When planning a trip to South America, most tourists find themselves in Cusco, Peru. For most, there is little more reason to visit Cusco than the elusive Machu Picchu, the old Inca city made of granite. But Cusco has much more to offer than just Machu Picchu.
Why wouldn’t it? Cusco, or Qosqo in Quechua (the official language of the Incan/Andean people that still thrives today), was the capital of the Inca Empire before its collapse in 1532 with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro. Interestingly, the Incan Empire only reigned for about a century prior to its collapse, but its history remains extensive and diverse as it was comprised of many small, old communities.
The Inca Empire was centered over the Andes mountain range, a sliver along the western edge of the giant continent. To get an idea of how far it reached, the Inca Empire at its largest encompassed regions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. But only in the Andes. In northwest South America, modern-day countries are comprised of extreme ecological differences: coastal, Andean, and Amazonian. According to our guide, the Incas traded and warred with Amazonian people, but, as far as we know, they never conquered the jungle.
Our tour guides (and confirmed by the all-mighty-always-correct Wikipedia) stated that the Incas acquired land mainly through peaceful measures–vastly dissimilar from the Spanish during their colonization. In addition, Inca gods and traditions still thrive in many, albeit remote, areas of the Andes today because the Spanish never actually made it to many of these high-altitude villages. For others, where the Spanish did have significant influence, traditions shifted to accommodate both cultures. For example, Catholics in these regions still pray to Pachamama (fertility goddess, mother Earth).
Macchu Picchu itself was never conquered by the Spanish. Apparently, as the Spanish were slowly descending upon South America, the Incas chose to abandon it and never reveal its location. Thus, even before its restoration process began in the 20th century, Macchu Picchu was still fairly intact.
So, despite its appearance today, Cusco remains significant. For many visitors, Cusco is just a place with well-established tourism, with somewhat aggressive vendors trying to sell things to anyone without a regional accent (not just international travelers). But Cusco, too, has historic energy. It has intriguing antiquity at every corner and for miles surrounding the city limits. Cusco commands respect.
Vinicunca (Montaña de Colores)
The Rainbow Mountain, a four-hour winding drive from Cusco, stands at 5,200m. Below it sits the vast Red Valley, and in the distance is the majestic, snow-capped queen, Ausangate (6,384m). What used to be a tenuous trek can now be done in a day. Because we had little time, we sadly did not trek Ausangate and instead simply bussed to Vinicunca itself. From there, we hiked (but horseback is available) for 6 km in each direction among light snowfall and a swarm of tourists.
Out of seemingly nowhere, multi-colored stripes appeared. Weather, minerals, and tectonic activity have played a role in this unique formation.
“Red coloration of sedimentary layers often indicates iron oxide rust as a trace mineral. Similar to how a nail will rust and turn red when oxidized, sediments that are iron rich will change when exposed to oxygen and water. This, in combination with uplift and tectonically driven crustal shortening has tilted the sedimentary layers on their side exposing stripped stratigraphic intervals,” (Nace, 2017).
While I enjoyed the easy day hike to Rainbow Mountain, I also lamented at how overcrowded it was. I guess that’s the unintended consequence of the Internet promoting a world treasure. (And this blog is that same Internet, promoting that same world treasure… oh, fu–)
Salkantay, Vicuñas, and Pachamama. Oh my!
The last two weeks of our trip, Paul and I were accompanied by Nick, Paul’s older and taller (thus, even more at risk for hitting his head in Peruvian doorways) brother.
And ladies, he’s single.
Cusco was also a reunion. Not only did we have a new fresh member of our team with us, but we met up with our new Norwegian besties, Ove and Ingunn (whose names my three avid readers still do not know how to pronounce) to hike the Salkantay trek.
The Salkantay trek is one of the few treks that terminates in Machu Picchu. Unlike the popular Inca Trail which sells out months in advance and is quite expensive, Salkantay can be easily booked just days in advance and is relatively inexpensive. Perfect for backpackers on a budget!
We three flew from Lima to Cusco, while Oven and Ingrid, already in Cusco, were booking us the best tour. On our flight, I happened to be seated next to a badass San Diego couple. Curtis and Yarazel just graduated law school and were taking a month-long vacation before starting their new careers. Yara and I bonded right away over the fact that we had the same hiking boots, and then for the rest of the hour-long flight, we three didn’t stop speaking. When does that ever happen on a flight?
And as if that weren’t weird enough, Yara and Curtis were looking to book the Salkantay trek the same day we did, on a similar budget. Was it fate again?
Maybe so, because four days later, after acclimatizing, we seven found ourselves aboard a van with three Israeli guys (Lidor, Ophir, and Mark) heading for the trailhead.
At our guide Renzo’s request, we ten were to come up with a Peruvian group name. So we suggested called ourselves the Vicuñas, because we clearly were the most high-end group of camelids–I mean hikers–that this trail ever saw.
It would be a grand adventure.
Day One: Spiritual AF
The first day of the Salkantay trek started at the base of a “small” mountain that led to the beautiful Humantay Lake, a view quite similar to Huayhuash. Mountaintops covered in snow in the background, green-blue serene water in the foreground. The only difference was that many tourists booked Humantay Lake as a day trip, so it was much more crowded than anywhere on the Huayhuash trek. But it didn’t stop us from having a great time.
We descended the mountain the same day, and walked a short way to our luxurious campsites. I’m not kidding when I say they they were luxurious. These weren’t tents, they were mini triangular cabanas with wind-resistant roofs and plexiglass doors. We even were provided little mattresses to set our sleeping bags on. The cold night winds had no effect on these huts.
Dinner that evening (and all subsequent evenings) was spectacular–actually some of the best food we ate throughout our entire three months.
After dinner, we followed Renzo to the top of this hill behind our campsite. From the top we were awarded an exquisite view of Salkantay, who stood mightily before us despite being hundreds of meters in the distance.
As we were busy taking in the sight, Renzo was preparing something else. He beckoned us to where he was kneeling. Beside him was a little hand-built shrine made of nearby rocks, and at his feet sat a small towel, atop which was a bag of coca leaves, a carton of cigarettes, and an unopened bottle of rum. He then guided us through an Inca offering to the gods.
Renzo first picked up three coca leaves, and fanned them out between his thumb and forefinger. He then created a bowl with his hands, surrounding the leaves in warmth. He brought the leaves to his lips and exhaled into the bowl. Renzo relayed that, in Inca culture, breath is a piece of a person’s soul. Therefore, placing your breath upon the coca leaves is placing your soul into them.
Then, he set his leaves into the shrine, and picked up an unlit cigarette. The smoke from the cigarette, he said, was sacred like the wind. He brought the cigarette to his lips and lit it, inhaling smoke deeply into his lungs and exhaling gently. He proceeded to set the lit cigarette into the shrine and allow it’s vapors to dissipate throughout the cold, windy atmosphere.
Lastly, he picked up a bottle of rum and poured a shot. Renzo stood then. And he began telling us the story of Salkantay.
According to the Incas, Salkantay, a male, and the tallest mountain in the Vilcabamba range, fell in love with the Sun’s daughter. Because of this love, the daughter was brought to Earth in the form of a female mountain, placed near to Salkantay himself. However, one day Salkantay noticed Ausangate, who was even taller than himself. He instantly fell in love with her because she was much more powerful and intriguing than his current love. The daughter wept, and the Sun was very unhappy. He retaliated against Salkantay by creating the Sacred Valley, 60 kms in distance, to separate Salkantay and Ausangate forever. Yet, modern-day climbers say that from the top of Salkantay, you can see the peak of Ausangate in the far, far distance.
In reverence and in respect, Renzo offered his rum to the mountains and to Pachamama, Mother Earth. He said a blessing, in Quechua, to the mountains around us, bringing his fingers first to the rum, then to his lips. He sprinkled the rum in the air toward the mountain in front of him, tipped the glass to the ground, and then he took a sip.
Our eyes were fixed upon him. It was so quiet except for the slight rustle of the wind. Renzo prayed to Salkantay then turned around to address the next mountain. But before he could start his next blessing, Salkantay responded.
It was like thunder erupted from the mountain. But instead of a downpour of rain, the Earth rumbled as giant masses of snow on Salkantay’s backside tumbled to the ground below. The avalanche was so massive that shivers ran down my spine.
We sat there silently, our mouths wide. I felt tears welling up. Salkantay and Pachamama heard us, it seemed.
Day Two: The Salkantay Pass
Day two was the hardest day of the entire trek. Unlike Huayhuash, where we hiked mountain passes daily, Salkantay only had one real pass. But that didn’t mean it was an easy trek, it was quite difficult in its own right.
Luckily, though, we three weren’t feeling adverse effects from the altitude. But not everyone in our group was feeling so well. At breakfast, Lidor’s face was an uncomfortable shade of green. And Yara, who unfortunately was sick before we started the hike, continued to get worse.
But despite that, they both reached the pass at 4,630 m.
All ten of us looked fondly at the large mountain before us happily.
Our guide even brought us to the beautiful Salkantay Lake, a 20-minute rocky hike from the pass itself.
The only problem was Nick.
He sat pensively on the cliff’s edge, stunned by the enchanting views. He set his stuffed daypack beside him. But feeling hungry, he opened the strained zipper in search of a snack. Suddenly, the small compact travel pillow squished toward the top of his pack leapt from its position. Nick watched angrily as the rogue pillow darted further from him. Even with arms outstretched, catching it would be impossible. The pillow reached the edge. Laughing maniacally, it fell, tumbling down the jagged-edged cliffside toward the crisp blue lake below. From above, Nick watched the pillow leave forever, jaw clenched, swearing under his breath.
Meanwhile, Paul clambered onto a nearby boulder, somehow finding himself looking puzzled.
But we had to press on, so we left the lake and headed for camp. And 15ish km later, we made it. Tired, but happy.
Day Three: I’m an idiot
Day three of the Salkantay trek we hiked Llactapata Mountain.
What makes the Salkantay trek so interesting is that the first two days are mainly in the high-altitude, snowy mountain range–what you think of when you think of the Andes. However, after the pass on day two, as we started descending in elevation, we entered the jungle. It was right where the Amazon and Andes overlapped. Thus, though we had entered rainforest territory, we still were at high enough altitudes that most of the really big animals and insects weren’t there. Thank goodness.
Even so, it looked completely different. Snowy mountaintops were replaced by green trees and lush vines. To the right of the trail, a deep jungly canopy opened up far below us. The sound of harsh wind turned to the whine of insects. The further we walked the warmer it became, the subtle chill of the mountain air wearing away.
We ditched our wintery clothes for the rest of the trek and opted for summer wear. But first, we got to have fresh coffee and avocados with a local woman. It was delicious.
It was a sweaty trek to the top of Llactapata. Ingland and I spent much of the incline talking about this and that, encouraging each other to keep ascending despite the thick heat. Then we all stopped and caught our breath at a rest point. Renzo played the flute, and I left my camera with the Norwegians while I sought out a toilet.
We continued forward, still not yet at the main overlook. At this point, Yara, Curtis, Paul and I were hiking together at the back of the group. The boys were slightly ahead of us, and I in front of Yara. The trail, for the most part, was well groomed and smooth, so, in an attempt to hear Yara better, I started walking backward up the trail. But this was a horrible idea. I soon fell back onto a large rock that was impeding the trail, my tailbone crashing against it. My body seized, and the air withdrew from my lungs. I turned onto my stomach and got hesitantly to my feet. The rest of the trek that day was… well… somewhat painful.
Eventually we reached the overlook. In the distance, between Llactapata and a wide canyon, stood Machu Picchu mountain brightly in the parting clouds.
We took loads of photos here, before beginning our descent.
When we reached camp, which was more like a summer camp than a campground, we quickly changed into our swimsuits. Then, happily, we bussed to the nearby hot springs. Four pools of warm-to-hot water. Stars shone above us. I relished our time there, as my body was so sore.
But the party really began in the bus ride back to camp. Cusqueña beer was being passed around, music blared loudly, and headlamps were repurposed into strobe lights. When we returned, the campground was lit up. People were dancing and drinking wildly. And it continued for well into the night.
Day Four: Mostly uneventful
Well, many people were hungover or still drunk on day four. I myself was quite cranky when I arose. We had the option to spend the morning a bit differently. For an extra cost you could zip-line. Or you could walk or bus directly from our campsite to Hidroeléctrica.
Paul, Nick and the Israelis decided to zip-line, Yara and Curtis took the bus, and I, realizing I just needed to sweat out my frustration, hiked to the next location with Oval and Timgunn. We three had a really good conversation, but otherwise the walk was pretty uneventful as it was flat and on the road.
We all met up for lunch in Hidroeléctrica. Afterwards, we stored our duffle bags, which were previously being carried by horses, in a small locked closet in the restaurant. Apparently, Hidroeléctrica was the closest road to Machu Picchu (10 km away). So, most tourists bus to Hidreoeléctrica, then take the train to Aguas Calientes, the jump-off point to Machu Picchu. But since we opted to not take the train (due to cost), we were forced to keep our belongings there, and retrieve them the following afternoon, after viewing Machu Picchu.
From the restaurant, we hiked tiredly along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. In total, I think the Norwegians and I walked about 26 km. But when we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we wished instantly that we had more time there. It was beautiful, like a small Swiss mountain town, with ornate sculptures sprinkled throughout it.
That night we slept luxuriously in a comfortable hostel. The beds were plush and the showers were hot.
We were ready for the main event the following day.
Day Five: Machu Picchu
It was a long, but good, day. It started at 3:30 AM, and by 4 we were waiting in line to walk to Machu Picchu. From Agua Calientes, tourists have the option to either bus or walk up to Machu Picchu. Most of chose to walk, and it was a real challenge.
Officials don’t let you start walking until 5 AM, as the park doesn’t open until 6. But you definitely need the hour to reach the top. You see, it’s not just a flat walk–it’s stairs. Approximately 2,000 stairs knitted, like Guatapé, into the mountainside. But unlike Guatapé, you’re in the middle of the jungle, so you really can’t tell how far you’ve climbed and how much further you have to go.
Paul’s back was acting up, and my tailbone was on fire. But somehow adrenaline kicked in. We both decided it would be less painful if we didn’t stop until we reached the clearing. And with that mindset, we actually beat our fast Norwegians and the rest of the Vicuñas to the top.
Machu Picchu, being one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, is obviously very touristy. Therefore, it is highly regulated: only a certain number of people can visit per day, it is one direction only, and if you leave the park before you see all the attractions, you cannot come back in. Oh, and there’s no bathroom inside the actual park (but there is one just outside, after you have climbed all the stairs). Our tickets were only valid between 6 AM and 12 PM, after that time, we needed to be out of the park. But since the Norwegians, the Israelis and we three were bussing back to Cusco, we had a long walk ahead of us (back to Hidroeléctrica) that required we leave by 11 AM.
Renzo took the bus from Aguas Calientes and met us at the top. He did a two hour tour, explaining the history and legend of Machu Picchu. All the while, llamas poked their heads into the group as if to interject their opinions on the matter.
All the while, the beauty of Machu Picchu revealed itself.
Look at the above photo and turn it 90 degrees. What you will be able to see is the profile of a man’s face pointed toward the heavens. That’s the prominent Inca god, Inkari. That face is part of the reason Machu Picchu was built here. It is said that he was there to protect the Inca’s from the Spanish conquest. And while Inkari didn’t stop the colonization, maybe he did prevent Machu Picchu from being controlled, as the Inca’s did abandoned it, never revealing its location to the Spanish.
In addition, the mountain that creates the nose and mouth of Inkari’s profile (Huayna Picchu), is, according to Renzo, geologically unique from the rest of the Andes mountain range surrounding it. First of all, it sits alone. And, while the mountain ranges nearby were formed due to tectonic activity rubbing together and creating the traditional triangular mountain shape, Huayna Picchu sprung up differently, almost like a plant growing vertically from the ground.
We said goodbye to Renzo shortly thereafter, and the rest of us waddled through the park taking endless photos. Some of us took an extra hike to the Sun Gate. It was about a kilometer from the main park and overlooked the entire ruin, the stairs, and the entire mountainside.
Then, we walked through the park with a throng of tourists, admiring the sheer craftsmanship of the ruins. Machu Picchu is made of old granite, and all the pieces fit together so perfectly that no cement or other agent was used to hold them in place. It’s astounding!
Afterward, we stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu logo and began our descent down the same staircase we climbed earlier that day.
But our day didn’t stop there.
We walked the 10 kms back to Hidroeléctrica, our feet crying out the entire time. We made it early, and enjoyed a celebratory beer in the restaurant before heading to the bus.
To our chagrin, however, we realized we weren’t taking a nice luxury bus back to Cusco. It was a large van like before, and there was much confusion about who exactly would be taking us back to the Inca capital. We ended up sitting in the hot, parked van for an extra hour.
Eventually, we pulled out of the parking lot. It would be a 6 hour ride back to Cusco, so I took a pill to help me sleep. But two hours into the bus ride, we stopped. The driver told us to get out, saying we had about twenty minutes to break. We clambered out of the bus and realized we were at a real hole-in-the-wall place. A small snack stand in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly, a different guy hops into the driver’s seat of our bus. We watched him skeptically as he started the engine, all of our things, including our passports, still aboard it. What is happening? We thought. And when we asked, we couldn’t understand the answer.
Luckily, instead of driving away, the man parked the van on a nearby ramp. A little boy came out and started spraying the car with a hose. Oh, we stopped for a carwash. That makes sense, we thought sarcastically. Annoyed by the seemingly unnecessary pit stop, we watched and waited.
Soon, we filed back into the clean bus and drove the rest of the winding way to Cusco. We checked into our hostel and collapsed onto our beds for a too-short slumber.
But what an adventure it had been.
Syd & Paul