The neat thing about the Salkantay Trek was that every day was different. Coming down from such a height, near the equator, meant that we were experiencing a lot of different ecological environments. For us this meant we saw and experienced different things each day of the trek.
The day we climbed up to the summit of the Salkantay Pass, we also had to get down to our campsite for the evening, before sunset. We walked 22km that day, winding up down at 2750m. We experienced a 2km elevation loss, following a small glacier-fed stream from the lofty heights of the mountain pass down into the rainforest. A knee pounding descent from one ecosystem to an entirely different landscape, we hiked along on a rather serpentine trail.
Our lunch spot at Huayracmachay (just try to sound that one out, I dare you!), a settlement on a high plateau, perched between the high Salkantay mountain and the high jungle of its lower slopes, was a really neat place. Seeming to hang suspended right in the clouds, it marked the beginning of our descent into the cloud forest landscape.
It was a rustic settlement, to be sure, especially with the way the buildings seemed to be hunkered down, taking advantage of the shelter of available rockfall, but it had such a primitive quality to it that it felt timeless.
The conditions under which our cook prepared the lunchtime meal were extremely primitive (a blue tarp sheltering us and the cooking area from the wind, and a sheet metal roof over an open frame), and yet we still were given an exceptionally plentiful, hot meal. One great thing about our trekking company was their attention to the way food was prepared. No matter how primitive the conditions, they were careful about boiling water, food storage, and hand washing for themselves and us (before every meal we had a plastic bowl of hot water and soap with which to clean our hands), and we never got sick. The food was very plain, but always plentiful.
Soon we were hiking down through the Andean high jungle. As we hiked, our trail was hemmed in by ever more lush plantings. It was a place of ever increasing heat and humidity with a deeply cut valley and heavily forested slopes that reminded me of a scene from Jurassic Park! A true rainforest, it had a wide diversity of plant and animal life. Though a cloud forest at these elevations, there was not a lot of moisture present, but we knew we’d hit the upper reaches of the rainforest environment once the bushes came alive with the clicking and buzzing of hummingbirds!
We were seeing this rainforest at the tail end of the dry season: it was early spring there, and the rainy season was about to begin. As a result, not much was flowering, but our hike through this vast ecosystem let us see the many ways in which people of the area lived, worked and thrived under its canopy.
Our campsite at Chaullay (pronounced “chow-yuh-eye”) that night was the most primitive of the entire trek. A seriously dirty place, it was a group campsite used by many trekking companies, and as a result it was unkempt and filthy. It had a quaint flock of chickens that roamed the place, cleaning up bugs and seeds, but it had the feeling of a backpacker hovel. I’ll spare you the gross details. Suffice it to say that staying in a place like this is an enthusiastic-never-to-be-repeated-again check mark off the ‘ol life bucket list! I did that a number of times back in 1989, the year Bill and I backpacked in Europe, Turkey & Egypt. Been there. Done that. For good, now.
The next day saw us rising very early in an effort to be ahead of others who would be using the trail. This day, though fascinating from a cultural perspective, was not as much fun from a hiking perspective. The trails were crowded with large hiking groups (of 10-20 people), and it was a narrow trail, making it difficult to pass. There seemed to be far more people than the day before, so perhaps other trails came into the area??? We were getting closer to Machu Picchu now, so perhaps that accounted for it.
As we left camp and hit the trail, a wonderfully atmospheric mist hung in the air. The clouds were all around us, nestled down on the valley like a thick blanket.
The bridge Bill is crossing here is made in what our guide told us was a centuries old style… 2 logs cross the stream and have sticks, then a layer of gravel and mud put on top. I asked why they did this, thinking it would rot faster, but our guide didn’t know why.
We saw many beautiful rainforest flowers (lots of orchids) & plants, despite it not quite being the season for flowers there yet, being very early spring.
This part of our trek was less about pushing limits, achieving lofty heights, working through the trials of high elevation and taking in powerful mountain vistas as it was the day before. It was more about human culture and daily life in the high mountain jungle.
We were hiking through a place where people farm on incredibly steep slopes in rough, overgrown conditions. I use the term “farm” loosely, because that’s what our guide kept calling the small plots of land that we passed that were turned over to one form of agriculture or another. The steep slopes and the intense press of vegetation and trees made these farms unlike any association I have in Canada with the term!
Hiking through this landscape was an interesting cultural experience because we got to see small farm plots on impossibly steep slopes being worked by their farmers in action. In this part of the country they grew potatoes (of course… where don’t they grow potatoes in Peru!), coffee, corn, tomatillos, mangos, papayas, avocados, passionfruit, peaches, bananas and plantains… all on very steep jungle slopes.
The trail that we were on was a highway of sorts: a route being used daily by the farmers and pickers to get to their high altitude fields, a route to take to get their agricultural goods to the rivers and roads for transportation, and a route to access the services of the smaller towns along the way. They were only for people on foot, and not for horses or motorized vehicles. We passed (or were passed by) farmers going about their daily activities. Coffee was being actively picked while we were hiking through this part of the forest, so our timing was perfect to see that in action! (I will write another blog post about that experience).
It was amazing to me to see the ways some of my favourite Peruvian foods were getting to market. Harvested by hand on super steep slopes, bundled in sacks, hoisted by hand and hoofed by foot down to the road far into the valley below where they are taken by trucks from the nearest town on collections days… that’s some trek the food takes to get to market! We saw this time and again on our hike through the rainforest. As we approached the town of La Playa, we saw this in action…
I have a seriously heightened appreciation for the foods I have been enjoying while here, given the incredible effort it takes to get them to market in Cusco. Take the granadilla… I think this is my favourite Peruvian fruit. With an egg-shell-like outer peel, the idea is that you crack it open, break a small hole about the size of a coin, give it a shake to loosen the seeds from the outer shell, then tip your head back and suck out the beautifully tart, slimy pulp-coated, delightfully crunchy seeds. I love them and ate quite a few as snacks on the trail, and then later, in Cusco, as part of breakfast or as snacks on our excursion days.
There were some entrepreneurial farmers at the roadside (well, at the track & trail side, actually). Knowing that this was a popular route, they set up small stands selling water and gatorade and pop and chips, along with fruits harvested from their farms. The photo above shows me, all hot & sweaty, devouring one that we bought at a stand like the ones below.
Our day and a half spent getting down from the lofty heigths of the Salkantay Mountain, through the cloud forest and into the high rainforest were beautiful and enlightening. Representing about 30km of our overall trek, the days were long, but we experienced some spectacular terrain came away with a new understanding of “farming.”