When we planned to visit Machu Picchu, we knew we wanted to do a trek to get there, rather than just take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes at the base of the mountain. The classic route is the so-called “Inca Trail”, a four day hike along an old Inca footpath through and around the Sacred Valley. However, this route is severely regulated and limited, and you have to book months in advance. And… we’re not so good at that. So, we started looking for alternatives. Chris and Em had done the Salkantay Trek when they visited Peru in 2007, and recommended it. After looking into it, it sounded good to us. Five days instead of only four, higher mountain passes, and more beautiful natural scenery. Sign us up! As a bonus, Pam would be joining us, fulfilling her lifelong dream of seeing Machu Picchu. She knew there would be long days on the trek, so she prepared by walking 13 miles a day! Turns out, no one told her we’d be going up above 15,000 ft. Oops!
In order to get a decent start on the first day, we were collected at our hotel at 4:30 AM, dropped onto a bus, and sent on a three hour ride to the starting village of Mollepata, at 2900 m. Over breakfast (we were cheap and brought our own bread and bananas!), we met our fellow trekkers. We were: 4 Swedish doctors just out of residency and super athletic/competitive, 2 young Spanish women who’d quit their jobs and were traveling Central and South America, an older Spanish guy traveling on his own, a friendly Hungarian couple, and a young German guy just starting his own round-the-world adventure. Oh yeah, and us three Americans. It was a really great group dynamic, with people from lots of different backgrounds and experiences, which made for good conversation throughout the trip.
After breakfast, people divided up their things among day bags and what they would put on the mules (only 5 kg per person, please). I let the mule carry my sleeping bag, but packed everything else on my back, not wanting to feel like I was cheating. We then took the requisite group photo “1,2,3 say sexy llamas!”, were given the daily orders by our guide Leo, and started on our way.
As we headed up the road out of town, the group came together, and what would become the usual routine fell into place. The Swedes forged way ahead while the rest of us strung out behind. Leo would bring us all back together now and then for a rest, or to point out some interesting local flora and fauna. For example, he showed us one insect that you could crush up and it would create this vibrant red pigment. Turns out it’s used in lipstick! One of the Swedes ended up with bug warpaint for the rest of the day.
Taking so many breaks was both relaxing and frustrating. It was nice to sit around and chat and air out my feet, but it’s certainly not the way we’re using to backpacking.
Usually we get going in the morning and just plow on until a late lunch. Stopping all the time made it more difficult to get going again, but it’s something we got used to with the group. I think most of the others felt similarly, and after a while, Leo didn’t stop us much anymore. In fact, we were constantly going much faster than his time estimates, and we ended up calling our group the “Super Hikers” (has to be said in a thick accent).
The bane of Day 1 were Leo’s “shortcuts”. The main path this day followed a dirt road up into the mountains, and in order to avoid taking all the switchbacks, we often cut straight up the mountainside instead.
Doing this while getting used to the thinner air was quite a struggle for a while, but we all trudged through. We were quite grateful when the path flattened out again, and we finally got our first view of the snow-capped peak of Nevado Umantay in the distance.
After hiking through the morning and into early afternoon, we finally reached our lunch spot, a nice grassy area with a handy dining tarp and small store. Our cooks had run ahead and lunch was already waiting for us!
As we were waiting to be seated, I made the fatal mistake of taking off my shoes and socks to air them out. Turns out this was a poor choice for several reasons. First, a little doggy promptly stole one of my socks and ran off with it, causing a bit of a chase, and giving a bit of foreshadowing for later in the day.
However, this wasn’t the real problem. The main issue was that here we first encountered nasty little biting flies. Leo called this mosquitoes, but they definitely were not. They did however leave horribly itchy and swelling bites. Without noticing it, my feet were quickly covered. Several others were similarly afflicted, and everyone reacted differently. I was lucky in that my bites only itched horrendously for the next week. One of the Spanish girls had massive swelling in her leg the next day and came down with a fever. Handy that we had four doctors along!
After the first of many delicious meals on the trail, we strapped on our packs once again and set off. At about the same time, we saw our gear and backpacks trotting by, strapped to mules! But they stopped so that the Arreiros (horse men) could have a refreshing glass of the local fermented corn beer, known as chicha.
After lunch, the path flattened out, and we could actually see all the way to our first campsite, about 8 km in the distance, at the base of Umantay. As we walked the trail, we eventually came close enough that the white massive peak of Salkantay came into view.
Here’s a video of the action!
This was the namesake of our trek, and the second highest mountain in the region, at 6271 m (20,574 ft). It was totally blanketed in snow, and Leo told us that it was sacred to the local Quechua, and that many people had died trying to climb it over the past years.
We continued to hike the relatively flat second part of the day, stopping regularly to take in the amazing surroundings.
We passed the fancy mountain lodge of the super expensive trekking agency, complete with hot tubs ($2800 instead of $220 for the trek), a herd of grazing llamas, crossed a few final streams, and at around 5 PM we rolled into Camp 1.
Leo greeted the family (what he always called us), and gave us each congratulation hugs for completing the days trekking. I think he was especially impressed with Pam’s speed, and started calling her “my mother”. I got my own interesting name. One of the Swedes had Erickson as his last name, but Leo got confused, and that became my name for the rest of the trip! I didn’t bother correcting him; it had a kind of Japanese Bushido feel to it.
Our campsite was fairly crowded, with several guided groups and independent trekkers. In order to keep the cold winds at bay, a sort of blue tarp pole barn had been erected, and all our tents were set up within, along with our dining table. There were separate huts for cooking and bathrooms, and a little store. This was clearly a well established place. Once again, not the kind of thing we’d normally associate with when backpacking, but on a guided trip, you just roll with these things. And of course, a lot was made up for by the amazing background.
In my usual tradition, I proceeded to take a bath in the nearby stream and sink, dousing myself with quite cold water. Some of the others thought I was a bit crazy, but I hate sitting around camp filthy when there is perfectly good water nearby.
After slipping into warm evening clothes, I joined the rest of the group for the start of a great daily tradition: 5:45 happy hour! Our chef brought out steaming thermoses of hot water, which we poured into cups of tea, coca, coffee, and hot chocolate. We also got huge trays of fresh popcorn, which was an unexpected and delicious treat.
Barely an hour later, we sat down to our first dinner, by candlelight. Tonight it was the wilderness version of Lomo Saltado, strips of meat, french fries, and rice. We also had our first sip of muña tea, a delicious minty infusion from a local plant that was supposed to help us sleep and with the altitude. After eating, I popped outside to try to catch the sunset, but was a bit late. Instead I managed to see the moonrise, and as the evening wore on, the appearance of an incredible array of stars and the Milky Way.
Knowing we’d have to wake very early the next morning for our assault on the Salkantay Pass, we retired to bed early. Leo warned us to bring all our belongings, including our shoes, into our tents or the ‘doggies’ might run off with them. Well, I think it’s more likely that they would be stolen, but doggies are a nice euphemism, and I did have one steal my sock earlier in the day, after all!
See what happens on Day 2!
– Salkantay Trek is 5 days / 4 nights
– We booked for $220 USD through Loki Hostel online. This was the cheapest price we heard of anyone paying.
– We added an extra $6 USD for the ticket to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. It’s about twice as high as the more popular Huayna Picchu, and much less crowded.
Trekking Distance: 19 km
Trekking Time: ~8 hours (w/ lots of stops and lunch)
Starting Location: Mollepata (2900 m)
Lunch: Challacancha (3500 m)
Camp 1: Soraypampa (3900 m)
Total Ascent: 1000 m