipe. With his wife and daughter, he lived on the outskirts of the two gentle giants of Neavado Turcarhuay and Neavado Salkantay. He offered us his shed to sleep in for the night as the rain had become more frequent in the past weeks during the night time. We graciously accepted and later found ourselves feasting off the spaghetti and canned hot dogs we had tucked in our bags. We discussed our next days plan of waking up at dawn to get a head start on what was to be projected the hardest day of the trek. And then by no later than 8 o’clock, we were all passed out in our sleeping bags.
The morning came upon us quickly as we forced ourselves out of our sleeping bags and into our hiking boots. We had made great timing with getting breakfast in, packing everything up, and thanking our host family for our one nights stay. By 7 a.m., we threw our packs on and began to make our way to the glacier pass.
Not even a full hour into the hike, one of the French-Canadian girls caught up with TomO and me on the trail. The expression in her face was pure pain as she was fighting so hard to keep her tears from hitting the trail. Immediately, I forced her to sit down and to explain exactly what’s wrong. She went into detail describing to me how she had pulled a muscle in her leg the day before and how her stubbornness and persistence got her through the end of the day. She was hoping the injury would heal over the night and didn’t want to worry me. But now, the pain was just too much for her to bare.
Evacuation. We needed to get her out of there, and in the quickest way possible if we still wanted to finish our day’s mission. I think back to the ritzy hotel and decide that this is her only way to get back to Cusco without walking. I throw on her pack and begin jogging back to town. I finally reach the hotel and explain my friend’s situation to the concierge. She allows my friend to sit in the lobby until the local van arrives. I say goodbye to my friend and remind her the date that we would be in Aguas Calientes. She was still hoping she could meet us there.
I make the best effort to jog back to TomO and the other two girls in hopes to make up for lost time. When I make it back, I discussed with the other girls how their injured friend should have someone accompany her and that we would most likely be hiking in the dark tonight after the two hour evacuation. The girls agree that it’s best they head back as well. We received their weight of food, stuffed them into our packs, and said our final good byes to the Canadians. It was a brilliantly valiant attempt for their first multi-day trek, but it was more important to know when to call it quits.
And so, it was back to the dynamic duo. TomO and I made our best efforts to keep a speedy pace to continue to make up for lost time. When we reached the base of the glacier pass, we prepared ourselves mentally and physically for the physical demands ahead of us dawning raincoats, heavy sweaters, and thicker socks. Little did we really know what we were getting into.
As it began to rain, we began winding up the steep and arduous switchback finding it necessary to stop at every corner to catch our breaths and to prepare to keep moving. The high altitude, weather, newly weighted packs, and previous morning events had each taken their individual beatings on our bodies. And then when we thought the worse of the weather had passed, it began to snow.
Looking around at our situation and soaked clothes, I couldn’t help but think of the extreme weather chapter in my EMT textbook. “We need to move now”, I urged to TomO. Knowing it was going to take two hours to make it to the other side of the glacier pass and less time to acquire frost nip, I didn’t want to waste any time standing around.
The next two hours became a total blur. Just as we made it through the first hour and neared the top of the pass, TomO had been struck with a light case of altitude sickness once again. Any other place in the world, I would have let him rest for a healthy amount of time. But here we were, in the middle of a snowy glacier pass in soaked clothes. I gave him some water, stuffed his cheeks with coca leaves, and urged him to move on. We made it to the very top of the pass in about 5 minutes, which thankfully meant it was all down hill from there.
Normally, I am quite the photo happy hiker, but I must say these hectic hours were lost in the snow and will have to remain a memory. Though I was able to snag a quick shot of us at the very top for your viewing pleasure.
After another hour of hiking out of the pass, TomO and I collapsed in the middle of the trail deciding it was here we would eat lunch. My hands were swollen with a waxy appearance and I did my best to heat them in the gentlest way possible. With our nearly frozen fingers and embarrassing yet hilarious faulty fine-motor skills, we fought with our cans of tuna and packets of mayonnaise like a couple of neanderthals. Feeling a little better after being recharged, we laughed at yet another perilous adventure we put ourselves in. Knowing fully we had another 6 hours of walking ahead of us, we hoped the worst of the weather stayed in the glacier pass.
Another blur comes to mind of constant walking. Though this blur was filled with mud instead of snow. The next two days, we continued to trudge to our next check points. Our feet felt broken and our muscles became twisted with knots. We made it to the town of Santa Teresa where I was told were hot springs just 45 minutes outside of the village. I forced TomO to walk another hour which seemed rather excruciating and unjust. But when I say this, I truly mean that there are no words in the human language that could possibly describe our delight in the hot springs of Santa Teresa. Just photos.
The hot natural spring water poured onto our heads and soothed into our weary souls. In the pools, our bodies became slaves to the calming water as it became physically impossible for us to move from our spots. Rewarding, is hardly what you could call this experience.
The next morning we awoke from our tent just outside of the springs. We packed up our belongings a final time and began to make our way to our final destination, Aguas Calientes, the town just outside of Machu Picchu.
We walked the train tracks of the hydroelectric plant to the town, following the powerful river below. Hours later, we finally arrived at our destination. It almost seemed unreal. We found a cheap hostel to put our things in and decided to relax for ten minutes before we went and purchased our entry tickets to Machu Picchu. Two hour and a half hours later, we got up and shuffled down into town.
The next morning, we awoke just as the sun was rising. Our hike up the 1,800+ steps (thank you TomO for counting) was almost entirely in mist. When we arrived at the top it was a different appearance than what I had been hoping yet nevertheless, still amazing.
The town of Machu Picchu was covered in a mystical cloud, allowing us to view glimpses of its beauty for only moments. However, after a few hours of walking around, the fog began to rise and we were warmly greeted by the sun and all of the beautiful surrounding sights.
We walked around the site for hours, making new traveling friends and even running into the French-Canadian girls! It was an absolute relief to see them all doing so happy and well. We ate our lunch at the Sun Gate and marveled in the accomplishments made by Inca population and even in our own personal accomplishments.
When the clouds rolled in and when the sky once again reminded us of the rain season, we decided that it was time to return to Aguas Calientes to prepare for our next game plan, Putucusi Mountain.
Unlike Wanu Picchu or the actual mountain of Machu Picchu, Putucusi is a free hike on the other side of the river that also over looks the historical ruins of Machu Picchu. A strenuous hike complete with numerous 100 foot tall wooden ladders, we decided that this would be our final hike to the journey. After doing a little research online, we discovered that this hike takes about an hour and a half to complete. Being only 4:30 in the afternoon, we naturally decided the most logical thing to do was complete the hike before the sunset.
In a race against the fading sun with the desire to see the view at the top, we raced up the ladders. Even without our heavy packs, it became again a mental game of non-stop trudging to the top. When we finally made it to the top, we looked at our watches and realized we completed the hike in under 45 minutes. Not bad for a busy day.
The views of Machu Picchu, Wanu Picchu, Nevado Salkantay and the rest of the Andes Mountains were almost too perfectly painted by the setting sun. We sat up on the rocks, in sheer awe of our determination to make it this far in our journey.
Amed with headlamps, we cautiously made our way back down the ladders and back into town. It was here my body had finally given up on all of my reckless adventures and forced me to slow down.
The next three days were spent traveling back to Cusco, watching movies and doing a whole lot of very-much-needed nothing. Although one of our final days in Cusco, we spent with our guide and new friend Osvaldo, traveling around the Sacred Valley by motorcycles.
Then the day finally came in Cusco where I said my goodbye to my trusty traveling partner. The experiences we shared couldn’t possibly be erased from my memory and I’m thankful to have had someone to travel with that can now vouch for my stories. Thanks for joining me TomO, and for nonstop following me in and out of the insanely unpredictable events that took place.
And thank you again Peru, for such an amazing time, but now its time to head south!! Future blogs will be written, but they will undoubtedly take some time. Computers and internet are still a bit tricky to come by down in Patagonia. Hasta luego amigos y Happy Thanksgiving!