Monday August 29, 2011
Starting point – Mollepata (9,544’)
Ending point – Soraypampa (11,150’)
Elevation gain – 1,606 feet
Today we began our 7-day private trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay trail. We chose this route because it is known to be substantially less crowded than the classic 4- or 5-day Inca trail. In fact, Frank later told us that only around 10% of their treks follow the 7-day Salkantay route. After considering both the crowds and weather, we settled on late August/early September. Considered the shoulder season, this time of year is just prior to the start of the rainy season (October–March), and the throngs of Inca trail tourists on summer holiday from the U.S. and Europe have trailed off. In addition to the seclusion, we were also keen to have more time enjoying the added scenery – the landscape around Salkantay, the highest peak in the Cusco region’s Willkapampa range, is supposed to be breathtaking.
We drove about two hours west of Cusco to Mollepata, where we joined our guide, Frank, our team of porters and a cook, and a few donkeys and horses, who would be our four-legged porters for the Salkantay portion of the hike. From atop the first hill where we began our journey, we caught our first sweeping views of the Peruvian Andes – majestic, rolling peaks as far as our eyes could see. Today’s hike was quite easy; the narrow, dirt trail wound around several miles of mountainside with little gain in elevation. Frank informed us that it would be good acclimatization for the following day, one of the two longest portions and our highest campsite.
Along the trail we stopped for our first lunch, a delicious, fresh pasta primavera, unlike any typical camp food one would have anticipated. We finished the meal both sated and impressed, and followed the path along the side of a steep gorge. As we rounded another corner, we spotted the first towering, snow-capped peak (Humantay, 19,413 feet). We descended down into the valley and made our camp at Soraypampa, nestled among the snow-covered summits.
After the sun had set, we sat in the crisp, night air in absolute darkness, as there was no light pollution for a hundred miles. The sky was like nothing we had ever seen before – thousands upon thousands of stars flickering in the blackness. It was so clear that we were able to visibly discern the bands of the Milky Way, something I had never before seen and something I surely will not soon forget.
Tuesday August 30, 2011
Starting point – Soraypampa (11,150’)
Ending point – Pampajaponesa (14,110’)
Elevation gain – 2,960 feet
We awoke this morning to clear blue skies, and the bright sunrise had washed the valley with a warm, amber glow. After a breakfast of quinoa porridge and some fresh fruit, we began our trek through the flat valley, making our way beneath the towering, snowy peak of Humantay. As the trail turned sharply to the right, and continued to twist between craggy peaks rising up on either side, the immense, glaciated peak of Salkantay emerged from the valley in front of us. We continued walking for a few more hours through the vast Salkantaypampa, a golden, grassy plain dotted with huge boulders and etched by a small, glacial stream.
When we neared the end of the valley, we stopped for lunch below Nevado Salkantay, which was now soaring immediately in front of us. We had conveniently stopped not far from some enormous rocks, a seemingly perfect, private ladies’ room. The ground on the far side of the boulders, however, was a skosh uneven and rock-strewn, necessitating some awkward leaning on the stone. Unfortunately, I inadvertently rested on some sort of spiny lichen, resulting in an immediate burning sensation, much like a painful bee sting. I walked back to the lunch tent rubbing the top of my stinging backside and grabbed my pack, as we were about to make a steep ascent to our high camp for the night – Pampajaponesa at just over 14,000 feet. As the pain intensified, I pulled down my hiking pants to show Stephan; indeed, a red rash had formed. I had to roll my eyes and laugh… every trip we go on, I seem to have some type of reaction to something, odd for someone who seems to be allergic to absolutely nothing in everyday life. I considered taking a Benadryl (now a staple of my travel gear), but decided against it since we were going to altitude and I had no idea if there were any associated risks.
We made our way up an exceedingly steep ridge, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in altitude. It was our first attempt at high-altitude hiking and, though we both felt fine, it certainly did leave us breathless at times. We continued for a couple of hours up the steep slope, with Salkantay looming continually to our left, its summit ensconced in puffy clouds. Finally we reached the top, each of us with a sense of accomplishment and me with a less-sore rear. Apparently a good hike is the perfect cure for a throbbing, irritated ass… who knew?
After a well-deserved dinner this evening, we sat in the dining tent with Frank, playing cards, eating popcorn, and enjoying delightfully-warm coca tea in the freezing night air. Our campsite was about 1 km from Salkantay, and about 6,000 feet below the summit of the 20,574’ peak. In the distance we could hear the crashing of small avalanches, tumbling from tremulous glaciers. It was really a remarkable experience.
While we were immersed in card games, we noticed the wind pick up a bit. A short time later I glanced down at the ground at noticed snow coming in the tent door. We peeked outside to find a mix of blowing snow, thunder, and lightning. Seeing as this was my first camping trip (way to wade in, right?), I was immediately apprehensive and asked Frank if there were frequent snowstorms up here. A straightforward “no” was his reply. Well, that was reassuring. Shortly thereafter we headed to our tent, the snow already accumulating on the ground. Needless to say, it took us quite a while to finally fall asleep, as our tent was buffeted in the snowy wind, and the nearby crashing of thunder and falling ice from Salkantay enwrapped us.
Wednesday August 31, 2011
Starting point – Pampajaponesa (14,110’)
Ending point – Sisaypampa (12,300’)
High point – Incachiriaska Pass (16,010’)
Elevation gain – 1,900 feet
I opened my eyes abruptly this morning. We made it! I had not been buried under feet of snow. In fact, the wind was now quite calm and I could see the bright sunlight through our green, nylon dome. We unzipped the door and emerged into a veritable winter wonderland! The intense blue color of the sky was further amplified by the entirely white landscape. Our campsite and the neighboring hills were blanketed in a few inches of powdery snow. In front of us, the dark, jagged edges of Salkantay peeked out from the huge glaciers and fresh dusting of snow. We grabbed a cup of hot coca tea and just stood out beside the staggering peak in total isolation and silence, taking in the incredible scenery. The views alone would have been spectacular, but the unexpected snowfall created an almost magical scene.
After taking in the magnificent snowscape over breakfast, we packed up and headed toward the adjacent ridge. At 16,010 feet, the Incachiriaska Pass (“where the Inca cools down” in Quechua) would be our high point of the 7-day trek. With each step we took up the rocky slope, now slippery with wet snow, the views got increasingly more beautiful. We passed a pair of Andean geese investigating the wintry terrain as two glacial lakes came into sight, each with a distinct azure hue. Eventually we crested the pass and were rewarded with dramatic 360-degree views. We looked back at the ridge we had just traversed – craggy, snow-covered peaks climbed into the clouds for as far the eye could see, and any trace of our trail and campsite were concealed in snow. To one side, a barren, rocky outcropping, dotted with only a few tufts of dry, golden grass, rose from the white terrain. To the other side, the immense glaciers of Salkantay still dominated the landscape. Looking forward we saw the vast, snowy valley we would be descending into, weaving its way between the soaring mountainsides.
The descent into the plains of Sisaypampa was quick, and we spent the rest of the late morning and afternoon traversing the valley. The light dusting of snow quickly vanished, giving way to a stark landscape of gently rolling mounds of golden-brown grasses. We walked along a small creek that carved through the valley floor, and past more masses of boulders, here covered with eye-catching scarlet lichens. As we neared our campsite for the evening, near a lone hut in the vale, we were greeted by the homeowner’s alpacas – a giant, fuzzy herd of them scampering about the hillside.
Thursday September 1, 2011
Starting point – Sisaypampa (12,300’)
Ending point – Huayllabamba (9,843’)
Elevation gain – N/A
After two days of hiking where we were tested with steep, high-elevation climbs (and an impromptu blizzard), today’s hike was especially relaxed. We followed the picturesque Pampachuana River along primarily flat terrain through the narrow, grassy valley of Sisaypampa. The path gradually became more shaded by dry, scrubby brush and small trees before entering the wider valley of Pampacahua. In the distance we spotted the peak of Nevado Veronica peeking out above the valley. Along the trail, Frank paused and plucked a handful of fragrant herbs from the bushes. He said that the small leaves were called muña, or Andean mint, and that the locals use the plant in traditional foods and tea (supposedly its medicinal properties include easing digestion). Frank said we would use the leaves for some fresh muña tea this evening.
We continued through the pampa, and crossed a small footbridge over an Inca canal that is still utilized by the small, adjacent farming settlement of Pampachuana. Descending down through the end of the valley, we eventually reached Paucarcancha (Incaraqay), our first set of Inca ruins. The site contained a series of terraces and retaining walls, as well as what appeared to be the walls of a few small rooms. The location was very scenic; situated near the junction of the Pampachuana and Cusichaca Rivers, the ruins overlooked layers of sharp crests, with their sheer slopes plunging to the fertile valley below.
After some more easy hiking in the afternoon, we reached our campsite at Huayllabamba. At this point, the secluded Salkantay route joined with the traditional Inca trail. It was immediately obvious that this was the more-traveled route. We no longer had a campsite to ourselves but rather were suddenly surrounded by several other groups of hikers, also en route to Machu Picchu. While we still enjoyed the latter portion of our trek immensely, we were now even more appreciative for our first three days of total solitude.
Friday September 2, 2011
Starting point – Huayllabamba (9,843’)
Ending point – Pacaymayu (11,810’)
High point – Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s) Pass (13,829′)
Elevation gain – 3,986 feet
This morning we departed Huayllabamba for our first full day on the Inca trail. A couple of hours from the campsite, our trail turned into a series of stone steps that climbed into an enchanting forest of unca trees (Eugenia spp.), a native species that is dwindling in number, and is now found in only small, isolated areas. We had now entered the boundary of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. After emerging from the dense woodland, we took a quick break at Llulluchapampa, a small, grassy plateau, where some friendly llamas took in the lovely mountain views with us.
From there we headed for Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s) Pass, the highest mountain pass on the Inca trail (though ~2,200 feet lower than the Incachiriaska Pass we traversed two days prior). The trail that wrapped around the mountainside was an original Inca stone footpath; it was incredible to think that we were ascending a walkway that was meticulously laid more than 500 years ago. The climb was steep, although I think the previous days’ treks helped condition us. While Frank told us it took an average of about five hours to reach the pass, we managed to conquer it in just over three hours. The views from the top were spectacular, and we were fortunate to have such a clear day. We peered back down into the Llullucha Gorge and across the valley at the lofty, snowcapped summits. Over the other side of Warmiwañusqa were rows of jagged ridges, and we could make out our trail – descending steeply to the valley below and then rising abruptly to the next distant pass.
Surprisingly, the trail descending Dead Woman’s Pass turned out to be much more taxing than the ascent. The entire 2,019-foot descent was over a series of reconstructed Inca steps, comprised of steep, uneven stones. By the time we reached the valley below, my knees were on fire. Looking back up, Frank pointed out the silhouette of a supine woman, shaped by the mountain’s rocky ledges, for which the pass was named.
We set up camp below the pass along the Pacaymayu River, at a site that was much more thickly forested than we had previously encountered. Because we arrived so early, we had a couple of hours before dinner to explore. We wandered a ways up the dirt path that we would be following the next morning and were able to spot a variety of colorful flowers, as well as a number of different songbirds. Seeing the trail suddenly come alive with birdlife made us even more excited for our forthcoming hike into the cloud forest.
Saturday September 3, 2011
Starting point – Pacaymayu (11,810’)
Ending point – Wiñay Wayna (8,858’)
High point – Runkuraqay Pass (13,120′)
Elevation gain – 1,635 feet
Today we departed Pacaymayu and climbed for a couple of hours to the ruins of Runkuraqay, a small, round citadel perched on the edge of Mount Runkuraqay. The trail this morning was shrouded in a thick fog, and a gentle mist fell for most of the hike. We explored the site only briefly; the main feature of the ruins was the view overlooking the lush slopes which, today, was unfortunately obscured by clouds. We continued our ascent for a short distance until we reached the Runkuraqay Pass (13,120 feet), our high point for the day. From there, we descended to Sayacmarca, a second Inca archeological site overlooking the Aobamba Valley. At this point, the fog was beginning to dissipate, and we now had a hazy view out into the valley. Just below Sayacmarca, on the other side of the trail, sat the diminutive, terraced ruins of Conchamarca. While the purpose of the two sites is not fully understood, it is thought that they were tambos, small lodges along the original Inca road.
Our trek continued through the lush cloud forest, which was alive with chirping birds and vibrant blooms. We were also able to spot a number of eye-popping orchids. Peru is home to nearly 3,000 species of orchids, and Machu Picchu Sanctuary and the surrounding forests alone boast an estimated 300 species.
As we traversed the jungle, we passed through an Inca tunnel, carved into the rocky hillside, and the trail again began to climb to the second mountain pass of the day. Eventually, we exited the cloud forest and reached the Phuyupatamarca Pass (12,136 feet). Soaring, tree-covered peaks stretched out in front of us for miles. On one distant mountainside we could see Intipata, a tall group of agricultural terraces built into the sheer cliff face. Just below us sat the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the “village on the edge of the clouds.”
We descended the pass on another set of Inca steps, again irregular in size and many carved directly into the solid granite rock centuries ago. Soon after, we passed briefly through the ruins of Phuyupatamarca. I thought these were particularly interesting because, unlike most of the other sites we visited, the structure’s design seemed somewhat erratic, with walls that were curled and almost wavelike, rather than the typical angular construction.
After a seemingly endless number of stairs and a lovely, forested trail, we arrived at Intipata (9,186 feet), which we had spotted from the pass only hours earlier. The enormity of the terraces was certainly impressive, and the small path wrapping around the site gave a spectacular view into the valley below, carved by the roaring Urubamba River. From here it was a short walk down to our final campsite at Wiñay Wayna (Quechua for ‘forever young’). In the morning, we’ll rise early to hike to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) for sunrise at the ancient city of Machu Picchu.
Sunday September 4, 2011
Starting point – Wiñay Wayna (8,858’)
Ending point – Machu Picchu (7,972’)
High point – Sun Gate (8,924′)
Elevation gain – 66 feet
We rose early this morning, around 4 a.m., for our final march to Machu Picchu. After departing Wiñay Wayna, we walked for only a few hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint, a small pavilion where we had to present our passports and trail permit for entry into the sanctuary. Our early arrival put us at the head of the line, but we did have to wait until about 5 a.m. when the park ranger arrived to approve our documents. From the checkpoint, we had a very quick walk. We navigated our last ridge around the hillside and then completed one final climb up a small set of forested, Inca steps.
Suddenly there we were, standing at the Sun Gate. After 6 days, nearly 46 miles, 12,000 feet of elevation gain, and roughly 1,500 Inca steps, we reached Machu Picchu!
The view from Inti Punku was incredible – the city of Machu Picchu rested atop the green mountainside, floating above the mighty Urubamba River and small town of Aguas Calientes. The modern roadway to the Inca metropolis cut through the hillside in a chain of undulating, hairpin switchbacks.
But while the great Inca landmark was the ultimate goal, unexpectedly and perhaps unfittingly, the sight of the illustrious ruins was almost anticlimactic. For us, it really was about the journey to arrive there. To immerse ourselves in the tranquil countryside; to gaze up in awe at the icy slopes of Salkantay; to stand in solitude and wonder atop a soaring, mountain pass; to be enveloped by the trees, flowers and birds of the unspoiled, tropical forests; to walk the same footsteps as the Incas did more than 500 years ago… to me those were the most remarkable moments.
Total distance: 46 miles (74 km)
Elevation gain: 12,153 feet (3,704 meters)