Trekking Salkantay

The last time I talked about the Peru trip, Ben and I made it to Cusco. We took a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Arqueologo, which was 25 soles (about $8, which we later found out the price was a rip off – we should have paid less. It was only 10 soles the from the hotel to the airport). We loved our hotel. They had a beautiful lobby and bar where we hung out and a very pretty outdoor patio. We got free pisco sours with our check-in (very tasty!). There was free popcorn in the evenings. But what made the hotel so special to us was our room. Oddly I didn’t take a photo of it. Sad because I would have enjoyed looking at it now. But the decor of the room was rustic lofted cabin room. The first floor had our sitting room and the bathroom and the loft had the bed. The ceiling was made to look as if we had wooden rafters. We loved lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, and feeling like we were out in the wilderness.

Ben and I were quite excited because in less than 24 hours, we were going to be trekking to Machu Picchu! Our trekking company was Alpaca Expeditions. a company that I found thanks to T-Rex Runner. When Ben and I were trying to decide which company to go with, Alpaca Expeditions quickly rose to the top of our list thanks to their low prices and the ease with which we could work with them. They’re a fairly new company that not too many people know about, so they had plenty of dates

We settled in and then went out to Cusco to get some last minute supplies for our weeklong trek. We had been reassured that anything that we need for trekking can be bought in Cusco and they’re right. Shops selling warm down jackets, hiking boots, long underwear, camping gear and more are found everywhere. We went to Speedy Gonzalez to buy a long undershirt for me and to rent a down jacket for Ben and a couple of sleeping pads. I wanted Ben to get some hiking boots as well, but he refused thinking that his trail shoes were fine. We had already decided to rent sleeping bags from Alpaca Expeditions, but if you’re looking to cut costs, you could rent from an outfitter, like Speedy Gonzalez, and not from the trekking company.

We happened to randomly come across Alpaca Expeditions while walking around. We walked in to see when our orientation meeting would be. The office was packed with people (other backpackers) and they reassured us that our guide, Cesar, would come to our hotel later that night. He was coming back from a different trip that very moment. Cesar showed up, gave us a run-down of what to expect each day (itinerary here), and went over our belongings. Our personal belongings went inside duffle bags that they provided us. We needed to bring with us on the trail a small day  backpack to hold lunch, jackets, medication, sunscreen, and other personal items. He asked us about our shoes. I was set with hiking boots, but Cesar nixed Ben’s idea on hiking with trail shoes. He insisted that Ben rent hiking shoes, so after the debriefing we went back to Speedy Gonzalez. They’re open til midnight (thank goodness because if there’s anything you need the night before a trek, they got you covered). We got shoes for Ben and a pair of hiking poles for me. We packed our belongings that we were taking with us and left the rest at the hotel for us to pick up a week later.

Cesar and our crew (we met our head chef, Julian, and sous chef, Pancho, and our driver for the day) picked us up at 4 am. It was really dark. Our hotel kindly gave us breakfast (rolls and coffee) to take with us. We needed to leave earlier than usual because of construction on the freeway. Cesar said there was a section of the freeway that closed at 6 am for repairs and we needed to make sure that we were past that section. In a large minivan, Ben and I sat in the back seat and drowsily napped or idly watched out the window. Even during those early hours of the morning, there were plenty of people out on the streets and plenty of traffic from minivans picking up trekkers.

We drove for a few hours to Marccok’asa (where the trail head began). This was where we were supposed to meet our horseman. There was some problem as the horseman (and the horses) wasn’t there. Alpaca called and they found another horseman (and horses) to come meet us, but it was going to take a couple of hours. That was fine. We were going to get breakfast while waiting. Julian and Pancho immediately set up a cook site and started working – chopping, peeling, scrambling, and moving around like crazy. I found the whole process so fascinating that I took lots of photos. They were shy so they were embarrassed about being in my photos so I tried to be as discreet as possible.

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Our view at breakfast

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We had a feast! I can’t believe that I only took a photo of the fruit salad. We had scrambled eggs, toast, fruit salad, hot tea, and hot chocolate. Ben and I would soon learn that feeding us well with copious amounts of delicious tasty food was one of their missions. After we finished eating, we met up with the horseman and his horses. Our belongings and the camping gear were packed onto the horses and mules. The driver drove off in the van. This was it. We were going trekking.

Cesar, Ben, and I took off on the trail. The animals and our chaskis (Cesar explained to us that porter was considered to be a derogatory term and that they preferred to be called chaskis) went on a different trail to meet up with us later. From the start, the views amazed us. Ben and I scarcely believed that this was going  to be our experience for the next six days.

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I can’t adequately describe the incredible views and vistas that we had. Every second, we were blown away and we kept uttering, “Oh, wow! Wow!” Finally after a few millions wows, we ceased because we realized that we would never stop otherwise. At the above viewpoint, there was tragedy. I accidentally dropped my camera. I was devastated because we wanted photos and we just started our trek. We had our cell phones to take photos, but not enough power to allow us to take as many photos as we would have liked for a whole week. Cesar was great and allowed us to use his camera for the rest of the trip. We hiked for a couple hours and came to our lunch stop where Julian and Pancho had set up already and was preparing lunch for us.

Ben and I were surprised because we weren’t expecting a hot lunch. We thought that we would get a hot breakfast and dinner, and had no expectations for a hot lunch. We thought that they would pack some sandwiches for us for lunch. Nope! We got a multi-course lunch.

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Believe or not, there was actually more food. I took lots of photos of our food, but only about half of what we ate. The number of photos of our meals was getting a bit ridiculous.The food was really delicious. It’s incredible what Julian and Pancho were able to cook in a makeshift kitchen. The reviews always raved about the food, but I read it with a bit of skepticism, thinking, “Yeah, food always taste great when you’re really really hungry from hiking and camping.” No, the food is terrific PERIOD.

For most breakfasts, we had some sort of porridge and then some sort entree (pancakes, eggs), plenty of toast with hot tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. For lunch and dinner, we always had some sort of soup. either rice or pasta dish, vegetables, and some sort of meat dish (often times some kind of stew). Sometimes there was even a dessert. We always ate until we were stuffed to the gills. We thought we were going to lose weight on this trip because we were going to spend hours hiking on tough terrain. We both came back having gained weight (no joke). The food was so good that we had a hard time saying no to the endless courses that kept on coming. The platters would be out on the table. Ben and I ate heartily. We sighed happily at how delicious our meal was. Then Cesar would announce hat another course was coming. We protested that we couldn’t eat anymore, but as soon as we saw how incredible it looked, we dug right in. After every meal, we waddled out of the kitchen/dining tent.

Cesar always dictated when we would get up and get going. The pace was set by us, but we always needed to cover a certain distance in order to make sure that we made it to our campsite. The reason why Ben and I elected to do a private tour was because we like going at our pace – fairly fast. If a group is slow, the day starts earlier and ends later. Cesar told us to pack our headlamps into our day bags, which Ben and I did, but we didn’t know why until later. The slower groups don’t make it to camp until dinner time, which by then is quite dark. The really slow groups start really early in the day too and may leave before the sun is even fully up. Ben and I hike pretty quickly, so we always had pretty leisurely days in the sense that we left “late” and arrived early. We woke up around 6 or 6:30 am, ate breakfast at 7 am and leave just after 7:30. We always had time for a nap after lunch. We arrived to our evening camp site by 4 or 4:30 pm. Plus Ben and I went to bed at 7:30 pm at the latest. For Cesar and the chaskis, these were very short days.

Our first lunch was delicious (a guacamole appetizer, vegetable soup, rice, Peruvian beef and broccoli dish). We got to nap for 20 min after lunch (sorely needed) before we started hiking again.

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We hiked for a few more hours until we got to our first camp site, Soraypamapa (3800 meters high, about 12,500 feet). In total we hiked about 15 km (a little more than 9 miles). Our first camp site was in a remote place. We were the only ones there. We felt so isolated from the world. Without any internet, we had no way of connecting with people out in the world. Anything could have happened and we would have absolutely no idea. It was a thrilling and scary thought all at once.

There are very few things in this world as fast and as efficient as a Peruvian chaski. Every day, these chaskis work so hard to make sure that we (the tourists) have a good time. They wake up before we do to prepare hot water for our morning ablutions and to make breakfast. After we eat breakfast and set out for our hike, the chaskis clean up, break down our tents,pack up and head out on the trail themselves carrying all of the gear and belongings after we had already left. They quickly walk (we often made it a game to see how fast we could go before the chaskis caught up  and passed up) to the lunch site. There they set up the kitchen/dining tent and cook lunch. We arrive, eat, and nap. Then we leave for our afternoon hike. The chaskis once again clean up after us, break down the tent, and pack up. Once again, even though we leave before them, they pass us on the way to the evening camp site. While waiting for us to arrive, they set up the kitchen/dining tent, our sleeping tent and our sleeping bags, and prepare dinner. When we arrive in the afternoon, everything was all set up. While waiting for dinner, there was “Happy Hour,” which was hot tea and hot chocolate, freshly popped popcorn, and cookies. Of course, Ben and I stuff ourselves with snacks. Then we gorged on dinner. Thoroughly stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, we made our way to our tent to sleep. The day wasn’t over for the chaskis. They cleaned up, ate their own dinner, and relaxed or slept for the night before starting the same routine the next day.

Ben and I earned our nicknames of being The Chicken Couple. That’s because after dinner, without fail, we went to our tent to go sleep. Cesar made this joke that we were like chickens because as soon as the sun went down, we went to bed. It’s true. It was dark by 6, 6:30 and we were in bed by 7:30. Part of the reason was that we were tired and cold (summer in the northern hemisphere means that it’s winter in Peru), but mostly we did it because the chaskis’ sleeping tent was our kitchen/dining tent. During the day, the tent was split in half with a tarp so that one side was the kitchen and the other side was the dining side. While Cesar, Ben, and I could stay warm inside the tent on the dining side, the kitchen side didn’t have enough room for all the chaskis to be inside and be warm. As long as we were inside eating, some of our chaskis would be outside in the cold. So Ben and I went to our tent to allow the chaskis space inside the tent and so that they could relax themselves. If you’re wondering why we didn’t let the chaskis on our side of the dining tent, we didn’t have a problem with sharing space with the chaskis, but they’re very bashful. Ben and I actually would have enjoyed having the tarp down and watching the cooking process, but Julian and Pancho were too shy to have us around like that. The chaskis (including the additional ones who arrived later) speak Quechuan and some Spanish, and absolutely no English. Ben and I, on the other hand, speak English, very little Spanish, and no Quechuan. Cesar was our interpreter. We would have like to spend more time talking to Julian and Pancho, but it was hard between their natural shyness and the language barrier.

Every morning one of the chaskis brought cups of hot coca tea and hot water for washing. The first few days Pancho was the one who brought us our tea. Either Ben or I would hear a quiet tap outside of our tent and a murmur of “Buenos dias.” We grabbed our tea and thanked Pancho. Then we spend the next few minutes sitting inside our tent in our sleeping bags, sipping tea, and talking about whatever popped into our minds.

Peru 361After breakfast and before we headed out, Julian or Pancho placed our snacks on a platter for us to take. The snacks were usually a fruit (banana, passion fruit, pear, etc) and a package of cookies or crackers. Half the time Ben and I never ate our snacks because we were so full from dinner and breakfast. Alpaca Expeditions feeds you very very well. I miss Julian’s cooking.

The morning hike for us included a short detour up the mountain to go see a beautiful mountain lake, while the chaskis went straight to the lunch site. The hike up to the lake was really steep, but it was well worth it.

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A steep hike up means that there’s a quick hike down. Cesar had warned us that if we wanted anything like Coke or Gatorade that we had better bring it with us because there would be no stores nor any opportunity to buy such things. With all the tourists coming through the trails, the local farmers had quickly discovered that selling a few bottles of soda and some souvenirs were a good way to make some extra money. A day didn’t go by that we didn’t come across someone trying to sell us stuff. No matter how far you go, a gift shop was always somewhere around.

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We hiked til lunch and ate ourselves silly again. I’m getting hungry from posting all these food photos.

Corn soup

Corn soup

Pasta and fritters

Pasta and fritters

Beef stew

Beef stew

Chocolate soup for dessert

Chocolate soup for dessert

We hiked some more (after a nap) and camped at the base of Salkantay, the highest peak. We hiked about 13 km (8 miles) and gained about another 1000 ft in elevation. This campsite was the highest campsite (and the coldest). The view of the wild unforgiving mountain and glaciers of Salkantay was unbelievable. I felt like I was an explorer going deep into an unknown uncharted territory.

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Hiking to our second campsite at the base of Salkantay

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Snow and clouds blowing off Salkantay

Evening view

Evening view

Our view from our tent

Our view from our tent

We had another fabulous dinner and early night. Although it was cold, it wasn’t bad at all (at least for me). I was quite warm and comfortable by sleeping in long underwear underneath my sleeping clothes (sweats) and Alpaca Expeditions gave us thick warm blankets on top of our sleeping bags. Ben and I worried about the chaskis being warm at night because they sleep in the kitchen/dining tent that isn’t as weather-proof as a camping tent. We stole brought airline blankets with us. I told Ben to give them to the chaskis to help them keep warm. Ben gave them the blankets and the fruit that we hadn’t eaten for our snacks to give to them as presents. Julian and Pancho accepted them, but looked very confused. They went to Cesar to ask what this was and why we were doing this. Ben was puzzled over their behavior and wondered why they didn’t understand. I cracked a joke that no good ever came out of a white man giving the indigenous people blankets and that they were wise to be cautious.

The next morning I almost died. We woke up to cattle. In our campground, there were several cattle standing around. I wasn’t terribly thrilled about being surrounded by potentially dangerous cattle with horns that could spear you. Cesar reassured me that everything was fine. Normally I would have gone out to use the eco-toilet (a small chemical toilet), but with a cattle jealously guarding it, I decided that I would rather wander off and go out in nature. I walked to where no one could see me. As I was about to prepare myself to do my business, a cattle walked, stopped, and stared straight at me. I was petrified. In my head I was thinking, “Great, I’m going to die on the second morning of the trek.” I screamed Ben’s name and for help. Out in the wilderness, no one can hear you scream. I screamed several more times and finally Ben heard me. He asked me what was going on, but I couldn’t scream back in response. Every time I screamed the cattle walked closer and closer to me, only to stop when I stopped screaming. He was now quite close to me. He even pawed his hoof on the ground. I was convinced that any moment now I was going to draw my last breath. Considering how Ben goes looking for me when I take longer than expected on runs on well-known paths, I fully expected Ben to come looking for me in my hour of need. Did he? No! Not hearing me, Ben continued to eat breakfast as if nothing was wrong! Finally after several minutes, the cattle got bored and walked away. I quickly scrambled back to the campsite. Cesar and Ben inquired where I had been and I told them the whole story. Ben’s going to read this entire thing and protest that I’m exaggerating and that I was never in any danger because all of the cattle were very tame and had no interest in goring me. Cesar said that I should have just charged at the animal because all he was interested in was the salt in my urine. At this high altitude, salt was difficult fo the cattle to get. I know what I saw and experienced. I was given a second chance at life that morning.

This post is quite long, so I’ll end here. More to come later.

7 thoughts on “Trekking Salkantay

  1. Beautiful writeup. I traveled to Cuzco in the ’90s, although didn’t schedule a trek. Good thing, since the 13,000 feet brought on altitude sickness and took my energy level with it. Still, I loved Cuzco and found it to have a strong spiritual feel. Look forward to hearing the rest of the story.

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