No Guts, No Glory: Our Machu Picchu Story

Note: As I post this, I’m lying in bed in our Puno, Peru B&B (Lucky Your House – awesome hostel – highly recommend). I pretty much haven’t moved from the bed since Sunday night and have been rocking a fever between 99-103, accompanied by all kinds of other special issues I won’t detail here. Suffice it to say, the nomadic life has finally caught up with me. As much as I know I will truly cherish our trekking and Machu Picchu experience in the near & distant future, it is hard for me to focus on the positive at the moment given my current physical state, which can only be attributed to the duress my body faced last week. But I did want to write about our experience before too much time passed and details were forgotten. Also, in case you’re wondering, I am getting better. 

When I booked our 4 day/3 night Salkantay Trail trek with IntiSun Trek in March, I knew it was going to be incredibly challenging and tiring; after all, Salkantay does mean “the savage” in Quecha (Inca language) and is the 2nd tallest mountain in the region. Tyler had previously visited Machu Picchu with his friend Enrique 6 years ago, but they didn’t do the ever-popular Inca Trail or the slightly-lesser-known Salkantay. For his 2nd visit, I figured he should get the full experience, and going with the theme of our trip, if we’re going to do something, really DO it. So 50kms of hiking and 2 nights of camping in the glorious and majestic Andes Mountains? Bring it on. Also worth noting, the Salkantay Trail was recently ranked among the top 25 best treks in the world by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. Equally worth noting, I do not care if I ever do the other 24.

June in Peru is winter, but is more importantly the dry season, or at least is supposed to be. We anticipated cold weather, including below freezing temps at our campsites at night, but were counting on no/little rain. We bought some Alpaca wool socks, gloves, and hats in Cusco as well as long underwear. We chose to hike in our sneakers because 1. we don’t have hiking boots and certainly don’t have room in our bags to lug them around; 2. renting hiking boots that may fit uncomfortably is worse for your feet; 3. again, dry season, so no need for hiking boots (joke’s on us).

DAY ONE: Our guide Alfredo picked us up from our Cusco hostel at 5:30am on Wednesday morning. IntiSun provided us with a duffel bag each, filled with a sleeping bag and fleece blanket, for us to put our clothes & toiletries for the trek. We left most of our belongings and our big backpacks at the hostel. Our daypacks were filled with water, extra layers, toilet paper, snacks, and T had his camera. We drove for a couple hours to Mollepata (altitude: 3000m) , a tiny village at the base of the mountains, for an over-priced but filling breakfast, then drove another 40 mins to the start of the trail. It lightly rained off & on the first day, but the temperature was generally agreeable – we were dressed properly for it. We hiked mostly uphill, though nothing more difficult than prior hiking experiences, except that the altitude definitely made it harder to breathe and catch your breath. Throughout the entire trek we (especially me) had to stop relatively frequently just to gain control over our breath. We were taking medication for altitude sickness, and without it, I think we would’ve been in  really bad shape. Our elevation sickness symptoms were common and tolerable: minor headache, tingling in fingers and toes, some shortness of breath. After 3 hours, we stopped for lunch in an area called Sicllapata. The scenery was cloud forest – lush greens, a bit of mist and fog, and plenty of trees and flowers and flora we had never seen. We also had beautiful panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks of Humantay and Salkantay mountains. Our cook and porter, who amazingly do this hike like once a week, had of course started hiking after us and beat us to the lunch spot and had already set up the dining tent.

I’ll take this moment to discuss the food on our trek. Our cook was one talented guy, especially given that he had to make everything over a tiny campfire stove and all of the food/equipment was carried on 2 mules (along with all of our camping gear etc). Every lunch and dinner consisted of a fresh and tasty veggie soup, sometimes with pasta or meat, in a meat broth. Many Peruvian soups contain eggs, like in a Chinese egg drop soup, which makes them kind of creamy and definitely very hearty. Once he heard we like spicy food, he always had a homemade onion, tomato, chili pepper, vinegar concoction to top off our soup. Our soup course was followed by a veggie/meat curry of sorts, usually including carrots, bell peppers, onions, and either chicken, beef,  trout, or alpaca. This was accompanied by perfectly cooked rice, sometimes made with beans and veggies, and some type of potato. At dinner, we were also given dessert. On the first night was the most delicious chocolate pudding- it had the consistency of brownie batter and was served warm and spiced with cloves and cinnamon. The second night was essentially hot orange jello – texturally strange, but warming and tasty. Breakfast was the ubiquitous bread and tea with a slightly over-salted egg & mushroom omelette one morning and fluffy and buttery pancakes the next. They also provided plenty of snacks (popcorn, bananas, granola bars, etc.) and drinks (water, tea, hot cocoa, coffee). The food far exceeded our expectations, and provided us with the warmth and nutrition and energy we needed to make it through.

Back to Wednesday, post-lunch. It was raining lightly when we set off from the lunch spot for another 3.5 hours of hiking. Here, we followed the water channel built by the locals which guides the melting water from the mountaintop glacier to the bottom farms and villages. It felt like we were following a stream, and the landscape was gorgeous. We saw tons of hummingbirds, and Alfredo pointed out a number of trees and flowers I won’t even pretend to remember here. Tyler was even able to capture a rainbow.This portion was mostly flat, and the only challenging parts were when we had to balance on rocks or logs to cross narrow passages – falling down the side of the mountain would not have been enjoyable. It wasn’t horribly slippery because the downpour would begin later that night, and our shoes were still pretty dry when we arrived at our campsite.

DAY ONE RECAP: Total distance hiked: 15 kms. Total altitude change: +1000m.

NIGHT ONE: The campsite Soraypamapa is at 4000m altitude and is thus the coldest. However, the campiste itself was quite nice. There were 2 outhouses with toilets (sans seats, but hey, we’ll take it), and our tents were set up inside of a large metal shed to shield us from the wind and elements. We took a short nap and layered on pretty much all of our clothes since the second the sun went down, the temp dropped dramatically. After eating our our delicious dinner, we observed the incredibly clear night sky for as long as we could handle the cold. Neither of us has ever seen so many stars – the entire Milky Way was visible, and Alfredo pointed out a few Inca constellations. It was a truly magical and peaceful moment, and I wish we hadn’t been so cold and exhausted so we could have enjoyed it a bit longer. Sleep was necessary though, as we knew we’d be waking up at 4:30am the next morning for the hardest day of hiking. T fell asleep quickly, but I had a hard time breathing – a mix between nerves, claustrophobia from wearing 10 layers of clothes and being zipped into a blanket and sleeping bag, and altitude sickness. Eventually, I fell asleep, but unfortunately for Tyler, he got sick in the middle of the night. It had started raining heavily after we fell asleep, and my poor husband had to wait for a break in the rain to run to the bathroom in the below-freezing temps. His usually incredibly strong stomach had somehow failed him at this most inopportune time, and when he woke up in the morning, he was not a happy camper.

DAY TWO: We woke up, and Tyler was miserably sick with some sort of stomach bug. We doubt it was the food, since I wasn’t sick (and we all know who has the weaker immune system), but he couldn’t stand the sight or smell of any of the tea or food, so he bought himself a Snickers bar at the campsite store and drank some gatorade and called it breakfast. It’s probably for the best since the over-salted omelette even made me feel a bit queasy. I convinced him to take some meds (I am always well prepared with a steady supply of necessary meds), we layered on our clothes, and set off for 6+ hours of hiking until lunch. It was lightly raining as we started the ~3.5 hour climb up to the Salkantay Pass (4600m), but within a few minutes, the temp dropped and the rain turned to snow. Alpaca wool gloves, hats, and socks, sneakers, and a NorthFace fleece with a thin windbreaker/water repellent outer layer wasn’t going to cut it, but we had nothing else. The snow wouldn’t have been so bad on its own, but the biting wind gusts really enhanced the misery. Wind is of course cold, and when it blows snow into your face, it makes it hard to see and breathe (esp. when climbing to 4600m), but when you aren’t exactly heavyweight champs (which T&I aren’t), you get blown around a bit, which is not ideal as you hike up an extremely narrow trail on the side of a snow-capped rocky mountain. This was easily the most physically grueling day of our lives, and in many ways, one of the most mentally challenging as well. T had his ipod and listened to angry punk-rock music to try to motivate himself up the mountain. For me, the sound of my own wheezing and repeating the mantra of “you have to get up this mountain to get off this mountain” was motivation enough. When all else failed, I kept my head down and just put one foot in front of the other (and tried not to break down and cry- which I didn’t- which I’m very proud of). Approximately 4 hours later, we reached the Pass and max altitude of 4600m. The pictures make it look like we’re in some sort of Tolkien-created otherworld, and honestly, it felt that way. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of peace and violence – Mother Nature at its most glorious – and at any moment I half-expected an army of Orks to come tearing around the corner, only to be defeated by some beautiful snow angels who lived harmoniously in the mountains and only drank hot cocoa.

So after the Pass you’d think the day would be easier, right? HA. Another 2.5 hours of mostly downhill hiking through mud and snow slides with our completely soaked and inappropriate shoes, and we finally arrived at the lunch spot. T was still feeling very nauseous, so he managed to only eat some bread and other simple-carb snacks. I ate my soup and concentrated on eating the rice and potatoes, because I was a little leery of the food after witnessing T’s pain. He’s definitely weaker than normal, but at least he didn’t have any other symptoms of sickness, and the medicine finally seemed to be kicking in and giving him a little bit of relief. I’d spent most of the morning praying to every God I could think of to just get us through the day, and we were finally able to see the (incredibly dim) light at the end of the tunnel. It helps that it briefly stopped precipitating. But of course, we still had 4 more hours of hiking through the cloud forest to get to our campsite for the night, so we didn’t have time to really rest at lunch. We packed up again and were off, knowing that we had to really try to make it to camp before it got dark. Fortunately, this part of the trail was either level or downhill, but the extremely wet and slippery and muddy conditions made it challenging. At first, I tried to be careful about where I stepped in some lame effort to save my shoes from any unnecessary wetness, but once I finally accepted this was their fate, I just started plunging along and of course moved faster that way. Somehow, neither of us fell the entire trek. For 2 klutzy and accident-prone people, that’s a helluva accomplishment.

Our views were of a river, waterfalls, tons of trees, birds, and of course the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding mountains. It was striking and breathtaking, and really, despite all the hardship, made the trek worth it. We’ve been fortunate to visit some incredibly beautiful places in the world including New Zealand and Alaska, but there’s something about the Peruvian Andes that give them an especially magical feeling – and it may just be because of the altitude – the clarity of air and vivid colors. Whatever it is, it made 4 hours of slipping and sliding down a mountain worth it.

DAY TWO RECAP: Total distance hiked: 20kms. Altitude: +600m, -1600m.

NIGHT TWO: I almost kissed the tent, I was so happy to see it. It took every ounce of energy I had left to make myself eat before passing out. T was able to eat some of the dinner and was generally feeling better. Again, this campsite had a toilet, though no metal shed to shield us from the constant downpour of rain. The tent and other camping equipment was great though, and we stayed nice and dry in our tent all night. We also slept like dead people – total and utter exhaustion.

DAY THREE: We got smart, and Alfredo came up with the best Plan B ever. Instead of hiking through the rain on a dirt road (because the trail was closed due to landslides) for 6 hours like suckers, we chose to hike a few kms to a car. The car was coming to relieve the mules of their duties anyway, so we hopped in it and drove for a few hours to the Santa Teresa hot springs. We would not have seen these otherwise, and I’m SO glad we chose Plan B because the hot springs were incredible. Not only did they involve zero hiking, but they were utterly clean and clear and soothingly warm. There were also approximately 8 other people there, and not a gringo in sight (it’s a locals spot, so it felt like we were being let in on a special secret). We relaxed in the water and soothed our aching muscles, while our cook prepared his last meal for us. We ate lunch and then all hopped in the car to Hidroelectric, site of the train station to take us to Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu).

DAY THREE RECAP: Total distance hiked: 4kms. Altitude: -900m.

NIGHT THREE: Alfredo took us to our hostel (included in our trek package), and we made plans to meet for dinner at a local restaurant (also included in our trek package). Aguas Calientes is a total tourist trap town and everything is 2-3x more expensive than it should be, but they’ve done a good job making it easy for Westerners to travel to Machu Picchu via train or bus and providing 4/5-star accommodations etc. Dinner was pretty standard but tasty, and Alfredo told us the plan for the morning, which most importantly involved getting up at 4:30am. Another early bedtime for the Mastersons!

DAY FOUR: We woke up, ate our (meager) hostel provided breakfast, and caught the first bus to Machu Picchu at 5:30am. The sun was already starting to rise as we drove the switchbacks up to this once-lost city. The colors on the horizon were the brightest pinks and oranges, and I couldn’t wait to finally get out of the bus to see the view from the top (even though it involved more hiking).

As an aside, I have finally discovered something Tyler’s scared of that I’m not – driving on narrow mountain roads. He is terrified that the car/bus will fall off the mountain, and for some reason, I’m not. These drivers have been doing this a long time and know the terrain, and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to die either. Somehow, that’s enough to keep me calm, but watching T’s facial expressions while driving on these types of roads is highly entertaining. 

Logistics first, impressions next. If you ever go to Machu Picchu, go first thing in the morning – it’s relatively empty. As the day progresses, the place gets Disney crowded. As you can tell from our pictures (most of which are from the morning), we were able to take MANY without other people anywhere in site – well worth the early rise. Also, there are a TON of stairs – be prepared. There’s also only one set of bathrooms inconveniently located at the entrance, which is a zillion steps away, so plan around that. Oh, and they charge 1sole to use the bathroom, which I learned the hard way, so I had to climb those steps a few extra times since T had all the money. Finally, take your own food and water because they charge outrageous prices.

I’ve had the great privilege of visiting many ruins and ancient cities and sites, and they are each unique and special in their own right. But now I know why Machu Picchu is the one everyone talks about first. Even more than the city itself, the surrounding nature almost assaults you with its beauty, and plunges you into an ancient spiritual mindset; after all, it is theorized that MP was a religious center for the Incas due to its sacred geography – the surrounding mountains held religious importance. The enormous and rocky but somehow green Andes Mountains tower all around you, the most perfectly blue sky permeates above you, and you can just-almost touch the fluffy white clouds that give the city its mysterious and intoxicating aura. Alfredo walked us (up flights of steps and down flights of steps and up some more steps and …) around and explained to us the history of the city and some of the important religious sites and rituals. The most fascinating part of the city’s history is of course that the Spanish never found it, and thus, never messed it up (that’s the scientific archeological term). Given its position in the mountains and how quickly the flora would have covered up the buildings, I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising, but considering the Spanish were on the trail of the Incas escaping Cusco and MP and still didn’t find it? Impressive on the Incas’ part in covering their tracks. After a couple hours of touring, Alfredo left us for good, and we were on our own to explore the rest of the day.

Included in our trek package was the hike up Wayna Picchu, a mountain that rises over MP by about 360m. There are temples and terraces built on the top of WP, and according to local guides, it was the home of the high priest. And there are lots of steps. Did I mention that already? Not enough, clearly, because really, there were SO MANY STEPS. We climbed to the top despite our legs pretty much begging us not to and ate our leftover pizza lunch sitting on the edge of the mountain while gazing at MP from afar. Not bad for a Saturday morning. The hike up took us ~2 hours, and after we did some exploring and took some pictures, decided to make our way down (slowly). Down didn’t hurt quite as much, but I think it’s because my legs actually just went numb by that point. After taking in all the beauty and majesty and sun and steps we could, we decided to call it a day and booked a bus back down to Aguas Calientes.

DAY FOUR RECAP: Distance hiked: it’s hard to say exactly how many steps or kms we walked/climbed, but from what I can gather in my internet research, I’d say 10kms is a fair guess. Altitude: +780m.

Since this post is already insanely long, I will spare you the details of our journey back to Cusco on Saturday night except to say that of course things didn’t go as planned, and we didn’t get back to our hostel until about 1am. Which wouldn’t have been the worst thing except we had to catch a 7am bus to Puno. Oops!

In a nutshell – we did it. Together. And are all the better for it.

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