The Hunger Games: Salkantay Trek in Peru

Our journey to the mountains of the Peru was like the Hunger Games because of all the crazy things that occurred (except for that whole killing-each-other-thing, though we might have thunk it.)

Bottom line: Adventure of a lifetime, I recommend for anyone looking to test their limits, learn about other cultures (and themselves), and see the world in a different way.

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The alliance of tributes: Six 25-31 year olds from the Capital, the District (of Columbia)
The trail: Salkantay 5 day/4 night camping and hiking trip (alternative to Inca Trail– Inca Trail requires permits, Salkantay does not)
The guide and crew: Wayki Trek tours– We chose them because they are a) under indigenous management, b) fund local community schools, and c) were highly recommended by friends.
Cost: $610/person for entire trek– includes guides, tickets, 3-course meals, tents, horses, and tour of Machu Picchu. Natural disasters also included.
When: April 30-May 1, 2014

Day 1: Soft Americans and Psycho Cows

CUSCO–> Trail

The morning began bright and early with tropical birds chirping outside and the sun streaming through our windows at the Cusco hotel… NOT. Day 1 really began with pouring rain, and me lying on the bathroom floor writhing in pain and begging for mercy at the bacterial overlords in my stomach who decided that they didn’t like the culinary wonders of Peru and decided to hold a rave on my intestines for the last 12 hours. I took an antibiotic to shut them up and prayed my tummy would behave on our 5-day trek in the wilderness with only a toilet tent (read: garbage bag toilet in a zip-up tent and bring-your-own toilet paper).

First, we took a 3-hour van ride to the starting point of our trip. Around 11am, we arrived at the foot of a mountain, and two groups split up: the native cooks and horsemen who would shuttle our bags full of REI and Lululemon gear everywhere from campsite to campsite, and us, the tributes that had no idea what the heck we were getting ourselves into.

In good spirits, we hiked about 3 minutes and I started to get tired from the thin air and you know, from not eating anything and sleeping next to a toilet (sorry). Then I saw a group hiking down with a Peruvian woman behind them on some sort of cultural- looking guitar (not actual name of instrument). What is she doing, I asked? Our guide, Edgar, informed me that she is hired to play music for this tour group while they hike (the difference between our $600 trek and their $6000 trek, I suppose). Suddenly I felt so hard core. I’m hiking without a troubadour! I’m such a badass.

Until I’m not. All of us started feeling the full effects of oxygen deprivation at this altitude. One of my friends threw up.  My friends informed Edgar I had completed a marathon, even though I was lagging behind. I’m sure Edgar was thinking, what kind of marathon, a Game of Thrones marathon?

The rest of us hiked in slow motion up and up into the mountains. We slogged for another hour or two until we reached the most beautiful lake, Humantay-– like a gem in liquid form, it was shrouded in ice and mist and magic and majesty. It somehow made everything worth it, and transformed my bitching into oohs and ahhs.

Then it was off again to our campsite. Originally we were supposed to make it there for a late lunch, but the Gamemakers of the Hunger Games had other plans…

We met a soon-to-be-frequent friend on the trail: the LANDSLIDE. Edgar had went ahead and told us a landslide had covered our trail, making a pass dangerous. We would need to find an alternate route. One of the more hard core members of our group suggested we work our way down an extremely steep mountain. Hahahaha! I thought. Can we get rid of this tribute? But Edgar agreed, and so, um, we did. It’s a good thing I hadn’t drank much water or else I would have peed in my pants at hiking straight down the crazy switchbacks. The river at the bottom looked like a little snake– that’s how high we were. All of us leaned onto our rented hiking poles like our lives depended on it (oh wait, they did!) My fear manifested itself in criticism of my husband, natch. I yelled at him for not making an easy enough path for me on the mountainside (metaphors, anyone?) He huffed and puffed away and I believe my exact words at the end of the trail were, “You are a terrible husband and an a**hole and you don’t care if I died on this trail!!!!” [more expletives may have been used]. Yeah, I guess being deprived of oxygen also deprives you of dignity. Someone told our guide Edgar that we were sort of newlyweds (one year still counts!) and he completely understood, uttering a truth that seems to transcend every nation and language: “Happy wife, happy life!”

After we made it to camp– about 3 hours late, the sun was going down– we took in the scenery at the foot of a breathtaking glacier that also was surrounded by a frightening collective of cows that mooed nonstop. Over dinner, Edgar told us about his worst trip ever— an American [OF COURSE] weighing over 250 lbs insisted on going on a trek and Edgar refused. Keep in mind Edgar has led tours on the Inca Trail 200+ times.  Big Boned American went anyway and Edgar and other porters had to carry him for 4 days. Didn’t feel so bad about our slow pace no more. We finished our delicious meal of butternut squash soup and I forgot what else since I didn’t eat it (simple equation in my brain: Food=makes you sick. Therefore, don’t eat food), and then ended the night taking hits out of an oxygen tank (yeaaaahhh that’s good stuff) and staring at the heavens– insanely clear Milky Way and a million stars, each reminding me of the profound privilege of being alive and having eyes that could see.  Then we went to bed. At 8pm.

Day 2: Ascending to the Sacred Mountain and Emergency Horse

Most of us barely slept that first night. It was 30 F outside our tents, and the aforementioned cows were mooing all night. Some of the women were afraid that if we went outside to pee, the cows would tip our tents or charge at us. Personally I feared that the cows knew I had eaten Shake Shack just a week before and would take revenge. Perhaps I should loudly tell everyone I love Chick-Fil-A.

We woke up to big piles of cow pie outside our tents, presumably as a warning that we better become vegetarians. Thank goodness we left.

Today we would ascend Salkantay–15,000 ft up, which is basically just straight up a glacier. After about 5 minutes on the trail I was spent. Big surprise since I’d probably eaten maybe 90 calories in the last 36 hours. I started complaining that we were marching into Mordor– a fool’s errand! Only fools would do this! Where’s Gandalf and the falcons?! To shut me up, Edgar recommended I ride the emergency horse. No, that’s not a euphemism. It’s a real horse! [side note: when I recounted this story to my friend on g-chat, I accidentally typed, “I had to use the emergency hor. HORSE. HORSE. Not whore.”]

Chato the Emergency Horse, a merry, orange pack horse who probably has carried many an American, came to the rescue. For the next few hours, my other sort-of-sick friend and I switched off sitting on Chato (reined in by an excellent 19-year-old-this-mountain-is-a-piece-of-cake horseman, Henri) until we made it to the top. It felt awesome. Never mind that Peruvians were traipsing across the glacier like they were heading to a picnic. Never mind that many more foreign tourists were hiking their hearts out. Yeah, you don’t feel the same sense of accomplishment when you ride on a pack horse than if you hiked the whole way, but I don’t care. Without Chato I would not have taken any pictures for your Facebook enjoyment and probably would still be on that damn mountain. In honor of Chato, I’ve determined that if I ever start a band, it will be called Emergency Horse.

We had a few minutes to see the glacier and hear Edgar explain its sacred value– Incans saw the mountain as a holy place in alignment with the moon and stars. They held sacrifices on the summit (yes, some human– real tributes!). A lot of travelers had left little piles of rocks and I got the sense that Edgar felt them vulgar– people just creating piles that aren’t sacred at all, only memes of something that actually has value (insert social commentary about selfies here).

That afternoon, we hiked through cloud forest (we descended through several micro-climates, whatever that means!). Edgar pointed out the little things– orchids, wild strawberries, hummingbirds– he was so excited about the flora and fauna it was frankly super endearing. However, I had thought I would spend a lot of time meditating, thinking, relaxing while walking but the only thing I was thinking about was “Evelyn, don’t trip, fall, lag behind, or make Edgar think the fat man was better,”– every other minute we were avoiding other hikers, horse dung, crossing makeshift bridges, spotting waterfalls. We hiked until we reached one of the horsemen, Savino’s home, where we camped. His family offered a hot shower and running toilet for a few bucks, and everyone obliged except Mikey and me, because we wore our sweaty filth as a fitness badge (Mikey and Evelyn have checked in at Dirty American!). It was humbling to see that they lived without electricity and in very simple settings.

Day 3- Our Second Landslide– Just Gotta Get Across that River

Edgar had given us an option of going to hot springs or more mountain climbing and it wasn’t much of a competition. He would regularly sprinkle in comments like, “For most people, it takes three hours. For your group, five.”  I was frankly amazed at his lack of judgmental tone because I surely at this point would have said something like, you American snails should just cook yourself in hot springs and give me a break.

So we took what was supposed to be an easier route through the forest to make it to camp and take a van to the hot springs. Along the way, we spotted a little basket that was used to transport food across the roaring Urubamba River. Awesome! I remarked. What a cute little basket!

About an hour later, we noticed more and more hikers coming from the opposite way. There had been a landslide about 10 minutes ago! Thanks, Gamemakers.

This meant… we were going to ride that cute little basket across the river. Seriously?! We stood in the brush, getting eaten alive by what surely must be the relatives of Tracker Jackers– man-eating mosquitoes that bite through your clothes and make you wish you drank DEET for breakfast. Some locals pulled us across in a little basket over to the other side. I felt like precocious baby Moses in that basket, crossing a body of water and all.  Mikey was about to head over the river when the old man (seriously) who was pulling him over dropped the rope. Our friend yelled frantically that it was dropped and a strong guide had to self-hoist himself over the wire to retrieve it. Can he be my Amazing Race partner, please? It sure was a “you can’t make this sh*t up” moment.

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After lunch, we rolled into a town near the hot springs. In an effort to be a complete idiot, I jumped into our van with the same amount of blunt force George W. Bush preemptively brought to Iraq, thought I cleared the top, but ended up slamming my head, blacking out, and falling onto the concrete curb. When I came to, a ring of local Peruvians was standing around me–where the heck did they come from? I was sobbing (ugh– I hate that I do that. What am I, a 30 year old baby? I tried to hide my tears from the locals so they wouldn’t think me a weak sauce tourist. Which I was.), and Edgar summoned a local doctor to make sure I hadn’t lost my marbles. I couldn’t recall our address when asked (prompting me to cry harder) but this was possibly because I was busy focusing on the many colorful tattoos on this village doctor’s arms.

By the grace of God, I was okay, and we made it to the hot springs in one piece. I remember one of the cooks, Wilbur, gave me a gap-toothed smile as he asked, “Esta mejor?” For some reason that really stayed with me.

The hot springs were two pools filled with all manners of Western tourists and one pool filled with local families. The other group members sat stewing in the mineral hot springs while I sat silently stewing about my idiocy.

All seemed all right when we settled in for the night under a blanket of stars by the river… but this is the Hunger Games edition, remember? We woke up around 1am to shouting and the pitter patter of heavy, heavy rain. Our poor cooks (Clever and Wilbur) and guide barely slept that night, worried that a landslide would sweep away the other tents. Apparently the other tents at the foot of the mountain were told they should get ready to leave at any moment if the mountain started crumbling.

In the distance, you could hear the faint pop-pop of rocks falling down a mountain. Damn those Gamemakers!

Day 4- Our Third Landslide– Just Gotta Get Across that Chasm

The morning revealed that there was mud everywhere– it also revealed that a–all together now– landslide had washed out a road out of the springs– our only exit.

We frantically packed all our stuff and trekked to the scene of the landslide. Edgar told us to carefully step across the slide– step only on rocks, he warned, and not on the sinking mud. One of us didn’t listen and that’s the only time I’d ever heard Edgar yell— “THE ROCKS. STEP ON THE ROCKS!” The men in our group gallantly carried our gear and camp stuff across the mudslide. It was awesome. Even if we saw plenty of Peruvian families scamper across the chasm with kids on their shoulders.

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It felt like we were running away from danger when we finally boarded our van, drove through coffee and banana plantations, and teetered on the edge of insane roads that hang off the mountainside while listening to Bob Marley’s “One Love.”  They love Bob Marley.

We were dropped off near the dam at a trail that would lead to Machu Picchu’s tourist town, Aguas Calientes. The hike itself was uneventful– which is saying a lot.

We finally made it to Aguas Calientes, which is kind of like a low-grade Tourist Disneyland shantytown with statues not of Mickey Mouse but of Incan royalty. It is full of restaurants selling the same universal pizzas, burgers, and Peruvian fare, and lots of hikers and non-hikers (mostly white-haired white people with hiking poles who probably never used them).

There are a few ways to make it into Machu Picchu– hike it via the very popular Inca Trail, taking a luxury train, or taking another trail and busing it in (us).  We would get up at 430am the next day to finally reap our reward.

Day 5- Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is surely THE bucket list item of choice for yuppie Americans. Like some marker of adventurism-tourism-lookwhatwedidism. It’s the wanderlust equivalent of procuring a iPhone 6 or Birkin bag for yuppie explorer aspirants. Hell yah I got my Camelbak and Goretex boots and Clif bars in my bag! Somehow when I told people I was going, everyone came out of the woodwork to say that they had gone or would be going.

So we had to get our requisite picture with the lost Incan city behind us. Edgar gave us a thorough history of the place, the gates, the temples, the terraces, how the Spaniards caused the Incans to flee (in an effort to psychoanalyze, I asked if he was bitter at Spaniards, he said no– he had a thing or two to say about those dudes that ran naked around the sacred ruins though. Apparently Machu Picchu does not have enough phallic monuments). He also told us Machu Picchu was sinking under the weight of so many tourists, and that Peru wanted to make money off of it so did not limit the number of tourists that could enter daily. I was very thankful for Edgar’s explanation, because without context, Machu Picchu would just be another check box, another photo op.

I don’t really have much else to say about Machu Picchu. It certainly is a marvel to behold, and seeing the alpacas and llamas mill about the ruins seemed almost cliched. I had wished I read up more about the history but I appreciated it for what it was– an engineering marvel, a visual masterpiece, a historical wonder, a huge dollar sign.

Edgar left and I was sad. I can’t say enough about Edgar– the man has endless patience: anybody who waits for sleepy, late trekkers on Asian time at 5am in the morning and still smile must be a saint. Plus he had such a deep and clear passion for his country’s history and culture that really stood out. I highly recommend him.

Now we had the option of climbing Wayna Picchu, a high mountain on the side with spectacular views of Machu Picchu. But given how dangerous it is (somebody had just died yesterday, Edgar had seen the body bag– yes the guy died from a heart attack, but still), and given our track record, we decided to hike a smaller mountain and save ourselves from another Gamemaker foil.

On the train ride back, we looked up at the windows on the ceiling. You could see mist and cloud shrouding the Andes, the faint starlight mixing with the sunset sky. I thought two things:  1) We’ve experienced a lot of crap on this trip, but many more graces– every minor accident, every blog-worthy situation could have been tragedy. 2) The Incans probably saw the same scenery I am seeing right now, and that made me feel very small and very finite. At the same time I felt like I had some connection to them. That in one way or another, we are just people reaching for the divine.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

A few takeaways from our trip (some more profound than others):

1. Remind me why I didn’t take high school Spanish again? Mikey and I kept saying “Oui!” to the Peruvian crew.

2. The food is simply amazing– fresh and organic are not catch words, they’re the real thing.

3. Avocados are the size of small cats and quinoa is abundant.

4. The colors, depth, and history and culture of Peru made me realize how young and relatively shallow American culture is. I emerged from Peru prouder to be Chinese-American because of the depth of my culture.  Speaking of Chinese, Peruvians have incorporated Chinese food (called chi-fa) into their national cuisine since 100,000 Chinese arrived in the 1800s to seek labor.

5.  Americans shelter their children. We consistently saw Peruvian kids go to work with their parents, pitch in, run around, do physical tasks, no problem.

*corollary: To the surprise of no one, Peruvians are a helluva lot more hard core than most Americans, I would say.

6. I appreciate everything that we have in America, but I wonder how much of it is actually necessary for our well-being. Many mountain people in Peru seemed to live so much more simply than us and it reminded me how little we need to be content. As Edgar said, “they take all they need from the land.”

7. People matter most. Our entire crew– Edgar, Henri, Savino, Clever, Wilbur– were incredibly hard working and made the trip so much more enjoyable, richer, more meaningful. They were amazing.  I will never forget them. Also I was really impressed that Edgar and many others could speak fluent English, Spanish and Quechua whereby President Obama and our Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power (God bless them) speak only English.

8. The best part of traveling is seeing more of God’s people, what they create, and what God’s created through nature.

9. I wonder what this trip would have been like if we were not allowed to take photos or have iPhones. It would be sad to not have documentation, but I also think somehow we would be more present and let it soak in a lot more.

10. Even though hiking 7-10 miles a day was hard as hell, it reminds me, in a very visceral way, that we are all capable of more than we know.

11. The number of stray dogs on the streets is probably correlated to how developed a country is. Speaking of countries, Edgar said his very best and his very worst tour groups were Americans.

12. Memories are priceless and with all the pain and physical challenge, I am still glad I made memories with good friends.

13. There is a thin line between crazy story and tragic headline in these sorts of unpredictable situations. I am grateful that we only had the former. God gave us an abundance of grace there– SO many moments of grace and still does every day and I hope I never forget that. [many people die annually from landslides, including in Afghanistan and Washington, most recently. Lift a prayer for them.]

14. A huge part of this was learning my limits, learning to not complain and be gracious and kind to everyone even when I feel otherwise (it’s rough), putting life in context, helping me be grateful for every little thing (clean water for example), and seeing that what unites us (namely, Starbucks and McDonalds and Coke and ubiquitous Chinese restaurants and Lady Gaga and humanity) is greater than what divides us.

*If this post didn’t bore you to tears and you’re heading to London/Paris, check out my travel blog from there.

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3 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Salkantay Trek in Peru

  1. i always recommend people bringing (and taking) probiotics (such as Culturelle or Pearls) when going on a foreign trip, especially to a non-first world country. It can help prevent travelers’ diarrhea. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Highlights from Peru | Life with Zest

  3. Pingback: For Future Trekkers: The Walk to Machu Picchu | HoppyCow

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