16.04.2013 - 22.04.2013 18 °C
Machu Picchu is widely considered to be South America´s number one drawcard and attraction. Some travellers take transport up to the site for the day from Cuzco but many backpackers opt for a multi-day hike to reach the mystical Inca site. The most popular and world famous route is the classic 4 day Inca trail but we had decided before leaving home that we would take on the 5 day Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. The main reason for this is that the Inca trail requires booking at least 3 months in advance unlike the Salkantay which can be booked a few days in advance in Cuzco. Also, we liked the fact that the Salkantay is considered a more naturally scenic trail and has far less hikers and is also more challenging. The only downside is that we had to forego ruins that are found along the Inca trail but we figured we would see our fair share of ruins at Macchu Picchu on the final day. This trek would turn out to be the best thing we have done in South America despite having many 'why are we paying good money for this' moments along the way.
On arrival in Cuzco we went to about 10 of the hundreds of tour agencies in town. We were quite picky with who we booked with as we needed a company that could provide a porter for our big bags for us as we didn´t want to carry too much weight with our bad backs and we had to make sure they were a registered company through iPeru as many dodgy companies don´t give you what they promise. The trek didn´t get off to a great start when we found out that we had been put with a different company to the one we had booked with. We had a bit of a blue with our tour guide Jerry as he said some of the conditions we had been promised would not be fulfilled by their company but in the end everything worked out alright and we got along well with him. Our group had one porter and a horse and two cooks who somehow whipped up hearty meals for 14 people half way up in the middle of nowhere half way up cold mountains and woke us up every morning bringing coca tea into our tents.
The first day we hiked for 18kms in about 8 hours. Quite a bit of uphill which got progressively tougher as we rose in altitude and the air got thinner. Luckily we had a bag of coca leaves and apart from getting very out of breath, we didn´t suffer from any altitude sickness. This first day was very picturesque (as was the entire trek) with lush green hills and mountains, passing cattle and small villages. After we set off in the morning and after lunch we were amazed to see the porter and cooks with the group´s heavy bags race past us and have the tents all set up and ready by the time we arrived. We quickly became accustomed to this each day. As we approached our camp at the end of the first day we could see in the distance the snowy Willapampa mountain range including Salkantay (in Quechua means savage mountain) - the most spectacular peak of the region. That first night wasn´t really our idea of a good time, -5 degrees in a tent. After an early dinner we jumped straight into bed our shivered our way through the night despite being in many layers.
Another early start at 5am on day 2 saw us climbing for 4 hours in the morning a 1000m to the high point of the trek, just over 4600m. This was said to be the longest and hardest day of the trek and it turned out to be 22kms in 10 hours. The going was very slow up the mountain and by noon we had reached the Salkantay pass with glorious views of the mountain. The next 3 hours down to lunch were more pleasant with the altitude dropping and the temperature rising with every step. Just as we set off after lunch the heavens opened and did not hold up all afternoon. Unfortunately for us this part of the path was not at all rocky and the dusty path turned into thick, wet, sloshy mud. Even more unfortunate was our decision to not take anyones advise and invest in some hiking shoes unlike the rest of the group. Scott particularly struggled in old hole ridden Dunlop Volleys and quickly found himself well behind the rest of the group trying the slide down the path in the completely submerged shoes. Our only saving grace was a walking stick we had bought at the start point of the trek which saved us from hitting the deck dozen of times. Despite the rain and mud this section of the trek was actually quite fun and the change of scenery was dramatic as we had now dropped well over 1000m and found ourselves in sub tropical rainforest. We reached our camp late in the afternoon. It was slightly warmer than the previous night but with no other footware and no showers we had another pretty unenjoyable night.
High point of the trek
On day 3 we all set of with our soaking wet muddy shoes for an easier day of 6 hours and 18kms on flatter terrain. Although the distance was much the same, the good path, easy descent and lower altitude made the going much faster than the previous 2 days and we were relieved to find our shoes dry by lunchtime. We hiked along a skinny path half way up a mountain following the seemingly endless valley with gushing white rapids below. By this stage our bodies were starting to get sore. Although the earlier uphill sections were hard on the lungs, the downhill was much tougher on the calves. We reached our camp by mid afternoon and got taken to the nearby hot springs which were not only an absolute godsend for our tight muscles but were probably the nicest hot springs we have ever been to. After 2 hours of soaking in the hot water we went back to camp for dinner and as the evening temperature was a good 15 degrees warmer than the previous nights we had a few beers and played some cards with the rest of the group. It had taken some time for the group to gel, but after the third night we started to all get along really well. We had a very international group of Germans, French, Italian and a bunch of Brazilians who spoke only Portuguese. It was a full male contingent apart from Georgie.
The morning hike on day 4 was by far the least scenic walking along a dusty road for 3 hours with passing traffic. After lunch was much nicer trekking the final leg along the train tracks with Machu Picchu mountain and Wayna Picchu mountain on the horizon. We reached the small town of Aguas Calientes late in the arvo after another 23kms for the day. In Aguas Calientes we were put up in a hotel with a room over looking the river which was just what we needed after 3 nights of camping to be fresh in the morning for a day exploring Machu Picchu. We had our final dinner with the group and got an early nights sleep with our last 4am alarm set for the following morning.
We had 2 options to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, a half hour bus or walk 20 minutes to the base of the mountain followed by around 3000 steps up it. We all decided that we'd walked this far already that we may as well walk the last little bit so out came the torches and we set off again. The one hour ascent up the mountain was grueling and we definately resented those who took the bus and reached the entrance just before us.
For our first hour and a half inside Machu Picchu, Jerry gave us a brief guided tour and it was difficult to concentrate on what he was saying as the site was so spectacular and we kept ducking off to take photos. The first few hours were nice and quiet as the day trippers from Cuzco would not arrive until after 8pm and even when they arrived the site was so spread out with many nooks and crannies to explore that it never seemed overly busy.
Wayna Picchu in the background
After the tour we were free to explore the site and after a few hours of wandering around we made our way to the base of Wayna Picchu which we had booked to climb up at 10am. This was close to another hour of climbing with the steps becoming unbelievably steep and narrow the further we rose. When we reached the top we were rewarded with a glorious view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding valleys and the river below where we had started our climb in the morning. There were also plenty of ruins to explore at the top of the mountain which were mind blowing and we spent a good hour at the top discovering different view points.
After climbing back down to the main site we made our way up to the famous view point to take the classic postcard pictures of Machu Picchu and checked out some other sites like the Inca bridge. By the time we walked back down the 3000 steps and back to Aguas Calientes we were truely knackered. We hadn't anticipated that we would be walking that much once we reached Machu Picchu but we realised we had been walking for 11 hours with barely a break to sit down. Back in Aguas Calientes we bumped into our Belgium friends who had just arrived so had a nice catch up with them before catching a train then bus back to Cuzco.
We both agree that the Salkantay trek has been the best thing we have done thus far on the trip and Machu Picchu is the most impressive, fascinating and mystical place we have ever visited on our travels. The trek certainly wasn't easy but that has made it all the more memorable and it felt like a right of passage to view Machu Picchu on the final day. While the photos look amazing, they still don't come close to doing it justice.
We have now just arrived in Arequipa after an overnight bus from Cuzco where we are planning to do 2 or 3 days of hiking into the Colca Canyon. We may need a rest day or two before we embark on this next adventure.
Georgie & Scott x