The Astounding Travel Adventures of a Miraculous Fellow

Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day One — “Up With Coca!”
November 16, 2008, 1:06 pm
Filed under: Peru

As I wound down to the end of my four-month adventure, I saved what I hoped would be the best for last: a five-day trek through the Andes, around the 20,500 foot Salkantay mountain to the Lost City of the Incas: Machu Picchu.

Ready for the Death March

The Macchu Pichu Gang: Ready for the Death March

The night before our trek began, our group of sixteen intrepid adventurers, three guides, three cooks, and three horsemen (whom were sadly just men with horses, and not half-man half-horses as my imagination had led me to greatly anticipate) met in Cusco, Peru to discuss what we should expect.  The tourists in our group consisted of five men and eleven women (score!) all of whom had no idea just how difficult the coming hike was going to be: Cusco is located at about 10,000 feet, and at the peak of our trek we were going to climb up to over 15,000 feet.  For those of you who have never walked around at such heights, it is really, really exhausting.  I discovered this on my first day in Cusco, when I walked around to find a place to stay.  With my 45 pound bag strapped on my back, I could manage to stumble a valiant 34 feet before my lungs felt as though they were going to escape my body through my nostrils.  This was made even more embarrassing when the locals were effortlessly sprinting around the streets, and staring at the panting pile of collapsed gringo laying next to a giant bag on the sidewalk.

So it was slightly disconcerting as our guide, Paul, informed us that on Day One of our hike we were going to walk from around 10,000 feet up to 14,500 feet.  If I couldn’t make it 34 feet without collapsing on a flat street in Cusco, what would going uphill on a mountain for a whole day do to me?  There was only one logical answer: it would undoubtedly turn me into a pile of llama food.

Thus, there was only one thing that would help me through these difficult times; a tried-and-true remedy that was passed down from the Incas and highly promoted by Peruvian locals: coca leaves.  Now, some of you are probably thinking that it sounds strange to have to utilize illegal drugs to climb a mountain.  But, coca leaves are far from an illegal drug.  In reality, I wouldn’t use illegal drugs to enhance my walking techniques; I only reserve the use of illegal drugs for the most dire situations: incapacitating meddlesome police officers, making movies funnier, and staring at colorful objects.  In fact, coca leaves are a quite different from their elaborately-altered cousin, Colombian Marching powder.  The leaves are a natural product that are used for such diverse practices reduction of diarrhea, sore throats, appetite, and getting fat, lazy, lowland gringos over high altitude mountains.

Ahh...coca leaves.  Just seeing this picture gives me the shakes.

Ahh...coca leaves. Just seeing this picture gives me the shakes.

Thus, I searched around town for someone who sold this wonder product.  After being rebuffed multiple times, I started to feel like a fourteen year old kid trying to buy Zima from his elders at 7-Eleven.  But, as I wandered around a local market, I found the motherload: a nice old Peruvian woman who slanged me a couple dimes bags of the good stuff.  I didn’t even have to sell my body for them, just give her a few Soles.

What a country.

Therefore, at 6 AM the following morning, with my stash of coca leaves in tow, carrying my faithful hiking stick, donning my trusty hiking jeans, rancid hiking boots, hip Peruvian-style beanie, all the cold-weather clothing I had been lugging around the equator with me for the last three-and-a-half months, our group embarked on our adventure. 

 After deciding that we would simply drive the bus as far up the “road” (read: miserable, dusty, cliff-sided path) as possible, most of us lazy foreigners (myself happily included) strapped our things to the Horsemens’ beasts and started walking uphill.  Luckily for us, this first stage only lasted an hour until we stopped for lunch.  Hey, you can’t expect too much out of tourist on the first day, can you?  After gorging ourselves on the first of many delicious Peruvian meals, we groggily started heading back uphill. 

 However, as we looked up to where we were headed, it was clear the path above was heading waaaaaay up there.  Our first little pre-lunch jaunt was barely inclined compared to what we were about to undertake.  This is when I realized that eating so much food for lunch was an obvious failure in my decision-making processes.  Luckily for me, the donkeys had already broken the taboo on shitting on the trail, so if the food decided to make a reappearance during our steep hike, I could utilize the creed which I base my life upon: WWDD?  (What Would the Donkeys Do?) and just do my business right there on the trail without it being awkward.  And so, we began what would be the first of five grueling days of trekking.


The Horses and a Horseman

The Horses and a Horseman

Up and up and up we hiked.  Our 16-man strong group slowly snaked up the rock-covered trail as the Horsemen trotted far ahead of us, neighing and munching on grass along the way (man, I wish they were real Horsemen).  The technique for we weary hikers was clear: slowly lift the left foot and drag it in front of the right foot, then vice versa.  This technique was called “walking” and we were assured it would help propel us up the 5,000 feet we had to climb the first day.

 The first thousand feet or so really wasn’t that bad.  As we begun to master the skill of “walking,” we moved more and more adeptly ahead.  Our guides also understood that gringos are feeble creatures when it comes to altitude, and we made frequent stops to catch our breath, dry heave, and consider turning back to the comfort of centrally-heated rooms in Cusco and McDonald’s french fries.  Alas, we persevered. 

 The next 4,000 feet, however, wasn’t as kind as the first 1,000.  Our group became more and more spread out as we each struggled with our own adjustment to the altitude, all the while the donkeys and Horsemen taunted us from the peaks above. 

 This, is precisely the moment when I became one with coca leaves.

 Breaking out my stash, I stuffed my mouth full of these amazing treasures and, like a cow, chomped happily away.  Within ten minutes, I noticed a new burst of energy entering my body.  I felt alive and ready to follow in the hoof-steps of the Horsemen and trot up the hill.  These things were amazing.  My fatigue, while still present, wore off remarkably and I was headed up the mountain with reckless abandon.  I quickly became the group coca enabler and offered leaves around to the team, and we all marched on with renewed vigor, and mouths full of crusty green plants.

 God bless you, coca leaves.

Mount Salkantay

Mount Salkantay

(On an interesting side note, after understanding the power of coca, I now plan on introducing these leaves to the American populace, thus increasing productivity, reviving the economy, and soon accepting my position as the next Secretary of Labor due to my visionary techniques.)

So, we continued on.  Now, it is interesting to note that not all of the group had embraced this hike-altering product, and our hikers were stretched out over vast expanses of mountain.  The coca-induced group hurried along, while the Puritan, non-coca group trudged slowly up the mountain.  Once we reached around 12,500 feet, we caught our first glimpse of Mount Salkantay.  This glacier-covered behemoth loomed in the distance, towering above us, taunting our coca-stained smiles with its ever-increasing altitude.

 After about 4 hours of hiking, we reached a vast, granite, glacier-carved canyon that stretched up to the base of Salkantay.  This was where we were informed that it was time to turn upward.  At this point, I had thought we were already going up, but I was sorely mistaken.  Now, looking about 60 degrees and a quarter mile up the mountain, we spotted the Horsemen hurrying along.  We had about 1,500 more feet to go, and it consisted of switchbacks that slowly wound up the steep mountainside.

More coca leaves, please.

 And up we went.  This part of the trek was, for lack of a better phrase, a bitch.  Our “walking” techniques, even with the aid of our good friend coca, slowed to a near-crawl.  But, we carried on.  For almost two more hours when we thought we had reached the top, the ridge we were dreaming of cruelly revealed another ridge far above.  As that son-of-a-bitch Salkantay grew larger and larger, taunting our every step, we inched along the trail, huffing and puffing, until we finally reached 14,500 feet and our camp site.  Even with our exhaustion, we could appreciate the beauty of this area, and the backdrop of the immense mountain.


Camping at 14,500

Camping at 14,500

While the remainder of our group plodded up the mountain, a select (retarded?) few of us decided to climb up the granite pile that the glacier had carved in the ground.  By the time we reached the top, we were again fatigued and worn, but got to enjoy a view of a hundred-foot vertical crevasse dug by the glacier, with the sunset-covered Salkantay in the background.  I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in my life — the Roman Coliseum, Colombian women in Medellin, a Marky Mark concert — but this was one of the tops.

 After we descended the granite hill, my jealousy peaked.  The remainder of our group was just arriving at the campsite, and they were riding donkeys up the trail.  It would have been funnier, but probably less appropriate if they were riding the Horsemen up, but nonetheless I was jealous.  By living in such close proximity to Tijuana, I’ve heard all about “donkey shows” and have thus always wanted to ride one.  Wait…that’s all that a “donkey show” is, right?

 Anywho, as nightfall descended on our 14,500 foot campsite, so did the cold.  Our beleaguered crew bundled up in our mess hall tent, zipped up the doors, and sat around drinking hot chocolate, hot coca tea (yes, we were now addicts), and hot coffee while we waited for dinner.

 That’s when the altitude sickness arrived, and ravaged our band of hardy adventurers.


Killer hat, bro.

Killer hat, bro.

Once we had a chance to sit down and relax, over half of our group caught the beatdown that comes with this extreme height: altitude headaches, altitude vomiting, and explosive altitude ass-vomiting were just some of the fun that came with our voluntary decision to climb to Macchu Pichu.  I was lucky enough to escape the wrath of this plague, but quickly succumbed to the near-zero cold.  So, donning my trusty hiking jeans and every other piece of clothing I brought with me, I went outside to stare at the billions of stars in the sky.  1.3 seconds later my lips froze together and I sprinted to my tent to burrow into my sleeping bag.

 Thus, with the sound of avalanches on Salkantay echoing in the background, the dreary rasp of my breath trying to escape my mouth, the booming drumbeat of my heart pounding in my chest, and the clickity-click of my frozen eyelids blinking, I fell into a deep sleep, satisfied that I had walked to the highest altitude on which I had ever stood, and happily knowing that I would most likely die that night and not have to walk on a mountain ever again.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hey, you forgot that on the bus ride way up the winding road a.k.a incredibly steep cliff face, the driver was going round corners practically on two wheels… and that we then realised that’s coz he only had one arm, and hence couldn’t manage to turn wheel and change gear to slow down at same time. Awesome! And an measure of discomfort over the travel company’s claims of safety consciousness was installed in us all.

Comment by Lora

Hey, I am also thinning about doing such a trip and I read that you had a good time, so I wanted to ask with which travel agency were you there ?
Thanks, and btw your blog is great!

Comment by Marti Lesko

WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for machupicchu

Comment by machupicchu travel

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