Reflecting on hiking the Salkantay trail in Peru

Four years ago, I went to Peru to visit a couple of World Vision projects and hike across the Andes for four days as a fundraising activity. Our destination was, of course, Machu Picchu but instead of taking the popular Inca Trail, we hiked the lesser known Salkantay Trail.

On an unrelated note: I really don’t like fundraising… raising $4,000 was seriously not my most favourite thing. Don’t make me do it again. I’ll just donate the money.

Anyway, Google Photos has been kindly reminding me of my Peru adventure, and so I’ve finally taken the hint to share a bit more about the trip.

It was a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally so in that sense, it was definitely a fundraising challenge.

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Taking the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu

After a night in Lima and a few days acclimatising to the higher altitude in Cusco, visiting the World Vision projects and doing a couple of training hikes, we were ready for our multi-day hike. Or supposed to be ready.

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Alpacas at the primary school we visited

This was to be my very first multi-day hike. Yes, for your first overnight hike, you should definitely choose an overseas adventure. That’s the smart thing to do. Or not.

And whilst I only had to carry a daypack and didn’t have to worry about lugging a tent or even a sleeping bag, the 4-day hike was a massive challenge for me. On lots of levels.

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Freaking out…

I was beyond anxious and freaked out the night before we were due to leave on our hike.

Not only had I never been on a multi-day hike – what was I thinking, I wasn’t fit enough! – but at that time, my physical and mental anxiety was incredibly out of control. My cortisol levels were ridiculously high, and I’d felt stressed even before I left for Peru, both about the trip and about upcoming life changes post-trip.

I wanted to go but I also really wanted to stay at home.

Plus, for the past few months, my body was slowly beginning to sort itself out after having been sick for years. Gluten was the main culprit but I was still learning about what was going on in my body and how to deal with the effects of it all. I was incredibly worried about the food on the whole trip, and even more so about getting sick on the hike.

My mind was spiralling out of control and I couldn’t think straight.

I also hadn’t done as well on the training hikes around Cusco as I had hoped so more anxiety kicked in. The altitude meant constant headaches and shortness of breath, and I wasn’t really feeling that I was acclimatising very well. Whilst I had been training for some months, altitude isn’t really something you can experience in Australia. I felt like a fish out of water.

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Back in Cusco after our first real training hike at altitude, with my knee just about killing me.

Plus, I had severely injured my right knee coming down a hill back in Melbourne only three weeks earlier. I was still on strong painkillers that didn’t really like the altitude medication diamox too much, and had trouble walking.

So, things were really looking up…

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Doing it anyway

Fortunately, I had amazing team mates who perked me up, prescribed a good dose of rescue drops, prayed for me and told me it would all be ok.

And you know, what? It was.

I was scared, I was beside myself with worry and fear, I cried my heart out to God, and I did it anyway. I can’t say that I didn’t feel like throwing up or running to the toilet every minute but these battles are usually fought and won in our minds. Once I got past my mental clutter and emotional turmoil, I could hear the voice of God calming me down.

It ended up being an adventure of a lifetime but it was hard.

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Conquering self

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Day 1 on the trek, cold and rainy

We started the Salkantay trail at an altitude of just below 4,000 m at Soraypampa. After a freezing cold night, I miraculously wasn’t feeling anywhere near as bad as some of my team mates, and even managed to eat some breakfast before setting off around 6 am.

After hours of uphill hiking, we made it to the Salkantay Pass at 4,600 m by about 11 am.

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Day 2: Leaving camp

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Day 2: On route to the Salkantay pass

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Looking decidedly cheerful about having made it to the pass alongside hiking mate Craig

Once we made it across the pass, the weather turned foul, and we started hiking in rivers of mud. But not just that, the altitude also made my head feel like it was splitting in half. I was nauseous, could barely catch my breath, and struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

A couple of people had been put on horses as they just couldn’t drag themselves any further. Others were vomiting due to the altitude. And I was crawling my way through the mud path trailing along at the end of our group.

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Day 2: One of about three photos I took after we had hiked over the Salkantay Pass. The rest of the time I was busy being miserable.

By the time we got to our lunch spot, I was so insanely cold, wet and miserable that I just wanted to give up. Let me paint the picture: Whilst I had rain pants, they turned out to be completely useless and everything, including my underwear (!), was drenched. My gloves were soaking wet, resulting in icicles instead of fingers. The one positive was my trusty Swedish rain jacket, they’re made out of stronger stuff (unlike me).

So at lunch, I just wanted to put my head on the table and be left alone. I remember eating some tiny amount of soup for lunch just so that I could get more painkillers into my body.

But when you have none, God gives you strength and pushes you on. It sounds cheesy but I literally have to use up all my own resources and strength before I start relying on God. And on Day 2 of our hike, that’s exactly where I was at.

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Dragging myself through mud, rain and icy winds to our lunch spot was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took guts, it took faith and it took hours where I seriously just wanted to lie down and die right there. It sounds pathetic but the altitude and the icy, wet weather just wasn’t a lot of fun and made hiking a miserable experience.

Yes, I managed to look up very now and then, and yes, the snow-capped mountains looked amazing but when you’re physically ill and hiking, you stop caring about what’s around you. The only mantra that kept running through my pounding, aching head was “one more step, one more step, one more step…”.

And that’s exactly what it took. One more step.

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Day 2: Finally arrived in the camp, almost the last ones and almost 12 hours after we set off

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Cruising along

By the time we reached camp on our second night, we were at a much lower altitude and surrounded by lush rainforest. My knee had amazingly survived the mud battles and downhill slogs, and all I had to do was slam some ice-packs on it and give it a rest for a few hours.

The rest of the hike was incredibly cruise-y compared to anything I’d done on the first two days. I just loved it!

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Day 3: Ok, we got a bit pampered on Day 3, I admit it. Coffee, tea and milo (!) as part of the wake-up call (only that day though!).

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Day 3: Past coffee plantations and rainforest

Because of landslides a few days earlier, we had to take minibuses (yikes, their driving!) for part of the trek on Day 3, which then gave us a bit of time to visit the hot springs in Santa Teresa.

Since this was completely unplanned, I had no bathers, and so a few of us ended up buying some in a random village that sold anything from bananas, milk, toys and cigarettes. There was no way of trying them on so we had a hilarious shopping experience that involved holding them up to each other and going “Hm, yep, that should do you!”… Amazingly, mine did kind of fit and covered all the important bits! πŸ˜€

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Day 3: Hot springs in Santa Teresa… πŸ˜€ Seriously, they’re in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever been to (I wonder whether they’ve been instagrammed to death now???).

The trail on the last day was pretty flat, with the second half of it taking us along the train tracks into Aguas Calientes. Lush rainforest everywhere, amazing critters and vegetation, and me taking lots of photos to make up for the lack of photos on Day 2.

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Day 4: Follow the train tracks and you shall arrive…

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It was ridiculously nice to finish the hike on a high after the first two days. I felt like I’d achieved something. I dragged myself through the mud with God pushing me from behind.

Even four years later, I’m still proud of myself for going on this adventure despite my fears, making myself endure the physical agony, and pushing through. And I’m sure I’m not even remembering half the pain I was in!

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Exploring Machu Picchu the day after our hike. And no, I didn’t hike up to the entrance, I took the bus.

Ps: No, I didn’t get sick from food. Lots of others did but somehow I managed to stay healthy that way. Maybe God knew the hiking part was challenging enough, I didn’t need any more pain…

Trekking across the Andes via the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru, was an amazing adventure but also incredibly challenging, physically, mentally and emotionally. Some very personal reflections on the hike.
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