The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, a place 90% of the people reading this will have heard of. If you haven’t… have you been living under a rock? It is somewhere I can remember wanting to visit as long as I can remember, but somewhere I didn’t think I’d ever get the change to. A trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete without a trip to this wonder of the world, so I here I was about to realize a dream. Before that, however, there is the small matter of the Salkantay Pass! A 4638m mountain pass in the shadow of Mount Salkantay itself, on yer’ bike lad.

Day 1

A nice lie in on day 1 left us sat in a minibus on the streets of Cusco at 430am! We had a couple of hours squeezed in this campervan so I caught up on a last little bit of shut-eye! After a quick breakfast stop (the obligatory South American bread, jam, butter, eggs of some kind, juice and tea) we headed on up to the start of the Salkantay Trail… and our first day of hiking.As it turns out, our first actual day of hiking on the trail wasn’t overly difficult. A short climb to begin with before following a meandering path along the side of the valley until we reached our first campsite just after lunch! That wasn’t too bad I thought, don’t really know what all the fuss is about.

Pre hiking team photo
Pre hiking team photo

We had an option after lunch to walk up to a nearby mountain lake, Laguna Humantay! This crystal blue lake is very similar in a lot of ways to Laguna 69, it is also really good as a quick acclimatization hike ready for the ‘gringo killer’ the following day. The Laguna itself was quite impressive and small shower aside, well worth the walk up. The views back down the valley were almost as impressive as the Laguna itself, especially when we did eventually get a patch of blue sky poking through.

The view down the valley from the Laguna
The view down the valley from the Laguna
The Laguna itself
The Laguna itself

Day 2

The day of the ‘gringo killer’ as it is commonly known among the guides. Woken up before the sun with the chefs handing coca tea into our tents (a nice treat, especially at close to 0 degrees) at 445am. We were off and walking at around 6 am, ready for a punishing day ahead. The trail slowly started to creep uphill until silence set in and most people were gasping for air. We got our first real view of Salkantay itself at the first rest stop and what a sight it was! Majestically rising up above the valley!

Our first view of Salkantay mountain
Our first view of Salkantay mountain

We soldiered on, up the seven snakes! A series of switchbacks that was some of the toughest hiking I’ve done anywhere. After one more rest stop, we headed on up the final section to our final height of 4600m! I got myself into a pure head down, one foot in front of the other mode here and actually got up pretty easily. Altitude sickness who?

Top of the 'gringo killer'
Top of the ‘gringo killer’

At the summit, we had a quick Peruvian history lesson (quick meaning we stood there shivering whilst our guide gave us a thorough description of the conquisitors route)! After a brief look at Laguna Salkantay, we headed off on the second, 16km, section of the days hiking. This was 6 hours of pure downhill which I actually found a hell of a lot more challenging than the uphill section. Silly knees! Our rented waterproof trousers came up trumps here as we got caught in the one and only rain shower over the 5 days. 15 soles (£3) well spent.

For anyone needing to rent any kind of gear, head to Speedy Gonsalez in Cusco, just off the main square

Day 3

After the reasonably difficult second day, our third and fourth days were supposed to be considerably easier, mostly flat with just the odd climb or two. Setting off at the slightly later 7am we followed the river down the valley. It was a hell of a lot hotter than up on the mountain and we had been advised to wear shorts. Now, shorts were a good decision for the heat however the flying insects made me wish I was in long trousers. Our guide told us they were mosquitoes, I wasn’t convinced. When they bit they actually drew blood and left nasty red marks, didn’t actually itch much though which was kind of a bonus. Every one of us spent the whole morning walking with an aggressive cloud (I’m not exaggerating, it was literally a cloud of bugs) close behind us.

The third day is by far the shortest day of the trek, only walking until lunch time. After lunch, we piled into a minibus and drove for an hour further on to our accommodation for the night. By far the nicest, it also had a bar with 1 sole Inca tequila. We spent the afternoon down at the nearby hot springs which, after 3 days of walking and no showering was an absolute pleasure. Didn’t leave the water for 3 hours leaving us considerably pruned! Here, the flying insects of death struck again. The minute you left the water the lunch bell rang and in came the flies, again leaving me wishing I had longer trousers. That evening was spent with inca tequila and numerous beers, leaving the 3 Frenchies in the group pretty pissed and trying to learn how to salsa/Irish (not together) dance. To be fair to them they had finished a litre bottle of whiskey, bravo France!

The hot springs
The hot springs

Day 4

After a hilarious morning finding 2 of the 3 French men asleep on the grass outside covered in bites we headed off for what was the most boring day of hiking. There is an option to go zip lining on this day, which is done in the morning and cuts out half a days walking. The hiking itself is just along a dirt road for around 3 hours, nothing too exciting! Eventually, we made it to Hydroelectric, the bus station which we would be returning to the following day. Sadly, we had said goodbye to our chefs that morning so had restaurant cooked food. It just wasn’t the same! The afternoon hike was almost as boring, 3 hours trudging down a train track. I say almost as boring because we were walking on a used train track so playing chicken with a packed train livened things up.

I will walk 500 miles and I will walk 500 more
I will walk 500 miles and I will walk 500 more

Eventually, the town of Aguas Caliente (or Machu Picchu Pueblo as it’s now known) came into view. Never had I been so happy to see civilization after that days walking, and the insects of death deemed it too populated for them and all disappeared. Aguas Caliente is actually a really nice little town and not as touristy as expected. Overpriced yes, but still quaint. We quickly found a cheap pizza deal because who doesn’t love pizza after 4 days of trekking and retired to hot showers and bed.

The main train track running through Aguas Caliente
The main train track running through Aguas Caliente

Day 5 – The Main Event

Good morning 3am! Grabbing a quick packed lunch we headed down to the gates of Machu Picchu at 345am to ensure we were front of the queue. The gates actually opened at 5 so we had 45 minutes to stand around in the dark. Unfortunately, the gates themselves aren’t for the city, simply the bridge you cross to then walk up over 1500 steps. Hiking up that many steps at that time in the morning certainly beats caffeine. Once at the top we had another short wait at the main gates before being let through. We were one of the first into the city and my god was it worth every single second of the past 4 days.

Our first view over the city
Our first view over the city

There was a light fog over the city when we first walked in, but the view from the first viewpoint was simply incredible. The fog giving just a hint of intrigue, already in awe and we hadn’t even made it to the famous viewpoint. After a 90 minute tour around the main city, where we learned an awful lot about Machu Picchu itself. The most astonishing thing for me being a carved rock shaped like a parallelogram. It represented the Southern Cross constellation and each of the four corners perfectly lined up with the points of a compass! When you consider the year in which it was carved, it is genius. The Incans certainly knew their stuff.

'Downtown' Machu Picchu
‘Downtown’ Machu Picchu

After the tour, we headed on up to the guard tower and the main viewpoint over the city. The sun had broken through and burnt away all the clouds leaving us with a perfect sunny day. Couldn’t have asked for better weather! The view itself; it’s not often I have visited a place you see lots of photos of and it perfectly matching everything you imagined! It is truly an incredible place and well worth its spot on the wonders of the world list. Finally, I had made it, visiting somewhere I have wanted to for as long as I can remember. I could wax lyrical about it all day and night, but will just leave a couple of photos.

The typical photo
The typical photo

We explored the city until around 11am when we had to set off back for the long trudge to hydroelectric. Unfortunately, there is no easy way back. Everybody needs to go back down the trillion and one steps and all the way back up the railway line, retracing the steps from the previous day. Boring yes, but after the high of the morning, it certainly passed quickly. The minibus back to Cusco takes a wonderful 6 hours, 6 of the longest hours of my life. The minibus was cramped and not air-conditioned in the slightest. A one and an only low point on possibly one of the best days of my life.

I’m sure if you are traveling Peru Machu Picchu will be one of your stops and if the Inca trail is booked up then I would highly recommend taking on Salkantay. A reasonably challenging hike but easily doable for anybody with moderate fitness levels. Just make sure to have a few days in Cusco beforehand to acclimatize.

Tags

backpacking, hiking

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