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 from home, it’s way cheaper to book when 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/ The Salkantay is longer and more strenuous than the Inca Trail but you will get a lot more mountain views rather than historic sights, and this was named one of the top 25 treks in the world by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.
It is definitely a lot less crowded than other trails too.
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 people: 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 my 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, the top of the Salkantay Pass, 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.
This 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 day’s 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 it was great to have 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.
Any photographic preconceptions of Machu Picchu don’t do justice to the sheer majesty of the ancient city, set high up in the cloud-covered peaks of Peru.
Tumbling agricultural terraces are jewel-bright green, clinging to the edge of the mountain as lamas graze on them and Incan temples are a historian’s delight.
The one hour guided tour at the beginning of our day was provided by our Salkantay guide, Ed, and magically bought to life the truly amazing feat the creation of Machu Picchu was – a sheer triumph in human existence. Ican’s believed that when you were in the mountains you were closer to God, hence the high-altitude setting of the city, and I think they must have been right.
There’s a sleepy, ancient magic up here, which even the hoards of tourists don’t perturb.
After the guided tour, we set off to climb Huayna Picchu, the iconic stalagmite-esque mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, which I was initially dreading given the five-day trek and morning climb preceding it.
Only 400 people can climb Huayna Picchu per day, so make sure you book it well in advance as I promise you, despite the horror-stories of its steep ascent, it is well worth it. Not that the horror stories aren’t true… they kind of are.
The climb is sheer uphill and a metal cable running alongside the narrow path will be your best friend – you simply have to cling on to it to avoid falling off. Up and up and up, energy fails, but when you get to the top, it’s incredible. Seeing Machu Picchu like this from above it.
It’s quiet up there: a perfect, calming vantage point to survey the ancient city from. It’s a city in miniature; you can barely seeing the people teaming all over it.
Following an even more precarious climb down, we head out of Machu Picchu for a food-stop. You can’t eat or drink food on the site and you can only go out three times in one day. There is only one extremely expensive café, so my tip is stock up in advance, as you’ll need fuel and well-earned sweets.
The rest of the afternoon exploring the site stretched out before us, but be warned, there is so much to do and you’ll never do it all in one day, so be picky.
My boyfriend and I decided to do yet another uphill hike to the Sun Gate – the infamous entrance to Machu Picchu if you come in via the Inca Trail.
The sun was beating down on us as I desperately tried to apply extra coats of sunscreen as it steadily dripped off me. Marc, my boyfriend, is an absolute saint, as the five days of uphill, two climbs already that day and lack of food/cool air were beginning to take their toll.
I’m ashamed to say that I moaned my way up to the Sun Gate as Marc cajoled me up with encouraging words. I owe him a lot because once at the top, as always, I was so glad I’d done it.
The Sun Gate provides a totally different but equally mystical view of the stunning city. I sat there and pondered what it must have been like to discover such a place: hidden treasure buried up in the mountains.
The bus back down the mountain is pricey, so we walked down the 1,700 steps we had climbed up at the beginning of the day.
By the time we had got to the bottom, my legs were trembling and my water bottle was drained, but it was so utterly and completely worth it.
Machu Picchu is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and, despite the tourists, it retains its old magic. You have to see it to feel it.
Tips for the 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