Pilgrimage to Machu Picchu – The Salkantay trek

21 Oct

Machu Picchu is considered to be one of the new 10 Wonders of the World and the legendary Inca Trail, a 4 day and 3 night trek following the old Inca road, is the most popular way to reach the site, taking in several smaller archeological sites along the way and reaching Machu Picchu for sunrise on day 4. Over the last 10 years or so the Inca Trail seems to have become a victim of its own success. Several years ago it became necessary to limit the number of trekkers using the trail as the sheer volume of traffic meant that the ruins were being damaged, litter was becoming a problem and sanitary conditions were appalling. The quota is now 500 people per day, which, along with trekkers, includes guides, porters and cooks. The measures taken were required to preserve Machu Picchu, but the outcome has been devastating for the humble backpacker with prices for the trek going through the roof and the waiting list to join the trek extending to 5 or 6 months in some cases. With all of this considered, we decided to try one of the many alternative treks, which offer equally as stunning scenery and the chance to visit small villages before ending up at Machu Picchu on the ultimate day. The alternative trek we chose was the Salkantay trek which traverses snow-capped mountain ranges, passes turquoise lagoons and hot springs, and descends into lush jungle before spending one night at a small town called Aguas Calientes and rising early the following morning for sunrise at Machu Picchu.

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There are scores of agencies in Cusco offering full packages which are almost identical to one another and which, for around 250 USD per person, includes a guide, porter, cook, all meals, transport and tents – entrance to Machu Picchu (around 128 Soles or 46 USD) is extra. As we’d been carrying our camping gear throughout South America and because we enjoy adventurous, independent travel, we decided to side-step the tour option by walking the Salkantay trek ourselves and saving a bucketful of money. Before we left Cusco we booked our accommodation in Aguas Calientes, our return train ticket with Peru Rail (their office is situated on the Plaza de Armas) and we bought enough food for four days along with some bottled water and purification tablets. We left our large packs at our Cusco hostel (most hostels are happy to store these for you securely) and took smaller rucksacks which were packed with layers of clothes, our camping gear and our provisions.

Day 1

We were half asleep when our taxi picked us up from our hotel at 5am (!!) and drove us 10 minutes to a place in Cusco where collectivo’s (shared mini-buses) run to Mollepata. There was no chance of sleeping on the 3 hour journey as the driver seemed to be in a real hurry, overtaking everything in his path and speeding along windy roads. We arrived in Mollepata just before 8.00am and stopped at a small, family run restaurant for coffee which finally succeeded in waking us up, and a hearty breakfast to give us some energy for the day ahead. We set out walking at 8.30am having been given directions to a dusty road behind the village.

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Despite the first part of the trail being along the road linking Mollepata to Cruzpata, there was very little traffic and we were able to appreciate the beautiful scenery and the peacefulness of the countryside. Any traffic which did pass us, would usually stop and offer us a lift part or all of the way to our destination but we politely declined full of first day enthusiasm. Looking back, it may have been sensible to have taken a ride part of the way as the full distance from Mollepata to Soraypampa was 22km and the first section of road wound steeply upwards twisting and turning. On a couple of occasions it would have been much quicker to set up a small zip line from one point to another but instead the road hugged the hillside and usually took us in a semi-circle away from our end point.

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The rolling green hills which accompanied us at the start of the walk grew in size the higher we climbed and became more barren and brown in colour. On parts of the trail we could see where landslides had occurred and the road had been rebuilt and our pace became ever so slightly faster to get through these sections.

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We were initially concerned about the amount of water we would need to carry with us for this trip, or if we’d be able to find natural water sources to purify with tablets, however, there were several small kiosks along the way selling drinks and snacks, set up by savvy locals to capture the trekking trade which passes every day.

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We walked along one side of a deep valley and as we got close to Soraypampa we could see very high mountains in the distance covered in brilliant white snow and tickled with clouds.

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Along with the other groups of trekkers we met along the way, we were also joined by horses laden with supplies and carrying a 5kg bag for each person taking an organised tour. The horses looked well-groomed and already much fresher than we did. At a guess there were about 10 different groups of trekkers starting the trail on the same day as us with anything from 2 to 12 people in each. The trekkers are very well looked after, and we could go as far as to say spoiled, whilst doing the trek – with a guide to show them the way, a horse to carry their bag (and them if they pay a little extra), a porter who goes on ahead to set up their camp and a cook who prepares basic but delicious meals three times a day. Even I had to sigh a little when one morning I heard the cook visiting each tent asking if they’d like tea or coffee with their breakfast. Dan said I was only annoyed because I was jealous and to be honest I think he was right!

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We stopped at several places with beautiful views to rest our shoulders, drink some water and eat some snacks, but didn’t get too comfortable as we knew we had a lot of ground to cover. When the tiny village of Soraypampa, at 3,850 metres above sea level, and where we’d be camping for the evening, came into view, it was nearing 3.00pm and we’d been walking for 22 kilometres and around 6 hours.

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The village was spread up a hillside and near the top a number of large canvas awnings had been constructed to shelter smaller tents and to provide areas for eating. The scenery around the camp was beautiful.

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The treeless hills encircling us were a carpet of soft brown and beige tones and behind them was a row of high mountains which looked like jagged teeth covered in snow. Up ahead of us a small path lead out of camp in the direction of the 4,629 metre high pass we’d climb in the morning while admiring the Salkantay massif – a natural skyscraper at 6,271 metres.

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The locals lived in single-storey houses constructed from stone walls and tin roofs with basic lighting in the main room of the house but no heating. The horses who’d worked so hard carrying heavy loads during the day were allowed to graze and seemed to be enjoying their new-found freedom. Some villagers tended to small kiosks selling basics such as water, fizzy drinks, biscuits and chocolate. One family served home cooked food for a few Neuvo Soles but nearly everyone in the camp was with a tour group so they had their meal prepared for them. The Senora running the camp had a weather-beaten face and she wore a dusty cowboy hat. She sat in the middle of the yard peeling a stack of potatoes into a large bucket. She wasn’t free and easy with her smiles but commanded everyone’s respect.

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We pitched our tent in a large canvas cavern free of charge and were reassured by the Senora that she wasn’t expecting any tour groups that evening, but we should really have learnt by then that locals will always tell you what you want to hear as two hours later we were completely surrounded by seven tents and a bunch of excitable, young backpackers.

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We cooked pasta with a sauce and added some cheese and pepper. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun had set so we retired to our sleeping bags and read for a while. On any normal occasion being crammed into a small space with that many campers would drive us crazy but because everyone had been up early and walked a long way, time for quiet and lights out came early, and sleep closely followed.

Day 2

We woke at 6.30am after a good but chilly nights sleep. The layers of clothes we’d put on to go to bed helped keep us warm in the early hours when it seemed to be at its coldest, and the point at which Dan’s watch battery stopped working because of the sub-zero temperatures. We made black tea and an unconventional breakfast of noodles (lightweight but good carbs for energy). As we packed away our tent the last of the groups was just leaving. We decided to give them a small head start so we had the trail to ourselves but could use them as a marker if the path became difficult to follow.

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The sky was deep blue and the sun was shining when we left the village at 7.50am. It’s important to make an early start to cross the pass as come late morning the clouds start to appear and by early afternoon the views are almost completely obscured and a fine layer of rain soaks you to the skin.

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A thin trail led to the left of a small river and climbed steadily. Our legs didn’t have a chance to wake up properly before they were feeling the burn. All of the time we walked towards Salkantay admiring the deep grooves and icy glaciers as the sun reflected off them.

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The climb became harder as the track got steeper and as we reached higher the air was thinner. A series of paths snaking up the side of the mountain were particularly challenging and we set ourselves small targets such as ’20 steps and rest’ or ‘Make it to the next corner’.

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As we climbed we didn’t seem to be able to get enough blood around our bodies and our legs tingled with lactic acid building up. A good excuse for a rest was to admire the dramatic scenery and to take plenty of photographs.

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Our painful uphill slog was rewarded with a flat meadow like section before the final push to the highest point of our trek, the Salkantay pass. The horses were wandering freely and several large bulls strutted contentedly. Gladly removing our packs we sat for a while on a large rock and indulged in some sugary sweets and chocolate biscuits. We immediately felt the kick of energy filling our bodies.

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The sun was still shining but the clouds had started to gather around the mountains. The path was only 2 metres wide in some places with a sheer drop to one side and layers of rock to the other.

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It took a further hour to reach the pass and by this point the clouds had crowded in around us. The views to the mountain which was now right next to us had all but disappeared and the temperature had dropped.

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The pass was crammed with hundreds of cairns made from stones piled on top of each other by other trekkers who had taken on the mountain and won. It felt like a very meaningful sight after a long and hard struggle.

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We remained at the pass for just a few minutes before moving down the other side of the mountain. Our legs, which felt a little wobbly, rejoiced at the fact we were now descending – even our heavy packs felt instantly lighter. A light drizzle filled the air and we pulled our waterproof jackets on. The scenery seemed to have changed all of a sudden – we could no longer see to the high mountains but instead a landscape of brown and green moss-covered boulders marked our path.

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Down and down we weaved until we reached a wide open clearing dotted with rocks and pools where water had collected. The vegetation around this area once again looked very green and trees grew at obscene angles from the surrounding hills. At this point many of the groups gathered for lunch and the cooks created fabulous meals on their gas stoves. Even though we were trekking solo we were very aware of how hard the guides, cooks and porters worked to make sure everyone was happy…and let’s face it us backpackers can be a demanding and, at times, challenging bunch. Dan and I pulled up a pew on some rocks and tucked into a round of snacks – dried fruit, cereal bars, sweets and chocolate was helped down with a big glug of water.

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After about 20 minutes break we pushed on. The clouds had become lower and drizzle filled the air so we put on our rain coats again and pulled up the hoods like characters from South Park. The final 2 hours descent followed a particularly muddy path and somehow we managed to get dirt up to our knees.

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The cloud forest on the right hand side was starting to take on a mystical look and we imagined finding Inca ruins buried deep in the jungle.

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At around 4.00pm we arrived at a cluster of farm houses which formed the village of Chaullay which would be our home for the evening.

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Dan chatted up a local lady and bagged a pretty camping spot in her garden for 5 Soles which is around 2 USD. She even had a small shop attached to her house which sold cold beers, several of which we gulped down in a few thirsty mouthfuls.

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Day 3

We slept through our alarm and woke with a start at 8.45am. The rest of the groups had long gone. When we put our heads out of the tent grey clouds were hanging low, covering the tops of the nearby forested mountains. We’d just managed to pack our bags and take the tent down, when the heavens opened. Huge drops of rain started to fall heavily. We ran for shelter under the porch of the main house and felt very pleased we’d overslept! We made tea and cooked another substantial breakfast of noodles. 30 minutes passed and the rain subsided.

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We followed a small path out of the village and crossed a makeshift wooden bridge across a fast-flowing river.

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We then took an unpaved road which hugged the side of the mountain and descended in a series of switchbacks. As we stopped for a drink we noticed a solitary figure walking behind us and guessed it was the young French guy we’d met on the bus ride from Cusco, so we decided to wait for him.

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Mathias was only 17 and this was his first independent trip away from home. Tall and skinny, he had a mop of curly blonde hair which he wore scruffily tied back. He was a hippy through and through and always seemed a little bit spaced out in a “cool man” kind of way. It was a good job we waited for him as he had directions for the day ahead which we weren’t aware of and he took us off the main road across the river once again and to a much more beautiful trail which was surrounded by lush plants and punctuated by waterfalls.

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As we talked to Mathias we learned that his trip hadn’t started well as after his second day of being in Peru he left his bag containing all of his bank cards, his passport and his iPod in a taxi. He spent the first 10 days of his trip in Lima contacting the French embassy, sleeping on a local families couch, receiving money that had to be wired from his parents, and eventually managing to track down the taxi firm and driver who had kept hold of all of his stuff for him. Mathias’s laid back nature meant that instead of being stressed out by the experience he found it a great learning curve and a chance to get to know the city and its locals a little better. Despite his distinctive dizzy nature Mathias was extremely knowledgable about plants and flowers and was hoping to go to university to study biology. Along the route we saw plants containing tiny strawberries no bigger than our thumbnails. Mathias hungrily picked handfuls and was able to describe the exact variety. He handed them around and the ripe fruits filled our mouths with explosions of sweet flavour.

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We walked along the undulating path following the course of the river which was always to our right. On a couple of sections, landslides had marred the route and we hesitated before quickly stepping across the rocks and twisted branches to safety. The sun had started to break through the clouds and the foliage seemed to steam. Our packs felt heavy and our backs were soaked in sweat. The spray from the waterfalls refreshed us as we passed. Some fell in a single drop plunging into deep pools whilst others trickled and spluttered over smooth rocks.

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The path meandered downwards, edging us closer to the banks of the river. Butterflies fluttered around our feet casting a flash of colour in a predominantly green landscape. Some of the plants were huge – leaves grew bigger than our heads and bright yellow flowers were the span of our hands.

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Once we reached the river we found some of the porters and horses taking a breather. They informed us it was only a further one hour walk along the river and through a couple of small villages to reach our next destination. We took a break with them and filled up on biscuits and sugary sweets before heading off again.

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School was just out in the villages we walked through and groups of teenagers smiled and giggled as we greeted them. We must have looked like a motley crew! We reached Sahuayaco (La Playa) at around 2.00pm and found the other tour groups finishing lunch in two centrally located restaurants, both of which spilled out into a large yard.

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Their mini-buses waited to take them 45 minutes down a winding, dusty road to Santa Teresa and we wondered how we’d make it there ourselves…although we didn’t dwell on it for too long as we were soon tucking into cheese rolls and cold beers! Everything went soft and fuzzy for a few minutes and the world was a happy place. As is often the way in Latin America, before long a mini-bus driver was asking around to see if anyone wanted a ride to Santa Teresa and within 10 minutes us and our luggage were loaded and on the way.

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Santa Teresa was a sizable village with a population of just over 7,000 people. Coming from camping two days in the wilderness it felt like a haven – with hotels, restaurants and even a very small strip of bars. Despite our urge to check into a hotel we opted for the budget, under canvas option and found ourselves crammed into a grassy garden with all of the tour groups.

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We were given the chance to visit the hot springs with the groups, which were only 10 minutes drive out-of-town, but although we appreciated the offer, the thought of wading into small, heated pools with up to 60 other dirty, sweaty hikers didn’t float our boat so instead we headed out for a beer. When we arrived back at camp the atmosphere was very relaxed and upbeat. The hard walking was behind us – the next night we’d rest in a hostel bed and the following morning we’d rise before dawn for sunrise at Machu Picchu. Whilst travelling, funny coincidences seem to happen very regularly and this trip was no different. We were delighted to bump into Jess, Anya and Sumitha, the three medical students we’d met in the Brazilian Pantanal and spent 3 days wildlife spotting with. When we first met them they were at the beginning of a 6 week trip and now they were nearing the end. We really enjoyed their company and caught up with all of the adventures they’d had since we last saw them. Altitude sickness had hit Sumitha like a frying pan in the face and at one stage going over the pass on day 2 we found her on hands and knees hardly able to breathe and ready to throw up. We admired her will power for making it through that tough day without the aid of a horse! The girls went out into the village for drinks that evening and woke the following morning with slightly fuzzy heads. Dan and I relaxed at the campsite playing cards and reading to what felt like a late hour but was actually only 9.45pm when we turned in. The beauty of camping!

Day 4

The next morning many of the groups were up bright and early to partake in an activity the area is famous for – zip-lining. Dan and I decided to make the 40 minutes walk to the thermal pools to sooth our aching legs and we watched person after person fly through the air over our heads – some soaring gracefully like birds, whilst others plummeted like stones, crying out like babies. The sun shone as we walked through a pretty canyon and along the thundering river towards the thermals. The pools were set in a beautiful spot at the end of the track and no one else was there when we arrived.

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We quickly learned that the lack of people in the water was due to the fact the pools were closed for cleaning until midday. We begged and pleaded with the receptionist and even offered extra money to change her mind but to no avail. We were very tempted to run fully clothed into the pools before anyone had a chance to call security but we sucked it up and trudged grumpily back to the village. We cheered ourselves up with some almost authentic tasting croissants and two choc-ring donuts from the Santa Teresa bakery and headed back to the camp to pack up our things.

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The first part of the days hiking followed the river along a dusty road out of Santa Teresa and it took around 2 hours to the start of the hydroelectric train station. The occasional car or truck passed us along the road but for the most part we walked alone. We noticed that construction work was well underway to create a dam on the river and harness its power to turn into energy. From what appeared to be a man-made hole in the rocks, a torrential flow of water spewed and flooded the river.

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The noise it made was like thunder and it made our hearts beat slightly faster. We decided to take a break at this point and bathed our feet in the cool river which instantly revived us to be able to walk on.

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Rather than taking the hydro-electric train to Aguas Calientes, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, we decided to walk the 2 hour trail along the tracks and through a beautiful gorge as the original Inca warriors would have done.

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We felt a little nervous initially but several locals and tourists took the same route so we followed whilst keeping a watchful eye for fast approaching trains in either direction.

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The scenery was epic – we were flanked either side by towering mountains and cloud forest. The river this far up-stream was calm and still, spilling out into wide pools.

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We crossed bridges which had wooden slats with gaps inbetween and we tried not to look down to the drop below as we tentatively hopped across them.

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Looking up at the mountain tops we were very excited to see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu as the terracing spilled over the edge and down towards the water and a cluster of unrestored ruins across the river from us were almost buried in thick jungle.

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We felt like explorers discovering the site for the first time. In fact the re-discovery of Machu Picchu occurred just over 100 years ago in 1911. A North American professor called Hiram Bingham came to South America to study the military campaigns of Simon Bolivar but took an interest in Incan culture and found himself travelling through the sacred valley accompanied by his translator Sergent Carrasco. A chance encounter with a local farmer who told them about some ruins at the top of the Old Mountain (Machupicchu) changed Bingham’s plans and the wheels were set in motion for one of the most important historical discoveries of the Twentieth Century. A local farming family lived on the mountain and grew crops on the lower eastern part of the city and their son led the explorers into the archeological remains of what Bingham referred to as the Lost City of the Incas.

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Our guide-book had painted a rather unfavourable picture of Aguas Calientes, the small town which sits at the foot of Machu Picchu – as far as to call it the ugliest in Peru – so we were prepared for our arrival at the “armpit of the country”. However, we were pleasantly surprised. Carved into the curve of a deep valley the town is surrounded by lush cloud forest and towering mountains.

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OK, it’s very touristy and the hotels are overpriced for what you get but we let that slide because of where we were. We found that the town had a buzz about it from excited travellers who would visit Machu Picchu the following morning and those who were exhausted but thrilled after spending the day sight-seeing at one of the planets most spectacular places. We found it good fun to indulge in the 4-4-1 cocktails advertised in many of the restaurants and even though the Peruvian attempts to cook food appealing to westernised taste buds (pizza, burgers, mexican etc.) didn’t quite work, after three previous nights of basic pasta and noodles, we were very easily pleased!

We turned in early knowing that the following morning we’d rise in the small hours and complete our trek to Machu Picchu and watch the sun rise over this incredible place. Like the ancient Incas before us, we’d spent 4 days on a pilgrimage to this sacred site and we now felt ready and worthy of its rewards. Machu Picchu was set to be one of the biggest highlights of our Latin American trip and as we drifted off to sleep we could hardly contain our excitement…

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