The Mighty Salkantay Trek: Peru
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
One of my best friends and I traveled to Peru with the dream of seeing Machu Picchu. First, we flew into the tiny Cuzco airport full of sunshine and good mountain vibes.
After our three days of acclimatizing in the warm and lovely city of Cuzco, and with no small amount of worry on my part regarding my fitness level eligibility for this trek, considering I’d only been applying myself to relaxation, smoking and drinking to date, we set off at 5am the next morning to begin our grand adventure. As per usual I slept on the moving vehicle (mini bus this time) to the drop site so not much to report.
We all began our hike with only a day pack – such incredible luxury I have never known in my young life. It will be hard to go back to lugging all my own shite.
The rest of the gear was towed by mules and porters who started with us, passed us, had lunch ready on arrival to whichever stunning lunch spot was chosen, stayed behind to clean up after, passed us again, and had dinner and tents ready when we arrived at the next beautiful sleeping spot. These guys were wonderful, mysterious legends. I got the opportunity to play soccer with them halfway through the trek after only a half day of hiking, my friend Syd was unfortunately riding out a nasty foreign stomach bug in the tent (we suspect it was from sleepily gulping down gallons of water… from the tap... at our hotel in Lima after our rooftop drinking sesh), so I played soccer with the guys and enjoyed every second.
Even though I could barely breathe at that altitude and I’m sure my face looked like a tomato with hair, it had been so long since I played and it felt good. It was simply glorious, the game, the guys, the setting, and I think they were impressed with my enthusiasm to play (everyone else took this opportunity to nap in the tent before dinner), because they came to find me afterwards in our tent and insisted I come join them for an after game beer.
I felt bad that the beer they bought me was practically their days’ wages, and I can’t drink beer anyway, but I did and it was honestly the best I've ever had. An ice cold beer after a game of soccer with new friends – doesn’t matter where you are in the world, there’s really nothing better. During that long and friendly broken Spanish conversation I learned that the local biting gnats are called “puma wakatchi” in Quechua, the native language of Peru, which literally translated means “makes pumas cry”… and at that time I vowed to name my first child after this. Or at least a car*. Or a pet.
Our trek guide, Isaac, was one of the most enigmatic and wonderful people I've ever met. Both Syd and I were a little in love with him I think. He's the kind of guy you want to make your best friend but don't know how. By day, he was full of restless energy, pushing the group on, his friendly face shouting, "Kick it, champions!!!" whenever we started to look tired or discouraged. During our short breaks, he would turn into a picture of serenity, finding a spot that seemed just right for him, and he'd pull out a flute and start playing. I'm not musically talented, but I'd have to say he's probably not the best flute player in the world, and yet he was doing it for pure joy and the results were magical in that breathtaking place. Not something I will ever forget.
By night, after we'd all stuffed ourselves to the gills with the cook's impressive dinners produced from his tiny tent kitchen where the entire crew also spent the evening and ate their food, we would sit back in the guest tent, sipping a beer, and Isaac would turn out one lantern, and bring the other closer to his face. Then, with the light illuminating his beautiful weathered brown face peeking beneath his tasseled beanie, he would entrance us all with a different portion every night of his country's rich history. I feel like we all learned more about the real Peru than we ever could have from a guidebook. And he didn't stop at the history. He explained what his people, the Quechua believe in, which was beautiful. According to him their whole culture is steeped in this "mystismo". Some of his words, as best as I can remember them:
"When you close your eyes, the pinholes of light that you see are tunnels to other dimensions protected by the Gatekeepers. If you focus hard enough, one of these pinholes will widen into a tunnel and a gatekeeper may guide you to a place where you can ask them for help or a question. Gatekeepers can take the form of any animal, including puma, condor, and cobra. Caves belong to them (the gatekeepers). And there is a duality to everything mystic, both a mother and a father earth."
I'm not much for new age stuff, but this is an ancient legacy of beliefs, made real by the beautiful people who deserve to feel one with the earth because for generations and generations that's exactly what they've been. All I know is that sitting in that tent, camped in the stunning isolation of the beautiful Andes, and having this special person share himself with complete strangers, made my soul incredibly happy.
Visually, the entire trek was composed of snowy vistas in the near distance, switchbacks and passes along the mountain range, waterfalls, colourful chickens scattered in tiny villages high on the mountaintop, and towards the end glimpses of amazon jungle so green it hurt the eyes. The whole week was exhilarating and honestly a relief that I didn’t embarrass myself handling it. In actual fact it was so much easier than the hikes I've done before, with the high altitude and the fact that they carried 6kg of our luggage, plus tents and food, mostly cancelling each other out. After many steps and beautiful vistas, we arrived in the small foothills town of Machu Picchu called Aguas Calientes.