#1 travel rule : Remain flexible.
I booked this trip to Peru only 2 weeks in advance but even then as soon as I booked the flights I knew I would plan on doing the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. I heard it was quite difficult but my constant determination to prove strength and independence prevailed over logical sense. I was planning on leaving the day after I got back from volunteering in the Amazon, however, getting back to Cusco proved to be so exhausting I decided I needed one more day to prepare and changed the trip to be a 4 day trek to accommodate my flight back home. (One of the days in the 5 day trek is more of a relax day that I felt I could do without.)
Me and 13 other people started our journey 2 hours from Cusco at the wee hour of 5:30am. We stopped in a little town called Mollepata for breakfast (this town proves to be important at a later point). Another 45 minute drive then we would start our hike to the first campsite of Sayllapata. It was about a 3 hour hike, mostly on flat ground with some uphill. The campsite was obviously popular and full of many dining and sleeping tents. Our group had lunch, relaxed for a bit, then made our way to the Canal Inca crater lake, which was about a 2~ hour round trip hike. Midway up the hill to the lake I began to feel the shortness of breath from the 12,000ft altitude then I became very ill. I felt a rumble in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. I made it to the top after telling the guide how miserable I was feeling but started the trek downhill before everyone else, knowing I needed to stop moving. I had a modest dinner of about 5 pieces of pasta and some coca tea and forced myself to enjoy the stars that were more beautiful than I had ever seen before. To this day, they’re the most beautiful stars I have ever seen. I took some Australian meds, thanks to my tent mate Albert, & went to bed in every layer of clothing I could squeeze on so I could handle 20 degree temperature. I was in tent by 8:30pm.
By 3am I was waking up with a stomach ache that would not go away and was preventing me from resting. By 5:30am someone was knocking on the tent with hot coca tea. The 2nd day is notoriously the hardest on the Salkantay trek. Luckily, my guide offered the option to do the first 3.5 hours up hill, the hardest part, via horse. I gladly took him up on this and decided the journey would continue even if I had to hike 6 hours down hill afterward. I felt like a wimp for taking the horse but I was happy to not be walking and happy to know I was also not the only one who needed assistance. 3 hours in there was one last stop before approaching the last incline up to 15,200ft with the best view of Salkantay when I could no longer sit up on the horse. I warned the horse guide before I started to fall off & pass out when he pulled me down. He did not speak English and at that time my brain could not reach the minimal knowledge I have of Spanish. I laid on the ground for a moment unable to move. The other people in my group noticed and tried to help but to no avail. I was stuck, motionless, & without energy. The other horse trekkers continued on while I stayed put knowing this was the end for me, I would have to go back. During this break I forced myself to stand up for a photo, I know that I look & feel horrible but I just had to do it (it’s the out of focus one below). The horse guide came back and just like that I was on my way back to the first camp site after 3 hours and coming so close… On the way back, once again, I was unable to hold myself on a horse and found myself laying on the ground, dirt in hair, white jacket covered in dust. The horse guide no longer knew what to do with me, I begged for him to call my tour guide, Miguel. Miguel ended up having to escort me so the guide could tend to my abandoned horse. Miguel tried to encourage me by saying we just had a few hours to go that I would have to walk, we were in the middle of nowhere. He would also put herbal liquids in my hand & say prayers in Quechua. The sentiment was nice albeit I imagine, ineffective at my level of illness. I wish I could have believed any of the things to help. He helped me walk the entire way back to the campsite. I stopped many times to lay on the ground and claimed that I no longer had energy to continue but managed to find a way knowing that I had absolutely no choice. At times I would dream of a helicopter coming to pick me up so I didn’t have to walk anymore, so I didn’t have to be in so much pain. I can only equate the pain to being stabbed in the stomach, not that I ever have in reality but I can imagine. By the last 5 minutes back to the site I remember yelling of stomach pain and 4 other tour guides came out to see what was going on. I’m sure I looked pretty crazy.
They put me in the guide quarters on a bed and I felt like a science project with everyone coming in to check me out. Then they would lock me in so no one else could get in. Miguel called for a ride back to Mollepata, back to the place that I am now convinced caused me all these issues. As much as I love eggs, I think it will be a while before I want one again. I made my way back to Cusco and the company insisted I go to a hospital to get checked out. I slept the entire way back. The hospital asked me to stay overnight where I was then pumped full of liquids, nausea medicine, & eventually, antibiotics. They had me take some tests and determined that I had a parasite, likely acquired from food. In combination with dehydration & altitude, it was the most miserable I have ever felt. After 12 hours of sleep that night and nothing but crackers and bread I was determined to see Machu Picchu before I left 2 days later. I took a private car then train to Aguas Calientes to meet up with the rest of the group that would be seeing Machu the following day. I arrived by 9pm and shared a room with the 2 brothers from our group.
At 3:30am 6 of us woke up to start the hike up to Machu. I did not know it would be as hard as it was. 30 minutes walking then 45 minutes straight up over 1,000 steps. I was at the top looking down on the ancient city by 6:20am and felt so happy I could have cried. It all worked out in the end. I was grumpy at times over the situation, knowing I had missed out on a great experience doing the trek but… oh well… There is certainly no sense in beating myself up over something that I cannot change and in the end at least I have an interesting story to tell, right?
What helped me get by :
Staying calm. I was so sick I couldn’t move and had no choice but to depend on the people that got me there in the first place.
Travel Insurance. This is not something I normally acquire but had to with the volunteer program I was working through. It definitely came in use as I got all my money back from the hospital trip. I will certainly be getting it on my more adventurous trips.
Updated Itinerary. I’ll explain. When I went to the hospital I had nothing on me except when was on my back during the hike which was water, trail mix, and my phone without a charger. My bags were still with the group being hauled by donkeys. So when I got into the hospital, I sent a text to my mom telling her where I was and she was able to call me to check in on me but I am thankful that I didn’t have to answer many questions because she knew where I was and what I was doing. Especially as a solo traveler, it is reassuring to me to have people know where I am in case I can’t reach out.