Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about how I would fare on a five-day trek through the Andes. After all, at 3600 meters in Cusco, I was huffing and puffing just walking down the street. And I still hadn’t shed those extra pounds that a long summer in France had padded onto my belly. But I knew that it was something I had to do. So many people have raved about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, I knew that there was no wussing out of this one. And come on, I’m tough, right?
The guidebooks all advise the necessity of altitude acclimatization before embarking on this epic journey, and they’re quite right. I instantly felt the effects of the altitude. Luckily neither Vic nor I experienced any of the more unsavory symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches, nausea or fatigue, but I was especially winded so easily from minimal or even no activity. Fortunately, anywhere we went we were able to find a nice mate de coca or even just loose coca leaves that I could stuff into my cheek like a chipmunk in order to breathe easier.
By far the most popular trek to Machu Picchu is the famous Inca Trail, and while neither of us had any objections to doing it, we were intrigued by the much less frequented “alternative” trek via Salkantay. Five hundred tourists are allowed onto the Inca Trail each day, and while I can’t speak to whether or not it feels busy or crowded, we were both psyched to do something a bit less mainstream. With only fifty people on the Salkantay trail at any given time, our interest was even more piqued. (And sure enough, we saw a grand total of only six other hikers on the entire trail.) We booked our tour through Rasgos del Peru (which has an office right in Pariwana Hostel in Cusco), forked up some cash for Alpaca wool hats, gloves, and leg warmers (or “leg extenders” as my ESL boyfriend calls them), and tucked ourselves in for one last night of cozy sleep before our 4:30am wake-up call.
If you’d like detailed information about the costs and logistics, read Victor’s review of Salkantay trek with Rasgos del Peru.
Cusco to Soraypampa
Tour-guide George picked us up at Pariwana before the sun was even stretching, and we piled into a van with eleven other drowsy hikers. The beginning of the tour was actually a 90 kilometer drive to Mollepata (2,900 meters), a tiny little village where we had a hearty breakfast and bought some last minute provisions like toilet paper and water bottle holders (which I always thought looked superfluous but turned out to be priceless). Here we loaded up the mules with our sleeping bags and backpacks (each person is allowed to have five kilos transported) and jumped into the back of a truck for a quick journey to the trail-head. By this time we were a bit more awake and were busily introducing ourselves and chatting away as travelers do about where we’d been and where we were going. We’re super lucky that we had such a rad group: two British scientists ready for action after finally completing their doctorates, one Swiss-German girl with a perpetual smile, a Finnish-born Swiss German who has a serious skill for languages, a Texan with a passion for adventure and learning, one 18-year old Aussie on a gap-year who’s wise beyond his years, a Massachusetts-born skiing nomad who’s most comfortable on snow-tipped peaks, two friendly Norwegian girls who smoked most of us on those steady inclines, and us. Bright-eyed and fresh, we set out for the hills.
It’s 19 kilometers from Mollepata to Soraypampa (3,900 meters), which takes about eight hours, including an hour and a half rest for lunch at Sayllapata (3,500 meters). There’s not a human in sight on the trek, but plenty of mules and horses graze the lush greenery between Mollepata to Sayllapata.
After a 3-course meal and a snooze in the sunshine, the hike on the rest of the way to Soraypampa became a bit harsher. Temperatures dropped and the Alpaca hats came out while the landscape turned rocky and grey. By 3:00pm I could just feel the beginning of blisters on my toes and I didn’t feel so bad about the excess of cuisine that I had been sampling throughout Central America. It was hard work. But luckily the day ended there, and we found our campsite (tents already pitched) and had a bit of a rest before tea time and dinner. The sun set at about 6:30, and by 6:35 we all looked at each other with droopy eyes and said buenas noches. There was nothing to do but sleep. And we had been promised that day two to the peak of Salkantay would be toughest.
Soraypampa to Chaullay
Breakfast before sunrise, a splash of water to the face and we were off amidst the morning fog of the Peruvian Andes for the 15 kilometer, five hour trek to Chaullay. Today we would venture straight up to the 4,600 meter pass of Salkantay, and we were told to breathe deeply, chew coca leaves, and take it slow. The trail consists of switchbacks amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery that I’ve seen in my life. Snow-tipped peaks loom all around while crazy rock formations reveal themselves through the mist.
Most of us silently consumed the majesty of the place as we ascended. I for one am not able to speak while I climb, simply for lack of air. We reached our meeting point 45 minutes short of the pass at a mountain-top lake and took a few last deep breaths before the final ascent.
It was a hard hike, but there was never a point where I felt that I couldn’t do it. I just kept on truckin’ and eventually saw the sign-post that marked our arrival at 4,600 meters.
The imposing, violent peak of Salkantay, the Quechua word for “savage mountain,” loomed just behind. We were surrounded by cairns (precariously balanced piles of rocks), which in Peru are offered to Pachamama as thanks for her gifts. So our motley crew found some rocks and built our own, adding coca leaves and offering the Quechua words, “Apu Salkantay” as a sign of our reverence and sheer awe.
We eventually descended to 2,900 meters to camp amongst grazing mules and hungry pigs, exhausted and feeling fine. And oh, did the beer taste good.
Chaullay to Santa Teresa
I still hold that ascending is more difficult than descending, but I really didn’t realize how physically taxing a full day of descent could be until this day. The 33 kilometer, six and a half hour walk to Santa Teresa (1,900 meters) would end in hot springs, but not before our shins burned and toes jammed into the front of our shoes for nearly the entire time.
The scenery changed this day; we were now winding through the jungle, along rivers and under waterfalls. At one point I remember thinking how proud I was of myselfâ€¦I thought that I must be in peak physical condition to be able to do a trek like this. And then we turned a corner and saw two little girls, maybe ages six and eight, whizzing past us in the opposite direction. We were going downhill, so they were going uphill. It was mid-afternoon and they were both carrying backpacks, so we assumed that they were on their way home from school. It wasn’t for another hour that we actually passed the school, which means that twice a day they hike downhill and then uphill for at least an hour each way in order to go to school. Remember what Grandpa used to say? I think these girls might put him to shame. It was so incredibly humbling. By the time we reached our campsite at Santa Teresa, we were thirsty for beer and anxious for the springs. We soaked our aching muscles (and severely blistered toes!) in the springs for a few hours before imbibing pisco sours and cerveza around a crackling bonfire with full hearts and happily fatigued bodies.
Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
The easiest day of all, day four is a flat walk along the train tracks from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the famous Machu Picchu.
We donned our ponchos and meandered through the drizzle for three hours and 11 kilometers, over too long train-track bridges (Stand by Me, anyone?) and past geyser-like waterfalls shooting out of the sides of mountains until we reached the tourist mecca of Aguas Calientes, where we would spend the night in an actual BED and have a hot shower to rinse the four days of scum that had accumulated on our weary bodies.
We reached the hostel in mid-afternoon, showered, proceeded to pass out for a good three hours and then wandered, freshly washed, through the very touristy streets of Aguas Calientes. Hostels, restaurants with four for one happy hours, gift shops, and internet cafes abound in Aguas, and tourists of all ages and walks of life flock them before and after their visit to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Our 4:00am wake-up call was indeed painful, but that’s the way you’ve got to do it if you’re going to make it to the top of Machu Picchu for sunrise. So we sported our headlamps and headed out into the dark, and were indeed the first to make it to the entrance gate at the foot of the mountain. As we began the hike to the 2,400 meter summit, I was initially quite enthused that our group could be the first to make it to the top. We began at a super fast clip, and for me that lasted about 3 minutes. After four days of incredibly intense hiking, I was TIRED. So I poked along the trail at a comfortable pace and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to be one of the first twenty on the top of the mountain as Japanese and Israeli tourists whizzed past me at inhuman speeds.
At the top of the mountain we had to wait for about twenty minutes to gain entrance to the park and I harbored some major resentment for the hordes of fresh and clean tourists who took the bus from Aguas Calientes to the top of the mountain and then flocked the entrance gates to be the first to enter the ruins. But I breathed deeply, as I had been for the past five days, and when I finally made it into the lost Incan city atop Machu Picchu, it was just as breathtaking and incredible as I ever could have imagined it to be.
For a more detailed account of Machu Picchu and our further ascent up Huayna Picchu, the peak that looks down upon Machu Picchu, read Victor’s full article on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.
Travel Pictures of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
You can also visit our entire batch of photos from our Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu with Rasgos del Peru.