A few days ago, I got word from my dear friend Percy that he received my post card which left Greece and was bound for Peru nearly three months ago! I was thrilled to hear it had reached him, as I love to stay connected with my friends in all corners of the world. And so, I was re-inspired to share the story of my first 24 hours of the Salkantay Trek and provide you all with the contact information for the best guide in all of Peru, should you want to embark on a trek of your own.
Just last month, as I reflected on all that 2018 brought, Peru stood out as one of the undeniably high, highs in many ways.
The most obvious high was the altitude, as the Salkantay Pass exists at 4,600 meters/15,090 ft. But the challenge and uncertainty that I experienced in reaching it made the success that much sweeter. Although 15,000 feet of elevation is a lot (actually, it is officially classified as “very high altitude” which exists between 11,500 and 18,000 feet), the real high of this experience was the group of people that I shared it with – my dear friend Ashley, the two coolest Germans I have ever met, and the amazing Percy. Trip Advisor was right – he truly is the best – but in a much more real way than I could have anticipated.
The Salkantay Trek was my first international adventure after becoming single again last spring, and it was just my second international ladies’ trip (which I am finding I love more and more!). For Ashley and me, this trip was intended to focus on ourselves through physical challenges and to reconnect after a year apart. She was first to move away from Hawaii, followed by myself several months later to Boston and Charlottesville, respectively. So naturally, as boys were last on our minds (Edwin, I have no doubt you were always in the back of hers!) Ashley and I had the cutest and sweetest guide in all of Peru: Percy.
We met Percy and our trekking crew at 5:00am on a cold August morning in Cusco and loaded up for our five days in the Andes. I always love this moment of meeting the people who you know you’re bound to grow close with, and recognizing that you’re about to watch the slow unfolding of a group of strangers to something much more personal – in this case, the Pumas (our self-proclaimed trekking team) and life-long friends.
Lin, Achim, and Percy were our trekking companions. Lin and Achim are in their mid-50’s and exemplify living in a way that I can only hope to when I am their age. Achim is a perpetual rock-star. Literally, if you saw him you would probably mistake him for Axl Rose. He is tall, blonde, witty, and sassy. Lin is a fierce, driven woman who loves to be outdoors, creates when she isn’t frolicking outside, and has created an incredibly meaningful career for herself. Funnily enough, on our third day of trekking together, Lin and I discovered that we share the same birthday: July 21st. It only added to the explanation of why we all clicked so magically. And then there was Percy, who consistently showed up with a smile, had the best coffee bean-stirring dance moves, consistently assured us “5 more minutes“, and sang “The Lion Sleeps” with me as I traversed an exposed, dry, cliffy section of trail. Percy was the first to suggest that perhaps I fell off a cliff to my death in a previous life, which is really the only explanation for why I am so fear-inhibited/incapable/rigid on exposed sections of trail.
So, after meeting this group of strangers at 5:00am on a Monday and enjoying a stunning three hour ride through the Andes, we reached the town of Challacancha to begin our adventure. We unloaded from the van and watched as donkeys were loaded-up and groups of trekkers completed their preparations and briefings for the journey ahead.
The first half-day of the walk was a piece of cake. It was about three hours of walking before we reached our first camp at Soraypampa. Ashley and I were underwhelmed with the difficulty of the trek thus far – which was confidence inspiring! Once we settled into camp around 2pm, which for this first night was a beautiful thatched A-frame hut, we ate the biggest lunch prepared by our lovely cook, Sebastian. My eyes were bigger than my stomach, because I took more than my fill. As a result, I attempted feeding the donkeys my leftovers as they wanted nothing to do with me in my first attempt of donkey-befriending.
The food helped as far as the donkey interactions went. Ashley watched (either slightly disgusted or confused as to my infatuation with these animals) as I attempted to make friends. I had marginal success.
After lunch, our group was to hike to Humantay Lake, situated at 13,799 feet, for further acclimatization in preparation for the next day’s hike – the hardest day of the journey to Machu Picchu. After a brief rest following lunch, we booted up and prepared for the long slog.
This is when I began to feel less than stellar. The real sickness wouldn’t come until I had nearly completed the descent from Humantay. The first half of the climb was uncomfortable but manageable. Our group comprised of strong hikers, so we were making fast tracks but I was beginning to struggle. I was cold but sweaty and had removed my hat, which was probably a poor decision as the wind was picking up.
The lake was beautiful, and I managed to take some photos of our group despite feeling headachy and weak. Percy serenaded us on his flute for the first time, and we shared some snacks before retreating.
As we descended, I finally let Ashley know that I felt like s-h-i-t. As soon as we returned to Soraypampa, I expelled the giant lunch I had enjoyed just a few hours before. My vomiting continued into the evening. I attempted to join the group for dinner, but after a few bites of soup I was sprinting back to the donkey-pen to find an out of the way place to puke. (When you choose a travel companion, get you one that’s gonna shine their headlamp on your vomit to figure out what’s left in your system. Ashley was a trooper – and was probably more curious than most!)
What I didn’t know was that while I was attempting sleep, Ash, Percy, Lin, and Achim were discussing various outcomes if I wasn’t going to pull through. By this point, I had a piercing headache, had 0 of anything left in me – fluids or solids – and was incredibly week. That evening before I went to try and sleep off my sickness, Percy consoled me and told me not to worry – that I would be fine. I was doubtful, but his ease and confidence helped me put my worries to the wayside partially.
I believed I was suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness as I had a severe headache, was vomiting into the night, and experienced weakness and sleeplessness. With this knowledge, I had no idea how I would fare the next day. But to my disbelief, I awoke the next morning, which was to be the stoutest day, feeling relatively decent. Aside from being slightly weak, my headache had disappeared and my body felt fine. It was go time!
And so, our 2,350 foot ascent at nearly 13,000 feet began. The sights were beautiful. I felt minuscule as I stood beneath 20,000’+ mountains. It’s in moments like this that I truly appreciate our insignificance. At this point, our Puma trekking team already felt like family – closeness and camaraderie exacerbated by my puking and maladies the night before, I think. You’re welcome, Pumas. (I mean, are they really friends if you can’t talk about all of the bodily functions?!)
Percy led the way and took care to check in with each of us. Ashley charged up the mountain, followed by Lin, myself, and then Achim. Achim consistently reminded me that slow and steady was the way to success, and he motivated me as the caboose (which I was thankful not to be as I was clearly the weakest link).
About five hours of climbing later, we finally made it to the top of the Salkantay Pass. Photos were taken, high-fives were exchanged. The most challenging part was now behind us! While the views were impressive, I could not have prepared myself for the place that Percy was taking us next. He had said the evening before, a guide motivation trick, I’m sure, that if we made it up the pass in good time, he had a surprise for us. After 30 minutes of winding through rock scree and rock gardens, he led us to the most beautiful lake I had ever seen.
We took in the views and sat in awe of the Andes, thanking Pacha Mama and exuding gratitude.
On a more humorous note, Ashley and I recognized this as a great peeing opportunity and were squatting on opposite sides of a rock when a mini-avalanche took place on Salkantay Mountain, just on the other side of a ravine. This was a particularly hilarious as we both froze and simultaneously prepared to run for our lives mid-relief and half decent. Good times, Ash!
For the remaining four days, we laughed, discussed life, feasted, hiked beneath the sunrise and sunset, soaked in the thermal baths of Santa Theresa, had a dance party, and walked on train tracks until I never wanted to see tracks again. Finally, we reached the town of Aguas Calientes where we enjoyed some of the luxuries of civilization before preparing to see Machu Picchu first thing the next morning.
The Salkantay Trek had been on my list for a couple of years at this point, but I could have never anticipated the amazing people I would meet through this journey.
Organizing your Salkantay Trek.
When Ashley and I made our travel plans, we decided to book through a company called ITEP online and in advance as we had a short 10 days in Peru and didn’t want to lose time in the mountains because of local booking snafus. And while our experience was fabulous, it was because of Percy rather than ITEP. Our frustration with ITEP stemmed from their renigging on a previous agreement to include sleeping bags for free, being booked at separate hotels in Aguas Calientes from Lin and Achim, and poor accommodations at the hostel we were booked at (loud, and a lack of hot water). So, in an effort to support our friend Percy and eliminate the middle man, I am excited to provide you with his contact information should you wish to book a trek with him directly! I have no doubt that you will have the BEST time, and he has all of the knowledge and resources to organize the trek independent of a large tourist company.