Interactive Salkantay Trek Map

One laaaast post about our Salkantay Trek. I had the idea of building map of our trek using the GPS data on Stoytcho’s phone photos, and Stoytcho used his know-how to make it happen.

So here you go, an interactive map of our trek, including photos and a few notes on the trail. You can use this to live vicariously through us, or use it to plan your own trek! If you’re doing the latter, we usually dropped pins at forks and indicated which direction we went.

Want to know our experience along the Salkantay? Here are the posts detailing our experience on the hike as two folks who are in decently good shape but have never done a multi-day through hike ever tackling the Salkantay in the January rainy season:

Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, hiking Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, and Machu Picchu (words vs pictures).

Want to know what kinds of life you’ll see? Here are some of the prettiest plants, fungi, and salticids along the trail.

Or for the clean pictures-only version of the hike, here’s our post on the Salkantay on 20 photos.

The Salkantay Trek in 20 Photos

Here is our 4-day, 56 km trek along the Salkantay, for those who would rather have it in pictures than in words:

Day 1

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A fork near the start of the trail. The first day’s trail has several such junctions.
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Reaching Parador Horanda Pata, the first vista along the trail
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Hiking deeper and higher into the Andes
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A view of Salkantay Mountain overshadowing Sorayapampa, the first night’s campsite

Day 2

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A cow rests in the valley below the Salkantay Pass
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Campsite at Salkantaypampa on the way to the Salkantay Pass
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Switchbacks rising from the valley floor up to the Salkantay Pass
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The top of the Salkantay Pass on a rainy day
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The mists of the rainy season hang over the Andes on the other side of the Salkantay Pass
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The rainy season temporarily converts the trail down into a slippery stream. This is how I slipped and fell and hit my neck (but not where it happened, thank goodness, or I’d be much worse off).

Day 3

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A view of Salkantay Mountain over our campsite last night (Wayramachay)
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A turquoise river flows through the dense jungle next to the trail.
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Hiking mostly downhill today, a welcome change. I’m wearing a makeshift neck brace after yesterday’s fall.
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The Santa Teresa/Salkantay River at high levels from the rainy season
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A washout on the steep valley trail beside the river. This one was thankfully passable.

 

Day 4

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Operating the gondola to cross the river at our campsite (Winaypocco). We tried to venture further on this side of the river but encountered an impassable washout.
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Locals wait as a CAT digger clears a washout on the vehicle road. Rainy season brings washouts throughout the valley. Some (like the one above), cut people off from the outside world for several days.
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Hiking the hot, shadeless vehicle road just outside of Playa. From here, we took a car to Santa Teresa to find a doctor and make sure I hadn’t been injured from Day 2’s fall.
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The first hot meal after four days of trail food, after arriving by car in Santa Teresa.
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Reference stacks at the Santa Teresa medical clinic. We visited to make sure I haven’t seriously injured my neck. It all turned out fine.

Funky Fungi and Lichens of the Salkantay

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.

Friendly Fungi

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I’m guessing a type of Basidiomycete, perhaps an immature stinkhorn or earth star. This is one of the more unusual shapes I’ve seen for a mushroom.
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A vividly orange Ascomycete that is probably a relative of the orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) we see in North America.
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A pair of young puffballs. Judging from their somewhat spiky exterior, I would guess they’re from the genus Lycoperdon.
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Small purple mushrooms found along the railway to Machu Picchu. Beyond Basidiomycota, I couldn’t tell you much else except that it seems to have fairly irregular gill formation.
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Tiny white mushrooms growing from a dead tree stump along the railway to Machu Picchu.

Loveable Lichens

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Lichens growing on a rock in the Andes; there are probably a couple of different species here, including squamulose and fruticose forms.
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An intense foliose lichen, probably of the Dictyonema genus.
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Another foliose lichen, this time growing on a tree trunk.
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An intensely orange fruticose lichen, maybe something in the genus Teloschistes

References

Wikipedia article on orange peel fungus

Wikipedia article on Puffballs

Getting to Know Lichens

Lichen Mophology

Dictyonema Wikipedia Article

Plants along the Salkantay Trail

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.

Alpine Habitat

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.

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Small, stunted lupines (Lupinus mutabilis) grow near the Salkantay Pass
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We thought this might be a type of dandelion, but on closer inspection it looks closer to wood avens (Geum urbanum). However, that’s a Europe/Middle East plant, so this could be a close relative or an invader.
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I’m guessing this is an actual member of the dandelion family, from it’s cheerful yellow flower to the shovel-shaped leaves that grow in a cluster.
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The radial leaves of an unknown annual crowd surround a tuft of moss along the trail.
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Unripe wild blueberries growing along the trail, identified mostly by their small, leathery leaves and the unmistakeable crown n the bottom of the berry.

Tropical Highland Wet

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.

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An unripe blackberry grows along the trail. Judging by the size of the fruit and the location, I’d guess it’s the eponymous Andean blackbery (Rubus glaucus).
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I’m not sure what this flower is, but I’ve ruled out fuchsia and cantua. My best guess is Alstromeria isabellina, but even that doesn’t seem quite right.
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Young leaves of a native bamboo (probably Chusquea spp.) still wet with morning dew.
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The strangest plant we saw on our trip; I couldn’t find any leads on it online.
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A native orchid known as Wiñay Wayna in Peru. It’s scientific name is Epidendrum secundum. We also saw a similar plant in a New Zealand garden, so you might be able to get this orchid species commercially.

Tropical Highland Semi-arid/Disturbed Habitat

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.

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A yellow-flowered legume along the trail, perhaps of the genus Retama. You can easily identify legumes by the presence of pea/bean-like pods and the hooded flowers. You could also dig up the roots and find they have nodules, but that wouldn’t be very nice.
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An unknown, rather fuzzy plant growing along the trail.
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A wild bee or wasp pollinates an unnamed wildflower. I couldn’t get any leads on this one, either.
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A giant wild taro plant grows alongside the trail.

Again, if you have info on any of these unidentified plants, let me know in the comments! Cheers,

– Natalie

*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

Salticids along the Salkantay Trail

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A jumping spider (Frigga spp.) from day 3 of our hike

I really like spiders. They’re interesting animals, from their web-building to their role in eating what we humans generally consider pests (like mosquitoes). They exist nearly everywhere in the world, and there are tons of species, so there’s always something new to learn. But a lot of people don’t like spiders, and I understand that. But hear me out below.

Jumping spiders (salticids) are the adorable stars of the spider world. And while the words “jumping” and “spider” together might horrify you, it’s not as scary as you might think. Jumping spiders are small, nonaggressive, and none of them (as far as I know) are venomous enough to seriously hurt you. You can play with them, as they’re highly sensitive to motion and will react to you putting a finger (or stick, or leaf) near them by jumping on it or jumping away. And their huge eyes make them really cute. Seriously, they’re so cute that I’ve already helped one person conquer their fear of spiders through observing them. So if you’re currently not keen on spiders, jumping spiders might be your chance to see spiders in a new light.

And if you’re already an enthusiast of Salticidae, welcome! Hope you like the pictures, and if you’ve got any identification information please pass it along here or on Project Noah (a website dedicated to cataloging images of all life on Earth).

Lastly, the Swedish word for jumping spider is…’hoppspindlar’. Yes, it is. No, I’m not making this up.

Before the Salkantay Pass

We didn’t encounter many jumping spiders on this side of the pass, although that might be the result of us hiking as quickly as possible and not taking many breaks. We did see this little guy at Parador Hornada Pata. He was stubborn and retreated before we could take any good photos:

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After the Salkantay Pass

Our first jumping spider on the north side of the Salkantay Pass showed up on the trail after Wayramachay, probably at around 2,800 feet. This little lady was shy and trying to avoid the sun, so getting a good picture is hard:

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Hiding out from the sun
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Looking right at us

We saw nearly half a dozen jumping spiders in the span of an hour at Winaypocco, in the valley of river Santa Teresa/Salkantay. All of these seem to be in the genus Frigga, which live throughout South America (and a bit of Central America). We managed to get good pictures of three of them:

Frigga spp. #1

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This spider is looking up at my finger
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The spider checks out a tiny mite (yellow smudge) that crawls by next to her
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Just before hopping off into the underbrush

Frigga spp. #2

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Nice lunch you got there, spider-friend.

Frigga spp. #3

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I got this one to jump onto a leaf for easier photography
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He didn’t have much patience, though, and quickly hopped off into the grass
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What he looks like, mid jump
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These shots are just four of about thirty for this particular spider. They’re sprightly and can be hard to photograph.

These are the references I used to ID the above species:

Reference 1

Reference 2

Wikipedia page (for where they normally live)

Salkantay Trek Day 4: Back to Civilization

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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.

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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.

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Good morning, caterpillar. I couldn’t identify this one.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”)

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Beautiful orchids along the trail; these are Epidendrum secundum, also called Wiñay Wayna around here.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Salkantay Trek Day 3: From High to Low

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We hike into the lowlands after the Salkantay Pass

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

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

I thought yesterday’s fall on the trail had only left me with a few scrapes on my hands and knees, but I woke up sometime during the night with my neck aching and had difficulty swallowing water. Neither Stoytcho nor I could tell how badly I had been hit in the neck and how much worse it might get. Stoytcho helped me find a somewhat comfortable sleeping position by leaning me against one of the backpacks so I could sleep semi-upright. But we were both worried. If the swelling continued and made it difficult to breathe, we would be in serious trouble.

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Morning over the Salkantay Peak

I woke up in the morning still breathing fine but with my neck still stiff and swollen, and we started to make plans on the chance I might be seriously injured. Stoytcho repacked the backpacks so he was carrying nearly everything; by the end I only had a few pieces of fabric, snacks, and our jackets in mine. Ashley and Kyle, who had some wilderness first aid training, also helped Stoytcho fashion a cushioned neck brace out of our inflatable camping pillows, a jacket, and a belt. And to pile on the problems, whatever was upsetting my stomach since day 1 hadn’t gone away. But on the upside, at least the rain seemed to have stopped overnight.

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Sporting the new neck brace AND a strawberry I found

The new goal became to get to civilization and find a doctor to get me a checkup. While there was a road ahead, we weren’t sure where it lead and whether there would be anyone we could hitch a ride with, so we consulted with the map and decided we would try to get to Santa Teresa. We weren’t sure if there was a doctor there, but it was at least connected by road to Cusco, where there definitely was a doctor. I could walk, thankfully, so we started off down the trail at a comfortably slow pace.

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The river goes from crisp-clear alpine to blue-green tropical here

After the Salkantay Pass, the trail seemed to go mostly downhill, heading further into lowlands full of life and greenery. The temperature climbed as we descended, and we found ourselves quickly removing our heavy jackets and rain gear to stay cool. Grasshoppers and dragonflies became frequent, flitting out of our way as we trudged down the trail. There were even my perennially favorite animals, jumping spiders. Signs of their webs clung to bushes along the path, and we spotted a few hiding among the foliage. No matter the situation, I think these little creatures will always bring me cheer.

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A dragonfly along our path
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A jumping spider hides in the shade of a leaf.

The flora also became more tropical, basking in the day’s sun and casting new shapes and shadows in the greenery around us. The sides of the trail were a wall of greens, mosses and lichens layered with fast-growing annuals, clusters of woody bushes, and topped with trees that twisted their branches outward above all to capture the sun. The trees became worlds unto themselves, hosting hanging lichens, parasitic mistletoe, and bromeliads. Atop this sea of green we found bursts of color, with flowers of fantastic shapes and sizes blooming from plant and branch. Some seemed familiar, while others were alien to us, but all seemed intent on soaking up every last drop of the sun to flourish and thrive.

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Bromeliads and lichens hang from a tree along the trail.
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Butter…balls? An unusual flower along the trail that I couldn’t identify. UPDATE: It’s Calceolaria tormentosa, a species of Peruvian slipperwort, and yes, you can buy it commercially for your garden.

The rainy season also brought a second gift: fruit. Several plants we passed had branches full of fruit, much of which I could not identify. But some were unmistakably familiar. In one bramble, we found a massive unripe blackberry, flush red and firm. On another bush, clusters of unripe purplish berries that bore the same crown as blueberries—like Colombia, I would gess that Peru is a hotbed of blueberry diversity, and this could be one of several edible species. These fruits were not yet ready to eat, but there was one fruit we encountered that we did sample on the trail: strawberries. In some parts the whole trail was lined with strawberry plants, with hundreds of little ripe red berries hiding beneath the leaves. We picked a few and ate them, first a little to verify what they were, and then a few more. I still had difficulty swallowing, but the strawberries were delicious nonetheless.

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An unripe blackberry along the trail; fingers for size reference
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A strawbery growing along the trail

Our leisurely pace enabled us to observe the fantastically tiny worlds that unfurled over every surface, nurtured by the recent rains. Mosses sprouted the pods they use to propagate themselves. Unlike other plants, they do not make seeds but spores in these pods, which are then dispersed as raindrops splash upon the plant. Less than a centimeter away, lichens were performing a similar act of reproduction, sprouting stalks to disperse their spores. These creatures are neither plant nor even a single organism; they’re instead a cooperative symbiosis of two or three different species – a fungus, a yeast, and a green algae. Together they can survive harsh conditions such as barren rock faces devoid of water for years, and a single lichen spore must carry all three to survive.

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A miniature world: mosses, hornworts, and mushrooms grow together on a patch of dirt
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A lichen grows alongside a plant in a bed of moss.

On a larger scale, people had also shaped the Salkantay trail here. There were signs of horses and footprints everywhere, suggesting this road was used frequently. We passed a blue trail marker proclaiming ruins stood in the adjacent field, but all that remained were foundation stones. The rest had probably been taken long ago by people to make homes and walls. We also encountered a homemade livestock gate that illustrated how brilliantly clever and adaptable the people out here are; lacking springs and hinges, it relied on two rubber sandals hammered on in places of hinges to snap shut automatically after opening. How’s that for a low cost solution?

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Not much to see here; only the foundation rocks remain of this ruin
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Local ingenuity: this rubber sandal hammered to a gate takes the place of an automatically-closing hinge.

It took us nearly five hours to reach Collpampa, the first major ‘town’ on our route. Vehicle roads reappeared here and we could see tire ruts in the mud. As we entered the town, we spooked a family of pigs who ran hurriedly away from us. All of the dozen or so town buildings seemed closed, including what looked like the town’s one-room medical clinic. And no one was around, save for two elderly locals strolling through in the opposite direction. We greeted them and tried to ask them whether there was a doctor nearby in Spanish, but they simply smiled and didn’t answer. It’s likely that they only spoke Quecha.

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We spook some pigs in Collpampa.

On the far side of town we stopped for lunch under some picnic tables shaped like mushrooms. I ate some nuts, hoping they wouldn’t pass right through me, and drank as much water as I could. I felt that if I could at least kick this food poisoning or whatever, that would be one less problem on the list. After snacking, I sat staring at the rest of the food for a while the others continued to eat. Idly, I picked up one of the granola bars that had made up the bulk of our on-the-go meals and started reading the ingredients, just to practice my Spanish. I got through wheat (triga), azucar (sugar), and chocolate (chocolate). There were a few words I didn’t recognize, and then…sorbitol. “Wait, sorbitol?” I thought to myself. “There’s sorbitol in these?” I flipped the granola bar back over and re-read the front. Weight loss bars. These were weight-loss bars, and everything has been passing right through me because I’ve been eating sorbitol, which has a tendency to cause loose bowel movements people. So there you have it; don’t use weight loss bars as trail food, folks.

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Sorbitol is terrible, so here’s a picture of a bee instead.

After Collpampa, we hiked the vehicle road down to Rio Totora where we crossed the river by bridge. Ashley had here in her hiking notes that we had two options: to cross now by bridge, and continue hiking on the other side of the valley, or to cross later by gondola, which she wasn’t keen on. We walked the bridge over the river, which gushed beneath us in a wild torrent, fed by yesterday’s rains. I was glad that the bridge was sturdier than those we had seen yesterday; falling into this river would have been bad news.

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Swollen by recent rains, the river’s current is now fast and rough and not great for falling into if you want to survive.

The trail on the other side of the valley was considerably narrower than what we had trekked through before. It clung precariously to the steep slope, narrowing in some places to only a foot across. In some places both sides of the trail were walls of verdant green, trees in plants. In other, the downhill slope below us was nothing but a steep, barren dirt wall, plunging down into the river below. In places where streams fed the river, we traversed bridges made of nothing but thin branches placed atop a wider branch.

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Yep, that’s the bridge we crossed. That’s mostly loose sticks piled on top of bigger branches.

In other places, we weren’t lucky enough to have a bridge – a couple of parts of the trail had washed out and we had to find a way around. In most cases, we were able to follow a path already carved by others before us, climbing just above the washout and hopping to the other side. In one case, though, the washout spanned more than ten feet of trail. We had to backtrack a bit and pick our way higher through the underbrush, then walk forward and scramble down to the trail on the other side. Thankfully, all of us had adept balance and (at least Stoytcho and I) had faced things like this before.

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A large washout on the trail: one of the risks of hiking during rainy season.

In the late afternoon, the trail widened onto a small plain beside the gorge, and we again found signs that people lived nearby. We passed granadilla fields, with hundreds of unripe green fruit hanging from their vines. It was nearly 6 pm and it had begun to drizzle, so we were thrilled when minutes later we stumbled onto a farmhouse with a welcome sign. “Welcome to Winaypocco” it proclaimed, a place that was not on any of our maps. “Camping enjoy. Candy. Snickers. Twix.” Well, they know what we want after all the hiking. We went in and talked to the folks there, who let us pitch our tents for a grand total of 12 soles under an unfinished barn on their property. It was dusty, but at least we had a roof over our head to keep the increasingly heavy rain off.

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Unripe granadillas hanging in the field
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Welcome to where we’ll be staying tonight.

Though I felt much better, I didn’t do much besides cook dinner that night. Stoytcho and Kyle went over to buy snacks and returned with some candy bars but brought sad news that granadillas were not available; they weren’t in season yet. Stoytcho had also found out that there was a doctor in Santa Teresa, and that we should be able to get a taxi or bus there from La Playa. The wife at the house came by minutes later with a few she had found that were in the garden. “Gratis,” she insisted smiling, and refusing to take money for them. After dinner and a dessert of fresh granadilla, I found a semi-comfortable position laying on a backpack and fell asleep. With any luck, we should be able to make it to civilization tomorrow.

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The river rages on below us, fed by rain. Hopefully there won’t be much more rain and we won’t encounter too many more washouts.

Salkantay Bonus Post: Natalie Gremlin

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:

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So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be wearing a hiking backpack+poncho to the next party.

Salkantay Trek Day 2: Water, water everywhere

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Cairns placed at the Salkantay Pass

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

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.

 

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Good morning!

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.

 

 

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A waterfall obscured by mist feeds a stream that runs into the valley. 

 

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.

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Hiking buddies!

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.  

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A farmhouse along the trail

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.

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Salkantaypampa campsite is nothing but a small overhang; we couldn’t find any water sources nearby, so it was lucky this wasn’t our final destination last night.

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.

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A man drives horses down the steep trails

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.

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Switchbacks in the trail as it leaves the valley floor and begins climbing the mountains

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.

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Stoytcho stands near one of the many muddy parts in the trail.
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Kyle hikes a trail that has turned into a stream from the rain.

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.

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A rock covered with lichen and moss
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Alpine plants flourish in the water brought by the rainy season.

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.

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We reach the Salkantay pass! Not pictured: the continued rain and chilling winds.

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.

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The peaks of the Andean mountains covered in glacial snow.

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.

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Fields cluster along the river outside of Wayramachay.

  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.

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I don’t have pictures of what happened next, so here are some lupines blooming in the Andean highlands.

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.

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We reach Wayramachay campsite, 99.9% intact after today’s hike.

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.

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Andean peaks obscured by today’s ever-present rainclouds. Hopefully it will clear up tomorrow, but for now we’re at least out of the rain.

Heroes Around the World: Wayramachay Edition

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.

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The valley where Wayramachay sits, as seen from the Salkantay pass. There are no vehicular roads to the village.

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.

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The hut, as seen from the trail, humming away happily

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.

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A closer look at the hut, the source of the now nearly deafening humming noise

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.

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A generator creates electricity from water flowing in through a pipe (upper left)

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.

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A river flows by fields in Wayramachay. With clouds often obscuring the sun, flowing water is one of the few constant energy sources in the area.

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.

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A stone fence near Wayramachay. The people here have always lived without electricity.

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.

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The first lightbulb in Wayramachay

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.