If you are an adventurer, chances are that you either dream of hiking, or have hiked, the famous Inca Trail. Did you know, though, that there are many “Inca Trails”— thousands of kilometers, in fact — that lead into and around the ancient city of Machu Picchu? If you are seeking quick passage or an easy to moderate hike, there are several popular 2-4 day options. If you are prefer a more serious trek, head to Salcantay.
Nevado Salcantay is the 38th highest peak in the Willkapampa mountain range in the Peruvian Andes. It is less traveled than other routes, primarily because it is a hard-core hike at high-altitude. If your body is able, that’s kind of the best part. Salcantay the mountain God (or Apu) is honored as a sacred deity by the Quechua people (the native Inca tribe that inhabited Machu Picchu when it was built 500 years ago.) The word “Salcantay” translates in Quechua as “wild, invincible, unpredictable… savage.”
It took ten days to get to Machu Picchu. When we arrived, there were no large signs, there was no trash, no noise — just clouds and mountains and melodic winds — it was immaculate. The history of the Americas, tucked away high in the Andes.
We left on a short bus ride from Cusco to the Salcantay Lodge. I was acclimatized, but looking on to that mountain god from the valley below, I felt the real spell of altitude — I felt the smallness of myself.
It is true that this section of the Cordillera Vilcabamba is “wild, invincible, unpredictable… savage.” Sheer trail drops falling thousands of feet to the Earth were all around. Severe head colds and chapped lips were as common as breathing; mountain bulls were ready to charge, suspension bridges would challenge all fears — specifically one that nearly cost me the remainder of the experience completely. I actually considered turning back, and I am not the only one. The old porters who traveled with explorer Hiram Bingham (discoverer of Machu Picchu in 1910-11) famously said (and I’m paraphrasing) “why would anyone intentionally cross a suspension bridge? Those people are mad!” I couldn’t agree more. Eventually, pegged in sweat and tears and terror, I crossed that bridge with the helping hand of an angelic guide, a patron saint of Salcantay. And when I reached the crest two days later, (4600 M / 15,180 feet), I danced.
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