Despite being accosted at customs for flying from the number one cocaine-producing country to the number two cocaine-producing country, our flight from Bogota, Colombia to Cuzco, Peru went relatively smoothly. After collecting our bags, our guide Edgar took us – a group of four college friends from DC – to our hostel, Hostel Kokopelli. He assured us right away that “staying with Edgar is like staying with God,” so we felt like we were in good hands.
We spent our first day in Peru touring the beautiful city of Cuzco and visiting some of the ruins nearby. After having seen the Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Belize, those outside of Cuzco weren’t that awe-inspiring; however, they did offer great views of the city and the surrounding Andes and helped us acclimatize to the 11,000 foot base. Also, the ruins were called Sachsayhuaman, which sounds a lot like “sexy woman,” so our immature senses of humor got a slight kick out of that. We ended our first night with an $8/person 4-person couples massage to get ready for the trek to Machu Picchu the next day.
There are 3 main treks to hidden Incan village: the Inca trail (the most famous and most common one, regulated to 500 people per day), the Lares trek, and the Salkantay trek. The Salkantay trek is known for being secluded and not as popular with tourists. It ascends over 15,000 feet and has great views of the Umantay and Salkantay glaciers along the way. We decided to do the Salkantay trek for those very reasons.
The morning we started the journey, we had a 5am wakeup call. We joined a group of 6 other people for a 3 hour drive along switchbacks on the Andes to the trailhead. We were a dynamic group: the redneck and the wildcard from Mississippi, Billy Joel (yes, that was really his name) who worked for the Navy at Guantamano Bay, and a mother-daughter-daughter’s friend trio from rural Michigan. We started the trek from small village called Sayllapata, where we loaded our essentials (baby wipes, Johnny Walker and Purel) on horses and started our 12km hike to the base of the Umantay glacier. When we got there, we promptly stripped to our drawers and, without hesitation, dove right into the ice-cold water. I think that was about the time Edgar, our guide, realized he was in for a long four days with us.
“I saw amazing landscapes, engaged in somewhat reckless behaviors, … learned about Incan traditions, saw the clouds part over Machu Picchu – and shared the experience with my best friends.”
We participated in two Incan traditions at Umantay. First, we carried a rock from the base of the camp to the lake (a journey of a few thousand vertical feet) and placed it there. The rock was supposed to represent our hopes and dreams. Second, we poured some liquor on our “hope rocks” and said “Sulpayqui Pachamama”; this means “Thank you, Mother Earth” in the Incan language of Quechua. Finally, we all took a shot, giving pre-emptive thanks for the good weather ahead.
I doubted the effect of this tradition right away. 13 years before this trip to Peru, my family and I had travelled to Kenya; at that time, the country was in the midst of a horrific 3-year drought and yet – miraculously for the Kenyans but to our dismay – we brought the rain with us. I have been doomed with bad weather on trips ever since.
Sure enough, on day 2 of our trek we woke up to pouring rain. It was less than ideal weather for our hardest day of hiking. We set off at 6am to hike for 3 hours from 12,800’ to 15,200’ (the highest point of our trek) in between the Umantay and Salkantay glaciers, followed by another 2 hour descent back to 12,760’ for lunch. We finished the day off with another 6.4 mile, 3+ hour descent to 9,500’. Although the rain let up shortly after our departure, it decided to join us again for the majority of the descent after lunch, leaving us with a muddy, horse-poop filled trail to walk through for the entire afternoon. Thank you, Mother Earth.
On the day we were to arrive in Machu Picchu itself – just as I had suspected a few days earlier when I was pouring out liquor on my hope rock – we woke to cloudy skies and pouring rain again. By the time we got up to the Incan city, the clouds had engulfed everything in sight; we could barely see 100 feet in front of us, let alone the different parts of the city. We were all bummed. Four days of hiking and sweating and smelling to have no views of Machu Picchu itself?!
We sat on one of the Incan farmer’s terraces and listened to Edgar give us the history of the city and the Incan people. As he spoke, the white foggy curtain was removed and the Incan city was revealed to us in all its glory. I was shocked. The power of the Incan tradition prevailed; it seemed I was no longer doomed by bad weather. Sulpayqui Pachamama. Thank you, Mother Earth indeed.
The trip to Cuzco highlighted all the reasons why I love to travel: I saw amazing landscapes, engaged in somewhat reckless behaviors (read: the ice bath at Umantay glacier), learned about Incan traditions, saw the clouds part over Machu Picchu – and shared the experience with my best friends. Edgar and his entire staff were amazing hosts and I would recommend the trip to the lost Incan city, rain and all, in a heartbeat.
Words and photos: Chip Malt