After three days acclimatising in Cusco and a mad last-minute scramble to find a better trek deal (note – don’t book the Salkantay trek in advance, it’s way cheaper in Cusco), we were off. A 4am knock on our hostel door signalled the arrival of our guide– pitch black and cool outside, we stumbled towards our bus to begin what was about to be the most exhausting and most exhilarating five days of my life.
The Salkantay Trek is a stunning, five-day hike to Machu Picchu and one of the more common alternatives to the Inca Trail. Arguably it doesn’t deserve to sit in the Inca Trail’s shadow – harder and longer, it was reportedly named one of the top 25 treks in the world by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. I can’t confess to having done enough treks myself to back this ranking up, but what I can say is that it’s a truly beautiful and rewarding walk.
Day one broke us in gently, with a 15k hike to our first campsite – Soyapampa. Before setting off we split into groups. My group – the Pumas – was made up 15: a motley crew from Brazil, Ireland, America, Mexico, Switzerland and of course, the UK. Due to the size of our group, we got two guides – Edwin – a lovely, energetic and experienced guide who seemed to bound up huge ascents like a mountain goat – and Joel – who had never-ending patience and always ensured the slowest person (ahem) was never left on their own. You could feel the altitude straight away, every step is that bit harder with less air to breathe and the humid heat bore down on us as we wound away through lush green forest trails. The ascent was gentle and streams gurgled past as we got to know each other as we walked.
Once at Soyapampa, a lovely campsite in the shade of the snow-capped Salkantay mountain, the group had the option to climb a steep ascent to get to a lake. The second day of the trek is famed for being the most difficult, so my boyfriend and I saved our energy and went to explore the site – watching a game of football amongst the sherpas and finding a little family of ducklings. The fields were filled with horses, which you could rent the next day to take you up the Salkantay pass to the dizzy height of 4650m. I must admit I was tempted…
I went to sleep in the tent that night, huddled up to Marc in -3 degrees, with butterflies in my stomach for the day to come – 3 hours of ascent, 6 hours of descent.
We woke early, wrapped up to the nines in thermal wear, and scoffed down a breakfast of pancakes before starting out as the sun slowly rose. With each step it was harder to breathe and I was chewing cocoa leaves like there was no tomorrow, but reaching the summit three hours later was one of the most rewarding feelings in the world. The snow covered peaks around us were mind-boggling huge, with crisp white, narrow crests falling away to sheer nothing. It was staggeringly beautiful and the elation I felt is so evocative even now. We posed for group photos and then made an offering to Pachamama, adding our own pebbles to the hundreds at the top.
Legs shaking, I shoved Oreos in my mouth before starting the six hour descent. The ground was a little rough but the snowy mountains started making way to dense green and, from one climate to another, as we suddenly found ourselves in humid jungle. The campsite that night was alive with the jubilation of our successful summit – we had hot showers and drank beer: bliss.
The third day saw us trek deep into the jungle – our problems with the altitude forgotten as we walked alongside a roaring river in the sunshine, as Edwin pointed out edible fruit and hallucinogenic flowers. It was my favourite day – a medley of ascent and descent made it more bearable on the legs and every rest stop seemed to contain a puppy or two to play with. At the end of the trek, we went to natural hot springs and felt our muscles ease as we swam in volcanically heated water. Relaxed and clean, we made our way back to camp where our guides had set up for a “party” – a bonfire, blaring music and Inca tequila for 1 sol (about 20p) a shot. Needless to say, we all woke up with sore heads the next day, that weren’t helped by a torrential downpour that raged all morning.
Hungover, tired and wet, we took the easy way out and got a bus to our lunch point, rather than walk in the rain. Fortunately, it cleared up by the afternoon, as we trekked down a railway track in the close heat for hours before reaching Aguas Calientes – a bustling town, full of restaurants and clothes stalls, and also the final resting point before Machu Picchu. Marc and I somehow managed to bag the honeymoon suite and enjoyed a blissfully hot shower, washed clothes and an actual bed and toilet. Despite the noise from the street and stairwell, it was relative luxury.
We all got an early night, ready for the main event – Machu Picchu – the next day. We woke at 4 and met our group in reception. Headlamps on, we made our way to the Machu Picchu check point at the bottom of the valley, before beginning what can only be described as the most tortuous hour of my life so far… To get to Machu Picchu, we had to climb 1,700 steps in the dark. And not just normal steps, no, these steps were carved into rock, with streams running over them and were at least twice the height of normal steps. It was about 10 steps in, when I thought “God, I feel pretty knackered”, that I realised the pain that was going to ensue. I adopted the mentality of Dory in Finding Nemo – just keep swimming –as the world blurred and my muscles screamed.
But of course, it was worth it, when out of the swirling mist, Machu Picchu emerged. It is a truly magical place – steeped in history and legend – a lost city for the Incas, set up in the mountains. In fact, it deserves a blog in its own right and that is what I shall give it…
But for now, let me leave with you a few tips for the indescribable Salkantay trek:
Pack layers – it’s freezing at night and hot in the jungle
Mosquito repellent and sun cream will be your friends
Bring cash for tips – including the horsemen, chefs and guides – and for toilet stops
Toilet paper is a must – not many rest stops have it
Cocoa leaves and plenty of water will save you in times of altitude sickness
Acclimatise for a few days in Cusco first
Don’t book your trek in advance – there’s really no need as there is lots of availability and cheaper prices on the ground
Don’t worry if you think you’re not that fit – I’m not and I managed it – just take your time