September 29, 2016

Peru: Hiking in the Andes (Part I -- Acclimatization)

The 2nd day's peak of 14,980 ft (2,200 ft climb), almost all switchbacks for the last 800 ft.

We'd prepared ourselves for the hiking as well as we could in two months of road-tripping and hiking in the US and Canada.  The total mileage and total climbs on the data sheet for the trek looked doable.  We'd be doing a total of 44ish miles over 6 days, with the largest elevation change in one day being a 2,000 ft climb followed by a 3,000 ft+ descent and the longest distance day around 10 miles.  We knew we could handle the climbs, descents, and distances.

The thing we were scared about was the altitude. 

The highest we'd hiked in our training was to 10,500 ft (Mt. Lassen) with a climb of 2,000 ft in 2.5 miles (this was steeper than any climb on the trek, but almost 5,000 ft lower than the Salkantay Pass we would be crossing).  The highest we'd slept was 4,500 feet (Lake Almanor).

View of the mountains from the hot-tub at the first lodge (12,800 ft).

In the past, we'd both slept at 6,000 - 8,000 ft in Colorado and Wyoming and skied from peaks of altitude over 10,000 ft (Park City and Jackson Hole).  I'd gone for several runs over 6,000 ft with no ill effects (other than slowing me down) and E and his dad had successfully climbed over the 14,259 ft Long's Peak 15+ years ago.  But, realistically speaking, none of us had ever slept at serious altitude, nor had any of us spent more than 8 continuous hours or so during daytime living in it.  E's dad went so far as to get a prescription for Diamox, but E&I decided to try to tough it out without drugs.

Inca terraces at Chinchero.

After a quick overnight sleep in Lima, we boarded our plane for Cusco and landed at 11,200 ft.  We were met at the airport by our *amazing* local guide -- he quickly escorted us to his personal vehicle, gave us bottled water, and discussed his recommendations for our local Sacred Valley itinerary as well as the Salkantay trek.  The first day was recommended to be low-key, so our guide took us to Chinchero (elevation 12,343 feet), lunch, and then a half day of rest at our hotel.

It was wedding day at the Catholic church in Chinchero for the locals.

Ummm... going from sea level to 12,343 feet in a few hours is no joke, my friends.

The walk from the car to the archeological site was uphill.  After 50 steps or so, I could *really* feel how much I needed to breathe hard and how fast my heart was beating.  I needed to use the restroom, and on my way in, our guide advised me to hold my breath to avoid the smell.  I took a deep breath, walked in, squatted, and started to do my business when after 30 seconds or so, I realized, "Oh, I'm dizzy."  I decided stinky thin oxygen was better than holding my breath and the dizziness subsided.

Locals attending weddings in their traditional dress.

Our visit to the site took at least an hour and a half and I'd be shocked if we walked more than a mile.
But, our hotel was at (what now seemed) a blissfully low 8,850 ft, so we enjoyed some hot tub time and reading, ate dinner, and slept without major problems.  We started to feel more confident that we would be okay on the trek.

View down from the Ollantaytambo terraces and across town to the food storage.

The next day, our guide had a big day in store for us.  Linguistically, he was impressively fluent in English, Spanish and appeared to have some Japanese, Quechua, German and a few other languages to boot.  Historically, he clearly knew much about the ruins, but also the local people.  He'd spent years working with the indigenous people of Peru before becoming a guide.  Most impressively, he was great at reading us and suggesting an itinerary that was flexible and moved with how we were feeling, what the traffic looked like, and what he thought made the most sense.  I sincerely recommend considering using LifetimePeru for any tour in Peru.

Food storage units (yeah, we hiked up there).

As our first activity on our first full day at elevation, we hiked around Ollantaytambo (10,000 ft) for over 2 hours, which consisted of 2.3 slow miles of distance including 560 feet of elevation gain (mainly due to the hike up to the food storage ruins).  We were huffing and puffing, for sure, but we were doing okay.

Good Advice at the agricultural experimental terraces of Moray.

Next, we spent about an hour walking 0.8 miles around Moray (11,500 ft), followed by about 45 minutes walking 0.65 miles around the salt ponds of Maras (10,000 ft).

Hiking on the salt between these salt pools was surreal.

That night, we all slept very well (again around 8,500 ft) and we were ready to attack our last day of Sacred Valley sight-seeing before the trek.

Pisac ruins from above.

We did the full 2.3 mile out and back hike at the Pisac Archeological Site and while we were still huffing and puffing (11,500 ft starting point), we were obviously getting more and more acclimatized.  We stopped for empanadas in a town between our sights, fitting in another 0.5 miles of walking around 9,000 ft plus sitting and eating.  Our next stop was the gorgeous (and blissfully empty of crowds) Tipon where we did another slow and steady mile at 10,000 feet.

Incan water features at Tipon still work.

From there, our guide took us to Cusco (11,200 ft), helped us check into our hotel, and dropped us off at Sacsayhuaman (12,142 feet), where we hiked a mile in 43 minutes (much faster than the estimated hiking times for the trek).


We took a break at the bottom of the archeological site and ordered chicharones, choclo, papas fritas, y papitas which we ate with a shared cold big Cusquena beer.  From there, we walked down the hill through the Spanish colonial town to our hotel for another 1.19 miles at elevation.

Not a bad place for a snack break.

After the briefing for our trek and a light dinner, we moved items around in our luggage until we met the required volume requirements of 1 soft duffel (to be transported by horse on the trail) and 1 day-pack per person -- the remainder would stay in Cusco and be waiting for us upon our return.

All of our belongings for the next 7 days.

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