I’ll start this post with a confession. Obviously, the Inca Trail is the famous route that everyone wants to take. However, we were unaware that the Inca Trail treks sell out six months in advance. We sadly figured this out at the end of February and were pretty disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to do it. However, after more research on other trekking options, we found the Salkantay Trek. This has the reputation of being the hardest trek and I must say, IT WAS, BUT SO WORTH IT! We were told by multiple people, including guides, that the Inca Trail is so packed, you’re never alone to enjoy the moment. But Salkantay exceeded every expectation possible. I couldn’t recommend this more. Absolutely remarkable. I’m sure one day I’ll still do the Inca Trail, but this was the best decision (though we didn’t have much of a choice) we’ve made thus far.
A grueling 4 nights, 5 days… Here’s a look into the tour from our perspective:
Our day started with a 5am hotel pick-up, a 2 hour drive to the trailhead, breakfast, and the beginning of five long days of walking. We knew the first day would be the hardest so were mentally prepared for that. However, what we weren’t prepared for was the weather. Rain, mud, clouds, freezing temperatures, and then snow! That’s right. Snow. I slightly regretted this tour for a moment when the white flakes started to fly. Within the first four hours of our trek, we climbed 3,000 vertical feet to the Salkantay Pass situated at 15,280ft. And I won’t sugar coat it, I thought I was going to be sick. The uphill was so vertical, so cold, so hard (mostly because of our full stomaches after lunch, and the altitude didn’t help either), but I wasn’t feeling too great when we reached the pass. But happy to know the hard part was behind us and we made it!
When the weather is clear, you can see the Salkantay summit at 20,574 ft and it’s supposed to be stunning. Unfortunately, with the clouds and fog so thick, we could barely see 10 feet away.
Salkantay is the highest peak of the Willkapampa mountain range, part of the Peruvian Andes, the 38th highest peak in the Andes, and the twelfth highest in Peru. However, as a range highpoint in deeply incised terrain, it is the second most topographically prominent peak in the country.
15,280ft pass. – 8.5 hour day – 15k/9 miles.
We finally made it to our camp after what felt like a never-ending mud road. The trail is a pack trail with horses tromping around and there isn’t a dry patch to step for miles. I gave up trying to keep my shoes somewhat dry and clean after the first hour of attempting to dodge the mud and horse poop failed.
Our tents were set up at the mountains basin with stunning views of the valley and its peaks surrounding us. The weather cleaned in the evening and left us with beautiful views of the valley and peaks all night and the most amazing stargazing I’ve ever seen… Hey there, Milky Way! That first night was cold, cold, cold. But not as cold as Fitz Roy, thankfully. The sleeping bag and tent were in much better condition and we were even given a hot water bag to sleep with. This helped tremendously. Actually was the best night of sleep I’ve had in a while. We were absolutely exhausted, went to bed at 8:30pm and woke up at 6am to do it all again.
After conquering the hardest portion of the trek on Day 1, we now had to get through the longest day on Day 2. We had 18k/11 miles ahead of us, 80% downhill. I was feeling good and excited to get down to a warmer climate and lower elevation.
Unfortunately, more mud from the pack trail and rain found us again. We walked through the high village people’s house properties when the trail was either destroyed by weather or horses.
Over the 8 hours of hiking, we dropped 7,000ft in elevation, taking us from the high elevation Andes with snow to the Cloud Forest with wild horses and warm temperatures. Amazing.
We had to take a slight detour for the last two hours because a landslide had washed out the trail. Instead, we took a local cable car to cross the river, 150ft above. Sketchy, but quite the experience.
We finally made it to camp in 8 hours and ended the day at a natural hot spring, which was more like a resort for 20 year olds on spring break. But it was so nice to jump in the warm water and “wash” off — No more llama smell for us!
Today was a relatively short day of only five hours of hiking. We trekked 7 miles up the valley and through the rain forest. It’s incredible how much the landscape continues to change each day, each hour, each turn. Today was difficult because of the heat and humidity, but the views were incredible.
We made it through the pass, the highest point of the valley, and finally to the ruins of Llacapama. From there, you can see through the stone door frame straight across the valley to Machu Picchu. The first view of Machu Picchu was absolutely amazing. When you see pictures of this iconic ruin, and dream about seeing it for so long then you finally do, it honestly stuns you. Truly takes your breath away. I almost wanted to cry.
We could have stood there all day, staring at the sacred site, but we were starving, lunch was coming and our guide assured us that our campsite had an even better view. Yoel was right. This was the BEST. CAMPSITE. EVER. And all to ourselves with our tents facing Machu Picchu. We had the afternoon free to enjoy the views. Such fun to stay here after reading “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” since the author stayed at this exact campsite (And I highly recommend this book to anyone who is planning a trip to Machu Picchu). We watched as the sun set and shone directly on Machu Picchu. Magical. We even finally had a clear view of Salkantay from here too. It’s massive! I can’t believe we were right at it’s base just two days before and couldn’t see anything.
Another early morning, but our last full day of trekking. Yoel always woke us up with the best coca tea though so that helped make getting out of our warm sleeping bags a little easier. It rained every night, but the mornings were always clear and beautiful. Our chef, Gregorio, baked us a farewell cake, which was really good! Just odd for breakfast 🙂 However, all of the meals we had on the hike were exceptional. Traditional Peruvian cuisine, each meal was 5 courses, we were always so stuffed! But we needed the carbs and energy to keep us going on the trail.
**Our amazing Chef and Porters! — Cooking us five corse meals every day and carrying our giant packs. These men are truly incredible. Their work is extremely difficult, but they do it with a smile on their faces and are always so friendly and thankful. THANK YOU for everything you do!
We made our way two hours downhill to the Hydroelectrica. Slipping and sliding everywhere from the mud and rain made the trail slightly more “exciting”, along with beautiful views of the waterfall.
Finally, we made it down to flat ground for the first time in four days, but then had a long three hour walk along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes. This was the longest walk of my life, and probably one of the hardest parts of the entire trek. Completely flat, which was nice for a change, but we were so tired – back, shoulders, joints, everything on fire. As you walked along the track, we saw hundreds of birds and other wildlife, but when the train whistle blew, you had to jump off the track before it came. Only in South America!
After four days and 40 miles, we finally made it to Aguas Calientes! Our first hot shower in four days!! Naturally, we went straight to the bar though for a couple of Pisco Sours to celebrate, log into wifi to let mom and dad know I’m alive, then off to explore a little bit of this tourist town. It really is a cute town, right on the river, and I wish we had more time there.
Dreams come true! On the bus at 5:45am and at the entrance to Machu Picchu a little after the 6am opening along with hundreds of other tourists. A Stunning drive up the switchback filled road, just a little scary. But we made it, walked in, and finally had our first up close and personal view of Machu Picchu. I can’t even put into words how special that moment was or even the emotions I was experiencing. It may sound cheesy, but this has been at the top of my Bucket List for a very long time, and to finally see it with my own eyes was a moment I’ll never forget.
We were warned that the weather tends to be quite foggy, especially in the morning and right before sunrise the ruins are typically socked in; however, the Weather Gods were finally smiling on us! The pictures don’t even do it justice.
We toured around the ruins for three hours with Yoel, learning about the architecture, their use, the history, etc.
Then it was time for more hiking, up Huayna Picchu, the mountain directly behind Machu Picchu, an hour hike straight up (extremely precarious) Inca steps. I was surprisingly feeling good (thanks to muscle memory and all my stair master exercises back home). I demolished Michael’s time and almost beat our guides time of 22 minutes! (Average time is an hour). Probably could have if I wasn’t stuck behind so many people 🙂 Sketchy at times for sure, but we made it to the top with an unbelievable birds-eye view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding valleys. The view was incredible. It gave you a great perspective of how Machu Picchu is positioned in the valley. It really is amazing that the Spaniards never found it, especially since it looks so exposed sitting on the ridge.
After enjoying the views and catching our breath, the rain started to move in so we made our way back down the stairs and straight to our hotel for a much deserved lunch break. After lunch, back in the park we went for a few more “magic” hours until closing. Since most of the tour buses leave by 3:30pm and the park is open until 4:30pm, we had the place to ourselves. It was magical. We took a few more pictures and then just sat and enjoyed the very special moment with PachaMama. The rain came again and around 4:30pm the guards blew the whistle signaling it was time to leave. We had the pleasure of being the last ones out of the park and first in the next morning. Perks of staying at Machu Picchu!
And ended the day with a magical rainbow…
Up early again! In line for Machu Picchu at 5:45am for the 6am opening. The first bus doesn’t arrive from town until 6am so we were surprised when we walked outside and already saw about 30 people in line. They had walked up the road two hours from Aguas Calientes to be first in line. Well done. They earned it!
Unfortunately, the fog was thick this morning so the views weren’t nearly as good first thing. We decided to walk up 45 minutes on the Inca trail to the famous Sun Gate. We were the only ones on the trail up from the park, but once we reached the Sun Gate, it was a different story — completely packed with hikers who just finished the Inca Trail trek! At that moment, we were glad we didn’t do the Inca Trail with the rest of the world. They were all having breakfast, waiting for the fog to clear. And sure enough, right after sunrise, the clouds parted and they had their first clear view of Machu Picchu. Everyone started cheering and clapping! It really was a neat experience and one I’m glad we were able to witness as well. We stayed at the Sun Gate and enjoyed the view for a while longer before heading back down.
After an incredibly journey, and very tired feet, we said goodbye to Machu Picchu, vowing we’ll be back, and went down the bus, walked around the town, then jumped on the train back to Cusco. I feel like we experienced every part of Machu Picchu that you want/need to. I wouldn’t change a thing.
A trip for the books!
2015 Bucket List Complete:
- Hiked Machu Picchu!!
- Do it all again and come back for Summer Solstice on June 21!!
- Hike the Inca Trail
- Amazing Peruvian food
- Unbelievable views
- Overall Experience
- Tour Agency – Alpaca Expeditions. Small groups, cater to you, go where the crowds aren’t. Ask for Yoel, he’s amazing, so knowledgable about everything — The history of the Incas, the land, country, and has a great sense of humor.
- Coca leaves really do help with altitude sickness! Tea and candy do too!
- Mud, mud, and more mud. Oh yeah, and horse poop.
- The bugs at the top of Huaynu Picchu were out of control. I literally couldn’t open my mouth without one flying in. Needless to say, we couldn’t stay long.
- Don’t attempt without a tour guide
- Don’t go during the rainy season
- Bring lots of layers
- Mentally prepare to smell for five days (no showers)
- Of course, always break in shoes before you start the trek. And definitely get waterproof ones. Bring newspaper to dry out at night just in case.
- Do the Salkantay trek with Alpaca Expeditions! You get to stay at the most amazing campsite ever – don’t use any other tour operator. We met some friends in the hot springs and they were with a group of 90! Worst nightmare.
- If you’re scared of heights, I would suggest skipping the Huaynu Picchu hike. We saw one girl absolutely terrified and crying on the trail. Poor thing!
- Stay for the closing of Machu Picchu. You’ll have the entire place to yourself and it’s absolute magic.
- We ran into some old friends at the hot springs that we originally met at the Uyuni Salt Flats weeks ago, and they told us they’re doing the Salkantay hike with 90 other people and staying in a huge campsite area. That would have been awesome if I were 20 years old, but kinda sounds terrible now. I’ve even heard of stories of people getting lost on their way back from the bathroom in the middle of the night and not being able to find their tent because there are so many. We definitely lucked out with our group of 4! So spoiled.
- Book with Alpaca and ask for Yoel. He’s the best! – And the food is amazing.
- At the Llacapama Ruins, the sun hits directly through the stone doorway on June 21 Summer Solstice, with a direct view of Machu Picchu.
- The corn in Peru is huge!
- Best Pisco Sour in Peru is at The Luxury Collection in Cusco
- We chewed coca while looking over Machu Picchu with Joel, our tour guide, because, well… It’s tradition 🙂
- Alpaca Expeditions has good relationships with the locals along the trail, that they allow us to stay on their properties.