I booked my trek with Alpaca Expeditions. I chose them based on a friend's recommendation, but it's worth noting that they are #1 on Trip Advisor. They provide a guide, gear, porters, and a chef. They were amazing and if I hike this (or another route) again, I would definitely chose to book with them a second time. You can find them on Facebook or at www.alpacaexpeditions.com. The team was amazing, especially our guide Simon Puma and our chef Herman.
At 3:45am my alarm went off, I ignored it. 3:50am it went off again and I dragged myself out of bed and under the shower. A little under an hour later I was loaded in a van and on my way. The adventure had begun.
We drove through Cusco, leaving the cleanliness and safety of the tourist zone, higher into the mountains. Debris, shacks and stray dogs, another side of life in Peru was clear to be seen. We drove and slowly the sun rose into the sky. Around 6am our van stopped to give us our first view of The Wild Mountain, Salkantay, covered in snow.
Onward we drove. Several times we were stopped at police checkpoints. Surprisingly in the town of Limatambo, they required the IDs of all the Peruvians aboard, but were uninterested in the IDs of us gringos. This checkpoint was especially notable as there was a police officer sitting at the very end of a long bench, and curled up in front of him, taking up more of the bench than he did, was a stray dog.
After 3.5 hours of twisty-turny, nausea-inducing roads we arrived at Soraypampa. The Alpaca team quickly sprung into action, unloading gear, loading horses and preparing for us the first of many amazing meals. The quality, variety and taste of the food that Chef Herman produced throughout our trek was amazing. This food could be served in the most fanciest of fancy restaurants.
The day was beautiful and the weather was cold. Our hike began at a nice pace, however within about 5 minutes we were all stripping off our warm gear as the sun peaked out of the clouds. That morning we hiked through all types of weather, from sunny and cold to light, gentle rain. Around 1:30pm we reached our lunch spot, Soyroqocha. The altitude here was 14,435 feet (4400m). Our super porters (yes they are Super Porters - it even says so on their pants - except those that Alfredo wore, he fooled us by wearing pants that said Super Shef) had arrived at the site well ahead of us, and had set up and prepared everything for lunch, including personal buckets of warm water so that we could each wash our hands, it was heavenly! As we sat an ate lunch, it was clear some of us were starting to suffer some of the effects of the altitude. Some members of my group felt a bit light-headed, one was having difficulty breathing. I had an upset stomach and appetite loss. During lunch rain started pouring. Our table was set up under a tent and we stayed mostly dry.
No time for a rest, after lunch we continued uphill. We pushed our way up to the highest altitude point of our trek, Abra Salkantay. The terrain was rough and the altitude was killer. One member of our group, Curt, had to ride a horse due to breathing issues. I thought I might be the next one on that horse, I was not having significant breathing issues, but my stomach was killing me. I took a break to catch my breath and focus my mind. Puma helped me out with words of encouragement, and an alcohol rub on my face to open my lungs. Finally I made it, 15157 feet (4620m)!!!!
Abra Salkantay is a sacred place. Piles (towers) of stones are all around. They are set as mini altars to give thanks to the mountain. Being there, one has a real sense of accomplishment. Our group set up our own pile, then rested and watched the mountain as Puma played his wooden, Peruvian flute. Additionally we could hear avalanches on Salkantay in the background. It was an amazing site, sound and feeling.
Afterwards it was all downhill, a beautiful, muddy downhill. After the slower pace of our ascent, it felt like we were racing through the descent. As dark was falling, we reached our first campsite, Huayracmachay (12,467 feet / 3800 m). It was the most welcome site ever! I was so exhausted, that I didn't even manage to stay awake for what I heard was a great dinner. It poured rain most of the night, but I slept snug and warm in my tent, excited for day 2.