Machu Picchu is an iconic tourist destination. People from all over the world make their way to Peru to experience the Incan hilltop marvel nestled in the slopes of the Andes. But the most memorable part of the trip wasn’t the ruins, but the difficult climb to the summit. In 2012, a couple of friends and I took a college graduation trip and trekked 4 days on the Salkantay trail through the Peruvian mountains with our final destination being the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. All my life I’ve seen pictures of the stone citadel on postcards, history books, and television shows, so you could say that my excitement level was high. This is not just any ancient place; this is one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World”, up there with the likes of The Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum in Rome. This is the kind of destination that people only dream of traveling to one day and put on their bucket list. But, I have to admit something, I barely remember anything about the ruins. I remember walking up the many stone stairs built by the Incas many years ago and witnessing the occasional llama grazing, but for the most part, my memory about Machu Picchu is hazy at best; Machu Picchu just wasn’t the most memorable part of my trip. This is a truly “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” type of moment. As the world slowly begins to transition to post-pandemic life, allow me to take you back to the most memorable parts of my Peruvian journey in hopes that it fires up your passion to once again travel and experience the great outdoors.
Glacier Lakes and Valleys
My journey to Machu Picchu started at an early 4:00 AM. The goal for the first day was to trek to Soraypampa, where we would be setting up camp. This camp was located in the middle of glacier valleys, where mountains on either side of the trail seemed to disappear in the clouds. There was an eerie silence as we hiked since there was no one else besides us and nature. From above we probably looked like little ants slowly walking through the valleys of Peru. I had prepared for this trek by going to the gym and exercising on the stair master. Did it help? Nope, not one bit. The majority of our trek was completely uphill and felt as though the longer I walked the heaver my legs became. I probably wouldn't have survived without my hiking sticks. At the end of the first day’s trek, there was one last hill to climb. This hill was steeper than anything we had come across during the day. As a kid, one would dream of climbing to the top of this hill and rolling down, but I saw this monstrosity as the final leg of a long and arduous day. At 13,780 ft elevation, I found it hard to breathe and my head felt light. Each step became a test of willpower. Slow and steady was the name of the game, and eventually, with thighs burning, I would reach the top of the hill. At the top, what I saw in front of me could only be described as something out of a dream. The clearest turquoise lake reflecting like a mirror the mountain glaciers in the background. I had never seen a lake so clear and still in my life. Exhausted, we all just found a rock, sat down, and simply enjoyed the moment.
It’s Cold at the Top
The goal for day 2 was to reach the Salkantay Pass, which is the highest point of the trail at 4,630m/15,190 ft. The 5:30 AM start to our second day greeted us with even more uphill climbing. But on this day I was motivated. I had conquered the trails and hills leading up to Humantay Lake and felt like nothing could stop me. I was brought back to reality within 30 minutes into our second-day trek when not only were the mountain trails steeper than the previous day but now there was snow. The winds had also begun to pick up, and wearing a beanie and faceguard helped prevent the wind chill from freezing our faces. A majority of the trek today was traversing snow-covered rocks on a trail that at times was hardly recognizable. Once we reached the Salkantay Pass, the surrounding area looked as though we were on a snowy planet, not what one would imagine when they think of Peru. Other hikers around us were celebrating reaching the Pass. As I sat down, trying to catch my breath and regain feeling in my toes, I looked around and reflected how surreal this moment was. There were no easy ways to get here. No buses, taxis, or trains to take tourists. No VIP service. Only those who enjoyed the pursuit of embracing all the rigors and beauty that nature has to offer. By our second day, we had trekked a total of 13.6 miles and climbed 3,000 ft in elevation gain. Feet sore, legs shot, and the hardest day still yet ahead.
Whatever You Do, Take the Train
Our final trekking day was through the jungles of Peru. Previously our trails had been surrounded by rocks and glaciers, but today we were embraced by lush tropical plants, rivers, waterfalls, and animals. The end goal today was Aguas Calientes, where we would stay the night before heading to Machu Picchu. Even though the distance hiked on this final day, 16.78 miles, was longer than the previous days, the first half of the day didn’t seem difficult. We stopped at a local plantation to try Peruvian coffee and taste the famous local passion fruit (the passion fruit caused all of us to destroy every toilet in Peru for the next few days). We were even able to zipline through the treetops of the Peruvian jungle and enjoy a natural hot spring. However, one crucial decision changed our day completely.
By dinner time we reached a small town called La Playa. We were provided with two options; 1) take the train from La Playa to the final destination of Aguas Calientes, or 2) continue for another 3-hour trek through the jungle to Aguas Calientes. I’m assuming you can guess which option four young seemingly invincible 20-something-year-olds picked. Within an hour from leaving the train station, the sun went completely down. If you’ve seen horror movies where it’s so dark that you can only see the person in front of you with a flashlight, this was exactly that. To make the experience even more memorable, my flashlight started to run out of batteries and became continuously dimmer and dimmer as time went on. At one point my only light source was looking for the flashlight of the person in front of me. With an hour left, the rain started to pour down on us. No one said a word for the last hour of trekking. We couldn't see, we were exhausted, wet and sore. All we cared about was putting our heads down and not stopping for anything. At one point I heard something move next to me, but I could only see pitch black around me. I thought maybe it was a jaguar or some animal waiting to make me its next meal. Then out of nowhere, out of the corner of my eye, I see two tiny Peruvian women walking next to me. They had what appeared to be large bags over their head carrying goods. I’m assuming they were also walking to Aguas Calientes. At this point, I was in full zombie mode that I wasn't sure if what I was seeing was real or not. When we finally reached Aguas Calientes I felt like crying I was so happy. One of my friends and I were so deliriously tired that we couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, my friends and I joke about that night, but I guarantee you it’s something we will never forget.
The Long Awaited Day
The day was finally here. After 37 miles, thousands of feet in elevation gain, and many blisters later, we were finally going to see Machu Picchu. If you were waiting for my review about how amazing Machu Picchu was, I’m sorry to disappoint you, I don’t really remember much. Luckily I took many photos and videos, so sometimes I open them to reminisce, but off of memory, I can only say that Machu Picchu had a lot of tourists, many steps, and some nice views. Can’t remember many details of the place. But, if you were to ask me about the trek going to Machu Picchu, I can tell you in absolute detail how the mountains looked when we woke up in the morning and came out of our tents, or how the cold breeze felt at the top of the Salkantay Pass, or the look we all gave each other after a long days trek where we knew what everyone was thinking without saying a word. This is not to downplay the beauty and majesty of Machu Picchu. This was just my experience, and how sometimes when we travel and explore, it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s the most memorable.