TL/DR: 5 days. Just wow.
The Salkantay Trek, is a 4 or 5 day hike that takes you from the small town of Mollepata, to the Salkantay Pass (at 4800 metres), then down into the high jungle (The start of the Amazon), before finishing at Machu Picchu. It’s best known as an alternative to the outrageously popular and outrageously expensive(also outrageously beautiful) Inca trail, and tour guides often comment that the scenery and change of landscapes makes the Salkantay Trek far more enjoyable than the Inca Trail. The huge changes of altitude (From 2800-4800-2000 metres) brings you on a stunning trek where you see glacier lakes, snow capped mountains, and tropical jungle, all in a few days. The Salkantayis also perfect to do in February, when the Inca Trail is closed for repairs (Machu Picchu remains open year round).
After being rudely awakened by our guide at 4:15am, half an hour before we were told we were meant to go, we shovelled our clothes into our bags and made our way down the dark narrow streets of Cusco to our extraction point. There were much more than the 6 people we were told would be on the trek, about 16, with the most noticeable being a far-too-chirpy American guy, dressed as a native American Indian, with a feather in his hair and shockingly yellow suede boots. We left Cusco by 5, heading to the town of Mollepata for breakfast. Mollepata is one of those towns where it's nice to stop for 10 minutes, but you'd never want to live there. Here, we were hustled into the back of a restaurant, and given the option of paying for breakfast (10 soles), or a coffee for 5. We choose the latter, sipping away while the tour guides also weighed our duffel bags for the pack horses, also getting our first introductions: two lads speaking a language that I’d never heard of. As it turns out, they were Quebecois, but from the country. Now, for anyone who knows a bit of french, Quebec French is like Irish English- it’s barely comprehensible to native speakers, let alone foreigners. Now make that a Kerry farmer, and you get an idea of their accent. But they were sound aul lads!
After leaving Mollepata we went by bus to Challacancha. Now, if I could give my shed an address on google maps I’d call it Challacancha, because Challacancha is literally just that, a shed on a hillside. It does have a lean on for animals, and a conveniently a locked toilet though. Grand spot to stick on the rain condoms and start the hike. The mist surrounding us, we started on a wet windy flat track, at 3400 metres, briefly stopping for a motivational hand jump (Go pumas). As the path continued, the sun remained hidden, but personalities began to shine. There was Maartin, the Dutch banker who’d sell your soul for a savings account, Two Quebecois girls, who had just graduated as physios and spoke perfect American English, Marco, the cool chill Peruvian guide, and finally, Henry, the New Yorker/Nicaraguan who, like America’s foreign policy, is best described as bombastic. He lit up the group from the start to end, morning to night, as a clown, a yoga teacher, a businessman seeking millions, a Hispanophone, and an all round incredible character.
There were intermediate stops along the 3-hour hike to talk about native flora and why coca leaves are so great (they do everything from keep your teeth healthy, to give you energy, to cure hunger, depending on who you talk too), along with intermediate breaks in the rain. It was a pretty moist 3 hours, all in all. But, upon seeing where we’d stay the night, Soraypampa, at the foot of Humantay mountain, we were pleasantly surprised to see these space age purpose-built pods. They were for rich people, not us plebians, unfortunately. We had paid $180 for the 5 days trek after all, we assumed we’d be sleeping in the mud, huddling together for warmth. However, we were pleasantly surprised a second time- we weren’t camping on the ground, but instead in raised tentlike cabins. Winning.
Soraypampa is a muddy collection of huts. After a spot of Henry yoga (This guy, also ballroom dances, sings Italian opera, and runs a children’s charity organisation), we demolished lunch and were told we had a tough hour or so hike if we wanted to see a Humantay lake. Now I didn’t even know what Humantay Lake was, and if I learned anything from being a travel agent, it’s that you don’t undersell amazing places. This place wasn’t even mentioned. Why would we bother walking an hour and a half up a steep hill in the rain, to see nothing? Convinced it was a fools errand, we did anyways. And it was one of the most amazing lakes I’ve ever seen, New Zealand reminiscent. A shocking blue, glacier fed, sunken raised lake, surrounded by snow covered mountains? Pas mal. The hike was tough, but even in the lashing rain, the lake was class (Albeit with a strict officer, determined to ban people from flying drones and swimming). After about an hour, a minor miracle happened. The sun appeared. And stayed, and completely changed the look of the place. We could see the peak of Humantay Mountain. And this made the photos 100 times better. And then Henry sang some Italian opera to the lake.
We left belatedly, with only the amazing views of the cloud-free valley to lift our spirits as we lowered ourselves 400 metres back to Soraypampa. Dinner was amazing. I’d like to thank all the chefs that I don’t remember the name of (Except for the flying hobbit, called Tiburon), because they make a damn good dinner. The temperature plummets as you rise, which is a funny thing when you think about it, so we got into our raised tent cabins once the sun had set for the evening. I filled my sleeping bag with my freshly bought fake alpaca clothes for warmth.
DAY 2. the long mile
The early bird catches the worm, they say. Not in Soraypampa though, it’s too cold for worms to survive. Breakfast was also class (Them hobbits are known for their tasty food), and full of coca tea. Today was the long day. 1 hour climbing up steep hills, then a small plateau, then an hour climbing, then a small plateau, and then the grand finale, 1 hour climbing the ‘gringo killer’, before reaching the Salkantay pass, under the towering mountain of the same name. Then 3 hours descending, lunch, and another 3 hours descending, before finishing in the high Andean jungle. Basically a massive change in altitude, temperatures, and terrain. Too easy mate. We disregarded Marcos advice to stop after the first hour and gather together as a group, instead, continuing in the small groups of 2-3 who could keep the same pace. This was up steep paths cut into the mountains, with pony trails passing us by now and then, and their drivers making us jealous with their effortless breathing, while we struggled up the path. But at least it wasn’t raining.
I reached the top just after Freja, a German girl who was forced onto a pony due to altitude sickness, and just before Pierre, a Belgian emergency nurse who works for an insurance company repatriating people, and who does CrossFit and yoga when he’s not rescuing people from foreign countries (I was proud to get there before him). Standing under Salkantay mountain, which at 4800 metres (higher than Mont Blanc, take that France) makes you understand just why the Inca’s worshipped it. Would I sacrifice people to it to keep it happy? Probably not. But I appreciate that there were some people out there who might want to. Amazingly, like Humantay, the clouds parted while we were at Salkantay, letting us see the peak and the valleys on either side of the pass.
After doing a small sacrifice, Marco gathered us in a group around an innocuous pile of stones and told us in hushed tones about the mountain, the beliefs of the Incas, and Pachamama. If you don’t know Pachamama, you’ll know her when you get to the Andes. Bolivians and Peruvians from the indigenous tribes give her gifts, as shes mother earth in their cultures. So every time you chew some coca, you throw some on the ground to share with Pachamama, every time you drink some beer, you pour some on Pachamama, every time you piss, you piss some on Pachamama (that's how it seems in Andean toilets at least). As part of the ceremony, which was actually really touching, Marco explained that by giving some of our things to Pachamama, we leave a little of ourselves in that place. Even having a memory of the place, means we will always have left a little of ourselves there. Which really is a lovely sentiment, that we’d all reunite there, if not in this life, in the next. Incas also believed that there are three gods, mother earth, father sky, and life in the middle. When you are alive, you are in the middle, then when youdie first you go back to Pachamama, and eventually you are spread like dust into the sky. It’s all pretty based on reality really (Some guy died and came back to life, and now we have to follow all these rules, now that's just talking nonsense). As I’m writing this, the whole giving stuff to Pachamama business.. Does that explain why people throw their litter on the ground everywhere in Peru and Bolivia? It’s for Pachamama!
Anyway, spiritual moments finished, we gave Pachamama far too much rum and wine, and she must have been pissing like a drunk nun after it because it lashed rain for the climb down. Lunch was again, class, even if it was soup for the third time (Hobbits make good soup, it is known), and we continued down towards the high jungle. The high jungle is where things got heated and became incredibly green. From places along the hike, you could see Salkantay, in all its majesty, through a haze of verdantity. We arrived at Chaullay, at a pleasant 2900 metres high, to our next campsite, with hot showers (10 soles). Our tents were up in the building ‘camping’, and the place was greeeeen. Here, we met a Danish lad who put us all to shame, because he was hiking the trek alone, and having a great time doing it. Dinner, which involved soup again, was class. Finished the day by playing trou de cul (French Asshole, a card game), and slept like babies, with a new appreciation for warmth.
DAY 3. High Jungle.
Day 3 began with a lovely wake up, in the sunshine, and was through tough thorough troughs and barrelling battered barrows (This is for all you non native speakers), along with a mixture of roads and paths. We’d normally do the entire thing by path, but this valley is a bit landslidy, and that makes some trails impassable. But, because of this, we get a 1 sole zipline box across the river, that's operated by hand, by us. Afternoon delights. The trail was pretty junglesque, and Juri, the assistant guide gathered some local fruits for us to try on a break. I’ve no idea what they were called, but they were all tasty. Little mini tomato things, passion fruits with a sweet twist, and some sort of herb that ‘cures’ the flu. I say ‘cures’ because it clears your nose by burning it so thoroughly nothing could survive it. This was followed by lunch was at La Playa! La Playa as a name is a complete lie, that’s only similarity with a playa is a volleyball net. Lunch, again, incredible. Thank you hobbits. And as for the volleyball,it was dominated by the 6 foot 6 Dutch guy. It was a bit like if Gandalf played volleyball against the hobbits.
Here, the 4-day trekkers parted from our group, to continue walking to Aguas Calientes from Hidroelectrica. Our trekking for the day ended with the passing of those Francophonies plus German,because, unfortunately, landslides closed down the trail further on. However, we got to experience an adrenaline pumping, near-death experience of the Santa Theresa bus. Think- death road, but narrower! Think- disproportionately high speeds! Think- Crossing waterfalls that could sweep us to our deaths below! Think- getting out of the bus, and walking, in case it falls off the edge, as it is the first vehicle to drive over a landslide, that was cleared just in front of us! Fun fun fun, all without seatbelts. I’d give it 7/10 on the fun danger scale, especially as the two Quebec guys spent the journey hanging out the windows trying to grab bananas from the trees while we drove past.
Santa Theresa campsite had a bonfire- before we could profit in the fire, we had to go to go cool off a little, in the hot springs. At the aforementioned hot springs, we bumped into Señor Denmark, surrounded by women. Kenith, what a man. He someone walked there before us, despite us taking two buses. Before the hot springs, we had some Inka tequila to settle our nerves for another bus. Then at the hot springs, some beer with a deaf kid. This escalated to the Canadians climbing on the moving bus, tuk-tuk Thailand style and coming in the other side. The hot springs were really nice and well worth 25 soles to get too. 3 pools, each slightly colder than the last, nothing too hot, an ‘Inka shower’, and nice views all around.
The escalation, however, continued upon returning to the now dark campsite. Dinner was a delicious haze, there was someone sitting on a throne, and an outrageously drunk night passed, with other groups both disgusted and impressed by our gratuitous drinking and dancing. One moment, it was 9:30pm, and it felt like we’d been drinking all night, and then 5 minutes later, it was 2:30am and we were throwing 4 foot nothing Tiburon ‘the flying hobbit’ into the air, cheering.
DAY 4. HIdroelectrica
After a hangover free breakfast (Still drunk), we were given the option- walk three hours to Hidroelectrica, along a dusty road, with our still drunk guide, at 7am; or take a bus for 10 soles. We choose the bus.
Hidroelectrica, where we waited for lunch, had hammocks. I slept. Lunch was not prepared by the Tiberon, and, therefore, was shite. (It really was, restaurant-prepared but a pile of steaming...). At Hidroelectrica we were told we could leave our duffel bags there, and just bring a day pack, as the Peru train strike wasn’t affecting this particular train. So we did and proceeded to walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, where we’d have a hostel, showers, and civilisation. After bumping into the Francophonies returning from Machu Picchu to get their bus, we arrived. I say we, as in the group, but minus two people who managed to take the only wrong turn on a straight road. After waiting an hour, hungry and hungover, we met them in the town walking around (They’d disregarded all the warning signs and walked through a dark train tunnel).
Aguas Calientes is a town built for tourists, and it was grand for what we wanted- a double bed and a hot shower. But then, drama struck- the train strike was effecting that particular train, and this meant no bags for us unless we paid 200 soles. Tour Guide Marco needed his bags, which had his tour guide licence to get to Machu Picchu, and we all wanted them. Two German girls disputed paying 20 soles for their bags, saying they should be covered by the company and we should know that first before getting them(Which is true). There was far too much arguing about this for what it’s worth, and thankfully, Marco wisely disregarded what everyone said and ordered the bags himself.
We then calmed down over a restaurant dinner and pisco sours, which was incredibly tasty. We also had an incredibly Peruvian moment, in that they asked everyone at once to put up their hands for what they wanted, while they read out the menu, rather than asking individually. It was horribly inefficient, and this was repeated 5 times until everyone listened at the same time and stopped changing their minds. But the food- class. No hobbits needed here in civilisation.
DAY 5. MACHU PICCHU
They say its the journey, not the destination that makes travel so appealing. They’d be so so wrong, again, Machu Picchu, the forgotten city, end of the Inka trail, top of 1800 steps, made this trek all about the destination. And it was without doubt the highlight. Even with a 4am wake up to get to the opening at the bottom at 5, to have reached the top by 6. Worth every tired step. Getting up in the dark was tough, but we had the joy of finding our bags delivered to our hostel overnight, so we had clean clothes for Machu Picchu. These clean clothes promptly got soaked in sweat as the steps took their toll, and got rid of all that lingering beer from two nights ago. After a 45 straight uphill hike (Which Henry led, singing majestically, after being by far the slowest on every other trek), we landed at the front gate of the ruins and had to wait 15 minutes until it opened. At Machu Picchu, once you enter the actual archaeological site, you are basically corralled out within 2 hours. However, as Marco delighted in telling us, he had a few tricks hidden up his sleeves. We headed to a viewpoint for the classic photo, where he told us about the history of Machu Picchu, and explained the significance of it all, from its founding to discovery in the 1900s.
Machu Picchu is marvellous, but, for a tourist site, its rules are a bit too inspired by authoritarian regimes. The following things dont exist/are not allowed: toilets, bins, shops, merchandising, playacting, performing actions, singing, dancing, causing havoc, going off the path, symbols, fun. So when we tried a nice acrobatic handstand which almost killed Charlotte, we were given a stern warning and security took my phone and deleted the photos (perhaps to stop other copycats?). After our little chat with Marco, I took out the Mayo flag for a photo and was told that non-country flags were not allowed (can’t be supporting ISIS, or your football team). Luckily security didn’t know where the photos were in this instance. It seems like the no toilet thing was designed to force people to leave, as there’s only a certain amount of time you can hold in a piss before you explode, or leave. And I can’t imagine security would be fond of you pissing on the Inca terraces, even if they’re designed to be perfect for irrigation.
Rant over, we headed to the Sun Gate, where the people who complete the Inka trail see Machu Picchu for the first time. It’s a bit of bitch of a walk after 5 days trekking, but the views are pretty nice. We were also unbelievably lucky to have the sun shining on us there. After the Sun Gate we headed to the Inca Bridge. The walk was nice, apparently, idiots have fallen off and killed themselves on it taking selfies, so you need to sign in before you go to it. But ultimately, the bridge was a bit of a disappointment. It’s just a path of rocks on the side of the mountain, with a hole where there are a few planks of wood over. Grand, but nothing special. We debated how far the bridge went. After going into the archaeological site of the city itself, the exhaustion of the past few days caught up with us. We lasted a good 45 minutes before the people constantly stopping in front of us to take photos pissed us off enough to leave. At the entrance, groups were taking photos, causing a 50 person queue behind them! Ignorant wanks. Somehow, this is allowed, but potentially life threatening acrobatics for the sake of a photo isn’t? Get your priorities right Peru, we’ve all being on your buses, we know you’ve no care for safety!
The walk down was just as tough as going up, which you never really think about until you do it, but at least we didn’t need to walk to Hidroelectrica. We collected our shit from the hostel, and hopped on our scenic train back to Ollantaytambo and then minibus to Cusco.
Need to Know:
So here’s what you need to know if your planning on doing the Salkantay Trek:
Definitely acclimatise before coming, it’s not easy over 4000 metres
Bring your Passport, or you can’t get into Machu Picchu.
A decent level of fitness is required
Bring wet weather clothes, ponchos are a saviour
Bring about 200 soles for tips, toilets, water, and paying for buses. There’s also a 10 soles entry fee to Mollepata
Toilet Paper is hard to come by here
There are toilets just outside Machu Picchu- Pay in and make the most of them.
There’s luggage storage at the bottom of the hill to Machu Picchu, if your returning by bus from Hidroelectrica.
You can also pay for a bus up the hill to Machu Picchu, its $12 each way.
The camping is surprisingly luxury, and it’s so cheap to go, compared to $350 for a day trip to Machu Pichu
If your determined to save, get the bus. But the train is worth it if you have the cash
It gets booked out April to December- book in advance, or arrive at least 5 days early, especially in June-September
The Inca trail brings you in the Sungate. It’s got more archaeological significance on the trail, but the views from Salkantay are better.
You can do it yourself, but having pack horses, the tents ready after each day, and someone to cook made it so much easier. A good guide also really made the experience unforgettable.
In Machu Picchu you have the option of visiting Huayna Picchu Mountain or Machu Picchu Mountain. These MUST be booked long in advance, and cost $20.
Itinerary in Short:
Day One. Cusco-Mollepata-Challacancha by bus. 3 hour hike to Soraypampa, Height change: (3380-3900 metres). Soraypampa- Lake Humantay, 1 and a half hour hike. Height change: (3900-4220 metres) Total distance hiked today: 13km.
Day Two. Soraypampa-Salkantay Pass– Chaullay hiking. 3 hour hike uphill to Salkantay Pass, Height change (3900-4650 metres). Decend to Huarachmachhay for 3 hours, stop for lunch, Height change (4650-3800 metres). Huarachmachhay- Chaullay hiking. Descend for 3 hours into high jungle, Height change (3800-2900 metres).
Total distance hiked today: 22km.
Day Three. Chaullay - Playa Sahuayaco hiking for 5 hours. Descending and ascending, Height change (2900-2200 metres). Playa Sahuayaco-Santa Theresa by bus (Included in price).Option to visit Hot Springs (25 soles, not included in price). Total distance hiked today: 14km.
If you do a 4 day trek you get the bus from Playa Sahuayaco- Hidroelectrica, and walk 3kms to Aguas Calientes. Total distance hiked in that case: 25km.
Day Four. Santa Theresa-Hidroelectrica hike, 3 hours. Lunch. Hidroelectrica-Aguas Calientes hike. 3 hours. Height change (2200-2040 metres) Total distance hiked today- 19km.
Day Five. Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu hike. 1 hour up, 1 hour down. Height change (2040-2400). Total distance hiked today: 4km.
Total distance hiked: 74kms
Interested in doing the Salkantay Trek? Book it here with Tripfarm, for cheaper than if you booked it in person in Cusco (And get free sleeping bag hire too!)