I caught her totally off guard. The sun was setting behind the peaks of the Andes Mountains and the clouds caught the radiance of the dwindling daylight. One star appeared overhead followed shortly after by another. The Sound of Silence played in the distance via a speaker our guide had set up in his cabin. Looking into the distance we could just see the stone staircases of Machu Picchu before they faded into darkness, while the birds chirped a cheerful goodnight. We felt clean and refreshed after our first shower in days after hiking the Salkantay pass and tenting it on the trail. The Llaqtapata Lodge was a five star resort in comparison. We kissed and she turned away to notice the stars. I got down on one knee and pulled out the custom ring that I smuggled into Peru in the bottom of my backpack.
Trekking the Salkantay trail had been a dream of mine ever since I heard of it two years prior. When the trip started to take shape I knew that this was the spot to pop the question. The beauty and romance of it captivated me, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult the terrain was going to be. Our first rookie mistake was not allowing enough time to acclimate to the altitude. Our second rookie mistake was packing too much stuff. We flew into Cusco (approximate elevation 11,000 ft.) from Lima (which is at sea level) arriving around 7pm the day before the hike. We met with our guide who assured us that a mule would carry about 20kg of our gear for the duration of the trip. Heather and I looked at each other and packed another change of clothes. Big mistake. It turns out the mule is only available for the first few days and after that you carry everything yourself. We found that out the hard way.
The tour bus picked us up from our hostel in Cusco at 4:45am and we had a several hour drive out to the trail head, with the bus stopping at numerous places to grab food and gear for the trip. We all tried to sleep but it proved to be impossible due to the uneven roads and the preparations around us. The sun was up and starting to get strong when we arrived at our destination and gathered our gear for the 13km hike to base camp. It was a short walk made long by the altitude and terrain, but it was enjoyable due to the mountains, the flowers growing along the trail and the history around us. When we arrived at the camp, we relaxed for a half hour lunch and then headed up to a glacier lake near the base of Salkantay. It was steep and the temperature dropped rapidly with every passing minute but upon reaching our destination, the sight was well worth the toil. The lake was a brilliant blue, set against the backdrop of a glacier mountain, the water clear, fresh, and cold. We stayed for a short while and then headed back down to the valley for supper and to relax in our tents.
Day two starts bright and early. Heather was having a hard time with the altitude so we rented a horse for her. It will take her to the top of the Salkantay pass, but from there she will have to continue down the other side on her own. I decide to walk. After a quick breakfast, we start hiking on the trail that covers only approximately 6km as the crow flies, but is much longer due to the fact it twists and winds its way up the mountain and doubles back on itself because of the steepness of the mountain. We climb from approximately 11,900 ft to about 14,500ft to the Salkantay pass in only a few hours. Here we stop and build Pacha towers, thanking the Pacha Mama for safe passage in the way of the Inkan travellers from years gone by. We each remove three perfect coca leaves from our stashes and offer them to the mother earth. (Side note, chewing coca leaves while hiking at altitude is a very common way to increase oxygen flow to the muscles in Peru. Aside from numb cheeks, there are no other side effects and it tastes like green tea.) After this ceremony we start our decent down the other side of the mountain over increasingly rough terrain. Heather’s knees begin to bother her on the way down and eventually I tell her to put my backpack on, I put her bag on my chest and give her a piggyback ride part way down the mountain. The rain picks up and by the time we stop for lunch, we are all wet and pretty tired. However we still have a few more hours of hiking until we reach our campsite at Chaullay, a trek that ends almost at nightfall. The food was good that night and we had a few beers with our travel mates and had a card game before we all collapsed around 8.
A bus picks us up from Chaullay and takes us to Lucmabamba where we start an uphill climb again to the Llaqtapata lodge. The altitude is much lower here and we find we are hiking in jungle, amid much foliage and a few waterfalls. We stop several times along the way; the pace today is slower and more relaxed. We stop at a coffee house and pick coffee beans growing alongside the trail. We learn how to shell them, roast them over an open fire, and then grind them. The owner of the house makes us some coffee and brings out a spread of fresh avocado and fried banana chips and then plays us “The Condor Passes” on a wind instrument while his son plays a percussive beat on the jaw bone of a horse. We all buy a little something off of him for his hospitality before continuing on the way. After another hour or so, we stop at a structure built by the Inkas, our first view of some ruins. It is built in the manor of the buildings at Machu Picchu, a long building with high walls and narrow windows. The guide explains that it is a checkpoint on the trail to Machu Picchu, a place for the messengers to relax and take a break on their journey to the city of the kings. A short walk past this and we are at Llaqtapata lodge, a place with good food, hot showers and comfortable beds. After another five hours on the trail, we were all glad to stop and relax. I propose to Heather around nightfall and suddenly all the pain and exhaustion from the trail is gone.
Up early again and another 3 hour walk downhill from the lodge to a road that twists and winds through the valley. By this time my knees are hurting as well from the steepness and roughness of the trail and we take our time. The guide rushes us because he doesn’t want to miss the bus that is supposed to take us zip lining. We are in plenty of time. Our instructor at the zip line gives us a hard to understand tutorial in Spanglish, but through his mimes we discover the zip line has no brakes, we are required to brake by reaching behind us and grabbing the line with our hands. They give us gloves to wear and we all notice how worn they are. There are a series of five zip lines that take us back and forth across the valley at ever increasing lengths and speeds. After the last zip line, we walk on a rope ladder above the trees and back down to the bus. We go by bus to Hidroelectrica, a town built on the railroad that leads to Aquas Calientes and Machu Picchu. Another 30 minute walk takes us to a late lunch spot by the train station. We are tempted to take the train the rest of the way, but instead after lunch we pack our bags and walk beside the tracks for another 3 hours until we reach Aguas Calientes and the gate to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu day. We are up at 3am to be among the first people at the gates to Machu Picchu when they open at 6am. Mission accomplished, but when the gates open a flood of people stream into the ruins and it is impossible to get photos without tourists in the way. The fog is also hiding most of the ruins and we wait for about an hour until it lifts enough that we can see the rest of the buildings. Our guide gives a brief history of the buildings and the temples inside. He tells us how it was designed and for what purpose and then he is gone, taking the first bus he can back to Cusco. We explore for a few hours and take pictures with the Llamas and then we leave as well, heading back to Aguas Calientes to catch our train to Cusco.
The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was an unforgettable experience. It taught us resourcefulness, and pushed us to rely on each other. It pushed our limits and taught us that no matter how tough things get and no matter how much pain we are in, we can push through. The scenery was breathtaking, the people were wonderful and the experience is something I would highly recommend. If you have any questions or comments feel free to post them below!
Jonathan Beam is the author of Crimson Morning - The Philosophy of Travel, available on the member page by signing up above. He is a blogger who writes about travel, adventure and philosophy. He has also written a novel that is currently under consideration to be published!