Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu

I've been putting off this post for two days because I simply don't know how I'm going to fit everything about our trek into one post. So please bear with me, this might be all over the place.

To get to Machu Picchu, we decided to do the five day Salkantay Trek, which is longer and more physically demanding than the Inca Trail, but cheaper and less difficult to get access to (the Inca Trail requires reservations in advance). The Salkantay Trek includes four days of hiking to Machu Picchu and one day of hiking to and around the site.

Overall, it was a challenging, beautiful, memorable experience. Challenging because it was the most consecutive physical activity we have ever done and the conditions weren't always comfortable; beautiful because the trek took us to mountain passes at 4,600 meters (15,200 ft) down to jungle paths and subtropical surroundings; memorable because it was our first overnight trek and it culminated with a visit to one of the wonders of the world.

Day 1
We left from Cusco by van at 4:00am to drive to the little mountain village of Mollepata to start the trek. We attempted to sleep in the van, but the driver was keeping himself awake with loud music, so our slumber was interrupted by strains of repetitive South American dance music and, randomly, Toni Braxton. The first day, we only hiked five and a half hours up to our camp site at the base of the Salkantay Mountain. The site was breathtakingly beautiful, with views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the green valley below, hidden by a mysterious fog. 
It rained that night and the temperature hovered around 2°C (35°F). We were freeeeezing. Oh, and just to make things more comfortable, I had stomach issues that night that kept me awake running outside to the outhouse in the rain. 

Day 2
The next morning, we were woken up by the cook's assistant at 4:30am with steaming mugs of hot coca leaf tea. After breakfast, we set off for what would prove to be by far the most difficult day of the trek. The first four hours that morning were straight up to the Salkantay Pass, which was at 4,600 meters (15,200 ft) and covered in a thick, rainy cloud that obstructed any hope of a view of its eponymous mountain. At that altitude, any physical effort is difficult, but at 6:00 in the morning after a night of no sleep due to stomach issues and near freezing temperatures, the climb was brutal.

The climb
Truckin' up that d-amn mountain, absolutely miserable.
We made it! Salkantay Pass- 4,600 meters
After the pass, it was almost all downhill for the rest of the day. This sounds like a relief, but we still had six more hours of walking in the rain after the climb, so even the downhill started to hurt after a while. Finally, after ten hours of walking, we reached our campsite, again nestled in a stunning valley, but I was so exhausted by that point that I went straight to my tent at 5:30 pm and slept through the night.

Days 3 and 4
After Day 2, anything would seem easy, so Days 3 and 4 were pretty uneventful. Day 3, we walked around six hours through lush, sub-tropical jungle with views of rushing rivers and waterfalls. 

That afternoon, we visited some natural hot springs and soaked our aching bodies as we enjoyed views of the stark, green Andean foothills. 
Day 4, we walked only four hours through what's referred to as Machu Picchu's back door. We caught glimpses of the site far above as we walked along train tracks that wound along the sacred river in the valley below Machu Picchu. While the site is nestled in the mountains, the vegetation is strangely tropical. Everywhere we passed was green and beautiful. 

Pit stop with our trekking group
That afternoon, we reached the village of Aguas Calientes, which is the jumping off point to Machu Picchu and, frankly, a touristy, over-priced sh-t hole. If you want to be at Machu Picchu when it opens at 6:30am, you have to stay in Aguas Calientes. But you don't have to like it.

Day 5- Machu Picchu
The big day! We had another early wake-up call at 4:00am in order to trek up the 1900 steps that lead to Machu Picchu in time for its opening at 6:30. We started the walk up in the dark and as we hiked, it slowly started to get lighter. We had some pretty fabulous (god, I hate that word) views on the surrounding mountains and valley, and we got more and more excited as we went up to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Unfortunately, those dreams were dashed as we finally reached the opening gate in the middle of a massive rain cloud that covered the site in mist and us in rain. We couldn't see ANYTHING. One's first glimpse at Machu Picchu from the entrance is supposed to be one of the top things to experience in the world and we could hardly see ten feet in front of us! It was heart-breaking. To make matters worse, our kind little Peruvian guide continued our tour anyway and insisted on asking us to "imagine" that we could see the mountain behind this or that temple or "imagine" we could see the terraced fields. The only thing I imagined is that I was repeatedly punching him in his cheerful little face.
The rain cloud finally blew off and once we could see the site around us, we realized just how incredible Machu Picchu was. The site is massive and situated in one of the most stunning locations I can imagine. All around us were deep green, dome-shaped mountains set against a hazy blue sky. Where I expected ruins of rock walls were wonderfully preserved houses and buildings and alley-ways. While there were tons of people and big tour groups, it was still possible to escape the crowds and wander through the town without seeing another person. It was magical and mysterious and exceeded all of our expectations.

After exploring the ruins for a few hours, I hiked up the Waynapicchu Mountain (the big mountain in all of the pictures you see of Machu Picchu) while Vincent hiked up the Machu Picchu Mountain (an even bigger mountain above the site). Both of us had amazing views and much-needed alone time, and thoroughly enjoyed hiking away from the crowds.

We stayed at the site until mid-afternoon, when we returned to Aguas Calientes to catch our train back to Cusco. By that time, we were physically exhausted from five days of hiking and camping, and were ready for gringo food, hot showers and an actual bed instead of camp pads. We were also happy and invigorated from the challenge and the incredible experience of visiting Machu Picchu. 

Next on the itinerary are Arequipa and possibly the Peruvian coast. I promise I’ll write about Cusco next time!


  1. Incredibly, E. Can't wait to see more photos. You win.

  2. Wow so beautiful! Congrats on completing the hike!

  3. The beauty and wonder of the area are matched only by the beauty and wonder of you and Vincent - your spirit, your love, and your sense of adventure.

  4. Thanks so much for the sweet comments! We love hearing from you all! xoxo

  5. Sooooo amazing. I am incredibly jealous. Your photos and prose are magnificent.

  6. At the risk of admitting I am way behind on your travels because of my current all day and all night job,I have to say that for me, the highlights of your MP trip have been Toni Braxton and "Imagine". And at the risk of this going to your head, you're a very vivid writer E, and it's laugh out loud funny!

  7. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.