The Salcantay Trek: Riding a Horse with Altitude Sickness

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

“Obviously I’m not happy you’re sick, but I’m really glad you’re riding on the horses too. I don’t feel comfortable around them and I think they can sense it…”

Me and Fi stood under the shadow of Salcantay mountain in the predawn light, methodically covering every inch of our chilled skin with fleeces, scarves, hoods and gloves. Behind us, the porters were busy loading bags, tents and kitchen equipment onto the backs of a group of patient horses, eyes covered so they didn’t bolt. The two saddled horses a bit further off looked less patient. Probably because they weren’t expecting to be carrying any passengers.

Truth be told, being one of said passengers hadn’t been on my imagined itinerary either. But often things don’t go the way you plan them.

An unexpected bout of altitude sickness

The second day of the Salcantay trek to Machu Picchu is renowned for its difficulty. The morning’s hike route is hard enough; a steep succession of twisting pathways that rise ever higher on their way to the Salcantay Pass. But attempting this at an altitude of 4000 metres, which eventually reaches 4,650m by the time you arrive at the pass, is bordering on exhausting.

Nevertheless, it’s a challenge that people complete every day on this route. And of course there’s no doubt in your mind that you’ll attack the hike with all the vigour you can; I mean, who wimps out of a situation just because it’s difficult?

Well. That would be me, apparently.

Our first day on the Salcantay route had been deceptively easy; beautiful sunshine, nice flat roads chosen to ease our lungs and bodies into the altitude, barely any other trekkers around us and only six or so hours of walking. By the time we arrived at our first campsite and settled down to sleep under the stars, surrounded on all sides by the Peruvian mountains, we were in bliss.

Sadly, a combination of those mountains and that 4000m altitude made for an absolutely freezing attempt at sleep; an unbearable, never ending night that somehow resulted in me swaying dazedly in the outdoor toilet as I tried to work out if I was going to throw up or pass out.

Maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me, or maybe the altitude really was to blame; but whatever was responsible, I emerged from our tent at 4am for the second day’s hiking, pale faced and shivering, and when my friends asked if I was ok I burst into tears.

Getting sick on Salcantay

Feeling so weak and ill you can barely stand upright when in the middle of the mountains – accompanied by the knowledge that there’s three more days of hardcore hiking ahead – doesn’t put you in the best frame of mind.

But luckily enough, the difficulty of Salcantay’s second day meant that trek organisers often have horses on hand for those less able to hike. And because Fi had already dealt with a bad reaction to the altitude in Cusco and pre-booked a horse for that morning, it wasn’t too difficult to find a second one for me.

So Fi and I waved goodbye to the rest of our group at 5:50am, leaving us to wander the empty campsite while I reasoned with my bitter-at-wimping-out internal self that it’d be a unique experience to travel with the horses, getting a different perspective of the trek. Who knew; maybe I’d even be glad I rode instead of walked?

My ‘different perspective’ was certainly accurate: being led along a narrow trail by a Peruvian wearing two scarves but no gloves, making strange guttural sounds to placate my skittish horse, who bolted dangerously close to the path’s edge when he heard me unzip my waterproof jacket too quickly.

I couldn’t escape feeling distinctly unnerved though. Having no reins will do that to you – being forced to rely on the grip my gradually numbing fingers held on the saddle’s metal pommel. And despite my constant whispers of reassurance to my horse, it seemed like he was having none of it. Even though I fed him my best supportive sentences in Spanish.

“Look, they’re on horses! Lucky things…”

There was a shameful element involved, too, as we passed small knots of other hikers who were clearly confused at the sight of two girls riding past them, in amongst the usual knots of Peruvian porters, horses laden with trekking gear, and enough food to feed our entire group for four days and nights.

I felt like telling everyone we passed that I was sick, honestly, and walking simply wasn’t an option. I’m not taking the easy route out, I promise! But at that point, sitting still and bumping through the mountain shadows, frozen feet cemented to the stirrups, I was so cold that it was just too much effort.

After a good hour on horseback we passed our friends, sat panting on a pile of rocks a little way up the first steep ascent. Jumpers tied around their waists, red cheeks and a evident sense of relief that we’d arrived – because the horses were carrying the oxygen, and one girl was suffering from the altitude so much.

And as we continued up the mountain’s face, quickly leaving them far behind, I realised how hard the rest of their walk was about to be.

A fear of falling

One of the major reasons I hadn’t wanted to ride a horse wasn’t even because I felt so sick; it was because I knew there would be sheer drops on this stretch of the trek – and, frankly, I didn’t trust a horse to carry me past them. Ever since my mum died, I’ve developed quite a few irrational fears. Falling from great heights is one of them.

But incredibly enough, it was hard to feel anything but awe and incredulity when we looked at our surroundings. Even if my horse and I were perilously close to falling off a cliff.

I’ve only ever cried involuntarily at the sight of one other place before – when the treasury of Petra appeared through the famous fissure in the orange rocks in Jordan. But it happened again here, as we turned the corner on a thin path strewn with rocks and saw the looming snowy peaks of Salcantay ahead of us.

The sight of a mountain whose name is still invoked by Peruvians today, in rituals designed to cure illness in the Cusco region, because the god who resides in Salcantay mountain is regarded as a healer.

It was inspiring and utterly breath taking – and the fact that we were the first trekkers of the day to see it, in all its sun-drenched glory and in the silence of the early morning mountain air? It just made the moment even more special.

When we eventually reached the Salcantay pass, we got down from our horses, said goodbye to our porters, and Fi and I waited for our group to arrive. Taking heed from the small, hand-built piles of rocks scattered all around us, she spent a while making her own, until we saw our friends appearing in the distance.

The rest of the day’s hiking was downhill, our guide had promised us; relatively untaxing, with more stunning scenery and a gradual descent in altitude. In other words, we were pretty sure the hardest part was over.

Little did we know just how much harder it was going to get.

This is the first installment of a three part series about my trek to Machu Picchu. Read the second 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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10 Responses to The Salcantay Trek: Riding a Horse with Altitude Sickness

  1. Britany June 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Salkantay pass was incredible! I can’t imagine hiking that second day with any altitude sickness though so you definitely had the right idea by taking the horse. You must have been miserable feeling sick up there! If its any consolation, the clouds had slid in, just a few minutes before my group reached the pass and the ones on horses were the only ones who got to see that incredible view!

    • Flora June 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

      Thanks for making me feel better about wimping out, Britany :p Honestly, I felt so awful when we first started along the path that I know things would’ve been a lot worse if I’d tried to walk! Lucky for us the weather held out for the entire day – sorry you guys didn’t get the same!

  2. Brendan van Son June 5, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    I’ve been lucky enough to get to Machu Picchu 6 times (thanks to my former life as a tour leader). I’ve hiked: Choquequirao, Lares, Salkantay, and the classic trail. For me, Salkantay was easily the most difficult. I think the natural beauty of it is tops as well, although you can’t really beat the classic route.
    I’ve also been lucky to have never had a problem with altitude despite spending significant time way higher than I should have been. I remember once I had clients in the Altiplano of Bolivia puking away while I played drinking games with myself out of boredom, haha. It hits everyone different.
    Glad to see you fought through it though, I’ve seen many people turn back!!
    Hope you enjoyed MaPu… as many times as I’ve been, it’s still such a special place.

    • Flora June 6, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      I think with the decision about the Inca Trail made for us (no permits until August currently!) Salcantay was definitely the best second choice. Even with the altitude issues it was still a breathtakingly beautiful trek! As for Machu Picchu itself… I thought the place was amazing, definitely – but it sparked a lot of personal reflection which I’m still struggling to make sense of. I’ll have a post up about it next week probably. Thanks so much for reading, Brendan!

  3. Metodija June 28, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    I love hiking and spending time in nature as much as I can. But what you guys do it`s really admirable and it take a lot of courage. Please don`t feel bad about wimping out just look at where you are… that itself is worthy of respect. Keep going……

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:07 am #

      Thanks so much for making me feel better about taking the horse! It was a truly incredible hike regardless of the issues we faced later down the line 🙂

  4. automotive parts depends August 24, 2014 at 2:12 am #

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