It’s hard to write something new about Cusco, Machu Picchu, and all the different ways to get there. Rated by TripAdivsor’s readers the Top World Landmark, the inundation of guides and tips is certainly no surprise. It’s been said ten billion times that you have to book the Inca Trail months in advance and, if that doesn’t fit your travel style, that there are some good alternatives that can be booked for much cheaper when you get to town (like Salkantay, Choquequirao, Lares, etc.). How could we possibly contribute to the myriad of information already available at one’s fingertips?
Well, instead of writing another report about our choice - the Salkantay Trek - of how you go uphill, then downhill, and then flat, and then uphill again, here are some of favorite and least liked things about the hike.
Connecting with and enjoying nature is one of the reasons we love to hike and this trek provides plenty of options. Whereas the classic trail offers much more in the way of archeological sights, Salkantay serves up incredible opportunities to get in touch with your inner-outdoorsman. From mountains to cows to butterflies to jungles, you’re constantly surrounded and reminded of just how incredible nature is. It’s also a great way to make sure you don’t get ruined-out.
Both of us had spent plenty of time camping when we were younger, but we hadn’t done it in a long time. Although not on the level of glamping, we were definitely spoiled in that (1) the tents were put up for us each day, and (2) all our meals were cooked for us. We had probably the best trekking-cooks in all of Peru with us, Damian and his daughter. Each meal was all sorts of delicious, plus we got daily popcorn at snacktime, not to mention banana fritters and a banana cake on the last day. All using no more than a couple pots and pans. Seriously amazing.
The stars at night (were big and bright...)
The first night was spent at a campsite at about 3800 meters in elevation with our tents pitched inside makeshift buildings to protect from the intense winds coming off the mountains. When we were brave enough to venture from our warm shelter, replete with coca tea and heaps of food, we were treated to some of the clearest skies we've ever seen. The stars were so clear and bright I half-convinced myself I could see the mountains clearly. The only places that we've been to on this trip that compare favorably are (1) the Amazon and (2) San Pedro de Atacama. I wish we had pictures to share, but neither of us could have stood still long enough for a good shot - it was cold enough that our bodies started to shiver the moment we left our shelter. Totally worth it though!
Our Hiking Group
Going on guided hikes like Salkantay can be a risky proposition, especially in terms of who you’ll be spending the next 4-5 days with. Unless you pay for the private experience, chances are you’ll get matched up with people who booked at other tour agencies in Cusco. According to one of our guides, these random groupings can lead to a lot of in-fighting and bickering on the trail. So much so that he was really impressed at how well our group got along. And it was true - we can’t think of a better group of people to have hiked the trail with. We got along so well that those who could met up again in Cusco after the hike to have cuy (more on that never. Yuck.) And the guy with the green socks on his hands? We were headed in the same direction and traveled/met up/ended up in the same hostel with him multiple times across Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Never know when you'll make a great travel buddy.
At the end of the third day, after we made it to our accommodation for the evening, we all piled back into a minivan and headed to what may have been the greatest bath of my life. We went to a public thermal bath near Santa Teresa that seemed pretty popular with locals as there were plenty when we went. Not to worry - there was plenty enough room for us to soak our weary feet and legs in three different pools of warm-to-hot temperatures before continuing on the next day.
Our guides and helpers
I've already praised Damian and his daughter for their skills in the kitchen, but truly all of the workers were fantastic. Our two guides, Juan Carlos and Edson, were always helpful, kind, and up for a good laugh. The porter who drove the donkeys carrying all of our equipment did an amazing job considering most days, our group hiked so fast that we'd take extra-long breaks so we wouldn't beat our gear to camp (subtle brag, right?).
The picture above was taken at Machu Picchu after four days on the trail. The majority of the bites were from sandflies, nasty little buggers that can clearly do some damage. Despite putting bug repellant all over the place, these little bastards searched far and wide for the one place on Anais’s ankles where they could wreak havoc. Over the next month (yes, month), her ankles itched and went from shades of purple to blue to green to yellow and back again. So, be forewarned - especially on day one - WEAR BUG SPRAY.
Weather is always fickle high up in the Andes and you can never be guaranteed of anything. It’s important to keep this in mind because, even if you have a perfectly sunny day getting up to the first camp or a sunny morning before you hike up the pass, you have no idea what will greet you at the pass. One of our guides made the joke that when some groups ask him what Salkantay means, he says “the mountain that’s never been seen”, and the real translation of Savage Mountain speaks volumes. Nonetheless, it’s always disappointing to miss out and on this trip we missed out on snapping a close-up.
We hope everyone's biggest problems are bugs and the weather being a little inconvenient! Hopefully this gives you a bit of a better ides of what its like to be on the trek beyond just the hiking, which on its own is incredible. Whichever trek you choose, as long as you enjoy hiking and camping, you'll have a blast crossing the Andes on your journey to reach Machu Picchu.
Up next? The grand prize for four days of trekking and #1 on my list of "Must-See's".
A few pictures to give you a look at the city...