We arrived in Cusco in late December looking for a guide to take us through the Choquequirao trek to MP (Machu Piccu). We had done a little bit of homework and had heard it was substantially cheaper to book everything in Cusco than online. We heard correct. Due to it being the rainy season in the mountains we were repeatedly told that it was too dangerous to attempt Choquequirao because of flooding, so we went with our backup, Salkantay. Salkantay is the highest peak of the Willkapampa mountain range, part of the Peruvian Andes, and the Salkantay pass runs right through it.
I searched Tripadvisor for some guidance, but a rare occasion that TA didn’t really have an answer. The highest rated companies were booked or triple the price. Every little shady travel agency we visited had a TripAdvisor sticker in the window but none of their names came up on the site, so I was going to have to trust my instincts on this one.
We came to the conclusion that just about every “company” that sets up these treks is just grouping trekkers together and hiring a guide to get you from A to B, we where basically in a crap-shoot.
After settling with one agency that had coffee in their lobby, which we took as a sign of their professionalism, we scheduled a meeting with our guide to discuss the trek. 45 minutes late, Carlos introduced himself to us as the man who would be leading our trek and went over the details of the adventure.
After an extensive session, trust me I grilled this guy, we came away with the following; for $290 we got:
– 1 guide and one assistant for every 12 people
– 1 tent for every two people.
– 3 meals a day,
– One night of at a hostel in Aguas Caliente,
– All transportation
– Entry to MP
Each person was allowed to bring whatever they could carry on their back plus an additional 10 lbs that would be carried by a “horse”. For an additional $90 you could rent an extra “horse” to haul up to 45 pounds. We found out that the horse is actually a pickup truck that they haul most of the gear on but either way I jumped on this. 45 pounds is more than my entire pack. This allowed me to not skimp on supplies and my day pack was still as light as I wanted it to be.
**Note: You can rent or buy ANYTHING you need for the trek in Cusco. So don’t freak out if you left something at home. I would even suggest to plan accordingly and anything you would need specifically for this trek, like cold weather gear, and not for any other part of your adventure… spend a couple bucks and rent it in town, it may save you space and weight in the long run.
The change of plans left us with a couple of days in Cusco, including New Years. Cusco – best New Years City I have been, but that’s another story.
We were told to be ready for a pickup at our hostel at 3:30 am.
At 4 am we were picked up by a bus with comfy seats, all I needed, I was asleep quickly. When I awoke, some 3 hours later, we had arrived in a small mountain town (no, not South Park). We gathered in the dining room of a bed and breakfast to meet our group, get our gear situated and have the same breakfast I had at every B&B in Cusco and surrounding area – 1 egg, bread, one glass of juice, jam and tea. As always, it was satisfactory.
Our group was large, 25 people, and our guide, a new Carlos. I kid you not, his name was Carlos too, and it gets better, his assistant’s name – Carlos. At this point I realized that either I was having a stroke or that Carlos was a nickname for a guide. As to be expected, there was a communication breakdown and we had 1 guide and an assistant for 24 people, double the ratio promised.***
***This is all part of the adventure and to a certain degree should be expected. If you just accept that this is part of the journey it leaves you pleasantly surprised when something does happen on time or as you may have been told.
After breakfast, and a very brief safety talk from “Carlos”, we headed up the street and straight into the mountain. It was pretty cool just walking out of a town and ta-da, the Andes’ Mountains.
By the end of the day the thin air and the steady climb had my legs tired but the reward at the end was worth every damn step. Nestled at the base of snow-covered mountains sat a couple of small, crudely built structures and a big corral area with a few horses. The view was nothing short of spectacular.
Dinner was not enough calories for the day we had, or the day ahead of us, but I had used my extra weight allowance to load up on my favorite trail-food. We spent the night in tents, underneath an aluminum shelter, shielding us from the heavy rain pouring above us. The outhouse was not under the shelter so the midnight trek to use the bathroom was an adventure in itself..
***I can’t stress this enough… bring your own toilet paper and baby wipes. Just trust me on this, bathroom situations are less than ideal.
Day two was one of those days you yearn for as an adventurer. A challenge tough enough to leave you completely immersed in the experience and, once completed, left with a feeling of accomplishment that stays with you over time.
Carlos woke me up before sunlight, way before sunlight, and after hot tea and a quick breakfast I was on the trail by dawn. I had an option here, I could have taken a horse to the top, a real horse… not the pretend horses they kept telling us they are putting the extra gear on. I almost got the damn horse, I’m old and my knees hurt, but of course I didn’t.
I quickly sprinted ahead so I could enjoy the snow in front of us, untouched, and step by step, through the mud and snow, I began my accent up Salkantay Pass.
The pass was something out of my dreams, completly still, clear waters, reflecting images of fresh snow dusting slowly onto everything around it. The only sound was your own breath and snow and ice crunching beneath your feet. Just freakin’ perfect.
Once at the top I just sat soaking everything in, feeling pretty good about myself… until from the other direction an older woman and 2 small children led a donkey up the mountain. They weren’t even breathing hard and here I am with snot coming out of my nose and ready to write ballads of my own accomplishments, and here is a senior citizen and two school children skipping up the damn mountain… oh well… I still think I am pretty awesome.
Making it up the pass turned out to be the 2nd most challenging part of the day. The long descent down from the snow and into the fertile ranch lands below was visual spectacular but incredibly challenging. Flanked on both sides by mountains with water falling everywhere, I followed the melting snow’s rivers and streams through the valley and into our meeting spot for lunch.
During our meal the rain began, again, the heaviest I had seen yet, and after preparing for the heavy water I headed back onto the trail which was very quickly turning into less of a path and more of a bog. The mud, almost impassable, left us to blaze our own trail through the rest of the valley and into the jungle below.
We passed plots of land that families have cultivated and turned into farms and ranches using the land and its resources to its fullest. It was like stepping back in time.
We spent the night at a ranch with a big porch that protected us from the rain. The ranchers family sold us beer and junk food and offered a hot shower, with a towel, for 20 soles. There was no hot water so I talked him down to 10 with a beer.
In 16 hours, snow, rain, mud, mountains, jungles and pastures… what an awesome day.
The next day we hiked for about 4 hours through the thickets part of the jungle yet.
After stopping for lunch in a small town/truck stop we hitched a ride in a small bus the remaining several miles down the rest of the mountain, picking up locals, as the heavy rain began again.
***When we booked the trip we were given the option to bypass the next part, the hot springs and zip lining and head straight to Aguas Caliante. This makes the trip a day shorter and saves you about 100 soles. I did the full trip and enjoyed the added experience.
I was feeling rested, after a visit to local hot springs the night before, and we started the morning with ziplining over the jungle canopy and then continued back on foot towards Aguas Caliente (AC).
After several miles, my buddy was having some pretty bad stomach issues after eating some bad chicken (Who is laughing at the vegan now, Kevin?) so I decided to give him a break and we took the train the rest of the way to AC.
AC is a pretty touristy town so we called it an early night, we wanted to be up as early to get the first bus up the rest of the way to MP. We could have taken the Inca Stairs up to MP but Kevin was still hurting pretty bad. Really, I was very happy I took the bus, Machu is nothing but stairs, really, it is a ton of stairs. I don’t know if I needed anymore damn stairs.
It is cliché’ to say to enjoy the journey just as much as the destination and with Salkantay every word of it is true. Salkantay gave me a chance to see a part of the Andes that the other treks didn’t and the ruggedness and challenge of this pass, that the locals do on a regular basis, is as humbling as it is incredible. Through our trials, adventures and lessons learned along the path I was fortunate enough to make many friends and we all share a special love for that gnarly mountain, Salkantay.