If you would have told me a few years ago I’d end up in Peru with a small backpack trekking up and down mountains and through the jungle (unbathed and without makeup on), I would have laughed so hard my nice red wine would have been spit out and my butt would be on the floor after falling out of my chair. I used to be as “indoorsy” as a girl can be.
Before I first hiked in Italy two years ago at the beginning of my travels, I’d made up my my mind that I was a city girl who didn’t do “that kind of stuff.” I assumed I didn’t enjoy it without giving it a fair shot, a pure sign of ignorance and a true loss for myself.
I remember I once even got in a fight with an ex-boyfriend about not wanting to hike the Muir Woods in San Francisco where I lived. “Heather, come on, you’ll love it. I promise. Just walk with me,” he said. But I couldn’t- wouldn’t, rather. It’s embarrassing to look back on now, having learned how much I truly do enjoy “outdoorsy stuff.” I genuinely enjoy hiking and being outside “roughing it.”
As it turns out, nature brings me more than smiles- it fills my soul with a simple, childlike happiness jam packed with gratitude. And giddy schoolgirl full of gratitude is exactly how I felt all 5 days of my trek to Machu Picchu which I completed about 10 days ago. The bliss remains with me days later.
Unsurprisingly, we planned to skip the trek initially and opted for a day trip to see Machu Picchu then back to Cusco. Then one morning something came over me as we did more research. I was feeling…brave? So I suggested we book a trek and just “go for it.” My BFF, Tyguenne, and travel partner is always up for a challenge and immediately agreed. We made our way to the main square of Cusco and found a tour company who would give us the best deal. $150 later we had a ticket to join a group of 15-20 people on the Salkantay two days later.
DAY 1: Kicking it into High Gear (12 km)
We were picked up by one of our guides, Carlito, at 4 AM. I. Don’t. Do. Mornings… But I’d have to get over that real quick if I were to survive the next five days. They put us on a bus and drove us two hours to the first meeting point where we had breakfast, weighed our bags (we were allowed 5 KGs, in addition the small backpacks we carried, that the horses would freight for us). An hour later we were starting the trek and beginning to introduce ourselves to our group.
After making our way up the first hill, our main tour guide Javier stopped everyone, sat us down and told us all to individually introduce ourselves to the group. “What is your name, where are you from and what to do you do?” he asked us to share.
Doubt reared its ugly head. Will they know how amateur I am immediately? And what do I say to these people who are clearly more seasoned at this than me? I could still turn back now…I think?
“I’m Heather. I’m from California and I’m a full time travel blogger/writer and I’ve been on the road for two years. I’m new to this trekking thing…” Doubt left me and I felt welcomed instantly, unknowing at the time that these people would become much more than acquaintances very quickly, leaving an imprint on not only my travel diary but my heart too. There were people from Germany, Australia, France.
We named our group “The Sexy Llamas” and, without saying it out loud, promised to not turn back or leave each other behind.
So we walked on…and on. I was fatigued already. This was going to be difficult…and I hate my rental hiking books more than I hate early mornings.
But we kept on…I kept on.
We walked for 6 hours the first day, stopping for lunch in between. When we reached the first camp I got excited when I saw these really cool spacepod-looking shells.
Then I realized we wouldn’t be staying there. We purchased the bargain tickets, remember? We were staying in tents behind the space stations purchased by people willing to spend more than us for comfort.
We roughed it.
I slept in a tent for the first time in my adult life, and you know what? I LOVED it.
Day 2: Higher than High (22 km)
We were woken up by the cook (yes, we had a cook that followed along on our trek- even with the “cheap seats”) who brought us coca tea. There really is no better way to wake up than to a smiling man bringing you coffee or tea, then add a GORGEOUS scenery and you’ve really got it made.
As we were warned, day two of this trek would be the most physically exhausting. They were not lying. We hiked up 4,630 M elevation in freezing cold weather surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Even through the difficulty, I was stunned by views you’d only see on postcards.
The Salkantay Pass was truly one of the most beautiful, if not THE most beautiful, places I’ve ever seen in my life, and the fact that we worked so hard mentally, emotionally and physically to get there only added to the experience.
We sat on the top of the mountain looking down at the bluest lake I’ve ever laid eyes on. Pure wonder filled the eyes of every “Sexy Llama” and our guides walked us through an an Ancient Inca ritual. We each chose a rock and then stacked them on top of one another. One by one we thanked “Pacha Mama” (Mother Earth) for her blessings. Then Javier pulled out a beer and bottle of whiskey- no joke. We passed each around and took swigs, thanking Pacha Mama again (and the whiskey Gods) for this midday treat and new warmth running through our veins.
It. Was. Beautiful.
The weather got warmer as we descended upon long meadows of green and rocks that were larger than life- again something you’d see on a postcard or a movie scene with Orlando Bloom.
I learned a very useful Spanish sentence at the end of day two of the trek. “Mis rodillas es muy duele!” I repeated “My knees are hurting very bad” over and over again, really bitching it out as the descent took its toll on all of my joints and my neck.
Eventually Javier succumbed to my complaining (sorry Javier, the struggle was REAL), and we stopped for another little Pacha Mama whiskey break… because when you’re in the middle of nowhere and that’s the only medicine available to you, you take it!
We trekked a total of 24 kilometers on day 2. Thanks to many self-talk moments, whiskey and Pacha Mama we made it to camp and to bed safely where it rained all night long, lulling us all to deep sleep.
Day 3: Face Paint, Hot Springs & Tequilla (18 km)
More sore than I’ve ever been in my life, and trekking with body blisters, I followed the group through the side of the mountain and into the jungle. For hours we walked by endless butterflies and exotic flowers.
Halfway we stopped for another Inca ceremony where we all had our faces painted with the fruit of the trail. There were different patterns for everyone, and the way they were drawn was determined upon your marital status. Are you single or married? “SINGLE…very, very single,” I said laughing. “Great, you get a special design.”
We parted way with most of our group after our trek. Four of us stayed as we had booked the five day trek, and the others had booked the four day. It was more sad than I ever thought it would be. We didn’t want to separate from our new friends so soon…but alas, the four of us (all girls 💪🏼) had to stay and finish what we started. But first, we had a special relief coming our way at the end of the day….
HOT SPRINGS! And after hot springs? Inca tequila with the remaining members or our neighbor group. So much for “cleansing” during this trek! You Peruvians are hardcore.
This was probably my favorite day of the trek, for obvious reasons.
Day 4: Train Tracks (18 km)
Headache, dizziness and more sore (and blistered) feet accommpanied me as I tried to get myself going on the fourth morning. We had to somehow make it to Aguas Calientes, and our tour guide informed us that we would have to carry our own 5 KGs as the horses wouldn’t be joining us on this day. We were also informed that we did not have transportation to the starting point of the trail (a two hour drive). We were told something entirely different by the tour company when we booked- we were told we’d be covered start to finish and that they would take care of our extra bags. You can imagine the shock and fear that filled us knowing that we wouldn’t physcially be able to complete this task.
We couldn’t walk hours and then more hours when we finally arrived to the trail WITH our extra bags. It was physically impossible. Between my bad back, neck injury, blistered feet and headache I was a mess. After endless back and forth arguing with our guide and the tour company on the phone we were able to arrange a bus for 10 sols ($3) to the starting point of the trail. THANK YOU Baby Jesus, Pacha Mama and Oprah. When we made it to the start of the trail I felt less tired and a bit excited. Today we’d be walking along the train tracks for three hours until we reached the town below Machu Picchu. We’d watch the very train we originally planned to take run by, waving proudly and feeling strong inside and out. By the grace of all Gods we made it to Aguas Calientes where we were able to stay in a hostel and experience our first proper shower in days. Again, the hard work ended in a major payoff and I slept like a baby.
Day 5: The Wonder of Machu Picchu
I woke up and couldn’t walk. My knees (rodillas) were a new brand of soreness and my feet were bleeding and covered in blistered. It was gross, to say the least. I put my hiking boots on anyways.
We were going to see Machu Picchu today! We’d have to hike up an hour and half to the top and back down…that was the plan anyway. But when I nearly fell down the stairs at the hostel trying to get down to reception, I knew my body wouldn’t do it.
Tyguenne and I got a bus to the top (if this is “cheating” so be it). It had to be done. And when we arrived and saw the famous World Wonder, any shame, guilt, pain, etc. melted away. All I saw was rich green history and walls built by legends.
I’m officially a trek loving bad ass.
It may sound cheesy but this experience truly changed something inside of me-maybe it’s just helped me access something that had been there all along…a strong, sometimes “outdoorsy” woman. In total we covered about 125 miles on this journey. My body never felt more sore, or more strong, after this trek. My soul, never so happy.
The Salkantay Trail was worth every painful step up, down and around Pacha Mama and I’d do it all over again if given the chance.