We were scooped up Monday morning at 4:30 bleary eyed but excited for our adventure. Our bus took us west from Cusco to the town of Mollepata where we ventured north along the twists and turns of a gravel road, climbing steep into the mountains, the sun now illuminating the precipitous slope beside us. With mules tethered to thin shrubs ready to carry the bulk of our gear, we offloaded from the bus and began our four-day trek. The first day started out quite flat, following a well-worn path and an old irrigation ditch in the shadow of many rocky brown peaks. After a couple of hours we had reached our first campsite – a short day to begin the trek. After lunch we followed our guides from the camp up to the Humantay Glacier that feeds a beautiful glacial lake, blue and crisp, which shines brightly under the occasional offering of sunlight. It was a steep and slow climb but worth every step to witness the isolated magnificence of this powerful scene. The shores of the lake were busy with tourists who had also clambered up to catch the view, but the cold waters were emptier. Olek and Ben had brief dips in the icy runoff before the team slowly descended back to camp to warm up, eat supper and head to bed – all before 8PM.
Our night spent at 3700m was chilly but beautiful as the big moon illuminated the glacier that stood tall above our campsite. The stars were out and the air was sharp, and we slept soundly through the night until being awoken at 5AM to our friendly helpers greeting each sleepy tent with a quiet “Hola! Hola! Coca tea, coca tea.” A generous hand then reached into the tent offering a hot cup of coca tea - a perfect start to the day. This, the second day, was long – a total of 23km. The first three hours were straight uphill and we were carried up by our slow, short, deliberate steps numbering in the thousands. Deep breaths drew oxygen into our heavy lungs out of the thin mountain air. Our last push to the summit of the Salkantay Pass was along a series of steep switchbacks populated by hundreds of trekkers and strong mules, horses and donkeys carrying our gear and the occasional tired hiker. We took numerous breaks to adjust our layers of clothing, drink a splash of water, nibble on a snack, and snap a picture of the mesmerizing scenery that could only be fully appreciated from a standstill. And then, around 9AM, we reached the stunning Salkantay Glacier.
At 4600m the air was thin but our hearts and eyes had plenty to feast on. The incredible view of ice and rock can only feel better after conquering the journey on your own two feet, and we took all the mandatory photos before snaking down the far side of the pass, eager to get to our lunch spot where we found our cooks who had made the journey and conjured up a hearty meal without breaking a sweat. After lunch the scenery changed significantly: trees and waterfalls replaced snow and rocks, and the air grew thicker and warmer. We finally reached a small settlement, complete with a few small building and many tents perched on a steep river valley where we had a little stretch to ease upset joints and tired muscles. Another feast appeared, prepared by our amazing cooks who juggle pots and pans over small propane stoves, squatting over dirt floors in dark concrete shelters. The delicious food was enjoyed along side our boxes of wine which had emerged from our backpacks beaten and bruised but their contents unscathed.
Wednesday morning began with another cup of coca tea enjoyed from the warmth of our sleeping bags. We hiked a short while along a dirt road before venturing down the steep Urubamba River valley to cross the rushing water, and continue our trek along the far embankment. The path was ‘Peruvian flat’ our guides told us, meaning not really flat at all. Lots of steep ups and downs took us through plantations of all sorts: granadilla, avocado, orange, banana, squash, potatoes and more. These crops lined our route, and vendors spaced strategically along the trail offered us the delicious snacks that kept us happy and energized throughout the day. Puppies and donkeys were a common sight at these small villages and they were eager to sniff out some of the snacks tucked away in our backpacks: a donkey was caught red-handed nibbling on Josh’s bag before being shooed away, where it went to another group of hikers begging for food. We finished the morning with a bus ride to Santa Teresa where we found our tents set up in the backyard of a restaurant. Our cooks made use of the well-equipped kitchen and we enjoyed a big lunch before taking the bus once again to a nearby hot spring - a perfect end to the day as the warm water soothed our muscles and bug bites. After dinner we sat around the campfire and watched the nearby hillside burn into the night, preparing the land for the next crop to be planted.
There were two options for the following morning: a three-hour hike along the road, or three hours of zip-lining back and forth across the lush river valley. Option two won resoundingly, and we enjoyed the break from walking and sweating as we flew across the steel lines. There was still some walking to be done, though, and after a bus ride to Hidro Electrica, a small town in the shadow of the Machu Picchu mountain, we walked along the railway and roaring Urubamba river for a few hours until we reached Aguas Calientes where our hostel awaited complete with a warm bed and hot shower. The prospect of visiting the Lost City the next day was exciting and outweighed the unfortunate news that the visit required a 4AM wake up in order to join the long line for the bus that would take us up the mountain.
4AM arrived quickly and we joined the already lengthy line by 4:30. When the buses began to leave at 5:30 it wasn’t long before our turn came and soon enough we were perched at one end of Inca ruins, the view unspoiled by the waves of other tourists that were quickly crashing into the old mountain top city. The history of the city is as mysterious as it is impressive: the stone walls hold the secrets of the Inca civilization that did not have a written language. Many questions remain unanswered, but it is known that the city was abandoned, unfinished, sometime before the year 1500. The infrastructure is incredible with hundreds of terraces – constructed for agriculture and slope stabilization – surrounding the dry stone walls that have remained largely unaffected by hundreds of years of neglect. Built with anti-seismic properties, the walls were smoothed to perfection, the seams straight, and tight. Various temples are built into the city, their windows designed to align with the sunrises and sunsets at the solstices, and various important constellations.
By 8AM we found ourselves, yet again, hiking a steep path. This time it was a near vertical set of stairs, built by the Incas to the summit of Huayna Picchu – the tall peak that sits famously behind Machu Picchu. It was an incredible climb, and offered an even more spectacular view of Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu is thought to be the residence of the city’s priest and local virgins. Only a handful of buildings were built on the mountain, and its terraces are glued to the impossibly steep slope. It is a soul-satisfying experience sitting a top the abrupt peak, looking back in time at the incredible work of the Incas.
After a circuit around the mountain and some more exploring of Machu Picchu, we hiked back down to Aguas Calientes, crossing the many switchbacks that we had driven up in so early that morning. We spent a few more hours in the busy town, eating lunch and buying some souvenirs. At 6PM our train pulled out of the station, the light of the locomotive visible through the side windows illuminating the riverbank and the mouth of at least one impressive tunnel carved into the rock face. By 8PM we had reached Ollantaytambo where we traded the tracks for the pavement and completed our journey back to Cusco by shuttle. It was an amazing few days that exercised our bodies and our minds, and opened our eyes to the incredible history of the Inca people.
Back in Cusco and back to reality, we explored the city’s markets and restaurants on Saturday and Sunday before Josh and Olek had to fly back to Canada. It was a pleasure having the two additional members to the team over the past week to share this adventure that will be remembered for a lifetime. Ben picked Howie up from Jose Luis who gave him the Patagonia guarantee – he is confident that the KLR will make it to Patagonia without spilling another drop of coolant or burning another ounce of oil. Time will tell, but the news is encouraging.
This morning we were back on the road as we fired up the sedentary machines that lay dormant as we trekked our way through the Salkantay pass to Machu Picchu. Shortly after leaving Cusco we were back in the empty Andean highlands, where the yellow grassy fields could be the Alberta prairies if they weren’t 4000m above sea level and sloping upwards towards the dark grey crumbling peaks that met the cloudy sky with a stark familiarity. We saw many old bodies hunched over their long wood-handled tools as they tended diligently to their rugged crops, and many more who strongly strode down the lonely highway, heavy bundles fastened to their shoulders by means of tightly knotted colourful blankets. These characters lived in the mud-walled buildings that, topped in either a thatched roof or clay shingles, blended seamlessly into the baron landscape. It is a wonder how these families survive the weather and seclusion without a tree to cut for firewood and hours away from any services.
The riding today was cold, and after escaping the threatening weather for a few hours we were eventually swallowed by the black clouds that occupied the full extent of the mountain sky and finished the day in a downpour. After crossing through the unremarkable city of Juliaca it wasn’t long before we descended into Puno, sitting on the northeast corner of Lago Titicaca. The city is overwhelmingly brown as mud walls cover the steep slopes that descend towards the bay. We scraped our way through the narrow corridors of tonight’s hostel ready for a hot shower and good night’s sleep. Tonight we will review the map and our plans for entering Bolivia and then Argentina – the final frontier.