Bronchitis and Beauty: Salkantay to Macchu Picchu

While Jess was (unbeknownst to me) being attacked by a venomous spider, I was winding my way up through the narrow mountain pass between Salkantay and Humantay and back down to the jungle before ending up in Macchu Picchu. Given Jess’ not-so-successful negotiations with high altitude in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, we co-opted Phil from San Diego to be the “New Jessica” for the trip. The group was all double X chromosomes other than Phil, so suffice it to say he was happy with the mostly-female trip arrangements.

As with any multi-day trip, who you travel with in large part determines how much you will enjoy your trek. To say I lucked out with this trip is an understatement: by the end of our 5 days we were practically a family. The group consisted of Phil, Lee Ann and Jennifer from Breckenridge, two strong, funny and energetic women, and Jessica from London, who despite saying she wasn’t nearly fit enough to do this trip, made it to the top of every mountain we climbed in record time, with a fear of heights.

Our guide (Aquiles) was from the town of Mollepata where the trek began, and boasted a litany of skills: cowboy, homeopathic doctor, polyglot, botanist, etc., and also hands down the best hair on anyone we’ve seen in South America thus far. Our group (minus Phil) quickly placed bets on who could first muss up his mop of tousled curls. By the end of our trip, we were so sad to part ways that we made a plan to meet up the next day at 10am, guide and all.

The trip began in Mollepata, quickly making our way to Soray Pampa. From Mollepata, the Salkantay trail squeezes through the mountains, peaking at 4640m with the sheer glory of Salkantay looming to the right and Humantay to the left. Sadly, the Night Bus From Hell meant that my bronchitis was back with a vengeance, and I not only re-pulled the muscles under my ribs from coughing nonstop, but couldn’t breathe when sedentary in Cusco, let alone climbing through the mountains.

I wheezed my way up some of the trail and kept telling the group I was fine, but around Soyrococha my lungs started making sounds that, quite frankly, I don’t think lungs are supposed to make. So, I ceded to our guide’s advice and got on the rescue mule to carry me up the rest of the pass. I will say that the rescue mule? Is just for rescue, meaning that while the other mules are loaded up with bags and food, this one is ….slightly spoiled, with no load at all. Until I got on, that is. And then the mule refused to budge, and was clearly VERY VERY PISSED OFF that I was hitching a ride.

Once we hit the highest point, I got off the Mule that Couldn’t (seriously – this animal shied away from me every time it saw me for the rest of the trek), I rallied for the rest of the trek. We camped our first night nestled between the mountains in a place so breathtakingly beautiful that we all stayed out in the freezing cold just to stare up at the mountains and the stars. The sun went down and the mountains turned a fiery red and then practically glowed as the moon came up…The white, thick silence of being in the middle of nowhere and at the foot of some of the most awe-inspiring mountains I have ever seen will remain one of the high points of my travels, I am sure.

Our second day had us climbing downhill for what felt like an eternity, and camping at Colcapampa, in what looked like it was someone’s backyard. Think: fenced in farm, with chickens (each with plastic bags tied to their wings to deter eagles from snatching them, meaning we called them Super Chickens because they looked like they had capes), pigs, horses and roosters…and our tents. As night fell, several dogs started fighting with each other and kept up through the night. I braved the cold to pee at 3am and was startled by one of the pigs snorting at the bathroom tent, waiting for me to finish. It was surreal and hilarious and exactly the kind of place you want to be on a trek that eventually leads you to one of the most renowned set of ruins on earth.

Salkantay trek includes decorated chickens!

Super Chicken!

In the morning, we moved on to the jungle, with Aguiles stopping to give us the history of the valleys and peaks, and having us sample granadilla and wild strawberries along the trail. We passed waterfalls and some incredibly lush mountains, carpeted in trees, to finally make it to our campsite at Santa Teresa, where we were able to hang out in the hot springs and actually feel somewhat clean for the first time in several days.

We bussed it in the AM to Hidro Electrica (exactly what it sounds like) and started a long, 4 hour walk on the railroad tracks till Putucusi mountain. Now, I said before that my low point was being ill (2x!) behind a burnt out bus at the Bolivian border, but to add to the list, I stayed back from the group to pee by the side of the tracks and, just as I had squatted down, a train passed by, saw my bare ass and blew its horn. I was so startled that I fell over, pants down, into the brush. Hilarious and awful all at the same time, and I´ve got mosquito bites on my butt to prove it!

Our 4 hour traipse on the uneven tracks completed, we started our ascent of Putucusi mountain – NOT on our original itinerary, but since the trail is basically a series of vertical ladders with ropes to haul yourself up, and a crazy view of Macchu Picchu from the top, we all decided it´d be a fun way to end the day. Did I say fun? I meant grueling, at least for someone who already bruised her ribs.

Note to the wise: dragging yourself up wooden ladders is NOT the way to heal your side. I definitely took my time (as the two ladies from Denver basically ran up the mountain), since the ladders gave way to huge rocks and switchbacks (Wiki says approx 1700 steps in all) but made it to the top and the views were spectacular.

Putucusi on the way from Salkantay to Macchu Picchu

Putucusi Ladders: don’t do this if you have a messed up rib. TRUST.

We crashed in Aguas Calientes that night and got up at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise at Macchu Picchu. As though climbing through Salkantay and Putucusi weren´t enough, we also decided to climb Wayna Picchu, the peak that looms directly over the ruins. This took the last bit of energy out of all of us, but was beautiful.

The group (minus Jessica from London) atop Wayna Picchu:

Saktantay trek to Macchu Picchu, with its rightful end atop Wayna Picchu

The group (minus Jess) after we summitted Wayna Picchu

People have thus far asked about the Salkantay trek and the Macchu Picchu part of the trip, expecting it to be the highlight. I have to say that while the ruins were magnificent, they were filled with people and cameras and jumbled chaos. I much preferred the solitude of the Salkantay Pass and the tangled humidity of the jungle to our last morning at the ruins themselves. Plus, I was pretty happy that, despite being sick, I still made it up Putucusi and Wayna Picchu (albeit slooowly). Seeing the condor-shaped Macchu Picchu from the top of Wayna Picchu was a more momentous occasion than wandering through the ruins themselves – it gave a much better indication of the artistry, planning and symbolism that went into building them so long ago. (Though I will say that the many many llamas wandering aimlessly through Macchu Picchu itself were a real treat – the group, already aware of my llama obsession, said they´d come back for me “in a few hours” once they saw the look on my face at the first llama-spotting.)

All in all, the trek was all I wanted and more. I have no doubt that we will all stay in touch, and we´ve been practically inseparable in Cusco since we returned. We will part ways tomorrow when Jess, Phil and I head up to Huacachina to meet friends from San Pedro de Atacama and for some R&R;, but I am sure our paths will cross again.

Oh, and I also found out I have giardia (parasites) today and thus might scrap the Days of Sickness on my trip counter, and change to Days of Health instead – seems like it´d be a ton easier!

-Jodi