Perú: a series (Salkantay Trek Day 1)
I would just like to start this part of the series by stating that I consider myself pretty fit. I workout hard with a trainer 3 days a week, and walk a couple miles at least 5 times a week. However, I also currently live in Kansas, and taking walks through flat neighborhoods is not the same as hiking in mountains. That probably sounds obvious, but I definitely did not realize just how little the former would actually help me with the latter.
So, my friend, Mitchell, mentioned wanting to see Machu Picchu. Duh. Who doesn’t want to see Machu Picchu? He also mentioned that a friend of his had recommended hiking there, instead of taking the train as most people do. “I’ve walked across Spain before,” I thought. “I’m pretty fit,” I thought. So I said sure, and we booked our trip with Salkantay Trekking based in Cusco. (We booked 3 months in advance. I had heard you have to book 6 in advance, but others in our group only booked a couple weeks in advance, so maybe it just depends on the season - we were traveling in the off-season.)
The company suggests getting to Cusco 2 days early to acclimate to the 11,000 foot altitude, but we didn’t listen and got there only half a day before starting our hike. Mistake. Being from one of the flattest places on earth, the altitude hit me hard. I had a massive headache, and all the stuff everyone says helps - chewing coca leaves, drinking coca tea, taking altitude sickness medicine - did nothing for me. My headache started as soon as we landed and progressively got worse - giving me a sleepless night - until our 4am meeting time with our tour guide to head out. The guide saw I was not doing well and hooked me up to a tank of oxygen for the first 30 minutes or so of our drive to our starting point. This definitely helped dull the headache, but didn’t make it go away.
We finally got to our starting point after about a super windy, bumpy 2 hour drive, which added nausea to my list of ailments. Luckily during the first couple hours of hiking the guide stopped us to rest several times to get used to everything. I was basically gasping for air the whole time and felt like a complete dumb dumb for not getting better acclimated before the hike. I also felt extremely out of shape, in spite of my gym regimen with my trainer; it was no match for that altitude, and all the climbing we did. The first part was a lot of switchbacks up a mountain, followed by a relatively flat hike through the countryside.
After a couple hours we finally got to our first “campsite.” We got to sleep in these cool glass domes that stayed super warm and cozy during the day, and got freezing cold at night. Since we were only a group of 4, we each got our own dome, and 2 hours of electricity in the evening.
We ate an amazing lunch prepared by personal chefs provided by the company, and then took off for our hike up to Humantay Lake. And when I say “up” I mean straight UP. The guide had said he was watching us during this climb to assess how we would handle day 2, and whether or not he would suggest us getting a horse instead of doing the climb. I felt a lot of pressure to perform well. Unfortunately I also felt a lot of pressure on my chest and felt like I was dying the whole time. Mitchell all but sprinted up the mountain with ease, as I gasped and clawed my way to the top. It took me about an hour, which is 15 minutes less than average apparently, but I was still third out of the four in our group to arrive - and completely out of breath. The lake was beautiful, but I’m still deciding if it was worth it.
I was definitely ready for our 7pm bedtime. Little did I know this was just the warm up for the days ahead.