The second day of our Salkantay Trek takes us right to the base of the incredible, hulking Apu Salkantay, a snow-capped, jagged peak worthy of all the effort it’s taken to get here and then some. It’s a pretty long day on the trail at 22km, but the scenery is all we need to keep moving forward— and the promise of a shower at camp tonight.
Trail stats: Soraypampa to Chaullay via Salkantay Pass
Elevation gain: 810m
Highest elevation: Salkantay Pass (4,650m)
Trail hours: 8hrs
Highlights: Condor sightings as we climb out of the valley; absolutely insane views of Apu Salkantay; the high point at Salkantay Pass; changing scenery as we descend into the cloud forest
Campsite: Andean huts at Chaullay (2,900m)
Our wake-up this morning is at 4.45am, the guide bringing hot coca tea to help coax us out of our cozy beds and over to the breakfast table. It is practically subarctic outside, so I am dressed in about 6 layers (which I also slept in) and waiting with absolutely bated breath for the sun to come up. After wolfing down a pancake and inhaling several more cups of tea, I hit the trail with the group around 6.15am, which is not a moment too soon for my frozen limbs.
The first section of today’s hike is along a relatively gentle uphill trail, not even strenuous enough to warrant the removal of my down jacket or the double layer of gloves I’ve stacked on. Soon enough, though, the trail becomes steeper up towards Salkantay Pass and the sun makes a welcome appearance over the mountains. Finally.
For the next 2.5hrs, we climb toward the high point of our trek, enjoying incredible views of the ever-nearing Apu Salkantay. Aside from the 6 enormous condors flying overhead that momentarily distract us from our uphill slog, we move slow but steadily towards the pass.
Despite the high altitude (4,650m at Salkantay Pass), I feel pretty normal and am able to power up the mountain at a reasonable pace— but dad and Eileen (who literally had 16hrs to acclimatise in Cusco before we started the trek) are experiencing some minor headaches and shortness of breath this morning. No one is seriously ill, but the parents definitely notice a decrease in their usually brisk trekking pace.
Even so, we make fantastic time to the top of the pass, where we are all promptly blown away by the proximity of the hulking Salkantay glacier. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever been so close to a mountain this size, because it feels like we are ON the face.
We spend more than an hour at Salkantay Pass, photographing the sacred mountain from every angle, enjoying some coca tea and a mid-morning snack, and even performing an Incan ritual led by our guide.
We each selected rocks along the route this morning and carried them up the mountain— now, we say thanks to the 4 Apus (mountain spirits) surrounding us, transfer our energy to our rock, and build a cairn around the finest coca leaves we can find.
The Incas believed the mountains were the link between the present and the future, the human realm and the sky, so this is an incredibly spiritual place. And standing beneath a dramatic, imposing peak like Salkantay, it is all too easy to be swept up in the mysticism of the Andes myself, to believe that there really is something divine about the snow-capped giants we’re walking beneath. I quite nearly start crying during our rock ceremony just thinking about it.
I take the opportunity to thank the mountains and Pachamama (mother earth) for this amazing trip and the opportunity to spend time in nature, reconnecting with myself and the natural world. I feel most alive when I’m surrounding by mountains, full of energy and confidence, and I only hope this concentrated time in the Andes will lead to some sort of revelation about what on earth I’m doing with my life post-PhD. If the universe does have a plan, it is being wildly unforthcoming with the details.
Finally tearing ourselves away from Salkantay Pass, we walk 2hrs downhill to our lunch spot. There’s truly nothing like a prolonged descent to make you miss climbing, but my trekking poles and a good knee brace certainly help. As does the promise of a hot meal.
As usual, lunch is delicious and our rest is over all too soon. We still have nearly 3hrs to camp, so we hit the trail determined to smash out this final descent into the jungle.
The climate changes dramatically over the next few hours, transforming into a lush cloud forest that is noticeably warmer and greener than the previous day or this morning’s journey. Everyone is ecstatic when we roll into camp just after 5pm, with plenty of time to take a hot shower (for a modest S/10) and wash the terrible dust/sweat/DEET medley off our manky limbs. We spend the rest of the evening socialising over dinner and reminiscing about our incredible day in the mountains.