Hiking the sacred path to Machu Picchu [Video]
Trekking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu.
I had a strange sense at the beginning of the year that my next journey would be to Peru. I had heard about how beautiful and spiritual the country was, and I just felt drawn to make it happen. Porque no (why not!)?
While the northern beaches look amazing, I decided my first trip to Peru should take me to Machu Picchu. I learned the best way to visit Machu Picchu is to trek there -- trekking allows you to fully experience the beauty of the Andes and appreciate the mysterious Incan civilization and history. I am a spontaneous traveler, so the Inca Trail was not an option (it books up months in advance). I took an alternative trek, the Salkantay Trail, which I'm told is the most challenging of the treks to Machu Picchu.
Having no overnight hiking/backpacking experience, I had about 5 days after making this decision to borrow hiking clothes and gear from friends and buy the essentials to pack for the trip: bug spray, wipes, Ziplock bags to keep things dry, a poncho -- oh, and hiking boots (kinda important!).
After arriving in Lima, I flew to Cusco, a picturesque and vibrant city that's the starting point for the treks to Machu Picchu. I spent a couple of days acclimating to the altitude while soaking up the Peruvian culture before taking on the nearly 80 kilometer hike that reaches 15,000 feet.
I certainly got the adventure I was looking for. Here's a little video of how it went!
In the video, there was one moment when I really freaked out. I had finally started feeling better after descending from altitude. So taking advantage of a burst of energy, I went ahead of the others with instructions from my trail guide to stop one hour later when I reached a store (i.e., shack that sells water), where I would wait for the other hikers to catch up. After walking for a long time and never seeing a store, I hit a washed out part of the trail that was feet deep in mud. I looked at the time and realized I had been walking for almost two hours and had never seen any store. I hadn't seen any other hikers and had no idea where I was going. I panicked, realizing I only had about 2 hours left of daylight and I was in the middle of the Andes mountains alone. I stopped and sat on a rock for a much-needed walking break and took some yoga breaths to calm down. After about 15 minutes, I yelled out to see if I could find anyone. About 30 minutes later, I received a yell back and shortly after members of my group came down the trail behind me. I was so relieved I was crying. Apparently, the store I was told to meet them at had closed. The trail guide had rushed ahead to find me and the other hikers, but I guess with my poncho covering my head and backpack, we never saw each other. That was the only problem with the company I was hiking with: we were promised two guides, one in the front of the group and one in the back, but we only had one guide and he was often ahead of us.
Even with the mental and physical challenges, trekking in Peru was by far one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. Physically, I didn't get off to a great start considering I arrived in Peru feeling miserable with strep throat. Once on the journey, the 15,000 feet altitude really rocked me hard with headaches, facial edema and oxygen deprivation that kept my brain from accomplishing the simple task of telling my feet to move. No amount of physical fitness can prepare you for the affects of altitude. You just have to do your best and accept it. Spending 8 to 10 hours on the trail each day was an enriching personal experience to push my limits. Anyone with an average level of fitness who believes in themselves can finish this trek.
An amazing feature of the Salkantay Trail is the various climate zones you encounter. On day two of the trek, we started out in freezing temps and headed up to blizzard conditions that just hours of hiking downhill later turned into a rainy, subtropical forest. I can't think of a day in my life when I felt more connected with the natural world. Most of the time, I was walking alone at my own pace. Never had I spent so much time with stillness and beauty, it was truly rewarding. Every bit of intense physical discomfort was worth it.
I'll post about the rest of my trip to Peru soon, including my love for alpacas, volunteering in the poverty of the Sacred Valley and finding a little time to party.