Today is Day 1 of our Salkantay trek, a four day, 60 km-long, 6.4 km change-in-altitude hike through the Peruvian highlands and lowlands to reach Santa Teresa and eventually, Machu Picchu. This is also the first through-hike ever for either of us. It’s like my labmate always used to say, “Go big or go home.” Right? I’ll leave off the second half he always followed up with: “Go too big and get sent home.” Hopefully that won’t happen to us. After all, we’re prepared and have had a good night’s sleep.
We got our “early” 7:30 am start out on the Salkantay trail in the northeast corner of Mollepata, with the constant uphill path setting the theme for the day. The trail led through a wooded area for the first couple of hours, as we opted for the longer (but supposedly less hot and more scenic) “hiking” path instead of the vehicle road. Little blue markers with a hiking person led the way after that. Since we were heading out a little later than we had hoped, we scarfed down two granola bars apiece for breakfast with some bites of a giant, football-sized bread boule while we walked.
Though we got a later start than we’d hoped on our hike, we encountered several others on the trail. We passed a group of European hikers chatting amongst each other and said good morning, overtaking them with our faster pace. A few minutes later, we passed another couple hiking the trail and exchanged good mornings with them as well. There were also several locals using the trail. A young man on a horse came down one trail and courteously gave us directions on an ambiguous part of the trail – in this section, there are many because locals have carved so many of their own paths. And a sweet diminutive abuelita we crossed paths with wished us safe travels. “Be careful,” she told us in lispy, toothless Spanish, “there are dangerous men who will cut your throat.” Then she was off down the trail, practically bounding down the trail we had huffed up moments ago.
We didn’t encounter anyone for an hour after that, for better or worse—one of the benefits of hiking the off season. The trail gave way from trees grassy hills, and we wound up slopes so steep we were practically climbing. Then without warning, we were on a wide dirt road full of locals. Children played in the dirt while parents sat, waiting for a bus to somewhere else. They were friendly and pointed us to where the Salkantay trail continued. They also pointed us to a sign for the trail. In our two hours of hiking, we had covered 5.7 kilometers of distance and 500 meters of altitude. We had 14 kilometers and 530 meters of altitude gain to go. We were making good time, and might even make it to Salkantaypampa (the next campsite) for the night.
The next part of the trail was a steep climb, but we only stopped for water and a few bites of our giant boule of bread (this thing was the size of my head). In half an hour we had covered another 2.4 km and reached the trail fork for Parador Hornada Pata, where we detoured up to get a view of the surrounding countryside and take a break. During the busy season, it looked like this area had water resources and bathrooms, but currently everything was locked. So we just sat on the roofed benches, resting and watching the cloud flow over the Andean ridges and valleys.
We went back to the trail only to find out the Parador had a path down rejoining the trail later (oops), and trudged along toward our next destination. This is the point where things started to go not-so-well, as I had an increasingly upset stomach and needed to frequently, uh, go. “Great,” I thought to myself, “I’ve also got some kind of food poisoning from yesterday’s meals. At least now we’re eating food so processed I should get better.” I chugged water to ward off dehydration, ignoring more of the scenery and my increasingly tired legs. Our progress slowed, and the couple we had seen earlier passed us, waving cheerfully. It took us nearly two hours to cover the 3.6 km to Mirador Chinchirkuma.
Now came the final push, a mostly-flat 8 km stretch of trail to Sorayapampa cut into the steep Andean mountains alongside a narrow aqueduct. After twenty minutes of walking, we passed a trail marker spray painted onto the rock: 6.4 km! We had covered more than a kilometer and a half. It looked like we were picking up speed again.
We passed the next trail marker half an hour later, in spray paint of another color. This one read…5.7 kilometers? That was odd, because we didn’t feel like we had slowed down any. We continued on, and next marker in yellow spray paint announced 5.1 kilometers; it was immediately followed by a marker in red spray paint that read 5.3 kilometers. It dawned on us that each of these different paint colors was a person’s attempt at marking the distance, explaining why they differed so wildly. Even more fun, the distance of a ‘kilometer’ within each paint color was inconsistent. These are the trail markers you get in the middle of nowhere. Deal with it.
Things were colder and wetter, so we donned jackets and ponchos to stay warm and dry. We trudged on, trying to celebrate the trail markers that indicated the most progress and ignoring the ones that didn’t. We kept our spirits up as the hours passed, taking pictures of each other and of the scenery around us. The Andean mountains were enormous, dwarfing all human activity and forces of nature. Waterfalls were tiny trickles of water off of their rocky walls, and rockslides looked like nothing but dustings of gray across their faces.
It was nearly 5 pm and long after I had decided that anyone who had marked this trail as 8 km was a terrible liar when we finally reached the edge of Sorayapampa’s settlement. We had descended onto a plain and emerged in a barren, rocky field, likely the site of a recent landslide. A four-foot wide torrent of water rushed through it. Someone had ingeniously or disingenuously placed a rickety ladder over this stream as a bridge, so we crossed it while hoping it could hold our weight. It held, and we got to advance not drenched in freezing water in the rapidly cooling dusk air.
Finally, we reached the first human settlements, and encountered the couple we had seen before. They were setting up camp in a small clearing near the road. “Is this the public campsite?” we asked them. “We have no idea,” the woman replied, “but that guy over there said we could camp here. I…think he was drunk though.” We made introductions and learned their names were Ashley and Kyle, and they were here from Alaska to trek to Machu Picchu as well. After several minutes consulting Google Maps, the four of us decided to hike another kilometer down the trail, see what was there, and then come back if we couldn’t find a more reliable campsite.
Thankfully Sorayapampa proper, with all of its campsites and grassy plains and emptiness (thanks off season) was only a few minutes away. We asked at a private campsite about the public campsite, and was told there wasn’t one but that they had huts available. We politely declined and continued down the road. One of us noticed a blue sign like the one on the trail, and we realized we’d found it. The public campsite was this big grassy plain fenced off with barbed wire and dotted with cowpies, and it’s our home for tonight. YES!
The next hour was the bare necessities of life as dusk and chill set in, pitching the tent, adding some base layers, cooking dinner while huddled over our gas stove, and chatting with Ashley, Kyle, and a couple other people camped there. The air mattress and sleeping bag were a welcome rest, and I hoped that whatever upset my stomach would go away. Oh, and that whoever lied to us about that final 8 km distance to Sorayapampa would COME AND FIX THEIR FRIGGIN TRAIL MARKERS.