Here is our 4-day, 56 km trek along the Salkantay, for those who would rather have it in pictures than in words:
Here is our 4-day, 56 km trek along the Salkantay, for those who would rather have it in pictures than in words:
As creatures in the “not animals” category, fungi and lichens are another ubiquitous inhabitant along trails that don’t get enough love. But they come in some of the brightest colors and weirdest shapes, attesting to the creativity of nature’s palette. Here are some of the funkiest little fungi and lichens we encountered during our hike.
Note: I’ve made some broad attempts to identify these, but fungi can be notoriously hard to pin down (even into Families) without extensive analysis of microscopic details. We didn’t have a microscope on the trail, so that’s the best I can do. That being said, if there’s a field guide floating around out there that covers the fungi of the Peruvian Andes, TELL ME!!
Second note: We hiked in January (the rainy season), the abundance we saw may be due to the increased rain.
One of the best things about the Salkantay Trail is that it takes you through at least five* different Andean habitats, each with its own unique flora and fauna. And while everyone wants to spot the animals, you’re much more likely to see plants along the trail because 1) there are more plants than animals and 2) they don’t move so they don’t flee when you come down the trail. So it can be far more rewarding on a hike to take some time and admire the plants.
Below are some of the plants we encountered on our hike along the Salkantay Trail in January 2017. There’s an abundance of plant life everywhere on the trek, from the familiar to the strange, and the rainy season meant a plethora of flowers in bloom and in some places, fresh fruit. I’ve tried to identify species where I can, but if you have any info please feel free to comment below.
This ecosystem stretches from Salkantaypampa to a few kilometers after the village of Wayramachay and includes the Salkantay Pass. Plants here grow low or spindly, battered by cold and high winds on the mountainside.
The alpine region gave way to a hot, humid, and much more tropical-feeling region that included an abundance of plant species. Plant size ranged from tiny mossess and small annuals to huge brambles, shoots, and trees. Some species even eschewed dirt and grew on other plants.
As we walked along the vehicle road to Playa, there air seemed to be hotter and drier and the dirt appeared to be harder packed. This may be an actual change in climate, or just be the case on the day we were hiking. Either way, this ecosystem is different than the one along the trail; the plants are different, probably because the area is disturbed by frequent human activity.
Again, if you have info on any of these unidentified plants, let me know in the comments! Cheers,
*There are probably more than five habitats, but this is what I could identify on the hike: conifer forest (may be manmade), grassland/pampas, alpine, tropical highland wet, tropical highland semi-arid
If you’re familiar with Google Photos, you might know that it sometimes turns photos taken together into a little animation. It did that with one collection of our photos from day 2, of me celebrating us reaching Salkantaypampa, which was glorious. Except that with my pack and poncho over it all, I look like some sort of little gremlin:
So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be wearing a hiking backpack+poncho to the next party.
The night was uneventful and after our twenty-something kilometer hike yesterday, we slept soundly. I vaguely remember waking up once to the sound of snorting and neighing near my head and spent a few moments afraid that the creature outside might test our tent for edibility. But it didn’t, and I was asleep again in minutes.
We woke up on the second day of our hike around 9:00 am with everything stiff. Arms, hands, knees, ankles, feet, legs, hips-every part of us moved with an immense reluctance. We boiled water and ate a breakfast of powdered soup and bread, and then packed away our camping kit. Between heavy mist and rain showers in the early morning, the tent was wet. Our shoes were also wet, unable to dry from yesterday’s rain. And with the sky’s continued grayness and the Salkantay Pass ahead of us, it looked like stiffness and wetness would continue to be the theme of the day.
Our fellow hikers Ashley and Kyle were also packing up, and the four of us decided to hike together for the day. Since we got a late start to the day, we probably weren’t going to make the 18 km hike to the campsite at Chaullay, but Ashley and Kyle had notes on a campsite about 10 km away at a place called Wayramachay. They also generously let us borrow their Steripen to replenish our water supply, and then the four of us set off along the trail.
The first part of the trail was marked by gentle slopes as we trudged through the valley, making it easy for us to enjoy the scenery. The steep mountains on either side of us were verdant through the low hanging clouds and scattered rain, and water flowed through the whole landscape. It trickled off peaks to create waterfalls, flowing along the contours of the mountains down to a river that rushed besides us. There were also signs of human activity here; we passed wire fences, grazing cattle, and stone houses with farm plots.
In a little over an hour we made it to Salkantaypampa 3.2 km away, and all four of us agreed that it was better we had spent the night at Sorayapampa. Salkantaypampa had only a small shelter and there didn’t seem to be a water source nearby. Excited all the same, we celebrated by taking pictures and continuing on.
The trail rose more steeply after Salkantaypampa, forming winding switchbacks climbing into the mountains. There were a few points of ambiguity along the trail where it was unclear which direction we should take-one path seemed to lead across the river and up the mountain on the right, while others seemed to lead along the river and still others led uphill on the left of the river. I remembered seeing hiking groups before us climbing the trails on the left and suggested we do the same. A few minutes later a man appeared over the ridge, jogging and driving several horses before him. We tried to ask him whether we were on the right path, but he was out of earshot in minutes and we were left alone again.
We pressed on, but as the trail became steeper our progress slowed. Kyle was suffering from altitude sickness, and my own body couldn’t seem to go any faster. I didn’t feel pain, but instead a dread refusal from my muscles to move any faster, to stretch any further than I was currently doing. I resorted to taking small, shuffling steps, waddling like a penguin up the trail.
The increasingly heavy rain also made going more difficult. What had started as a soft drizzle in the valley became a chilling sheet of water pouring down on us. It seeped into our ponchos and shoes making everything damp, and only our continued walking kept us warm. The rain also pooled along the trail, creating patches of mud that we either had to cross with caution or find routes around. In places where there was only gravel, the water simply rushed by, turning the trail into another stream rushing to join the river in the valley below. I was extremely grateful that I’ve never found being damp or wet unpleasant, and that I had done several hikes in the rain before. Stoytcho, who isn’t fond of getting wet while hiking, was having less fun.
Even with the foul weather and increasing chill from the higher altitude, life continued to flourish high on the mountain. We passed beautiful, brilliant wildflowers from plants that seized the opportunity of rain to bloom. Small, strangely shaped plants adapted for the harsh alpine climate flourished along the muddy hills and walls of the trail. And brilliantly-colored lichens bloomed on rocks, indifferent to the weather around us. The weather might have been terrible for us, but for the flora here it seemed to be a welcome chance to grow and thrive.
Five hours after we started hiking, we finally reached the blue signpost demarcating the Salkantay Pass. This was the highest point in our trail, a steep 4.6 km above sea level and 1.8 kilometers above where we had started our hike in Mollepata. At this height, the clouds of the current rainstorm hung low and heavy, obscuring our view of the Salkantay peak and other mountains around us. With the continued rain beating down, our celebration at the peak was short before we started down the other side.
The trail down seemed less steep than the one up, though this may have been the illusion of going downhill (which I was incredibly grateful for). We still moved slowly, as the low hanging clouds made it hard to see more than a few hundred feet and the continued rain flowing from the mountains made the trail slippery. One small misstep and one of us might have suddenly been travelling far faster down the mountain that was healthy. But after an hour of heading downhill the rain lessened, and as a belated reward for our climb, the snow-capped Andean peaks revealed themselves. Grinning, Ashley pointed out the different kinds of glaciers to us. She and Kyle have gathered a wealth of knowledge in their extensive hiking experiences.
We saw the first sign of human activity at around 4:30 pm, more than five hours after the last sign of human activity on the other side of the Salkantay Pass. Small patches of farm plots clustered on the other side of the river, becoming more frequent as the slope of our trail leveled. We found ourselves once again in a lush, grassy valley, but there was also a new sound: a faint hum hung in the air. It grew louder the further we walked, becoming the unmistakable sound of machinery. And as we rounded a bend, we found a small hut with three men busily working. They waved us over to look inside and explained the source of the sound: this hut housed a hydroelectric generator, which harnessed the water flowing around us to create the first electricity their village had ever seen. They pointed with pride to the first lightbulb glowing within the hut.
With excited voices, we congratulated them and asked the way to Wayramachay. They pointed further down the trail and said it wasn’t far, maybe half an hour. We continued on, and though the rain picked up again and poured down on us, we were in high spirits. We stopped soon after to replenish our water and I offered to carry a few bottles from Stoytcho’s pack, as his load was nearly twice mine in weight. I shoved the bottles into the top of my pack, which would have been a forgettable detail on our trip except for what happened next.
We continued down the trail and on a small downhill slope I lost my footing. I collapsed forward, but used my hands to stop my head from hitting the ground. All of the weight of my pack also slung forward too, hitting me in the back of the neck and pinning me. I didn’t have the physical strength to push myself up with the added weight of the pack, so I just sat there on all fours, trying not to let the pack’s weight force my face into the mud and thinking “REALLY?! Come on, I can’t lift this?” I hadn’t realized my body was tilted downhill, so I was trying to lift myself and the pack at an unfavorable angle.
To the rest of the group, though, it looked like I had suddenly collapsed on the trail. Stoytcho rushed over and asked if I was okay. I couldn’t answer at first (see: not letting myself faceplant in the mud), so he started to panic. I managed to grit out “I…can’t…lift…the pack. Stuck…here.” He realized what was going on and gently pulled the backpack backward so I could sit up. Embarrassed, I pushed myself to my feet to show everyone I was okay. There were some scrapes on my hands and knees, but otherwise I felt fine.
We passed through Wayramachay without further incident and encountered the campsite less than half an hour later. Nestled on the edge of a gorge, it was a beautiful place to spend the night. It also had water taps and space for preparing food and laying out our clothes. Since we were the only ones at the site, we pitched our tent in the covered areas to get out of the rain. We changed and hung our wet clothes on a makeshift clothesline, with little hope that they would dry. I washed up the scratches on my hands and checked my knee, but bleeding had already stopped. After eating dinner of soup and instant noodles which was inexplicably delicious, Stoytcho and I crawled into our tent, where we fell asleep grateful to be dry and sheltered from the rain.
Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.
On the far side of the Salkantay Pass, 30 kilometers from the nearest town, there sits a little stone hut with a corrugated aluminum roof. It huddles at the base of the mountain pass less than a kilometer from Wayramachay, a tiny rural village of a few dozen scattered houses. Wayramachay is the kind of place that turns up no results on Google Maps, a place where the nearest vehicular roads are more than 10 km away. It looks like many other towns in the Andean highlands, a few dozen stone dwellings with farm plots and some scattered horses. But if you hike the Salkantay, you’ll notice the little hut near Wayramachay because it hums. It’s the only sound like it out here in the isolated Peruvian Andes.
We arrived at this hut on the second day of our hike, exhausted and soaking wet from rain. As the steep mountain trail gave way to gentler slopes, we heard that odd hum over the patter of the rain, and within minutes the hut faded into view through the mist. Three men were working around it, but when they saw us they stopped and excitedly waved us over. We were wary at first, as we remembered a rather visceral warning we had received the previous day of dangerous men on the trail. But these men seemed friendly and not the throat-cutting type. We slogged over the wet trail to greet them.
The men introduced themselves as engineers and then invited us to look into the hut for the source of the noise. Here, the humming sound was nearly defining, drowning out even the patter of the rain. It became a high-pitched whirr, filling our ears, filling the whole hut, bursting forth and filling the whole countryside. It was a generator, belt whirring away madly, assembled from scratch and powered entirely by the water rushing down the mountains around us.
Stoytcho and I used our Spanish to talk with one of the men and got this story. The three of them were originally from Wayramachay and wanted to make life better for their village, to bring it the modern comfort of electricity. But without a way to build power lines out here, they decided to harness the only resource they knew their village had in abundance: flowing water. With financial help from the Peruvian government, they had purchased machinery and building materials and carried them here on foot and horseback along the Salkantay trail. After several months of construction, they were finally putting the finishing touches on the system, which harnessed flows of water down the mountain to create the first electricity Wayramachay had ever seen.
When we asked an engineer if we could take photos, he gestured with gusto and beamed. “Of course!” he replied, radiating with pride. He pointed uphill along a white pipe that ended in a stone wall. “There’s still some work to do. Right now, we can’t control how fast the water flows. We’re building a dam system so that we can better control the water flow and the electricity,” he explained. “But this,” he pointed in the opposite direction, to a thin wire running from the front of the hut to a building several hundred meters away. “This is already carrying electricity. It already powers lightbulbs over there.” He then explained that once they could control the system, they were planning to extend the wire further into town. They hoped to eventually bring electricity to the entire village. We wished them good luck and bade them farewell, continuing along the Salkantay trail, past the stone houses and fields of Wayramachay.
It’s hard for me to imagine how the people of Wayramachay live now because it’s so vastly different than anything I’ve ever experienced. They’ve lived with sunrise and sunset since the beginning of their village. They’ve endured the Andean chill with no means of heating besides burning fires. With no other source of light, their work is limited to daylight hours with tools that don’t require electricity. And the only ways to communicate with the outside world are to talk with those passing on the Salkantay trail, or to make the long hike yourself to the nearest town. If there’s an emergency, there’s no way to get help. All that is about to change for these people if they get electricity. They can have emergency phones, electrical heating, and light after the sun has set. They might be able to use some electric tools that make farming easier, giving them free time to make handicrafts to sell or to learn new things.
The future for Wayramachay is embodied within a flickering lightbulb high in the Andean mountains. And by the hard work and love that these engineers have for their hometown, and it’s getting brighter.
We are not morning people. Stoytcho and I have both realized this over the years, although exceptions have been made at certain times in our lives, from the 7:00 AM crew practice to the 8:00 am morning lab meetings. In these cases, we’ve dealt with it, adapted our sleep schedules, and generally acted like the weird image people have of ‘grown ups’. But in the absence of such external pressures, we drift back toward being night owls with a 1:00 or 2:00 am bedtime. It’s just naturally who we are. So it was foolish of us to think we were going to catch the 4:30 am minibus from Cusco up to Mollepata to start the Salkantay hike at 7:30 am. Thankfully, we realized this last night around midnight and adapted; we’d spend tomorrow making sure we were fully prepared for the hike, then take an afternoon bus out to Mollepata, find a place to stay, and start the hike early the next day. No need to wake up at absurd-o’clock, which we’ve already determined is not our specialty.
We spent the day putting finishing touches on our hiking kit and taking in the last sights of Cusco. We discovered our biggest problem in the morning, when Stoytcho ran a dye test on our fancy water filter and realized it was broken. We’re guessing the altitude change when we came here to Cusco ruptured the glass filter, although there’s no real way to know since we’ve been using it for three months without a test. We decided to leave it behind (with a pile of other stuff Pisko and Soul let us leave), but it meant we had to go out and buy ~6 2.2 L bottles of water and stuff them into our packs. This 13.2 L of water wouldn’t get us all the way through the trek, but it would get us pretty far. Towns along the way would fill in the rest of our water needs.
After purchasing water, we stopped at Mercado Central de San Pedro, a local market filled with souvenirs, coca products, and food. We bought some honey candy made with coca leaf infusion, and while that may seem insidious, it’s closer to coffee drops than cocaine. Without the insane refining, coca acts as a mild stimulant, just like coffee, so it’s normal to the people here. Plus, we’ve heard it’s great for dealing with the huge altitude climb over the Salkantay pass. We also got an amazing late lunch here, a heavy beef-and-vegetable stew served up by two cheerfully rotund ladies. It cost 6 soles (~$1.80) for the two of us. We tried to give them more money because we felt the meal was worth more, but they politely refused it. We bought a second helping instead.
Full and ready to take on anything, we raced uphill with our packs to where the minibus departs for Mollepata. At 3:30 pm, we were pushing it; the bus we were trying to catch was the last bus of the day. But we arrived with plenty of time to spare and found the bus driver outside his van smoking, with 4 or 5 Mollepata-bound locals waiting nearby. “When do we leave?” we asked the driver. “When we have a full bus,” the driver replied. We went and stood with the locals, made some light conversation with our rapidly-improving Spanish, and watched the traffic go by.
It took another forty minutes to gather enough people for the bus to depart, and then suddenly at the end there was an abundance. A woman with an infant showed up, an old couple appeared out of nowhere, and with a quorum all of us loaded into the bus. Then three teenagers came dashing up, though there was only one seat left on the bus. “Please,” they begged the driver, “we don’t want to be left here tonight.” The driver motioned for one of them to get in the back with us, and the other two climbed into the sole free seat in front. Then we were off, putt-putting out of town on the three-hour drive to Mollepata.
The bus wound its way along the narrow Andean roads, taking us higher into the mountains. Occasionally the driver stopped to let someone off or take someone on, though no one seemed to make any gestures to him. He just seemed to know where to stop for each person, as if by habit and routine. Finally around 6:30 pm, the bus puttered to a halt in Mollepata’s central square. In the dusk light, we climbed off the bus, stretched our cramped legs, and donned our heavy packs. Our two goals were to find a place to stay for the night and to find the trailhead for the Salkantay. We asked some older gentlemen hanging around the square where we could find a room for the night, and they pointed us in the direction of a hostel. But they couldn’t give us much idea of where the trailhead was. I tried asking about the church (according to one blog I read, that’s where the trailhead is), but this was met with blank stares. “This town has never had a church,” they told us.
It was getting dark, so we postponed our search for the Salkantay trailhead and wandered down the street in search of the hostel. Everything looked closed, and we weren’t sure we had gone the right way when we finally a sign that read “Hostal Intikilla“. We rang the doorbell and after a few minutes of shuffling, a woman came to the door. We negotiated a room for 60 soles, trudged upstairs, and finally dropped our heavy packs. With the sun set and darkness advancing, it was getting cold rapidly in this little town. Hopefully we had enough blankets.
We grabbed dinner at the hostel’s upstairs restaurant, which consisted of the innkeeper and her husband cooking while their young daughter tidied up the restaurant and brought us the food. We ordered lomo saltado and pollo a la plancha, which ended up being huge portions of meat accompanied by fries, lentils, rice, and salad. It was way too much, but we forced ourselves to finish as much as we could. “This is the best meal I’m going to get in days,” I thought to myself, “better eat what I can.”
After dinner, we set out in search of the trailhead with our headlamps. That turned out to be unnecessary, because even this town in the Andean highlands had streetlamps. Using some maps we had found online and the suggestion of our innkeepers, we headed northeast and uphill toward one corner of town. We passed a man running a grocery store and asked him if he knew where the trail started. He pointed us further uphill. We passed a group of men catching up on a street corner and asked them where the trail was. Uphill, they told us, and turn right when the street dead ends. We followed their instructions, and found ourselves trudging up and down a few hills, past the remnants of Christmas lights on houses. We encountered a group of kids playing out on the street, and we asked them where the trail started. They pointed further along the road, giggling. Finally, a couple of hills later, we found the sign (the link shows where on Google Maps). In blue and white, it named our destination tomorrow: Sorayapampa.
Back at the hostel, we got ready for bed. I had a headache and my stomach wasn’t feeling great, so I chugged as much water as I could and hoped that it wasn’t altitude sickness. Guess we’ll find out tomorrow!