Machu Picchu is one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Anyone can affirm that fact! It has the potential for being one of the most overrated tourist attractions in the world for that reason. I was leaning slightly towards this possible assumption having enjoyed so many low-key sights and attractions in Peru already. I was proven wrong (fortunately!) There are not enough words to describe the beauty and serenity of Machu Picchu, especially if you start your visit at sunrise like I did. My journey to Machu Picchu was preceded with a 5-day hike through the gorgeous mountains and jungles of Peru. Nature’s touches along with the expert architectural creations of the lost Inca city made it one of the highlights of my 8-week stay in the country.
Day 1: My 5-day, 4-night hike was called the Salkantay trek. Many avid planners decide to go on the Inca trail, which is the most common route to the infamous ruins, but it must be reserved months in advance. For other spontaneous travelers like myself, the Salkantay trek is a more feasible possibility that can be booked just a few days in advance. At times, it is more strenuous than the Inca trail, but the views of one of the tallest peaks in Peru is completely worth the pain.
On our first day, we were driven to the town of Mollepata to enjoy an in-house breakfast in a local village. Lots of coca was served along with regular teabags to help amateur and experienced travelers alike to cope with the higher altitudes. We hiked for a couple of hours from near the village to our basecamp. Tents were already set up for us and there was nothing but greenery around. Cooks prepared lunch for us in the tiny kitchen that looked like a hut and all 18 of us in the tour group took our seats at the old rickety wooden tables to enjoy the freshly prepared meals.
The next hike that day would take us about an hour and a half from our basecamp (plus an hour back down) where we could hike up to Lake Humantay, a gorgeous body of water nestled between the surrounding mountains. Hiking uphill was a difficult feat to accomplish as most of us began feeling the lack of oxygen in the air. After every five steps, I had to stop to catch my breath! The tour guides were generous enough to split up and stay with the slower people like me, making sure we didn’t suffer extremely from the higher altitudes. I was impressed with the Machu Picchu Reservations company for their incredible organizational techniques.
The view at the lake was worth it and the difficulties of climbing uphill were soon forgotten. The lake was a beautiful clear blue surrounded by remnants of snow in the mountains nearby, which only added to the natural aesthetic. The hike down was nothing compared to the one uphill. At snack time, fresh popcorn and tea were served followed by a hearty dinner of more Peruvian food. Everyone was so tired from the activities of that day that we all knocked out at around 9 pm to ready ourselves for the wake-up call at 5 am the next morning.
“Buenos dias, coca tea.”
I heard a voice gently tell me outside of my tent. I rushed to unzip the tent and wake myself up with a hot cup of coca tea to face the battles of the day. The tour guides had told us that our second day would be the most difficult of them all. Not entirely ready for what would await me in the near future, I somehow got out of my sleeping bag and made it in time for breakfast.
I have never experienced riding horses for an extended period of time or even more than once or twice in my life for that matter. On foot, the hardest hike of the whole trip (which we were to complete on this second day) would take us just about three hours to complete: straight uphill and through the Salkantay mountain overpass. Some Brazilian travelers and I decided that this would be an amazing opportunity to let the mules help us out and try taking one to the peak. Not only would it save us some energy to prepare for the rest of the days, but we could enjoy the gorgeous views instead of sweating and panting for the entirety of the hike.
The mules were quite efficient even though they had to lift such heavy weights. Some travelers shrieked in fear when the mules walked alongside the edges of the uphill trails. The trails were rocky, unstable, and one wrong step of the hoof, you could fall off the edge and land to your miserable and unfortunate death. But with a little bit of calmness and patience, the mule would continue to do its job transporting you safely and soundly to your destination. The key was to keep calm and not scare the animal that had the weary task of supporting your weight!
You can also keep a snack for the mules to enjoy later! Our tour guides gave us granola bars and apples to help us through the journey. I presented the apple to my mule, but unfortunately after his first bite, the apple rolled away. Nevertheless, I tried!
The Salkantay Pass was somehow even more beautiful than Humantay Lake. We had a clear view of the snow-capped mountains. The cherry on the top was not the overpass, however, because a majority of tour groups were already crowding the area, but rather it was another lake that our tour guide took us to. After treading through more rocky parts without a trail for another 15-20 minutes, we arrived to another lake. It amost looked like a metor had created it. The water was an even lighter, almost unrealistic sky blue and there were no real sources of water nearby. It was truly an interesting wonder between these tall snow-capped peaks.
The hike downhill was another steep one that hurt my feet and soon after formed huge quarter-sized blisters on my toes and heels, but the views of the Peruvian Andes and the shining sun above masked the pain. Another two and a half hours later, we arrived at the village of Rayanniyoc to enjoy a lunch prepared onsite by our generous cooks. Lunchtime was much needed for our empty bellies and our sore feet. There was a small river next to the lunch site and we dug our feet deep into its flowing waters and basked in the sun along its banks before our next hike.
Three more hours of hiking awaited us after lunch at a lower elevation where we neared the Peruvian jungles. The temperatures were much warmer (not as freezing as the first night!) and the campsite was owned by a local family that offered us hot showers for an additional price .
Seven hours of hiking that day was definitely exhausting, but we had overcome the most difficult part of the entire trip! And so far, it had been worth every penny.