When most people hear the word paradise they would likely envision a beautiful sandy white beach with crystal clear waters... I assure you our paradise was far from the beach, but just as beautiful.
After months of planning and countdown calendars we woke early on a Saturday morning to finish packing and prepare for the 20 hours of travel that awaited us. We called our uber, said goodbye to our furbabies and headed out on our first international trip together (And Johns first ever!!)
At each stop we met someone new who had recently been to Peru and had plenty of travel suggestions for us: Museums to visit, sights to see and endless tourist places to explore. We absorbed as much of their advice as possible and made note of places we found particularly intriguing.
As we approached out final destination, summits that reached 20,000ft in elevation peaked through the cloud line. The mountains rose so far above what we had ever seen it was as though the peaks we lived beneath miles away were mere hills. As we descended through the cloud barrier we were given our first glimpse of our home for the next 10 days. Luscious green mountain sides with a well populated valley cradled in the middle.
We arrived at our hostel around 8:00 am and were told our beds would not be ready for several hours so we decided to head into the city center to get a warm coffee and a bite to eat. We reached the center just in time for the local festivities: music, a parade and a ceremonial flag raising for a local college. We watched from the balcony of a cafe overlooking the square. Exhaustion faded as the excitement of finally making it to our destination grew.
With hours to spare and no real plan we began wandering through city streets. Passing a recreation area were we watched locals playing soccer, we continued on our journey until we found ourselves on top of the hills looking down at the city. We could see the festivities we had watched that morning down at the city center. Stopping to talk with several local street vendors selling classic peruvian tourist items we walked back to our hostel.
After checking in, we took a quick siesta and headed out to explore the town more. This time we had a general idea of where we wanted to go. One of the couples we met on our travel down suggested a large local market for dinner so we headed in the general direction the concierge at our hostel advised us.
As we arrived at the market it was far from difficult to see why it had been recommended to us. Outside children played a popular gambling game, locals sold homemade foods, and street performers gather volunteers for their comedy bits. Cram packed with locals and tourists the market spanned over two blocks and included clothing, tourist trinkets, local produce and meats and plenty of options for dinner. Indecisive as always we walked around several times before finally choosing a place to eat at. We ordered our food and it was quickly cooked before us. The bowls handed to us overflowed with fresh chopped cucumbers, onions and tomatoes on a bed of rice topped with fried eggs, potatoes and plantains. For a $1.50 each we were given more food than we could eat... Naturally we stuffed our faces and waddled back to our hostel to rest up for our next day of adventure!
We rose on our second day in Peru, again with no real plan. We had discussed renting a scooter from a local and making our way back up the hill side on a hike I had found online. As we talked with the agency we decided to rent from, they told us of several ruins and fun towns within driving distance to explore and off we went. Rather than heading to the hike we had originally planned on doing, we decided to drive the route suggested by the locals.
Zipping through the back streets of Cusco we quickly realized we were unprepared for the adventure ahead of us. The chilly weather turned freezing as we made out way up into the mountains, luckily we were squished together on one scooter which provided us with a little extra warmth.
We arrived at the first destination on our drive, pisac, just after noon. The busses were leaving and we were given the opportunity to explore the ruins at our leisure without a guide. As we wandered through the massive landscape our jaws dropped. Neither of us had ever seen anything like the massive terances and stone buildings before us.
The ancient Incan city is filled with temples, plazas and the Intihuatana, a stone structure believed to have been a sundial. The area lends views of Quitamayo gorge and surrounding valley. Although the exact date Pisac was constructed is still unknown, historians believe that it was established to aid in the protection of Cusco from possible attacks of the Antis nations. Not known to be inhabited by any pre-inca civilizations the general guess is that it was built no earlier than 1440.
We likely spent more time than necessary here and ended up leaving after 2pm. With a long journey ahead of us we began to wonder if we had made the wrong decision, our thighs were burning and our butts were sore from bouncing around on the bumpy back roads that took us from town to town. Despite our discomfort the views continued to take our breaths away.
Rushing to make our way back to town in time for our trek orientation at 6pm we refrained from making any longer stops and instead only took breaks to stretch our legs and take a few pictures of the views.
We arrived in town about 20 minutes before our orientation and naturally I was panicking that we were going to miss it. New to the roads of peru we struggled to find our way through the one way streets to our hostel. After driving in circles we decided to park the scooter at the hostel and run across the city to make it in time. As we looked to pull out of a back street a car came up behind us and gave us a nice little nudge out into the intersection, breaking the back tail light of the scooter and hitting my elbow. In complete shock, the driver exited his vehicle and began speaking to us in spanish. Quickly realizing that John spoke no spanish and my translation and responses were far from coherent we called over a nearby officer.
Certain that if we did not make our orientation we would not be able to go on the trek I told the officers I had to go and showed them our paperwork for the trek. Breaking the first rule of travel, John and I separated.
GUEST APPEARANCE BY JOHN
"After Erica deserted me, it seemed like pure chaos ensued. The driver of the Jeep that ran into us started offer me payment for the damaged scooter. Knowing that the deposit we had placed was 200 soles, there was no way I was willing to accept the 20 he offered. After what seemed like hours of back and forth broken communication I was finally able to convince the police officers to contact the owner of the rental. It was impossible for me to understand what was going on, but once he arrived they all began smiling and laughing. After a brief conversation the man we had rented the scooter from turned to me and said, “ Ok it is all worked out, he is going to pay me 20 soles and we are good.” I was nothing short of blown away that the accident had been resolve for the equivalent of 7 USD, but we all shook hands and went our separate ways.
Still feeling frantic after what just happened, I quickly pulled out onto a one way street looking for the next place to turn. After driving several blocks, and begining to feel a bit confused about where I was, I decided to take a quick left. Before I knew it a police officer start yelling at me to pull over. She began to speak to me in spanish, to which I could only respond “No hablo.”
The officer continued to point at the street I had just turned from and once she realized I had no idea what she was saying she wagged her finger, “No, No.” Calling on my colombian routes I was able to respond, “ Lo siento.” as i shrugged my shoulders. After a few more minutes she finally gave up and I continued on my way. Still lost, with no way of communicating with Erica I decided to return the scooter and made my way back to the hostel so that I could connect to Wi-Fi. She had just finished the orientation and we agreed on meeting at the hostel before heading out to grab some final items for our trek in the morning. "
The Salkantay trek is known for being an alternative route to the classic Inca Trail. When planning our travels to Peru one of our friends mentioned that he had gone on the trek and highly recommended it. Booking it long before our arrival it was certainly the most anticipated part of our trip.
After sleeping for an amount of time that could be considered a nap we woke to the crisp dark morning. We had packed and showered the evening before so that we were able to quickly make our way to the lobby where we waited for our bus to arrive.
We were joined by the rest of our team and began zooming through the tight city streets as we made our way to a quaint breakfast location in Mollepata, overlooking the mountains we would soon be climbing.
We arrived at our destination after several hours on a dirt road. Our bags were unloaded from the van and we were given our last chance to grab what we needed before they were placed on the backs of several horses and taken to our campsite for the night.
Our hike began at roughly 11,000ft in Challancha. We quickly climbed another several hundred ft and our confidence at high altitude faded. After reaching an aqueduct, that is still used to supply water to farmers in the lower valleys, we were instructed to follow the water way for several miles. It was only the first day and the views were outstanding.
Soraypampa, our camp for the night, is nestled in a glacial valley and provided the perfect setting for the sky domes we would be staying in. With glass tops, the open night sky offered views of the surrounding peaks. We arrived at our domes just in time for our first catered lunch, after which we were given time for a siesta before beginning what I assume to be a qualifier hike up to Laguna Humantay.
As we began to climb to the base of the snow covered mountains it seemed as though the world spun slower. We were immediately humbled by the steep mile and a half hike up to this glacier fed lake. Our lungs worked on overdrive to provide our muscles with the oxygen required to walk.
Humantay Lagoon sits at around 4200m (13,779ft) above sea level. Resting beneath majestic snow covered peaks, hiding behind the clouds, we arrived at the lagoon in the late afternoon. Until this point out highest summit had been that of Kings Peak in Utah sitting at 13,527 ft above sea level. As we arrived it began to rain and after taking many photographs with our new friends we began the descent back to base camp, at 3920m (12861ft) for the night. Those that stayed behind or were slower hikers (like us), were gifted the opportunity to watch the clouds dissipate around the mountains cradling the beautiful turquoise lagoon as the rain subsided. The views were nothing short of breath taking!
We arrived back at base camp just in time for another delicious feast and were prepd for the daunting day ahead of us.
The bitter cold of the night was easy to wake to at 4 am when our dome doors were knocked on by our guides gifting us with a hot cup of cocoa tea. With temperatures sitting well below freezing we had to force ourselves out of our toasty sleeping bags, liners and blankets to dress for the day. After a quick breakfast we met with our group and started on our 15 mile journey. The sun rose and shed light on the peaks providing us with motivation to continue on despite our bodies wanting to crawl back into our beds.
The 3,000ft elevation change seemed like much more as our oxygen intake continued to decrease and made our hike to Humantay Lagoon the day before seem like a walk in the park. Winding through a section known as the seven snakes we made our way to an open glacial field filled with giant snowy boulders were we witnessed our first avalanche. The rumble of the snow fall mimicked that of a thunderstorm. Our brains were slow to piece together what exactly was happening however as we turned to the mountain we were able to watch the plume of snowy smoke grow as chunks of snow and ice tumbled down the cliff side.
After a short break and a delicious snack we continued our journey to our summit for the day. The Salkantay pass rises to 15,255 ft above sea level and pales in comparison the adjacent Salkantay Mountain that reaches 5,000ft more. Atop the pass views of the spectacular surrounding mountains including, Humantay, Tucarhuay and Pumasillo reminded us of just how small we are.
Salkantay Mountain is the second highest in the Cusco region(20,574ft above sea level) and was called “Apu” Salkantay by the Incas. Meaning “Lord” in Quechua, Incas paid tribute to the holy divinities believed to be located in places such as mountains and snow-clad peaks.
Once reaching the summit we took a well earned break to eat a sandwich and cheered our accomplishment with another hot cup of cocoa tea. While resting we were guided through a beautiful coca leaf ceremony to pay our respects to Pachamama, Mother Earth, and the surrounding peaks.
Our guides carefully selected 3 cocoa leaves from their bags and blessed the mountains we stood below with a sacred prayer before placing them on the earth. The three leaves serve as symbolism for many things including the past, present and future, peace, war and intelligence, Hana pacha(heaven), Kay Pacha(earth) and Uquah Pacha (underworld), and the condor, cougar and snake much like the 3 stairs seen on the four sides of the Chakana, Inca cross. We were each then asked to bless a rock we had collected from the mountain side and place it atop the leaves expressing our gratitude for the sacred mountains around us.
As grueling as the summit was, the 10 mile hike to our base camp for the evening was far more excruciating. As we began our decent views of the Amazonian Rainforest, also known as a cloud forest, laid before us. Temperatures went from freezing to tropical in a few short hours as the humidity from hundreds of waterfalls and streams filled the valley.
We arrived at our destination in Chaullay Village, at 9514 ft above sea level, for the night just after sunset. We were given the opportunity to take much needed showers before dinner and looked forward to the ‘easy’ day ahead of us.