It started with a 5am pick-up. We joined a car with at least fourteen others and drove two hours toward a mountain sunrise to a small town for an overpriced breakfast. There, we met the group: a Belgian couple, two Spanish couples, an Italian family, two German flatmates, three Australians, a Brazilian, an Austrian, a Canadian, a Danish, one other American from Portland, Maine, and our fearless leader Enrique. Once we introduced ourselves, I learned that our group contained three Monicas. I have hardly been in the presence of one other Monica, so two at once felt like fate. We drove another hour on a bumpy, dirt, cliffside road until we reached our starting point. Most people separated their day pack from their bigger pack, which a group of horses would haul ahead of us, but I could not bring myself to contribute to the horses’ discomfort (especially after volunteering at the farm!), so I opted to carry all of my things and mostly convinced Naman to do the same. Of course, this made the five days much harder, but I often make things harder on myself than necessary.
When we started walking, it was immediately uphill and immediately beautiful. In about three hours, we reached our campsite, which was nestled beneath stunning snow-capped mountains. We took the most scenic siesta of my life, and then we had our first provided meal: a satisfying and vegetarian-friendly buffet lunch. Since our afternoon hiking would be from and to our campsite, we began that portion without our backpacks. And it was probably the most difficult portion of the whole trek—straight uphill for an hour and straight down (which is always worse for me because I sprained my ankle twice in the last four months) on the way back. But the payoff was yet another breathtaking view, this time of a turquoise lake. One of our German comrades even took a swim in the glacier-temperature water. Back at the campsite, we enjoyed tea time with popcorn and animal crackers, then an hour later a buffet dinner. By eight, it was freezing and we hurried to our tents to bundle and rest for the most important day ahead.
The most difficult day, the longest day, and my favorite day. The rooster woke us up at 4:30am and the guide at 4:40 with coca tea in our tents. I emerged from complete cover under my sleeping bag, dressed in layers, and joined the group for a sleepy and shivering breakfast. By 6:30am, we were on our way up, my hands got so cold I added a second layer of gloves, and I felt grateful for my ankle brace and the trekking poles my mother strongly encouraged me to get before the trip. Enrique periodically stopped us to share stories of treks prior, like when one man wanted to ride a horse all the way up (which is normal for those struggling with altitude sickness or otherwise) and down (which is not typically allowed because the terrain is dangerous for the horse) and they both slid off a cliff and died. Motivation! By 9, the sun was up and we reached the top of the fabled “siete serpientes,” a series of switchbacks. A short siesta, and then another 40 minutes down a bit and up a bit to a frozen lake, where we took a real siesta and Enrique told us about some Andean history. Then, the final 30 minutes to the “top,” which was not the top of Mount Salkantay but was at 4600m (15,000ft) and did offer panoramic views of the mountain. Worth the price of the whole trek and surreal.
Then, the hard part: descending. We trekked an hour down sliding rock/dirt to yet another siesta, then 40 minutes more to our lunch destination. Easily the best meal of the trek and intensely appreciated after a five-hour morning. After lunch, we witnessed a stunning change in scenery and climate—within an hour, we transitioned from sparse mountain atmosphere to a cloud forest, full of greenery, valleys, and mosquitoes. After three hours of mostly downhill and many blisters forming, we reached our campsite and immediately purchased the most delicious beer of the trip, which prompted just about everyone in the group to follow suit and purchase their own beers. That dinner, we were all in great spirits and bonded over the feat we had collectively accomplished. And we all slept gratefully.
Again, we woke before 5 because Enrique wanted to beat the heat. At breakfast, he told us that by the way, this campsite definitely has tarantulas but he waited to share that until after we slept. We forgave him and continued on by 6, trekking both up and down toward yet another climate, rain forest. We followed a river, picked maracuya (passionfruit), and only hiked for three hours before icing in the river and hopping in a van for another hour of those lovely cliffside dirt roads. We had lunch at our campsite, which was located within a shop/bar, and then a long siesta. At 4, we journeyed to hot springs, which were quite crowded and not hot enough for us spoiled Americans, so we found the vent with the source and stayed there for almost two hours. Back at the campsite, dinner followed by a fiesta! Almost everyone purchased drinks, we all took free shots of “Inca tequila,” they turned on the disco lights and music, built a campfire, and we danced and partied until midnight. A welcome reward after a difficult and sore three days.
We slept in until 7:30 (!), Naman felt unwell, and we separated into three groups: zipliners, bus-takers, and “super-hikers.” I almost decided to zipline, but I was ultimately too scared and it would cost an extra 100 soles each, so we took the least popular option: walking almost three hours to our meeting place, Hidroelectrica, where the bus-takers would arrive in 20 minutes and the zipliners after several hours. From then on, our bags would be carried by vehicles and not horses, but my stubbornness meant I continued to carry my bag. The walk was along a dusty cliffside (surprise!) road, scenic but not gorgeous, and Naman hated every step. But we made it, waited another hour for lunch, and heard from the zipliners that the experience was mostly average. After lunch, a three-hour walk along shaded train tracks, during which I slightly regretted our non-essential morning trek, until we finally reached Aguas Calientes, the town beneath Machu Picchu and the location of an actual hostel with an actual bed and hot shower. Bliss, dinner, sleep.
This day, we slept in all the way until 2:40 and met in the lobby to leave promptly at 3:30 to walk the 15 minutes in the dark to the checkpoint below Machu Picchu. We started the line waiting for the 5 am opening that grew to include several hundred, if not a thousand, people by the time they checked our tickets and passports at 5. But we still had another 40 minutes and 400 meters straight up a series of staircases in the dark, which I found quite fun (I had nothing to carry! So light!) but everyone else found grueling. Then, we started the line into Machu Picchu, which would not open until 6. The first bus up (there were $12 buses up! But we walked!) arrived around 5:50 and we all silently judged them for not walking like us. Then, the semi-mad dash inside, more stairs (surprise!), and the big reveal, the main event, the glory of the fallen Inca empire: Machu Picchu! It was better than I imagined, more beautiful than all the pictures, and witnessing it before it flooded with tourists was truly special. At 6:30, Enrique gave us a tour, including its history, which he says is 50% speculation and other other 50%…speculation, at 7:00 we watched the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, and by 9 he bid us a bittersweet goodbye, the end of the tour. But most of the group banded together and we visited the Inca bridge, a 30-minute walk alongside the highest and most narrow cliff trail yet to a “bridge” connecting a smaller-than-single-track and unreachable-for-tourists trail through a treeline.
Then, we separated again, because seven of us were cheap when we bought the tour and did not spend the extra 70 or 80 dollars for the train from Aguas Calientes, and instead had to return (via that same three-hour walk along train tracks) to Hidroelectrica to catch a bus. We did not know when we chose the cheaper option that we would have to walk three hours! We just wanted to save a few bucks! But alas, we finished our tour of the ruins and headed down around 10:30, where we traversed the steps in the opposite direction, retrieved our bags from the hostel, and begrudgingly began the grueling and exhausting trek back to Hidroelectrica. We made it in under 2.5 hours and after a quick beer emerged into the chaos that was the “bus station.” Dozens of vans scattered about, the drivers yelled names, tired and angry tourists did not understand why there was no system in place, Naman somehow found us two spots in a van, and 45 minutes later we began the six-hour journey back. The first two hours were (again!) dirt and cliffside (it goes without saying that every single second we drove on these roads terrified me), and when the dirt became real road with lines and sometimes even lights, I felt saved. But we still had four hours, and I spent the entire ride wishing we had purchased the train instead (which would only be one hour on the train and then a three-hour car ride, but would not include any dirt roads and four hours is a lot less than six) and trying to sleep on the impossibly uncomfortable seat two rows up from Naman. We reached Cusco at 10pm, I devoured a salad (vegetables!) and smoothie (fruit!), and we landed in bed fully exhausted, but finally done.