10 – 15 July 2015
Everyone knows about Machu Picchu, but not everyone knows there is more than one way to get to the magical site. The most famous of journeys to Machu Picchu is via “The Inka Trail”, but there is a strict limit on the number of people allowed on this trail each day, and it gets booked out months in advance. The numerous travel agencies around Cusco sell many alternate trips including two day tours in buses or by train, treks through the Lares valley or via the Salkantay trek. After seeing a few photos from other travellers, we were keen to take the Salkantay route but did not want to pay US$250+ the travel agencies were asking. We considered doing this route by ourselves, but neither of us where keen on carrying all of our gear over a high altitude pass. Luckily, the friendly staff at the Cusco South American Explorers office told us about an alternate option for doing this trek through a family-run company called Refugios Salkantay. By walking the Salkantay trek with them, we would be fed and housed by the families that live along the trail (there is no ‘middle man’ as such) and we would not have to carry so much gear. We liked the sound of that, so we booked ourselves in.
We headed off from Cusco at 6.30 on the first morning. When we arrived in the village of Mollepata an hour or so later we piled out of the crowded collectivo (a shared van). As one woman climbed out of the van there was a loud squarking coming from her bag. It turns out a chicken had hitched a ride in the van as well, and neither Samara nor I had noticed its presence during the trip. In Mollepata we met Edwin and Flor, who manage the company Refugios Salkantay. After a tasty breakfast cooked by the mother of the family we jumped into the back of Edwin’s truck, which he had thoughtfully fitted out with a comfortable couch for our ride up into the hills. As we wound our way up the valley towards Soraypampa, it felt great to have the wind in our hair. As we came around the corner we got a tasty view of the mountains that lay ahead.
We soon arrived at Soraypampa where we met Edwin’s father, Marino. He was one of the most friendly and welcoming hosts that we have had in our travels so far. From the camp there was a pretty awesome view of Mount Salkantay…..
It was still before noon when we arrived, so we took a short 1.5 hour walk up to a nice glacial lake above the camp. We spent an hour or so there and had the lake to ourselves for most of the time. Most tour groups don’t have the opportunity of going to this lake – another bonus of doing the trek with Refugios Salkantay. We had been given a packed lunch by Edwin’s mother that morning, so we laid in the sun and enjoyed the tasty food.
That evening we sat around a roaring camp fire and chatted with a couple of American guys that were planning on climbing a nearby mountain. With the familiar smell of burning eucalyptus (which was introduced to South America) and the milky way shining above, we felt very much at home.
After a solid sleep (the beds here were by far the most comfortable and warm that we have had in South America), I awoke to the sound of knocking at our door. Marino handed us steaming cups of sweet coca tea to warm and wake us up. The view from the breakfast table was amazing, with the morning light highlighting the snowy peaks. The food was tops too!
At around 6 we headed off up the valley towards the pass. The path was wide and easy to follow and passed a couple of large groups. They seemed to have more mules than people in the groups. The mules tear up the track, widening it to the size of a road in many places. With the Salkantay trek being one of the most popular ways of getting to Machu Picchu, there are a lot of people on this trek. Walking independently or with Refugios Salkantay seems a much more sustainable way of walking this route. It also means you can walk at your own pace. We sat down and waited for groups to pass so that we could feel like we had the trail to ourselves. While we sat we watched a few condors circling around the nearby hills.
As we climbed up towards the pass (4640m) we passed some beautiful scenery, with nice views back down the valley from where we had come. All the time, Nevado Salkantay towered above us. Occasionally, a house-sized chunk of ice would give up trying to hang onto the steep face and tumble down the cliffs, creating a waterfall of ice and snow, and sending a grumbling roar through the valley. At the base of the glaciar, a deep moraine carved its way down the hill. “There’s a lot of power up there”, commented Samara. I couldn’t argue with that. We joined the crowds at the pass, where they posed to have photos taken. Instead of “say cheese”, a guide was telling his group to “say chupe” – the local word for soup. The views from the pass were pretty incredible.
As we headed down the other side, the alpine environment gave way to a more jungle-like area. Quite suddenly the vegetation changed and we went from being cold in our down jackets to being covered in sweat. With the heat came the insects. The voice of my mother rang loudly in my head, warning me of all types of disease that these biting insects could bring. We covered our skin and clothes in a thick layer of powerful insect repellent. However, shortly afterwards, when I was squatting in the bushes the little buggers were very quick to find the only section of skin not protected. Samara laughed as I emerged back onto the track scratching several annoyingly itchy bites on my bum and groin area.
After a decent descent down the valley, I was happy to reach to the town of Colpapampa. Our host for the night was still out in the hills when we arrived, so I sat and tried to have a conversation with the old lady who was manning a ‘shop’ next door (one bottle of Coca-Cola and a few bottles of beer sat on the wooden shelves in a dark shed with chickens pecking at the floor). Although my grasp of the Quechua language was lacking, I got the idea that she was also complaining about the insects as she waved her hand violently in front of her face.
Our bed for the night was covered in a shiny gold sheet – quite a contrast to the blue tarpaulins that were pinned against the walls and the compressed mud floor. However, after the day of walking over the pass and a good feed, I didn’t find it hard to fall asleep.
Day three took us wandering down the valley towards La Playa, following the river the whole way. Unfortunately for the aesthetics, a shiny new trail of powerlines ran down the length of the valley. We snacked on tiny wild strawberries that grew on either side of the trail and bought some granadillas (a sweet passionfruit) from a boy selling them from a cardboard box on the side of the trail. My feet were suffering from the heat and all of the downhill, so I dipped my feet into the icy streams that flowed down the sides of the hills. It did the trick – after a few seconds in the water, I could no longer feel the blisters.
We had heard about a side-trip that goes past the ruins of Llactapata which we were keen to do. So after a 5 am alarm and a quick breakfast we caught a taxi to the trailhead. The trail headed up the hill for 3 hours passing plantations of banana and coffee. A man sat by the path roasting coffee beans over a small fire. A sign read “Andean Starbucks”. Further up the hill someone had set up a small stall selling Coca-Cola and chips to the passing trekkers. The stall appeared to be unmanned except for a dog that was casually hanging out on its roof. We bought an enormous avocado (from the owner that later turned up, not the dog) which we enjoyed spread on some gluten-free rice crackers that I had found in a small supermarket in Cusco.
The track went over the top of the ridge and as we came down the other side we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through a gap in the trees. It was a pretty special moment. Sure, I had seen countless photos of the classic view of Machu Picchu, looking down upon the site with the mountain of Huayna Picchu behind, but this view was just as good. From here you could see just how nicely Machu Picchu fits into its surroundings, slung neatly over the saddle of the hills with a stunning backdrop of the tall mountains that lay behind.
The view from the ruins of Llactapata, which is thought to have acted as a lookout post for Machu Picchu back in the day, was even better. We lay on the flat lawn and listened to a guide tell his group the standard story behind Machu Picchu. One of the Americans in the group asked the guide whether the Peruvians believed that aliens could have had something to do with the mysterious aspects of the site…
On the way down to the valley we stopped at a small stall and had a refreshing glass of chicha morada. After a short section on a dirt road we reached Hidroelectrica. From here we walked the last 2 hours along the train tracks that run along the valley bottom to Aguas Calientes. I had a refreshing dip in the river, from where we could see Machu Picchu on the hill above us. Arriving in Aguas Calientes was a bit of shock to the system, with thousands of tourists wandering along its streets.
I got an even bigger shock the next morning when we woke up at 4.30am to head up to Machu Picchu. My knee had been playing up so I had decided that we should fork out the $15 to catch the bus up the hill. By the time we got to the line for the bus it was already several thousand people long (it felt like that anyway). I almost turned around and went back to bed.
We got through the gates of MP just in time to watch the sun come over the mountains. Despite the enormous numbers of people there, it was still a magical moment as the light hit the terraces and buildings. We spent a good amount of time people-watching as they pulled all sorts of moves to try and get the perfect photo. Those who tried to get a classic jumping shot were told off half way through their jumps by roaming guards. The site is sinking due to the number of visitors that arrive each day, so all of the walkways are reinforced and jumping is strictly forbidden. As is getting naked.
Most tour groups only spend a couple of hours on the site before heading back to Cusco the same day, so by the time we had been up to the Sun Gate and had a wander through the main site most people had already gone. We spent a few more hours just sitting and admiring the view, before stumbling back down to Aguas Calientes just as the rains set in.
We headed back along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica where we organised a ride back to Cusco (40 soles each, 7 hours). We passed a pretty bad car accident and soon after lost the rear vision mirror of our van when a car coming the other way swerved on to our side of the road. We almost didn’t make it back.
Trip type: Multi-day walk, semi-organised with Refugios Salkantay
Highlights: Glacial lakes, high passes, impressive mountains, jungle, Machu Picchu
Costs: Trip with Refugios Salkantay costs $140 (or $100 for South American Explorers members). Book directly with Refugios Salkantay or through South American Explorers club. Does not include entrance to Machu Picchu or return transport costs.
Travel time to trailhead from Cusco: About 3 hours
Trek distance: Approx 60 km
Trek rating: moderate (depending on how acclimatised you are already)
Max trek altitude: 4650m
What to take: Warm clothes (gets cold at night), good boots, rain jacket, snacks, camera, small cash.
- Can be also organised through tour agency or trek can be done independently.