There are several options when looking at how to get to Machu Picchu. We knew we wanted to trek for a few days but even then the possibilities are endless. The traditional Inka Trail was booked when we tried to reserve a spot 3 months ago so we decided to go with the Salkantay Trek. A popular alternative known for its' amazing scenery.
The night before we left on the trip we had an orientation meeting with our guide and the other hikers. Our guides name was Silverio, and he was from Cusco and had been leading treks in the region with the same company for more than 15 years. He later admitted to us that he had done the Salkantay trek around 200 times. Six other trekkers were also going to join us: 2 girls from the UK, an Austrailian, a German, a Chilean, and one other Canadian.
5:30 AM - We meet up outside the SAS office and hope on a minivan headed to the trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead and met the horseman and other trekking staff (cook and assistants) that were making our trek possible. We hiked for about 5 hours that first day, mostly uphill, to our first campsite, known as Soraypampa, located in a valley between several mountains. After the sun set that day we were amazed out how much light the full moon provided, and how it reflected off and seemed to light up Salkantay Mountain.
Our campsite on the first night:
6:00AM Someone is knocking on the wall of our tent, telling us they have hot coca tea ready for us. It is below freezing and we can see our breath attaching to the walls of the tent. We open the tent door and one of the horseman hands us some warm tea. We hope that every morning wake-up is accompanied with warm tea. We drink our tea and when we step outside our tent there are bowls of hot water to warm our hands. We are well looked after.
After a quick breakfast we set off hiking and leave the cooks and horseman behind to pack up camp. After about 3 hours of hard hiking we arrive at Apacheta pass (4950M). The pass is close to the base of Salkantay Mountain and the view is breath-taking. It's chilly and windy at the height of our hike. We took photos and then gathered with Silverio and our group for a coca leaf ceremony. The people who live here worship the mountains. They believe that giving offerings to the peaks assures the mountains will be kind in return. We each take 3 leaves, one each for the sky, the earth, and the underworld. We turned them to the four directions and blew on the for good omens and placed them with a rock we each carried from 100m below onto a growing pile. Silverio brings each of his groups to the same pile for the ceremony an it has grown to be half a metre tall.
Here we are gathering in front of the rock pile before the ceremony with our guide Silverio:
One story about the beliefs of the people who live in this area. The Salkantay mountain is one of the tallest in its range. It is the female and there is a male counterpart nearby. The people of the altiplano hold these two mountains in the highest regard. Following this, they are not accepting of people who attempt to climb the mountains. To them, that is a sign of ultimate disrespect for the power the mountains yield. In the mid-nineties a group of Argentinean climbers ignored this request and began climbing Salkantay. As if to prove the point of the altiplano people, there was an avalanche on the mountain and the climbers all perished.
Day 2 was our longest and hardest day. We hiked around 20kms, mostly all above 4000 metres. At this altitude its easy to be short of breath and lethargic. It took us all day and we were exhausted once we arrived at camp. We are really thankful for all the hard work of the horses, horsemen and the cooks. They walk the same trails as us but make it to camp 2-3 hours ahead of us and everything is ready once we arrive. We ate a massive dinner and are in bed by 8pm. Soon after, we fell into a deep sleep.
Check out the red lichen on the rock in the bottom right corner of this picture:
Our campsite for night #2
Day 3 is a downhill day and as we make our way down it gets warmer. Like the end of Day 2, we are walking through cloud forest. It is lush and green here and we hear birds chirping all around us. The sun warms us as we walk and soon we come to a bridge and a waterfall where we stop for a rest by the water.
On day 4 we got to sleep in until 7am! We ate, packed, and said goodbye to the cooks and horsemen. Today they would return to our trailhead to meet another group the following day. These guys work hard and they work a lot. We ate like kings and queens with them; they are good at what they do and we were lucky to have them with us.
Day 4 started with a 1.5 hour ride in a van to the town of Hydroelectrica. It is the town on the other side of Machu Picchu mountain. There, we ate lunch and then set off for the 2 hour walk to Aguas Calientes. To get there we walked almost the entire way along the train tracks. Aguas Calientes is the village at the bottom of Machu Picchu. It is extremely touristy, but otherwise alright to wander around the markets and streets.
Silverio at the train bridge:
At one point a train came by:
We arrived in Aguas Calientes in mid afternoon and we used the rest of the daylight to climb up to Putucusi Mountain. Once at the top we had a clear view of Machu Picchu from across the valley. We had to work to get the view though as the trail was made up of a series of ladders and big Inca stone steps. Definitely worth the view and it was also our first glance at Machu Picchu. Incredible!
Here is Chris with our Chilean friend at the bottom of the longest ladder- 70 metres!
The view from part-way up Putucusi:
Our group at the top of Puticusi with Machu Picchu in the background:
Our first view of Machu Picchu:
That night we stayed in a SAS hostal in Aguas Calientes and went to bed early- there was an early start on Day 5.
3:40AM Wake up call - Silverio is knocking on our door. It is time to go down for breakfast. 4:15 - We leave the hostal and set out on the road which leads us to the base of Machu Pichu and a trail where we begin walking up steps that zig-zag their way up the hill. Most people are wearing headlamps and we need to take breaks regularly to catch our breath.
The photo below shpws the road the busses take to the entrance of Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. If you look carefully you can also see some of the trails that connect each zig-zag. This is the route we took to get to the top. It was an hour and twenty minutes of steady walking up steps. A bit early, but a great workout!
5:45AM We arrive at the top, out of breath, and join the 50 or so people who are already lined up at the gate to get into Machu Pichu. We made our goal of beating the first bus up the hill.
6:00 We are let in to Machu Pichu and quickly make our way to the base of Huayna Picchu to get our pass stamped so that we (and only 200 other people that day) are allowed to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu later that day.
6:15 Although the sun is still hiding behind the far mountains, we start our tour of Machu Picchu! Silverio has been a great guide for our trek so far and this morning is no different as he lead us around this magical site from the Inca empire.
The Inca made their doorways and windows this shape for strength. Peru is known for earthquakes and this shape holds up through the tremors.
This is an example of high-quality stone work. This part would have been where the elite people in the village of Machu Picchu lived and spent their time.
More doorways and walls with Huayna Picchu in the background:
The roofs of the houses and buildings would have been made with straw. They are re-created on some of the structures as examples (like the building in the left of this photo):
A view of the courtyard and part of the site with Huayna Picchu in the background:
More of the grounds...it's huge!
After our tour with Silverio it was time to for our time to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. It is one of the mountains that stands beside the Machu Picchu site. It also has ruins on it and built into the sides of it. To get to the top we had to climb for about an hour up extremely steep and uneven stone steps. A lot of the had rope to help pull ourselves up. It was definitely worth it for the amazing view! Not only of Machu Picchu but also of the mountain range that surrounded us.
We had a little bit of time to explore the site on our own after coming down from Huayna Picchu. By that time we had already been awake for 10hours so we were pretty tired and hungry. We found a nice spot on the grass and had a little rest before catching the bus down to town and back to our hostal for a delicious lunch.
That evening we boarded the train to go back to Cusco. We had an amazing time on our Salkantay Trek. Machu Picchu was beautiful but even more so was the 4 days leading up to it on our hike through mountain passes and cloud forest.
Peru Fun Fact:
Coca leaves are used for more than ceremonies like ours at the Salkantay pass. People in the altiplano often chew the leaves to aid with digestion and altitude sickness. Our horsemen usually had a big wad in the side of their cheeks. They chew it for a while and then spit it out and re-load. The leaves are also used in teas and lots of candies are coca flavoured.