Salkantay Trek – An Epic Five Days To Machu Picchu
Forget the Inca Trail and hike to Machu Picchu along the higher, more beautiful and less touristy Salkantay Trek! Discover a different side of the great Andes mountain range and get the most amazing views of the mountains by taking this alternative route to Machu Picchu.
DAY 1: Cuzco to Mollepata, Trek to Soraypampa Camp (3,920m)
There were just two of us booked on this trek through Bamba Experience, myself and a fellow Englishman, Tim. I didn’t want to be in a big group of early twenty somethings, yet it was a bit of a surprise to find there were just two of us at the briefing the night before. Our guide, Junior Hannibal, had told us we would join up with another group though. I had only had about four hours sleep, largely due to a couple of bungling idiots who arrived in the room shortly after I had gone to bed, and proceeding to clatter about for another hour. Not really what I needed before a 5 am departure at the start of a five day trek. The other group were all already in the minibus that picked us up. The rest of the group that would become our trekking family over the coming days were: Tjeerd & Kris from Holland, Rafa from Spain, Julia & Marita from Germany, and from France, Max & Gwen, Marine & Elo.
We stopped for breakfast after a couple of hours, and then drove on further to the starting point for our trek to camp. Junior and the other guide, Oscar, gave us an option to skip about three to four hours of trekking, going further in the bus, to allow more time to hike from camp to a glacial lake. Everyone was happy with that. The lake was supposed to be a beautiful spot, and about nine hours of hiking awaited us on day two. We still had about three hours of trekking though. For this part, we were split in our two groups, so it was just Junior, Tim and I. Junior picked some Andean mint for us to chew on the way. The taste was much stronger than normal mint. The hike finished at our campsite in Soraypampa, where the tents were already set up under cover of a big canopy. The setting was stunning, with glimpses of Salkantay, Huamantay and Tucurnhuay. After lunch, we had a steep, one hour or so hike up to the lake. This was in our two groups again. We were already at about 3,900 m, and I could feel it in my breathing. The reward was this pristine turquoise-blue lake, glistening across to the glacial mountain behind, the late afternoon light picking out green segmentsnear its foot. Of course some nutters, Tim included, went for a dip in the lake.
I didn’t think it would be a good idea after the recent chest / ear infection, not that I really needed an excuse. It’s a glacial lake. It will be cold!! Going back down was a lot easier, although still gave the tops of the legs a good workout. We joined up with the others for the excellent dinner our cook rustled up. I’m not sure if it was even 8 o’clock when bed beckoned. It had been a long day, and another early start awaited us.
DAY 2: Trek to Challhuay or Colcapampa Camp via High Pass (4,650m)
Everyone I have come across on my travels who has already done this trek has told me day two is the toughest. They weren’t wrong. By the time we left camp it was approaching 6.30 am. For much of the early part of the trek, there was no discernible trail, we were just heading up, on steep and rocky terrain. The views to Salkantay and other surrounding mountains just seemed to get better and better. Photo stops offered welcome respite for my lungs. To reach the highest point of the trek (4,600 m) took about three hours. After plenty of photos and a bit of a break, there was just a little further to go before the next morale boost, and treat for the eyes; a view down to another stunning glacial blue lake. There was a clear trail to follow down towards the site where we would have lunch. A dusty trail, with plenty of loose, small rocks, or big ones, to tempt a fall, but a trail nonetheless.
I did enjoy the earlier hard part of the trek. The effort on the lungs and legs was more than offset by the scenery. I had a spring in my step through this section though, a sense of achievement bouncing me down through the ever greener landscape. It was about five and a half hours down to the lunch location. I’ve hiked longer without stopping before, yet this had been hard, what with the altitude and the steep terrain at the beginning. There was still about three hours further to go after lunch. I had maybe gone fifteen to twenty minutes before realising my hiking stick was back at the camp. I scuttled back up, and soon bumped in to some of the others, including Max carrying my stick. A relief I didn’t have to go all of the way back. The way the landscape changed from the snow-capped jagged mountains, to lush jungle was kind of mind-blowing. I had been feeling fine, tired of course, but fine. Oscar, caught up with Max, Gwen and I about forty minutes away from our camp for the night. We were now at approximately 3,000 m. About ten minutes later I started feeling aches and tightness in my forearms. Strange considering my legs had really been doing the hard work today. Then a dull ache started at the back of my head. I felt growing nausea, and slowed down my pace from the others, until I had to stop. I hunched over and was sick. At this point I thought it was probably exhaustion. I stopped for a while, the others waiting with me. I felt ready to continue, albeit slowly. Oscar seemed to steam ahead, leaving us behind at some point not long after. Maybe twenty minutes later I had to stop again. This time I was having a cold sweat. Max said I was as white as a sheet, and I looked like I was on drugs, my pupils were so dilated.
I could see a camp across the valley, the path winding around to it. I didn’t think I could actually go any further at this point. That camp may not have been a mile away. I didn’t think I could go another 50m. I’m not sure how long we waited, perhaps ten minutes, and then I gathered myself to continue again, even slower. To my relief, we went round the corner and could see another camp just ahead. It was ours. Thank all the Gods and whatever else!! I would have loved a shower, but that would have involved standing up for longer. My tent awaited me. I wasn’t in it for long before rushing out to be sick again. I joined the others for tea, but not dinner. I rushed from the tent one more time before junior brought me some muna (Andean mint) tea. I slept on and off, the altitude affecting it, but at least had a long rest. What a day!!
DAY 3: Trek to La Playa & Transfer to Santa Teresa Town (1,700m)
I managed to eat breakfast, in fact eating Tjeerd’s omelette as well as my own, as he now had a bad stomach. At this point I was feeling much better, although somewhat fragile. I think we left camp at about 6 am. Anyway, it wasn’t a hard walk but after half an hour, I was already feeling a little sick. I felt I could hold breakfast down if I took it slowly though. At about 7 am, Junior said it was another four and half hours trekking from there. I was quietly mulling this over when he asked me if I wanted to go by car. Of course I didn’t want to miss any trekking. I knew that I would soon be sick if I continued though, so another four and half hours was not an option. I didn’t think I would be sick quite so soon, not even making it 200 m to the road where the car would be waiting.
Going by car was definitely a good decision then! The ride was pretty cool as it happened. We went along a road not dissimilar to Death Road in Bolivia, winding our way down with deep views down to the river, jungle covering the mountains. I arrived at our lunch destination at 8.30, three and a half hours before the others joined me. A clingy ginger cat kept me company. It was a long wait. I was feeling better at this lower altitude though. After lunch, a minibus took us to our camp at Santa Teresa. Soon after the tents were set up we were taken to hot springs. We spent two or three hours there. I don’t think I’m the only one who could have stayed longer. This was the last night with our chef, and he did us proud. The chocolate and banana pudding was heavily doused with rum, the flames on it burning long and bright. The chef for the group behind us obviously did not want to be outdone, his pudding burning so fiercely the flames went up his arm. Just burning the alcohol off, he got the pudding on the table and put himself out. He had to keep knocking the flames down at the edges though, to stop them catching on the table. Good effort. I agreed to go zip lining in the morning. It meant about 3-4 hours less trekking, so why not. Everyone except Elo and Marine were going for this option. After dinner, there was a controlled fire, take note chefs, for us to huddle around. It may have been after 10 pm when I went to bed, late for this week. Whooooaahhhh, crazy!!
Day 4: Trek to Hydroelectric Station & Aguas Calientes
Well, the zip lining had seemed a good idea last night. Once we arrived to get kitted up with harnesses, helmets and gloves, I remembered how I like to have firm ground beneath my feet when up high. Even with the abseiling I did back in Vietnam there was the comfort of the wall. Last night I only thought about the excitement of trying something new. Nerves crept in on the morning though, especially when I saw the first line across the deep valley, the wire seemingly disappearing somewhere before the other side. As the man clipped me to the first wire, and I waited to be unceremoniously hurled away from my haven of terra firma, my heart was pounding hard. Seconds after being released I suddenly found myself enjoying it though. Somehow it didn’t feel as fast as it actually was, and my nerves evaporated in the wind. I enjoyed the second line more.
This one was longer, and I felt more confident now. The third line required no breaking though. As the man clipped me on, and I got ready, I instinctively put my hand over the cable slider (for want of the actual technical name), as though ready to break. I was instructed to release my hands, and suddenly felt rather helpless. I enjoyed this one the least. Thank god I didn’t go for the hanging spiderman style like others in the group did. Next there was a hanging, sparsely boarded, swing bridge to cross. Actually, this was the worst part. Had I been going across on my own, I would have been OK. The number of people on it, plus the jumping and swinging by Tim, Rafa and Tjeerd made me freeze a bit though. We were clipped to a wire like with the zip lining but I still didn’t fancy hanging beneath a bridge with a massive drop below me. Maybe that’s slightly strange in the context of zip lining, considering you’re just flying along attached to the wire then. That’s how I felt though. I was extremely happy to reach the other side after many a slow step. So then there was one more zip line to go. For this one there was the option of turning the harness around, clipping on to the line with your back facing up and belly down. They called it the condor, yet it was more like a kamikaze or human cannonball. I had my doubts but went for it. Everyone else seemed to be. Such peer pressure!! I gazed straight ahead, eyes fixed on the wire, so maybe didn’t enjoy the view as much as others. I enjoyed the ride though. Such a great morning. I think I’ll do zip lining again. Preferably no bridge next time though.
After lunch, we had about a two hour walk from Hydroelectrica to Agua Calientes. The walk follows a rail line, flanked by jungle and at times a river. We moved aside for two trains on the way. After forty minutes or so, I had some stomach pain and a growing need to answer a call of nature. Junior advised me where I could go off the path to use the “jungle toilet”. This eased the discomfort for a while. Later, I still had to ask to use the toilet at some kind of aggregates yard or something, only about fifteen minutes before reaching town. Tim and I stayed at Ollantay Hostel. It was great to have a proper bed again after the last four days. We had dinner in town with junior. I just had a big bowl of vegetable soup, as much as I could manage. And a pisco sour. With another early start ahead of us, it was another early night.
DAY 5: Explore Machu Picchu & Return to Cuzco
Tim and I left the hostel at about 4.45 am, taking about fifteen minutes to walk to the start of the route up to Machu Picchu. Then it was about an hour of mostly going up old steps before arriving. We came across Tjeerd and Kris, Elo, and Rafa along the way, seeing the others at the top. It may have only been an hour, but it was an hour going up steps, sometimes quite steep, and I can honestly say I’ve never sweated so much in my life. Tim had long since left me behind before I got to the top. I joined him the other side of the check point, along with our Machu Picchu guide, Rodrigo, an American guy Tyler, Junior and a Peruvian woman, who we think was his ex-girlfriend. Finally being at Machu Picchu felt slightly surreal initially. Not only have I always wanted to go, it was also the reward at the end of the last four roller coaster days. Early on, much was covered in mist, just being treated to the occasional glimpses of Huayna Picchu behind. I’ve seen so many photos, yet the place is bigger than I imagined. Rodrigo was a great guide, telling us much about the discovering, restoration, and what they have learned about the place, it’s construction, use and so on.
When I first saw The Temple of Sun I thought it must have been restored. The stone looked so much smoother than the surrounding parts, better finished and they linked together so seamlessly. This is original Inca workmanship though. Impressive. Parts that have been restored, so many hundreds of years later, are of far inferior quality. Walking around this incredible site and learning about the Inca’s methods, and what purpose different parts served, it’s clear they were intelligent people. They must have been strong too. The tour finished at about 8 am. Tim had left shortly before, to start the walk up to Huayna Picchu. I was on the second slot between 10.00 and 11.00. After dealing with another urgent call for the toilet, I walked up to The Sun Gate, stopping for photos at the classic spot, for the famous view of Machu Picchu that everyone knows. Of course it was busy there, and some people somewhat selfish and annoying. Still, I enjoyed the view if not the annoying people.
The Sun Gate itself is not one of the most impressive structures here. However, the views are stunning when the mist clears. I spent a bit longer doing all this than anticipated, and then found I had to rush back down and over to the entrance to Huayna Picchu. It was 10.45 by the time I started the hike up. The sun was out now. Great for the views, but making it harder work. I took about forty five minutes to the terraces near the top, and then spent twenty or so between there, the very top and enjoying the views. I’m not sure exactly how long it took back down, certainly less than going up though. Still with an upset stomach, it’s a miracle how I kept it under control all of this time. Once to the foot of Huayna Picchu again, I made a charge across to the toilets again. Before the walk back down to Aguas Calientes, I had a snack lunch, sat and relaxed a while. I left at about 1.30 pm, arriving in town an hour later. Stomach issues continued pretty much until and through the two hour train journey to Ollantaytambo. The train was good actually; more wonderful scenery and a nice cup of Inca tea (eucalyptus, coca and muna, otherwise known as Andean mint). We were met at the station by a driver from Bamba, who took us back to the hostel by minibus. I drifted off to sleep, exhausted. The end of a fantastic adventure. Despite the altitude sickness, and the dodgy stomach, this was a truly memorable experience for many good reasons. Writing this four days later, I still find myself thinking, “Did that just happen”.
Source: Matt Travel Pod