My partner and I just got back from a 13-day trip to Peru to visit one of the 7 wonders of the world! We didn't just fly to a tourist hotspot -- we walked to it via a 7-day 65-mile trek over centuries-old trails made by the Incas!
The Salkantay Trek is one that some do on their own while primitive camping or with an inexpensive guide, but we decided to combine the rigor of day-trekking with relaxation at night by adding gourmet meals, hot showers, and high thread-count sheets on soft beds with the Mountain Lodges of Peru. Budget travel is fun, but on the front-edge of the rainy season with the psychological tests of trekking at altitudes up to 15,000 ft, we were happy to drop extra cash so we could focus on walking the 65 miles while a tour company took care of the rest. Here is my review and photojournal of our Christmas 2018 trip...
4 Days of Travel & Acclimation
We started with 3 nights in Cusco, but getting there was no joke. A 5 1/2 hour flight from Denver to Panama connected to a 3 1/2 hour flight to Lima, which connected to a 1 1/2 hour flight to Cusco. Once we arrived to 11,200ft, MLP picked us up at the airport and dropped us at a hotel we booked on our own for 3 nights of altitude acclimation. Even though we live in Boulder (6,000ft), we noticed the elevation gain in Cusco, which resulted in light gasping for air for the first couple of days until we could acclimate. We were happy we booked 3 nights to chill in Cusco before the trek.
Shopping and Eating in Cusco
Cusco has plenty to see as a destination of its own. There are great restaurants of all nationalities, and the Peruvian ones serve up some special chicken and beef dishes, as well as the national specialty meats of Alpaca and Cuy (Guinea Pig).
We found a shaman shop to buy a drum, and the town is littered with high-end clothing stores that sell sweaters of baby alpaca wool. However, the shopping gem is the San Pedro Market, where you can find clothing, spices, food, souvenirs, and even San Pedro, a psychedelic cactus containing mescaline, used in ceremony by some shamans.
Coca: Beyond Cocaine
Ever since my 5th grade teacher told me about mountain people chewing coca leaves to give them endurance for trekking, I had wanted to try it. Through my adult life, I'd tried cocaine a couple times, but it was never something I enjoyed. I don't think I "had the gene" or something -- it just never made me feel good. However, as a fan of nature's medicine, I always wanted to try the raw form. In Peru, coca is part of the culture, and it's 'no big deal.' You can find the leaves in the convenience store, like chewing tobacco in the USA. I bought some and chewed it through the treks. Besides making my mouth numb, I found coca to be helpful energy-wise for the last hour or so of the trek, but, not unlike a cup of coffee, it came with a small crash after about an hour which made it somewhat useless in my eyes for endurance. Anyway, it was fun to try, and while we were in Cusco, we stopped at the Coca Museum, which gave a nice history of the coca plant, including the fact that Coca Cola still uses small quantities of processed coca to this day as the 'secret ingredient' of "Coca Cola Classic." They also gave me the tip that when chewing the leaves, it's best to mix in a little baking soda (found at the San Pedro Market) to 'activate' the plant's properties.
Trek Day 1: Just A hike
The main difference between (hiking and trekking) is that hiking is mainly a leisure activity which is done by walking on well-made trails and man-made roads. However, trekking is more rigorous, and a more challenging activity. It tests one's physical ability, endurance, and even their mental or psychological capacity. ~ quora.com
Before our trek began, our guide informed us that our 7-day Salkantay Trail experience "is not hiking -- It is trekking." My partner and I briefly read the marketing materials for the trip and estimated that we'd only walk about 4 miles a day. This seemed reasonable for a luxury hiking tour. But we soon realized that the daily average was more like 10 miles. Not to mention, much of it would be at altitude with unpredictable weather.
Fortunately, Day 1 was a brief jaunt. We took a van from Cusco to a small village of women who made jams and llama clothing, then we ate lunch at an organic garden. After lunch, we were driven up a switchback mountain and dropped to begin our tour. We would not see a van for 6 more days, but the first part of the trek helped us ease into this fact. After a steep ascent not unlike the local trails in Boulder (such as Mt. Sanitas trail where I did my light training), we walked several miles along an aqueduct to our first lodge, enjoying the beauty of the green mountains and its treasures (like the rainbow) along the way.
Day 2: To the Lake
After a cozy night at our first mountain lodge that included a dip in the hot tub and a gourmet dinner, the second day was a round-trip hike to 14,000ft where we visited Humantay Lake, an aquamarine oasis at the top of the mountain. It was definitely a tourist spot, but MLP had their own private trail to get to it, which had nicer views and a higher altitude than the public trail, and at the end of it, we were above the lake instead of beside it. This was a great perk of MLP. On this day, we also hiked with two Mountain Priests, Santos and Lorenzo, who hosted a ceremony above the lake to bless our trek, which was starting off nice and easy before we returned to our lodge for one more night before the real work began on day 3...
Day 3: The Pass
Day 3 was the test. It began with sunshine and summer heat with mountain views reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. After a gentle start, the hills got steeper. We crossed the "seven snakes," a set of switchbacks that took us up to the next level of the mountain. Then, it began to drizzle and cool off as we gained in elevation. After several hours and 3000ft of gain, the weather worsened. More clouds; more rain; more chill all the way to the top.
Hoping for a view at the pass, it was not to be; instead, the weather turned to winter. We heard rock landslides in the distance, but couldn't see anything in the fog. My partner and I were the first to make it to the pass. As we did, the rain turned to sleet, and my fingers began to numb from the cold wetness. I could also feel my cognitive abilities decline from the lack of oxygen.
After a few photos in front of the sign, our guide told us to move forward before the others made it up so that we would not have issues with the altitude. The path forked, so we had to go back to see which way to go. After picking the correct path, the rain started to fall harder. I pulled my disposable poncho out of my pack, and awkwardly tried to put it on, but it was difficult. The lack of oxygen and the cold air made me feel like I lost some IQ points.
Eventually, I got it together and we began to descend. The rain kept getting harder, and the path was rocky and awkward. After another hour, we made it to lunch, and the rain poured. Fortunately, we were under a tent taking a break. It would have sucked to have to keep going during the cold downpours. Eventually, the rain let up and we descended the rest of the way to our lodge, but it was not easy. That was a trek! Little did I know the 'psychological trekking' would continue that night as I lied in bed with one of my nostrils stuffy. This made me gasp for air at the altitude and get a little nervous, feeling like I was almost suffocating, especially after our guide told us a horror story after dinner about one of his previous clients almost dying from altitude sickness and hypoxia in that very lodge. The thing about trekking the mountains is that it's not just a physical ordeal, but it's also a psychological challenge.
Day 4: My Knees!
We were told day 4 would be the 'easy day' because it was all down hill. On the contrary, I found it to be one of the harder days for that very reason. There's something invigorating about an up-hill hike, but when everything is down hill through a bunch of rocks and stones, not only is it a mindfulness exercise to stay upright, it's also hard on the body because of the extra impact of descending 3000ft in one day. Nevertheless, we made it to our third lodge, which was out of the 'high altitude' danger zone. We found it appropriate to celebrate with some Pisco Sours and wine at dinner.
Before dinner, our guide got tipsy on the Pisco and started trying to explain his culture to us, but it didn't go over well. One thing my partner and I noticed on our trip to Peru was that we hadn't seen a single black person the entire trip to this point. This made it clear to me that the guides didn't have to deal with serving people of color much, or the nuances that go with truly being equals. It can be a touchy subject to talk about race without acknowledging that, especially in places like Latin America, the color of one's skin was also a marker for social class. For example, in Panama, when they built the Panama Canal, the darkness of your skin determined where you were in the work hierarchy. The darker your skin, the shittier your job. The lighter your skin, the more power you had over those with darker skin. This was also a thing in Peru when the Spanish came and conquered. They put themselves at the top. At the bottom were the black slaves they brought with them. In between were the native Incas who were slaughtered and bred with the Spanish to create the Mestizos.
"In my culture, it is ok to call people by their skin color!" said our guide. "We call people with light skin 'Colorado!'" he said as he looked me in the eyes. "I am Mestizo, which is a mix of Spanish and Inca." Then, he looked at my partner. "We call dark skin people Negrito, and this is OK in my culture!" he said. My partner gasped, but had no immediate response after a 3 long days of trekking and the day we'd just had. Shit, black people can't even spend $4,000 on a vacation and not be marginalized.
My partner was crushed, but held it in until the next morning when she started balling her eyes out at the beginning of the walk. I told everyone what was going on, but also said that we didn't want to give a lesson on racism. It's hard when white people suck energy by being ignorantly racist, but often worse when they get called out and require even more energy from black people to ease their white fragility. In the moment, I just wanted to acknowledge what happened and let it go, especially if our guide ever had another person of color on a future tour. Unfortunately, he became very depressed and wouldn't let it go, even for several days apologizing over and over. I'm sure there was some underlying unprocessed sadness from when he was a child and may have been picked on by the Spanish kids for being a Mestizo, but was taught "it's ok because it's the culture (leaving out that racism is the culture according to the ruling class)." I'd imagine nobody ever asked the black people of Peru if they were OK being called Negritos, neither in the days of slavery, nor at any point in history after that.
Days 5 & 6: Ups and Downs through the Cloud Forest
The last two days were more of the same -- beautiful views, walking in the clouds, great exercise, and connecting with nature. It's not that they were uneventful -- in fact, they'd each be life events if not for the fact that they were surrounded by so many other days of wonder. The highlight of these two days was the last day when our guide realized that we were way faster hikers than the rest of the group, and he let us leave late instead of being at the head of the pack and continually stopping and slowing down to let everyone catch up. Instead, we sat for a coffee while the group left, then hunted them down. It was so much fun to lose our breath going up the hill after breakfast and catching the group, then, after a leisurely after-lunch coffee and deuce dump, careen down the hill at full speed until we caught the rest of the group. It was a team building experience to stick together, but it felt way easier on my body and mind to go my own pace and "zone in" on the trek instead of continually slowing down for the group to catch up. I'd think that this trek would be enhanced by going with a group who is all of similar speed, but the variation is also part of the "psychological trek," both for those who feel like they are too slow and those who have to wait.
Day 7: Machu Picchu on Christmas Day!
Finally, the culmination of 65 miles and 7 days! It was a little foggy, but we had some great views. We even climbed to the Inca Bridge and to the top of Huayna Picchu, where we were able to see Machu Picchu in between the clouds.
Day 8: What a Difference a Day Makes
Our package trip included only one day at Machu Picchu, but I had read that the weather could be foggy and unpredictable, and MLP offered an add-on where we could spend another night at Incaterra and another day at Machu Picchu. I was glad we did because Christmas was a bit foggy, and the second day was totally clear. The fogginess led to its own mystique, but it was nice to also have a clear day.
The MLP Experience
Overall, I would recommend MLP as a tour operator for this kind of trip. While you "could" go it alone on the Salkantay trail, I'd at least suggest hiring a local guide to support the economy (for cheap). However, you will still be stuck camping or, best case, roughing it in a Geodome or makeshift resort. Mountain Lodges of Peru is the only company who literally has 4-star hotels along the trek with gourmet dining and their own private trails for parts of the trek. It wasn't cheap to go with them, but it was nice to not have to think AT ALL during the entire trip. Also, (except for tips) we paid a single price that included the trek, Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu, all transfers, mule support, nights in the lodges, train tickets, bus tickets, all meals (breakfasts, lunches, dinners, two desserts per day, and afternoon snacks), and our hotel (Incaterra, which had natural hot springs on site) in the town of Machu Picchu. Otherwise, everything is a la carte, and these things add up anyway.