Salkantay Trek, day 3: from icy pass to lush jungle

I’ll admit I was a smidge disappointed when I woke in my tent on the 2nd day on the Salkantay trail not to a blazing sunbeam crossing my face, but to the sound of a Very. Steady. Rain. Luckily I knew a rain like that wouldn’t last all day long- unfortunately I also knew it meant I most likely wasn’t going to get those completely stark, unobstructed views of the Salkantay glacier and the surrounding peaks I had been hoping for. All the same, it was still more than obvious that I was in a truly amazing place when I was lured from my sleeping bag and tent by the promise of coffee. It takes my gears a while to start turning properly in the morning, and I’m not much for talking for at least the first 2 cups of what I consider caffeinated dark brown gold…giving me some time to look around and consider what was around me: sheer walls of rock and ice in a sparse alpine meadow that disappeared on all edges into the low clouds. Not too bad, really.
I was all the more amazed when our landscape changed dramatically within a half mile of downhill walking. As I made my way along the trail hundreds of feet above the raging mountain stream below bird calls began to echo from the dense trees off the canyon walls and the small tufts of hardy grasses, alpine flowers and lichen gave way to a tangle of vines, leaves, and blossoms. I couldn’t bring myself to put my camera away; everywhere I looked was a type of plant I’ve never seen before and stopped me in my tracks with its vivid color or unique blossoms.
As we walked further the vegetation only got thicker, lusher, and more wild, seeming to swallow the trail ahead of us. At this point we also learned that although the heaviest rains of rainy season may be behind us, the mud is still thick in low-lying areas; as in ankle-swallowing thick. Be sure to wear waterproof hiking books whenever hiking in this area of Peru. Or, in other words, don’t believe your trail will be completely dry until it’s behind you.
A few hours into our hike we met up with another guide who let us know the formerly used trail ahead was riddled with landslides from the past year’s torrential rains; some of which continue sliding to this day. He told us there were two options: to continue up the old route using a trail that cut up and above the worst of the slides, or to cut out and take a shortcut bridge across now. My friend still wanted to check out the campsites that were used on that portion of the old trail, so up and around a few miles of freshly ripped apart earth we went. The landslide evidence was impressive: huge hillsides that had slid completely into the river canyon below taking massive trees and boulders along in their wake. In some areas fresh mud continued pouring down over the older damage. It was an eery feeling as we crossed them, occasionally slogging through mud when it couldn’t be avoided.
After that section of steep up and down my knees and back were beginning to feel the pressure of hours of descending on rocky trail and I was happy to reach the flat road we walked along for the next few hours.
Just as my shaky knees and grumbling stomach were getting ready to throw a tempter tantrum we came across a small family home that serves up food to hikers. The homemade chicken soup we were served was delicious, and the chance to sit for a while without my pack on was even better. And, moments later down the same road, I drank the most delicious beer I’ve ever had. Okay, it was actually just a Cusquena and somewhat tepidly warm, but it was exactly what I needed after the last two days of serious hiking.
We continued the road until the end at Playa, a small village that has a few campsites along the river that feel something like walking out of the woods into a spring break beach party. Years of catering to tourists who are ready to indulge a bit after a long trek has turned this place into a Bob Marley- blasting, pizza -serving trailside Sandals resort of some sort. Great if you are looking to party with fellow travelers, not so great if sleep is actually your primary objective. Apparently if you are looking for a more tranquil setting walk another 20 minutes on the road to Lucma…at the time I made the decision to stay in Play those 20 minutes just didn’t seem like a reasonable option.
Looking around at the bananas, passion fruit, and coffee made it obvious that we had walked a long way down from the glacier we woke up under, and I passed out that night feeling exhausted and incredibly happy to be surrounded by such beauty once again.