El Camino Salkantay and Machu Picchu

My trip to Machu Picchu got off to a bad start.  A former co-worker, Nila, who had returned to her home in northern Peru, came to join my son and I on a 5 day 4 night trek.  We had been planning this reunion trip for months and were SO excited.  So we were all packed and out on the sidewalk at 3:00 am, shivering, and waiting for our ride.  It never came.  After several telephone calls we learned that our driver’s van had been hit head on by a drunk driver while on the way to pick us up.  It was a terrible accident and no way for other arrangements to be made for that day.  We couldn’t just move the trip back a day because both Nila and Harper had return flights home the day after we were already scheduled to return.  After some negotiation, the tour guide agreed to put us up in a nice hotel for the night, and personally drive us to the place where we would have started the second day of the trip.  It turned out to be a good thing because Nila and I got to enjoy the day together anyway, and Harper wound up getting very sick that night with strep throat.   Nila and I had to walk a couple of miles to find an open pharmacy on a Sunday night.  We described Harper’s symptoms to the pharmacist, got some medicine and hoped for the best.

So 3 am rolled around again and Harper said he was still too sick to go.  We only had the one night available in the hotel so I talked him in to riding up with us, knowing that the tour operator would bring him straight back to Cuzco if he still wasn’t up to it.  I knew how much he would regret missing this trip and hoped he would rally once we got into the mountains.  Plus by the time we got to our destination, the medicine had had a little more time to kick in.  Sure enough when we got to the base camp there was no way he was going back.  He wound up doing just fine.

The first day of the trek was the hardest.  We started out in a little valley, and spent the first few hours walking toward Salkantay mountain.  I was in half marathon shape before leaving home.  I thought being at altitude in Cuzco for 2 weeks and making the hike up a mountain to my school every day would have made the trip easier, but I felt like a complete couch potato.  The trail was breathtaking in more ways than one!  After reaching the highest point of the hike, it was still slow going for me along the extremely rocky trail. Partly because we got a late start and partly because I was slow, we hiked the last two hours to the camp in the dark.  That part wasn’t fun, but it was certainly an adventure!

I expected to be too sore to move the next day, but we were at a much lower altitude and I felt very energetic.  We hiked through the high jungle.  It was completely different from the previous day, but you could still see the majestic Salkantay from various points along the trail.  We crossed a river where you could see hot water streaming from the rocky cliff.  We saw so many varieties of butterflies, birds, and flowers.  When we reached our lunch site, we had a choice of walking several hours to the next camp, or taking a van.  Nila was worried about her dad who was having health problems, so we decided to take the van so we could get to a place with telephone reception more quickly.  When we arrived in Santa Teresa, Nila called home and found out that her dad was in the hospital.  We found an internet cafe and she tried to find a way to get back to Cuzco and fly home early, but there weren’t any earlier flights available.  She didn’t really have a choice but to hang with us and make the best of it, but she’s a wonderfully positive person and she did just that, (Her dad is fine now, by the way.)  We stayed at a large, group campsite right outside of Santa Teresa.  Most of the campers went to the hot springs when we arrived.  We waited until after dinner.  We found a taxi to take us.  The drive said he had been thinking about taking his wife and daughter, so we told him they were welcome to come with us.  The more the merrier. The hot springs were amazing.  It felt so wonderful to just soak after two days of hiking. Since the crowds had come earlier, we had the pools mostly to ourselves.  It was heaven!

The next day we continued out trek toward Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of Machu Picchu.  We started our day off by zip-lining at Cola de Mono.  I had gone zip-lining earlier in my trip and it was fun but THIS!  There were 6 lines, criss crossing mountain peaks.  It was spectacular.  Then we got on a bus and headed to a hydro-electric dam.  We got out and hiked along the railroad into Aguas Calientes.  This small town was built just as a place for tourists heading to or from Machu Picchu.  It was very touristy and over-priced.  Harper needed a new pair of shoes and couldn’t find any “real” stores where people living there would go for daily needs.  It had a very false, Disney World feel to it.  Still, it was nice to sleep in a bed and have a hot shower.

The next day we took an early bus to Machu Picchu.  I can’t describe the feeling.  Of course I seen pictures and watched documentaries, but I still wasn’t really prepared for how spectacular it was.  The view of the surrounding mountains made Machu Picchu all the more spectacular.  First we had to hustle through because we had tickets to Huayna Picchu.  In the classic pictures of Machu Picchu, Huyna Picchu is the mountain towering in the background, and daily access is limited.  It’s a steep crowded climb, but from the summit you have yet another incredible view of Machu Picchu.  The smaller mountain beside Huayna Picchu was much less crowded.  In fact, Harper, Nila, and I had it to ourselves, except for a British couple we met briefly. It was the best view yet, but we had to rush back for our guided tour.  To be honest, it was hot, we were tired, and the guided tour was not the most interesting part of the trip.  After a good, but ridiculously expensive lunch, Nila and I were energized and hiked around some more, getting as far as the Inca bridge.  Unfortunately, by that point Harper’s knee was done so he just hung out at the entrance and waited….and waited…and waited.  Finally we joined up again, took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, grabbed our stuff from the hotel, and took the train to Ollantaytambo. A car met us there and drove us back to Cuzco.

Machu Picchu is one of those trips that people describe as “once in a lifetime”.  It’s the kind of trip that makes me think, “I’ll be back.”

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