Trekking to Machu Picchu seemed like an exciting idea three months ago, when I was getting organized for my big trip to South America. At the time, I hadn’t really considered what this ‘trek’ would actually involve. It’s just the ‘thing you do’… after all, I didn’t want to be one of those people who rock up at 6am to Machu Picchu on a bus with their freshly pressed jeans and shirts. I am an independent traveler and I am up for a challenge!
I’d heard that the Salkantay Trek was the next best thing after the Inca Trail. I can now verify that it certainly is – and possibly even more hardcore! Like the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is an ancient and remote trail used to connect the various cities including Cusco with Machu Picchu. With significantly less tourists and a much less trampled path, this trail now seems a little more authentic than the Inca Trail; it is certainly more off-the-beaten-track.
It became obvious about 30 minutes into the trek that I was the least experienced in my group of 12. After struggling with altitude sickness only two days before and my severe lack of training, my body was much unprepared for what was to come. Our tour guide, Eddy (a local Peruvian from the Urumbaba valley) made it clear upfront that it wasn’t a race – but as the group sped along over steep rocky paths completely undeterred by the thin air, I began to feel that it was.
Being last is hard! I spent the majority of the first two days walking alone, around 30 minutes to an hour behind the pack. Every single muscle in my body hurt, I was out of breathe and my backpack felt like a tonne of bricks on my shoulders. But my worst enemy throughout the trek was my mind, which kept telling me “I can’t do this; No one told me it was going to be this hard; How will I last another 4 days? Am I really this unfit?”
The constant battle physically and emotionally was so real and present that it couldn’t be reckoned with. The final blow came on the second day when we hit the summit of Salkantay, sitting at 4600 metres above sea level. This is when the altitude took my last ounce of determination, bent me over its knee and hit me with a wooden plank.
We were literally walking in the clouds: visibility was low and I could only see around 5 metres ahead. With a migraine setting in and being left behind to find the trail for myself – I started to panic. All I could see were rocks, mud and water. It had been at least 30 minutes since I last saw anyone and I was scared. Suddenly, the trail ended as it met a large, fast flowing river. I spun around looking everywhere, yelling out ‘hello!’, ‘hola!’ Where has the trail gone? Where is everyone? Will anyone come back for me?
After screaming out for a few minutes, I finally spotted Eddy, my tour guide, running back towards me, waving in the cloudy distance. Phew – I was safe. I needed to cross the fast flowing river by hopping across some rocks. When we finally reached the lunch place I couldn’t even go inside – everyone was laughing and having a good time but I was in a state of shock. This was definitely my lowest point over the five days. I could barely open my eyes from the migraine and we had a good 5 hours ahead of us in similar conditions – there were no alternative options. I was madly sipping on coca tea to settle my head but the tears were flowing at this point. There was no car, bus or helicopter that could get me out of there: I had to endure it. And I did.
On the fifth day of the trek I was smiling. I had just climbed up 2002 steps at 4am to reach Machu Picchu and I had earned the right to be there. There were crowds of people out the front, mostly delivered by bus, wearing freshly pressed Kathmandu pants and untarnished North Face shoes. At that point I realized the pain had been worth it for this moment. Would I do it again? No. But to have endured what the Incans endured to reach this point, I think, makes your appreciation for Machu Picchu so much more.
Eleanor is a volunteer with Karikuy. To learn more about how you can participate visit www.karikuy.org/volunteer.