TEXT AND PHOTOS BY: Linda Cash
Despite what you may gather from many travel websites, you don’t actually have to hike to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu. You can catch a train, or even a taxi, from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, then catch the many buses which take visitors to Machu Picchu.
But it’s much more satisfying to really feel like you’ve earned the privilege of visiting this ancient Incan city by hiking the many peaks, valleys and ancient Inca trails which surround the site.
Many say that the journey is often more important than the destination. In this case however, with Machu Picchu being the destination, perhaps it would be better to say that the journey is as important as the destination.
STRADDLING THE SALKANTAY
The traditional hike to Machu Picchu is of course the classic Inca Trail. However, due to high demand the Inca Trail can be very busy, even though numbers are now limited. This means you may be walking in a stream of many trekkers, or may not be able to obtain passes for the dates you’d like to trek.
Several trekking companies offer alternative trekking routes through the surrounding mountains with the terrain varying from high glacier-filled mountain passes to steamy jungle river crossings.
The Salkantay trek is one of the alternatives, offering small groups a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu from Cusco. This trek takes you to the base of the spectacular, sacred, snowcapped, 6,270m Salkantay mountain – the “Guardian Spirit of the Andean.”
The group size varies depending on the trekking company you choose, but is usually between 4 – 8 trekkers, and your group is often the only people you see for much of your trekking time. Each group has a dedicated hiking guide, as well as the support crew of horsemen and chefs.
This trek has temperatures ranging from -10o to over 30o, so use layers of thermals rather than heavy jackets. Down jackets/vests and pants with zip-off legs are handy.
Plan for a few days in Cusco before your trek to allow your body time to acclimatise to the thinner air, sampling the local coca tea to aid the process; altitude sickness can ruin your plans.
Most outfitters will pick you up from your Cusco accommodation for the 4-hour drive to the trailhead at Soraypampa (3,750m), passing through several small villages. The trek begins by selecting a stone from the river bed to be carried as a gift to Pachamama when the peak is reached.
The first day’s walking is a gradual climb from 3,750m to 4,180m over 4-5 hours, through traditional shepherded llama and alpaca farming land. You will also encounter wild chinchilla scurrying between the rocks along the way.
The first night’s camp is near the base of a glacier where you can hear occasional avalanches throughout the night.
Trekking companies pride themselves on providing large portions of quality meals: think Survivor-Meets-Masterchef, where carbohydrate-rich meals are served. Nacho stacks topped with fresh guacamole and local cheeses, followed by flambé desserts or crème brulee are just examples of what to expect.
Dawn on the second day at this altitude is likely to be a little chilly, around -10oC in July. The trek continues with a steep climb past the glacier field in the shadow of Salkantay. The Andes Mountains offer steep, high, and often cold challenges, but all the time rewards you with fantastic vistas.
The highest pass on this trek takes you up to 4,570m where you’ll be gasping for breath as you pause after only five steps or so. You need to take your time at this altitude and guides allow plenty of time for the climb.
Upon reaching the peak altitude of the pass, you are rewarded with the view of a crystal blue glacial lake nestled between the snowcapped mountain peaks of Salkantay and Umantay. It’s time to place the small rock you picked up at the start of the hike onto one of the ever-increasing piles at the pass to thank Pachamama and the mountain spirits, Apus, for your safe passage.
Now you begin descending and the trail narrows until it reaches a stone-flanked portal marking the entrance to the Peruvian jungle. Passing through the portal into a broad valley, you descend through the cloud layer and the scenery changes rapidly.
Orchids and bromeliads fill out the lush vegetation while humming birds flit about the stands of bamboo. Overhead is the territory of the Condor – you may see them high in the sky on the look out for fallen animals on the mountain slopes.
You are now well in the jungle at 2,950m and will be descending to 1,850m through a jungle rich with tropical birds. The trek follows a river valley and winds along steep cliff edges punctuated by cascading waterfalls, before leading to your campsite at the village of La Playa (the Beach) – the rocky shores of the Rio Urubamba where you can take an optional tour to the hot springs in Santa Teresa; after three days of hiking, the 38°C hot spring water will feel fabulous.
The fourth day of the trek is the last hiking day and is a pleasant change from all that downhill hiking; it starts with a steep climb to the Llactopata pass at 2,700m, following part of an ancient Inca trail.
The lower slopes of this section are coffee growing areas, so the track winds through stands of coffee trees and mixed tropical crops. Local families will offer their fresh roasted and ground coffee – you can even roast and grind it yourself.
Llactopata is an Inca site located across the valley from Machu Picchu, and is an ideal lunch stop after a challenging climb, rewarding you with a stunning view across the valley – and of Machu Picchu.
After lunch, it’s a long descent to the train station where you catch a train to Aguas Calientes for your hotel night.
The final day of the “trek” starts around 5am; you catch the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (the only way to walk all the way into Machu Picchu is on the classic Inca Trail trek), arriving at Machu Picchu in time for sunrise – but most importantly – before the day crowds arrive from Cusco.
Most treks include a guided tour of Machu Picchu, and the opportunity to climb Huayna Picchu (2,720m), claimed to be the residence of the high priest.
Packages for the Salkantay trek vary from company to company, but expect to pay something around US$570 per person for 5D/4N with guides, meals, porters and transportation (to/from Cusco.)