In a winter solstice tribute to the Inca sun god Inti, we shared a lifelong travel ambition with thousands of other lucky visitors at the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Unlike most, however, we completed the high-altitude Salkantay hiking trek of 50 miles (80 km) over four days to reach this dream destination.
Our adventure began with an early morning shuttle to the trailhead of Challacancha at an altitude of 12,467 feet (3,800 m). Here, with anticipation and understandable trepidation, we met our Peruvian guide Porfirio (“Porfi”) and group of eight other trekkers. Hailing from various European countries, the average age of our hiking colleagues was a vigorous 28 years!
With fresh legs and high spirits, we all became fast friends, and completed the relatively easy first day hike to our overnight accommodation at Soraypampa. Along the way, we made an uphill detour to Humantay Lagoon, a jewel of a glacial lake of turquoise blue water.
In camp, we got our first taste of chef Donato’s extraordinary cooking. Over the next four days, Donato expertly prepared hot, delicious, and nourishing meals for our ravenous hiking group. With satisfied bellies and a snow-capped mountain backdrop, we quickly drifted off to sleep inside our private glass-domed igloo.
The next morning, we all woke in fear of Day 2 of the trek, the highest and hardest section of the Salkantay trail. Taking a deep breath with each arduous step, we climbed in the thin air to the highpoint of the trek at Salkantay Pass and an elevation of 15,190 feet (4,630 m).
From Salkantay Pass, we descended a whopping 5,512 feet (1,680 m) in elevation over the next six hours. After the steep climb to Salkantay Pass and long downhill hike into camp, we were treated to another of Donato’s substantial meals and a different glass-enclosed bedroom, this time with a private bathroom and hot shower!
On Day 3 of the trek, we continued our descent, leaving behind the high alpine terrain and passing through lush jungle vegetation. Here, our guide Porfi, grandson of a Quechua herbal-medicine practitioner, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of jungle plants and their curative properties.
Fortunately, growing in abundance was our favorite medicinal plant, the coffee bean. To revive our fading spirits, we stopped at a small coffee farm to pick the bright red berries, roast the beans over a hot wood fire, and enjoy a rejuvenating shot of fresh espresso.
On Day 4, we caught our first distant glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Inca ruins of LLactapata. From there, we had lunch and a brief siesta, and then continued down to the Urubamba River to Aquas Calientes and a comfortable hotel bedroom for the night.
The next day, the sun rose on the June solstice as we entered the magical site of Machu Picchu. To us, reaching this mysterious site in the remote Peruvian mountains on the winter solstice, by way of the Salkantay Trail, represented a traveler’s pilgrimage of epic proportion.
The astronomical significance of the solstice was also profound to the Inca. Only on this shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, the sun shines through the window of the Temple of the Sun and illuminates the ceremonial stone within.
After exploring Machu Picchu, our group gathered one last time to celebrate the solstice, our accomplishment, and the realization of our own personal travel dreams. Finally, back in Cusco, even the locals were celebrating, with huge parades in reverence of Inti, the Inca god of the sun.
Feature Photo: Sadly, this past February, Esther’s mother Leny passed away. During her last days, she confided that one of her regrets in life was never to have seen Machu Picchu. To celebrate her life and help her posthumously realize her dream, Esther carried a photograph of her mother on our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. There, on the winter solstice, we spent a few minutes with her overlooking the sacred site. Given the beam of light captured in our photo, it appears that the sun god Inti has given his blessing.