When we decided to start planning our trip to South America, the number one goal we set our sights on was a visit to Machu Picchu. Located in the jungles of Peru, this Inca Ruins was re-discovered in 1911 and has been a place of pilgrimage for all types of travelers ever since. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was recently named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu. The easiest way is to take a train direct from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, spend a night in “Machu Picchu Pueblo”, wake up early the next morning to see the ruins and take the train back to Cusco. It can even be done in day trip from Cosco. The more adventurous way – and the option that we chose – is one of the 5-day / 4-night hikes through the mountains. The Salkantay Trek.
There are several old Inca hiking trails that weave their way through the mountains between Cusco and Machu Picchu. These were the highways of the Inca, footpaths that connected the cities of the Sacred Valley.
The “Classic Inca Trail” is the traditional trekking route, but it’s also the most popular. They have a quota for how many people can be on the trail at once, and it books up months in advance. Most treks fit into the $200-400, depending on who you book it with, and if you book in town or in advance.
There are other options for trekking in Peru. The route we chose to do the Salkantay Trek. This route is less busy, and instead of seeing Inca ruins, you get to see more nature, including Salkantay Mountain; a nearly 7000-meter peak in the Andes. It’s by no means an easy hike – it’s rated as one of the more difficult – but it is something you can do with little training.
We did it with very little training.
And a lot of willpower.
The goal was Machu Picchu, but first, we had to make it to the Salkantay Summit. 2017.
The Salkantay Trek:
Day one. 4 am. We step outside of our hostel and met JP, our guide. Litte do we realize, the trek has already begun. We walk along the cobblestone streets of Cusco.We zig-zag through the maze of the city, picking up several other backpackers who are waiting outside of their hotels. After adding several other people to our group, we eventually arrive at a bus.
It’s still before sunrise as we drive into the mountains. It takes roughly 2 hours to get to our first stop Molpata. Here we picked up our hiking poles, have a quick breakfast and buy a few things at the corner store. We’re back into the car, and onto a winding dirt road that heads into the mountains for about an hour. We have left civilization behind us.
We park the bus, load all of our backpacks onto donkeys, and get a chance to say hello to everyone for the first time. It takes us about 10 minutes to get ready. We immediately hike straight uphill for about 40 minutes. Once we reached the main trail, it is another 2 and a half hours of hiking along a mostly flat trail pathway. Our guide explained to us that this is known as “Inca flat.”
The first day was pretty easy so far.
Humantay Mountain. 2017.
We arrive at our first base camp, and behind one of the mountains, we can see a little bit of Salkantay. It was cloudy, it had rained a few hours earlier, so the views aren’t perfect. But we’ve definitely arrived in the mountains.
A little bit after lunch, the clouds begin to clear, and directly in front of us is Humantay Mountain and Glacier appear. We are offered the chance to do an optional 3-hour hike up to the lagoon for a better view; most of us say yes. It is a long way up, but the path is pretty easy. We’re still getting used to hiking at altitude, but the path isn’t too difficult.
We arrive at one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We spent about half an hour just sitting at the top of the world – surrounded by glaciers, lagoons, and picturesque valleys. It was a true 360-degree view. We are happy we took our guides advice to go up and take a closer look.
The next morning we are up early. Day two is the toughest day of the trek, a full 9 hours of hiking not including breaks, and the day we had been preparing for. It’s 3 hours straight up. A slow winding path goes up through the valley towards the goal – Salkantay – which looms large ahead of us, motivating us to keep going.
The view of Salkantay on the walk. 2017.
Around 10 am we reach the summit! 4600 meters above sea level. The mountain was spectacular, even now that it was now shrouded in clouds and mist. The feeling of accomplishment overwhelms us. Our local guide tells us the importance of this place.
It is sacred in the Inca’s history. From here, water flows to both the Pacific and east towards the mighty Amazon. It marks the continental divide. We leave an offering to Pachamama – mother Earth in Quechua – and begin the 6-hour hike down the other side of the mountain. The wind picks up, and a cold fog engulfs everything. As we leave the summit, clouds cover the mountain completely, and we walk into the misty valley below, Salkantay behind us.
At the summit of the Salkantay Trail. 2017.
We’ve left the high alpine and slowly make our way down towards the tree line. The rain is torrential for about an hour. Our bodies are still cold from the top of the mountain. But every step we take, the landscape begins to change. It gets a little warmer. The vegetation thickens and sometime just after lunch we were in the jungle.
My favorite moment from this part of the hike was watching the water change along the walk. The meltwater from the glacier behind us begins to collect and form into small streams. Merging with other small trickles it forms a river. The river carves into the landscape, creating the massive valley that you walk alongside. And we witnessed this transformation over the course of a single day. Very cool.
Our camp that night was at the point where two valleys met – and the point where two small rivers joined into a great one – which we would walk alongside the next morning.
Hiking through the jungle. 2017.
The next two days were spent mostly walking along paths carved into the walls of the valley. It was humid and hot and the hike took its toll on us in a different way. We were in the jungle.
The third night we set up our tents at a hostel in the small town of Santa Teresa. The city was situated on a hill and the views of the surrounding valleys were spectacular. Our hostel had a big fire pit, and after dinner, we spent the evening playing drinking games and keeping warm around the fire.
This town also had a natural hot spring, and after 3 days of hiking, this was the greatest reward I would have ever asked for. We hopped on a bus and took the 20-minute drive towards the river, and we spent the late afternoon winding down in the warmth of the natural hot springs while admiring the surrounding beauty. This was pure bliss!
The train tracks that follow the valley under Machu Picchu. 2017.
The next morning we head into a different valley; following a new river, the one which leads towards Machu Picchu. We are on the home stretch; it was another 6-hour hike today. From Santa Teresa, it is a 3-hour hike to Hydroelectrica – roughly the halfway point between the start and finish of the day. The hike is along the side of a gravel road, mostly flat and easy on the body. Just before we arrived we got the first glimpse of our goal, the peak of Machu Picchu mountain. This just gave us the motivation we needed to keep going.
The afternoon was spent walking around the base of Machu Picchu, the train tracks that wind through the valley between Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes make a good path – just watch out for the trains. We could look up at the ruins throughout the day. We were ‘almost’ there.
We trek into the city, Aguas Calientes – also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo (city) – and after 4 days in the mountains, the contrast of seeing hiking poles and backpacks against the cobblestone streets is striking. We arrive at our 4th base camp; a hostel with a bed! This is our first real bed in 4 nights. They also had showers. With hot water! You appreciate things like showers and beds a lot more after 4 days in the wilderness. We had dinner and went to bed early. Tomorrow was the big day.
Machu Picchu. 2017.
We are up at 3:30 and begin our hike towards the entrance just after 4am. The lower gates to the staircase for Machu Picchu open at 5 am. We arrive and there is already a line-up. This is the final day of the trek and the day we get to finally see the ruins. We are so excited. A few hundred steps up the concrete staircase that separates the river from the ruins, it takes us around an hour to get to the top. The entrance to Machu Pichu.
The weather is cool and a little cloudy. It adds to the Mystique of this place. It feels so rewarding being here. We learned a lot from our guide about the Incas and their Quechua descendants. I didn’t just see Machu Picchu; I felt it.
Machu Picchu on a cloudy day in November. 2017.
We spent 6 hours walking around the ruins, taking pictures and just enjoying the scenery. After 4 days – and nearly somewhere close to 80km – of walking through the mountains, I began to appreciate this place a little more. To get here, the Incas would have had to walk the same distance I just did. They built this place. It makes you wonder how they were able to build a city like this in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain. Its remoteness makes it even more impressive.
The day ends. Our aching bodies convince us to splurge on the $12 bus down the mountain. Walking downhill is not good for your knees. We return to Aguas Calientes and wait for our train departure.
Norma and Rob overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu. 2017.
We have lots to think about on the train and bus back to Cusco. We had just experienced so much beauty. What a week! We had survived the Salkantay Trek.
It’s time to return to the civilized world and return to our regular backpacker life. After 5 days of walking to Machu Picchu, the world would never look the same again. The Salkantay Trek is proof that the journey is as rewarding as the destination.
If you’d like to see more, check out some of our related content on traveling Peru, including Cusco and Machu Picchu, click below:
- Two mountains in the Andes: Salkantay and Humantay
- City in the Clouds: Machu Picchu
- Salkantay Trek in Pictures
- Cusco & The Sacred Valley