Waking up at 4am in dark, cold Cusco, I had a moment of trepidation. This was it; we were committed to doing this crazy trek. Seven days at altitudes at which I’ve never been before with a sister who has never trekked before. Excitement was my main emotion but there was this little voice in the back of my head quietly asking, you sure about this? By 4:45, we had been bundled into the van by the guide, introduced to our chef and porters, and after a brief pullover to the side of the road while my sister double checked that she had her wallet, off we went. The beginning of this adventure was rather anticlimactic – I slept for about two hours as we drove through the misty dark. The drive to our destination was several hours and we passed through villages along windy mountain roads. We went up and up and up into the clouds. The van slowed to a crawl as visibility was minimal and I was thinking this would be a fantastic way to start trekking (note the saddened sarcasm). But thankfully, as soon as we reached what was to be our starting point, Soraypampa (3900m; 12,795ft), it cleared up beautifully. We tumbled out of the van, in complete awe of the two giant snow-capped mountains that was our view: Humantay Mountain and Salkantay Mountain.
After a great breakfast with an even better view in the crisp morning air and our first bush pee, we did a ‘test hike’ to Humantay Lake, in the opposite direction from where we ultimately needed to go. We were assured the detour was worth it. And boy was it ever. Though the climb uphill took longer than expected due to altitude induced huffing and puffing, when we reached the glacier lake, all that lung stress was instantly forgotten.
Humantay Lake (4200m; 13779ft) sits in its turquoise glory at the base of snow-capped Humantay Mountain. When I first saw it, instantly a giant smile crossed my face. As I reached here first, I had it all to myself. There really isn’t anything quite like enjoying a stunning piece of Mother Nature in solitude. It was very easy to see why it is believed the Incas would have held religious ceremonies here long ago. The water was very clear near the shore, turned green and then into a deep blue the further out you look. And it was cold – no way I wanted to swim in that! I did dunk my hand in it, though.
The way back down was much easier and we flew past the horses and cows, through the green fields of the valley with Humantay looming at our back. Lunch was set up for us when we arrived and it was confirmed – we will be eating very well on this trek. The amount of food was amazing. We finally started our trek towards Machu Picchu after lunch. As it was later in the day than expected, my sister got put on a horse. After I finished chortling, I shouldered my bag and followed along. I got quickly left behind but I didn’t mind – I was revelling in the astonishing beauty around me: snow-capped mountains, verdant valleys, rocky meadows, babbling brooks, setting sun – it was almost too good to be true. I was torn between lingering or pushing along as it was starting to get dark.
Eventually, I saw one of the porters coming back towards me with the horse. Just in time, too – I had reached a really steep part and the altitude was making me breathe like an asthmatic smoker. I made no friends with the horse, though. He’s used to small Peruvians, not giant North Americans. There were times where I could have sworn he deliberately walked right at the cliff’s edge, hoping to startle me off his back. But he did get me up that last bit of uphill in time for me to walk the rest of the way to camp before the sun set for the night. Camp was at Ichupata (4250m; 13,943ft), Salkantay Mountain looming right over us. Our tents were set up and the horses unloaded, one of them rolling free in the grass. By now, we were bone cold despite our layers, gloves, and wool hat bought in Cusco. We didn’t linger long over dinner – the food and hot drinks helped warm us up but the temperature was probably closer to 0 degrees Celsius than we’d have liked. Getting comfortable in the tent was a bit of a task due to the cold and because the ground wasn’t exactly flat. Sometimes I woke up in the night, finding that I had slid down to the bottom of the tent. However, I was reminded of why I was doing this when I went outside in search of the toilet tent.
The stars. Good Lord, the stars. And they were bright enough to illuminate Salkantay Mountain. For a moment, I was able to forget the bitter cold and just be in awe at where I was in that very moment. It was too cold to stay out for very long. However, I don’t think it’s a sight I’ll forget any time soon.