I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to be sure I had enough time to get dressed and pack up my bag before my ride came between 4-4:30 a.m. I was told I’d be one of the first from the group to be picked up, but it wasn’t until about 4:45 a.m. that our guide Roy (aka Roily)* came knocking on the front door of my hotel. Good thing I got up so early.
After handing over my bag, I jumped in the van, which was already filled with most of the other sleepy trekkers in my group – my new “family” as Roy repeatedly called us. He mentioned at orientation that we might be strangers then, but we’d come away after five days of trekking and camping together as a family, and he was right.
It was really hard for me to be the sick one with a nasty cold and cough, the oldest one in the group by several years (including our guides), and to feel like the weak link since I really struggled with the altitude. I have always been very competitive, especially with myself, so I wasn’t going to let the cold I’d picked up a few days prior in Buenos Aires, or the altitude sickness, hold me back.
That first day, after a few hours in a van and another few trekking to our first campsite, there was an optional one-hour straight up hike to Humantay Lake (13,779 ft). I was determined to make it there and back in one piece instead of rest in my cool igloo at our campsite, perhaps the smarter choice to help get over my sickness.
I repeatedly told myself that it was okay to be the last one in the group, that it was nice to actually enjoy the peace and quiet of the beautiful scenery we were trekking through. Thankfully, that pretty much worked for me mentally to keep pushing on and ignore my family way ahead of me. It was tough, but totally worth the views.
Roy told us that Humantay Lake was a test for the hardest trek on day two, but after making it through all five days, I still believe that first side trek to Humantay Lake was the hardest, at least for me being sick, in the cold and at the highest altitude for me.
That night, he gave us the option to pay 100 soles (about $33 USD) to take a donkey up to the Salkantay Pass (15,190 ft) instead of trekking, for anyone who felt they couldn’t make the trek. One of the girls, knowing how sick I was, asked me if I was going to ride a donkey up instead, but of course that was not even an option for me.
I slept horribly that night, afraid my coughing would wake up my roommate, freezing from the -7 Celsius temperature and claustrophobic in my mummy sleeping bag. But I approached day two with optimism and more determination. And of course, being woken up at 5:00 a.m with hot coca tea helped me more than I thought it would.
It was a long and tough 24 km trek, and at the Salkantay Pass I was nauseous and had difficulty breathing, but I made it to the top and it was beautiful. Before this trek, the highest elevation I’d been to was around 10,000 ft when Danica and I trekked up to Tiger’s Nest in Paro, Bhutan, but that extra 5,000 ft makes a huge difference.
When I landed in Cusco, which is just over 11,000 ft, I was prepared for the potential effects of altitude sickness, so I took it easy those first two days to get acclimated before the trek. Hitting over 15,000 ft at the Salkantay Pass was literally breathtaking, but I managed to keep up a good pace with my family the entire day.
The third day was an easy trek on a main road, which we all found a bit boring. Apparently there is an actual trail that is normally used, but due to severe rains in the recent past, some of the trail has been washed out and it’s no longer safe for trekkers, so we had to take the road and move aside every time a car drove by.
It was really nice to have the afternoon off, especially since day four was supposed to be the second hardest day according to Roy. A few of my family members went to the nearby mineral springs, while others went ziplining. Most of us stayed back to nap, or have “mat chat” as I coined our time laying on sleeping mats, chatting and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Day four was nearly two hours of straight up hill in hot and humid weather, a stark contrast to two days prior when we were trekking through mountains covered in snow. It was another hour and half straight down hill, which is hard on the knees, with muddy and slippery terrain in many parts, but again, the views were worth it.
Some of our family opted to take the van to the lunch meeting spot and save their tired legs for the final day at Machu Picchu, but again, I was not going to take the easy way out. Roy made the trek sound harder than it was, or maybe I was finally starting to feel better, especially in the heat, but either way, it was a great hike up to our first view of Machu Picchu from Llactapata.
After another long day logging about 26 km, we made it to our hotel in Aguas Calientes for an early dinner and bedtime before another 3:30 a.m. wake up call. Most of the family opted for the bus ride up to Machu Picchu in lieu of the 45 minutes of straight up hill stairs since we had tickets to hike Machu Picchu Mountain later that morning, but we had to be in line at 4:00 a.m. if we wanted to be on the first bus.
For some unknown reason (perhaps the gelato from the night before), I woke up nauseous and really struggled through Machu Picchu. It was a sight to behold, and Roy gave us a nice tour of the hot spots before setting us free around 8:30 a.m. I was regretting having purchased the extra hike up to Machu Picchu Mountain where you can get a lovely view down on Machu Picchu.
I was tired, cold in the morning and then really hot when the sun came out, still coughing and now nauseous, but I started up the mountain with two others from my family. I didn’t make it very far before I told them to go on and I’d meet up with them later. After the first viewpoint, I threw up, but pushed on to the second viewpoint if only to prove a guy wrong who was just trying to be kind when he stopped and told me I really shouldn’t keep going because altitude sickness is real and can kill you.
I thanked him and told him I just had the flu and would be fine, but appreciated his concern and was going to keep going. But after I got to the second viewpoint, I decided I’d had enough. I had toughed it out for four days already and I wasn’t proving anything to anyone.
It was time to admit defeat, call it quits and head back down the mountain. I was okay with not making it up, I thought the view was just fine where I made it and after more than 60 miles of trekking through the extreme cold and heat in my condition, I was ready for a hot shower and warm bed.
It was a long afternoon of waiting around in Aguas Calientes for our two-hour train and then another two-hour van ride back to Cusco. Around 10:30 p.m., I finally made it back to my hotel, cleaned up and slept. I was sadly awakened by the front desk at 9:00 a.m. telling me it was time to check out (why so early, I have no idea!).
After convincing them to let me stay until 11:00 a.m., I took another hot shower and packed my bags before heading out for lunch in Plaza de Armas. It was only a few hours before I started my three-flight journey to North Carolina, where I would meet up with Preston for a few days of eating comfort food and hanging out with his family.
On Saturday, we took off for London and have now started our UK/European travels together for the next few months. I still have a lingering cough, but once again I am determined to get through this cold and enjoy our summer travels.
*Our guides, Roily and Ibeth, were from Salkantay Trekking and they did an amazing job, especially taking care of me. The company is very organized and had great reviews, which is why I originally booked with them over the many other companies available. Our chefs were amazing and catered to the vegan and vegetarian members of our group, so we had delicious and healthy meals three times a day, including an afternoon tea time with popcorn and crackers (with jam and butter). I would highly recommend this company should you find yourself wanting to trek Salkantay over the traditional Inca Trail in Cusco.