The most incredible experience that will live with you for a lifetime, is the 5-day Salkantay trek to mystical Machu Picchu, in Peru.
The Classic Inca Trail is a well-worn traveller path and although longing to visit Machu Picchu for years, I wanted to experience a less-touristy trek, if possible. The alternative to the Inca Trail is the Salkantay trek, which promises this experience. National Geographic rates this as ‘one of the top 25 best treks in the world’.
Arriving in Cusco and spending several days acclimatising, before venturing on this trek will help you a lot. It’s not a myth, you can suffer from altitude sickness on this trek.
In September 2011, all guided treks left from Cusco.
Info on treks
Cusco is the base for many different types of organised treks and tours and is cheaper than booking from your country.
The Inca Trail is the most popular, includes the most archaeological sites, lasts anywhere from one day to several days, and isn’t as difficult as others, such as Salkantay.
You can do treks independently. But remember, you need to be set up with all your own camping gear, and food, so be prepared to carry everything for the duration of your trek.
Booking on this 75-kilometre 5-day trek, which starts at 2,700-plus-metres and climbs to over 4,600 metres, the agency advises that the trek is moderate to challenging, and renowned as the ‘savage trek’.
No problem, I can do this!
The route promises spectacular diverse vistas from high mountain passes, and deep canyons, descending into lush jungle, with fewer tourists and a good guide. Our trek includes an English-speaking guide, assistant, cooks, porters, donkeys, food, water, and camping gear.
Make sure you go through the fine details of exactly what’s included before you commit. Cusco does host unsavoury rip-off agents.
Day 1 – Cusco, Mollepata, Soraypampa – 22 kms
An early start on this cold damp morning with the guide knocking on our hostel door at around 4:30 am. Collecting several others from hostels, we board the bus where even more bleary-eyed trekkers await.
The 100-kilometre trip to Mollepata should take up to 3 hours if all goes well. But, this is South America and all does not always go well…
After the stunning sunrise at Apurimac River Valley and majestic Salkantay Mountain panoramas even through the rain, our bus starts to swerve and slide dangerously along the muddy road.
Visions of gliding off the thousand-metre drop in slow motion flash through my mind before we are finally and firmly bogged in mud. Eventually we pile out, the drivers start digging, and we start walking the last few kilometres up the mountain – an early start to the trek.
Luckily, the bus meets us after a little while and we’re on our way, arriving at Mollepata for breakfast and welcomed hot coffee.
Meeting our trekking guide Juan Carlos and our group of 17 from America, Venezuela, Spain, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, Israel, and Australia, we gather for a lifetime experience and head out, after an already eventful morning.
Today’s goal is to trek 22 kilometres, from 2,700-plus-metres to 3,900 metres, and arrive at Soraypampa camp.
Passing the occasional small village and following a break for lunch, we head out again. Our group is a fun bunch, which helps to pass the hours away and not think of your sore feet – it’s only day one.
The rain introduces itself again, but we still walk on donning our wet-weather gear until it clears.
The bulk of food and gear are transported by donkey and porters, and we carry our personal packs – this will change on day 4 when donkeys cannot travel any further.
Arriving at Soraypampa, it’s not long before night falls and so does the temperature, making it much too cold to stay out in the open.
Tonight, we sleep at the base of the mighty Salkantay Mountain, which is the highest summit in the Vilcabamba mountain range surrounding Cusco. Just a corrugated tin roof over a dirt floor enclosed with plastic for walls, our rustic shack is barely warmer than the outside’s temperature.
We are on a budget tour but didn’t expect to be short one tent for the night. Luckily, Alberto (Spaniard) kindly gives up his personal tent he’s been lugging all day, to a couple of females before squeezing into a 2-man tent with a couple of other guys.
The coldest night I’ve ever experienced…
Did I mention that I keep hearing that the first night of this trek is the coldest?
I’m definitely not prepared for just how cold it is…
It’s bitterly icy – even in our tents under a tin roof and not directly exposed to the elements. I wear all my layers of clothing. And, several pairs of socks, jackets, thermal beanie, and in my -15C sleeping bag, but still freezing and shaking with cold all night.
Day 2 – Soraypampa to Chaullay – 21 kms
After a very long iced night and sporadic fits of sleep, dawn awaits with the most difficult and epic part of the trek ahead, following breakfast.
After waiting for some in our group to put on makeup – have no idea why – we head out into what seems the never-never, but Juan knows the way. I’m not sure that I could do the Salkantay without a guide, although we do meet independent trekkers along the way.
Starting together, it’s not long before everyone walks at their own pace and eventually, we spread out along the trek – it’s difficult at this altitude.
Some feel it worse than others, and some do not at all. It doesn’t matter how fit you are or how young, altitude sickness strikes anyone at any time.
I feel as if I won’t make the last few kilometres.
But then, the most unimaginable painting unfolds…
Of course, we stop for a photo shoot with a look of pain on my face.
Hurried along, we continue into the mist. Blanketed by a veil of clouds…
…valleys and mountains that appear otherworldly.
The final ascent is a steep 900 metres to the infamous Apacheta/Salkantay Pass, which sits at around 4,600 metres – this is slow and difficult.
This point offers spectacular vistas of the sacred mountain Salkantay (6,271 metres) and Humantay Mountain (5,473 metres).
Stopping at the pass, we have enough time to make small stone towers as an offering to Apu Salkantay (Apaccheta) – a sign of respect to the Apus Mountain spirit, or the sacred mountain.
My legs burn and tell me that my body has had enough for the day, but the day isn’t finished. The snow starts to fall, melting as it hits my hot face and the temperature quickly drops again.
We still have over 7 hours to go until we arrive at our next camp for the night. Heavy mist envelopes us and masks the trail, but still, we press on…
Descending into the damp Seja de la Selva (Cloud Forest), it feels as if we’re absorbed into its thick heavy mist and transported to another surreal world.
So sick for most of Salkantay from a nasty recurring bug picked up in Argentina, I am the loo-stop lookout for my partner, which never gives up on the trek.
Another 1,800 metres or so and we’ve plunged yet again, into another most contrasting environment – a rainforest.
To keep us company, many birds, flora, and fruit-bearing trees surround us along the trail, with alluring waterfalls cascading down cliff faces and into tributaries.
Stopping for lunch at Huayracpunku, in a tiny stone room with a tin roof, the cold seeps into our bones once more, and the heavy rain starts again.
Waiting for a little for the rain to subside, we set off once more into the mist and headed for Chaullay.
Although everyone needs to rest, I hate stopping as my body feels so stiff once I start walking again.
The long suspension bridge provides much fun with many wanting to jump on it, of course.
Nestled in the valley between soaring mountains and hills, the cold envelopes us once more and it’s not even nightfall yet, as we happily set up our tents.
Today our trek is through an incredibly diverse climate and environment of expansive valleys, dry craggy mountains, and snowy peaks.
Day 3 – Chaullay to Collpapampa, 18kms
Following breakfast, we head out on the third day of this challenging trek – it’s not named the ‘savage trek’ for no reason! Today is supposed to be much easier.
Stopping for another group photo is just an excuse for another rest.
Wonderful and contrasting beauty encircles us as we traverse through nature’s varying landscapes. Another few hours of trekking through sublime scenery and we stop for lunch at Playa Sahuayaco.
Afterwards, we’re ushered into a minivan and taken to the Cocalmayo Hot Springs in Santa Teresa about twenty minutes away. Soaking our weary bones and tender muscles for a few hours, is divine…
…before returning to our Collpapampa camp.
At dinner, someone jokingly makes the mistake of mentioning that it’s Kristi’s (American) birthday today. Neil (Australian) starts singing happy birthday and everyone joins in – our assistant guide seizes this opportunity…
Day 4 – Collpapampa to Aguas Calientes, 20 kms
For breakfast this morning, Kristi is presented with a surprise birthday cake – embarrassing.
The guides kindly organised a freshly-baked cake and we sing happy birthday to Kristi, whilst side-glancing at each other – I feel terrible as the guides thought we were genuine.
Today promises not to be so arduous. I think the worse part of the trek is over. Juan doesn’t meet us as he went on a drinking bend last night, so the assistant guide takes his place today.
Onwards we walk joining the steps of the Classic Inca Trail.
More stunning vistas…
Ascending once more we reach Llactapata, which is an amazing tiny Inca archaeological site discovered in 1912, nestled into the mountain at around 4,500 metres, and some 5 kilometres from Machu Picchu.
The scoured line you see at the front of the ruins lines up perfectly with the sun during the winter solstice, to illuminate inside – what was once a room.
From this height, we’re afforded more spectacular views across the valley below, towards Machu Picchu, and also Huayna Picchu – simply breathtaking.
After looking around, a rest, and taking many more photos, it’s time to continue down the mountain as we still have a long way to walk.
Reaching another cable suspension bridge, it’s time for more fun, before continuing on an actual dirt road.
Ambling along the river until we reach Hidroelectrica, we collapse for a hard-earned rest as stragglers arrive.
Usually, I lag behind as I take so many photos. But I try not to be last, as I don’t want to keep the rest of the group waiting, although I’m sure everyone appreciates the rest.
Following lunch and our goodbyes to the cooks, we collect our heavier packs as now we carry everything and follow the train tracks, for the last 10 kilometres of the trek. Tomorrow, this train will whisk us back along this line from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, although the line does continue to Cusco.
This last leg is flat. I still feel my muscles burning and my feet are aching, after clocking up the kilometres over the past few days. Never-ending. Today is also hot.
I just want to lay horizontally on a soft mattress. Luckily, we didn’t book the longer trek of one week as my partner suggested – not sure if I would last that long, but the mind is strong.
I can’t describe my jubilation on reaching Aguas Calientes and knowing that I finished the trek. I think this photo sums it up nicely…
What an achievement for a non-trekking and not-trained person – blowing my own trumpet here, because I can. And, the best part is that tonight we are in a hostel, in a real bed – luxury!
Aguas Calientes is very touristy and understandably so, as this is from where everyone leaves to reach Machu Picchu. Still, it’s great to take a leisurely stroll and check out this town.
A basic but ample dinner on our last night then it’s crash and burn for most. Tomorrow is another pre-dawn start to our final destination: Machu Picchu. I still can’t believe I’m actually here and so excited…
Day 5 – Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Cusco
Nothing prepares you for how a visit to mystical Machu Picchu unfolds.
Ready at Sparrow fart (Australian term) around 4:30am, you have the option to either hike an hour to the Machu Picchu entrance or take the official expensive bus, which you need to book the day before.
After walking 75 kilometres over 4 days, we succumb and pay for the bus. Only 6 of our group of 17, hiked to the gates. Die-hards.
I’m sorry, but this incredibly mind-blowing Inca site deserves a separate post – Peru: Magnificent Machu Picchu in One Day.
So for now, all I say is that I wish that we could stay just one day longer and visit Machu Picchu for a second day.
With our train back to Ollantaytambo, bus to Cusco, and also tonight’s accommodation booked, we head out this evening, leaving this ethereal site, which makes you feel as though you’ve just been immersed in a dream.
Returning to Cusco
The train to Ollantaytambo is loads of fun as we learn new card games with Nitzan and Yinon.
Arriving at Ollantaytambo, our connecting bus returns us to the comfort of Cusco. Exhausted after a tremendous exhilarating five days of not only demanding trekking and mentally challenging but also finally laying eyes on Machu Picchu, it’s difficult getting to sleep. On an amazing high!
Although this great EMOBILIST video is from 2016, it’s similar to the 2011 trek, so sit back and enjoy!