|As with most travellers, the first thing we used to think of when we thought about hiking in Peru was "The Inca Trail" to Machu Picchu. When you do this, you camp at primitive camp sites and share the trail with 499 other people a day which is not only crowded but also has led to some hygiene issues. Not our idea of a good time. As it turns out, "The" Inca Trail, is actually "an" Inca trail, there are hundreds of kilometers of Inca trails in South America although many of them are covered by jungle. Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) is a Peruvian adventure company that built 4 high-end lodges in the Andes and offers lodge to lodge hiking (or horse back riding) trips that end up at Machu Picchu and partially travel along some of the other Inca trails. The trek, whether you stay in the lodges or camp along the way, is called The Salkantay Trek because it crosses over Salkantay Pass below Mt. Salkantay. The MLP version of the trek isn't a budget traveller's trip but as we've learned over the years, you usually get what you pay for. So when our friend Bruce from Lake O'Hara Lodge enthusiastically recommended this trip, we immediately started looking into it and decided it would be right up our alley. Compared to "The Inca Trail", there are rarely 50 people on the trail on any given day and usually the groups don't even run into each other.
The first day of the trip had us leaving Cusco early in the morning and driving to an archaeological site called Tarawasi. It was located in a beautiful valley and Pepe gave us our first lesson on Incan engineering and artistry. Then it was up a steep, narrow, dirt road to a town called Mollapata. MLP partners with aretesans in this town and we visited the shops of a couple of weavers and a jam maker to check out their wares before stopping at a small cafe for coffee. Then it was more driving along a bumpy dirt road until we reached our first hiking point. The bumpy dirt road from Mollapata to Soraypampa is actually part of The Salkantay Trek. Heavy rains a few years ago washed out the old trail so hikers now have to follow the road. Not a big deal as there are very few vehicles and it made for easy walking on our first day out. Waiting at our starting point was the smiling Geraldo, along with his horse and his mule. He was our ambulance driver and he would follow us for the next 5 days in case of emergencies (the horse was the ambulance and the mule was the medical equipment carrier). Our lead guide Pepe, was the paramedic. Pepe and Lizaida used this first short hike to evaluate the capabilities of the group and they gave us the thumbs up at the end of the day. It was an easy 9 km walk with great views of the mountains we would be walking past in the next couple of days, Humantay and Salkantay. It also gave us a chance to get to know the other people in the group. We hiked up to the Salkantay Lodge at Soraypampa (pampa means plain or field) by mid-afternoon and were greeted by staff offering tea and warm wash clothes. The lodge is located at 12,700' and is beautiful, fitting into the surrounding area perfectly. The rooms are also beautiful, large, nicely decorated, with en-suite bathrooms and fabulous views of the mountains. The lodge has a large outdoor hot tub with the same spectacular views. Before dinner, we had our first lesson from Pepe on the history of the Incas. Apparently we'll hear a different chapter of the story each night before dinner. Dinner was excellent, a 3 course meal featuring local "trucha" (trout).
There is one other group staying at the lodge with us. This is the only lodge of the four that is shared by 2 groups, we'll have the rest to ourselves. The reason for this is that each group stays here for 2 nights with a day in between to do an acclimitization hike. As we walked to the lodge, the other group did their acclimatization hike and while we're doing ours tomorrow, they'll head out to the next lodge and another group will join us for the one night. A revolving door of groups that provide jobs for local people.
Despite finding hot water bottles in our beds and chocolate truffles on the bedside tables, our first night was a long one. While we're finding it much easier to breath now (even at 12,700'!), sleeping is a different story. We were a bit bleary eyed as we ate a leisurely breakfast and then headed out to hike to Humantay Lake, located at about 14,000' up Mt. Humantay. A good test. Lizaida led the bulk of the group on the hike while Pepe took Christina and Swen up to a ridge high above the lake on horse back (an optional excursion offered by the lodge). As we watched them switch back up the steep trail, we were amazed to see a porter following behind them on foot, carrying Pepe's large pack with emergency gear. He stayed right with the horses, wearing flip flops! Lizaida set a very comfortable pace with lots of time for photos and we enjoyed the hike past farms and alpine meadows to a beautiful little mountain tarn. And no issues with the altitude!
We made our way slowly back down to the lodge where we enjoyed the view from the hot tub, followed by some star gazing, followed by a lesson on how to make Pisco Sours, followed by another great meal (pasta this time). It was a full day and we've got an early start tomorrow, the hardest hiking day of the trip, so hopefully we'll overcome our high altitude insomnia!