Salkantay Trek Day 1- Getting into the High Andean Mountains

We left for our trek at 4:15am in total darkness, the lights of Cusco City’s hillsides twinkling as we wove our way down from the slope that our hotel was on, through Cusco’s valley and up into the highlands. Roving packs of dogs were virtually the only creatures up and about on the city streets at that time.

We came to a rougher area of Cusco on the outskirts of the city (see the photo below, taken on a different day, going through the same area). An area where people had flocked years ago to escape the Shining Path rebels, it is an area of extreme poverty, now run by remnants of the Shining Path who are into the cocaine trade. Full of unfinished, adobe mud brick buildings with sheet metal roofs, it is a dirty, poverty-filled place. A very dangerous area, it is not a place you want to stop in the day, let alone under cover of darkness.
With no explanation, our vehicle pulled to the side of the road, the window was rolled down to a weaving man on the street, an exchange took place, and the drunk man got into the van. We could smell the alcohol fumes wafting off him from where we were seated in the back of the van. There was a bit of quiet murmuring between him and the driver and we were off again.

We had no idea what was going on. With visions of Shining Path rebels and South American tourist kidnappings going through my head, I was very nervous and on high alert. Those fears were heightened by the fact that our driver and guide were not talking to us, not explaining anything. We just weren’t sure what was going down.

We drove him about 10 blocks until we found a taxi driver asleep in his car. Our driver hopped out, knocked on the window repeatedly to wake him up, gave him some cash and directions and put the drunk guy in the car.

Of course, as with most things in life, it wasn’t what it first appeared to be. There was no reason to be afraid. There was no nefarious plot happening. We found out later that first, our guide was a young guy and very sleepy and uncommunicative in the wee hours of the morning; second, our driver didn’t speak English so he couldn’t explain what was going on; and third, the driver was doing a very kind, altruistic thing. The man that he picked up was another driver for the company who, on his day off, had gotten quite drunk and wound up in the wrong place. Fearing for his safety (our guide explained later that they were worried he would get stabbed), they saw him at the roadside, picked him up, and then put him in a cab and sent him back home.

As the sun rose, and daylight began to open up the scenes unfolding before us, we found ourselves entering an incredible mountain pass on a road full of tight switchbacks. We passed many Quechua people on their way to the fields: very, very small people, they had, dark, cinnamon-coloured weathered skin and thick woolen clothing for the cold mountain air. The women wore woollen leggings, heavy woven skirts, brightly coloured blanket shawls and the strangest tall bowler-style hats. They were sporting machetes, baskets, pick axes or hoisting large, brightly coloured woven sacks on their backs. It felt like we had entered another world… and we were foreign giants in it.
Because daylight was only just breaking, and our vehicle was moving quickly along the road, I did not get any clear photos, but the women looked something like this.
When we got through the mountain pass, we were perched high above a steeply cut valley with a gorge on one side of us and a patchwork of brown, tan and rust coloured terraced fields on the other. Farmers were already out in the fields at day break.
It was such a beautiful drive The colours of the landscape, the pastoral scenes, the steep drop offs with the Rio Blanco far below and the hundreds of switchbacks we took set the stage for our adventure to come.
Once off the main road, our route took us on twisting and turning roads through the countryside that were at times wide enough only for the passage of one car at a time. To drive this, our driver went cautiously, honking his horn before every corner to warn oncoming vehicles that we were approaching. With no guard rails and steep drop offs plunging several hundred meters down, the road was bumpy and the twists & turns a bit nausea-inducing.
We took a break at a small mountain town called Mollepata (pronounced “moy-ya-pat-a”). There we picked up a few supplies, had a spot of breakfast, and met up with our horseman for the trek, who happened to live in that town.
A picturesque location, the town was high up in the mountains (2,900m or 9,514′) and the conditions were so arid that there were cacti growing along the roadside ditches and fence lines.
A woman in the main square of the town was selling grass for the guinea pigs. We saw this quite a bit in Cusco, and in the towns of the Sacred Valley. People throughout Peru raise guinea pigs for food, and they buy their guinea pig food from roadside vendors like this.
The road, a kind of dirt track, left the town and climbed higher and higher up switchbacks, heading toward the staging area where we would begin hiking, and pick up our horses. Some of the switchbacks required coming to a complete stop, cranking the steering wheel all the way to one side, and then maneuvering up the steep track. The skill of our driver was quite something.
As we drove higher, along a road that clung to the mountainside with edges that plunged down to the valley floor below, the air got a little thinner and the light became increasingly intense. This would be our reality for the next couple of days (we had terrific weather for our trek).
Finally, we were at the trailhead.
It took us about two and a half hours to get to our trailhead, leaving Cusco at 4:15 am… one of many super-early morning starts to follow. We were dropped off at the side of the road, and began hiking up into the hills. We would be hiking up from this road to a farm track and then to a trail that would lead us toward the trekking base camp at Soraypampa.

For the trek, we carried just day packs with whatever we’d need for the hiking through the day’s advntures (rain gear, snacks, lots of water, layers of clothing, camera gear, etc.). The horses would be carrying our extra clothes and gear and things we’d need each night, along with whatever food the cook would need to feed us 3 meals a day for 5 days.
If you look carefully, you can see the irrigation channel below the rocky outcrop with our well-worn trail beside it.
Our initial trail followed an ancient Incan irrigation channel that is still used to this day by the farmers on the slopes below. It brings glacier water down into the agricultural channels, originally built by the Incas and still in use by the Mollepata-area farmers to this day.
It was a very gentle start to the trek. Being mostly flat, it allowed us to get our altitude legs, heads, hearts and lungs under us. The next day, we would be going up and over the shoulder of that snowy mountain in front of us.
Our base camp for the this and the next day would be here, at Soraypampa.
Soon we dropped down into a quaint valley with stone fences and small buildings, rustic stick & barbed wire fences, and an incredibly dramatic mountain backdrop.
The valley is home to Soraypampa (3920m or 12,834′). A base camp of sorts,  it is a place where different trekking companies set up tents, where trekkers spend the day getting acclimatized to the altitude, and where the horses graze.
We arrived there at lunch, got settled in and then went out to do an acclimatizing hike. Day One was really our training day, the day where we tested our bodies to see where we fared in the game of high altitude roulette. You see, there’s no way of predicting how you will do at altitude: young or old, fit or unhealthy, thin or overweight, there’s just no telling who will succumb and who will thrive.
This is the base camp that we stayed in. At night, its igloos were awesome!
That afternoon, our acclimatization hike took us to a nearby mountain lake to try to get used to hiking up something steep, at altitude. It was a test of sorts for our guides to see how we’d do, exerting ourselves on a significant uphill, so that they could see what our pace and fitness level would be like for climbing up to the 4630m (15,190′) pass the next day… and whether or not we’d be one of the trekkers, having to do the “ride of shame” on horseback, rather than on foot, up and over the pass the next day.
This may not look difficult, but that slope had us stopping to catch our breath to get “juice” into our leaden legs a number of times!
Our guide, Karol, introduced us to coca leaves to help us get our hiking legs back under us. Coca leaves come from the same plant that is used to make cocaine, but in its dried leaf form, it doesn’t have addictive qualities, and its effects are far more mild.
A stimulant, coca is used in two forms to help you get through the effects of altitude on your body’s system: you can drink it as a tea, which is like a very mild, pleasant-tasting, Japanese green tea; or you can take about 6 to 10 leaves, put them in the pocket between your cheek and your teeth on one side of your mouth, let them sit there and soften for 10 to 15 minutes, and then slowly chew them.
Here I’m placing a stack of coca leaves into my cheek pocket to soften.

Not at all unpleasant, you keep chewing them, and spitting out their pieces, a bit like chewing tobacco I would imagine. I’m not sure what there is in it that protects teeth and enamel, but according to some of the Peruvians we talked to, the reason elderly Peruvians have such fantastic teeth has everything to do with their habit of chewing coca leaves.

Onward we hiked. Our cheeks bulging with coca leaves, we forced our leaden legs to move, passo y passo, as our guide said to motivate us, ever up and up, one foot in front of the other, to the hidden lake above.
And THIS is where we ended up, on the shores of a small alpine lake at the base of the Humantay Mountain (pronounced oo-man-tie). Glacier-fed, at 4200m (13,779′),  it had such startling colours!
With an imposing mountain and towering moraine piles, it was incredibly beautiful. It is overhung by a massive cliff face that must have been about 1600m tall. Humantay Mountain itself reaches a lofty height of 5950m!
Look carefully here and you’ll see the waterfall, coming off the central toe of the glacier that feeds this lake. Seeing this photo, you have no sense of perspective, but that waterfall, ever so small in this picture, was large enough to make a tremendous noise. Talk about a huge, imposing mountain! This setting was dramatic. It was striking. It was incredible!
It was such a spectacular setting… a great place to try to breathe deeply (though it felt like our lungs just couldn’t get their fill!), catch our breath, and take in the peace and serenity of the scene.
Humantay Mountain… Huma means head and mantay means mountain.
You lose all sense of perspective in a landscape that is so massive that you cannot take a single, landscape-oriented photo of it without resorting to the panoramic feature on your camera!
The immensity of the setting, the gigantic moraine piles, the gorgeous aqua and sapphire colours of the lake itself, set off by the colossal, dark cliffs and the thick, imposing glacier… it was like Lake Louise on steroids. Without the people.
We hiked up to the left of the lake to gain the top of the moraine pile  to peer into the valley on the other side (a moraine pile is a gigantic mound of glacial debris that is discarded and pushed out by the incredible strength of the glacier as it flows through the landscape and retreats over time). Far below was the glacial meltwater stream, coming from another, unseen glacier that was the source of water for the irrigation channel we’d hiked along that morning.
While there, we sat and watched as clouds poured in over the mountain top, billowing and rolling and then disappearing before our very eyes into thin air. It was a magical moment. Far down in the valley, cows and horses grazed on the Andean grass in a primitive pasture with stone fences. From our lofty perch on the lip of that moraine, it felt like we were peering far back in time.
The lip of the moraine was like razor’s edge: incredibly dramatic, sharpened by the wind over time, it launched itself into the sky as a sharp, jagged, saw-toothed, peaked ridge.
Whatever the colours are in this landscape, we just don’t have them in our mountains: there are combinations of black, gold, green and brown, combined with the haze of the altitude and the brightness and intensity of the light, the howl of the wind and the rippling of the Andean grass, it was like nothing we’ve seen before.
From the top of the moraine, we could look out across the lake and over to the other moraine ridge (pictured in the left hand side of this photo). Moraines always come in pairs. This one, too, was formed by the powerful glacier that hung above the lake as it melted and flowed, pushing and scraping the mountain’s surface, leaving behind towering piles of debris over time. Moving mountains, quite literally. Dramatically carving and transforming the landscape. The piles are easily eight stories high. The beautiful lake lies between the moraine lip in the foreground, and the towering pile across the way.
Finally, with the light fading, it was time to head back down to base camp and dinner, far down in the valley below.
Dinner was always a soup, a grain, some veggies and a meat dish. The food was plain tasting, but plentiful and nutritious. The cooks did amazingly well, given the logistics of carting, preparing and planning the meals. No two meals were ever the same, and our cook always tried to make them pretty.
A successful training hike under our belts, we were ready to fuel up with food and sleep, and get ready to take on what would be the hardest challenge  of our trek: summiting the Salkantay Pass on the next day’s hike.
This was our igloo for the night.
When the sun set, the winds picked up and the temperatures plummeted. Boy did we need those igloos over us! Wearing all my layers, a wool toque, thick socks, down mitts and a fleece liner in my down sleeping bag, I was SO cold that night!
And THIS is what our igloo faced… our goal for he next day was to hike toward that snowy mountain, up through the Salkantay Pass that lay to the left.
The stars at night were so fantastic, seen through that glass roof! It was a great end, to a long day. And we fell asleep very quickly, looking out over the valley that we’d be exploring the next day!
A distorted pano view, taken from the inside of our igloo at Soraypampa

12 Comments on “Salkantay Trek Day 1- Getting into the High Andean Mountains

  1. Pingback: Jungle Stories – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  2. Pingback: An Overview of the Salkantay Trek – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  3. This is fantastic! I’ve been to high altitude terrains and have fared decently. I know that feeling when your lungs scream for oxygen and few metres seem like eternity. And to think, the two of you look so unfazed by it all. Wow! Is Everest base camp on your list? 🙂 I would need a couple of days to read your journey. Those mountains look gorgeous! Thanks for taking me there. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure that Everest Base Camp will ever be on the list. Much as I’ve enjoyed seeing photos of what it’s like there, I think the crowds, the garbage, and the frontier town mentality (for lack of a better way of saying it) would get to me and spoil it for me.

      But I would really like to do some more trekking in Patagonia, Chile. So far we’ve only been to the northern most area and it was spectacularly beautiful. I’d love to get into the south.

      This fall we’re heading off to Italy and Slovenia to do some via ferrata (a combination of safe mountain climbing and scrambling style hiking) in the Dolomite Mountains area and some caving and canyoning in the karst area of Slovenia … I can’t wait!

      So nothing super high altitude planned in the near future. Thanks so much for reading through our Peru experiences. It was a very neat trip. I’m so glad you found them!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! I’ve checked this post out a couple of month back. And, I was so inspired. 🙂 I thought of her while writing this comment, but forgot the name of her blog.:(


    • Thank you! It was a really fascinating trip and a fun adventure. Despite having spent lots of time in the mountains over the years, the high alpine environment we encountered on this trek in Peru was unlike anything we’d experienced before.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: