RTW Post #15: Salkantay Trek - My Kingdom for a Horse...or Train

10/06/13 - 10/09/13: Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

“I feel really awful,” Katie confessed to me just before we started hiking. It was our second day on the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu and Katie was suffering from Montezuma’s Revenge, or should I say Pachacutec’s Revenge? (We were in Peru, after all.) That was the bad news. The even worse news was that we were at 12,795 feet and about to climb to over 15,000 feet. What was it they tell you when counteracting altitude sickness? Oh yeah, stay hydrated. Uh-oh…

The Beginning Of Salkantay

Katie’s body had already TKO’d when we arrived in Cusco, a city that resides at a whopping 11,000 feet. Now she was suffering from intestinal pain and dehydration while embarking on the most difficult trek of her life. It was 6 A.M. and eleven hours of hiking lay before us. Katie could barely walk. I was worried, to say the least.

Around this time the day before, Katie had white knuckled it through a 2+ hour bumpy van ride. Luckily, we encountered a bathroom before entering the Andean mountain range and leaving civilization behind. Five days hence we’d be at Machu Picchu, but a span of over 40 miles stood between us and the historic Inca ruins. That first day wasn’t too bad; a slow and steady climb followed by lunch and a flat 5 mile walk through stunning mountain terrain. We could see our campground, Soraypampa, tucked in at the foot of a snow-capped mountain while Mount Salkantay peeked out at us from the right. I was feeling good, enjoying the hike and taking in all the amazing views with delight. Katie, on the other hand, wasn’t so much enjoying our trek as tolerating it. She bore it well, though, plodding along without complaint despite her sickness. Once we reached level ground her body rebounded and her mood picked up. It seemed that she was finally getting on the right track (so to speak) and feeling optimistic about the coming days. We both felt confident we would overcome the towering mountain pass looming on the horizon.

Camp Soraypampa at the base of the mountain.

That first night’s dinner was a jovial affair. We played cards with our fellow hikers, a great group of people who brought a lot of fun to the expedition. There was the enthusiastic and fun-loving Thomas and Minna, from Denmark; the hilarious and sweet Andrew and Louise from England; the kind and thoughtful Nataliya and Alex, from Russia; and our Peruvian guide, Edwin, who was cheery and effused a casual confidence on the trail. (He also taught us a wickedly fun card game called Cabeza de Mierda – use Google translate if you want to know what that means.) 

Temperatures dropped along with the sun, so we all bundled up tightly before retiring to our tents. The sleeping bags provided by BioAndean, the company organizing our journey, were for sub-zero temperatures, and they kept the bitter cold at bay. That didn’t keep Katie from tossing and turning, though, and by sunrise she was back in a state of misery. The healing power of sleep had eluded her, leaving her body feeling drained and weak. I knew she was hurting but was powerless to help. We were in the middle of the Andes. No doctors. No medicine. The only thing either of us could do was put on our hiking boots and march. I comforted her with words as she put one foot in front of the other, at first going slowly but not too far out of pace with the rest of the group. But her strides grew shorter. Her pauses grew longer. Soon, Katie was falling so far behind we couldn’t see the rest of our party. I walked ahead to keep our guide in visual range. Eventually, I caught up to Edwin and informed him of Katie’s health issues. We both agreed that she wasn’t just suffering from stomach issues, she was knee-deep in altitude sickness. He told everyone to go ahead and backtracked with me. When we reached Katie she was wheezing, unable to take a deep breath. Edwin gave her his arm and helped her along the trail, but it was becoming undeniable that she wasn’t going to make it to the top on her own. She needed help.

The Beginning of Day 2.

Our trek wasn’t entirely made up of 8 hikers and a guide, there were several Quechua gentleman working their magic along the trail with us: a cook, a sous chef, and a horseman. Each day they awoke before us, cooked breakfast, broke down the gear and and packed it away, hauled ass past us on the trail, and had food cooked and ready for us when we stopped for lunch at midday. Then they did it all over again for dinner. These were the toughest, fastest, hardest working men I’ve ever seen, and two of them were over the age of 60! They were also Katie’s salvation.

Katie mounts a horse in the distance.

Edwin aided a deteriorating Katie up the path and kept his eyes peeled for the horseman, who was bringing a mount ahead to take Katie up the trail on horseback. Tears had already stung Katie’s eyes at the thought of both giving up and trudging onward, but she knew she couldn’t keep going and quickly acquiesced when the horse was offered. I was deeply, enormously, profoundly grateful that she had this option. If there had been no horse to carry Katie I honestly don’t know what would’ve happened next. An airlift out? Was that even possible? Thank goodness we didn’t need to find out.

It was hard leaving Katie in that state, but I had no other choice. Edwin was worried about how much time we’d lost, and there was still so much ground to cover. I said a reluctant goodbye and Katie gave me a reassuring nod before I turned away and started the switchbacks up the mountain. The distance between us grew quickly and, thirty minutes later, I could see her tiny form mounting a horse and trotting along the trail toward us. About halfway up, the sous chef guiding her horse came flying by, practically jogging up the mountain. We all gave her words of encouragement as she passed and joked about how she was making better time than we were!

It was a rough start to the day, but I instantly felt better knowing that Katie was safe and no longer fighting this uphill battle. It was not an easy path. The way was slow and steep and the elevation left my breath shallow, my muscles fatigued. Despite everything I found myself enjoying the hike, for I was in the midst of undeniable beauty. The scenery was stunning. Ahead of us Mount Salkantay glistened just over the ridge. Behind us sat a breathtaking valley  that made you want to turn around and take a seat for an hour. Once we reached the turning point of the trail I felt so invigorated by my surroundings I couldn’t resist bellowing out a loud “Yahoo!!” into the vast expanse.

My "Yahoo" moment with Mount Salkantay looking down with approval.

As we traveled, random cows would appear every now and then, munching on the grass-covered slopes. Their presence made me realize two things: 1) Cows are much better climbers than I am, and 2) People raise cattle at these altitudes?? No wonder the water in the streams wasn’t safe to drink.

Once we crested that first steep incline we entered a flat and picturesque meadow with a few large boulders scattered about and several more cows. At the end of this meadow I could see Katie sitting beside a very small lake. I was very curious how she was feeling, so I hurried over and was immediately struck by how pale she looked and her lack of communication. She was drinking a juice box but didn't want to eat anything, and she was moving very, very slowly. My worrying increased, but I had to tell myself that the altitude had only gotten worse, and was about to get worse until she crossed the highest point on the hike. That was coming up next.

Katie on the bottom left, about to round the corner and face Mount Salkantay.

Katie went ahead on horseback as the rest of us started our slow ascent up the steepest part of the trail. I focused, recalling what our Cotopaxi guide, Marco, had told us when we hiked up to the Cotopaxi glacier: “Concentration, concentration. Slowly, slowly.” My steps were unhurried and consistent. I kept my breathing even, pacing my breaths with my steps, and never stopped until I reached the top. To our right, rising like a gigantic ice wall, stood the wondrous Salkantay mountain. I felt oddly comforted in its presence, like it was protecting me.

The weather was clear in that moment, so we all took out our cameras and clicked away. Then Edwin called us over and performed a brief ceremony honoring the great “apu” of Salkantay – the spirit of the mountain. He offered it coca leaves, which are a sacred plant in Peru, and we built on top of the offering a cairn of rocks that we’d carried up the mountain with us. I brought two, one for me and one for Katie. As we placed the rocks down we asked the apu for blessings. I, of course, only had one request, for Katie to be healed.

Mount Salkantay and the highest point on our trek.

The landscape changed quickly during our descent. One moment we were surrounded by icy peaks and the next we were traveling through grassy hillocks peppered by boulders and small shrubs. Clouds had rolled in, filling up the ravine, and many of us thought it looked like the hillsides of Scotland. I could’ve convinced myself of that if not for the Peruvian men shuttling horses up the trail. We’d step to the side and let them pass whenever they came charging up the valley. The trek down was beautiful, and even though my legs were starting to get tired, I was enjoying the fresh air and misty views. With the type of terrain we were crossing, it’s no wonder Louise and I started fangirling about Lord of the Rings on the way down.

Our victory shot at the highest point on our hike, over 15,000 feet.

It was a long time before we reached the flatlands where our lunch awaited us. I knew Katie would be there, so I picked up speed, hoping to find her in better condition this time. Sadly, she was not. Katie laid prone on a tarp, a cup of untouched coca tea resting by her hand. Once again, she wasn’t responding much, and her movements were extremely slow. At this point, everyone in the group was concerned. They were all checking to see if they could help and offering medicines. Katie took Louise up on some rehydration salts, but that was about it. I could barely eat lunch I was so worried. My stomach was in knots, but I knew I had to eat, so I put food in my mouth even though it tasted like nothing. When I had a moment alone with Katie I talked to her about taking the horse the rest of the way and she cried. All her muscles were cramped, she said, and the constant jostling on the horse was very painful. I cried too, knowing that there was no other option. She couldn’t move, so she couldn’t walk. She had to take the horse. Edwin advised the same, and said that at the end of the day we’d be at a lower elevation and her condition would improve quickly. Reluctantly, Katie mounted the horse. One of the stirrups was broken, which meant less stability and safety, but there was nothing to be done. She nodded a silent goodbye and trotted down the mountain.

Giving the horses right of way in Scotland...oh, I mean Peru.

The grandeur of the first half of the hike diminished considerably during the second half. Knowing that three hours of downhill trekking through thick mud lay ahead, and agonizing over Katie’s health and safety as she navigated the same slippery track…well, it brought my mood down. I wanted the hike to end, but it just kept going and going and going. Forever downward I traversed, bypassing piles of horse manure and using my hiking poles to keep me out of muddy pools. Gone were the flat grasslands. Now, thick jungle sprung up around us. The weather was thick and misty, with rain drizzling off and on. Everyone in the group was ready to reach the end of our second day’s journey, but the end refused to appear. My legs got weaker and the steep trail laid waste to my knees. At some point, in a moment of desperation, I started running down the path. I passed Edwin, Louise, and Andrew, who shouted disbelief that I was running. I yelled over my shoulder as I flew by that I had no choice – it was easier to run!

Soon thereafter I saw a small village but I didn’t dare hope it was the end. We’d come across several homes and settlements along the way, and this could be just another one. I slowed down to  amble alongside Alex and Nataliya. We all craned our necks to see if any sign of our familiar tents could be found. Then we saw the bright yellow rainflies and knew we were done! Hallelujah!! Once again, I picked up my pace knowing Katie would be there. I had been praying the whole way down that she’d be improved once I reached the end. When I saw her sitting, eating, and talking to people with a smile on her face, I knew my prayers had been answered. Hallelujah again!! She wasn’t better, by any means, but she was definitely improving.

The path that broke me. After 8 hours of hiking we had to do 3 more straight down.

I’m sure while reading this you're feeling just as relieved as I was, but don’t get too comfortable. Shortly thereafter, my moment of joy disintegrated. Katie went to the bathroom and came back to the tent holding her middle and moving like a sloth. She managed to croak out that she felt awful again. Nooooooooo!!!!!!

I helped her get into her sleeping bag, for all she wanted to do was sleep; she didn’t want any food. I couldn’t say I blamed her. I left her behind to rest and joined the others for dinner. When I returned and climbed into bed, I reached over to check on Katie and found her body on fire. She had a fever. I pulled back her sleeping bag and helped get her long underwear off, trying to cool her.

I know that people get fevers every day, and the majority of them are fine, but I also know that fevers can become very serious. I sat in the dark tent in the middle of nowhere wondering what to do. I went over to Thomas and Minna’s tent and called out. Minna was a nurse, so I asked if she had any medicine to counteract a fever. She gave me her Danish equivalent of Tylenol. Katie, of course, didn’t want to take it because she had no food in her stomach. A reasonable concern, so I didn’t push her. My last course of action was to soak my bandana in cold water and put it on her forehead like a compress. In the night I checked on her, reapplying the cold compress. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning her fever broke. She was no longer hot to the touch and I finally slept soundly.

You can see why they call it a cloud forest.

At 5:30am we woke up and packed our stuff. Katie had the option of hiking or taking the truck with the chef to the next campsite. Everyone agreed that taking the truck was the smartest thing to do. She was definitely getting healthier, and was even able to eat some breakfast, but another day of rest was needed. So, once again, I bid farewell to my girl and joined the others as we started Day 3 of the Salkantay trek. This time we were walking through a cloud forest, which is the term they use in Peru for jungle that is high enough that clouds float in and rest there throughout the day. The fog that rolled in was thick around the tree tops, sometimes blocking our view, but as we traveled downward the air cleared up and a meandering river followed us during our long walk.

Our enthusiastic guide, Edwin.

This day’s hiking was going to be much easier than the previous day, with no long up or down stretches, just short spurts of inclines, declines, and flat trails. My knees, however, had taken a beating during the previous day's downward spiral. They were in pain when I’d gone to bed and in pain when I awoke, but once on the trail they loosened up a bit and everything seemed to be going smoothly for once . Time flowed by quickly as Louise and I swapped stories. She had me laughing most of the way to our campsite at La Playa. Unfortunately, I knew her and Andrew were going to be leaving us that evening. They had only signed up for a 4 day trek and would be taking a bus and train that night and going to Machu Picchu the next day. Edwin and I had talked about Katie and me possibly joining them because of Katie’s illness. It would mean Edwin calling ahead to find lodging for us that night. This option lingered in my mind during those last couple hours on the trail.

After five hours of hiking we reached La Playa. My knees had gone from constant ache to burning pain, and now my right Achilles was so tight I was limping. I was excited, however, by the knowledge that we could hitch a ride with Louise and Andrew and cut this 5 day trek down to 4! I hobbled over to Katie who was sitting and chatting, looking as good as new.  She felt markedly better and was even going to eat lunch with us. When we spoke to Edwin about him calling ahead to arrange a hotel for us that night, he informed us he’d have to travel to the next town to use a phone. That would take an hour. Then there was the fact that there was no guarantee we’d find lodging with such short notice. It was then suggested that Katie hitch another ride with the cook to our next destination and I keep hiking with the rest of the group.

Watch Your Step! One of our waterfall crossings during Day 3.

Here’s where I let you in on a little secret… In my heart I’d already attached myself to the idea that we’d be cutting the hike short by one day. My mind and body were sighing with relief and giving me two enthusiastic thumbs up! But now, while sitting at a picnic table, knees throbbing, with Edwin and the rest of the gang gathered around me, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I’m a wimp and didn’t want to finish the hike. So I nodded yes, conceding to the new plan. I’d finish the hike and Katie would take the truck with the cooks tomorrow morning.

We bid a sad farewell to Louise and Andrew, who’d be up at Machu Picchu tomorrow while we hiked up and over another mountain. My knees ached with jealousy. While we rested in the tent before dinner, Katie and I discussed the new plan and she surprised me by saying she might hike with us the next day. I couldn’t believe it, and told her she really shouldn’t do it if she wasn’t feeling well enough. Deep down, though, I wanted her to join me on the trail. She’d be amazing moral support and great company, which always makes time go by faster. I’d like to say I took the high road and didn’t admit these thoughts to her. I’d like to, but I can’t. I stressed that her health was of the utmost importance, but that if she wanted to come along with us I wouldn’t complain.

The rest of day was rainy and wet, with the sky providing a constant drizzle that forced us to stay under cover. The first half of the evening was spent discussing all of our different countries, their health care systems, politics, media, etc. I learned about Danish elections and Russian television (which apparently is awful melodramatic crap). During these long chats about our various cultures I suddenly realized that I was sitting in a tiny little village in the middle of the Peruvian jungle comparing notes on our lives with people from all over the world. Everyone was alive with conversation, fascinated with each others answers, insights, and critiques. I couldn’t have been happier. It was one of my favorite moments so far on this trip.

Camping at La Playa

The second half of the evening was spent playing cards. We were having so much fun we kept chanting “One more!” at the end of each game and, consequently, all of us went to bed too late for our 5 A.M. wake up call. When I finally stood up and walked to the tent I nearly fell over; my knees were in so much pain. All I could do was pop another Advil and hope they’d improve by morning.

Katie took stock of her health once the sun rose and decided to go for it and rejoin the hike. She wanted to do some of the Salkantay trek, after all, and this was our last day before Machu Picchu. I was, of course, very very happy. Edwin wasn’t, however, when we all left a half hour later than he’d wanted to that morning. We had a long day of tramping ahead of us and we moved slower than average, apparently. (Thanks, Edwin. I won’t take it personally.)

Joining the Inca trail network.

The trail took us over a bridge and up a hill where we stepped on to an original Inca trail. This is not the classic "Inca Trail" that everyone hikes to Machu Picchu. This is another path that makes up a network of Inca trails that lead to Machu Picchu. It’s far less traveled and we only saw a handful of people on it as we ascended its ancient steps. The trail took us through thick rainforest and coffee plantations. I never knew that coffee beans were red, nor did I realize that they were dangerous to eat unless your body is used to digesting them. Thomas and I sucked on some of the raw flesh inside the bean just to get a taste. It was surprisingly sweet.

As we traveled along the Salkantay trail I learned that farming in Peru is not relegated to plateaus. Steep inclines are also fair game. I saw several clearings on near vertical slopes that I thought were landslides until Edwin informed me they were for planting. How they were going to tend to these farms, I had no idea, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Peruvians it’s that they have no fear. Aside from the strength and speed of our guide and cooks, there were numerous times on the trail when locals would pass us by, skipping over water crossings like kids playing hopscotch. Meanwhile, we would be assessing the best spots to place our feet and poles. They must secretly laugh at the westerners limping through their towns on a daily basis. What a bunch of wimps!

Our view on Day 4.

Everything was going well on our fourth day of hiking until the slope steepened and slowed both Katie and I to a crawl. Edwin stayed in the back to ensure Katie was safe while I trekked in front of her. At one point she apologized for slowing me down and I laughed – I couldn’t have gone any faster! My body was too worn down to pick up the pace. The cool temperatures at high altitude had given way to a hot and humid jungle climate, and we were dripping with sweat as we plowed to the top. Once we reached the summit we saw the rest of our group and gave a cheer. Edwin expressed how proud he was of Katie. He explained that many people would’ve taken the truck and made their way back to Cusco instead of continuing on. Most people who suffer an ordeal like Katie had don’t continue hiking. I was proud of her, too. I think we all were, including Katie herself.

We took a few moments to rest and eat a snack in the shade of the trees. Thankfully, my knees were only experiencing minor pain. They’d felt fine during the ascent, but I knew that uphill wasn’t the issue. It was downhill that was their kryptonite. And as the classic saying goes, “What goes up must come down.” In a few minutes I’d be heading to my doom.

But before hell opened up and swallowed me whole, we had an Inca ruin to visit. Llactapata is said to be an old supply post for Machu Picchu and was just over the crest of the mountain. We exited the trees and walked alongside its lichen-covered stone walls before walking down the entryway. Once through the doorway, we saw a sea of mountain tops spread out before us with Machu Picchu floating in the middle. Our destination was finally in sight! We all grabbed our binoculars and zoom lenses to get a better look at the ancient city. From afar, it looked like a tiny beige Lego village. It was difficult to believe that this miniature construct was an actual city, with buildings and homes and people walking through it at that very moment. What was even harder to believe was that we were about to hike to the base of it. Today. It looked so far away…

The entryway of Llactapata.

Going down the mountain was just as painful as I’d anticipated. Nay, worse. My knees immediately revolted, screaming every inch of the way. I verbalized my pain through grunts, groans, and occasional swear words. Since going up hadn’t hurt, I decided to try something crazy and walk down the incline backwards. With the rough terrain, it took some maneuvering, but I used my hiking poles to help me balance and soon was moonwalking my way down the mountain. I couldn’t go in reverse the entire time, of course. Many spots required large steps and turns, but it did cut down on my cussing significantly. Another thing that aided our speedy descent was Thomas’ brilliant idea to sing Disney tunes while we hiked. He and Minna were trying to remember the words to “A Whole New World” and Katie and I were happy to help. When the Disney songs ran out, we switched over to national anthems. I wanted to hear everyone’s homeland songs and they all obliged, except for Alix and Nataliya, who were too shy to join in. Edwin had a lovely voice and sang a few Peruvian songs to us, one of which was the anthem of his home town of Cusco. It was a great way to pass the time, share some culture, and help me forget my temporary torment.

When we reached the bottom, we crossed a long suspension bridge and continued onward to the hydroelectric station. But the damage had been done. Even on flat ground my knees were protesting. They felt like rusty screws had been drilled into the sides, grinding against bone with every step. Katie, despite her previous sickness, was doing quite well. Suddenly, I was the one who needed help reaching the end. We trudged on at the only pace I could go – slow – and reached the hydroelectric station, where I quickly sat on a  bench for a few brief moments of respite. Up above us was a gigantic cliff face where you could see the lingering remnants of an old Inca trail that had been cut into the rock. It was now in disrepair, blocked from use several years ago because an Aussie man had fallen off and died. I can’t believe they ever let anyone on that path! It looked as precarious as climbing the cliff itself. I guess that’s where Peruvians got their courage, from the Incas. They also had no fear.

Here, you can see Machu Picchu through the entryway of Llactapata. So close, yet so far away.

With step after step, stabbing pain after stabbing pain, we grew closer to our lunch point. Signs of civilization appeared: buildings, a railroad, people. Edwin pointed us down the tracks toward a restaurant where our cook was preparing our food. That last 50 meters felt like an eternity. When we reached the table I plopped down and didn’t know if I would be getting back up. I ate mushroom soup and thought about what I was going to do next, because at this point we had a choice: hike the rest of the way to Aguas Caliente (3 more hours of walking), or take a 40 minute train ride. Yes, the train cost money, but I didn’t know if I could or should walk to Aguas Caliente. The path was flat the whole way but, as I’ve told you, flat  no longer meant pain-free. It was agony. Even so, the idea of not hiking that final leg made me sad. I’d come so far! Then Katie reminded me that the trek was technically over. Many people hike the Salkantay trail to the train station and that’s it. I hemmed and hawed, but in the end I chose to take the train. Katie, who could have definitely walked the rest of the way, decided to join me. I think she was worried I’d crumble in the streets of Aguas Caliente if left on my own.

So, after four days of the most difficult trekking we’d ever done, we hopped on a train to Aguas Caliente. Sitting on the posh train felt odd after days in the wild, but I was happy to be there. The seats were cozy, the music calming, and there was air conditioning! We saw another BioAndean group that we’d shadowed along the trek also on board the train. Knowing that we weren’t the only ones riding the rails in the end made me happy. The train had windows along the rooftop, and the track ran through a gorge that was unbelievable beautiful. Even in my broken state I could appreciate the thick foliage, the rushing river, and the most surprising peaks I’d ever seen; they rose up from the ravine like green monoliths, their tops kissing the clouds. At the summit of one of these giants rested Machu Picchu. Tomorrow morning we’d have to get to that ancient city, somehow. Maybe Katie could give me a piggyback ride?