By Alex Combs

Hello friends and family, this week I have the wonderful opportunity to write the final blog for the Spring 2018 semester. For our final week in South America, we traveled to one of the Seven Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu. To start off the tale of our final journey we must start in Cusco, where we stayed in our lovely hostel Atawakama after our Yoga retreat in the beautiful Sacred Valley. We had a day of rest in Cusco we stayed a full day getting a brief orientation from our guide for the next 5 days Odelon, or as we got to know him as Ode. Ode gave us the rundown of the upcoming week and answered our many questions on the Salkantay trail. We then received duffel bags to pack all of our toiletries as well as rented sleeping bags for the upcoming days. Packed and ready to embark on the hike, we awoke the next day at 5 in the morning, hopped on a bus, and headed for the Salkantay trail. Along the way, we got a clear picture of the winding roads and valleys that we would be traversing over the next couple of days.

During day one we had received our trekking poles and begun our first hike of many to come. Starting in the base camp with seemingly hundreds of horses, we took our first steps up the small inclined hills and passed streams as we made our way upward. The incline steadily increased over the duration of the estimated three-hour hike. Being the strong, healthy, young adults that we are, we reduced the estimated hike duration by nearly an hour! We soon learned that the projected times would never hold true over the next 4 days. At our first encampment, we were located within the basin of 2 major glaciers in the Salkantay trail, where we had lunch and were introduced to the wonderful crew that would be accompanying us. To our surprise, the lunch was fantastic, especially compared to the basic accommodations we had experienced with other tour groups in the previous weeks of travel. After this we had the opportunity to hike an additional route to view the surrounding area and take in the beautiful Salkantay Mountain and glacier, to which many other landmarks in the area would be named after. By nightfall, the temperature of the basin had dipped below freezing and we all huddled in the tents provided by Apu Andino. Sipping hot cocoa in the company of our peers we told stories and jokes to pass time before our next meal arrived. After a nice warm dinner, we went to bed trying to maintain what little heat we could.

By morning, frost had encased our tents and the sight of the glaciers glowed in the distance. Our second day was beginning and was supposed to be the toughest day of the week. We braced ourselves for the freezing cold and hid away in the safety of the tents awaiting breakfast. After a stomach-warming meal, we prepared our bags and ventured out into the cold yet again for the hardest day of the week. To our surprise, we were accompanied by a horse to which we profoundly named ‘Happy Hour’. Along the hike we ventured up the mountainside, making our way back and forth on switchbacks while taking in the view of Salkantay Mountain.

Upon reaching the peak of our first checkpoint we rested while being able to view the valley that was beginning to form on the other side. We forked off from the obvious pathway to a less apparent trail which lead us to Salkantay Lake, an outstandingly gorgeous lake seemingly untouched by humankind and radiating a vast blue hue. Unable to reach the banks of the lake, we took photos and moved on into the valley for our second portion of the day’s walk. Trudging along we moved further and further into the valley making sure to photograph the sites along the way. To our surprise, all the surrounding geographical features were named after their surrounding mountain feature, for example along the valley floor flowed the Slakantay River.

Once in the center of the valley, we thought we were able to witness the endpoint of the day, which encouraged us to move on. Unfortunately, sights can be deceiving and it turned into another two-hour walk. After the arduous final push, we had lunch and begun to unwind within the tent. But we weren’t done for the day, of course, so we got back up and walked another hour to our actual resting site for the day. This was a much more linear path seeing as thousands of horses and mules had pounded the ground flat after much usage. Once at the encampment we crashed onto the ground as the sun poured onto our faces. The grounds in which we occupied was a coffee plantation, and we were given the option to go on a coffee processing tour yet again. After the tour, we witnessed the creation of another earth-oven containing chicken, potatoes and all things of the sort. From here we went to the local hot springs, taking a bus and meeting with the group members who had stayed behind due to illness. We basked in the springs while taking in the local mountain ranges. We returned after soothing our aching muscles, had dinner and turned in for bed.

Upon waking up, we rose to one of the rainiest days that we had ever witnessed in our three-month span of time in South America. Our original plan to hike the steep trails to witness a fantastic photographic site of both Salkantay Glacier and Machu Picchu was trashed; to many of the students’ dismay we wouldn’t be walking in the mud and we opted instead for a bus ride. Upon reaching our next meeting point the rain had cleared and we were able to continue our hike yet again. Here we walked along the train tracks for roughly 6km until we reached the town of Aguas Calientes, an extremely touristy town with prices to match. The group decided to wake up the next morning at 3 o’clock to make it onto the first bus to Machu Picchu. We waited from 4:00 am to 5:30 am along with hundreds of other tourists waiting for seats on buses. At the site, we were led by our guide through the famous and historic Machu Picchu. We spent hours walking through the unreal grandiose that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and by the end, we said goodbye to our guide Ode and returned back to Aguas Calientes.

The pictures we took were ones that will not only last on hard drives but through our memories as well, to our many supporters on this journey – we are more than thankful for all you have done for us. As we return home, we all hope that the connections, as well as the experiences, turn into lifelong memories that we are able to look back on after years go by.