Hiking the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu

| 17 min read

Hiking the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu

Hiking the famous Inca trail to Machu Picchu requires you to book weeks (if not months) in advance and is quite expensive. We had no clue when we were going to arrive in Cuzco, and on top of that we're travelling on a budget - not the best combination... Luckily, there's alternative ways to get to to Peru's Holy Grail of Tourism - one of them being a 4-day hike on the Salkantay Trail; an old Inca path, supposedly offering the best views in the world.

No need for reservations, cheaper, best views in the world, ... What's not to like?

Well... We found out. Read on to find out more!

Day one: Mollepata to Soraypampa

The numbers

  • Length: +/-18km
  • Altitude: ascend from 2900m to 3900

After a very painful wake-up call at 3:30am, we started getting ready and the craziest thing happened: our guide for the Salkantay trail came to collect us 20 minutes early. He was supposed to pick us up at 4am, but for some sadistic twist, we had the pleasure of ending up with the one and only South American who gets to appointments early.

Miguel, our guide for the next 5 days, escorted us to the main plaza and all was back to normal; we had to wait over half an hour for the van to come and pick us up. That's more like the South America we know.

After a 3-hour drive to Mollepata (which I 'slept' through completely), we had some breakfast and then began the great adventure which was going to become the highlight of our trip!

After covering a small distance on the dirt road, we had a break and everyone got rid of all their layers of clothing they'd put on to survive the cold morning. Nature, in a peculiarly funny mood, didn't take long to start its game which would last the entire day: a random few minutes of rain, followed by a few minutes of sunshine, followed by rain and fog, followed by rain and sunshine, ... Repeat. Thus began the poncho-on-off-dance.

The path was steep and exhausting. We hadn't spent the last few weeks at altitude so we struggled a bit... Our hearts were pounding in our chests and we were gasping for breath. Our raincoats and ponchos became useless: if we put them on we got soaked in sweat, and without them we'd get just as wet.

We were glad to see we were still in shape though; lots of people were suffering way harder than we were.

A rare moment without (too  much) fog or rain

After a few hours, we had dinner and recovered our strength a bit. We were lucky; we had a good cook with us. The dishes got a bit monotonous after a few days, but there's only so much you can do and carry in the mountains - so I don't blame them. At least it was tasty!

The afternoon hike would be easier; Miguel told us the path was going to be Inca flat. We were all eager to hear flat so everybody subconsciously ignored the sneaky 'Inca' prefix. Turns out Inca flat isn't nearly as flat as you'd hope!

The hike really was easier though; we still had some uphill sections but they were drawn out, and nowhere near as steep as before. We had to face some other obstacles though: every now and then, streams crossed the path and we had to get through/over somehow. My friend managed to keep his shoes and feet mostly dry, but my shoes and socks were soaked by the time we made it to the camp site...

Hard to keep your feet dry

Today's camp site had several huge 'tents' with plastic tarps for walls and a sheet metal roof. We pitched our small tents inside the other tent - which was awesome because it rained hard by now, and with the setting sun came the cold of night and some heavy wind. If you were wet, it was really cold, so we put on our thermal underwear for the rest of the evening.

We were exhausted because we hadn't slept much the last few days - getting up at 3:30am and hiking an entire day didn't help either. Shortly after dinner, we crawled in our sleeping bags and mentally prepared us for the next day...

Day two: Soraypampa to Chaullay

The numbers

  • Length: +20km
  • Altitude difference: climb from 3900 to 4600m, then back down to 2900m

At 5am, something rustled our tent. If we'd like some coca tea to wake up and start the day? Although the trick worked on me to get me out of bed, a hardly intelligible Urrrgggghhh, no thanks came from my friend who enjoyed his extra 10 minutes of sleep.

Day 2 was going to be an even tougher one. We were going to hike more than 20km: first we needed to climb to the highest point of the hike (ascending 700m in a few hours), and then we'd spend the next 13km hiking downhill - with an altitude difference of 1700m... A deadly combination for the knees.

Hiking to the highest point was exhausting, but after climbing back to the top of the Colca Canyon the week before, it actually didn't seem that bad... We also had something to look forward to: we'd get to see the snowy summit of the mighty Salkantay mountain a.k.a. Savage Mountain.

Resting up for the last 500m to the top

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't any better than the day before. It was raining, it was cloudy, it was foggy and it was cold. So of course, we didn't get to see the top of the Salkantay - except for a few glorious moments when there was a small gap in the thick mist drifting by, which granted us a peek at the very top but nothing else.

It didn't do the otherwise surely awesome view much justice. Our pants, socks and shoes were soaking wet by now, so instead of waiting for the rest of the group, we pushed on and started our long descent from 4600m to 2900m. The road was long and hard; loads of swampy sections, lots of wide streams running down and over the path, slippery and loose rocks, ...

We were really aching to reach the lunch camp site so we'd be out of the rain for a few moments. It was a truly joyous moment, and minutes after we reached the tent it started pouring rain and the mist became even thicker - we had arrived just in time. Others weren't so lucky; they still had a ways to go. I felt sorry for them but soon became too preoccupied by my own misery of being miserably wet and cold. Dinner and coca tea were more than welcome to warm up a little.

After a meal that wasn't fulfilling and unfortunately only lukewarm (at most), we put our wet clothes back on and dragged ourselves further downwards, to our camp site for the night. We reached a point where we didn't care anymore that we'd get even wetter and colder. Hiking became a mechanical thing; an automatic movement while we zoned out and daydreamed of being somewhere sunny and dry.

Balancing on the edge

Fortunately, the environment and climate changed quickly and noticeably as we descended: it became warmer, greener and -somehow- more humid. Unfortunately the rain never stopped, and if it hadn't been for the thick fog, we would've had a better view of the transition to the cloud forest beneath us.

The last few kilometres were hell, especially for my friend; his knees hurt really badly by then, despite wearing knee braces and using my trekking pole. These weren't the worst circumstances we had imagined to hike in, but it was close. Being cold, wet and in pain didn't matter though - we had no choice but to push on. The relieve was great when we finally reached the village and could rest our sore feet and legs (and knees) for a while.

After resting up a bit, we had some snacks and decided to play some poker while we waited for dinner. We didn't have anything to represent money, so we just used some borrowed coca leaves as currency. My friend played the game quite carefully, which rewarded him with being one of two players left. Unfortunately we'll never find out who gets to take home all of the coca leaves because the game ended when dinner arrived...

After dinner, everyone went to bed early to rest up and recover for the next day. My head hit my makeshift pillow, and I was instantly sound asleep.

Day three: Chaullay to Sahuayaco, Huadquiña and Santa Teresa hot springs

The numbers

  • Length: 15km
  • Altitude difference: descend from 2900m to 2064m

The next morning, I crawled out of our tent and couldn't believe my eyes - no clouds today! I guess we'd earned some good fortune after the punishment of the past 2 days.

After breakfast, we said goodbye to our horseman and horses - in a few hours, we'd also have to carry our big backpacks ourselves, on top of our small daypacks. Shortly afterwards, we started hiking the wide dirt road along the Lluskamayu river.

Sunshine, no rain, and a very slightly downward angled road - it almost seemed too easy and too good to be true. Compared to the previous days, this was a piece of cake.

Today's obstacles were limited to a very crappy 'bridge' over a wild river, and a 10m wide but shallow stream covering the road. Luckily the weather was nice, so we just took off our shoes and socks, waded through and took a small break to let our feet dry.

The path was flooded so we went over the 'bridge' Crossing the stream, barefoot

After the 'short' 4-hour hike, we reached our goal for today; we'd be taken to our camp site by bus because the distance was too great to hike. Nobody complained.

After a tasty lunch, we went out and sat in the sun for a while, enjoying a cold beer and the company of the others.

A mini-van took us to the camp where we'd spend the night. We unloaded our backpacks and were told to get our swimsuits and towels ready; we'd be leaving for the Santa Teresa hot springs soon.

Sunshine!

The hot springs were amazing; not only were they the cleanest ones I've ever seen, they have a great infrastructure and the scenery is unbelievable. The water worked wonders to relax our muscles and joints, and the surroundings were a joy to the eye.

While we were soaking in one of the pools, we ran into a familiar face; one we'd seen earlier in Copacabana. This was the second of a series of encounters with Matthew, who was doing the Jungle Trek instead of Salkantay.

In the evening we had some sort of party around the camp fire, kick-started by the local Inca Tequila - a horrible but cheap liquor bomb. It was a great evening; I laughed my ass of with the quirks of the crazy Brazilian guys and generally everyone was in high spirits - relieved to have finished the hardest part of the trek. Well, the alcohol probably also played its part.

Day four: zipling, and Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes

The numbers

  • Length: 20km

After waking up early with some coca tea (who'd guessed?), we had to make a choice: we could either walk directly to the Hidroelectrica station, or we could go ride South America's biggest zipline... Tough choice, right? Well, we did contemplate it for a minute because it looked like it could start raining any minute.

Luckily, it stayed dry.

Wheeeeee

At noon, we were taken to the Hidroelectrica train station, had lunch, and set off to Aguas Caliente - hiking along the train tracks, not on the train.

I don't know why, but the pace was considerably higher than the days before. I guess everyone was eager to get to Aguas Calientes and sleep in a real bed. Our camping days were over; we'd be staying in a hostel for the (short) night.

Walking next to the train tracks

An hour in, nature decided we were having it far too easy and threw some heavy rain> in the mix - again.

We got soaking wet - again.

Morale was down - again.

We kept the pace high and made it to Aguas Calientes in a little less than 2 hours instead of the usual 3. Not that it mattered; we were wet to the bone anyway.

We checked into our crappy and smelly hostel, relieved to be out of the rain, and excited to be so close to Machu Picchu. At night, we had a group dinner at a restaurant in town. Afterwards, we went for a drink with part of the group but we didn't make it late; we'd have to get up early the next day - again.

The valley surrounding Machu Picchu

Day five: Machu Picchu!

The numbers

  • Length: not too far
  • Altitude difference: a little more than 1700 irregular stairs

Beep beep - beep beep - beep beep.

3:45am.

By 4:30am, we were at the corner of the intersection where we'd agreed to meet with the people of our group who'd be hiking to the site, as opposed to taking the shuttle bus. We collectively walked to the first entrance gate and patiently waited in line for a first ticket check.

Then the real work started: we were told we had to climb 2.200 stairs... Not the greatest prospect at this ungodly hour. Better be worth it!

It was hard. We had had only a few hours of sleep, the stairs were high and irregular, and there were a lot of them. We were in for a pleasant surprise though: after approximately 2 litres of sweat and exactly 1.735 stairs (yes, I counted) it appeared we had already reached the main entrance gate, and we were one of the first people there!

The first few people at the entrance

We'd climbed up in about 40 minutes - not bad! By now it was 5:40am, which was perfect because the doors would open at 6am.

Well, under normal circumstances it would've opened at 6am. Turns out there had been a huge landslide, so the shuttle bus couldn't get to the top. Employees were also going to have to climb the stairs, meaning there would be a slight delay.

While we waited, the square in front of the entrance slowly started to fill up. Employees trickled in every now and then; one of them a lady wearing high heals, suited up, and barely breaking a sweat - impressive.

By 6:30am, the gates finally opened and we were one of the first people allowed in. Excitedly, I rushed on to the overview point and wanted to shoot some pictures of the completely empty site.

This is what I got:

Nothing

You couldn't see a damn thing. Thick fog covered everything - you could barely see a few meters ahead.

Fail trip complete.

Oh well. We returned to the entrance, where our guide would be waiting with the rest of the group for the guided tour. I'm sure it was very interesting, but because we were so tired, we kind of zoned out - I even fell asleep.

Every now and then the mist cleared a little and we could see at least 10m far! The things we saw up close were nice, but we really missed the grand, majestic feeling of the entire site. Pieces of rock tightly fit together without mortar - impressive, but that's not what gives the place its magical feeling.

After the guided tour, we were set loose to explore on our own. We had paid in advance for an entrance ticket to Wayna Picchu, so we soon found ourselves climbing another shitload of stairs, together with 2 other brave people of our group.

More stairs - yay! My friend's knees were not too happy, so we took it really slow.

We caught a few glimpses of sun on the way up - tiny rays of hope! Was it really possible the fog would clear a little?

Nope, when we got to the top we still couldn't see a thing. But at least we were a little hopeful by now, so we planted ourselves on the best spot and sat there for over an hour, waiting to get a peek at Machu Picchu from up high...

Our patience was rewarded - the fog did clear out little by little. Until at last - a cry sounded: "Oh my god, you can see it!!!"

There it lay, between the patches of mist, with the winding road leading up to it: the legendary Inca-site bathing in sunlight. Woohoo!

Machu Picchu, as seen from Wayna Picchu Machu Picchu from above

In the end, almost the entire valley cleared out and we got an amazing, surreal view of Machu Picchu and its surroundings. Any superlative you've ever heard about it, is probably true. It truly is spectacular and unbelievable.

With the fog gone and the sun out, I was eager to get back down and see the site from up close.

So what happened on the way down? Yup, you guessed it: it started to rain. Quite a bit. And the fog came back, albeit less dense.

Whatever hope and morale was left, immediately went out the window. We headed for the exit, sick of it all, went out and had lunch - and ran into Matthew again.

After sitting there for over an hour, it became obvious that it wouldn't get any better. So we went back in and tried to make the best of it.

We explored a bit more, tried to shoot some half-decent pictures and hiked to the Inca bridge, which we could barely make out because of the mist, but we got the idea: anyone crossing this 'bridge' would've been completely out of his mind of had a heartfelt death wish.

After another hour of faltering through the rain, we'd had enough and headed out. Dreading the descent, I was surprised to find out that the shuttle bus service had been restored. My friend with sore knees took the bus down, and I took the stairs down, together with the others.

Halfway down, my friend had to get out and walk between the rubble to get to another bus which would take him all the way down, thereby passing by some of the humongous pieces of rock that had fallen down; the damage was unbelievable.

The highlight of our trip?

Well, what was supposed to become the highlight of our trip turned out a little different...

The weather was awful, we didn't experience anything close to the best views in the world, we only got a halfway decent view of Machu Picchu from afar, and we were glad is was over.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still incredibly glad we got to Machu Picchu - it's just that the conditions were horrible and we got really disappointed by it all. Expectations are a bitch.

As I said before; everything you've heard about the site is probably true. Even though we only caught a few glimpses of it, it really is a magical, amazing and incredibly interesting place.

Maybe we'll return one day, in the high season, so it gets done the justice it deserves and we can remember it in a proper way...

After the trek, we read Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams. I wish I'd read this book before we did the hike. It's an easy read and contains lots of interesting facts and background stuff that would've made the visit much more interesting.

Some more pictures

Wet feet time A 'rare' flower we encountered along the way The river was extremely wild because of all the rain Something went wrong there Mist More mist at Wayna Picchu Even more mist Machu Picchu and its surroundings

Useful information

  • Don't book online. You'll find the best deals by shopping around locally; compare prices and barter. Most offices are centered around the Plaza de Armas.
  • It doesn't really matter what agency you book with; you'll probably end up in a group with people who booked with another agency. They might have paid less, or more. In our group for example, some people paid up to 80 USD more than us. We paid 190 USD.
  • There's a blacklist though - go to the tourist office in Cuzco and made sure no complaints have been filed against your agency of choice.
  • It's worth it to also climb Wayna Picchu. Visitors are limited to 400 a day, so you better book in advance. An entrance ticket will set you back 10 USD.
  • If you go in the wet season: carry clothes for all seasons. The weather can change really quickly; from very cold and rainy to very hot. Bring both rain gear and sunscreen... Bring your own sleeping bag if it's warm enough. Tent and sleeping pad are usually included in the price. More suggestions in this woman's packing guide.
  • If you go in the high season: bring insect repellent and sunscreen...

Comments

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