Sunday, May 26, 2019

Salkantay Trek Day 2: The Pass!

I woke up Tuesday feeling really good! Our guides woke us at 5am with coca tea (which I didn't really drink the first two days because I didn't really know it it was ok for the baby). After an amazing breakfast which featured banana stuffed pancakes I was much less scared of the amount of hiking/elevation in store for the day. Lexi opted to take a horse because the altitude was still really affecting her, but fortunately this was the last day where it was really bad.
Left: Our banana stuffed pancake breakfast with a side of bananas!
Below: The view of Salkantay glacier from the start of our hike on day 2. 

The day's hike started right out the door with ascent. We climbed a gradual fire road which turned into single track as it steepened. Our group seemed to all feel much better than the day before, and with a few quick stops to snack and regroup we soon made it to the halfway point which we all felt came too easily. We sopped to sit for a min and eat snacks (Bananas and Creme Bonk Breakers for the win!). The rest stop was at about 14,00 ft and there was a little house owned by a woman selling Gatorade, water and charging for the use of her bathroom. The best part was that she had a baby strapped to her back in the cutest way, little eyes peering out over the Manta, leaving me convinced that doing this hike pregnant was no big deal. That women was up here the whole time she was carrying her child and most likely didn't go to a hospital to give birth!

Above Right: Eating all the snacks at our stop even though I was still full from breakfast. Like I said before, the theme of the trip was eat, hike, eat, even if you aren't hungry yet. 

Below: Badass lady with baby selling snacks to hikers. 

 Post snacks we had two options: the longer, less steep route, called the seven snakes, or the shorter more savage, straight up route. Our group opted for the shortcut because the heavy donkey traffic on the traditional route looked obnoxious (the trail was pretty narrow so we would have to stop every couple minutes to let a train of donkeys past). Then Juan Carlos choose to make the steep route steeper by short cutting all the switchbacks! Somehow it wasn’t hard to keep up with our crazy fit guide though (he must have the best lungs and heart of anyone I’ve met, doing the trek over and over, often with no days off in between), and what I had feared would be a crazy hard if not impossible hike to the summit was over in the blink of an eye! Our whole group made it to the top an hour earlier than expected!

The best part was that Lexi arrived on horseback within minutes of us, so we all enjoyed coca tea and delicious ham and cheese sandos thanks to our kind Sherpas (who hauled the big thermos to the pass) took a bunch of pictures and listened to some more massive avalanches we couldn’t see because of the clouds. Somehow I have no pictures of the 'scene' at the pass, lots of people from all over the world, stoked to be standing around in the clouds after accomplishing what is probably one of the hardest physical feats of their lives, pretty cool :)

After another history lesson about Pachamama and the tourism industry and it’s impact on the landscape, we headed down off the pass towards lunch. The downhill was really fun (would have been amazing on bike), and lasted FOREVER. We walked and walked and walked and eventually got to an outpost with 1 sole bathrooms, to find out we were still 20-30 min away from our lunch spot. The hiking was nice though, time flew chatting with the Aussies about school, and the education system in both the US and Australia/how parenting has changed recently. I really enjoyed the company of our tour group, an unexpected favorite aspect of the whole experience that more than made up for the thick clouds that blocked out 90% of the scenery. What I could see was green and lush, fields of grass strewn with rocks covered in moss and red lichen. It was pretty magical.
Above left: the foggy view we enjoyed the whole way down. Above right: an example of what every rock looked like, bright red with some kind of lichen. 

Lunch on day 2 was one of my favorite meals of the trip because it included ‘condor wings’, chicken legs fried in corn meal. Right as we were arriving at lunch rain started to fall, and within minutes of us entering the lunch tent the rain started coming down heavily. Somehow we lucked out and the rain let up right around the time we finished eating and needed to head back out on the trail.

The reminder of the hike consisted of hours upon hours of downhill fire road, down out of the mountains into the jungle. The scenery changed a great deal, and so did the plants (I saw my first air plant in the wild!), flowers and sounds of birds and the rushing of the river to our right. Lexi and I talked and hiked and slid down the road and JUST as my feet felt they didn’t want to be in hiking boots anymore we arrived at the little town where our camp was located.

Above: Me and then Lexi on the very muddy/slick road, me with the jungle in the background, Lex with Salkantay in the background
Right: The first Bromeliad I've seen in nature

Once again we sat through happy hour of popcorn and tea and stayed straight through to dinner. Another 5 am wake up on day 3 had us in bed as soon as the nightly debrief was over and I slept like a rock after a long day that went way better than anticipated. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Salkantay Trek Day 1

Lexi and I only had 2 days of exploring Cuzco and getting a little acclimated to the altitude before our trek to Machu Pichu.
We woke up at 4am on Monday to get picked up by the trekking company Salkantay Treks in a big Sprinter van for the 3 hour drive to the start of the hike. It was dark for most of the drive and I tried to sleep, but I was too nervous about the physical feat ahead of us. At the orientation meeting the night before my nerves were so bad Lexi said they were palpable, I was a mess. Fear that hiking pregnant for that long, at that altitude would be too much had me a nervous wreck. I had tried to calm myself by focusing on the fact that it wasn't a race, and I could go as slow as I needed, but I was still a mess. 
Anyway, as the sun came up we (I, I think I was the only one awake in the van) got our first view of the incredible landscape around us. We drove through a beautiful canyon, on a road cut into the side of steep, verdant cliffs with Salkantay glacier in the distance. The van stopped at a town called Mollpata for us to eat breakfast, and then continued to the start of the hiking for the day. At breakfast we met and chatted with some of the others in our group of 12, all of whom turned out to be super rad, like minded travelers, none of whom were just in South American for just a week. It was cool to hear about all the places they had been and were going next, but it also make me pretty jealous haha. When we finished eating we had the opportunity to buy snacks and rain ponchos, and since this was the last town we would see for a while Lexi and I bought stylish plastic ponchos for 3 soles (about $1).
After about 30 minutes of driving post breakfast the van stopped at a pretty nondescript spot on the dirt road we had been traveling on, and we all piled out, lathered up in sunscreen and started hiking! 

Our tour guides Julio and Juan Carlos were incredible, stopping at the perfect intervals to talk to us about the trail, plants and Incas, but really I think they secretly knew we needed breaks. 

Unfortunately Lexie got pretty sick on the bus ride, but her pace kept us perfectly in check, and I was happy to stop catch my breath and soak it all in (Honestly I had to work hard to keep my competitive edge in check all week and I STRUGGLED on the first day. I didn't let it show because I wanted to appear to be doing fine, but the altitude and the hiking with a pack weighed down with 4 liters of water was tough. The rest of the week wasn't nearly as bad, but day one was HARD). The trail was narrow and rough at first, and I wished I had my mountain bike. After climbing for about 40 minutes we arrived at an old Inca canal that used to carry water from Salkantay glacier to Mollepata town. The canal was just one of many impressive aqueduct systems in Peru built by the Incas and I think this one spans 33km! Despite having glaciers and crazy high snow capped mountains the region is pretty aired so the Incas had to work hard to bring water to their towns for drinking, bathing, agriculture etc...
 So it's safe to say I learned a lot on this trip :) Above left: the canal was right next to the trail all day on Monday. Above right: the rugged, perfect for mountain bikes trail. Below: Julio, our lead guide, teaching us about how the Incas used grass to make rope. Julio and Juan Carlos are both Quetchan, and they weren't just super knowledgeable about the history of the region, but also proud of their heritage, which really added to the experience.

After a few hours of hiking we arrived at out settlement for the night, a collection of dome shaped huts with glass roofs (built so we could see the stars at night but it was super cloudy and somehow Lexi and I got our hut kinda steamy, so we saw no stars). The entry to the huts was pretty low and I definitely smacked my forehead into the doorway full speed while exiting the hut leaving a pretty big bump and sore spot for the next three days. 

At lunch none of us knew what to expect from our first real meal on the trip, so we devoured the appetizer, and inhaled the soup, just to be met with endless entrees served family style. The hardest part was wanting to try some of each dish, but not having the room in my stomach to fit it all in.  All the food they served us was beautifully presented, sourced locally, and every meal was healthy and contained tons of veggies. I would recommend this tour company for the food alone! We left lunch feeling uncomfortably stuffed and grateful for the hour break before our afternoon excursion.

I accidentally took a short siesta after lunch, kinda the only thing you can do with a stuffed belly after a morning of hiking. It seemed like a good idea a the time but I woke up slow and groggy for our hike to Humantay Lake. The path to the lake looked like a ski slope, straight freaking UP. Not wanting to be left behind I joined the group, even though I didn't really feel up for walking straight into the clouds with a starting elevation of 13,000ft. It turns out half our group was in the same shoes, and John from Wyoming was even experiencing yellow fever symptoms from the vaccine he received a few days prior, so I was in good company taking the hike at a stroll. Lexi was also still pretty affected by the altitude, but she went her own pace and even though she took a little longer to get to the lake we were all super impressed she toughed it out because it was a doosy of a hike. 
 Left: A random cow we saw on our way up, a nice complement to the breathtaking scenery.
Below: Some wildflowers that caught my eye. Lots of lupin which apparently the Incas used for milk and to make a flea shampoo for their guinea pigs!
 The climb kinda went on forever (it was prob 2 miles haha) and every time we thought we were near the top we would turn a corner and realize in fact there was still a LOT of climbing left. When we did finally reach the top the view of the glacier and lake took my breath away. Pictures can't really do it justice, something about the light filtering through the clouds that hugged the mountain, illuminating the turquoise water and vibrant green grass. Maybe all the hard work to get there made it more beautiful, but it was like magic, I could sit at that lake forever just taking it in.

 We took a ton of pictures, and then decided to hike around the lake to see over the cliff on the far left side, you know, because 1,000ft of elevation gain wasn't enough! From that cliff we got to see a pretty cool rainbow though, most likely caused by the mini waterfall at the mouth of the lake. Virga in the distance had us worried about rain, so after a quick lecture from Julio about PachaMama we started the hike back down. I think I enjoyed the conversation about the evolution of mountain bikes with Jen and John (the only others in our group from the US) as much as I enjoyed the constantly beautiful scenery. I love comparing notes about fun places to ride in the US, and got some good ideas from Jen for future road trips.
The tour company had a happy hour with chocolate and cookies, coffee and tea planned for us before dinner. We took a while to get down the trail because we were a bit worried about Lexie, the altitude really hit her hard and she was stumbling pretty bad when we got back to camp. We made it to the tail end of the happy hour though, snacked a bit and just stayed in the dining hall straight through dinner :)
I wasn't even a little bit hungry when the food came, but 'parental responsibility' (hahahah) to nourish the baby told me to eat anyway and the theme of 'eat all the food all the time even when you aren't hungry' was established. I think I gained 15 pounds during the week despite hiking 47 miles (which is ridiculous).
Despite the lake hike going better than I expected (esp with a groggy breathless start) at the post dinner debrief for Tuesday I got nervous again, day 2 was billed to be the hardest day, LOTS of elevation gain, topping out above 15,000ft, and LOTS of miles. We had the option to rent a donkey to ride to the pass, but I was worried I didn't have enough Soles to tip all the guides and chefs, so I went the cheap route and committed to hiking. With a 5am wake up time the next day we basically just went to bed after dinner, and were treated to pounding rain for most of the night (which sounds really loud on an all glass roof!!).
Happy Hour views of the mountain we were to climb on Tuesday.