Salkantay Trek out of Cusco 7/16-21/2019
The van that carried us NW out of Cusco at the beginning of our trek climbed back and forth to a pass, where views opened up into green valleys that stretched off forever. Then the switchbacks got steeper and more frequent. Then we left the main road and began to ascend a narrow lane, with blind corners at the switchbacks and cliffs whose cactus and scrub would not have slowed our plunge had anything gone wrong. Then we stopped in a village for a bathroom break, worked our way back and forth through the village’s narrow streets, pausing to drag a dead dog out of the road, and then the pavement disappeared. As the sun set, we followed a rocky, serpentine track into the Andes.
When we arrived in the darkness at the clean, modern camp where we would spend the night, we gave the driver a round of applause for having gotten us there alive.
Dinner that night was by headlamp; the camp’s generator had flickered on when we arrived, run long enough to make us complacent, then coughed, sighed, and expired. This didn’t bother the cooks, who prepared soup and bread and rice and chicken and vegetables and hot drinks on a propane stove by the light of hanging lanterns. Every meal on the trek was an array of plates heaped with food, served all at once – plentiful and nutritious.
I ate at a table set for four: me, Rodrigo, our guide (“Rolo”), and two Australian women, Sarah and Emily. We introduced ourselves as we ate. Rolo is in his mid-twenties and was born in a small village near Cusco – Quechua is his first language. Sarah is in her mid-twenties and is a paramedic. Emily, late twenties, is an architect. The women are traveling together through South America, having just attended a wedding in Quito. They have been friends ever since being on the same surf-boat racing team, back in Melbourne; this sport features lining up a handful of five-man boats at the surf line and, at a starting gun, plunging desperately into the waves, trying to be the first boat around a buoy and back to the beach.
“The surf can be really rough,” said Sarah. “We wear bikinis and helmets.”
“And float vests,” said Emily. “That way, if we’re unconscious, they might find us before we drown.”
“Good Lord,” I thought. “How tough are these women?”
There were more than three tourists on this trek, but our expedition had been divided into two groups: Rolo and his three charges were the English-speaking group, and the larger portion, of perhaps eight hikers, was composed of Spanish-speakers from Mexico, Chile, and Peru, with a Spanish-speaking guide. This division made sense, as a practical matter, but I regretted having such a scant acquaintance with the other part of our expedition; they appeared to be kind, friendly people.
As the porters cleared the dishes, Rolo told us that we would be awakened the following morning at 5:30. Breakfast would be served shortly after 6:00, and we’d be hiking by 7:00. We wished each other well and went off to our separate cabins. An enormous glaciated peak, Humantay mountain, shone in the moonlight at the head of a valley to the north. A lake at the foot of this mountain would be our first destination on the following morning. I didn’t know, as I closed the door to my room, that I would never see Humantay mountain again.
Our camp was at almost 13,000’, and I wasn’t sure whether I was feeling the altitude. I was a little queasy, and I slept poorly; I was staring up into the darkness when a knock came at my door at 5:30 in the morning. The porter who had come to rouse me had brought me a hot cup of coca-leaf tea. I drank this while packing, decided that anything worth doing was worth overdoing, and broke out the stash of coca leaves I’d bought at a mini-mart in Cusco. I put six or eight of them into my mouth and chewed energetically. They were bitter and undistinguished. Leafy. After a few minutes, I’d reduced them to a gritty, unpleasant mulch. “This cannot be how this is done,” I thought, opening the door and spitting the bolus into the darkness. But, you know, I felt a little better.
There was more coca tea for breakfast, along with eggs and bread and fruit. We stacked up the green duffle bags that contained our personal possessions, each of them embroidered with “Alpaca Expeditions: The Journey is the Destination”; the porters were going to carry these over the pass for us. It was raining a little and the light had come up as we followed Rolo out onto the road and our trek began. Humantay Mountain had vanished behind the clouds. Ahead of us were brown, sharp-edged hills, rising into the mist. We passed horses and cows and the camps of other trekking agencies, then left the road and started to climb through the tundra. The rain had slackened by this point.
I was feeling great. The coca had produced nothing like a high; what I was feeling was more like the clarity of several strong cups of coffee, with none of the jitters or anxiety. Coffee doesn’t leave you feeling indomitable, either. My queasiness and doubts were gone.
Sarah and Emily talked companionably as they climbed, stopping to take pictures and gesturing as they told each other jokes. They may have been telling each other jokes, anyway – it was hard to tell, because they were small figures in the distance, and they were a little smaller every time I looked up from my feet. That’s how it went for the entire trek; Sarah and Emily, without apparent effort, were always way out in front of me.
It bothered me a little to be the slowest member of the group, but only a little. There were only four of us, after all, one of whom was a professional mountain guide, and I was the only one in the group who was older than 30. It seemed to me that I was doing pretty well, except by comparison to those two freakishly fit young women, cresting the ridgeline far in front of me.
Two marmot-sized animals scampered out of the rocks as we approached an old glacial moraine. Chinchillas! I was about to chase them with my camera, but, as they disappeared among the boulders, Rolo assured me that we would see more of them, in a place where they loved to “chillax” on the far side of Salkantay Pass. That plan didn’t work out, though. Those were the only chinchillas we saw.
Laguna Humantay was pretty, but the mountain behind it remained stubbornly obscured. Rolo distributed high-fives, told us a dubious story about how the ancient Inca people used to come up here and build cairns, like those all around us that had been left by previous hikers, and then gave us some patently false information about the color of the water, which was clearly the result of rock flour from the glacier but which Rolo attributed to the altitude and something about reflectivity. Then he used our cameras to take pictures of us in front of the lake.
“Say ‘Oh my gato!’” he yelled. “Say ‘Hola-hola Coca-Cola!’ Say ‘Llama-mia!’”
“Oh my God,” said Emily, posing next to me with a rictus grin. “We’re going to be hearing that for five days.”
Rolo said we had made exceptionally good time getting up to the lake. I found this easy to believe, given Sarah and Emily’s mile-eating stride. He dubbed us “Super-hikers” and called us that for the rest of the trip.
We could see clouds blowing up Salkantay Valley as we descended back the way we’d come. When we reached the valley bottom, we turned and headed east, toward the pass and the clouds.
Lunch had been set up in several large green tents that sheltered us from most of the wind. At 14,435 feet, this lunch spot was slightly higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier. As we ate, Sarah asked Rolo whether the local people believed in anything like the Sasquatch or Abominable Snowman. Rolo replied that he didn’t like to be in the mountains alone at night, because something lives there that is almost but not quite human – a creature that attacks people, cuts them open, removes their fat, and then sews up the incision. This had happened to a friend of his grandfather. This grisly story did nothing to impede our appetites; we ate enough to make us ready for naps and then got to our feet, shook off the torpor, put on our day packs, and headed for the pass. The wind had picked up, and the air was now carrying a ballast of sleet that stung our faces as we climbed. My legs felt fine, and there was no trace of the symptoms that had worried me on the previous night, but the air was so thin that the only way to climb was to stop every few minutes to gasp for breath. Some of these breaks happened automatically when a mule train passed us, forcing us off onto the rocks to watch them go by.
The sleet had stopped and the wind had abated when we arrived at Salkantay Pass, at 15,157 feet. This is the highest my feet have ever carried me. The four of us went for a walk to the edge of a moraine, where people had set up a small forest of cairns, and walked through the fog among them, waiting for rents in the clouds through which we could sometimes catch glimpses of the glaciers that surrounded us. I have seen photographs of the views from Salkantay Pass on clear days, but I am trying to put those photographs out of my mind.
We had a lovely time up there, despite the clouds. Rolo led us in a little ceremony, in which we each held up coca leaves and offered them to the mountains before leaving them as an offering under a rock. Then he showed us how you’re really supposed to chew coca. You start with a small handful of leaves, into which you sprinkle an acidic sweetener; then you fold and roll them into a quid and put it between your cheek and gum, where you leave it as you work. We had just done the hardest work of the entire trek, so I wasn’t sure I needed any more coca – but I didn’t hesitate to slip those leaves into my mouth. The coca produced no psychoactive effect as we strode down from the pass, beyond an agreeable absence of fatigue; we paused to admire the spot where there were no chinchillas and watched the vegetation slowly recovering as we lost altitude.
Our camp was at about 12,500’. We were established in tents over which thatched lean-tos had been built. The fog reduced the diameter of our world to a few dozen yards. After another sumptuous meal, we crawled into our sleeping bags.
That night I got up to pee and saw that the weather had cleared. The mountains under which we’d been walking hung above our camp in the moonlight, white ice and black rock. I stood and looked at them until the cold drove me back into my tent. But in the morning, the clouds had returned. The mountains were still visible, now and then, but they pulled the clouds over themselves and peeped out at us from behind them like girls in an old-fashioned burlesque show.
The second day was a long walk, downhill all the way, to the spot where our gorge opened up onto a wider valley and suddenly villages and electric transmission towers were part of the scenery. And then still more downhill, to a village at 7200’, where the owner of Alpaca Expeditions had built a trekker’s hotel in the style of hobbit houses. These were cute and comfortable, but they had been designed by a Tolkien enthusiast, not an architect. Emily and I compared notes about the absence of any place to hang anything up or put anything down – no shelves or hooks in the bathrooms, not even a toilet-paper holder. Also, there were only four showers, in a facility that could accommodate 50 hikers, and these showers had no place to put your clothes or towel or soap; it was hard to see how you might clean yourself without stripping off and getting dressed on the walkway outside.
We were down among banana plants and orchids and bamboo and coffee trees by now. On the following morning, we followed the river for a little longer and then crossed it, at a construction site where a crew was hard at work replacing a bridge that had been destroyed in the last rainy season. We climbed up past several dozen cars that had been stranded on the wrong side of the river when the bridge disappeared. After a little while, we took a break at a honey farm, where a local woman wearing two filthy sweaters gave us tastes of four or five different varieties of honey, while a surprising number of small dogs twined around our ankles. I’d have loved to have been able to help her by buying something, but a pint of honey would have done Jim Bogar no good at all. And then, a little while later, we arrived at the base of an old Incan trail that we would be following up and over a pass, to that night’s camp. We had a long break at a restaurant and coffee farm there. While lunch was being prepared, Sarah, Emily, and I gathered, skinned, roasted, and ground coffee beans, and then drank the hot, strong brew that the local woman made from the results of our “work.”
As we put on our packs after lunch, Sarah and Emily started talking about snakes. They weren’t afraid of snakes, they agreed.
Emily: If a snake bites me, I’ll bite him back.
Sarah: I’ll grab him by the tail and use him like a whip.
Emily: It’ll go “crack” and his jaw will snap closed and bite his tongue off.
Sarah: I’ll tie him in knots.
Emily: And then I’ll wear him as a hat.
The trail followed the contours of the ridgeline, rising all afternoon with nary a switchback to a pass where suddenly the trees were drooping with moss because of all the water they scraped from clouds. Signs welcomed us to the high point: “FANTASTIC VIEW OF MACHU PICCHU! DEFINITELY WORTH STOPPING FOR A PLACE TO RELAX, HAVE A COFFE/SNACK, SET UP CAMP AND TO JUST ENJOY TROPICAL ENERGY.” Sarah and Emily dropped their packs, laughed happily at the prospect of seeing Machu Picchu in the distance, and ran off in the direction indicated by the sign. Literally ran off. They had been hiking all day, but they needed to burn off some excess energy. One of the Spanish-speaking trekkers and I watched them go.
“Es fantástico,” I said.
“Si,” he agreed, with real feeling.
We dropped down past a restored Incan building to our campsite, where the entire world was spread out beneath us. On a ridge across a valley to the east, we could see the ruins of Machu Picchu, barely distinguishable as an unnaturally clear spot in the otherwise unabating green. The ice of Salkantay Mountain appeared and disappeared among clouds to our north.
We shared our campsite with some independent trekkers, who were doing this trip without the benefits of guides or porters or support of any kind. They were a fit, independent, young, self-reliant, enviable bunch. One young woman offered to share her mate tea with us, but I demurred, mostly because she was so lovely that I could hardly stand to look at her. Her trekking partner was a gaunt, hairy young man who looked like one of the survivors of the Shackleton expedition.
That night, one of these independent trekkers turned on some music, somehow. Sarah and Emily, in the tent next to mine, sang along with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” – Emily seemed to know all of the words. The two of them laughed and chatted until it was fully dark.
If I haven’t made it clear already, I’ll make it explicit now: Sarah and Emily have one of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever seen. It was a pleasure to watch them being together. Their relationship is a glimpse of a depth of commitment and affection that I hadn’t been fully aware was possible between people. I realize that this paragraph must overstate the case – that Sarah and Emily are normal people, and that they must have doubts and disagreements – but from the outside, from my perspective, their relationship is an example of something I should somehow try to duplicate in my own life.
On the following morning, while watching the sun come up behind the mountains, I had a nice conversation with Felipe, a software engineer from Santiago with whom I had already had a few brief interactions. He had noticed that I was alone on the bus from Cusco, and had used his excellent English to make me feel included; since then, his kindness and our similar minds had created a connection. As the sun rose, we talked about the differences between the software-development cultures of Chile and the United States, and about the sad rise of right-wing populism around the world. When I said that I was ashamed of the history of the United States in Chile, Felipe thanked me warmly for my sentiments; maybe he is used to meeting Americans who aren’t aware of our complicity in the long, bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, I don’t know. If so, that’s something else I should have apologized for.
After breakfast, we dropped through the jungle to the river and then hiked along a road to the beginning of a set of railroad tracks and a congeries of snack stalls; this is where buses dropped off tourists who were on their way to visit Machu Picchu. We were treated to an early lunch – the last such meal that was made for us by our cook and porters – and then we followed the railroad tracks to the little town of Aguas Calientes, which is tucked into the folds of the ridges at the base of Machu Picchu and, at first glance, seems to be a repellent tourist town, full of bad restaurants, touts, and tchotchke stalls, whose only virtue is its setting. This seemed true at second glance, too. It’s a horrible place. Rolo, Sarah and Emily, and I were established in different hotels; Rolo said he’d come get us the following morning at 5:30 for our trip up the mountain to Machu Picchu.
Everyone has seen many photographs of Machu Picchu, almost all of them from the same angle – there is hardly anything to be said about it that hasn’t already been said many times. One impression that I haven’t seen expressed elsewhere is the stature of the ruins in the surrounding landscape; the ridges on every side erupt out of the ground with the same vertiginous unlikelihood as the one on which the Inca decided to build this city. It isn’t just Machu Picchu that seems impossible – it’s the entire landscape.
I ran into Felipe at one of the overlooks up there. “It’s unfamthumible,” he said.
I tried to help him, but I couldn’t say it, either. “Yes,” I replied. “Unfafimagle.”
I spent the morning taking pictures and trying, unsuccessfully, to put myself into the minds of the people who had built this city, and then returned to Aguas Calientes for lunch. I would not see Sarah or Emily or Rolo or Felipe again. The tourist attractions of the town were unbearable, and I didn’t need to catch my train back to Cusco for several hours, so I crossed the river and sat in the bleachers of the local soccer field, where high-schoolers were practicing folk dances under the stern eye of a coach or teacher who was keeping time on a snare drum. Bits of costume and fragmentary props were taken up, used, and then discarded in heaps on the sidelines. Whenever the girls weren’t dancing, they were laughing with each other and playing with their phones; whenever the boys weren’t dancing, they were whipping each other with short pieces of rope and getting into shoving matches. But when they were dancing, they were serious about it. The dances were about working with animals, and sowing crops, and about an institutionalized representation of flirtation. They were casual and adroit and foreign and beautiful.
The ruins up on the hill are unfathomable. The people who made those buildings, and their motivations for doing so, are lost forever. But the descendants of those people are still here. The Quechua kids on the soccer field were performing dances whose themes and aesthetics descend in an unbroken line from the culture that built Machu Picchu. There is something there, in those steps and rhythms and colors, that reveals the Incan mind. It’s just a hint, but it’s real.
The train took me to a little town where I had been told to disembark; there, on the platform, was somebody holding a sign reading “James Frederick.” He gave me a ride in a van the rest of the way back to Cusco, under sky full of stars.
I haven’t seen Humantay mountain, or Salkantay, or chinchillas, or Peruvian village life, except in glimpses. I don’t know anything meaningful about Sarah and Emily, either, or about Felipe, and still less about Rolo, whose intelligence, ambition, kindness, and professionalism I have entirely neglected in this account. And I know nothing at all about the culture that was here in these mountains when the Spanish arrived. I have seen the ruins, but I have not understood them. The only hints of what the Inca people might have been like as individuals are in the perfection of their stoneworking, and in their having chosen to disregard practicalities when siting their cities in such beautiful, improbable places, and in the colors of the swirling skirts on the soccer field at Aguas Calientes.
All of these impressions are informed by a sense of loss. I’ll never see these people or these mountains again. But even when the experience was only fragmentary – a rent in the clouds, a story about demons, a song from the next tent – it was beautiful. Maybe it’s better that the Salkantay trek was short and that it cannot be repeated. Maybe a glimpse is all I should ever hope for.