I was already experiencing breathing difficulties at 3400 metres above sea level in Cuzco, but when I reached an altitude of 4600 metres, I practically hyperventilated. But the effects of low oxygen, or the fact that I completely busted both my ankles, didn’t take away from what was the most amazing experience of my life – the five day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
After a 15 km warm up, I reached the 3900 metre base camp of Mt Salkantay. When I finally sat down for a rest I instantly felt the freezing cold wind penetrating through my sweaty clothes. It wasn’t pleasant. A little later, the horses arrived. They carried five kilos of my belongings over the first three days of the trek. I was given a tent, which I shared with a German girl. After getting sorted I had the pleasure to experience the first cooked meal of the trek. Delicious and plenty.
The next program wasn’t obligatory, but who would refuse an opportunity to climb another 350 metres in elevation over one hour to reach a crystal clear lagoon. I suffered, and arrived with the last wave of the group, but the view was breathtaking and worth every laboured step.
That night, I put on all my warm cloths, twisted myself in the blanket like a fuzzy burrito and climbed into my sleeping bag that was designed for no less than plus five degrees. With the extra layers I did survive the freezing -7 degrees that night. When I heard nature calling I cursed everything for having to get out of the tent and find the toilet. Suddenly I stopped. I looked up at the sharp, almost completely vertical mountainsides. They were showered by the silver light of the moon. A shooting star disappeared behind the snowy peaks then my eyes locked onto the Milky Way. Shivering in the frosty wind, I couldn’t take a step forward. I was mesmerised by the view and goose bumps were running up and down my entire body. I was so happy in that magic moment.
At 5am the kitchen woke me with hot coca tea. What is the difference between coca leaves and cocaine? Everything. It takes 7 kilos of leaves to produce 1 single gram of cocaine. So coca is not the same as cocaine, just as grapes are not wine. What are coca leaves good for? They energise the body and help you cope with changes in altitude.
Fun fact: Why is Coca Cola red and white? Because of the Peruvian flag, which also contains these two colours. I don’t need to explain where the producer of sugary drinks got its name from.
Here the mountain really became king and no longer handled us like porcelain. Approaching the 4600 metre mark, when we had spent the past three hours hiking uphill, I started getting I –want-to-give-up thoughts. Almost all the way I was labouring up the trail, lagging behind, trying to suck enough air into my lungs. I don’t know if it was the lack of exercise in recent months or not having the right technique, but after some time, the whole group walked past me.
It was incredibly hard to appreciate the beauty around me when I wished the gravelly trail to hell. But at last I conquered the peak! Tears of pure happiness gathered in the corner of my eyes. It was an indescribable feeling to finally have reached the peak. The whole world unfolded in front of my eyes. I was on top of the world. While I’m typing these words, I get the chill as I think back to that moment. The memory of this feeling still brings tears to my eyes.
Wherever I looked, snowy peaks and slopes and clear water streams. I gave thanks to Mother Earth for letting me be here with her. From the bottom of the slope I collected a stone, so at the peak I can ask her for permission to enter the next phase of the hike. This is an Inca tradition and it must be respected. I came here as a stranger to embrace myself in the ancient cultures and learn about the mystical lives of the Incas, so I kneeled down and placed the stone on top of the others at the peak as a gift to Mother Earth in exchange for permission.
We were about to start the descent and leave the natural habitat of the puma behind when I heard a huge explosion sound behind me. I turned my head. Avalanche! I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was witnessing one of nature’s wonders. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t big enough to start running for my life, but the deep, powerful explosive sound of it flew across the valley as a reminder to all of us just how small and vulnerable we are. I was hoping Mother Earth granted that permission and she would look over us, keeping us safe.
Finally the temperature started climbing as I descended to the next camp. We only stopped for lunch and carried on for another three hours. It was a very steep three hour downhill and it’s no wonder my ankles were burning with pain. I overworked them. I arrived at the campsite after a very tough 23 km limping.
My stomach was a little upset from the purifying pills I used to clean the water I collected on the way to drink, but thankfully no catastrophe occurred.
My pain threshold was crossed long ago by my right ankle and the left shortly followed. I suffered all the way through the next three hour up and down hike, when a man from my group offered to massage my legs, as it was his profession. In hindsight, I would rather have given birth twice instead than get my legs massaged. Everything went blurry from the tears and I was yelling bitterly when he reached the ankle. Swimming in tears I begged him to stop, but he assured me this was necessary. The shivering was shaking my whole body. My skin was burning hot, and then suddenly went cold. An unbearable migraine became even worse after the torture. I was thinking, at the next opportunity, I may throw myself over the ridge rather than deal with this pain.
The last 45 minutes of this three hour section were a living hell. During this period a girl kindly tried to distract my attention from the pain and she kept me talking. We talked about how many lives a human can have and we shared near death experiences with each other, counting the lives we have already lost. Not half an hour later I noticed a very familiar sound and a sharp shout from the Australian guy in the group.
Landslide! This muddy, stony landslide almost swept the guy off the cliff, but he had excellent reflexes and jumped away just in time and escaped death. We got stuck on the other side. The group leader went to examine the damage and we were allowed to climb over the obstacle.
That afternoon we visited a natural hot spring, where my ankles enjoyed the enjoyable floating and resting. High mountains hugged the spring all around us while I was massaging myself, hoping that I will be able to carry on tomorrow.
On the way back, I was staring out the bus window, watching how the Sun and the Moon lit nature and suddenly I felt in peace. I felt the energies of Mother Earth and subconsciously I grabbed the Moonstone that was hanging from my neck. Tears of joy appeared again. I can’t remember the last time I felt just an overwhelming happiness and peace at once, but there I understood what does it really mean to be in sync with nature.
That night around the bonfire we had a big party. We had music; we drank Inca tequilas and danced. When most of the people got wasted till they hit the ground, and found their tents under the guidance of the less inebriated in the group, I was still up shaking it, as I only had one single shot of that Inca tequila.
At this point, we’d been in the jungle for a while and heavy rain soaked all the clothes that were hung out to dry and breathe. But it only took one hour in the sun for them to dry again.
I could choose if I wanted to hike for 3 hours mostly downhill, take a bus, or go zip lining over 4 km in 5 different positions, 300 m above the ground. Hmmm…it was a hard decision 😀 Of course I went zip lining and what an experience it was to slide across the valley upside down over the river and the jungle.
This is where my ankles gave up all hope and I was forced to carry on in flip-flops. The horses had left by this point, leaving me with an extra five kilos in the backpack. I wouldn’t say I was having the time of my life while walking for three hours by the train tracks on the rocks with flip-flops. At least I was concentrating on the thought of walking around Machu Picchu tomorrow – followed by a hostel, shower and eating at a restaurant. The end of the tunnel was in sight.
My phone alarm crowed at 4am. Quickly let’s go to the bridge to wait in line. At 5am the gates opened and the ocean of people started climbing the 1.7km long staircase towards Machu Picchu in the pitch black. I was still in flip-flops. The stairs were sometimes tiny, sometimes huge. Sweating and still trying to breathe in more air into my lungs, I was picking my feet up and counting each step I conquered. It took 50 minutes to reach the top.
While approaching the entrance, dawn started its entrance at the bottom of the sky, and finally I took a first glance at how high we were. At 6am the gates opened and the crowd started flowing in. I was in! Finally. After 5 days of crying, laughing, suffering and joy I had made it to one of the world’s most sacred place. Of course I could have just paid for a bus and visit the site a lot more comfortably, but in my experience, if don’t have to work hard for it, I don’t appreciate it as much.
I endured a lot of pain and overcame challenges to have the privilege of seeing the most wonderful Inca city. Even to this day science can’t solve the mystery of how the Incas cut rocks weighing tons so precisely. No one can replicate their work. This is why it was worth the 5 days walk.
The real Inca history was not what I expected. It turns out there is no such thing as Incas. Only the king was called Inca and everyone else belonged to the Quechuas. Their language is incredibly complicated. When the guide tried to teach me Quechua words, they all sounded like they were twice as long as any translation would have been.
The Quechuas didn’t leave any written memories behind, so most of what we know today is speculation. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, but an American explorer accidentally did in 1911. Which is why we are able to visit it today. The Spanish destroyed, killed and took everything and everyone they came across, but thank God, they missed this wonder, so it stayed intact for future generations.
When I was standing in line at the gate, I was thinking how much I dislike visiting sights that attract this much tourism. This place was literally printing money. Buses kept transporting people up and down; the crowd grew into unmanageable sizes. I knew I had to see Machu Picchu once in my life, but I honestly hoped it would be worth it.
It was. I saw countless photos before from only one angle, but never saw what else is around the city. In any direction there was vast forests on sharp mountain slopes, natural wonders, mystical Inca history, precise architecture, terrace agriculture, llama sacrifice altars and an ancient world that people can only guess about.
I only had very few adventures where the journey was just as important as the destination. Salkantay carved itself in my memories forever.
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