The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

by Dave on January 2, 2012 · 64 comments

The highlight of the 4-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is the opportunity to walk in the shadow of the snow-capped Salkantay Mountain (6,264 meters).

Unlike the classic 3-day Inca Trail trek, which requires you book a spot at least 5-6 weeks in advance (in the low season), the Salkantay Trek can be booked in Cusco upon arrival.

And it can be done for less than half the cost. I’ll be writing more about how to book the trek, and what to pack, in future posts.

But first, I want to take you through the journey day by day, as it was a true outdoor adventure that tested both my mental and physical resolve.

Trail at the start of the Salkantay Trek

Trail at the start of the Salkantay Trek

Day 1 – Cusco to Soraypampa

Begin: Mollepata 2,900 meters / 9,514 feet; End: Soraypampa 3,900 meters / 12,795 feet
Change in Elevation: 1,000 meters /  3,281 feet
Time walking: 5 hours 15 minutes

Awake at 4 AM, I wiped the sleep from my eyes, rolled out of bed, and moved my bags to the hostel reception. As expected, it wasn’t until about 4:30 – 4:40 AM that the minivan actually pulled up.

Under cover of darkness, we drove around picking up additional trekkers. Our group for the next 5 days was slowly forming.

Abhishek, a young British doctor. A young German doctor. 2 Dutch girls. Nicole (Canada). 2 Malaysian women in their 40’s. A young Japanese guy. And Kathy, an older Australian woman who had just completed the Inca Trail the day before (she did the two treks back to back).

In other words, a lot of estrogen.

The sky began to brighten as we drove from Cusco to Mollepata, a small pueblo, where we had a simple breakfast of bread and eggs with mate de coca (coca tea).

Afterward, we were led to a large truck, in which we hitched a ride for several kilometers up a steep, muddy road. Our guide would say it saved us a few hours of walking. Nobody protested.

Once the truck dropped us off, we began our walk….straight up the mountainside.

Camp #1 is at the base of Umantay (5,459 meters)

Camp #1 is at the base of Umantay (5,459 meters). You can see it in the lower right of this photo.

I had given myself 5 nights to acclimatize in Cusco, which sits at 3,300 meters above sea level, but I’d failed to do any kind of exercise during that time.

My heart was pounding within the first few minutes.

One of the Malaysian women, both of whom had been to Everest Base Camp and successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years earlier, complained of a headache.

I knew if she was feeling bad at 3,100 meters, before we’d even started, it wasn’t going to bode well for her that night, or on Day 2, the most difficult day of the trek.

The sun was beating down; it was hotter than I’d expected. Covered in a familiar layer of suntan spray and mosquito repellent, I tried to settle into a comfortable walking rhythm.

Over 3 years had passed since my last high-altitude trek to Indrahar Pass in northern India. I hadn’t realized it’d been so long since I gave myself a proper physical challenge.

Doubts began creeping into my head. They were familiar ones about the my health at high altitudes, and physical stamina.

I recognized them from my Annapurna Sanctuary trek in Nepal; the one where I didn’t reach Base Camp, an experience on the whole that took me months to get over.

After 2.5 hours of walking, we stopped for lunch. Soup, and a rustic version of lomo saltado (beef, vegetables and rice).

I barely finished half my plate, despite knowing food is energy, and I needed as much as possible. I relied on chocolate and copious amounts of water instead.

Throughout the trek, I probably drank 2-3 times more water, and pissed 2-3 times more often than anyone else in our group.

Sitting there at the table, mind filled with doubts about whether I was really fit for this trek, one of the Dutch girls said something that snapped me back into reality.

Paraphrasing, she said any of us can do this trek if we really want it.

I wanted it. Badly.

And from that point forward, I walked with renewed vigor. As if I’d been asleep at the wheel those first few hours, and I was suddenly awake.

Instead of allowing my thoughts to run wild with fear, I took control of my mind, and thus my body followed suit.

Camp #1 at Soraypampa

Our tents were pitched within a rustic encampment to protect us from the cold night

After lunch we were looked up the valley to see the glacier-covered Umantay. Unlike some trekkers, I gain energy by seeing the next camp — the next destination.

1.75 hours later, I walked into our campsite for the night.

We helped the cook and horseman pitch the tents in an area protected by a sheet metal roof and plastic tarp walls. It wasn’t much, but it’d help keep the wind out, and keep us dry if it rained.

It was my first time sleeping at an altitude as high as 3,900 meters (12,795 feet).

Salkantay Mountain (6,264 meters) at sunset

Salkantay Mountain (6,264 meters) at sunset

We all scarfed down the popcorn served as an appetizer. I forgot the main course, but it was much better than lunch, as was the case with the meals on the remainder of the trek, thankfully.

By 10 PM we were all in our sleeping bags. Day 2 was going to be the longest, most challenging day of the trek, and we’d be getting an early start.

I woke up once in the middle of the night to pee. On the walk back to the tented area, I took a moment to stop and turn off my headlamp.

Total darkness.

I craned my neck up and looked at star-filled sky. The kind of bright stars you only see when you take the time to physically remove yourself from the modern world.

Day 2 – Soraypampa to Chaullay

Begin: 3,900 meters / 12,795 feet; High Point:  4,650 m / 15,256 ft;  End:  2,900 m / 9,514 ft
Change in Elevation:  +750 m / +2,461 ft uphill; followed by: -1,750 m / 5,741 ft downhill
Time walking: 8 hours 15 minutes

Daniel, our guide, briefs the group before we begin trekking on Day 2

Daniel, our guide, briefs the group before we begin trekking on Day 2

Day 2 began with a 5 AM wake up call and a cup of coca tea. By the time we’d eaten breakfast, the sun was already reflecting brightly off the glaciers around us.

Our guide, Daniel, took a few minutes to introduce the support crew, which included a cook, assistant cook, and horseman who managed the horses that carried our camping equipment, food, gas, and supplies.

I had a relatively good night’s sleep. It wasn’t the most comfortable, as the sleeping mat provided was paper-thin, but my rented sleeping bag was sufficiently warm, which was what mattered most.

I bought some extra chocolate and water. I think I walked out of camp with 3.25 liters of water in my bag, if not a little more.

Salkantay Mountain

The trail winds along the left side of the valley, keeping Salkantay Mountain to the right

We began making our way up the valley toward Salkantay Mountain, which would remain partly shrouded in clouds the whole morning.

The day before we got a glimpse of the peak both on the drive to Mollepata, as well as from Camp 1, which was enough to satisfy me given we were there in the off-season.

Kathy, the Australian woman, shared some coca leaves with us, along with a natural “accelerator” which when combined with the leaves, speeds up the effects.

Within a minute or two of chewing on the leaves, the right side of my tongue went numb.

Spitting out the juices, as if I were chewing on tobacco, was less than appealing, so eventually I spit out the whole wad of masticated leaves.

Horses carry the food, gas and camping gear

Horses carry the food, gas and camping gear

Refocusing on the trail, the views continued to get prettier and prettier as our hearts beat harder and harder.

But I was loving every minute. It was as if I was running on pure adrenaline that morning. I’ve never felt so strong and vital. I attributed this feeling to drinking tons of water, and snarfing Snickers bars.

The Japanese guy outpaced us all to the point where we’d long lost sight of him.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian woman with the headache from the day before had rented a horse to ride up the mountain pass that morning.

She’d only spent 2 nights in Cusco before starting the trek, and hadn’t given her body enough time to acclimatize.

I don’t blame her for renting the horse. I would’ve done the same if I felt it in the best interest of my health. It annoyed me to hear at least one other person in the group make some disparaging remarks.

Approaching the high point of 4,600 meters

Approaching the high point of 4,600 meters

The closer we got to the 4,650 meter mountain pass, the more energized I felt. I was surprising myself in the best possible way.

The landscape had changed dramatically in the 750 meters we’d climbed in elevation.

Gone were the green grasses, replaced by the rocky, moon like landscapes often seen above 4,000 meters.

On Day 1 we practically had the trail to ourselves aside from a couple trekking with a guide. On Day 2, we shared the trail with that couple, as well as another  small group of trekkers.

The lack of other people was an unexpected surprise, and clear benefit to trekking in the low season.

Salkantay pass

The Salkantay mountain pass at 4,600 meters. The 3.5 hours it took to get up was the easy part. The 5 hours of going down killed my knees.

Euphoria struck us all as we posed by the sign marking the high point of the trail.

It was a new personal high for me in terms of trekking at high altitudes, though I’d previously been as high as 5,000 meters during the visit to Pastoruri Glacier.

Maybe it was the thin air, but I felt I had the energy to go even higher. After 3.5 hours of walking up to the pass, I knew I could’ve gone even higher that day.

But the hardest part of the day wasn’t going up, it was the following 5 hours it took to descend 1,750 meters in elevation.

After about 20 minutes of rest and picture-taking at the pass, we began our descent.

Driven by a desire to get to a lower elevation to negate the ill effects of the altitude, I walked as quickly as my body would take me.

My knees didn’t appreciate that approach, and within a few hours, I was starting to feel sharp pangs of pain.

Lunch on Day 2 was in Huayracpampa, small encampment in this beautiful valley

Lunch on Day 2 was in Huayracpampa, small encampment in this beautiful valley

At an elevation of 4,000 meters, in a verdant green valley, we stopped for a spaghetti lunch at the small village of Huayracpampa.

It was here that we found the Japanese guy sleeping on our bags, which had been unloaded from the horses upon arrival (ahead of us).

The last 3 hours of walking were the killer. Physically, the most difficult part of the trek for me. I slowed my pace, and adjusted the way I walked on the steeper bits.

The whole trail was scree and loose rock, like a dry riverbed. I wanted nothing more than to get to Camp 2 so I could lay down and rest.

I began repeating a mantra, “you can walk slowly, but you must keep walking.”

When we finally arrived in Chaullay, and removed my shoes and socks, I was greeted by 4-5 painful blisters on each foot.

Normally I carry a sewing needle so I can drain them, but I’d forgotten. Luckily, the German girl had one to spare.

Dinner was a relaxed affair, and I went straight to sleep after it was over.

Day 3 – Chaullay to Santa Teresa

Begin:  2,900 m / 9,514 ft; End: 1,900 m / 6,234 ft
Change in Elevation: –1,000 m / 3,281 ft
Time walking: 4 hours 15 minutes

Breakfast on Day 3:  vegetable omelet, bread and jam, hot porridge, and coca tea

Breakfast on Day 3: vegetable omelet, bread and jam, hot porridge, and coca tea

It rained at some point during our second night, as we awoke to wet tents, however I slept like a log.

Even though we 1,000 meters lower than the first night, the temperatures were far warmer than we’d experienced at Camp 1.

Rising around 6 AM to coca tea delivered to our tents, we had a filling breakfast, said goodbye to our horseman and horses, and began walking along a dirt road that follows the Lluskamayu River.

A recent landslide had taken out a section of the normal hiking trail, which runs on the opposite side of the river, so we were taking a detour for safety reasons.

We walked on the road vs the trail to bypass this landslide

We walked on the road vs the trail to bypass this landslide

Mid-morning break on Day 3

Mid-morning break on Day 3

Reinvigorated after a full night’s rest, I lead the pack. Compared to the first two days of walking, Day 3 was a breeze.

We followed the river for the entire day’s walk. As we continued to descend in elevation, and the sun rose higher in the sky, it began to get very hot and humid.

I found myself walking at a quick pace simply because I wanted to reach our camp for the night. I wanted to escape the heat.

It didn’t take long for my knees to reject this strategy. Once again, I was feeling sharp, at times crippling, pains in my knees.

The Dutch girls approach a section of trail recently wiped away by a landslide

The Dutch girls approach a section of trail recently wiped away by a landslide

We were able to detour around one large landslide that affected the trail, but there were still others that required we pass them.

It helps if you don’t look down.

A little over four hours after we got started, we reached the end of the trail.

A minivan was waiting to take us the short distance to the village of Sahuayacu (elev: 2,520 meters), where we had a gigantic lunch of soup, fried rice and vegetables.

We then hopped back into the van for the drive to nearby Santa Teresa where we would be spending our third night.

The hot springs near Santa Teresa

The hot springs near Santa Teresa

The reward for getting this far was a dip in the hot springs outside Santa Teresa.

They’re situated in a scenic spot alongside the river, and we arrived before the other groups that were doing the Inca Trail and Inca Jungle treks.

For 10-15 minutes, aside from a few locals, we had the pools to ourselves.

That night we were to have a campfire, however heavy rain washed those plans away. Instead, we drank beer and played a few rounds of asshole after dinner.

Day 4 – Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes

Begin: 1,900 m / 6,562 ft End:  2,000 m / ft
Change in Elevation:  -100 m / 328 ft
Time walking: 3 hours

Our map for Day 4, from the hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes

Our map for Day 4, from the hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes

On the fourth morning, the group split up.

I wanted to head straight for Aguas Calientes, as did Nicole (Canada), while the rest of the group wanted to pay about $30 to ride what’s billed as South America’s biggest zipline.

Daniel drew Nicole and I a map from the Hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes. It was as if we were in Stand by Me.

Walking along the railroad tracks

Walking along the railroad tracks, I felt like I was in Stand By Me

Nicole and I took a 30-minute taxi, along with an Argentinian trekker, to the start of the railway that runs from the Hydroelectric plant through Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo all the way to Cusco.

There were still sections where we had to walk on the loose rock of the railroad tracks, however it was a very flat walk through the valley that runs up behind Machu Picchu.

Along the way, a dog began to follow guide us. Daniel informed us that the trains pass every hour or two, and sure enough, we had to step aside for one during the 3-hour walk.

Aguas Calientes, Peru

Aguas Calientes

When we reached the entrance to Machu Picchu, near the train tracks, Nicole and I posed for pics since we’d be getting up before dawn the next day for the hike up.

It was with a mix of excitement and relief that we finally walked up the road that runs from Machu Picchu’s main entrance to the town of Aguas Calientes.

Situated along the river, with the train tracks running straight through the center, it’s a tourist town in the truest sense of the term.

Peru Rail train pulls through Aguas Calientes

Peru Rail train pulls through Aguas Calientes

Upon finding our hostel for the night, I showered and treated myself to a one hour massage, followed by coffee and a piece of rich chocolate cake.

Dear civilization, I missed you!

That night, we had a group dinner at one of the restaurants. We all ordered the trucha (trout), a dish I’ve come to relish when up in the Andes.

After dinner, a few of us went for a cocktail. 5 for 1 caipirinhas, which drew us in the door.

Unfortunately, they were the tiniest cocktails I’d ever been served. And oh yea, we forgot about the inevitable tax and service charge they’d tack on.

Small drinks aside, it was nice to spend a little time bonding before we set off for our final destination, Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu, before dawn the next morning.

To Be Continued….  


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is the author of 1750 posts on Go Backpacking.

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