The night before our trek began, we reported to the office of Alpaca Expeditions, located in downtown Cusco. I had taken a lot of time to decide on which tour provider to go with, and after reviewing just about every option online, decided to go with Alpaca Expeditions. Their owner, Raul, is a former guide and porter. You can tell that his experience has lead him to create a first class tour provider that not only leaves his customers satisfied, but also treats his porters, guides, and chefs incredibly well. This cannot be said about all providers in the Cusco region. The country of Peru has limitless beauty and history that speaks for itself, but I’ve found that the quality of your tour provider will largely determine your overall impression of a planned holiday.
Julia and I had spent some time exploring Cusco and taking in all that the city had to offer earlier in the day. The Alpaca Expedition office is located on Calle Heladeros, right next to Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Regocijo in downtown Cusco. We made our way to the office in an upstairs building on old concrete steps in anticipation of our pending adventure. When we entered the room, there were two people sitting in chairs, and we introduced ourselves and found our their names were Olf and Suzanne. They were a couple from Germany, but we currently living in Brazil. In the front of the room, we met our guide, Effrain, who poured cups of coca leaf tea before he began to go over the details of what the next five days would entail. Just as we were getting started, another couple entered the room. They introduced themselves as Eric and Fenny, and were from Houston. Ther had only decided to join the trek that morning, and seemed short on gear and planning. Nevertheless, the seemed to have a great attitude about it, and jumped right in to our itinerary meeting.
After the meeting, we each received a green duffle bag that was to be carried by the porters. This was quite the surprise to Julia and I, as we had planned on carrying all of our own stuff. It was pretty exciting though, as we knew we’d be able to explore the trek with only water and a layer on our backs. With that, we made our way back to the hostel we had booked, and started packing things into or green bags. We attempted to get to bed early, but I made the mistake of accepting that cup of tea earlier, and that married with the excitement of trekking, kept me up all night and into my 3:30 alarm buzzer.
The morning came, and with it, the ineffable excitement of embarking on a new adventure. The morning air of Cusco at 11,000 ft was cold and full of adventurous days ahead. Effrain said we would be picked up in a bus, but it turned out to be more like a van. With 6 trekkers, one guide, one driver, and 4 porters, it was a miracle that everyone fit in that tin can. That was just the start though, as we made the 3 hour journey on a steep and narrow dirt road to Soraypampa.
Our first day began with breakfast, which was our first introduction to our incredible chef, Super Mario! Effrain gave us the breakdown on our 9 mile trek for day one. We started at 12477 ft in Soraypampa, and began hiking towards Salkantay Pass at 15090 ft. The trail for the Salkantay trek is a true showcase of Andean beauty, with chiseled and handsome faces of rock standing tall above fields of gold and brown.
We stopped for lunch after hiking for a few miles, and rested up a bit before heading out towards the high pass of Albra Salkantay. It was at this moment we realized we were in a group that didn’t do much training in the way of altitude. We were probably moving at twice the pace of our group, and had to wait quite a while for them to catch up at our lunch spot. This is one of the potential downsides when traveling with a group, as you can’t really “go at your own pace”. We were enjoying the views way to much to care at this point though, as our lunch site had direct views of Salkantay.
We continued on towards the pass after lunch, and walked towards a fast moving conveyor belt of clouds. We had gotten pretty far ahead of our group, but had starting walking with a great Canadian couple who stuck with us all the way to the pass. We were exchanging pleasantries and talking about our love of travel when a huge book of thunder rattled out behind us. A small avalanche had started off somewhere in the distance, and was too far for us to take much concern. We were hoping for great views from the pass, but settled for pictures with the the elevation sign. It was all downhill from there.
The hike from Abra Salkantay (15,090ft) to our campsite in Wayracmachay (12477ft) was incredible The weather that started sunny and clear had turned cloudy and cold on the backside of the pass. The rolling fog made for the perfect diffuser of light to cast the perfect shades over flowing creekbeds of glacial melt.
It was at about this time that we had a little bit of frustration with our group. The hike for the day was only 9 miles, and somehow there were a few who were really struggling. Usually, I’m all for going slow and enjoying things, but the temperature was really starting to drop, and I wanted to set up camp before the sun came down. Julia and I pushed ahead and arrived at our campsite along with the porters, and let our guide stay back with the fellow members of our group. This was a setup that would work well in the days ahead.
We made it to camp at Wayracmachay just short of sundown, and made for a quick change while waiting for Mario to work his magic in the makeshift kitchen. The meal was incredible, with rices, chicken, potatoes, soup, and cookies. It felt strange to be eating so well on a trek, but I rather enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed the never ending supply of hot water for tea! We sat around the table talking as a group and started getting to know each other a little better. Effrain told us stories about the Inca and the Quechuan people which set the perfect backdrop for the days ahead. And with that, we made our way out of the main tent to find our personal tents and go to bed. It was in the low teens, and the sky was crystal clear. I have never felt so close to the cosmos as I did on that night. As much as I wanted to curl up and sleep in my warm sleeping bag, I made myself stay outside to get some shots of the nights sky. Those images stuck in my brain, and as I finally made it to my tent, I fell into a deep, deep sleep.