This was day two of the five-day trek along the Salkantay Trail, a popular alternative to the Inca Trail in the mountains of southwestern Peru. Salkantay is roughly a 38- mile adventure on uneven, rocky terrain with steep uphill and downhill sections. 

At an elevation of about 20,500 feet, Mt. Salkantay is the highest peak in Peru’s Cordillera de Vilcabamba mountain range. In the native Quechua tongue, “Salkantay” translates to “savage.” Passing through mountains and cloud forests and three-house Peruvian villages, it’s a trail that navigates centuries of humanity and earth-carving forces of nature. This walk can make you feel proud of your accomplishment yet leave you humbled by all you’ve seen. Most important, it’s a walk that finishes at Machu Picchu—the famous citadel of terraced stone that was an outpost of Inca royalty. 

Though Machu Picchu thrived as a city in the late 1400s, the arrival of Spanish conquistadors would soon decimate the empire. After a failed rebellion in 1536, the Inca fled to a jungle outpost at the city of Vilcabamba. By 1572, the Inca Empire would fall to the Spanish and the conquistadors would never discover Machu Picchu, which would ultimately succumb to the surrounding forest and sit forgotten for centuries. It wouldn’t be until 1911 that an American archeologist—Hiram Bingham— would rediscover the city. Searching for the city of Vilcabamba, he instead was led by an eight-year-old boy to the ruins at Machu Picchu.

Now, 103 years after Bingham’s rediscovery, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most popular hikes. The Peruvian government has instituted a quota of only 500 trekkers per day, with support staff such as guides and porters receiving many of the available permits. This leaves only about 200 permits available for visiting hikers, and for treks during the months of May–October—southern Peru’s dry season—permits can often be completely sold out up to six months in advance. 

While I’m typically an organized traveler, wedding planning took priority over Peruvian hiking permits. When it came time for the trip, I was out of luck. 

I had heard rumors that a trail called the Salkantay was in some ways better than the Inca— or at least more rugged—and didn’t have the stringent permit requirements. Also, National Geographic Adventure Travel had listed the Salkantay trek as part of the 2011 Ultimate Adventure Bucket List, so my interest was piqued about the possibility of hiking this alternative trail. The Salkantay Trail is nearly 14 miles longer than the Inca and lasts five days instead of four. It’s also higher than the Inca Trail. While the Salkantay might be tougher on the body, it can often be easier on the pocketbook, as trekking rates for the Salkantay can be much cheaper than for the more popular and expensive Inca. And while there are no official permit quotas, there couldn’t have been more than 100 people along the trail when I was there. 

There is something truly exhilarating about the unknown. This sense of exploration is perhaps the driving force behind what many travel addicts call the “spirit of adventure.” But I have to be honest: as I peeled back the blankets at 5:00 a.m. in the cold darkness of a Peruvian guesthouse, the spirit of adventure suddenly wasn’t so exhilarating. Instead, I just felt cold. At 11,000 feet, in the colonial city of Cuzco, the temperature hovered only a few degrees above freezing, and though the light of the city in the predawn hour cast an enchanting glow, all I could do was think about a most-pressing issue—my socks. Over the next few days I’d be camping in a field at 12,700 feet, and at this altitude wardrobe is critical. The day before, I had purchased a pair of alpaca wool socks from a wandering Cuzco merchant, the thick fibers sourced directly from alpacas which graze on the nearby hillsides. I asked her if they would keep me warm when sleeping high in the mountains. She had two long braids of jet-black hair, and deep red and yellow patterns dancing across her clothes, and her deep-set eyes and straightforward “sí” told me she knew from experience that I’d be fine.  

After a 90-minute drive into the Cuzco hinterlands, we arrived in Mollepata, a small town of 3,000 people at 9,500 feet. Compared to the urban hum of Cuzco, it was a welcome change of pace. A group of schoolchildren in brown sweaters scampered about the street, and an elderly man occupying a park bench offered a smile and waved. There was a lone pharmacy where we could stock up on any last-minute bug spray or moleskin, as well as a small restaurant looking over the hills that trickle their way back toward Cuzco.

Tents provided by the tour company were strapped to the backs of mules (along with our own personal sleeping bags), while each of us carried our own small day packs with water, rain jacket and snacks. Fit and thin, with short black hair poking from beneath a forward-facing cap, our guide, Juan Carlos, directed us along a poorly paved road toward the upper reaches of the city and wished us good luck on our first day’s journey. 

It wasn’t until we arrived at the village of Soraypampa that snow became visible on the peaks. For most of the day the mountains had remained hidden beneath a layer of cloud, but as we neared the ranch house where we would camp for the night—a dilapidated shelter with a tin roof and an outhouse set out in a field—the clouds finally parted to reveal rugged spires of snow. 

Staring up at a granite fortress of seemingly unsurpassable mountains, it was hard to believe that we’d already climbed our way to well over 12,000 feet. At 13°S latitude, this is still considered to be a part of the tropics, and despite being surrounded by icy peaks, I’d worked up enough of a legitimate hiking sweat to take a dip in a trickling stream, the waters of which would probably freeze later during the night. Puffs of dust exploded from my socks as I peeled them from my feet. I eased my tired body into a pool of hypothermic waters. My thin hiking shorts were all that protected me from the cold yet soothing snowmelt. Fingers that had spent their day curled around a walking stick unwound, as did I. I stared out at the white, snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains, making this one of the most scenic dips I’d ever taken. That was, of course, until Santa Teresa. 

At an elevation of 5,100 feet, the village of Santa Teresa is a long walk down from the frosty Salkantay Pass—10,080 vertical feet, to be exact. It was amazing to see how mountains can seem so much higher when slowly walked in reverse. From the moment our boots crossed the Salkantay Pass, not only did the air become pregnant with oxygen with each step down from the sky, but the dry grasslands of Soraypampa gave way to a Peruvian cloud forest. We carefully descended the fern-covered flank of the mountainside and set up camp for the night in the village of Challway at 9,600 feet.

Along the way we passed thundering waterfalls that bulldozed their way down the mountain. We crossed footbridges over small ravines that splashed mud on our calves, and the distant sound of chirping birds could be heard during each water-break silence. Every now and then there would be a cluster of homes that, in my mind, barely constituted a village, and Juan Carlos would mention that all the village’s supplies must be carried in on foot. For someone traveling from a modern society infected by the desire for instant gratification—where a 10-minute drive to the supermarket is a lamentable inconvenience— to see fellow humans surviving in such isolation offered a refreshing dose of perspective. Sure, a brood of pecking chicks may suggest a rural, subsistence- based lifestyle, but, paradoxically, the main economy of these thatched-roof community outposts is cola, beer and chocolate bars, all sold to passing hikers. 

After two days of plodding along a trail on which the only direction was down, the descent from the mountain finally leveled out in a village known as La Playa. From there we hopped into an aging white van and bounced for an hour to Santa Teresa village. This was the only section of the entire trail where we “cheated” by using a car. 

We arrived in the village of Santa Teresa to tents that had already been set up for us. Our three porters who joined us on the trek would often ride ahead to ensure that when we reached the campsite, all was comfortable and arranged. The campsite was set in the backyard of a rural concrete house, with a natural canopy of banana leaves hanging out over the tents. 

We were invited to ease into a set of soothing hot springs on the banks of the Vilcanota. Seeing as I hadn’t bathed in three days and my quivering quadriceps were sorely aching from supporting my weight on the trek down the mountain, relaxing in a naturally heated pool sounded like the perfect jungle remedy. 

That night, a voluminous downpour in the middle of the night left animals scurrying for cover. Opting to forgo my leaking tent, I instead chose to sleep in an open-air pavilion next to our jungle campground. Waking to the joys of sleeping in the jungle, I found that a small monkey had sought refuge within my sleeping bag. As the burrowing primate burst from the depths of the blue nylon bag, the shock reflected on his furry face showed we shared the same surprise. Tired yet amused by my unusual capuchin monkey encounter, we packed up our belongings and hit the trail. 

After a four-hour trek along train tracks that lead through the jungle toward Machu Picchu, we finally strolled into Aguas Calientes, a popular tourist town and gateway to Machu Picchu. With the exception of two luxury hotels on the site of Machu Picchu, all the area’s accommodations and restaurants are found in Aguas Calientes. Constructed solely for Machu Picchu visitors, the town itself is a bittersweet reality of modern conveniences and comfort. The warm showers, bountiful food options and comfortable beds are welcome, but the kitschy shops, inflated prices and swarms of tourists leave you longing for the simplicity of the trail. Nevertheless, I settled into the Aguas Calientes hotel, my post for the evening, and relished in thoughts of the following day’s journey. 

When my beeping alarm pierced through the silence of my hotel room, I felt a palpable excitement akin to that of a child who’s just awoken on Christmas morning. The LCD light on my black wristwatch flashed 4:45 a.m. The day had come when I would finally explore the ruins at Machu Picchu. Stepping outside, the warm air felt like a blanket draped over the town. Though a sky the color of Juan Carlos’ hair was still deeply flecked with stars, dozens of trekkers were already prepping for the race to catch the sunrise. To reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes there are only two possible options: 1) a twisting, 22-minute bus ride that switchbacks its way to the top, or 2) a calf-destroying, lung-stretching trail that takes 90 minutes to climb. At the time of our visit, only the first 400 people who arrived at the top could get a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu—the iconic spire that famously rises behind the city of stone— once at Machu Picchu. (Today, the tickets for Huayna Picchu can be purchased in advance, although there is still a limit of only 400 per day.) The buses began running at 5:30 a.m., and since the buses can transport only so many people—and leave every 15 minutes—a quick sprint up the side of the mountain would ensure I was in the first 400. Option 2 was my better bet. Besides, after walking five days through the Andes, what’s another 3.5 miles uphill, right? Turns out it’s a lot. 

To put it bluntly, the trail to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes is meant for visitors with a passion for StairMasters. You don’t walk right, and you don’t walk left. You walk only up. Directly. Up. In the predawn hours, the atmosphere on the trail was of every man for himself. Luckily, my wife had no interest in Huayna Picchu and would meet me later in the morning. I’m sure I would have given her a headache, and this time it would have been my fault. 

Finally, after borrowing years from the end of my life to pay the debts of the present, I reached the gate at Machu Picchu at the same time as the rising sun. Registering as visitor 261, I searched for a distant corner of the ruins in an effort to escape the crowds. As the sunlight glinted off of stone walls that had been hand-carved centuries prior,

I smiled, knowing that I’d made the trek by the power of my two legs alone. After so many years of seeing photos of the mysterious city of the Inca, I soaked in every moment of living in the photo for myself. 

An hour later, with my wife by my side, we marveled at aspects of Machu Picchu that no amount of crowds could displace: the intricate system of irrigation, the perfectly terraced fields and the historical good fortune that there are still cities that the conquistadors failed to destroy. 

At 10:00 a.m., the allotted time slot that I was given to climb Huayna Picchu, I took a long look at the twisting line of people inching their way up the spire. I thought back on the journey to get here. I thought about the rustic charm of the grasslands of Soraypampa, the cascading waterfalls of Challway and the soothing Santa Teresa hot springs. I thought about the sound of bells around donkeys’ necks, clanging high over the Salkantay Pass, and about the mysterious nature of these ruins hidden in the jungle. Taking one last look at the stream of hikers squeezing their way up the trail, I decided I’d already accomplished the adventure I’d come to the Andes to attain; the most meaningful memories from this epic journey were in footsteps I’d already taken. 

I handed my ticket for Huayna Picchu to a random traveler, electing to leave the serpentine climb as a Peruvian stone unturned—my own personal, unanswered mystery in this abandoned city of the Inca.