Peru, South America

The Unforgettable Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek has become one of the top 25 worldly hikes according to National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. This hike follows an ancient path that has been used for centuries by local people to travel from rural cities to other parts of the area. The Salkantay Trek includes hiking over snowy mountain passes, hiking in the Peruvian jungle and walking along the Hidroelectrica train track. This trek starts in Mollepata (a small village just outside of Cusco) and ends at the foot of Machu Picchu in the town of Aguas Calientes. This hike is growing in popularity, as it has become the forefront runner in competeing with the famous Inca Trail.  The views from this hike were out of this world and could be truly appreciated through a lot of hard work.

Our Tour Company

Initially Courtney and I wanted to do the Inca Trail, but when we investigated this option three months prior to our desired date, it was sold out. After researching alternative options, the Salkatany Trek immediately caught our attention. This hike seemed to cover a lot of different terrains and have just as beautiful views when compared to the Inca Trail. When we researched further, there was one company that was consistently raved about online, Salkantay Trekking. We learnt that this was an ecotourism company that offered a four day/five night trek that ended at Machu Picchu. When compared to other companies that offered similar packages, Salkantay Trekking was more expensive. However our time spent with the company was worth every cent, the service that was provided was phenomenal. Everything about our trek was first class! The food was delicious, the campsites were comfortable and our guides were amazing. For our trek we had two guides, Angel (primary guide) and Jaime (assistant guide). These two guides seemed to work really well together and definitely contributed to making this such an unforgettable experience. They were accommodating, good motivators, extremely patient and had excellent sense of humors.

The itinerary for our five day trek.

The night before we started our trek we had a briefing. In this briefing we went over our itinerary, asked any questions we had, collected our duffle bags that we were to use for the duration of the trek and introduced to our group for the next five days. We had twelve people in our group: Olivia and Sam (British), Amy and Will (British), Nadia and Ibrahim (Italian and German), Vanessa and Juan (Colombian), Gabriella and Robert (Austrian) and then Courtney and myself. We were really fortunate with our group! Instantly, we all got along well and had a lot of banter amongst the group. We also all enjoyed sharing stories, culture and information about our respective countries. Angel told us at the end of the briefing that we would become a family by the end of the five days and this was true. So true that we even had a ‘reunion’ the night after we had finished the trek.

Enjoying drinks together back in Cusco the night after finishing our trek.

The First Day (14 km)

After some confusion about group members pick up locations, we were on the road by 6 am. We arrived at a town called Mollepata, were we had breakfast. The restaurant was owened by a man whose family had been horsemen for generations. He explained to us that even though horsemen are not needed as much to carry supplies from town to town (due to roads being built) there is still a large demand for them due to tourism in the area.

After breakfast we continued to Challacancha. This is were we started our hike. We handed over our duffle bags to our horsemen (who would porter our bags to our different campsites) and began our trek. The first 30 minutes were up a relatively steep hill, but after that we walked for approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes along the Canal Inca. This walk was beautiful. We were fortunate enough to have blue sky and we could see multiple snowy mountains and a very lush valley. Towards the end of this section of the hike, we got our first glimpse of the Salkantay mountain. This sighting made the group excited and slightly nervous for the next days hike. Salkantay is a quechua word which means savage mountain. We could understand why, as the pass up this mountain looked steep and long.

Our first break after the the short steep section to start our five days.

Beautiful snowy mountains were visible the whole way on the first day.

Enjoying the comfortable walking and beautiful scenery.

We had some great views of the valley during this section of the hike.

We arrived at Soraypampa. This was our campsite for the first night. We ate lunch and had a short rest before we continued to do our afternoon hike up to the Humantay Lake. Angel told us this hike would serve as a test for the rest of the trek as the hike started at a high altitude and was up a relatively steep hill. The hike took us 1 hour and 30 minutes to reach the Humantay Lake. We gained 600 m in altitude (our campsite was at an altitude of 3,600 m and the lake sat at an altitude of 4,200 m) which caused me to find this hike difficult as I battled with my breathing. The pain from not being able to breathe was well worth the effort as the lake was spectacular! The blue water was contrasted by a gigantic glacier behind it. After enjoying the view our group started to descend the mountain.

Soraypampa campsite with the beautiful Salkantay mountain behind it.
 

Our view of Salkantay mountain while walking up to Humantay Lake.

The beautiful Humantay Lake.

Enjoying the lake together.

Once we had arrived back at our campsite, we were treated to tea time and then subsequently dinner. After eating a lot of food we were advised to have an early night as we would be waking up early the next morning. Staying at Soraypampa was phenomenal as we were sleeping in glass domes. We had a beautiful clear night which meant we could fall asleep while looking at the Milky Way. This is something I will never forget!

So many stars!

The first days hike was enjoyable. The first half of the day was relatively relaxed and the second half pushed us more physically. The views along the way were great, and it was a treat to be able to see such a beautiful lake. I also really enjoyed getting to know my group members and it was really great to see how positive everyone was and how people were willing to walk together. 

The Second Day (22 km)

We were woken up by Jaime with some coca tea at 5 am. We ate breakfast and started to walk at 6 am. We had been warned that this would be our most challenging day. To cope with this, Angel had broken our day into three sections: reaching the top of the pass, reaching our lunch spot and reaching our campsite. The first section was very difficult. We walked for 4 hours and covered a distance of 7 km to reach the top of the pass. This section was steep and continuously uphill, but I enjoyed the views of the valley below and observing the changes in landscape from beautiful green shrubbery to snow.

The horses were packed and we were ready to start our second day.

The view from half way up the Salkantay pass.

Our last resting stop before we entered the snowy region.

We were really lucky with our weather! The Salkantay mountain was beautiful.

Ibrahim and I enjoyed taking photos along the path.

Our group was all similarly ages with the exception of Robert and Gabrielle (who were in their late fifties). I had been impressed with Gabrielle’s walking up to the lake on the first day, so she had explained to the group how she copes with difficult hikes. Olivia and I adopted the ‘Gabrielle’ method in order to reach the top of the Salkantay pass. This method involved walking at a continuously slow pace, zigzagging up the mountain and not breaking. This really helped me reach the top and made the hike really enjoyable because we were able to chat the whole way up. When we eventually reached the top of the pass we were greeted by our cook who had warm coca tea and sandwiches for us. The top of the pass sat at an altitude of 4,650 m, which meant that we had gained 710 m in elevation. Everyone in our group seemed to manage fine with the altitude. The view at the top of the path was outstanding and we were privileged enough to see a condor soaring through the pass.

Happy hikers at the top of the Salkantay pass.

Our siting of a lone condor soaring through the pass.

Hiking above the clouds.

We enjoyed our warm tea, took photos and appreciated the beautiful views from the top of the pass before we continued to the second section of this days hike. This section was 3 hours long, covered 7 km and completely downhill. The views of the valley from the pass were beautiful. Clouds were floating in and out which made the hike feel very mysterious. We reached our lunch spot, Wayracmachay, were we enjoyed a lovely hot meal and let our feet rest for a bit.

Walking down the Salkantay pass.

Watching the landscape change from snowy mountains to jungle.

After lunch we continued to Chaullay, our campsite for the night. This was a 4 hour walk that covered a distance of 8 km. It was fascinating to see the landscape change from snowy mountains to Peruvian jungle. We enjoyed a beer with dinner and chatted for several hours before it was suggested we go to bed as again, we would be having an early start the next day. 

Even though this was the dry season, the vegetation was still so green.

Our campsite at Chaullay.

This day proved to be incredibly challenging not only because of the steep uphill section but also because the second and third section of the days hike covered large distances. Even though we had walked for 13 hours, the groups moral was still high and we all ended the day with smiles on our faces.

The Third Day (15 km)

We were woken up at 6 am by Angel with coca tea and began our journey through the jungle. We had been told this would be an easy day in order for us to regain our energy for the fourth day. We started this day by painting our faces with berries and listening to Angel explaining about different uses for the plants we saw along the way. The first section of the hike was along a dirt road, after 40 minutes we crossed the river and arrived at a passion fruit plantation. We tried the locally grown fruit (which was delicious) and then continued along a contour line in the jungle. This walk was beautiful and we walked at a relatively fast pace. We walked past wild strawberries, coffee plants, passion fruits trees and avocado trees. We could continuously see eagles soaring above the tree line and had amazing viewpoints of the valley that was next to us. 

Angel explaining the different plants to us.

Amy, Courtney, Sam, Olivia and I having fun with the berries.
 

We enjoyed the flat roads after the second day.

We had a lot of bridges to cross on the third day.

The rivers water color was beautiful.

We saw so many brown eagles on this day.

After about four hours of walking we arrived at a coffee plantation. Angel and Jaime walked us through the plantation and explained to us how the coffee beans were harvested and prepared for the market. We were able to try some of this coffee and it wadelicious. Strong, but delicious. From the coffee plantation we drove in a bus for 10 minutes until we arrived at Lucmabamba, our campsite for the night.

Walking through the lush jungle.

A wild strawberry.

Coffee beans.

Our campsite, Lucmabamba.

We ate lunch and then drove for 40 minutes to reach the natural hot springs. We all enjoyed the warm water and hoped that it would allow our muscles to heal for the next day. The bus rides to and from the hot springs were filled with singing to Adele, Taylor Swift, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Angels reggae music. When we arrived back at the camp site we enjoyed our popcorn tea time and then dinner. After dinner we migrated to the campfire and sat around talking. Angel treated us to a performance on his guitar but unfortunately it started to rain. We went to bed at about 10 pm which in hindsight was a good thing seeing we would, once again, be waking up early.

Our group enjoying the hot springs.

We had a beautiful sunset at the hot springs.

Angel treating our group to a private performance.

This day was a lot harder than we had all thought it would be. Although it was flat we walked fast and covered a greater distance than we had anticipated. However saying that, the lush jungle was beautiful to explore and we all enjoyed trying the local fruits, coffee, singing karaoke and relaxing in the hot springs.

The Fourth Day (20 km)

We were woken up with coca tea at 5 am and started our day. This hike was beautiful as we were in the Peruvian rainforest. The vegetation was over grown and green. We could see more fruit and coffee plantations along the trail. After about an hour of walking it started to rain. The terrain was steep and we all started to walk at varying paces to try get out of the rain as soon as possible. After a tough three hour uphill hike we made it to the top of Llactapata. This hike was difficult but we were at a lower altitude so my breathing was not an issue. Our campsite was at 2,000 m and the top of the mountain was at 2,700 m. We were all relieved that this 700 m incline was done as it was the hardest section for the day, or so we thought… We started to make our way down the mountain and stopped at a viewpoint. This viewpoint was were we were meant to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, but the surrounding mountains were covered by clouds. Jaime was showing us pictures on his phone of how the view was meant to look and after a few minutes of been distracted by his phone, the clouds had cleared from the mountains. We were really lucky with our timing as other groups had been waiting for hours to see this site. After taking some pictures we continued to walk down the mountain. I thought that this section of the hike was harder than the uphill as going down was slippery and also steep. I had to concentrate for every step I took, and I really appreciated having hiking poles. After two hours, Courtney and I joined the rest of our group at the bottom of the mountain. We then walked for another 40 minutes to reach the beginning of the Hidroelectrica railway tracks.

Trying to walk as fast as possible to get out of the rain.

Our group taking shelter at the top of the mountain.

The view on the way down the mountain.

We ate lunch at a restaurant close to the tracks and then walked along the railway for three hours. This was a beautiful walk. I enjoyed looking for birds and wild strawberries, but my legs were tired from the previous days. We eventually reached the town of Aguas Calientes and checked into our hotel.

The Hidroelectrica railway track.

Watching the train pass.

This really was beautiful to walk.

The views from the railway were very majestical.

After the most amazing hot shower (my first shower since starting the trek), we were treated to a nice meal at a restaurant. While walking along the railway, Angel had told me that we would be learning how to make pisco sours that night. Half of me thought he was joking but I asked him about it after dinner. He took the whole group (except Robert and Gabrielle) to a bar called Machu Pisco. This was great. We learnt how to make pisco sours and continued to have several more drinks. Maybe not the best idea seeing as we would be going to Machu Picchu the next day. After a lot of fun we made our way back to our hotel.

Such an unexpected surprise, but we had a lot of fun here together.

Pisco sours for everyone!

This day was challenging but also extremely fun. I think I would consider this hike to be as difficult as the second days hike. We all received a lot of energy from being able to see Machu Picchu from a distance and having drinks with the group was entertaining and filled with a lot of laughter, Bon Jovi and a drunken bartender.

The Fifth Day (10 km)

After three hours of sleep we woke up at 4 am to ensure we got to Machu Picchu when the gates opened at 6 am. There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The first is to walk up steep stairs for 1 hour and 30 minutes and the second is to catch a bus. Our whole group decided to catch the bus as our legs were tired from the pervious four days of hiking. We arrived at Machu Picchu just after 6 am and started to walk around. When we arrived it was quite cloudy but we were fortunate as the clouds quickly disappeared. After taking some group photos and admiring the view, Angel took us on a tour around the ruins and explained the history of Machu Picchu to us. This was incredibly interesting and very humbling to be in such a unique tourist attraction. Machu Picchu was built in the fifteenth century and sits at an altitude of 2,430 m. Historians and archeologists believe that this complex was built for the Inca emperor, Pachacuti. Approximately one hundred years after being constructed, Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Spanish came to conquer Peru. The impressive complex was only rediscovered by Hiram Bingham (an American historian) in 1911. Since this time, the vegetation that covered the complex has been removed and now Machu Picchu is Perus most visited tourist attraction. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world.

We made it! Machu Picchu was everything I wanted it to be.

Such a happy hiker…

The terraces on the side of Machu Picchu were amazing.

The ruins in Machu Picchu.

Angel gave us a really informative tour that was captivating.

Our last group picture.

In Machu Picchu there are two mountains you can climb: Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain. In our group, 6 of us had booked to climb these mountains but in the end we were all too exhausted from the previous days to do more intensive hiking. So instead, we lay on the grass and appreciated the view of Machu Picchu. Half of us decided to hike up to the sun gate. It took us an hour to reach the sun gate. The walk was up a slight incline and allowed us to get different views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. The sun gate is significant in Inca history as this is where the Inca Trail ends. This site was beautiful and I enjoyed getting the different perspective of Machu Picchu. After this, we caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes and then made our way back to Cusco (which involved catching a train and then a bus). 

The view from the sun gate.

We enjoyed sitting at the sun gate for a while appreciating the view.

This day was long as we woke up at 4 am and arrived back at our accommodation in Cusco at 11 pm. However, this day is one I will never forget. Machu Picchu was more impressive than I had expected it to be and we had lovely weather which allowed us to appreciate the experience even more. This was a great way to end our five day trek, and it was even more special to share this experience with my group, as we had all become very close.

After walking 81 km in five days I really appreciated the comfort of my accommodations bed. My legs were tired and my feet were sore. But I still had a smile on my face. This five day trek was simply mind blowing. Definitely one of the most challenging things I have ever done but worth every second of pain. The contrasting landscapes, good food, excellent guides and genuine people made this an experience I will never forget! 

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