Book the trip last minute like an asshole
Nothing says commitment for undertaking a trek in the Western Hemisphere’s largest mountain range like booking it days in advance in a quick splurge of drunken enthusiasm. While living and studying in Buenos Aires, my friend and I had long decided we’d spend Spring Break trekking to Machu Picchu in April. It would have made ample sense to plan and book the trip ahead of time. Even just a little ahead of time. Say, more than a week’s worth ahead of time. Turns out, the world-famous, much-coveted four-day Inca Trail books up months, even as much as a year, in advance.
We didn’t let that stand in the way of making a series of easily avoided mistakes.
Instead, we simply searched for what could be called the second-best trek, slapped down about six weeks worth of drinking money (but hey, we were already drunk, who needed it?), and carried on with the binge lifestyle that characterized much of our time abroad thus far.
Do no research and ignore all advice
We booked ourselves into the Salkantay Trek. It’s considerably longer than the Inca Trail, and though we wouldn’t witness the sunrise over the ancient ruins, we’d pass through one of—if not the—highest passes in the Andes. Excellent, job done. We figured the requisite tips provided by the trekking company was about all we needed to know, and of course, we ignored them entirely. Not just about our particular trek, but about Peru, staying at high altitudes, and traveling in general.
…Such as how to prepare…
The emails sent to us by our trekking company advised clients to arrive in Cusco at least three days in advance of the trek, to acclimatize to the extreme elevation of interior Peru. In my cocky, naïve, but undoubtedly invincible mind, my summers spent in Colorado (the flatlands right under the Wyoming border, but still…) equated to a few days kicking around Cusco, so why bother?
We flew from Buenos Aires to Lima, slept in the airport, then flew to Cusco first thing in the morning. After a nap, we went out to buy last-minute supplies for our trek, which commenced the very next morning. A short walk around a handful of city blocks left us gasping for breath, leaning against the sides of buildings and clutching at the stitches in our sides. Without stepping foot onto a mountain trails, we were already headachy and fatigued. When the minibus pooped us out on the trailhead at Mollapata (wherever the hell that was), we were less than enthused about soaking up nature’s beauty with the physical fitness of Bruddah Iz.
Furthermore, as we found out later, the Salkantay trek is one that tourists train for. We’d noted its label as a “strenuous” trek, but being young and not obese, we figured we were fit enough. Coupled with the lack of oxygen, the miles had us in agony.
…And what to pack…
Like any decent trekking company, ours also suggested what to wear and pack in order to have a safe, happy hike, or whatever. Those blessed, blessed emails used language like “Recommended” and “Highly Recommended,” but besides a water bottle and closed-toed shoes, they did not specifically dictate the contents of our luggage. We subsequently took liberal artistic freedoms with their suggestions (as befit two young women who were perpetually half-drunk). For example, we understood “sturdy broken-in hiking shoes” as “battered, three-year old gym shoes purchased for $40.” “Warm clothing” because the nights and the elevation could get “very cold” became “sweatshirts because the Andes are probably a tad cooler than what we’re used to in urban Buenos Aires.”
Our first night, in a typically beautiful valley surrounded by dramatic peaks, our guide emerged for dinner swaddled in a down jacket. We found this odd, until it began to snow. Morning found us not so much chipper as cracked out from zero winks and lots of incessant teeth chattering from the frigid alpine air. As it turns out, the Andes are significantly chillier than Palermo Soho.
Shortly after that, the two of us gimped along behind our guide for the next several days, feet swollen (still freezing), and riddled with blisters that, when our long-suffering guide popped them for us, sprayed several meters with a velocity not unlike a potato cannon (and with similar looking ammunition).
…Or when to go.
It didn’t strike us as especially strange that our trekking group consisted entirely of our guide, our porter, and the two us; we just figured most tourists only bothered with the Inca Trail or not at all to get to Machu Picchu, the picky bastards. More for us, anyways—after all, it was the beginning of Fall in the Southern Hemisphere, when the weather was turning from humid and scorching to mild and crisp.
Unless you happen to be above 15 latitudinal degrees south. Which, of course, Peru is. In that case, the seasons are bisected between wet and dry (a glaringly obvious fact, had we bothered to look anything up about the journey we were embarking on—or, you know, used basic common sense). April is among the wettest months of the year. Entire sections of the trail were washed away by mudslides; we crossed one particularly gnarly one by inching across, facing into the washed-out mountainside holding hands in case someone fell, hoping we didn’t tumble a hundred feet to the raging river below. (As soon as we made our laborious crossing, a local and her daughter, both wearing oversized rubber rain boots and carrying pails, scampered across the distance in a matter of seconds.)
Not even incessant, pouring rain can dampen the beauty of the Andes or of Machu Picchu (much), though it did make the two of us feel like a pair of downtrodden, soggy hobbits on a journey to Mordor rather than a couple of coeds on Spring Break. Our hike up the slippery steps to the top of Huayna Picchu for an aerial view of Machu Picchu found us shivering in the literal inside of a raincloud hoping for a glimpse of the iconic scene, which never materialized. At least Sam and Frodo didn’t have to wrestle with sneakers that accumulated muck by the kilo (outside and inside of the socks, as well).
While our peers bemoaned the ends of their sun-drenched weeks on Brazilian beaches or scampering around Patagonian glaciers, all we could think was, “thank fuck.”