Day 3–Up the Airy Mountain
The day dawned drizzly and cold, but the weather didn’t dampen our spirits. Our group was buzzing with nervous energy. Day 3 was considered to be the most physically gruelling, the most personally challenging, and we were ready to get on with it. Some in our group had come primarily for the journey rather than the destination, and this day was literally the pinnacle of our journey, as we would be crossing the Salkantay Pass at 4,638 metres (15,213 feet).
Our day started with a hike up the Rio Blanco Valley. We set off at 7:30 a.m. in our rain gear, with two in-case-of-emergency horses bringing up the rear (aptly named “911 Horse” and “912 Horse”) This made it clear it was a serious trek, with potentially serious consequences. We would gain significant elevation over the day on an incredibly steep trail. The already loose rocks were slippery from the rain. Falling “up” was an embarrassing possibility, to say nothing of falling down.
The constant misty drizzle was either fresh and bracing–a welcome coolant as we overheated on the climb–or annoyingly visibility-reducing. Especially for those of us who had to keep wiping our eyeglasses.
This would have been a challenging but not impossible climb back home. But here on the Salkantay Trail–well, all I can say is that altitude is a heartless bitch.
As the trek continued inexorably on, the early morning excitement gave way to grim determination. We all felt the effects of altitude at different times, in different ways–fatigue, leaden legs, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea. It was hard for me to catch my breath, and every step felt like I had just run a race with weights strapped to my legs. You know that feeling when you’re on the second last step of a long flight of stairs? It was like that for the whole time. Just about everybody had to stop at one time or another to catch their breath or rest their legs.
No doubt about it, folks–this trek, especially Day 3, is a tough slog. The fittest of our group remained at the front of the pack throughout, but the rest of us took turns bringing up the rear. For our dignity, none of us wanted to end up on the horse. So we carried on valiantly, our feet crunching on the gravel, step after step, marking time like a drum brush on a snare.
I found that, as moonscape-beautiful as the scenery was, I needed to concentrate on the ground in front of me. This was partly because the trail was treacherous, and partly because I didn’t want to dishearten myself by looking up to see how many switchbacks we still had left to navigate.
Fortunately, we were able to take a few breaks to appreciate the beauty around us.
The weather got progressively more drizzly as the morning went on until it was a steady rain. We started out wearing an outer layer of rain pants we’d bought in Cusco, but took them off as they got soaked and heavy. As our elevation increased, the rain turned to snow.
Pro tip: Even if the weather is cold, overcast, raining or snowing, wear sunscreen for this leg of the trip. The air is thin up there, so the UV is much stronger. Steve’s hands got sunburned to the point of blistering, if you can believe it. (I’ve taken to calling him Icarus.)
At long last we made it to the summit. It was as emotional as crossing a finish line. Our normally cordial-but-reserved group suddenly got very huggy. I hugged our guides, Felix and Claudio, and was glad that the rain and the altitude gave me an excuse for my wet cheeks and momentary inability to speak. It was a very special moment for Steve and me, as it was our 27th wedding anniversary. It will be very difficult to “top” that experience!
After our photo opp, we began the equally arduous trek down the mountain. The rain made streams out of paths, obscuring the loose rocks and turning the trail into a Flintstones version of a water slide. But our guides had a lovely surprise ahead to restore our spirits–a hot meal in a warm dry tent! We dined on hot soup, hot tea and pasta with parmesan and mushrooms. Food had never tasted so good!
It was much harder to get motivated to continue on after a long break and a filling lunch. I think everyone would have voted for a nap if there’d been a place to have one. But we needed to get to our next lodge for the night, and there was no time to waste as the fog was rolling in, making visibility even worse.
We safely reached Wayra Lodge and spent a lovely evening relaxing after a very unique day. Special thanks to our guides Felix and Claudio for the delicious bottle of wine for our anniversary!
Day 4–Down the Rushy Glen
After a leisurely breakfast, it was time to start the day’s trek. Today we were able to savor the views around the valley that we’d been unable to see all the previous day due to the constant low cloud. On day 3, we had to just imagine the soaring peaks, crags and year-round ice, but today we could actually see them. It was magnificent!
After the rigours of the previous day, we were happy to have a hike that was mostly downhill. But as we discovered, downhill is hard! The path was steep and slippery from rain, with loose rocks, mud and treacherous roots. It was very important to keep our eyes on the ground beneath our feet. We had to make sure to firmly plant our trekking poles to give our feet some extra help. The Salkantay River roared in the valley below us. We followed an old Inca Trail for part of the morning. As we left the chilly 12, 936 feet of elevation at Wayra Lodge behind, the weather began to get progressively warmer and more humid. Soon, we had descended into the Cloud Forest:
The terrain changed from alpine to deciduous to almost tropical all in one day. The vegetation became more lush. We began to shed layers. It was so nice to be warm after the previous day’s cold and dampness. There are about nine different climate zones on the trek, and this one was most welcome. Steve and the other keen photographers in the group occasionally stopped to capture some unique specimens like these:
We stopped for a mid-morning break next to a farm, and met some new friends:
We also met some little girls who were selling fresh passion fruit. We learned a trick for how to eat it–you smack it like it was a Terry’s Chocolate Orange to break the outer shell, then peel it so the white pith is showing. Then you make a little hole in the top and suck out the inside like it was a freezie. Your hands stay clean and unsticky!
The day’s hike was a short one, finishing around lunch time because a special lunch was being prepared for us at the next lodge. But before we could do that, there was another surprise in store for us. To get over to the lodge, we had to zipline! There was an option to walk to the lodge, but the zipline was definitely the shortest distance between two points.
Once we arrived on terra firma at Colpa Lodge, we were greeted with a sweet drink made of purple corn, called Chicha Morada. The drink was deceptively Kool-Aid like at first, sweet and fruity, but was thicker and had a heavier, almost starchy finish. Then our guides directed us to the fire pit where Claudio explained the special lunch we were going to have. It was called a Pachamanca, a special Peruvian barbeque. It is usually reserved for occasions like weddings or birthdays, so we were honoured to be able to experience this window into Peruvian culture.
On the bottom of the fire pit the cooks placed potatoes and sweet potatoes and then covered them with hot stones. On top of that, chicken, pork and lamb, wrapped in aluminum foil and covered with more hot stones. Plaintains and fava beans went on top as they cook faster. Then everything was covered with a layer of cardboard and tarps to insulate it. Dirt was shoveled around the edges to seal the pit. Guinea pig was also being prepared for us separately from the barbeque.
An intoxicating smell of roasting meat rose from the fire pit and we couldn’t wait for lunch. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to cook–only a half hour or so. We were treated to a beautifully prepared and delicious buffet lunch with platters of artfully arranged potatoes, meat and salads, with a variety of sauces. The food on this trip was fantastic.
I had a massage before dinner. (Yes, they have massages available on this trip 🙂 ) My quads and calves were pretty sore from the previous day, so I took advantage of the opportunity. In the evening, our guide Claudio demonstrated how to make the famous Pisco Sour. Everyone got involved, either adding an ingredient (3 parts Pisco, 1 part each of simple syrup, lime juice and egg whites) or taking turns with the cocktail shaker. Later on, Claudio played DJ and a bunch of relaxed, slightly inebriated middle-aged hikers jammed out to the Rolling Stones and David Bowie in a candle-lit lodge in the Andes.
And that was a very fine day.
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