SALKANTAY TREK: DAY ONE – From the ground, up
We leave our Cusco hostel in darkness. It’s 4:30am and I am too cold to think but I shuffle down the cobble-stoned street, a bag on my back and Ivy in my arms. We walk only a few minutes to the designated meeting point, The San Blas Church. I sit on the cold steps, hug Ivy for warmth and wait for our shuttle.
As the minutes begin to multiply, we worry we misunderstood the instructions. Other travellers come and go as their minivans shuttle them away. We wait. Suddenly, my body is warm. Such an unfamiliar sensation on recent travels. My tired mind fast realizes why I am warm and I lift Ivy from my lap, her nappy leaking and my leggings covered in a liquid fast turning cold.
We change Ivy on the church steps and our driver appears, explains in Spanish he had been given different instructions and spent the last hour waiting at our hostel. Already late, we pile into the full van, wet leggings and all.
We stop for breakfast and continue driving to our starting point. We pass llamas, cows and mules on narrow mountain roads. It takes around three hours and we find ourselves in Soraypampa.
With our luggage handed over, we walk down a dusty road, laughing and admiring the view as giant snow-capped mountains stand proudly in front of us. There are five of us – myself, Ivy, Ivy’s dad Jono, her godfather Addy, and a very close friend of ours, Carly. We have joined our tour guide Caesar http://www.machupicchureservations.com and six others. Together, we begin to climb.
Ivy falls in love with a passing mule and asks if she can ride up the mountain. We pay for the ride and Jono follows her, keeping up to the mule’s increasing speed. The rest of us adopt a slower pace.
We are 4,000m high and I cannot breath. The high altitude strips the air from my starving lungs and each new step feels like I have been underwater for too long. I can no longer talk – the act robs me of too much oxygen.
I stop on the side of the mountain and try to concentrate on breathing. I remove layers of clothing in an attempt to cool down. I watch my heart beating in my stomach. With each new gasp for air, I watch each rapid beat expand my ribs, my black shirt rising and falling.
I keep climbing. With trembling legs, I fight the urge to stop. I inhale as deep as I can and feel the air get trapped in my chest. It doesn’t reach my lungs but teases them, taunting them with what they can only long for.
We keep climbing and I cannot tell if the air gets easier to breathe or if our bodies adjust to the lack of oxygen. Hours pass and what I think is the top of the mountain seems so achievable now. In the distance I can make out two figures perched up high on looming white rocks. I hear their voices.
“Mummy, I see you. I’m up here, Mummy. I’m up here!”
Ivy waves down and I climb the last of the trail separating us. I scramble the remaining steps, climb over rocks and if I had any air in my lungs it surely wouldn’t have made a difference because the sudden view catches whatever oxygen I do have in my throat. Humantay Lake lays before me. I am frozen still and stare at the picture in front me, almost as if Mother Nature is handing me a gift, a reward for the hike.
The water sparkles under the Peruvian sun as if someone, somehow sprinkled glitter across the lake, so perfectly, so precisely, so that the tiny silver pieces landed softly on the surface and patiently waited to dance with it’s own ray of sunlight. Above the water, the mountain hugs soft, perfect snow, untouched by any hand other than magic itself.
“See the lake Mummy?”
I turn to find Ivy balancing on some rocks, in one hand she grips a walking stick, the other pointed at the deep blue. We snack with the lake as our new companion and prepare for the decline. I strap Ivy to my back in the baby carrier http://www.ergobaby.com and we start to descend.
It’s easier to breathe on the way down but Ivy’s weight pushes down on my every step. She naps as I climb over rocks, using the walking stick to keep my balance. Jono and I talk to Caesar as we climb down. We’ve lost the others but he tells us to walk slow, there is no rush. We hike down, cross a field and climb across rocks that sit strong in rushing, icy water.
When the path turns, I look up and see the night’s resting place. It is so beautiful. A row of straw covered glass huts sit silently beneath the mountains, kissing the late afternoon sun as it threatens to set.
When we reach our hut, I am freezing, exhausted but happy. We have time before dinner and I collapse into the tent, wrap myself in the thermal sleeping bag and drift away. An hour later, Ivy and Jono wake me to watch the sunset.
We climb the mountain behind the hut, every step an effort with the cold digging its claws into my skin. I watch Ivy climb, determined she wants to reach the top by herself. Pride swims through my aching body and together we watch the last of the sun dip behind the mountain.
We huddle in the dining room for dinner – a larger straw hut at the top of the formation. We dine and laugh and become good friends with our fellow hikers.
When exhaustion delivers its finally strike, we surrender and slowly shuttle off, back into the darkness. In the earliest hours of the night we collapse and fall into heavy slumber, our dreams having already taken place.