On Sunday April 27th, we set off from Cusco with 11 others for our 7 day, 6 night hike with Mountain Lodges of Peru. Instead of doing the traditional 4-day, 25 mile section of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, this hike goes 40 miles over the Salkantay Pass with the added benefit of nice lodges to stay in each night in lieu of camping. Along the way, we hiked other parts of the Inca trails that crisscross Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
Our group was international – a family of 4 from Russia, a mother and her 2 daughters from Ireland, a couple from England, a couple from Park City, Utah and ourselves plus two guides and a Russian translator who spoke both English and Spanish. In addition, we regularly had two horses and, separately, a pack of about 10 horses that moved our luggage, food and fuel.
The first day we covered 5 miles and gained about 1,700 feet – piece of cake and well within our comfort zone. We started hiking at 11,000 feet and finished up at 12,700 feet.
Day two we woke up to sunny skies and had a day hike from Salkantay Lodge up to a glacier lake at 13,900 feet at the base of the 19,000 foot Nevado Humantay. Of course, we took a swim. I loved it. Bill found it a little chilly. By the time we got back to the lodge, the clouds had rolled in.
Day three was a “big” day – 9 miles total with the first 5 miles gaining 2,500 feet to Salkantay Pass at 15,213 feet and the next 4 miles dropping 2,400 feet. The elevation gain was not an issue, the weather was. We were woefully unprepared when it started raining and then turned to snow. There are no pictures of us at the top of the pass. We were focused on getting to someplace warm and dry as fast as we could! Lunch was in a tent on the way down. After lunch, we moved quickly to Wayra Lodge arriving about 2 to 3 hours sooner than a group normally takes when the weather is pleasant.
That night we listened to it rain the entire night. Needless to say, I tossed and turned wondering why I hadn’t packed more appropriate clothing. Thankfully, by daybreak the rain stopped. We headed down the pass loosing 3,400 feet over 6 miles and watching the landscape change from high mountain to jungle. We arrived at Colpa Lodge in the early afternoon where they prepared a Pachamanca, a Peruvian barbecue cooked under hot rocks. Of course, it included quinea pig.
Day 5, we needed to cover 14 miles and dropping only 2,400 feet. Because the recent rains had washed out some of the trails on the steeper slopes, in lieu of walking on a dirt road all day, the group opted to take the section of trail that was still open and cross the river using a 2-person platform suspended from a cable that is hand pulled over the river. The contraption looks a bit fragile, complete with frayed rope. However, it is how the locals cross the river and we all made it with smiles on our faces. From the other side of the river, some of us walked to the last lodge, Lucma Lodge, on another dirt road, while others got in a van.
Day 6, we went about 3 miles up 2,000 feet from 7,000 to 9,000 feet at Llactapata Pass in the morning. At lunch, we had a great view of Machu Picchu from another series of ruins from the west. After lunch, we went down 3,000 feet over 4 miles. We arrived at a small train station where we got on a train for Aquas Calientes, 6 miles away.
Day 7 was all about Machu Picchu and getting back to Cusco. After an early breakfast. we boarded a bus, along with many others, to get up the very steep hair-pin road to Machu Picchu. We lucked out with the weather. It had rained most of the night (cause for more tossing and turning), but the clouds parted in the morning and stayed clear until we got back into Aguas Caliente about 2:00.
Machu Picchu, itself, looks like the pictures we’ve all seen. What we didn’t realize is how magnificent the setting is. There are layers of steep mountains surrounding it and the ruins themselves are constructed on much steeper cliffs than we had realized.
To add to the drama, our tour included what we learned were coveted tickets up Waynu Picchu, the triangular peak often shown as the backdrop to Machu Picchu. Just below the top of the peak is another temple, purported to be a sacred residence for the highest priest. It looked steep, but our guide said he’s had all types of clients make it up and back. So up we went.
Had either of us known that the hike is known as the “Stairs of Death” or that Outside Magazine rated it as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes we never would have done it. As we were coming down, a 55 year old man collapsed in front of us on the way up and fell on a ledge. Other climbers tried to save him with CPR, but he didn’t make it. It made the climb down sobering. How the Incas or one of their subjects even built the temple on top is very difficult to comprehend. Needless to say, we were relieved to get down, count our blessings and head back to Cusco.
We got back into Cusco about 8:00 on Saturday the 3rd, after a long and emotional day, thankful for our family and friends. We were thrilled to be able to settle into our same apartment for 2 nights before heading off to Arequipa. We are now enjoying the warm dry weather in Arequipa.