Backpacking Peru: tales from Lima, Salkantay and beyond

backpacking peru

My first trip I sought refuge from heartbreak. The next trip I sought escape from the mundane that was my life. This trip, however, I sought nothing. When I stepped off the plane and into the unknown I had no expectations. The thought that I didn’t know what to expect these next four months was freeing in its endless possibility.

I arrived at Lima airport at one o’clock in the morning. The taxi driver and I spoke French as I held onto my cross praying that my hostel wasn’t located in the rough neighbourhoods we were passing through. That was the first night I thought I was going to die. It was probably a mixture of fear and anxiety and urban legend. Lima was everything and nothing like I expected. My first few days were spent hanging out with a girl from France. We walked around the city before spending our evening with a local girl named Paola. We took an Uber to a fountain show before heading out for drinks and dinner at this bar and restaurant on the coast. Pisco sour is my new alcoholic beverage of choice. That night I learned that Peruvians know how to party and dance the night away. The following day I went on a tour and then out with a guy from Ireland. We met up with an expat and talked for hours before I caught my flight to Cusco.

Note to self: never fly from sea level to high altitude. In the airport I met these girls from Montreal. Bonded by altitude sickness, we shared a taxi with this hippie from France. He gave us some coca leaves and an unknown white substance. I’m thinking that I probably should have listened to the advice of my mother and not have taken something (especially something powdery and white…) from a stranger.

My first hostel in Cusco was cold: both in temperature and atmosphere. I felt isolated and homesick and nauseous and really really really wanted my mom. At night my body shook as I struggled to breathe in the crisp air. I. Needed. Oxygen. Sometime in the early hours of the morning a kitten curled up beside me. I didn’t even think about the possibility of rabies before holding it to my chest. In the morning I switched to a party hostel because they are at least a little more social. I went on a walking tour and met this Dutch girl who convinced me to join her the following day on the Rainbow Mountain hike. I said yes and regretted it instantly. That night a girl from Ireland and I went to San Pedro market and got a three course meal for only $1 CAD.

Rainbow Mountain was the hardest, but most rewarding day of my life. I passed out the night before, exhausted, sleeping through my alarm. The reception staff had to pull me out of bed and into the van the next morning as we started towards Ausangate. It was a three hour ride and with each passing minute I could breathe less and less. I was not acclimatized and I was ascending even higher. I didn’t know if I would make it back let alone continue forward. The altitude meant that there was little to no oxygen. When we got out of the vehicle I clutched my chest and heaved. I couldn’t do this, I thought. We had to walk up to a local’s hut for breakfast. It was only meters away and took me well over ten minutes. My group and I sat around and talked while drinking coca tea and eating our bread. The hike lasted over eight hours. Every few steps I had to sit down to rest and catch my breath. My knee injury and the steep incline meant that I was the weakest member in our group of seven. “We start ad end as a team,” said one trekker. At one point, with the mountain in sight, I sat and resolved to give up. A girl from another tour was behind me. Struggling, she sat next to me and said we had to make it to the top. She gave me an oxygen shot and we pulled through. When I made it to the top at 5050m I knew that I could do anything.

The next few days I spent in and around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. A girl from Switzerland and I hung out most days and went out to dinner most nights. The night before my trek I had just gotten back from my Maras-Moray tour. I went to the market to get something to eat before the briefing. It’s what caused my eventual food poisoning that night and the first day out at Salkantay. At the briefing, it was me and these two German guys. We hit it off instantly. They were keen on my sense of humour and I was keen on them. Kim, a girl from Holland, arrived late. That night I thought we wouldn’t get along. We’ve now been travelling together for three weeks. As I write this at 3am in the back of a vehicle on my way to do the Colca Canyon trek she sits next to me, sleeping with her mouth open aha. We are different as day and night but we travel well together.

The trek to Machu Picchu has been the highlight so far. The first day we hiked to base camp, located at the foot of the mountain. I was so sick. I wanted to go back. There’s just one problem: on Salkantay there’s no going back, only forward. My team was amazing. Kim and I sipped digestive tea and talked for hours while the boys went to a nearby lagoon. At night we had a five course meal and toasted to the beginning of what would become an unbeatable friendship. Marc, one of the guys, is basically me in guy form so we became friends. Both insanely competitive, we spent many a night fighting over who was the real winner of this German card game called 11 nimmnt. I won. The next day I was too weak to make it uphill so I used my horseback riding skills to ascend the pass. My guide told me to wait for him behind the rock when I got there. There were a million and one rocks to choose from. How was I supposed to know which one to choose? I chose one, but when our cook passed and told me vamos, I vamosed. I walked with him for a few minutes before he ran ahead and then I was lost in the middle of nowhere with no one in sight. I wandered around for hours before coming across a local indigenous couple and their two puppies. We spoke in an array of gestures and words and sounds. They helped me find my way to the next base camp. When I arrived I was the first one there so I napped before lunch and the stern lecture from my guide that would follow.

Though it was terrifying, I’m glad I got lost. It was an adventure and I was finally completely dependent on myself and my own intuition. That afternoon we walked across the high jungle to arrive exhausted. The third day we walked only five hours before diving into the hot springs. We had our first round of beer watching sunset. I drank a lot that night. We had a bonfire and between the cerveza, pisco sour, and shots of Inca tequila I was the life of the party. My team and I danced the night away. The German guys and I sloppily salsa danced before my guide, Jesus (his real name), taught me how to dance to reggae beats. The next morning we were hungover as we flew across the jungle via zip line.

That afternoon we followed the train tracks to Aguas Calientes before sleeping in a real hotel room. Sigh. I slept well that night until we had to wake up early to take the bus to Machu Picchu. It looks just like it does in pictures. I was in awe. The boys and I hiked up to Wayna Picchu nearly collapsing in the end. On the train ride back to Cusco, Marc converted me to liking his heavy metal music. In the end it was an emotional goodbye. Even the guys shed a few tears.These people had become some of my closest friends. With the promise of my visiting them in December and a possible Canada road trip we we went our separate ways. 

I wrote this post more nearly a year ago. We never did get together. We never did keep in contact. Some of my best memories are kept by people with whom I’ve shared a last goodbye.



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