There are numerous different ways to get to one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. You can take a train and hike into the site, ride buses to the front gate, or complete one of the many treks that are available. These treks range in number of days traveling, number of miles covered, and have an extreme range in price to participate ($200-$2,000). The Inca Trail is the most popular trek, which requires a permit as only 500 people per day are allowed on the trail and 300 of those are going to be porters and guides. You have to book that trek at least 6 months in advance. Of the half dozen or so other options, Salkantay intrigued me with promises of being significantly less crowded, more physically strenuous, and showing off a multitude of different climates along the way.
I arrived in Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire, early in the morning, and set off to the Plaza de Armas to find a company that would take me on the Salkantay trek. It was easy to find multiple companies that were more than happy to take me as soon as the next day. The company I chose showed great reviews online, so I paid my $260 for the five day trek and was told to come back that night for a briefing and I’d be on the trail the next day.
I was a little ill prepared for the upcoming trip as I didn’t bring a good smaller bag, so I had to rent a 30L day bag as I wouldn’t be bringing my big 75L bag on a trek. I also had to buy toilet paper and an extra sweater in Cusco as it was significantly colder than I had expected. A five day hiking and camping trip should be easy to pack for, however our climate would change significantly day to day. We’d start at 11,000 feet in elevation and climb to over 15,000 feet, moving through a snow covered pass in the Andes at freezing temperatures, down into a subtropical valley full of banana and avocado trees. One day we could expect to be snowed on and freezing, the next could be in the upper 80s Fahrenheit and sweating.
On day one I was picked up at the nice Ecopackers Hostel before sunrise and transported by bus to our starting point over an hour away. When I’m sitting down in any vehicle with an engine I get lulled to sleep pretty quickly, so I didn’t notice the quality, or lack thereof, of the roads we were traveling on. I was told later that it was a perilous journey with sheer drop offs on either side of the road, and very narrow roads that we traveled over. I met with our group of 18 trekkers as we ate a breakfast of bread and jam, which was not even slightly filling, and drank some loose leaf coca tea. I brought zero snacks with me which was going to prove to be a big mistake as I was later stuck begging some of my new friends for some cookies or anything they were willing to give up.
As we set off on our trek, the scenery was somewhat drab, less a few cool looking terraces and roads. Luckily my mind was preoccupied with the 13 miles we’d be hiking that day and learning more about my fellow trekkers. It was a few hours of hiking on a decent incline before we got to a point where we could see the snow capped Andes in front of us. To that point the day had been fun enough, I love hiking and being outdoors, but seeing those mountains and knowing we’d be passing through them the next day was very exciting.
We eventually made our way to our first camp site, which was comprised of wooden frames with tarps attached to them, and a multitude of guinea pigs. We were in the shadow of Salkantay mountain, which loomed over us with it’s 20,568ft tall peak. All of our tents were inside one of the wood and tarp structures, as the weather was a bit ominous. I was there in September, which is during the shoulder season, and the weather was foggier and wetter the higher we got.
The views from the camp were exceptional and the weather was bitingly cold. I was wearing a t-shirt, two long sleeved shirts, a jacket, and a new alpaca sweater I bought in Cusco for $10. Through those layers, two layers of medium gloves, and my alpaca beanie, I still wasn’t overly warm. A few of the guys and I decided to warm up with some Cusqueña beer that was being sold by the liter by a lady near the campsite in a small wooden shack. It was $3ish and after a few of those we were feeling alright about the long hike we had just completed and were excited for day 2, which was rumored to be the hardest day.
We woke up at dawn to more coca tea, which is typically used for a very mild amount of energy, as well as to combat altitude sickness. We knew we had a steep uphill ahead of us, and it was snowing, as well as a long descent down the back side of the pass. A half hour after we started the hike we found out that despite the solitude we had enjoyed the day and night before, we were not alone on the mountain. There were probably 40 or so total hikers winding upward toward Abra Salkantay, the pass we would journey through. I was lucky to be in a pretty quick group and we ended up ahead of the crowd. We did get to pause from time to time to allow the mules making the journey the opposite direction to pass. It’s key to stay toward the mountain side of the trail while this is happening so these stubborn creatures don’t accidentally push you off the trail and down the mountain.
After a stop to see some of the few Inca people selling 100% alpaca merchandise at a crazy markup (maybe the quality correlates to the price but I couldn’t justify it), we pushed on toward the pass. To prepare for this trip I hiked up to 10,000 feet often at Lake Tahoe, and I lived at 5,000 feet at the time. This part of the trek took the wind right out of me. I was pushing hard to get to the top but running on fumes most of the way.
Once we finally made it to the pass I was elated that the hardest part of the whole trek was behind me. I had seen amazing pictures of the pass as travelers looked up at the beautiful peak of Salkantay, however she was feeling shy this day and was completely hidden behind a blanket of clouds. Even so, the pass was an amazing place. All around there were piles of rocks travelers had brought up and left there for good luck, and each of us added to our own pile with stones we had brought as well.
On the way down the snow stopped almost immediately after leaving the pass, however it quickly turned to rain. Our snowy winter wonderland had changed into a swampland with slippery mud everywhere. I was making good time, I was hungry and heard we only needed to go another 3 miles until lunch. As I trucked along, hopping from rock to rock on the muddy downhill I was feeling great until one easy step turned into one quick fall into the mud. My foot had slipped completely out from under me, and that was the day I learned about a benefit of hiking pants. I quickly jumped up and journeyed on, thick mud caked up my entire right side. My Levi’s didn’t want to clean off very well as I scraped against large, moss covered rocks, although my nylon jacket was quick to clean off. When we stopped I saw a few other fellow trekkers from our group unzipping the leg portion of their hiking pants and washing them off from their own falls, while I had to live with anything my leg touched getting muddied up for the rest of the day.
We finished lunch, and made quick work of the remaining 3 miles of hiking for the day. When we got to our second camp, we celebrated finishing the hardest day of our journey with more Cusqueña and sharing travel stories with each other. Our celebration was just starting when we were told to gather everyone together. Our guide informed the group that the place we were heading to the next day, Santa Teresa, was having some unrest. There had been protests over the past few weeks, and within the past day or two the police had shot two protesters and killed them. He told us the protesters had grown more unruly and were on their way toward the campsite we were currently at, as they intended to block entrance to Machu Picchu in protest of the police shooting. We were told that a bus was on it’s way, and we needed to pack up and get on it immediately. It would take us to a place the protesters had recently left, where we could resume our trek.
I can’t think of a time I’ve been legitimately scared on a bus ride besides this time. This bus was overloaded with our gear on top, and too many of us inside. The road was barely wide enough to fit all four wheels in multiple places. Our driver was preoccupied on his cell phone and seeming like he was about to fall asleep from boredom. Multiple trekkers were in tears from fear at how dangerous the drive was. I thought it was a huge adrenaline rush seeing our wheels come within an inch or two of the edge of a massive cliff over and over, but it became too much for a lot of the group to bear, and they demanded the bus stop so they could hike 3 miles to the next camp, after having finished a 12 mile day over a ton of elevation and tough conditions. A few of the girls got out and started hiking, and about 2 minutes went by before their boyfriends who had remained on the bus thought better of their decision and hopped out as well.
Our new camp 2 was humming with activity, as trekkers from different routes had diverted to this camp as well. Everyone was trying to figure out where the protesters were and their best route to get to Machu Picchu safely assuming it didn’t get completely blocked off. We settled in for the night, fingers crossed that the next day would lead us closer to the historical site and safely around any angry mobs.
The third day was much more dry, crossing from our higher, wetter altitude, into lower, more jungle-like conditions. We were in the sub-tropical jungle finally, with banana and avocado trees all around us. Smarter fellow travelers than I were unzipping the legs from their pants and comfortably hiking on in shorts. We were all happy to have dry feet and warm weather. We got to a point in the river where we would need to cross over via a metal basket attached to a steel cable. It was a blast being pushed across a 70 yard or so expanse over a river in a little metal basket! As we all crossed and trekked on we saw a small group of policemen carrying rifles standing on the side of a trail. We moved on not thinking much of it, until we saw another group, and another, and another. There were police everywhere, typically carrying large rifles and in more tactical dress or even fatigues, than patrol clothing.
We settled into our final campsite amongst police patrols right on the train tracks that lead to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. There’s a cool view of the back side of Machu Picchu from here and we were graced with a double rainbow for the first time any of us got to see any part of the site.
On day four we had a short 3 hour hike to Aguas Calientes where we would take much needed showers and play lots of Jenga. Every bar you go to seems to have a buy one get one special, which isn’t overly special because the prices are pretty inflated, and they all include free “nachos”. If you’ve ever eaten decent Mexican food I’ll warn you now, there isn’t any of that in this town, however there seems to be a lot of places serving their own style of it. Their nachos are more like empty wontons with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, their Chimichanga was an oddly deep fried taco. Every bar I saw had Jenga set up at every table, and I learned that day that drunken Jenga is a blast.
We slept in hostels that night and turned in early as the next day was what we had journeyed so far for. We would need to get up long before the sun rose in order to be the first people in line at a gate that permits you to enter the base of the mountain. We’d then climb roughly 4,000 large stairs to get to the gate to enter the site. It was time to sleep. If you want to read more about my time, and Sissy’s separate trip to Machu Picchu, click here!