Although the Inca Trail is the most desired way to get to Machu Picchu, there are a lot of ways to get there. The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is a good alternative for those who didn’t book months in advance, want to see the Andes and experience Peru.
I wanted to book a 5 day trek to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay Trail, so I decided to shop around.
Here’s the thing, how this works is that there are a lot of tour companies around the main square in Cusco. They all have names but that does not mean you can necessarily look them up online and see reviews. Often when you book online, you’re actually booking through an agency that may have a different name. So it may be called one thing online and another in Cusco.
It’s confusing. It’s not easy to find who’s good.
But, one of the benefits of booking your trek when you’re in Cusco is that it’s generally cheaper.
I asked 8 different agencies and got a similar price from 7.
The story of what you get was the same at each one so I eventually just chose one that seemed the least sketchy and booked it, hoping that “basic accommodations” means more in Peru than Bolivia.
With that, I was committed for 5 days and 4 nights for about $45/day and 85 kilometers with a vague idea of what I was getting into.
$45/day per day is fair. However, if I had to do it again, I’d spend a bit more.
I got picked up at my hostel at 3:00 AM by one of the guides.
We were all loaded into a bus to drive to a town called Mollepata where we would be beginning the trek. Once we got there, we ate breakfast and divided up our packs. 5 kilograms could go on the horses, the rest we had to carry.
I really hadn’t brought much being that we would be camping but the one thing I was missing was a sleeping bag. The agency had said it would be there that morning but so far it hadn’t surfaced. I asked one of the guides and he told me they’d find one later.
I was in a group with a guide who had the build and mannerisms of Jack Black in Nacho Libre. I was beside myself. He was absolutely hilarious and had no intention of being funny.
He pursed his lips and gestured with his eyes closed while he spoke. “Now, my family, we are begin the five day Salkantay Trek. This is not so easy so you are Champions. You are my Champion group.” His name was Rueben and he called us his Champions for the next five days.
I looked over at the other tour group, they had a surly looking guide and no introductions. I figured we got the better deal. We had Reuben, who was a native Quechua speaker and had decent English and Matteo, a Brit who had lived in Peru 10 years and married a Peruvian.
It was a fairly long day ahead with about 8 hours of hiking in total and about 9 miles. All was at high elevation and the steep slopes made for slow climbing.
At one time I had thought that after a certain elevation, you were maxed out and a few thousand extra feet didn’t make much of a difference. I was wrong. We were at 9,500 feet and would end the day at 12,800.
It was clear from the first few steep hills the Brazilians were really struggling as well as a few others. I was lucky to feel good because I had been in La Paz and Copacabana long enough to acclimate but those who hadn’t were already breathing hard and feeling miserable.
It got colder as we gained elevation. We stopped for lunch near a little farmhouse that had a bunch of tables set up for Trekkers. Half way through lunch a woman ran up to our table demanding who had used the outhouse. We all looked at each other awkwardly. “Bano, bano?!” She demanded. Eventually one of the Brits said he had used some toilet paper to blow his nose. She demanded one Sole for payment then seemed satisfied and left. We all wondered how she had even known someone was in there.
I talked with Reuben or Matteo during the day. Reuben was very curious about other countries and asked me one question after another.
“What cost is university in your country?”
“How old you get married in your country?”
“How much marijuana in your country?”
About 5:30 we came to the first camping area. It was cold and there was snow on the mountains. We had tents already set up inside an enclosure but you could tell it was going to be a cold night. I still didn’t have a sleeping bag. I asked Rueben who looked worried. He asked around for a while and eventually came up with what I assume was a cook’s sleeping bag. I felt bad taking it and gave it back. Luckily in a while a few extras turned up.
We ate a dinner that consisted of rice, noodles and soup. Apparently we were carb loading for the next day I thought but I was wrong again. That was the menu for lunch and dinner entire trek. I bundled up in all my clothes and headed to bed in my own tent. After 26 years of being cold I was good at making sure I could sleep despite the chill. Reuben poked his head in “Rashel, you have only you in your tent?! If you get cold come see Reuben. You sleep between Reuben and Matteo!” he said, giggling.
I went to bed and slept through the night. Reuben and Matteo would have to keep each other warm tonight.
The second day is the hardest day, it’s got the steepest climb which makes the 12.5 miles seem much longer.
We were woken up by Reuben bringing us coca tea in our tents at 5:00 AM. Most people had been too cold to sleep much and we were all pretty groggy. We had a quick breakfast of the usual bread, jam, and a small pancake each before heading out.
It was freezing cold but were soon climbing steep hills and warming up. Before noon we were set to reach the highest point of the hike at 15,000 feet. It was a beautiful climb, you could see the glaciers on the mountains and the green valleys below.
Two of the Brazilians rented horses rather than trying to make the climb themselves which was probably a good thing. By the time we reached the highest point some of the group was suffering from severe altitude sickness.
One girl had such a terrible pounding headache that she stopped along the trail, crying. I gave her some aspirin I had to see if it would help but she was sick almost the entire day.
We stopped for lunch in a sunny valley just below the highest point. Our cooks made lunch on the grass and then washed the dishes in the stream.
We were told not to drink from the stream because of salmonella. We had the usual; soup, noodles and rice. Reuben said the soup was cow intestine soup. “Is delicious” he said, kissing his fingers like a cartoon Italian chef. After lunch everyone took a quick nap in the sun.
Then we continued walking until 5:30. It was amazing how much the scenery changed throughout the day. We went from snowy mountains to high altitude jungle all in a few hours and ended the day at 9,000 feet of elevation and camped in a nice little valley.
We all went to bed exhausted right after dinner.
I woke up over and over the second night to yelling and laughing. I laid and listened. Sometimes it sounded so angry and forceful I waited for sounds of a fist fight then laughing would begin again. It continued until we were woke up the next morning.
Apparently no one had gotten much sleep.
After dinner the cooks had started drinking and carried on all night long. They were still drunk when making breakfast. Poor Reuben and Matteo had to make them put something together for us to eat. When breakfast showed up half an hour late it was porridge so watery that was served in a pitcher and we drank it out of cups and a pancake with a dry potato on top.
This time Reuben did not kiss his fingers and say, “is delicious!”
After our substandard breakfast we headed out for another day of hiking. Once out of sight of the camp Reuben stopped us.
“So sorry my Champions. The cooks, they drink much last night and didn’t make for you a good breakfast this morning. So sorry. Reuben is a little furious with them this morning but you will have a good lunch my Champions. Ok my family?”
Rueben makes me melt.
We passed so many waterfalls trickling through the Andes that I lost count. The hills seemed to get steeper as we went.
Reuben was right though, lunch was better than breakfast. We also had guacamole and what I think were alpaca steaks.
From there we were to take a van 45 minutes to the campsite for the day. There were two vans parked outside the restaurant. I was relieved. I thought that meant there would be room to stretch out and maybe take a nap during the ride.
As it turned out, only one of the vans was ours. It was a 14 person van. We filled each seat then everyone else had to occupy standing room. When the van was absolutely full there was still Reuben, a cook and one other who wouldn’t fit.
The cook, who was still drunk, got on the roof and the other two followed. Someone outside tried to shut the door. It was too full of people and wouldn’t latch. You could see a hiking boot sticking out into the air as we started off.
In total we had managed to fit 22 people into the van. One of the drunk cooks was crouching near the door. He kept dozing off and laying his head on one of the Brit’s knees.
When we arrived at our campsite we all headed off for the local hot springs. It had been three days since anyone had showered and we were all in need of one. We stayed there till dark and then went to the campsite for dinner. It was the usual pasta and rice. The Brits and I talked about food from home. They were also scandalized by the thought of biscuits and gravy and thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd. They were so easily flabbergasted that it was too hard to resist telling them one of the dirtiest jokes I knew. I thought they would faint.
They were in an uproar the rest of the evening.
The 4th day we got to sleep in until 7:00. It had been getting progressively warmer each night and without the cooks drunken yelling we were able to sleep pretty well.
It was another easy day of hiking, just 6 miles and a 1,200 foot elevation increase. We walked along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes, just below Machu Picchu. There we had hostel beds for the night and real showers. We went out to dinner in a restaurant.
It was actually really funny to see everyone cleaned up. I didn’t realize how scruffy we had all become in just 3 days.
The next day we would be hiking to Machu Picchu.
We met at 4:30 AM to begin the walk up to Machu Picchu. It was a full 45 minutes of climbing steep, stone steps in the dark before we reached the gate.
There were aqueducts for transporting clean water from natural springs. This seemed somewhat ironic to me since some of the villages we passed on the way did not have running water yet.
The Incas had even used the terraces to adapt low elevation plants to grow in high elevation. They would plant them in the lowest terraces and slowly move them up to higher ones. They also transported fertile soil from Cusco to the terraces.
There were three styles of stone work. In one, each stone was cut to fit those beside it perfectly without mortar. Some historians have written that they were so perfectly cut a single blade of grass couldn’t fit between them. The buildings were constructed around boulders and rock formations becaus
e some Incas did not believe in changing Pachamama’s landscape design. The buildings were also built to withstand earthquakes which are common in the area.
At the end of the tour, we all said goodbye. I think I could have held it together if Reuben hadn’t said, “Goodbye my Champions, my family!” I had to laugh but I actually cried a few tears too.
The rest of the morning was spent wandering through the ruins. There were dramatic views below of the incredibly steep hills and the thundering river with its huge, smooth boulders.
I could see why the Incas thought the area was sacred. It was awe inspiring to just sit quietly and observe everything around me. Tourists came and went, taking photos and breathing hard. The sun travelled overhead and went from sharply lighting one side of the mountain to the other.
As the afternoon got hot, I went down the long stone staircase back to town and took a train and a bus to end the night in Cusco.