Salkantay Trek, Peru


All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is. –Aleksandar Hemon

"Ok chicos, familia, let's go..."

We bid farewell to our packs as the porter covers them with colored burlap bags and straps them to four horses. On our own backs are daypacks, camera gear and water.  Our guide Americo quickly takes stock of our small bunch, then begins striding uphill. There are six of us; age range varied, enthusiasm all the same. Emerging from the tangled, rolling foothills is the Salkantay trail, the route that will carry us to Machu Picchu.

Twenty minutes into the trek, I realize I have over-packed. My camera lenses, water bottle and assorted crap tug at my shoulder straps, and I begin to mull over what must be left behind. Humantay glacier and Salkantay stand tall in the distance as we pluck through tame streams and easy trails. We pass a warm-looking lodge with wi-fi and wonder if it is where we might spend the night. No, ours is a smattering of tents sprawled beneath the open sky, nestled together at the foot of Humantay and outfit with one shared outhouse. Quechua, mittens, the chill of cold air. Shouts and whispers. We burrow warm in our tents for only a moment, then resume uphill.

The sun is long gone when we make our way back to camp, hot soup, and six rounds of cards fueled by popcorn and coca tea. At 11,000 feet, the air is biting cold, and we layer on every last scrap of clothing we've got.

The night is one of fitful tossing, turning and shivering. In the dark hour of morning and six sleepless hours, I hear Americo’s footsteps outside the tent. “Buenos Dias, Familia..” It is 5am. Twenty degrees. There is no running water, but a spoonful of sugar and hot tea.

15,000 feet above sea level, we meet Pete and Tobin from Minnesota. They are spooning peanut butter from a jar while propped against 40lb packs, and we are recovering from eight hours of climbing. Horses are hoofing, clouds are hovering, and we are stacking stone offerings to Pachamama. The mountain is shrouded in swirling cloud swept up from jungle lowlands when we learn that Salkantay means 'Savage Mountain.’

The group diverges, bounding downhill two by two through stacks of boulders, fog-laden fields and outcroppings of fallen rock. Everything is foreign, magical and grey. A slight rain is falling when we reach camp; backpackers laughing round a makeshift fire. We set up our beds and divide our bags for a few short breaths before happy hour. The weather is warm when we fall into our tents, fully clothed in day-old clothes, well-fed and un-showered.