The Salcantay Trek: What to Do When a Crazed Horse Breaks Your Collarbone

This is the second installment of a three-part series about my trek to Machu Picchu. Read the first installment and the third installment here!

The paths that wind downwards through the mountains on the second day of the Salkantay trek are narrow, twisting and peppered with rocks. But after a relaxing lunch, the views and the company made it a pleasant afternoon walk regardless, as we chatted happily and took photos, out over the wide valley ahead.

Suddenly, I heard a shout. I turned around, expecting to see that someone behind me had fallen over. Instead, I saw the figure of my friend Fi; almost horizontal and strangely frozen, with a cloud of dust around her, and the giant, black, looming head of a horse, eyes bloodshot and veins bulging at the sides of its neck.

Only after the realisation that this mad creature was charging down the path, with no regard for us, did I hear the thundering of its hooves and feel the heat as its body brushed violently past me. I was knocked, back first, into the rocks before I knew what was happening.

The mood shifted in an absolute instant. Without any understanding as to why, we were suddenly in a war zone.

Broken bones and no solution

Backpacks erupted as we hurriedly searched for baby wipes, clean water, antiseptic, painkillers -“does anyone know how to make a sling?” as Fi’s cries got louder.

“It’s my shoulder, it really hurts!” She wailed, cradling one arm with the other.

She pulled the edge of her top down, and against the pale skin of her collarbone we saw a jutting lump of bone. It didn’t look right. And when Fi glanced down and saw what we could see, her face twisted into an expression of awful, vulnerable realisation.

“Oh god, it’s broken, I’ve broken my collarbone haven’t I…”

Suggestions of a solution were thrown out into the still dusty air; was there an emergency helicopter anywhere? A doctor nearby? Where was the nearest road? But our clearly shell-shocked guide refuted everything. There was no phone signal, no drivable road, no medical facilities anywhere near.

We were stranded.

As more Salcantay trekkers caught up with our stationary and panicking group, it became clear how much of a bad situation we were in. With Fi panicking and barely able to stand, let alone walk, we had to start considering the best way to carry her closer to civilisation. But seeing as our group was comprised of six girls, two guys and one panicking guide, we weren’t going to get her very far.

Unbelievably, the next group of trekkers that reached us included two trainee nurses and a few medical students – which is when Connor, a tall burly Irish lad with a tree branch for a stick, became our new favourite person in Peru.

First stirrings of a rescue

Within a few minutes, he’d established that her collarbone was almost certainly broken; that she needed a sling to keep it supported, and we had to get her to a doctor as soon as possible.

And if nobody was coming to help us, we’d have to go to them.

Never underestimate the ability for a group of strangers to band together. Even after experiencing an element of the same when we crossed the Peruvian border, it was still amazing to watch various people construct a stretcher from walking poles and waterproof jackets, and at least eight different men immediately volunteer to help carry an injured girl through the mountains.

Once we’d pumped Fi full of as much medication as we could muster, she started calming down enough to allow the guys to get her on the stretcher. And so off we went, accompanied by a substantial group of mildly confused trekkers, none of whom really wanted to overtake us and leave the drama behind.

The walk felt never ending. Not because of the difficulty, but because we worried constantly about how Fi was doing – and what was going to happen when we finally found her help.

An eventual sense of enlightenment

Various medically trained trekkers tried to put us at ease; that collarbone breaks don’t need a cast, but that she might be in need of an operation – in which case, Cusco would be the only place she could go.

And no, there was barely any way she’d make it to Machu Picchu now.

After four hours of walking/stretcher carrying we finally reached our intended campsite for the night, and informed Fi of our group’s decision; that as many of us as possible would go onwards to Cusco with her. There was no way we wanted to leave her side in her current state – and we wanted to make sure Sam, her boyfriend, had as much support from us as we could offer.

But sadly we didn’t have a choice in how things went.

After everyone and everything – including porters, cooks, tents, and cooking gas canisters – piled into the back of a truck and drove two hours through the darkening evening to Santa Teresa, and another campsite, we were told to stay behind, while Sam and Fi drove onwards to the medical centre.

The rest of us spent the evening staring blankly into the heat of a campfire, still trying to absorb what had happened. Unbeknownst to us, the medical centre’s nurses were attempting to convince Fi her collarbone was only dislocated – “I’ll try to pop it back into place” – only leaving her alone when she started screaming.

They had to endure another drive to a third clinic, before being told to board a night bus to Cusco at 3am, where she finally had an operation at 1pm the next day – a full twenty four hours since the horse first charged past her.

We wouldn’t see her again until we’d eventually reached Machu Picchu and returned to Cusco.

Musings on the mountain

The Salcantay trek is known to be difficult, but nobody expected it to be like this. Nobody thought that one horse would have the ability to eclipse our day, our trek, and destroy two people’s chances to see Machu Picchu.

And the overarching worry that remains etched into my head? That the crazed horse was wearing a saddle, but no rider. Despite spending over an hour in the same spot on the trail as we tried to cope with Fi’s injuries, not a single person came past in search of their lost horse.

So maybe Salcantay does watch over the people who trek along its passes. Because although Fi’s luck seemed terrible at first, things could have been a hell of a lot worse. Maybe the small piles of rocks that sit at Salcantay pass do more than simply honour the mountain gods.

Perhaps they protect their creators as well.

This is the second installment of a three-part series about my trek to Machu Picchu. Read the first installment and the third installment here!

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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18 Responses to The Salcantay Trek: What to Do When a Crazed Horse Breaks Your Collarbone

  1. Britany June 7, 2013 at 12:22 am #

    OMG when I read your first installment, I almost mentioned how scary that horseback riding looked. And I LOVE horses. But on that narrow path with those very nervous looking horses — it just doesn’t seem safe, and your experience proved my fear correct. One person in our group fell off as well but was unharmed. Then, when she chose to dismount, the horse decided to go barreling past our group and down onto the side of the cliff. The whole group screamed, thinking we were about to watch a horses tumble to its death but he somehow stayed upright and just kept running.

    Good to hear your friend is alright now but that must have been an awful experience for her.

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:31 am #

      Sadly I’m not surprised that you had a similar experience as us – it was terrifying to realise how easily someone could just topple off the side of the path! I’m seriously glad we didn’t see a horse tumble over though, that must have been horrible to watch. Maybe the horse who rushed us had just had his rider dismount as well… That’s a much more positive spin than my original thought of an injured rider lying somewhere with no help.

      Luckily Fi’s doing a lot better now – I’m pretty sure her fear of horses is more prominent now though!

  2. Josh Dent June 7, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    Wow! I know it was an unfortunate situation. But, don’t you think you were extremely lucky to find the med students/ doctors hiking behind you? Best wishes to a speedy recovery for your friend!

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:32 am #

      We were unbelievably lucky to have medically trained hikers in the group behind us! I still can’t process how unlikely that was…

  3. Amanda June 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    Holy crap, wow, what an ordeal! So glad that your friend ended up being okay! Scary to think that there’s no way to contact help on that trek…

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:36 am #

      It’s probably one of the most cast-iron reasons for why you should always be trekking with at least one other person. Particularly in that kind of terrain, with no phone signal and no structured plan in place for what to do if someone gets injured. I don’t like to think how much worse it could have been for someone trekking solo…

  4. Brittany @ Paws for Beer June 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    oh my goodness what a scary situation. It is odd that no one claimed that run away horse. Makes you wonder if the rider was OK as well!!??! Glad your friend is OK.

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:42 am #

      I was expecting a breathless and unseated rider to appear for at least the first half hour after the accident. Then when nobody appeared I stopped thinking about it as I didn’t want to entertain the prospect that the rider was even more badly injured than my friend… I still hope against hope that nobody else got hurt.

  5. Helen in Wonderlust June 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    Ooh my goodness, how terrifying! Sounds like such an ordeal. Hope she’s ok now!

    Helen

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:42 am #

      It was pretty intense! Luckily she’s back in England now and doing a lot better :)

  6. Beth June 11, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Oh I can just imagine how terrified she was, being in a strange place, people probably not speaking her language very well, worried about how she was going to get through it… she was SO lucky to have the med students behind her AND to be able to get to a hospital by truck. I’m glad she’s ok!! Surgery in Cusco would have scared the living daylights out of me. Crazy experience!!

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:44 am #

      I think it scared her quite a bit too – although by the time she arrived in Cusco’s hospital it was infinitely cleaner, friendlier, more professional and more English-friendly than every other medical place she’d visited that night so I think she was more relieved than anything else!

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