Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
What is the Salkantay trek?
Salkantay is a five day 70km trek that is an alternative to the traditional Inca Trail that goes over a high pass of 4,600m and has direct views of Mt Salkantay (6,372m). The first three nights are camping while the fourth night is in a hotel in Aguas Calientes right next to the entry to Machu Picchu where you spend the fifth day.
Tour or on your own?
This is a really tough question and depends on budget and personal interests. There’s no need to book in advance even in peak season as so many tours are going everyday. Price should be about US$220 per person plus $10 sleeping bag rental as at August 2014. This includes all transport, food, guide, mule to carry 5kg of gear for the first 3 days, entry to Machu Picchu ($45), train to Ollantaytambo ($61) and bus to Cuzco ($3). Doing the maths you can already see $100 in value just in entry ticket and the train. This makes the trip really good value on tour.
The downside to a tour is you’re stuck on their itinerary, their walking pace, a group of 20 people plus all the other groups who’ll camp with you at the same time. I think this is the biggest downside and independent travel can be so much more rewarding for the effort.
For those on tour be prepared to buy any extra items if you don’t bring them with you.
*Water was 5-10 soles ($2-$4) for 2 litres (bring purification liquid, UV sterilizer etc)
*Bring your own toilet paper; none was supplied
*Bring some snacks for while you hike, but you shouldn’t need much as meals were big
*All additional drinks cost money such as beer, soda, Gatorade
*Insect repellant is a must on a couple of the days (will depend on time of year)
*Flash light is definitely necessary; especially if hiking up to Machu Picchu on the final day
*Make sure to pack chargers for phones, cameras. You can charge it all on the night before Machu Picchu.
Day 1 – Cuzco – Mollepata – Soraypampa (August 10, 2014)
[18.5km] [Elevation 2,850m -> 3,900m]
This starts early with a 3.30am pickup from your hostel. Our bus had about 40 people on board for the 2.5 hour ride to the town of Mollepata and the starting point of the trek. Breakfast isn’t included, but they do a group buffet deal (unknown cost) as they get everyone prepared. I had come prepared with some bread and fruit and ate it on the square as the Sunday village market was getting setup.
We then did a brief group introduction with the international mix of 8 German, 4 Australian, 2 Argentinian, 1 US, 1 Austrian, 1 Spanish, 1 Brazilian and 1 Canadian for a total of 19 people. On top of this was our two local guides, Primo and Americo; our chef Damian and two assistants and our donkey driver.
We were then on our way with blue skies and the sun really starting to warm things up at 8am. Layered hiking clothing is great in these scenarios as the nights are cold and days warm up gradually to quite high temperatures.
After a brief conversation with the guide he had said that typically when a tour has 4 straight days of good weather, the final day in Machu Picchu would rain. I made my same deal as I did in Huayhuash right then and there with Pachamama (Mother Nature) to pick up trash along the way in return for good weather.
We made it to our first rest stop after about 2 hours and would spend about 30 minutes there soaking in the views.
Continuing onwards to lunch we would see some snow capped mountains that apparently were bare only a week ago when the guide last came through.
Lunch would be my first frustrating moment where we arrived around 12.30pm and would wait over an hour for it to be served. Then what seems traditional is a 30 minute rest/nap after the meal before hiking again. It was over 2 hours between stopping and starting and only 1 hour 20 minutes of walking to get to the camp for the night. I really would have preferred a quick snack somewhere and push through to final camp to have a late lunch.
The final push after lunch we could see the campsite most of the way nestled at the bottom of a snowy mountain and what would eventually come into sight the view of Salkantay itself.
The big advantage to a tour is you don’t need to do all that much except hike and take photos. When arriving into camp the tents were setup; in this case in a shelter to protect from wind and what would be the coldest night with temperatures below freezing.
We would have a snack of popcorn and a hot drink and soon after dinner would be served before most people vacated quickly to their tents for warmth and catch some sleep after a long day.
Day 2 – Soraypampa – Chaullay (August 11, 2014)
[19km] [Elevation 3,900m -> 4,630m -> 2,850m]
Wakeup was around 5am with a hot coco leaf drink served at our tent door (luxury stuff). Breakfast soon after was a tasty pancake topped with dulce leche, fruit, cereal, yoghurt and bread with strawberry jam. Pack in those calories and carbs as this day is the hardest, especially for those not properly acclimatised.
We started hiking around 6.15am with a beautifully coloured sky to get us motivated.
The evidence of the cold night was clear with crunchy ice making sounds under our feet as we hiked up. The sun was trying its best to melt it, creating little streams along the trail.
The scenery was quite reminiscent of parts of Huayhuash and the climb up to blue skies in the early morning really was serene and beautiful.
It took just on 3 hours to get to the top of the pass at 4,630m including a few stops along the way. The weather generally behaved and wasn’t too windy allowing us nearly an hour up on top to savour the views.
In less than 90 minutes we were at our picnic Lunch spot again to play the waiting and sleeping game for about 1.5 hours until we would start hiking again.
It would take about 2 hours more hiking to get to our camp spot for the night which at first glance looked deserted, but of course the groups hadn’t arrived and the tents were not yet setup.
The view the next morning with just our section of tents told the other side of the tour group story.
For those that love their daily shower, you could buy a hot shower for 10 soles ($3.60). Bring your own soap and shampoo and a towel would be useful here and for the hot springs on the next day.
Day 3 – Chaullay – Santa Teresa (August 12, 2014)
[16.4km] [Elevation 2,850m -> 2,050m (La Playa)]
This day will depend on your tour and your guide. I highly recommend finding a tour that includes the route to the ruins of Llactapata. I found one but the price was US$400+. I think most tours here will do the walk to a town called La Playa (the beach), apparently named because there’s a sandy area on the river to swim at. We would have lunch here and then get on a shuttle bus to take us to Santa Teresa. This is the time I would use the term cheating on a trek, but when you’re in a group, you’re stuck with the decision.
Breakfast was a tasty omelete along with liquid Avena (oatmeal) and bread with strawberry jam.
This would actually be a fairly interesting and scenic trail. There were a number of bridge crossings and waterfalls along with following the river down the valley. There were also a lot of colourful flowers and orchids that caught my attention, yes the flower man again.
One interesting thing our guide would show us is Citronella growing naturally. The smell was really powerful and it was actually really colorful.
As I mentioned earlier we would take a shuttle bus down to our camp at Santa Teresa; a town of maybe a few thousand people. We would grab our swimming stuff and again get on the bus (cost 10 soles return) to go to the hot springs (entry 5 soles). The whole group went and spent the best part of 3 hours at the pools. A cold beer was well earned after a few days of hiking, but the many vendors all had fixed prices to maximise profit. It was 15 soles for a litre and 10 soles for 620ml.
We would return to camp and have dinner at around 7.30pm. This was our chef’s last dinner with us, so he served up some chocolate coated bananas for dessert.
Day 4 – Santa Teresa – Aguas Calientes (August 13, 2014)
[20.4km] [Elevation 1,550m -> 2,100m]
This day would also depend a lot on what your travel agent sold you. We had 12 of our group go ziplining (90 soles / $32.15) and meet us at Hidroelectrica for lunch. Two others would pay 10 soles ($3.60) each to take the bus with them but not zipline. That left 5 of us to walk the dusty 10km road to Hidroelectrica with one of our guides, Americo. In my mind we were on a trek to Machu Picchu and that meant get out there and hike.
Our final breakfast with our chef would bring another surprise of cake to eat. I honestly thought it was someone’s birthday, but this was normal apparently. Sadly the rest of breakfast was light on with only really bread and jam along with the cake. Not exactly a hearty breakfast for 20km of hiking.
Getting on the road, the 5 of us were determined to get to the lunch spot, but the heat took its toll on all of us. The road had cars and trucks passing us throwing up even more dirt. It was surprising how much air pollution sat in that little valley. Peru still has a long way to come like other countries when it comes to burning trash and other excess farmland garbage.
It would take us around 2.5 hours to get to our lunch spot and wait a following hour for the others to meet up with us. The best part of the hike was the chocolate ice cream at the end.
Full of food and ready to go we were on the final stretch to Machu Picchu. The signs will point you in the direction of the railway line, which is actually the only way in and out on both sides of the nearest town of Aguas Calientes. It seems a little odd at first, but there is usually a small trail off the side of the line that you walk on.
It’s the best part of 10km and 3 hours with some rest breaks to get to Aguas Calientes. This is the way most people walk out to pick up on cheaper collectivos back to Cuzco or other towns. The train really is expensive at US$61 to Ollantaytambo for about 1 hour 15 minutes of travel.
The walk is quite scenic though and has a good portion of shade thanks to the tall trees.
The first view of the town brings a wave of relief as you realise you are near electricity, a bed and hot shower again after 4 days. It’s still hard to break the city out of a city person.
Tonight we would have dinner at a local restaurant included in the tour price. Portions were a little small, so find some local snacks in the market or local bakery. I actually bought some bread and tuna for the next day at Machu Picchu to avoid the horrific tourist prices for food.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu (August 14, 2014)
The day was finally here; after 350 days of travel and something I knew in the back of my mind I would always get to, it was time to see what all the fuss was about for Machu Picchu. It was an early morning wakeup of 4am to walk to the entry gate for 4.45am which then opens at 5am. There were already nearly 100 people in line in front of us at this point. The other option is take the bus up for $10 (28 soles) each way.
Those of us that were either cheap or just wanting to hike that final mile were wondering just what was ahead of us. The hike brings back memories of the time I climbed the CN Tower in Toronto in 2011. Non stop it’s about 20 minutes of straight up, mostly on uneven stairs. With some rest breaks and trying to avoid slow moving people it was about 40 minutes from gate to gate. The big tip is wear a dirty shirt on the way up and change into something cleaner and nicer for photos in Machu Picchu.
Those first moments as you go through and into the actual Machu Picchu site, you feel your heart flutter a bit as you think of all the history stored here. In a matter of moments you reach that money shot position and realise what all the fuss is about.
With our tour we got a bit over a 1 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu that covered a few of the highlights in the main section. This was disrupted by about 500 other people all doing the same thing and was a fight for space for most of the time.
With the tour over, the rest of the day was ours to do what we wanted. Some people who had booked ahead of time had tickets to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountain. These both cost $20 each and are limited to 400 people per day. I was on the last train out of town at 9.50pm, so that left a lot of time to soak in the views and explore. It’s amazing how much time you can spend sitting and watching as security guards chased people off of dangerous spots or doing the wrong thing.
The real joy was not feeling rushed and being able to watch the views change as the sun rolled over during the day. I don’t know if the photos truly convey the sheer magnificence of this place. I came in with my expectations set at an average level and left with my expectations being far exceeded. We’ve seen a lot of ruins in our travels and though each has a unique or special feeling or look, there are very good reasons why Machu Picchu is constantly spoken about.
I spent a few hours sitting on a ledge near the guard house watching as people rushed through on tours ticking the boxes. So many seemed to be grabbing that happy snap to show friends and family back home and then rushing back to town for lunch.
My mindset again was I’ve trekked for 5 days to get here and paid what in our daily budget is quite a lot of money to get here, so why not make the most of it.
I explored the Inka bridge which you can walk up to but can’t cross for fairly obvious reasons when you look at the photo.
I would then walk out to the Sun Gate, the original Inca entry point for Machu Picchu and where the Inca Trail hikers come in at first light. About halfway up/down is where a majority of the traditional and well known photos are taken from. When I reached the gate at around 1.30pm there were large groups of people. Not quite the serene and peaceful place I was hoping for.
I then walked down and spent the next few hours going through the main site in detail and trying to find some magical photos. I really don’t know if photos do this place justice, but I tried to capture it was I had seen it.
As I walked out at 4.30pm (official close of 5pm), I felt I’d really got the most of my time there. All that was left to do was meet up with the others on the late train for some beer and food before arriving back in Cuzco around 1.30am.
No matter how you do it; find a way to get to Machu Picchu. For long term travellers it is a big bight in the budget and could be just another ruin on the Gringo Trail, but this really is worth the effort. The Inca Trek is always spoken about but is limited to about 200-250 tourists a day needing to book 6-12 months in advance. It might be a bucket list item for some, but you can still get a great experience on other treks still getting to the main event of Machu Picchu at the end.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/