Infused exposures is back! New updates and our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu!!
Well readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve put up a post. I apologize for that. This will be the first post of many to catch everybody up. Life has been a touch hectic since my last post. In late November, Laurent and I flew from Lima, Peru back to New York together. He departed, after about two weeks, to go back to France while I remained in New York for the holidays. It was so wonderful to reconnect with lots of friends and family. So grateful to have been able to spend the time! The holidays were naturally hectic (as they are for everyone!) and we met up again in Marrakech, Morocco celebrating the new year with 8 of our friends. It was amazing! After the new year, we both flew to France together and this is where we are at now and will remain until April. To be exact, we are in the very center of France, in a very small village called Chamboulive which is located in the department of Correze.
We will stay here working on our book and taking care of other things. As some of you know, Laurent’s grandmother is not in the best condition these days, so he has been busy with trying to find a solution for her. So that’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s very peaceful here and an ideal place for working. We are also looking forward to making a few trips while we are here to London, Alsace and perhaps to the Cantal region. I’ve also been busy writing articles for the amazing website www.comosur.com, a site devoted to South American gastronomy. If you haven’t checked it out, you should go right now! And as always, Laurent is busy working on his photos for LLP.
I am going to backtrack a bit, to keep infusedexposures up to date! So that means rewinding to where I last left off in Peru. After spending some time in the Cusco region, we did what every traveler to Peru MUST do. Yes, that’s right. We visited Machu Picchu! You simply cannot come to the country and walk away without visiting the #1 site, the place that’s made it to most people’s bucket list! Since we never do things the easy way, it was already agreed that we would walk to get there. That’s right, no trains for us! We have to earn it!
The most popular way to do this is via the classic Inca Trail. It’s become so popular that you usually have to book it six months in advance (more in the very high season of June-August). There are only a limited number of ‘spots’ per day-500 to be exact (this helps to minimize the impact of the human footprint) and due to the overwhelming popularity and the now limited spaces, it is also extremely expensive.
Fortunately for the budget traveler, there are alternative treks to Machu Picchu. There is the Lares Trek, the Salkantay trek, Ausungate trek, and the Choquequirao Trek. Each offers different benefits, you can click on them to learn more about each one. There is also the one or two day Inca trail but that is included with the limited amount of 500 permits (i.e. you need to book it far in advance). Long term planning is not our thing, we really don’t enjoy the confines of a tight schedule. So it was a no-brainer that we would choose an alternate trek. Salkantay was the most attractive of the trails for us because it seemed the most diverse including a 4,650 m (over 15,000 ft) snow-covered summit followed by a 2,000 m descent into the jungle.
Normally we eschew group tours in favor of independent travel. We received great advice from our brave and amazing friends, Dan & Kate, over at LattinChattin who completed the trek independently (carrying all their own food and gear up over that mountain pass!). They are our heroes! You can read about their adventure here.
Even though we had completed one high-altitude summit (remember this?), we were a bit leery to carry all of our own gear and food (which equals lots of weight) up over the high mountain pass. We had struggled a bit just to finish the other high-altitude climb and we hadn’t carried anything except water/cameras. So with a bit of apprehension and a lot of hemming and hawing, we booked an organized tour the day before we were to leave!
Why apprehension? Well, we were already a bit nervous to visit such an over-touristed site like Machu Picchu. In our experience, these places tend to take on a Disneyworld-like quality, which isn’t the best thing when you are seeking to be immersed in the nature. Also, often times, when people visit a place and get worked up about it, they are often disappointed. It’s like when you want to see that movie everyone is raving about and when you finally get around to it, it was so hyped up, you are left wondering what was so special about it in the first place. In addition, the idea of hiking with a group is often more focused on the social dynamics of the group rather than enjoying the experience of being in nature. On past treks that we have completed, we were always slightly annoyed when large groups went by. Many people = lots of loud talking and it tends to kind of ruin the moment.
But I put all of that aside and prepared myself with an open mind. I looked at it like a new experience in itself. Hiking with a group. Hope the guide wasn’t a jerk or worse, the group members! I tried to appreciate the fact that we wouldn’t have to carry so much weight and I initially was aghast but then pleased that we wouldn’t even have to set up our own tent (!) or cook (a part that I truly missed). I went into it with the best and open mind and you know what? It paid off and we ended up really enjoying ourselves!
We got advice from an Instagram friend, who is now a facebook friend and hopefully a real friend one day (strange the way things work out that way!) that Cultura Tour Peru Cusco, was a good company to go with and so we met with a incredibly kind guy named Fisher Chavez the night before leaving. Because it was last minute and we were told a large group of Brazilian’s (7 people) were already signed on the tour (and 2 Spanish people), we got a great price. More people = less money for each person. In total, we were a group of 11, including myself and Laurent.
I’m glad I pulled the stick out of my ass because I ended up loving our group! We got so lucky. Not only did we have great guides, cooks and horse men (the horses got stuck carrying everyone’s backpacks), but the group itself couldn’t have been better! We had huge language barriers because even though our Spanish is functional, we don’t speak any Portuguese yet! And despite our improved Spanish, it was difficult to talk with the couple from Spain because the accent is much different than what we are used to hearing in Latin America. But somehow we all managed to communicate together and have fun. I attribute this to the spirit of the Brazilians, who are just naturally the most fun-loving people on the planet (I decided this after our 5 days together and it’s since held as true).
I won’t bore you with details about each day but just summarize to say that we met our group, introductions were made, we prepared our backpacks which the poor horses dutifully carried for us. The horses were led by two horse men. We had two official guides with us and 3 cooks. The cooks went up ahead of us every day to set up our tents and cook. I have to admit, that not only was the group fun-loving and laid back but it was kind of nice to have the tent set up and a hot meal waiting after a long day of trekking. For Laurent and I, it was a true vacation trekking experience-we could just walk freely, take photos and really enjoy the scenery. The trek was 5 days long in total and on the second day we reached the mountain pass (the highest point) on our trek at 4,650 meters.
The next day we descended into jungle-like scenery and the third day we visited hot springs, after a long day of trekking, in the small village of Santa Teresa and here was our last night of camping. We celebrated this with a big bonfire, music and thanks to the Brazilians-dancing! I unsuccessfully tried to learn to Samba.
The fourth day we met up with Fischer for a walk to Aguas Caliente from HidroElectrica, which meant hiking on the rail road tracks, one of our favorite parts of the whole trek. It was here we got to see our first glimpse, a behind shot, of Machu Picchu. The nature was stunning and just whetted my appetite for the grand finale!
Aguas Caliente turned out to be a predictably over-touristic town, full of tacky gift shops and waiters urging you to try their special happy hour where you could get 4 of the worst pisco sours of your life for the price of 1! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! This fourth night we slept in a hostel and I have to admit, it was nice to have a shower and a bed. From Aguas Caliente you can walk to Machu Picchu (about an hour or so uphill) but we really wanted to be there for the sunrise and didn’t want to wake up at 3 in the morning! It was bad enough waking up at 4 and catching a bus. When we arrived at 5, the line was already building to get on one of the buses that usher in literally hordes of tourists every day to the famous site.
We waited on line and already I felt slightly annoyed that Machu Picchu would end up being a disappointment. But still, I hoped for the best and expected the worst and I knew deep down that I couldn’t visit Peru without coming to this iconic site. I pushed the feeling that it would be just a large, pretty hill surrounded by some old ruins out and tried to clear my mind to be open. We arrived pretty early and were treated to nearly no one there! The sun came up and just touched the peak of the lush, green mountain. I was overwhelmed! I couldn’t believe how beautiful the place was.
In all the photos of Machu Picchu, you just see the green conical mountain with the ruins on the bottom but I was not prepared for all of the stunning nature around. Never before in my life have I seen such a unique place. Surrounding that green cone are high mountains, including 3 snow-capped peaks. It’s a perfect circle of mountain ranges and beauty and in the middle sits that instantly recognizable green mountain. Fisher took us through the ancient ruins and explained to us how everything lined up with the sun on the summer solstice and with the stars or the moon above. It was truly moving to witness this extraordinary place which still remains a mystery as to why it was created in the first place.
I imagined American historian, Hiram Bingham, stumbling upon this site while he was looking for another ancient city, Villcabamba. He is credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the public eye but it had long been “discovered” by the locals in the area. All of this rich history combined with the impressive nature and just the way Machu Picchu was situated in the middle of it all, made me very happy that I came to see it. Watching the sunrise, the way the light illuminated everything, stirred something deep inside me that I can’t really explain.
But by 10 am, it had already become Disneyland. I was snapped into reality as literally dozens of tourists moo-ed there way around the sight clutching tightly to Iphones, Ipads (so bizarre that people actually carry these around to take photos!!) and cameras desperately trying to capture the perfect image of the place. We walked over to the sun gate to get some peace and another perspective on the place. We watched people that looked like ants making their way up the peak of the green cone to Huayna Picchu. We tried to get tickets for that (only 400 are released per day) but we had booked our trek too last minute. If you want to do Huayna-book at least 3 weeks in advance (more in high season).
That’s okay though. Our trek over the Salkantay pass was one we will never forget. We met some of the nicest people we have encountered on our trip so far. Our big Brazilian ‘family’ had taken us and the Spanish couple in with open arms and their infectious laughter. We passed by some of the most extraordinary nature in Peru and we were still able to enjoy it, despite hiking with a big group. And let’s face it. At the end of a long day trekking, it was kind of nice to have things set up for you. Okay, so we didn’t have that satisfactory feeling that only self-sufficiency can give you. And maybe we were even one of the dreaded “loud groups” that we used to despise passing. But I realized on this trek, sometimes that is not the most important thing.
In fact, in many ways, the group added to our experience overall. We truly enjoyed ourselves and our group members. Maybe this won’t be the last time we decide to do an organized trek. Maybe there is something to be said for hiking in a group after all. It’s amazing what happens when you open your mind to new things.