Hesitation. Once again, the path before us forked into two evenly traveled trails. Frustrated, we set our packs down heavily and lamented the lack of a map. We consulted the elevation guide, our only clue as to our direction. No directions, and only scribbled numbers for distance between campsites.
Min and I were five kilometers into the Salkantay Trek, a four-day walk to Machu Picchu, and we were quickly realizing that the hike would not be as easy as we expected. With little information to go on, we had shouldered our packs early that morning, only knowing that it was about 19 kilometers to our first campsite. The trails in the Andes are steep and poorly maintained, and we were no longer sure that we were even heading towards the ruins.
Finally, we decided to just continue heading up, knowing that the first two days had the most elevation gain.
As we climbed those first few days, we passed through muggy and buggy cloud forest, into the higher, drier forest, and finally into the paramo, the beautiful Andean version of alpine tundra, where we slept.
The first day was the hardest. Our packs were heavy with low-quality rental gear, and we were sorely out of shape from the past five months of study abroad. Towards the end of the night, we would take 10 steps, only to bend at the waist and breathe, shifting our packs from pressure point to pressure point.
We camped at the base of Mount Salkantay, a huge snow-capped peak that topped out at 20,551 feet. We trudged over a 15,000-foot pass the next day and then began our descent into the cloud forest once again. Slipping in the mud and horse poop, we alternated between wonder at the beauty of the trek, spite for the tourists who paid for porters and self-pity at the weight of our packs.
Trekking in developing countries was new to both of us; although we were well versed in both Andean culture and the language, the trail conditions, poor directions, and worse rental gear were huge obstacles. We spent much of the trek in silence, a combination of the comfort that comes from so much time together and sheer exhaustion.
The last two days of the trek, although also long and difficult, were much flatter and warmer; we celebrated our arrival in the city of Machu Picchu with hot springs and fresh trout.
The next morning, we took the bus up the mountain, to the historic Machu Picchu.