Salkantay trek and Machu Picchu

Months before Tom and I departed for South America, we researched different ways in which we could approach Machu Picchu. The obvious one was the Inca Trail – the original route the Inca’s took to get to and build Machu Picchu city. But we soon realised there were other options and decided on the Salkantay based on the cheaper price and the diversity it offered in terms of scenery. We used Trip Advisor to decide on which company we should book online with and based on near impeccable reviews, we chose Salkantay Trekking. We can both say, after having recently returned, that we were not disappointed. This company was brilliant in terms of organisation, willingness to help, the food and equipment they provided and most importantly our guide Yuri was fantastic. We did pay $400 – not including the extras such as walking poles, sleeping bags and Huayna Picchu – which is more expensive than most other tour companies in Cusco, but we received a top service. You can access their website via this link www.salkantaytrekking.com

On day one we were picked up at 5:00am from our hostel and joined the rest of our group on the minibus travelling to Challancha. We all enjoyed a bit of sleep on the two hour drive before arriving at Mollepata town for a 20 soles breakfast. It was here that we took part in introductions. Trekking with us were Arnie from the UK, Jorge from Mexico and Bernard and Renee, a couple from Quebec. Everyone appeared to be very friendly and the non English citizens spoke fantastic English which Tom, Arnie and I really appreciated. We ate and chatted before being ushered back onto the bus headed toward Challancha.

When we arrived, a few of us made use of nature to go to the bathroom and then Yuri gathered everyone into a circle for further introductions. We said our name and where we were from and everyone got a small clap after they spoke – it was a nice start to the trip. Finally Yuri asked the chef’s to introduce themselves and we learned of their comical nicknames, Corto and Largo, due to their obvious difference in height. They then departed in a minibus for Soraypampa, our first campsite, whilst we began the 3 hour, 7km hike over deep valleys. It was difficult to see much of the mountainous scenery around us because of the mist and clouds, but it added a certain atmosphere to the walk and when it finally began to clear, we were treated to some brilliant views. There was some rain but the weather was mostly humid and warm so we were removing layers and applying the suncream. We all kept up a similar pace and arrived on time at Soraypampa where lunch was being prepared for us.

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Our tents had been set up under shelters made of straw and the surroundings were incredible. The Salkantay mountain stood tall in the background behind the campsite and we took a moment to appreciate its size and lumimous snowy blanket.

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Our Salkantay branded duffle bags containing our belongings had been placed on tarpaulin next to the tents and we were asked to put them inside. We discovered that already in the tents were our sleeping bags, a sleeping bag liner and a sleeping mat – we hardly had to do a thing! Yuri then called us for lunch and we entered a cosy shelter, again made from straw and with an orange ceiling intended to let maximum light in. The wooden table had been laiden with cups, cutlery and a pretty tablecloth and that lunchtime we indulged in our first meal prepared by the Salkantay chefs. It’s here that I’ll note how brilliant the food was throughout the trek. The chef’s prepared starters of foods such as guacamole, pizza and ceviche. For the main course we were usually treated to huge plates of rice, vegetables, meat and traditional Peruvian comfort food often involving potatoes, cheese and a thick sauce. Also on the table were hot drinks for us and sometimes fresh fruit juice. There really was no limit to the hospitality and the portion sizes were huge. In fact this would be one of the only criticisms as we just couldn’t finish any of the meals, especially as they provided popcorn and other snacks before every evening meal. Perhaps one of the nicest surprises foodwise was on day 4 when we had to wake up extremely early. The chefs had awoken at least an hour before us and baked a cake decorated with the words ‘Salkantay Trekking’ in icing. It was a treat and we were quick to tip them when they departed us.

After lunch on day 1, we walked uphill to the Humantay lake which is fed by the Humantay glacier. It was a 5km trek in total that took us around three hours to complete and if you’re in any doubt about bothering with it after an indulgent lunch, think again. The lake is the most beautiful we’ve seen with its vivid greens and blues, perfect reflections and location below the glacier. We were given time to wander around, take pictures and appreciate the serenity of the lake. Tom and I were also brave enough to dip our feet in but were quicker to get out than in – it was freezing! The lake was a highlight for me and was one of the places on my South American bucket list so I’m over the moon I got to experience it. Sadly it was not long before walking up that my ankle had begun to play up and I was in a lot of pain coming down. Don’t be fooled by downhill – it can hurt more than going up!

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That evening we ate dinner and Yuri briefed us on what was in store for day 2. We got into our cosy sleeping bags early and tried to sleep but unfortunately that night I was very sick which resulted in Tom and I feeling unrested. Despite this, we rose with everyone else at 05:30am and joined them for breakfast. It was decided that I would ride a horse up to the Salkantay Pass due to my ankle injury and the sickness I’d experienced. I was disappointed to do so because I wanted to walk with the group and didn’t want to pay an extra 100 soles, but it was the most appropriate option. Bernard also did the same due to pain in his knees.

The views up were spectacular. The sun was beaming down on us which offered superb clarity of our goal: the Salkantay pass at 4560m.

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It took those of us on horses roughly 3 hours to get up there, although it could have been quicker had my horse been willing to do the walk! The rest of the group were only 20/25 minutes behind us which was impressive considering the difficulty of the hike. We all ate some snacks and rested before posing for photos and admiring the Salkantay mountain: the second highest in the Cusco region.

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It was then a 5km downhill hike to our lunch spot at Huayracmachay which proved difficult due to the terrain and steepness. We all eventually made it despite sore feet and achey legs and sat down to eat. At this point I was still feeling quite ill and had painful cramps – presumably due to the altitude – so was unable to eat, but the spread looked fantastic and Tom certainly enjoyed it. That afternoon we entered the ‘cloud forest’, otherwise known as the upper part of the Amazon jungle and walked for 10km, mostly downhill. It was challenging but Tom and I did our best to walk it despite illness, injury and tiredness. The scenery was beautiful with the thick forest and colourful fauna and we had the sun shining on us the entire way.

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When we eventually made it to Chaullay village campsite we were ready for a hot shower and a drink. We gave a man 10 soles to use his shower facilities and Tom got more than he paid for when a chicken squeezed under the door and joined him in there! Once freshened up, we joined Jorge and Arnie for a beer and waited for Renee, Bernard and Yuri. An hour later once Renee had arrived, we got news from our horseman (the man transporting our duffle bags between campsites) that Bernard was a long way behind with Yuri and they would be arriving in the dark. We anticipated their return with an air of concern and were relieved to see them both at 20:30pm. We cheered Bernard and departed for bed before another early start.

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On day 3 we walked to Lucmabamba via a gravel road. We were following an alternative route due to landslides the week before which had affected part of the usual trail. Again we were extremely lucky with the weather and at one point we took some time out with Yuri to dip our feet in a river and lie in the sun.

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We then continued our walk and arrived at an organic coffee farm in Lucmabamba by lunch time. It was here that we met Bernard who had driven in a mini bus from Chaulley with the chefs. We all sat down and were treated to ceviche and other delicious dishes before being given a tour of the coffee plantation. Jorge kindly translated all of the information from Spanish to English and we were introduced to three different varieties of coffee bean. We were then given the opportunity to pick some for ourselves and get involved in the entire coffee making process. We all loved the activity, especially the tasting part.

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Yuri then gave us some chill out time before we all hopped into a bus and were driven 10 minutes down the road to our campsite located on a plot of land belonging to a local family. That afternoon we rested in the sun and caught up on some writing, reading and sleep. The setting was peaceful and beautiful amongst the tropical forest. At dinner that evening, Yuri and the chefs brought out some sweet Peruvian wine and we toasted, celebrating how far we’d come and that tomorrow we would get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

Day 4 was our earliest start at around 04:00am. It was still dark outside but we were keen to get going with the knowledge that today we would see Machu Picchu from afar and conquer the Salkantay trek. As I mentioned earlier, the chef’s were kind enough to bake us a cake that morning and the breakfast spread itself was also larger than normal. We filled up on food (I’d finally got my appetite back!) and prepared our day bags and walking poles for the long walk ahead.

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The heat was bearable because of the early start but the walk uphill through the Santa Teresa valley was challenging. Tom entered his zone and made it to the Llactapata inca site first, whilst Jorge, Arnie and myself eventually all caught up with each other and walked the last 30 minutes together. There was some grunting and loud words of encouragement as the path became steeper and more exhausting. We arrived and collapsed on some stones, taking time out to refuel before Renee and Yuri arrived. When they did, Yuri pointed out what we’d been unable to see initially: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountain. Again, the sun was beaming and we stood quietly as Yuri talked us through the ancient Llactapata Inca site. He reminded us that we’d walked part of the original Inca trail that morning.

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Despite being absolutely exhausted, we approached the following 2 hour downhill walk with vigour and even began by running it – we found this to be easier on the knees when going down. However the path eventually got too slippy and narrow and we slowed down, stopping for a Fanta just before we reached the bottom. After some rest and an examination of my stomach turning blisters, we all walked together to Hidroelectrica train station. Here we enjoyed a restaurant lunch of soup, fish and rice and ice cream. Arnie and I enjoyed some down time playing with a local cat and treated it to some fish before we all once again set off, this time for the final part of our trek.

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The walk took 3 hours from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes: the town used as the base for Machu Picchu visitors. It was along a train track in intense heat and Tom and I really struggled to motivate ourselves for this part. The scenery didn’t stimulate us as it had done on previous days and we were physically exhausted. It was only when I spotted a group of puppies and played with one particularly excitable one that my spirits picked up. The best therapy!

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Eventually we did make it to Aguas Calientes and checked into our hostel. We bid farewell to Jorge as he’d already visited Machu Picchu recently, and Arnie, Tom and I sought out beer. We found somewhere to share a couple of large bottles but we were charged a somewhat expensive price despite being quoted only 8 soles and were disappointed with the service. Later that evening we joined Yuri and the group for dinner at a restaurant and discussed our early start at Machu Picchu the following day.

At 04:30am on the 25th April, we awoke and made our way to Machu Picchu. We were given some snacks by the hotel to eat on the way and I joined the queue with Bernard and Renee getting the bus up to the Incan citadel. The bus cost $12 each way and we purchased our tickets from a booth directly next to the bus stop. Tom and Arnie bravely walked up the near 1700 steps. We all met at the entrance, scanned tickets and entered the site. We enjoyed our first proper views of Machu Picchu which hadn’t yet been illuminated fully by the rising sun and realised the scale of the Incan city. It was bigger than we both imagined it to be and as Yuri guided us round, we were so impressed by the stonemasonry and intricacy of the site. There are purpose built buildings such as the Temple of the Sun and different areas built for certain classes: the Residential District being home to those deemed of a lower class. We walked around as the sun rose and once the tour was over, bid farewell to Yuri. As a group, we tipped and thanked him for being such a brilliant guide.

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Whilst for Bernard, Renee, and Arnie it was time to return to Cusco, Tom and I stayed another night in Aguas Calientes to climb Huayna Picchu the following morning. We hadn’t booked tickets in time to coincide with the 25th so booked them for the 26th instead and paid an extra night of accommodation plus an additional train fee for changing dates. We were hoping it would be worth it because we were pretty tired by that point! Our entry time was 7:00 -8:00am so we caught the bus at 5:45am and once at Machu Picchu, slowly walked to the Huayna Picchu entry point.

The climb up was hot and at times extremely steep but they provide ropes occasionally to hold onto. We were determined and so it took us only 40 minutes to arrive at the top at which point we were able to fully appreciate the view. If you want to get a different and seriously impressive perspective of Machu Picchu city, this is your chance. You should book your tickets in advance online at www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ or possibly via your tour company as only 400 people are allowed up per day. We were in awe of the views we got and there were numerous points at the top and on the way up and down to enjoy it.