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Machu Picchu via The Salkantay Trek – an alternative to the Inca Trail

The Salkantay Trek skinny:  We turned a 5 day/4 night trek into a 3 day/2 night trek. We did this without a guide. You don’t need a guide for this trek. But, if you choose to go with a guide, prices are about $250-300. 

Day 1:  15 miles

Start:  Sayllapata (3450 meters / 11,319 feet)

Pass:  Highest point on the trek (4640 meters / 15,223 feet) 

Finish:  Huairaspampa (3900 meters / 12,795 feet)

Day 2:  13 miles

Start:  Huairaspampa (3900 meters / 12,795 feet)

Finish:  La Playa – Saghuayaco (2050 meters / 6,725 feet)

Day 3:  15 miles

Start:  La Playa – Saghuayaco (2050 meters / 6,725 feet)

Pass:  Llactapata (2800 meters / 9,186 feet)

Finish:  Aguas Calientes via Hidroeléctrica (2,040 meters / 6,690 feet)


(Note:  the above info was from our GPS – so the numbers might conflict with printed materials.)

Details of the hike:

There are couple of ways to see Machu Picchu. First however, you must get to the little and overpriced town of Aguas Calientes.  There are only two ways to get to Aguas Calientes: by train or by foot. There are many combinations of doing that.

You can take a collectivo to the train, then take the train or hike the rails.  Or you can hike the famous Inca Trail, which I understand to be quite amazing; however, you must go with a guide which costs somewhere between $500-600.  This fee includes meals, permit, guide and porters who carry your gear.

On and on…

I did a bit of research and found the Salkantay trek, not as well known, but growing in popularity and considered by National Geographic as a top 25 must-do trek in the world.

Back in Huaraz we met “Shakes” from California by way of Chicago, who had driven his Honda Element down to Peru, doing some surfing and hiking along the way. We agreed to meet up later in Cusco to do this trek and then visit Machu Picchu.

Salkantay isn’t the easiest trek to start simply because the start is 3 hours from Cusco and it’s a series of various forms of transport.  Instead of trying to piecemeal taxis and collectivos to the start, I decided to ask one of the tour operators if we can just buy our way on the group bus. After giving us the hard sell, trying to push us into a guided tour, we finally convinced one of the hundreds of tour agencies you can choose from in Cusco, that we just wanted to pay for a ride to the start. One finally agreed for 45 soles ($13) each.

Day 1:  Thursday morning the tour agency bus picked us up at 5:30 a.m. We handed one of the guides our packs and he gave us a confused look. If doing the tour, all you need is a day pack as the porters carry everything else. We jumped on the bus with our 35 pound packs.

“Where’s your guide?”   he asked.

“I am.”  We replied.

“Wheres your cook?”

“I am.”

After three hours of mountainous roads and eating the worlds most expensive egg at a small little restaurant along the way, we arrived at the start.

At the start there was already a group there getting ready to take off with their guide. Our bus had a group of nine. We wanted to get ahead of the groups so we grabbed our packs and headed out to the first campsite, Soraypampa. We were told it would be a 3 hour hike, getting us in around 1 p.m. We could then set up camp, relax and be fresh for our big day of climbing over the highest pass on the trek – 15,223 feet.

The trail starts at 9,000 feet, immediately switchbacks up 1,000 feet and then flattens out and becomes a great fast hike along a canal to Soraypampa.

We arrived in just 1.5 hours and were surprised to see a hotel, a couple actually, along with a big horse corral as some tours will rent you horses to do the trek. We also learned that you can actually drive to Soraypampa, and many people do, to start the hike. Starting here would shave off 4 miles and you wouldn’t miss anything.

We stopped for a bit to eat a Peruvian “snickers” and took in the scenery. Clouds were quickly moving into the valley that lead to the pass. We all agreed to hike another mile to the next campsite so that we wouldn’t be surrounded by all the groups that would be camping at Soraypampa.

And off we went. At first, it was a nice slow slog up the side of a mountain, with outstanding views, very reminiscent of hiking in Scotland. Very soon we found ourselves in rain and hail. I was ready to call it. It looked as if our luck of awesome weather had run out and that we would suffer several days of wet weather. My pack already felt 10 pounds heavier from the rain. Then altitude started to hit me – hard.  

About 1.5 miles later, we found a refugio where we sat and had lunch and waited for the rain to let up. Kate and I had it in our heads that this is where we would camp. Shakes had other plans. Since it was only 1:30pm he figured that at a 2mph pace we could be over the pass by 4pm and at the first campsite over the pass by 5pm.

That didn’t excite Kate and me, but we didn’t put up a fight. We agreed if we can knock out the pass on day 1, that would be awesome.  

When leaving the first refugio you will arrive at a sign welcoming you to the park and then soon after that a fork in the trail. If you go up to the right your uphill climb will be easier. If you go up to the left, as we did, you will have a much more difficult climb but will have rewarding views of the valley. It’s your choice. Either way it’s a lung buster at this elevation and you end up in the same place.

At the refugio we saw a group of 3 heading up the right passage and when we arrived at the top of the left passage we saw another group of 3 below us – this is an important detail in the story.  

We pressed on to the last campsite before the pass, approximately 1.5-2 miles from the refugio. The clouds had settled in, which turned the rocks into shadows. We had 800 meters of climbing before we reached the pass. I was hurting in a big way from the altitude, dizzy, out of breath. I could only manage a few steps at a time. Fortunately, Kate and Shakes were doing great and took off ahead. I followed, trying not to think about all the bad things that can happen to your body at 15,000 feet.  High Altitude Pulmonary and/or Cerebral Edema for example.

We soon came across the 3 hikers in front of us – the ones we saw from the refugio more than an hour before.  They were scared and asked me if I was a guide. It turns out the 3 people we saw behind us were part of their group and those 3 had the tents and cooking stove, while these three had the food, which we would come to find out was a 10 pound bag of Mueslix.  “This is very dangerous trail,” she kept saying. At this point visibility was about 100 meters as we were now in the clouds. To our right we could hear the sounds of a glacier calving, which repeatedly made loud crashing sounds somewhere in the clouds and echoed all around us. It was really awesome, but it scared the shit out of these three Argentinians, who by the way had never been backpacking before.…

They asked if they could join us, which Shakes and I agreed was a bad idea. “You can do whatever you want, but you should wait for the rest of your group.”

They decided to follow us, nothing we could do about it. We reached the pass at around 4:15pm, made some pictures and headed out directly. Time was of the essence. We did not want to hike in the dark. It was very cold, we were damp and ice crystals were forming on hats, beards and eyelashes.

The trail down greeted us with a thick cloud, large loose rocks and steep washouts. Finally, the clouds cleared and the trail leveled out. We made it to Huairaspampa at 6pm. The 3 Argentinians and their bag of Mueslix followed about 45 minutes behind – sans tents and stove.

The campsite was private, and had nice shelters where we could set up our tents.  We paid 10 soles ($2.89) and by 7:30pm we were in our sleeping bags getting warm. Around 8pm we heard people yelling outside. Apparently the 3 with the tents and stove finally rolled into camp and were able to re-unite with the others. They were a group of 6 again. We learned later that they had only their cell phone lights to guide them down the darkened trail. Because why pack headlamps for your backpacking trip…

Not to be negative, but this group quickly got under our skin. It was apparently their first time ever hiking. Why they thought a 15,300 foot pass was a good idea was beyond us. They had no gear to speak of and then asked to join us, which we strongly opposed as we didn’t want them to become our responsibility should one of them get hurt.  Selfish?  Perhaps. It turns out they couldn’t keep up with us anyway.

Day 2:  Since we had already done 2 days of the hike in one epic 15 mile trek over the pass, we decided to get to La Playa – Saghuayaco for the night, just 13 miles down the way. The trail was a punishing, rocky descent that dropped us down into more tropical temperatures. (Kate says punishing isn’t the half of it – it was a brutal, knee -punishing, toe-crushing downhill that she did not enjoy at all.) We arrived in Chauflay for lunch. We actually just ate Pringles and befriended a Pringle-eating cat. Free camping was offered and the trail ended turning into a dirt road. From here you can catch a collectivo, which is what most people do. We decided to hike the dirt road all the way to La Playa – Saghuayaco. Alternatively, you can take the trail along the river, the road also follows the river, so it’s your choice – you don’t miss out doing the road, so make the call and enjoy.

After 35 minutes of hiking along the road, a car beeped at us from behind, it was a collectivo carrying the group that wanted to join us. They made it to Chauwla and decided to hang it up after one day.

The road follows and hangs about 500 feet above the river. There are no roads on the other side of the river but there are homes opposite the road. Instead of bridges, there are cables with a basket to ferry you to and fro. You sit in the basket and pull yourself across. Shakes and I helped pull some locals across and then Shakes and Kate each took a turn zipping back and forth across the river. Needless to say, I did not partake.

We finally arrived at La Playa – Saghuayaco after 10 hours of hiking and ran into the group of 6 at a campsite/hostel. For free, the family that owned the place, had a giant porch that served as their home and restaurant, and they allowed you to set up your tent on the porch and enjoy a free shower. We enjoyed a few beers instead and finally had some conversation with the group of 6. Apparently, they had more than just Mueslix, they also had some tinned food. Alas, they didn’t have a can opener, so I gave them my Swiss Army Knife, which they didn’t know how to use. It was a comedy of errors and a full moon, so we stared at the moon for a while and then crawled into our tents for a much needed sleep.

Day 3:  You have some options here. You can take a collectivo to Hydroelectrica (HE), then hike or take train the 6 miles to Aguas Calientes. Or you can hike the road for a couple of days, which didn’t sound fun, taking you to HE, then hike or take the train the 6 miles to Aguas Calientes. Or you can climb a mountain, visit some ruins that overlook Machu Picchu, descend the mountain and then hike the 6 miles to Aguas Calientes. Kate opted to get a ride to Hydroelectrica. Shakes and I opted to climb over the mountain.

We were told it would take 5-7 hours to get up and over, we did it in 3.5 hours. The trail is very easy to find. It is a 4 mile climb gaining 2460 feet in elevation. Brutal. Along the way, we hiked through coffee plantations, bought some coffee at the “Andean Starbucks” and passed an awesome hostel. Had we known about this we would have stayed here for the night.  

We reached the top, where the sign pointed toward “ruins.” We dropped our packs and explored three trails for about 30 minutes, only to come up empty handed. Out of nowhere 2 of the 6 people from that group showed up.  They immediately started bragging about how they caught us. The one dude was wearing flip flops, the other carrying a pack and was completely wiped out trying to keep up with “flip-flop.”

They decided to latch on to us and we started our descent. It was a gnarly steep descent and the dude with flip flops decided to go barefoot. Nothing but sharp rocks and he goes barefoot… Within 500 meters we found the ruins and stared across the way at Machu Picchu for about 45 minutes. We left the 2 guys to fend for themselves and hustled down the backside of the mountain, coming across another hostel/campsite. Had we known about this place we would have for sure camped here – on the side of a mountain, overlooking Machu Picchu and they had beer.  

An hour later we made it Hydroelectrica, made a sandwich, signed the book and started our final “2 hour” hike to Aguas Calientes. The hike turned into 3 hours, which was devastating. We were mentally and physically shattered. I had 2 new blisters and 2 cuts on my right foot from the sharp rocks on the descent, Shakes was swerving a bit side to side. Along the train tracks you can buy food and drinks but we just wanted to get to town, meet Kate, drink a beer and rub lotion on our chafed bits.

As for the party of 6, they all eventually made it.  “Flip-flop” however was in a lot of pain. 

The next day was Machu Picchu, which deserves a blog in its own right. To be continued…


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