That Bitch called Salkantay (article 1 of 3)

Sweat dripping down my back, gasping for air, exhausted. As I stood there on the steep path up the mountain, the guide guide stopped the group. “You alright Roger?” he yelled, and I heard a little bit of a teasing hint to his voice. Annoyed by his condescending tone, I got myself up and walking again without saying anything. “You okay there?” one of the group members asked concerned while we continued walking. He was one of the Americans of the group named Bill. “Yeah, I’m good Bill, thanks” I said not even convincing myself “Just this damn mountain killing me”. He laughed and focussed on the path ahead again. After another half hour of climbing, I had to stop for a break again. As soon as I stopped, the guide stopped the group again. “You okay? It’s only 15 minutes more!” he yelled from the front of the group. Now I was extra annoyed, because next to the sweating, the gasping and the exhaustion, I also had a horrible headache now. “How high are we now?” I yelled back. He walked over to me while looking at his fancy watch. “We are at 4100 meters now, why do you ask?”. To make sure that he could see my annoyed look, I looked up at him. “Are you kidding me? I live 8 meters below sea level back home!”. He looked at me, and I was sure he didn’t understand a word I just told him. “15 more minutes?” I asked him. “Yes approximately 15 minutes, than we get you some coca tea for your altitude sickness” he replied smiling “or we can arrange a donkey to bring you?”. This pissed me off even more, I was not a quitter. “i’m good for another 15 minutes” I promised. While walking back to the front of the group he yelled over his shoulder. “Wait till you see Salkantay, she is absolutely beautiful!”. We all started walking again, and under my breath I could not help but mumble: “Beautiful or not, she’s a bitch to climb”.

Yeah sure, here I still smiled….

It all started at home, when I was browsing the internet to book the Inca Trail. Six months before I was planning to go, and all websites showed me the same: SOLD OUT. My whole trip to Peru was planned around walking the Inca Trail, so this was a huge disappointment. Flights booked, route set, but no Inca Trail. After some serious googling, blog reading and research I decided to look in to this alternative everybody was buzzing about: Salkantay Trek. There was no shortage of availability for this trail. Hundreds of tour operators offered “the best accommodations” and “the best food”, and after thorough checking of reviews I landed on Alpaca Expeditions. They were far from the cheapest option, but offered an overnight accommodation where you could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu and were also known to truly support local communities. I was sold.

Six months later, I arrived by bus at Cusco 3 days before the trek would depart. Weeks before I received an email, that I was expected to attend a briefing at the Alpaca Expeditions headquarters in Cusco. I would meet the guides and the rest of the group for a step by step explanation on what to expect on the trek. As I stepped in to the meeting room my first thought was: “oh boy, who invited these old farts?”. Yeah, I know, never judge books by their covers. Trust me, later on I would swallow all my thoughts and than some. I was the youngest in the room, by far. We sat together in an AA kind of circle, belting out our names, country of origin and age. When we were finished I counted in my head: 4 Americans, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 Scots and of course me as a single Dutchie. With my 26 years I was the youngest, with a 9 year difference with the second youngest. The tour guides explained us how what we could expect the next couple of days. Day to day amount of miles we would cover, accommodations, what to pack, what to do to prevent altitude sickness (I dozed off a little there), everything was covered in an hour long lecture. After all questions were answered, we said our goodbyes and parted for 2 days. If only I had taken notes…

On the first day, I got picked up at 05:30 in the morning by minibus, and we were off to the starting point of the trek. After a long drive we finally arrived at the beginning of the trail, and we met the porters there for a good breakfast and coffee. Looking at the porters I felt a little uncomfortable, they were all shorter then me. They would carry our luggage, tents, food and equipment. Was that even possible for these guys? I felt a little guilty, but the guides ensured me they could handle it with ease. The breakfast was delicious: great coffee, eggs, toast, and quinoa. When we were all done eating, we took a group picture and were off.

This was just a fraction of the crap the porters had to carry.

Start of the Salkantay Trek

In the briefing was already mentioned that the first day would be tough with the getting out of bed early and the difference in altitude, but for the first 3 hours I felt fine. I did notice that almost everybody else from the group was faster and fitter, and got up the mountain a lot faster than me. After 3 hours things changed. I started to develop a headache with every step, and by the time we stopped for lunch I felt like my head could pop off at any minute. At lunch I barely ate, and struggled to even look straight. When the guides noticed me not eating anything, they told me to drink some coca tea and chew on some coca leaves. I can hear you think: “You cheater… did you do drugs?”. And my first reaction to the guides was a whisper: “Is that… uhm… legal?”. After ensuring me that it was not drugs but a natural plant that was used by all Peruvians as a medicine, I accepted. At this point I would have tried anything anyway. So after lunch I felt a little better, and continued to walk.

Now when people say that coca leaves are just harmless little leaves from a tree and that it is a wonderful medicine, they are probably right… if you take 2 or 3 leaves. I was so excited that the leaves relieved my headache, that I chewed a couple more. And by a couple, I mean a total of 12 coca leaves. After 12 coca leaves, the right side of my face started to feel a little numb, my head a little light, and my stomach a little ill. So I spat them out, and continued with an upset stomach, headache and numbed face. On the first day… wheezing, cursing, and calling the Salkantay a bitch. When we finally arrived at the campsite (around 18:00) for the night I didn’t have any dinner and crashed in my tent, while the rest of the group sat down and ate. Lying on my back in the tent at that moment I thought: “Who’s the old fart now?” and slept all trough the night.


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