August 7, Salkantay Trek day 2 – It’s pitch dark and cold outside and I’m perched somewhere in the Andes, on a trek leading to Machu Picchu. My blue tent is fluttering in the wind and the rain drums on relentlessly and loudly. It’s a mercy we aren’t swimming away in this deluge, I think, as I fidget to get more comfortable in my -8 degrees Celsius sleeping bag. I’m safely cocooned and the tent smells like someone just bathed in Deep Heat. That’s because I had actually bathed in Deep Heat and at that moment it was warming the cockles of my heart, and other extremities. My poor tent mate Jemma would have to survive another day of overpowering menthol air. She says it doesn’t bother her. She also adds that its probably better than what we’re originally smelling of, after hiking for two days and approximately 17 hours of climbing and descending, without a shower or change of clothing. I silently nod to myself in agreement.
Last year, on the sixth dawn of a particularly beautiful December day, my mother passed away. She had led a life of extraordinary resilience and fought many battles. In the last year of her life, her fight with her sick body was getting tougher and she had understood what was imminent. In humour that was characteristic, her advice to me started getting more indulgent, and perhaps more inventive. She told me to love more and laugh more, risk more. Most of all, she wanted me to try new experiences. Travel, she said. You’ll never know how far you can go unless you push yourself enough. And so, in a journey undertaken as an ode to my mother after she passed away, I picked the most impossible sounding item on my bucket list and then added a healthy dose of impossible to it. Then I did it.
[quote]I was offered coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived[/quote]
A small, grainy, and slightly frayed at the edges, black and white photo of my father standing in front of the Machu Picchu ruins had stayed ingrained in my memory since my childhood. This is where I would go. To the other end of the world, high up into the heart of Quechua and Inca homeland, where the air is so thin and oxygen sparse that one occasionally catches themselves gaping like a goldfish. However, my decision to take the Salkantay Trek rather than the Inca trail developed from a chain of events that were not planned. I discovered sometime in April this year that the Peruvian government has added restrictions on acquiring trekking permissions – in order to protect the heritage routes and sites – and only several hundred permits are issued per day. What this essentially means is that if one hasn’t planned their trip at least half a year in advance, there is no way to get on the legendary Inca trail. Independent explorers are also out of luck, as solo treks are not permitted. There is always the option of flying to Cusco and catching a train from there – but then it really takes the soul out of a journey that many see as a pilgrimage – spiritual or worldly. Naturally, I was heartbroken, but obsessive research soon informed me that the alternative treks were a far better option if one wanted to avoid tourist-populated routes. One in particular stood out as the most scenic, covering a vast area of country and mountainside, with some jungle thrown in at the end. It came recommended as the best way to experience the Cusco region by foot.
The Salkantay trek is in no way unknown or an obscure journey, yet it isn’t a common route popular with the thousands of tourists who flock to the famed Inca mecca. It is not an easy route either. Labelled ‘moderate to challenging’, the trek pushes one to extreme temperature and landscape changes, and at its highest goes up to 15,000 feet, passing at the foot of the Salkantay Glacier through the Apacheta Pass. To prepare for this trip, I began researching and buying my gear months in advance. My previous experiences with nature adventuring have only been in the North of Pakistan – always in the summers and always in the wrong clothes and shoes. My tour operators in Peru advised me that this was one risk I must not take. So I got top of the line hiking boots, which turned out to be an investment worth every last cent. More thought was paid to the kind of layers to buy, and the number of items to stock up on. Every last grammage of weight was calculated. From the thermal body suit to the tablets of panadol, and that tube of Deep Heat, I felt prepared. It took one day into the trek to realise, I was not prepared.
Cusco – Aug 1
I arrived in the historical Inca capital Cusco after a 36-hour journey, having travelled on three different flights and slept in the international airports of Sao Paulo, Brazil and Lima, Peru. I was exhausted but found a taxi to Hotel Marqueses in the heart of the city. Literally two streets down from the main square, the Plaza de Armas, my lodging was in a quaint exposed brick inn with beautiful attention to detail. It was basic, but my room had heating, a beautiful wooden bed and armoire, and a religious painting on the wall.
[quote]I experienced my first ever fainting spell[/quote]
Having landed almost 11,000ft above sea level, I was immediately offered coca tea. Not to be confused with cocoa, the coca plant is essentially what is put through a chemical process to make cocaine. In its plant form though, it is legal in South America, and one is encouraged to chew or drink large amounts of it to allow for better absorption of oxygen in the blood stream. It is supposed to help with altitude sickness, which strikes more than half of the non-natives that travel up this high. It also delivers a kick to the system that helps provide energy and alertness. I had taken a four day stay in the city before the trek began, to help the body acclimatize – this was a strict recommendation, as trekking even higher with altitude sickness can result in serious conditions which, if allowed to worsen, can also be fatal. However, hours into my arrival in the city, and that too after consuming the magic brew, I experienced my first ever fainting spell in my entire life. After a few seconds lost to a blackout I found myself on the floor of my room with my vision dark and speckled with stars. It was a terrifying moment but due to the phone line in my room being out of order I was unable to make a theatrical scene about it. Get up and get on with it, I huffed, and dragged myself to a glass of water. Then I slept comatose for a straight eight hours. That night and the following four days were spent exploring Cusco, and embarking on a gastronomical experience trying many delights like ceviche (raw fish in lemon and chilli), purple corn, aljo trucha (fresh garlic trout), and coffee…lots of coffee.
Cusco was planned in the shape of the revered puma, and was heavily populated in the times of the Incas. Till the late 1700s, it remained the most populous city in the continent. Cusco has been the site of many historical events and was also where Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador, declared the conquest of the capital. The city is a maze of cobbled streets, small squares, a multitude of churches, and even more markets. To my casual observation, it was abuzz with more tourists than natives, and trade in souvenirs and local alcohol was high. As I happened to be in Cusco on a Sunday, I walked into the Iglesia de San Francisco, a 16th-17th Century church, and briefly attended mass. I didn’t understand what was being spoken, but the reverent silence of the kneeling devotees left me with a deeper and perhaps more solemn glimpse into the heart of the people. That week I also caught the military parade in the main square, heard fireworks from one festival merging into another, and befriended a number of street dogs who looked happy and well fed, albeit unkempt.
[quote]I rode through absolute silence, in a spectacular yellow green wintery land [/quote]
I also used this time to schedule a horse-riding trip into the mountains, going from one Inca site to another in an excursion aptly named the mystical tour. I rode through absolute silence, in a spectacular yellow green wintery land that had beautiful wild horses grazing lazily, riotous bush flowers peeping out from under rocks and llamas looking back at me so seriously it made me laugh. There was hardly any person for miles, except for the handful of shepherds that were out about on their business. I explored the Temple of the Moon and, with the help of the local guide, offered an ancient prayer at the altar for good energy, connection to the cosmos (spirituality), health, and expelling negativity from the soul – a very fitting prayer to a very ancient llama carving which gets the solstice sun. I climbed back out to see a thousand and a half year old carving of the puma, the snake and the condor – all symbols of connection with the earth and the universe.
We rode past Sacsayhuaman, which is considered one of the most important sites from the Inca Empire after Machu Picchu, and is an architectural wonder. Perfectly carved boulders, some weighing approximately 200 tons, are placed together without any mortars and the structure provided various ceremonial and logistical usages. From afar, an annoyed official waved his hands at us, shooing us on – no ticket, no entry! The tour took an interesting turn when my companion and myself were taken inside long, deep, dark and very narrow caves, which required some skilled manoeuvring and an eventual climb up through a small opening set high above. I moved ahead without a torch, running my hands across cold dark stone to find my way, secretly praying that my fingers didn’t chance upon anything alive and irate. Apparently the whole Sacsayhuaman area sits over a labyrinthine network of caves – many of which were also used for ceremonial rituals and sacrifices. Some conspiracy theorists even believe that this network might help shelter-seekers survive an apocalypse!
The next morning, I signed up for the essential day-long Sacred Valley tour, in which a bus takes a motley collection of travellers across the ancient fertile grounds of the Urubamba river valley. Starting at Pisac, moving across Ollantaytambo, and finally ending at Chincheros, the trip covers many famous ancient sites that include Inca temples, residences, burial sites and more.
A quick stop at a local farm and I pet an angry llama and pick a pack of freshly harvested quinoa. A steep climb up centuries old step farms, and we discuss special water diversion systems, architectural marvels, and who can be the first to spot the massive faces supposedly carved into the mountains surrounding the site. There are granaries and lookout points perched impossibly high. The vertical burial sites, now robbed to nothingness, once boasted of wealth and a love for dogs, who would be the departed’s guide across the river in the afterlife.
At the end of a long day of walking, climbing and learning, the bus rumbled across to Chincheros, an ancient village believed to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. Most of the passengers were lulled to sleep in the zigzag ascent. With every moment as we climbed higher and higher up still, right about when I was sure we had driven right into the clouds, we broke fall at a plateau-like land on top. It turned out to be one of the most breathtaking drives I have ever experienced. The vast sky was impossibly dramatic, with the setting sun and puffs of pink and orange clouds streaking the immense aqua background. My fingers itched for a camera, and I calmed them down. Trust the eyes and the heart to remember this.
[quote]They make a brilliant rouge from cactus secretions, which the demonstrator told me was kiss-proof![/quote]
Chincheros is quieter – much quieter. The usual tourists don’t often make it this far, or this early in the evening. I silently thanked my tour company the hundredth time for its planning and routes. We visited a church built atop an Inca temple, which was speckled with signs of its past, and symbols of the Quechua culture. The temple’s stone foundations were still visible and the candles at the altar were placed in condor shaped candelabras. Time and again, I was reminded how an alien, monotheistic religion and system was imposed upon these people – and how they, in turn, learnt to mix the two, letting the old occasionally seep through. We walked around a bit more and saw a demonstration on making rich natural dyes from minerals, flowers and vegetables and even a brilliant rouge from cactus secretions, which the demonstrator told me was kiss-proof! I returned to Cusco having purchased a beautiful handwoven carpet with the Inca horoscope and gods, and a fertility doll that, I was warned, was very potent.
[quote]Time and again I was reminded how an alien, monotheistic religion and system was imposed upon these people[/quote]
For my last evening in Cusco, I met Diego, our Salkantay trek guide, and the rest of the team who would be with me for the next 6 days. I was taking this trip with SAS Peru. One of the oldest tours company operating out of Peru, SAS comes highly recommended by many travel guides, publications and even National Geographic. It was suggested to my by a kindred spirit, Zehra Zaidi, who had taken a similar trip many years earlier. I would second this endorsement wholeheartedly, as SAS helped shape one of my most important adventures.