Monday, June 27, 2011

Peru – Salkantay Trek

Salkantay Mountain
Finally! We are on our long anticipated trek. It's been somewhat of an adventure just to get to the starting line. You may recall our Blog post about our last minute cancellation with Mely tours. But that is long forgotten now. It's 6am and we are sitting in a mini-bus heading to the trailhead just above a little town called Marcocasa.

The Salkantay trek has gained a lot in popularity over the past few years, now being the second most popular trek in the Cusco area after the "Inca Trail". Over the next 4 days, we would be walking for 6-9 hours a day across two mountain passes towards the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu.
We first see Salkantay while
driving from Cusco to Mollepata
We chose the Salkantay trek because we liked the idea of walking to Machu Picchu, and since the famous Inca Trail is limited to 500 people a day it's pretty much impossible to get a permit during high season without a reservation some 6-9 months in advance. Since we don't usually make definitive dates or routes in our travels, it was never an option to pre-book the Inca Trail... We leave that to regular tourists. The Salkantay trek is actually one day longer than the Inca Trail and said to be also more strenuous especially since the highest point in the trek is 4,671 meters (15,325 feet) above sea level. At this elevation, altitude sickness is a real threat.

Packing the mules:
Is the jacket to prevent the poor
animal from seeing its load?
On the way to the trailhead, we stopped at the town Mollepata for breakfast. It's the last major town we'll see for the next 3 days and also where most of the trekking companies start from. But some (like ours) drive a bit farther opting for a lesser used alternate route on the first day. The tourist-milking mentality has definitely also infected Mollepata.
A basic continental breakfast for 20 sol and a regular milk coffee for 10Sol.... This makes Cusco seem cheap! These prices are of course from the only available menu (in only English too!) as no Peruvian would ever pay this amount... And we are pretty certain that our guide and crew got their food for free by choosing a particular restaurant in lieu of bring us there. But in our group's case, the tactic backfired since no one ate breakfast there except our crew members. There is a point when Gringos are not willing to take the blatant price-gouging any longer. They could have sold a lot more at a reasonable price. It's called pricing yourself out of the market!

The first hour on the trek:
an easy incline
We arrive at the trailhead around 10am; our crew gets immediately busy strapping our gear and provisions onto the five mules that were waiting at the trailhead. We have the luxury of carrying only a small daypack with water, snacks, and lots of sunscreen...the rest is carried by true horsepower. (Well actually we are only allowed 5kgs of our personal goods on the horses so the rest is for us to carry. This was easy as we were wearing most of our clothing on our backs to keep warm!)

Everyone is in good spirits and takes
lots of pictures.
Our crew consists of our guide Jose, a cook, and his assistant, plus the horseman and his son. We are 7 tourists and 5 first day crew. This ratio is rather low compared to the Inca Trail where there are normally 3 crew members per each tourist-trekker (since horses are not allowed on the Inca Trail and porters must lug all the gear).

Lunch with a view
We set off walking before 11am and enjoy the warm sun and the beautiful views. The trek goes uphill but at an easy incline much easier than the climb up to the ruins in Pisac. After a couple hours of light trekking through open fields and tree covered paths, we catch up with our crew at the lunch spot. Camping tables were already setup and the food simmering. This is going to be a luxurious trek!

The hike after lunch is
very easy...
The walk after lunch was along a narrow path beside an irrigation channel. Jose estimated that it would take us 4 hours to reach our campsite in Sorayapampa; either we are top fit, or Jose is a hopeless sandbagger... 2 hours 15 minutes after we left our lunch spot, we arrive at the campsite. New record? We ask Jose, who discreetly keeps quiet.
our campsite is in view
But our bragging rights diminish when we notice that the crew was already there... and they had to clean and pack up our lunch gear after we had left. They are just finishing setting up our tents when we arrive at our first overnight camp.

This is our dining hall, the building
is actually a permanent structure,
although it doesn't look that way!
As the sun sets, we are invited by the smell of fresh pop corn into a ramshackle wooden hut that serves as our dining room. Hot chocolate, cookies, and popcorn are our pre-dinner snack...add a foot massage and we call this a holiday ;-) Well the closest to a foot massage that we get is the puppy that bumps into our legs as he searches desperately for food scraps in competition with the chickens who I might add greatly out-number him. Dinner is served shortly after the snack. Trout rolls with spinach filling and melted cheese... This is not your ordinary "hot dog and smores" camping trip.
Our first night's campsite is going to
be so cold that they have a large
tarp tent to keep the winds at bay.

Our campsite is at the foot of the Salkantay glacier at 3950m (13000 ft). It will be a freezing cold night as the sky is perfectly clear.

 Before we tuck into our sleeping bags, we admire the starry sky, which is beyond explanation. The last time we've seen the Milky Way this bright was over 10 years ago in Zermatt. Jose explains the Inca mythology within the Milky Way's hidden images. If you peer into it and discern the dark areas, you can find a mother llama and her baby (cria).

The milky way as seen from Peru

Day 2
It's a tough walk...
especially with killer
stomach cramps.
The night was freezing cold, well below zero and Patrick was feeling very sick all night long – the trout dinner did not agree with his stomach and freed itself in the middle of the night.
In the early freezing morning, the cooks prepare a hearty breakfast for us while we pack up our bags and jump from one leg to the other in a desperate and futile attempt to stay warm.

The Salkantay pass is still
a long way to go.
Today would be the toughest part of our trek: a 725 vertical meter climb (2380 ft) with a
1793 meters descent (5880 ft) and a total hiking distance of 24 km (14.3 miles) over 9 hours of walking time... Not a good day for Patrick to endure a stomach battling food poisoning!

Also our mules are being obstinate
snorting loudly on the steep way up.
The trek starts off immediately with a steep incline helping us to warm up our muscles that are completely stiff from the cold. We have Salkantay straight in front of us. The steep walls of the snow covered peak are a constant reminder that we have a tough trek ahead.

Looking back at our tracks
from the halfway point.
The air gets thinner with every step we take and about halfway up we need as much time for resting as we do for walking. Julane is doing very well, but Patrick is in a major struggle...
Almost at the top!
But there is no option of retreat now and he's too proud to accept Jose's offer to ride up on the back of the horse. So don't feel sorry for him, he chose to battle on his own two feet.

The sighs of relief are audible as we reach the top, everybody in our group (including Jose) agrees that this was one tough climb. We take pictures on the top of the pass that is dotted with little stone cairns built by previous trekkers to honor the pass and its accomplishment. We also take souvenir pictures in front of the official sign and comment that the altitude is incorrect. Our GPS reads 4,671 meters above sea level (15,325 ft) – we notice all along the trek that the altitude signs are not quite accurate.
We did it 4671 meters! 
Walking down from the pass is certainly easier in a mental way; but in terms of leg and footwork, it's much harder than the way up: Loose rooks the size of grapefruit don't offer much stability and every step is a gamble on whether the stones will slide or support.
No time for a break:
The rough path down
from Salkantay.
It took us 3¼ hours to the top and over 2¼ hours down to the lunch spot on a high altitude plain. And we aren't even close to our campsite yet... Jose estimates that it would take another 3-4 hour's walk before we can call it a day :-(

Lunch is served in a big tent; everybody is quiet and devours their food...except for Patrick who gets nauseous just looking at food: A snickers bar and an apple is all he can muster.
Down there (in the flat part)
is our lunch spot.
We set off right after lunch to make it to our campsite before dark. The path is a constant downhill along a mountainside, not as steep as the path before lunch, but still slippery enough to require our full attention – we only occasionally get to fully enjoy the scenery when we break for a sip of water.

As we are getting lower in altitude we are able to take off some of our many layers but when we reach our camp in the town of Challway at 5:30pm the sun has long set behind the mountain range and we hastily need to setup our sleeping bags before complete darkness falls. The crew once again was much faster... How are they doing it? (They do walk beside the mule team.)

Challway: our campsite in view, finally!
Actually Daniel, one of the other tourists also arrived at the campsite with the crew. He is an interesting young man. He walked the first day barefoot – living up to any stereotype of the wild Aussie, even though he isn't a beachy surfer dude but instead from the Outback where he roams barefoot most of the time!
Trekker's shower

Julane could probably have arrived much earlier too but she's walking slowly in solidarity with Patrick who is running low on his spare batteries. But he can be proud of himself: this is a tough trek under normal circumstances, and doing it weakened by food poisoning is a matter of shear willpower! Yet Patrick is not the last one to arrive at the camp: two of our fellow trekkers arrive almost an hour later with sore knees. Yes, it was a tough day.

We all gather for popcorn and hot drinks before dinner and agree that this day was absolutely wonderful despite the physical strain.
Patrick is so exhausted that he doesn't even come to the dinner table (probably a good idea after last night's battle with the trout). From his tent, he sips a bit of soup and retires. Everyone else soon also tucks in early after this long and tiring trek.

Day 3
The roosters that call our campsite home start announcing the new day at around 3am: who forgot to teach them that they are only supposed to start their "cockadoodle doo" business at sunrise? Oh well, we turn over and fall asleep again. This night was much more pleasant than the last, what a difference a few degrees in temperature make.

High tech bridge near Challway
We enjoy having breakfast without shivering and also enjoy Jose's briefing that today we'd only walk for a short 4-5 hours on a gradually descending road. Jose explains that the original path had been damaged last year by many landslides and was too dangerous. For safety reasons, he therefore recommends to walk on the dirt road on the opposite side of the valley.
Even the main road is washed out
by landslides...
We don't mind – especially since the road has few vehicles and the scenery is nearly the same...minus all the ups and downs! Although we did notice that all the other tour groups walked on the more "dangerous" path.

in some places very badly.
Cars have to drive through the
deep river bed.
With Patrick feeling much better and the walk being very easy, we make it to our third campsite in just under 3¾ hours... Jose really underestimates our ability ;-)

La Playa our 3rd night camp is in view
The town of La Playa (the beach) is our lunch spot and campsite as well; this means that we have the whole afternoon "free" to enjoy the beach. But where is it? We only see a rocky river bed. Having been at the source of the water at the foot of the Salkantay glacier the day before, we know that the water would be barely warmer than a pitcher of ice water... Brrrr!

Time for a snooze...
Instead of swimming, Patrick is using the time for a snooze. While Julane is doing a bit of Yoga to stretch... very much to the amazement of a little girl that lives with her family in the house beside our campground.
At first, the little girl watches carefully what Julane does, but before long she joins in and Julane is teaching her a few Yoga positions. Who knew that Julane had a talent as a Yoga Guru for kids ;-)

"now breath in deeply
and hold that position"
while Julane is teaching Yoga at
the campsite

Later in the afternoon, we stroll up and down the one-street little town. We notice that there are an unusually high number of signs. Everything is labeled here, the school, the campground, the bridge across the river... What in the world is going on? Is La Playa opting for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records? All signs have a sticker from the Canadian Foreign Aid Agency adhered to it. So here comes our theory why La Playa has become a "sign jungle."
The Canadian aid money is probably given based on a per-sign-basis in good faith to promote tourism. The Canadian agency probably never visited La Playa but instead transferred money on completion... probably requesting photos of the signs rather than a reason why they actually were created. We are still waiting to see a sign: "The casa that Carlos built!" We also wonder how much money for these signs landed in the pockets of middle men and corrupt local politicians.
If you wonder why we bother to write about this whole story? Do you think that these signs actually improve the life of the villagers? And as tourists, we can certify that besides a laugh and shaking our heads, it did not improve our tourist experience. We sadly conclude that this is a classic case of well intended aid money gone down the drain.

See our photo series: "The useless signs of La Playa"below

"Bridge in 50 meters" the first
bridge warning sign that we
see in all of Peru
"Don't throw garbage
into the river"
Good intent, zero effect!
Community or call center?
or magnet collection center?

Where is the "View point"?
"Commercial Zone" for free
range chicken maybe?
Ahh, this must be the
school building...
and this the sports ground:
we could not have guessed this!

Now, this sign actually makes sense:
but it's not sponsored by the
Canadian Aid Agency :-(
Height restriction with nothing overhead!

Our personal favorite: a street sign would makes sense...
but why in the world is the original (yellow) one not good enough?
and why is it still there?   Go figure!

Candlelight dinner in La Playa
We return to camp just in time for the popcorn pre-dinner snack...
We wonder if we will be addicted to popcorn after this trip? Dinner is served over candlelight; although La Playa technically is connected to the power grid, there has been no "juice" all day long – perhaps the Canadians should have invested in the electricity infrastructure instead?
We enjoy the quietness; with electricity running, the TV in our dinner shack would probably have been blaring at max volume.

Day 4
Today is going to be another big day, or should we say long day?
We get up very early at 6:30am to be on the way by latest 7:30. Unfortunately, the cooks seemed to have forgotten today's briefing and are not ready with breakfast as scheduled. They celebrated our mid-day arrival with a few too many beers on the previous day! Actually they probably celebrated that they would not have to walk any farther after La Playa (they will take the bus and train from here). We also have to wait for them to finish preparing our boxed lunch. Finally some 45 minutes after our scheduled take off time, we are on the way.
Turn off to Llactapata
Today we are only a small group: Three of our fellow trekkers opt for the easier choice: taking the bus to the hydroelectric plant near our final destination of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town). Their shortcut comes at a cost though; they will miss the Llactapata ruins. We understand that they are tired though especially considering that they are British and Australian.
Yes, we have sympathy for the Flat-Landers ;-)
So off we go in a team of two French and two Swiss (Julane is Swiss too, you know!) We are determined to prove to our guide Jose that people from the Alps are fit enough to conquer the Andes!

Coffee and citrus orchards
Patrick has regained his full energy and is ready to climb to the top of the world. Although we don't quite need to go this high today, it's still a 750 vertical meter climb (2460 ft). Jose has adjusted his under-estimating tactics a bit overnight and now predicts that we'll need about 3 hours to the summit.

A last glance back at La Playa
The path up to Llactapata is actually on a segment of an old Inca trail (not the famous one though). It leads first through some old villages of coffee and coca plantations, and citrus tree orchards before reaching some beautiful high altitude grasslands and then entering into an old forest near the top. The scenery on the way up is by far the most diverse and beautiful so far on the entire Salkantay trek.

The cloud forest near the summit
looks almost like a rain forest.
Near the top, the path gives way to endless stone steps as tall as park benches. We wonder how the short Inca people mastered this climb? We reach the summit in 2¼ hours but don't have any bragging rights: on the way up, we were passed by a Swiss couple that was so fast that they even outpaced their guide.
Steep steps near the top
There were actually many Swiss camping around us on this trek. We would guess that the about 20 out of the 40 were Swiss in the other 3 trekking groups camping in the same region as we were.
Anyway we enjoy the cool and damp climate in the forest at the top for a while and just as we start to walk down to the Llactapata ruins plateau, we spot a Capuchin monkey in the trees above us. Jose is surprised too as he has never seen monkeys here.

Our small group taking a rest at the top
Descending down to Llactapata we
wonder if there are elves in this forest?

Our first sight over to Machu Picchu
We reach Llactapata in less than 10 minutes and are in absolute awe!!! Across the valley, we see Machu Picchu, what a sight!!!

At this moment, the two of us know that is was worth the effort of canceling our first Mely Tours trek in order to spend a day in this magical area. See our Cusco Blog for more details

Close up: the buildings and terraces
of Machu Picchu are in clear view.
The four of us could not get enough of this incredible "buena vista" of Machu Picchu (MP). The day had been soooo rewarding. We keep hearing the voice of the Mely Tours manager that tried to convince us that Llactapata was a boring trek...right, nice try!

Julane posing at Llactapata
The Llactapata ruins may not be that extensive, but the trek from La Playa to the ruins and the views across the valley to Machu Picchu are nothing less than breathtaking (and we are not talking about our breathing during the strenuous climb up). Also we had been pre-warned about sand flies at MP and we got a preview here.
View from inside the ruins
over to Machu Picchu
Julane thought that sand flies would be like the tiny biting gnats on the beach, but here they are more like regular flies crossed with horse flies. They bite into the flesh and leave a wound that is infected with an itchy venom that takes weeks to heal (probably because of the constant scratching!) Luckily later at MP, we didn't get attacked again.
One last "tourist shot"
After three quarters of an hour, we still don't want to leave, but Jose reminds us that we still have more than 5 hours more to go.

The way down to the hydroelectric plant (where our fellow Anglo-Saxon trekkers were dropped off at by bus this morning) is very steep and the most technical part of the entire 4 days.
On the way down from Llactapata
Machu Picchu with waterfall
The path is muddy and very slippery for a long stretch. Julane is as usual mastering the downhill without ever lifting an eyebrow, she runs down so fast that Jose can't even keep up. We again undercut Jose's time estimate considerably, although, we all have a bit of wobbly legs at the bottom. No wonder, we descended 913 meters (2995 ft) in only 65 minutes.

The "artificial" waterfall is
is much louder than it looks
From here on, the rest of the trek to Aguas Calientes would be almost flat... Easy! On the way, we hear a roaring sound which turns out to be a mighty waterfall with its spray cooling us nicely. It turns out that it is man made and shooting out of a long tunnel in the mountain from the hydroelectric plant, truly a beautiful and practical creation.

The walk to the Hydroelectric plant/train station is our lunch spot destination. It takes nearly an hour in the hot sun – no shade whatsoever. We've had every extreme on this trek!! Before we can sit down and rest we have to sign in at a government checkpoint. They keep close tabs of who is getting near Machu Picchu...we figure that they are in trial run for extracting a new fee in the near future. After all, there are number of treks going this way so consequently a perfect opportunity to extract more dineros.

The Hydro train station: Last stop
before reaching Aguas Calientes
The hydroelectric plant is also the end of the train line from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Hydro is actually farther than Machu Picchu town on the train. It is mainly used by locals... until the region gained in trekking popularity, that is. Soon the train monopoly noticed the increasing number of white faces sitting in their local train route...and $$$...foreigners now need to fork out $18 for the 40 minute train ride to Aguas Calientes – up from 7 dollars a few months back! Peru Rail is gaining even more brownie points with tourists.

No walking permitted!
All four in our group feel fit enough and decide to walk the remaining 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) after a short lunch break. To be perfectly honest: our brain is fitter than our legs luckily the adrenaline rush is still in full effect. Almost everyone else is walking too: Screw Peru Rail! Hopefully they will learn the lesson that even monopolies are subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Looks more dangerous than
it is... There is pedestrian
walk way on the right side
The walk to Aguas Calientes is along the train tracks. To our amusement there is a big warning sign at the beginning of the walk. "Do not walk on tracks" Nice try Peru Rail we will walk any way that we want to... one cocky person even wrote the directions directly onto the warning sign in protest :-)

Help! the track ate my legs!
Walking along the train line is much more enjoyable than we anticipated as a wide path undulates beside the tracks. Almost the entire distance is shaded by jungle foliage, trees and flowers, the incline is very gradual and only one train passes us during the 2½ hours walk. This is the perfect "cool down" after 4 days of trekking.

We can tell that we are getting close to our destination of Aguas Calientes: we notice more and more "clean looking" trekkers in fancy clothes looking very fresh... they must be day trippers! Our anticipation grows by the minute. We are only a short walk away from a hot shower. The first in 4 days!
Aguas Calientes is in
sight... Hurray
There are no words to describe the joy of seeing the town of Aguas Calientes, the tired legs, the sore feet and the blisters are quickly forgotten as we near our hotel. Not only would we get to take a hot shower, but also sleep in a real bed... Hurray!

"Stop taking pictures silly,
I want to take a shower first!"
We all meet for dinner at a restaurant and can't resist teasing the "Flat-Landers" about what they missed... Ok, they got to shower a few hours earlier than us and were not as knackered, but we had an unforgettable sneak preview of Machu Picchu.

Talking about Machu Picchu: tomorrow morning we would finally be able to cross off another item from our "bucket list". Day 5 of our trek is a full day's visit to this most famous tourist attraction in South America.
We are asleep in seconds, a real bed rarely felt this good before.

Day 5
Our Alarm clock goes off at 5:45am... We wish we could have slept longer. But there is time to sleep in at another time. Machu Picchu is waiting.

After a short breakfast we meet the group at the bus station. That's right we are taking the bus up to Machu Picchu. We could walk up, but want to preserve our energy to explore the ruins and climb the mountain peaks above the site.

Stay tuned and read our next Blog post about our impressions of Machu Picchu.

Day 5 ends with a walk down from the ruins back to Aguas Calientes... We could have taken the bus down but prefer being independent once again... actually walking down is a nice and an appropriate ending to a perfect 5 days of trekking... We consider it a kind of wind-down.

Our tourist train back to reality
We arrive back in Aguas Calientes just before dark; have a bite to eat before our train to Ollantaytambo leaves at 6:45pm. The train is packed full and we recognize many people that we encountered along the various stages of the Salkantay trek, everybody looks tired but satisfied... we feel exactly the same way. In Ollantaytambo everybody leaves the monopoly train and boards the waiting buses to Cusco (one last jab at Peru Rail: you guys could probably make more money by offering a reasonable fare all the way to Cusco as few agencies use them due to the expense. They call this train: The Backpacker's Train).

Our bus drops us in front of the Hotel around 11pm, we are too tired to fully appreciate the "Salkantay Experience"  but there will be time for that after a good night's sleep – and no alarm clocks or roosters awaiting us in the morning.

Our summary:
The Salkantay Trek is tough, but one of the more memorable experiences that we had during the 6 months that we've been traveling so far... We highly recommend this trek to anyone!

We covered a total of 2 passes.
Walked 23h 45min in 4 days from Casamarco to Aguas Calientes
Climbed 3,074 vertical meters (10,085 ft)
Descended 4,843 vertical meters (15,889ft)
Covered ~65 km (40 miles) of terrain

"Major muscle ache afterwards?" you may ask.. Actually no, the only aches that we have are some blistered toes and bug bites!

We can highly recommend our tour company X-treme Tourbulencia and our guide Jose Fuerte to anyone considering the Salkantay trek. 

Here is our trek on Google maps: click on the image for a larger view
View Salkantay in a larger map