Salkantay + Machu Picchu trek / 7 days / April 29 to May 5, 2016 / Alpaca Expeditions
We’d booked a group trip but no one else signed up for the seven day trek so it ended up being a private trip!
Ichupata – Inca Chiriasca Pass – Inca Canal

After a night of surprisingly decent sleep, we were woken up at 5:30am with a hot cup of mate de coca, steaming in the frosty air. I had no idea if the tea was actually helping with the altitude, but it didn’t hurt to drink it. I was excited that we will see more phenomenal mountain views soon but today was also “the big day” – climbing up to Inca Chiriasca Pass. We tried to fortify ourselves with a hearty breakfast but we weren’t all that hungry due to the altitude. By 7am, we were ready to face whatever the morning may bring.

Not long after we started – uphill of course – we heard and saw a small avalanche on the face of Salkantay. It was really amazing to see one for the first time but also little intimidating as I remembered the stories from a friend of mine who survived the 2015 avalanches in Nepal. Thankfully, the one I saw was far away.

The morning was slow going, lungs trying to work overtime in the thinner air. It was cold enough that I kept on my layers and hat. But I didn’t really feel the cold as I was just so happy. Ahead of my sister and our guide, Juan Carlos, I was alone in nature. I saw two foxes run across the path further ahead and the way I reacted, you’d have thought I’d discovered a new species.

The terrain was uphill all the way except several portions that were wide open plateaus with scrubby flowers and clumps of tall grass glowing golden in the sun. In front of me was Salkantay Mountain and behind me were valleys completely filled with clouds. My sister eventually passed me as she hitched a ride on the horse to the top of the pass. As much as I wanted to make it up there on my own, I admit there were times I was jealous! The final ascent to the pass was incredibly hard. It literally was take two steps, stop, take two more steps, stop, take one step, stop. It was very steep, the altitude high, and the terrain rocky enough that I had to take care not to slip. Getting up there was definitely a mental battle. I kept turning around to look at the view for motivation.

My sister was waiting for me at the top, at 17,060ft (5200m). Well, she was waiting for Juan Carlos because he had her trekking poles – he was lagging behind to encourage me along. Having her wait was great because it meant we were able to enjoy the incredible view and the accomplishment together as well as get the requisite photo for our mom. From up there, we could see a curious milky turquoise lake by Salkantay Mountain that looks like it would be freeeeeeeeezing cold. Maybe 10 minutes later, my sister started down the other side, down the rocky almost scree-like mountain face. I stayed a minute longer staring up at a condor circling high above our heads.

I soon caught up with my sister. We soon saw why it is a bad idea to stay at this altitude for any length of time. After only twenty minutes at the top, she started feeling sick with digestive problems. She sent me on my way to suffer in peace – but she wasn’t alone as Juan Carlos stayed with her. Not sure how she made it down in one piece but I know I found it took quite a bit of concentration to not trip and die – rocky terrain, steep switchback trail – I was definitely thankful to have my walking poles for this bit. Especially since I was going fast – a trick I learned on the Camino de Santiago. Steep downhill requires a bit of speed in order to save your knees.

It was clear walking once down the mountain. The landscape was absolutely fascinating – to see the glaciers behind me and knowing it was glaciers that carved the landscape in front of me. Deep wide valleys were my view, empty of any signs of life except a few cows, horses, and one pig. It was brilliantly sunny, grassy with streams flowing in the path of least resistance and creating interesting patterns in the ground. The other two were behind me somewhere but the trail was fairly obvious so I kept on going. Despite lingering concern for my sister, I was just so happy in this moment. I’ve said it before but for me, there is nothing like being in the middle of nowhere nature and no one in the world at that moment knowing where I was – pure bliss.

I got to camp and was immediately amused by the sight of our toilet tent – I can honestly say, with that view of Salkantay Mountain, it was the most beautiful view I’ve ever had with a toilet! It was about 20 minutes before my sister and Juan Carlos came into view. I was glad to see that she was doing alright. We lingered over lunch, had a rest in the sun and crisp air. Clouds started to swiftly move in and I got concerned. With the amazing weather we’d had so far, I was worried it was going to be too good to be true. But it turned out to be no problem – the clouds added some atmosphere but that was it.

The rest of the afternoon was through more valleys, green fields, and babbling brooks. We eventually said good bye to Salkantay Mountain and soon started to see some signs of civilization. There were a couple tiny human settlements as well as animal pens made from rock. Juan Carlos, our guide, said that his uncle used to live out here; however, the newer generations don’t want to live this tough isolated life. Who knows how much longer this way of life will last.

We made it to camp with the setting sun. We saw the tents and horses down in the distance long before we actually reached them. They were set up right next to the Inca Canal. Even if we didn’t know what it was, being perfectly straight was a giant clue to its manmade nature. This 500 year old canal was built by the Incas and much of it has lasted all this time. However, you can see areas where it’s failing, where the rocks fell away or had been removed. The problem is that this land is not a national park so the government doesn’t take care of it. As for the farmers, they have more pressing things to do than look after it. It’s sad, though.