Salkantay Trek Day 4: Back to Civilization

Farmland and settlements in the valley on our last day of hiking (the stretch between Collpata and La Playa)s

This is day 4 of our Salkantay Trek, continued from Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

TO ALL PARENTS AND OTHER PARTIES CONCERNED FOR OUR WELL-BEING: We are fine. This occurred about 6 months ago.

I slept soundly through the night and woke up feeling a lot better, well enough to wander around the farm in the morning. We started boiling water for breakfast, and then Ashley and Kyle pointed out some birds they could identify from their guidebooks. The birds were lovely, but impossible to photograph. Stoytcho made an inquiry to one of the family members about buying toilet paper, and they embarrassedly said they couldn’t spare any, something being low on supplies. I wandered down to the trail and watched as the elderly grandmother of the family cross the gorge on the gondola, probably heading into down to stock up for the family.

The family’s grandmother pulls herself across on the gondola like a seasoned champion

Further along the trail I found some easier subjects to photograph. A fat caterpillar was starting his day, and still covered with dewdrops it crawled up toward a plant’s leaves for breakfast. I watched it chew away parts of the leaves, lean back to find a nearby stem, and repeat the process. The caterpillar wasn’t the only one enjoying a good meal, either. On a nearby plant, a jumping spider had caught a massive fly for its breakfast. Twice its size, the fly obscured most of the spider and made it a bit hard to photograph. “Enjoy your breakfast,” I told it.  I went back to our camping spot and helped pack up, adding more things to my pack now that I felt better. I still wore the neck brace, but I felt more certain the injury wasn’t life-threatening. All the same, we kept our goal for the day as the town of La Playa, where Stoytcho and I would catch transport to Santa Teresa and see a doctor.

Good morning, caterpillar. I couldn’t identify this one.
Nice breakfast you got there, jumping spider. I couldn’t identify this little guy, either.

We continued along our trail for less than an hour before we encountered bad news: there was huge, fresh washout that seemed impassable. We tried finding our way in the forest above, but this time the brush seemed to dense to push through without a machete. So we were stuck with two options: either backtrack to the bridge we crossed yesterday and then take the vehicle road, or return to the farm where we had slept and take the gondola across. Option one would take several hours of backtracking, leaving option two as the only viable choice. We hiked back to the farm to take the gondola across, the very thing we had hoped to avoid by crossing the bridge over the river yesterday.

The high ground: attemping to find a way around the trail washout in the forest above proved impossible with our equipment.

Back at the farm, we clustered around the gondola and with the help of the farmer’s daughter got it working. The mechanism was simple enough: if the gondola was on the other side, you pulled it across to you. Then you loaded yourself into it, traveled by gravity to the middle of the line, and then pulled yourself across the rest of the way by pulling the hanging loops. Kyle went over first, then pulled me over. Then Stoytcho came; he was supposed to be alone but the farmer’s daughter tossed all of our packs in as well. “It’s fine,” she said, apparently amused and a little annoyed we were taking so long, “We normally put everything and everyone in at once.” Ashley came along last, braving it for the sake of progress.

Stoytcho pulls himself and our gear along in the gondola.

We found ourselves back on the vehicle road that we had encountered in Collpampa yesterday, which was wide and easy to traverse. In about ten minutes we hiked past the point where we had been stymied earlier on the opposite bank and got a look at how bad the washout actually was. Steep and spanning more than 20 feet, this washout looked truly unsalvageable. It looked like the next travelers would have to cut a brand new trail above it, something we were entirely unequipped to do. I was glad we had taken the gondola instead of trying to cross.

The trail washout we encountered earlier (middle right wall of dirt), viewed from the opposite side of the river. It’s probably about 30 feet across.

The vehicle road was an easy hike, although incredibly hot. We made good time as we moved, but stopped often to snack, drink water, and take photos. We also got the chance to forage a bit, as wild avocado trees grew along the trail. Hunting around the base of the trees, we were able to pick a few avocadoes off the ground. And although they weren’t in the best condition, I desperately wanted to eat them. That’s what happens when you’ve run a calorie deficit for three days straight. (At this point, I was also talking nonstop about what I wanted to eat for my first meal when we got to a restaurant, which was pretty much everything. “Lomo Saltado! And rice! Beans! A slice of pie! Beef stew! Wait, and PASTA!”)

Beautiful orchids along the trail; these are Epidendrum secundum, also called Wiñay Wayna around here.
Mm, wild trail avocadoes. (Spoiler: they actually weren’t that good)

As we hiked further along the valley road, signs of human activity became increasingly frequent and abundant. We passed houses and fields on both sides of the gorge. Some farms were tiny, one field affairs, while others were multi-building estates that seemed to stretch for a whole hectare. Tire ruts were also cut into the road in many places, and we crossed several sturdy, manmade bridges meant for vehicle traffic. In fact, the only thing that seemed absent from the road were the actual vehicles. There were also few people, none except those we passed working in the fields. It was oddly quiet.

Our trail is oddly quiet despite being the only road to several towns and villages.

We found the cause of our quiet road in the early afternoon. Rounding a bend in the path, we found several locals sitting around, waiting. One woman had a portable stove going and was selling hot vegetable stew, despite the day’s heat. We asked her what was going on and she responded that there was a washout in the road ahead.

A CAT digger attempts to create a passable road from a massive washout. So that’s why we had the road all to ourselves.

“Washout” turned out to be a bit of an understatement. A whole section of the road, bridge and all, had been washed away by the recent rains and was now nothing but a rocky, raging torrent of water. It was currently impassable by foot, let alone by car. But a regional authority had already dispatched a police officer and construction machinery to tackle the issue: a huge CAT digger precariously perched in the rapids moved mud and rock downward, re-creating a passable trail. In a few minutes, we were able to cross by hopping from rock to rock with the officer’s help, and continued on the way to La Playa. We later learned that this washout blocked access to the area we were in for a few days, so we were incredibly lucky we got there just as they were fixing it.

The heroic officer who helped us cross.

From here it was less than an hour before we made it down to La Playa, where Ashley and Kyle parted ways with us and continued on to Llacapata. La Playa didn’t have any open restaurants, so we couldn’t celebrate the end of our time together with a celebratory meal; instead we exchanged contact info and agreed to meet in Cusco. Stoytcho and I asked around for a bus, but most locals said that one probably wouldn’t be coming today, since their normal route included a path through the washout. Instead, someone arranged a ‘taxi’ for us, which was basically a local guy driving us to Santa Teresa in his 1990’s sedan for 10 soles, or roughly $3 USD. He was friendly and told us what it was like to work as a taxi driver out here. Though it was far, this area was still pretty well-connected to Cusco and other towns, and it sounded like life was good.

TRAIL BUDDIES!!! We’ll miss Ashley and Kyle.

We had three priorities when we reached Santa Teresa: a meal, a doctor, and a place to stay, in that order. I didn’t care how bad my injury was; I wanted first and foremost to have a hot meal before anything. My reasoning was after hiking 20-some kilometers, putting the doctor’s visit off another hour wasn’t going to kill me. And if it was bad news, I wanted a meal in me to deal with it. We stopped at basically the first restaurant we saw and ordered an avocado and chips appetizer, lomo saltado, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Pretty much all of it was terrible food, but we stuffed our faces anyway.

The first meal back in civilization. It was pretty bad, including what I can only assume was canned cubed beef bits, but all my brain could think of was “FOOD FOOD FOOD YES FOOD.”

After eating, we walked over to the medical clinic and at first the office looked closed, but we followed a path around to a modest building in the back and found nurses working. Using broken Spanish, we explained to them that I had fallen on the trail and had some difficulty swallowing, so we would like to see a doctor. The nurse listened patiently and filled out a form for us. Then she asked us to wait and busied herself with finishing the form and carrying it off. The whole time, she had her toddler tied to her back in a sling. The kid occasionally made whining or giggling noises, but was otherwise entirely unobtrusive. We would never see this in the U.S., but it must be less expensive and stressful for a new mother to just bring her child to work.

The nurse sent us next door to wait for the doctor, and within ten minutes we were called into an office. The doctor on call listened to our story, then put pressure on various parts of my neck and back and asked if there were any sharp pains. At the end, she said I was likely fine and had just stressed my muscles with the blow, which tightened them and caused the difficulty swallowing. “I recommend a neck brace for a week,” she said, “and get an X-ray just to be safe. Are you going to Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu?” We responded that we were and asked if it was a good idea. “It should be fine,” she responded, “and they have an X-ray machine in Aguas Calientes.” Phew, what a relief.

At the doctor’s office, we learn that I haven’t horrendously injured myself. The doctor didn’t even have to pull out one of these reference books.

The doctor pointed us to a pharmacy across the town square where we could buy a neck brace, so after a few minutes to revel in the relief that I wasn’t horribly injured, we headed over there. To our surprise, our doctor was there to ring up our purchases. Given how few people are out here, I guess it’s not surprising that she does double duty as the doctor and the pharmacist, though it may have also been a bit of self-favoritism.

We stepped outside into the dusk and were immediately greeted by a pack of dogs fighting each other in the street a few meters away. Three were actively biting each other, while another dozen looked on and barked furiously. We skirted them and decided to find the nearest hotel room, just in case they decided either of us might be worth biting (although we’ve had our rabies shots). The first hotel turned out to be just off the main square, an unfinished building with exposed rebar and dark hallways. For 30 soles, we bought ourselves a room and climbed the uneven concrete stairs to the third floor and into an equally concrete square with a bed and a semifunctional bathroom. It could have been worse—at least we had running water.

Oh, our room also came with a FREE SCORPION! Thankfully I’m not bothered by stuff like this so I trapped him and put him in a garden outside.

Although we were exhausted, we had heard a rumor of hot springs in the area and asked the woman running the hotel about it. She told us it would be a 20 minute walk, and that she could order a taxi for 8 soles, but we weren’t sure if it would be more self-favoritism. We started walking to the hot springs with our flashlights, got picked up by a taxi for one quarter of the quoted price halfway through the walk, and got to the hot springs in minutes. The hot spring were more lukewarm than hot, but an artificial ‘waterfall’ they had created was the perfect place to sit and feel the water rushing over you, cleaning you off, and massaging every aching muscle.

Meal two of the day was significantly better than meal one. It also consisted solely of an avocado the size of my head doused with salt. Life is good.

So we did it. We hiked the Salkantay Trail as our first multi-day through hike. We did it in the rainy season, covering a distance of 54 km over four days. We met some awesome fellow hikers, met the locals, and saw how people out here lived in contrast to the comforts of Cusco. And we faced pouring rain, steep slippery trails, and trail washouts that helped us develop our skills of assessing risks and alternatives out in the wild. Were there miserable times? Yes. Did we face danger? Yep. But it was totally worth it.

We’ll miss you, Salkantay. Maybe one day we’ll hike you again, preferably when we have more than four days and can bring trail food from the U.S.

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