How I Survived Hiking the Salkantay

Altitude sickness, camping, hiking, and bug bites. Ashby recounts the highs and lows from the trail as she hiked the Salkantay to Machu Picchu with fellow fat hikers.

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In July, I embarked on my first backpacking trip ever. I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Peru, where I joined a group of plus-size women to backpack through Peru on the Salkantay with the goal of reaching Machu Picchu. When I first made plans for this hike with WHOA+, a bucket-list trip with a bunch of fat girls like me, I was thrilled. In the days leading up to the trip, I was terrified. The extensive packing list gave me anxiety, and after having just moved across the country from New York City to LA and packing up every single one of my belongings, packing up a ton of equipment that I didn’t have seemed so daunting.

Life in NYC didn’t exactly require a sleeping bag or a headlamp, and while the eight years of city living made me crave nature, the trendy mules and statement earrings that I just had to buy didn’t exactly prepare me for the great outdoors. But I ordered things online, made a trip to an outdoors store, and finally purchased everything I needed on the packing list. I spent hours packing up my things in the days leading up to my flight, and, in theory, I was prepared.

I was a nervous wreck because I knew that the more time I could spend in Cusco, at the high altitude of 11,150 feet, the more likely it would be for me to successfully hike over the Salkantay Pass, which reaches a staggering 15,090 feet, without getting altitude sickness. I was scared of the physicality of the hike—going from sitting at a desk most of my days to hiking all day every day for five days straight. But in the back of my mind, I knew that I was in good enough shape to hike, and, luckily, I was going to be hiking with fellow fat girls.

I had been hiking on my weekends and running on my weekdays—I was training for this. I even went on a hike with Celeste from the Curvy Kili Crew and asked her for advice. Celeste, who wears a size 5X, told me how difficult her hike on Kilimanjaro was, but was also so quick to tell me that because I’ve been hiking and because I’m on the smaller end of the plus-size spectrum, I have an advantage that she didn’t have. She also noted that I’ll be in great hands with Andrea and Kathy, two of the women who were on my hike who also did Kilimanjaro with Celeste.

I wouldn’t call myself outdoorsy, being such a city girl, but my love affair with nature runs pretty deep. While I hadn’t done any true backpacking trips, I grew up going on long weekend camping trips and spending weeks at Girl Scout camp. I love swimming in mossy lakes, I love sleeping under the stars just like my dad, and I’m fine with getting dirty and going days on end without a shower. 

hiking ashby with alpaca

My first day in Cusco. After picking up some coca leaves, I snapped a photo with a baby alpaca.

I arrived in Cusco and met my fellow hikers, all fat babes who I quickly bonded with. My tent mate Megan was more nervous than I was because she’s an over-preparer who had never camped before, and her poor sleep habits would leave her doing some late-night researching on her phone. So the night before we began the hike, Megan and I stayed up late talking and were full of anticipation for the next day where we had to wake up and pile into a van at 4am for a long and windy ride up a dirt road to the trailhead. This was the part I was most nervous for. Hiking uphill? Piece of cake. Sitting in a van that ascends mountains on windy dirt roads? Sounds like a recipe for nausea to me!

I sat in the front. Megan gave me her Sea-Bands, which are bracelets that are supposed to help motion sickness. She gave me her ginger chews, her Dramamine, and everything else that she could possibly give to me to help. (By the way, it’s great to room with an over-preparer!) But, suddenly, I couldn’t do it anymore. I tapped the shoulder of our guide and uttered, “Me siento mal.” I got out of the car and puked on the side of the mountain. A lot. I cleaned up and got back into the van, apologizing for causing a delay, to which my fellow fat girl hikers shouted, “Don’t apologize for getting sick!” Little did I know that would be the first of many times.

The rest of the ride up, which I later learned was a four-hour drive, I was puking off mountain cliffs and into plastic bags in the van. I threw up the ginger chews, saltine crackers, Dramamine, water, and everything else I thought would help. Nothing worked. We arrived at the trailhead and there was a gorgeous table covered in fruit salad and oatmeal and tea and toast, with an incredible backdrop of a snow-capped mountain. After laying on the tarp and using a backpack as a pillow, I mustered up the strength to sit at the breakfast table. And I threw up yet again.

My friends, the ones I had just made the day before, were enjoying a lovely breakfast, and here I was vomiting nonstop. But after laying down a bit more and our loving guide taking care of me by giving me pills and rubbing my body with some fragrant liquid that she called “Condor pipí,” I started to feel okay. I noticed my breathing wasn’t ragged anymore, but regular. I could take big, long, deep breaths! I could maybe even sit up! I could stand! Suddenly, I could put on my backpack and my sunglasses and I even threw a cute scrunchie in my hair because I was ready for this trail! I was feeling strong! Capable! I couldn’t keep down a single bite of food, but so what? I could do this!

We hiked for a few hours and I felt so good. Hiking with fat girls was so great. We took breaks regularly for water and to catch our breath. Megan’s breathing sounded really heavy to me, and being the only one who got sick, I was quick to ask her if she was feeling okay. She responded, “Yes! I’m okay! I’m fat—this is just how I breathe!” Which made me laugh so hard I started to cry. Our guide named us the “Sexy Chinchillas,” which we shouted with glee. We hiked as slow as we wanted to, and it felt so good to hike so slowly. I couldn’t stop smiling. 

hiking plus-size women
hiking ashby on the trail

On the side of the trail, as I knelt down to throw up. Again.

Then, there was a big incline. I was fine for a while, until I was not. I was counting my steps. I had been taking 40 steps and then stopping for a breather. But, all of a sudden, I couldn’t take more than 10 steps without needing to stop. Then five. Then I didn’t want to stay standing, and each time I took a break I needed to sit. Suddenly I was sitting on rocks and then walking five steps to the next rock. Andrea, one of the bad-ass hikers on our trip, told me how strong I was because she knew how sick I was feeling but I was still powering through. I was feeling light-headed and extremely weak and, mostly, I felt nauseous again. So nauseous. Nothing was coming up, but I knew I needed to throw up. Our guide, who we lovingly referred to as Mama Sherpa, took the “Condor Pipí” and rubbed it over her hands for me to smell. I instantly threw up. Then, I was put on a horse to take me the rest of the way to camp. I felt better again. I was so happy to have made it. I was so grateful that my new friends were there to take care of me, that Mama Sherpa covered me in a blanket when I was sick in the van. I cried to myself after reflecting on the day. 

(I’d like to point out that, at this time, it was day one and I already had a little bit of vomit in my hair as well as “Condor Pipí,” which I discovered was Agua de Florida, and I had many more days of no showering ahead of me.)

hiking campsite

Our campsite at sunrise.

Then, I ate some soup. And I couldn’t eat anymore. I didn’t feel well. I lay down in the tent and had horrible half-dreams. Suddenly I heard someone coming over to my tent and I announced I needed to throw up again. I was instructed to avoid doing so in the tent because, gross, and to do it far from the tent so I didn’t step in it, gross. I wandered a bit away to throw up. I was so weak that I laid on the ground to throw up. There were cattle and horses everywhere, along with their poop, and the ground was covered in a thin layer of frost. But I didn’t care because I was too weak to stand.

Mama Sherpa lifted me up and dusted me off and told me to never sit on the ground because it’s, well, gross, but also it’s so cold that it would make my body cold too. I went back to the tent and had a lovely nap, then came back out for dinner but didn’t eat much at all. But I was in the most beautiful place. Gorgeous mountains that llamas roamed, a glacier in the distance, more stars than I had ever before seen. I knew that I needed to eat, but I wasn’t truly enjoying it thanks to my stomach pain.

hiking ashby smiling

A selfie I snapped after a horsetail whipped across my face.

I slept, as best I could, at our campsite at higher altitude. The next morning, we were going to hike over the Salkantay pass, the highest point on the trail. The 15,090 feet of altitude were sure to take a toll on us. It was explained to me that sleeping at a higher elevation would help me adjust to the altitude and I’d be okay. I still didn’t have much of an appetite and ate barely anything at breakfast. We all woke up in the exact same clothes as the day before, avoiding the cold by not changing our clothes, and we layered up. Our 4am wakeup time at such high altitude in Peru’s winter season, might I add, made for a pretty chilly morning hike. But, we made it through the siete culebras, also known as the seven snakes, also known as the “gringo killer,” and then it was time to continue on to the pass. I felt so strong after making it through those crazy switchbacks that I had a good feeling about the pass.

Then, as we approached the pass and some horses were walking by us, I decided it was the perfect time to take out my microphone to capture the sound of the horses walking through the mud. I knelt down to capture the sound and, as I did, a horse whipped its tail across my face. Mud and who-knows-what-else splashed across my face and into my mouth, which made me crack up.

At this point, I had vomit, “Condor Pipí,” and now horsetail mud in my hair. The beanie and braids still looked cute, but I felt like I was in desperate need of a shower. But now that I was no longer nauseous, I found it pretty hilarious.

Celebrating making it to the top of the Salkantay Pass.

One of many celebratory photos taken at the Salkantay Pass.

When we made it to the pass, I cried. A lot. The same girl who couldn’t keep any food down at all the day before made it. Then I watched and continued to cry as all of the fat women behind me made it too. It was a joyous moment. A condor even blessed us by circling overhead. We took so many photos, we had a little dance party, and we even got to have a beautiful Quechua ceremony led by Mama Sherpa that brought a tear to each of our eyes. This land is not our land—we’re just grateful visitors—and Mama Sherpa reminded us of that in the most touching ceremony. Then it was finally lunchtime.

Our crew had set up a bathroom in a little tent for us and I was ready to use it. After peeing, I looked into the portable toilet to make sure it flushed properly. Unfortunately, as I was the first to use it, the toilet instead flushed up and splashed all over my face, eyes, clothes, hair, and inside of the tent. I mean everywhere. My eyes burned the rest of the day, and at this point, I was feeling like a shower was long overdue. Now, I had a little vomit, “Condor pipí,” horsetail mud, and Ashby pipí in my hair. It was only day two. 

After my initial shock, I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was, surrounded by these amazingly strong fat women, covered in all kinds of grossness, walking through the mountains of Peru. I laughed with all of my fellow hiker friends at how hilariously disgusting my hair was. Then we continued hiking, but this time downhill. As we got lower and lower, I felt better and better. My appetite improved. Breathing became easier. The air got a bit more humid, allowing my skin to feel less stretched and my boogers to no longer feel like little rocks. The sun felt warmer as we descended. The bugs started coming out and suddenly I needed to spray myself with repellent, so, naturally, bug spray was added to the cocktail of unwanted liquids in my hair.

hiking facepaint

The incredible Jenny Bruso and me, rocking the face paint that our guides made for us from berries on the trail.

These women who were strangers just three days ago were now my family. They laughed at the thought of touching my hair, they prayed for the day when our wakeup call was no longer at 4am. We joked about chub-rub, shared our favorite products, talked about boob sweat and plus-size sports bras. We reminisced about the dogs that we met on the trail who wanted to hike with us. We took selfies. We were the coolest hiker girls ever and I didn’t want to leave. Except maybe to shower.

We felt united and bonded. We performed “surgery” on each other’s blisters, counted each other’s bug bites, and helped each other with antibiotic ointment when the bug bites swelled into welts. We shared medicine, band-aids, bug spray, chapstick, soap, and just about everything else. We camped at a coffee plantation, we danced the night away, we snuggled trail dogs. We were truly happy.

And then, it was time for us to tour Machu Picchu. After days of being in the wilderness, we were suddenly thrown into society. Because Machu Picchu is the ultimate destination in Peru, it was crowded. We were the last to get on the bus that brought us to the park entrance, a long and narrow bus, and we had to sit in the back. The aisle was so narrow that no matter how I angled my body, some part of me was inconveniencing those with aisle seats. My bag was in one person’s face while my hips and butt were in another’s. But I looked down the aisle to see my friend Megan, dealing with the exact same thing. I started to giggle to myself at how hilarious this group of fat girls squeezing their way to the back of the bus looked.

Many of us were in the very last row, where instead of an aisle there is just an extra seat in the middle. We were all so squished in and we started to snicker at what a sight we were. Kathy, who was seated next to me, gave me a plastic barf bag, just in case, and told me that she usually tries to make herself smaller in these situations but she wasn’t going to do that for me because we were all fat. The announcement came on to put on our seatbelts, which resulted in an uproar from us fatties in the back. Not only could we not reach to put on our seatbelts, but we were so wedged in that there was no way any of us could fall out of our seat if this bus were to tip over. It was a bit uncomfortable, but it was so much more comfortable than trying to shrink myself and pretend like everything was totally okay—you know, the way I normally travel.

Fat women overlooking Machu Picchu

 

Then, we reached the park. There were hoards of people everywhere. We stood in line and paid for the restroom. We stood in line at the park entrance. We stood in line to get passport stamps. The park’s rules state that you cannot bring a backpack larger than 30 liters. Most of us had backpacks that were 28 liters, aside from the one petite straight-size girl in our crew who had a 35-liter backpack that she was trying to sneak through. When going through the entrance, one of us got stopped. Of course, it was not the one of us that was breaking the rules, but instead Andrea, who was carrying her under-limit 28-liter backpack.

Andrea happened to be carrying the exact same backpack as Allison, WHOA’s straight-size co-founder and our group leader. While our guide argued with the park employee who relentlessly believed Andrea’s backpack was too big, Andrea and Allison looked at each other, confused. Andrea is short and curvy and wears a size 2X or 3X. Allison is tall and probably wears a size medium. Allison suggested she and Andrea trade backpacks with her, hoping to throw him off. But when the employee came back, he maintained his perspective: that straight-size Allison’s backpack was totally fine, but plus-size Andrea’s backpack was too big. The same exact backpack. It was clear to all of us that he was not policing backpacks, but was instead policing bodies. It’s not that Andrea’s backpack was too big, but that her body was.

Our guide finally wore down the employee and he let all of us through. The two straight-size women were livid that this happened, while the rest of us sighed because it sadly wasn’t a surprise. While in this beautiful place, this wondrous miracle of an ancient city on a mountaintop, I couldn’t help but notice how abrupt our integration with society was. From hiking through mountains with not a care in the world about our sizes, to being rudely reminded that we are still not accepted as we are. 

As it turns out, the great outdoors is a fantastic place to be fat, but a highly populated world wonder is all it takes to bring you back to reality and realize that humans make this world a toxic place for fat people to take up space. I still highly recommend visiting Machu Picchu, even if you’re fat, because it was an unbelievable sight to take in. But truth be told, so were we.

 

 

Photos provided by WHOA Travel and Ashby Vose.

hiking ashby headshot

Ashby Vose

Follow her at @ashbyvose