When I would talk to people prior to making this trip I would say I am doing a 7 day hike to Machu Picchu - and the emphasis seemed to always be on getting to Machu Picchu. There are certainly easier ways to get to Machu Picchu then hiking for 7 days - in fact you can just take a train and buy a ticket and walk in! But for Julie and I the trip was always much more about the journey to get to Machu Picchu. It was important for us to do the hike - and we knew it would be challenging. We both live in the midwest - which you probably know is pretty flat. So the goal was to take this journey through the 7 days of challenging terrain, distance and altitude and along the way get to know much more about the culture and beauty of the Peruvian country, history and people. Was the hike challenging? I would say it was even more challenging then I had anticipated - but I loved it! At the end of every day when I was getting my high five from Aly and Berto I felt really proud of myself - and at no point in the hike did I ever feel I wouldn't make it. Did I sometimes wish for a bit of a break of level ground - oh yeah!!! But when you're hiking in the Andes Mountains there is not a lot of level ground - and the scenery is breathtaking every single minute. I reminded myself 50 times a day to look up from my feet and capture a mental picture to bring back with me. The destination is only as beautiful as the journey- and what a spectacular journey it was!
Mountain Lodges offers lodge to lodge hiking - so we were basically hiking to Machu Picchu lodge to lodge. You can do a shorter (usually 4 days and 3 nights) hike where you stay in tents - but as much as Julie and I wanted the hiking experience we didn't want any part of sleeping on the ground in tents for 3 nights. And every day when we arrived at our lodge covered in sweat, sunscreen and bug spray we would all say to each other as we headed to the showers - Thank God we're not sleeping in tents!!!
The lodges were amazing! They are owned by Mountain Lodges and used exclusively for their groups. They built them and except for the first lodge we stayed in which has 12 rooms (usually 2 hiking groups are there at a time) the other lodges have only 6 sleeping rooms so your group has the lodge to themselves. It really feels like a big home that you are staying in and your hiking group becomes like a family. A family that gets along as our group was fantastic! Every single person was so nice, interesting, funny and drama free. And ready every morning on time at 7 AM to head out for the days adventures.
We were there as they were heading into winter - so it gets pretty cold at night. Another reason we were so happy to not be sleeping in tents! Each room has a propane heater to take the chill out, but they turn the heaters off at night because they consume too much oxygen - at the altitudes we were at it's a precious commodity. So at night they would put a hot water bottle in each bed - they called them guinea pigs - and I was happy to cuddle with my guinea pig all night! They also turned the electricity off at 11 PM and turned it back on at 6 AM - but after a day of hiking no one was up past 10 so that wasn't a problem either.
I am going to post pics of most of the food we ate - and it was all fantastic - really gourmet quality. We ate as a group and they had asked us in advance about any food allergies or preferences. The same 2 cooks cooked all our meals for us and moved from lodge to lodge with us. They were truly amazing - even serving us hot meals for lunch on the trail sometimes. I didn't take pictures of breakfast but it was wonderful as well. Eggs cooked to order, fresh fruit, yogurt, meats, cheeses, delicious breads, great coffee and tea. After breakfast they had a table set up with nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, cookies, chocolates, etc to pack yourself a snack for the hike. We definitely never were hungry.
Depending on the weather when we arrived at each lodge we were greeted by the staff with either a warm wet towel if it was cold, or a cool wet towel if it was warm. Also either a steaming mug of tea or a delicious glass of fresh juice. We left our muddy hiking boots at the door and they collected our hiking poles. Like magic in the morning your boots appeared clean and poles wiped off. We were spoiled for sure!!!
Our head guide Aly was incredible! So knowledgeable, organized, professional, enthusiastic, motivating and fun. Every night before dinner we would gather as a group and recap the day and then he would prepare us for the upcoming hike. We left the lodge at 7 AM every day except one and the expectation was that you would be outside with your boots on and poles in hand ready to go - and everyone was. He would give us advice on what to wear, what to bring in your pack, recommend sunscreen and/or bug spray depending on the hike. He always nailed it and we were always totally prepared. And always your rain poncho in your pack just in case!
Berto, the assistant guide always pulled up the rear. You hiked at your own pace - the "goats" as we called them - always in the front with Aly. Their ability to hike quickly and be undaunted by any terrain was amazing and inprising to me. Then some of us (me) in the middle of the pack, and then those in the "rear guard" as they called it coming up with Berto. But we were never separated by more then 10 minutes, and shout out to Berto for always being there with a word of encouragement or a lesson in how to breath at high altitude when I needed it most.
So that's most of the background - now on to the photos's and commentary on each day!!
Day 1 - Cusco to Soraypampa
We were picked up at our hotel in Cusco and drove in a van to visit the Inca ruins of Tarawasi. Along the way we passed a local market that I got a quick picture of from the van.
We climbed higher and higher and got our first glimpse of Salkantay Mountain.
We stopped to see the Tarawasi Inca ruins where the construction is very similar to Machu Picchu. The stone blocks are carved to fit perfectly together. No mortar holds them in place. This was a connection point between Lima and Cusco and thought to be for religious purposes. The alcoves in the top right picture are thought to be for mummies since they believed that was the way to keep the spirits with their families.
Next we drove to Mollepata where we stopped for tea and to see some of the Mountain Lodges projects they started to help the local community earn a living. A big part of the Peruvian culture is to help each other and give back to the community - and Mountain Lodges being a Peruvian company really takes it a step further. They are supporting a guinea pig coop along with a weaving, knitting, and crochet project for the locals to have a way to sell their wares. Guinea pigs are a delicacy in Peru and here they are specifically raised for consumption. We also got to see the locals demonstrating the beautiful art of weaving - looked pretty intricate to me.
We drove a bit longer and then the hike began.
We started at an elevation of about 11,000 feet and stopped at 12,300 for lunch. it was mostly climbing up a rocky trail. Not going to lie - I had to stop every now and then and catch my breath but I tried to focus on how beautiful it was around me. We would round a corner and see a couple of horses or cows hanging out eating grass - they seemed totally uninterested in us and just kept eating. This was the only day we ate a box lunch carried by our trusty mule. Tons of food! A turkey panini, fresh sweet potato chips, 3 pieces of fruit, trail mix and a granola bar. Also hard candy to suck on for extra sugar but most of us couldn't come close to finishing it.
Aly told us after lunch the trail would level out. What he actually meant come to find out was that it went up and down so if you average the elevation it was pretty flat - fooled us!!! We hiked the rest of the way right next to an Inca aquifer and the trail was pretty narrow in some places - about 18 inches. So aquifer on our left - steep drop off to the right!! So I leaned left while walking deciding if I stumbled better to get wet then fall off the mountain.
We made it to our first lodge - Salkantay Lodge after hiking for about 5 hours and were greeted warmly by the staff. We made it!
Such a beautiful place tucked in to the mountain.
We got our room keys and had a snack of finger sandwiches, veggies and dip, and chocolate dipped fruit - also delicious Mountain Mint tea. Alcohol was available to purchase but we were advised by Aly to not indulge until after we crossed the Salkantay Pass at 15,200 feet on day 3. Alcohol affects you at high altitudes to a greater extent and I figured why take the chance? Showers, meeting at 7 PM to plan for day 2 and then dinner.
Day 2 - Soraypampa
This day was different then all the rest because we were doing an out and back hike. It was the only night we would return to the same lodge and was meant to be an acclimation hike to prepare us for day 3 when we would be at 15,200 feet - our highest point in the trip. We were hiking to Humantay Glacier Lake which is at 14,000 feet. Humantay Mountain is a sister mountain to Salkantay and greatly revered by the Peruvian people. An added bonus was that Sebastian - a Shaman would be making the trip with us. Just FYI - a Shaman is typically regarded as a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness and control spiritual forces. The training is very long - basically never ending. Peruvians have a high regard for Mother Earth and the mountains, and since we were hiking through the mountains it would be considered taking from the mountains and a gift needed to be given in return - that's where the Shaman comes in. Sebastian would help us give a gift back to Mother Earth. Fitting in my mind since it was the day before Mother's Day! Did I mention we saw a condor??!!! Closest I will ever see to a Teradactyl! HUGE!!! The wing span looked like 12 feet across - incredible!
One of my favorite pictures from the trip as this was one of my best memories. When I look at it I feel transported back to that beautiful place where I felt such joy, peace and like the luckiest person in the world.
We had a little time to enjoy the lake and then the ceremony with Sebastian began. Aly said that participation was not mandatory, and that we could take pictures up to a certain point. But if you started in the circle you had to stay for the entire ritual. Everyone participated in this very sacred Inca religious ceremony. First we had to wear the Inca hats that Sebastian brought and then we were each given 3 coca leaves which allowed us 3 intentions that Sebastian would pray for. The ceremony was not in English but Aly narrated as it proceeded. The gist is that the Shaman builds the gift from the various materials he brought all in separate packets. Each item symbolizes something he is praying for such as prosperity, love, joy, happiness, etc. We each came forward with our 3 leaves to add to the gift. When the gift was complete Sebastian wrapped it carefully and then came to each of us individually and cleared our aura's and chakras. And then he gave us each a big bear hug. Then we went around the circle and gave each person a big hug. It was amazing!!! Then the Shaman has a couple of ways he can make the gift to Mother Earth. He was going to burn our gift which is one of the ways.
One of the suggestions Mountain Lodges made to us at the start of the trip was to take a token, a pebble or a leaf to commemorate a special moment and tell someone back home how you came upon it. I picked up a few pebbles to remember this moment and I'm sharing it with you right now!!
I forgot to take pictures of our lunch but the first course was a quinoa mediterranean salad, beef in a soy sauce with rice and french fries, and for dessert chopped fruit in a layered cookie crust. I did get pictures of dinner though!!
Early to bed because tomorrow is the BIG DAY! Mother's Day and hiking over the Salkantay Pass.
Day 3 - Soraypampa to Wayraccmachay
Things are getting serious now. We left at 7 AM and while everyone felt prepared it just had a different vibe. For one we all had more clothing on and more with us in our packs. We were heading not only to the highest elevation but also the coldest and windiest part of the hike. Right from the start it wasn't as clear and we got to see the famous cloud formations around the mountains.
They were so right!! Visibility wasn't great but we made it!
The good news is that now we're heading down - for a special lunch. We hiked about an hour and a half and came upon a welcome site - our cooks were making us a hot lunch on the trail! Deluxe accomodations compared to what we were used to while hiking. For one - we had actually bathrooms to use! His and Her tents set up on the mountain with real toilets! More like porta-pottys with toilets but better then our usual bushes!
And a lunch tent to dine in with delicious hot food they made in the cooks tent they set up. Amazing!
Continuing to head down toward Wayra Lodge everyone is looking relaxed and starting to pull clothing off. It's warming up!
Late in the afternoon we arrive at our next lodge - Wayra. A welcome site! And back down to 12,800 feet.
A celebration dinner for Mother's Day and our accomplishment in getting over the pass!
Day 4 - Wayraccmachay to Colpapampa
Today we had a leisurely start not leaving until 8:30, and it was the easiest hiking day of the week. That was good news for me since I wasn't feeling as good as usual. It was definitely not food related, but Aly said I was a victim of over-exercise. Very possible! We were still heading mostly downhill ending at an elevation of 9,400 feet at the next lodge.
The terrain was starting to change as we headed to warmer weather and the rain forest. We hiked above the Salkantay River and there was an abundance of flowers and birds.
We made it to Colpa Lodge about 1:45 for a Pachamanca lunch - a special Peruvian barbecue feast that we got to watch them prepare. They dig a hole in the ground and put in coals which are heated thoroughly. Then they start to layer the foods which all cook over the coals. White and sweet potatoes, fava beans, chicken, pork and beef all wrapped in foil and plantains. Then it is covered in heavy cardboard or sometimes plantain leaves and then dirt shoveled over to cover it all. It cooks for about an hour and then it is uncovered and served. Along with the special guest - the guinea pig!!!
Special guest star!!!
So the question on your mind right now is did she eat it??? I thought about lying but I can't do it. I fully intended to at least try a bite, but with my stomach doing some flips and flops I thought it best to pass. Aly had the cooks make me a special comforting delicious chicken soup with rice, celery and carrots and I passed on the feast. I was disappointed but my goal was to feel better asap. Aly also gave me a packet to add to water to replace electrolytes that helped quite a bit. Maybe one day I'll get another chance to try it. The group that tried it said it was a bit gamely and quite crispy - so there you go!
Day 5 - Colpapampa to Lucmabamba
The night before in our pre-dinner meeting Aly informs us that the plan for day 5 has changed a little. We are supposed to hike along the Santa Teresa river valley but Mountain Lodges has not allowed any group to hike on that trail since the end of 2016 because in the January-February rainy season part of the trail has washed away - and a woman died hiking it in February. So instead we will walk on the road on the other side of the river and see basically the same views but not risk our lives. No one has a problem with this!!!! While we are hiking we can see the trail across the river and I was so happy we weren't attempting to hike it. In places the trail is now only inches in width and the drop off to the river would most likely kill you. If you did survive not sure how they would pull you up - no thanks. We are still hiking down and are now really in the rainforest. It's pretty steamy and humid but many of us opt to still wear pants and long sleeves because the mosquitoes are as Aly says "professional." Berto wears light weight gloves the entire time to prevent bites. I slather on the sunscreen and bug repellent and hope for the best. I now know what Deet tastes like - and it does burn if you get it in your eyes. But the terrain is super lush and we see lots of waterfalls so the hike moves along smoothly.
We're starting to see a few more humans along the way. You'll see a small home with some planted crops across the river or a small wooden home with some ducks or banana trees. Aly knows everyone and stops to chat every now and then.
We start to see a few stands along the way selling bottled water, Coca-Cola, beer and the biggest avocados I've ever seen!
We make it to Lucma Lodge in time for a late lunch and are greeted by this adorable little girl.
Lucma Lodge was my favorite.
Got to watch a gentleman re-thatch a roof while we ate a great late lunch.
After lunch we had an optional visit to an organic coffee plantation and everyone attended. It was a tiny family run operation and we met the woman who was the owner and roasted all the coffee. She didn't speak english so Aly helped her out to communicate. They also make honey, bee pollen, coffee liqueur and "holy water" which is basically grain alcohol. We got to sample it all but my favorite was the coffee. She roasted it right in front of us, hand ground it and made us expresso. Fantastic! if you wanted to buy any you ordered it and she roasted it for you that night and brought it to the lodge before we left the next morning. You can't get any fresher then that!!
Another great dinner awaited us.
Well that gets us through Day 5. Day 6 and 7 are all about Machu Picchu so I'm going to do that in a seperate post. If you have made it all the way to this point I send you a big thank you! It's a lot of pics I know but it has been so fun for me to recap it all and live it again. The adventure of my life - so far!