Salkantay: The road less traveled to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail is one of the most famous hikes in South America. Built over 500 years ago, this stone pathway leading to the Lost City of the Incas has become an increasingly popular tourist attraction. One thing I’ve realized from speaking with other travelers is that times have changed drastically in that last five years. The Inca Trail is now highly regulated. The government issues permits to control the number of people on the trail per day and all tourists must be led by a guide. For these reasons, booking the 3-4 day hike on the Inca Trail can cost you upwards of $500 and require 6-7 months advance planning!

Now, I love hiking. More, I love backpacking. I love the personal challenge of carrying everything you need to survive for five days on your back. I love the tranquility of camping in the wilderness and the humbling feeling of standing before giant mountains. I love rocky, unmanicured trails, the sweat and the mud. I love seeing your destination far off in the distance and hours later looking back at how far you’ve come. In my opinion, the less popular the trail and more do-it-yourself it can be, the better.

Learning the costs and restrictions for the oh-so-popular Inca Trail, we began searching for another, less touristy option. There had to be another hike, another route to Machu Picchu. After only a couple of hours on Google, we found it. Salkantay: a “challenging” 5 day/4 night trek, submitting a pass 1,500 meters higher than the Inca Trail’s. Given that we are traveling without our tent and cooking equipment, we were forced to throw in our packs and go with a guided tour. Tip: Guides and permits are not required for this hike, so avoid the cost and unpredictable group dynamics and do it unguided, if you can. There are enough informed people on the trail to make up for the lack of good maps. Letting go of our usual solo-hiker freedom, we prepared ourselves for 5 luxurious days of weightless hiking, ready-made campsites and spectacular scenery.20121118-124750.jpg
We left Cuzco as the sun was rising at 5am and drove for about 3 hours before “making our hike” (as our guide said in broken English) . The first day was easy, wet and cold. It rained off and on as we strolled through foothills that looked down on the Valley of Apurimac River and up to Salkantay’s peak. The weather kept us moving, but as we crossed the river to our campsite in the village of Soraypampa we were greeted by clear views of snow-capped peaks and vibrant, full rainbows.
Rested from a full nights sleep, we were ready for our second day. With 9 hours of hiking until our next campsite and a 4,600 meter (15,000ft) pass to cross, this day was said to be the hardest. The landscape changed continuously as we climbed out of the Soraypampa valley and up to the arid highlands leading to Salkantay Pass. The horses and mules carrying our load quickly passed us as we zig-zagged up through the steep moraine fields (despite stalling them for a moment to take a photo with Relampago, their white emergency horse). Reaching Salkantay Pass, we were definitely feeling the altitude. We sat for about an hour watching clouds move over the mountains and ice tumble from the melting glacier. Down the other side, the ecosystem changed again. Our clear skies suddenly turned to thick fog, filling the humid river valley as we descended into the cloud forest around Chaullay.
After our long second day, the third day rewarded us with a short 3- hour walk to some hot pools fed by natural springs along the Santa Teresa River. There was not too much to see in terms of landscape that day, but we enjoyed picking the wild strawberries that lined the riverside trail. I slurped up some delicious monkey-brains (it’s fruit, I promise) while Jeremy chewed the biggest ball of coca in his life.
It was the fourth day, however, that really made the hike worthwhile. In a few hours we had hiked up and over one of the mossy mountain ranges that neighbors Machu Picchu. From the top, was our first view of the Lost City. Not a typical view, but the perspective was awesome – in the literal sense of the word. The scale and the placement of the construction completely blew my mind. With the dramatic land features and vast jungle wilderness, I realized I was approaching the most beautiful places on the planet.
Peeling ourselves away from the look-out, we ventured on with the prospect of seeing Machu Picchu up close the next day now at the forefront of our minds. A few hours later, we reached the settlement of Hydroelectrica, cleverly named after the hydroelectric plant that’s under construction. After lunch, the others in our group opted for a cushy 40-minute train to carry them from Hydroelectrica to our final destination of Aguas Calientes, but Jeremy and I were determined to finish out our hike by foot (we are the Walkers after all!) And we were so glad we did. Walking along the rail road tracks turned out to be another highlight of the trek. For two hours we walked along the river, spying on Machu Picchu from below, pointing out freshly uncovered terraces that had just recently been discovered.
Arriving to the town of Aguas Calientes meant reentering civilization and full-on tourism. If we had been hiking on our own with packs, we could have spent the night alongside a waterfall in some botanical gardens. However, our tour had put us up in a little hostel in the center of town. Despite the small pang of guilt for not camping out “the right way,” we didn’t complain as we sat on our balcony sipping Cusquenas, looking over the river after a warm shower.
Overall, it had been a great four days and we were tired. A good nights sleep was in order. We’d be at Machu Picchu by sunrise.