Friday, 20 December 2013

Salkantay to Machu Picchu

Booking the Salkantay trek.

The tourist office at Loki came highly recommended but we found out that they booked through an agency we had just visited and applied a hefty markup. We decided to walk back into town (down a steep hill) to visit the office again as we knew they would give us a much better price. In the end we paid $215 USD each for the 5 day catered trip. This included all transport, accommodation, horses to help carry equipment and a train on the last day at a decent hour.
early morning start in Cusco

Day 1 - Early Start in Cusco

We were picked up from Loki Hostel at 4:30am and sleepily met our group of 4 other adventurers. Seems we had signed up to the couples retreat with two other couples. We were accompanied by one guide, one horseman and one cook.
We had breakfast in the small town of Mollepata just a few hours drive from Cusco. Here we had the dreaded weighing of our bags. Each person was only allowed five kilograms of luggage carried by horse - everything else would have to be carried the traditional way! We definitely had the biggest bags to carry, after spending 70soles on sweets and chocolate.
After breakfast we set off at about 7am passing rural properties, sharing the dirt road with horses and pigs. Our pace seemed slow to start with but stayed consistent while the gradient increased. Our guide Edwin gleefully announced shortcuts every half hour or so, these would inevitably be extremely steep muddy tracks that possibly took longer than staying on the road.
We passed a couple who were walking the Salkantay independently, they had booked in at very nice hostels along the way.
Lunch spot on day one
Lunch was at a small outcrop surrounded by chickens and roosters. We were a litte surprised when the guide informed us that lunch would be in approximately 45 minutes. We then witnessed Salso the cook set up a mobile kitchen and cook up a three course meal! We soon got used to the luxury of starting meals with coca tea and soup.
Unfortunately the weather packed in during our lunch break. We set off for our campsite at the base of Mount Huamantay a mere few hours walk away. Through the clouds we caught occasional spectacular views of the high mountains that surrounded us.
Group shot with Mount Huamantay in the background
The strange campsite was inside a tarpaulin walled farm shed. This confused us to start with as the rain had abated. Later that evening the weather took a turn for the worse and we appreciated our corrugated iron covering! Our group of six started a nightly ritual of playing the Israeli card game Yannif.

Day 2 - Mountain Pass -> Jungle

It took us most of the morning walking through snow to reach the highest point on the trek, Apacheta Pass at an altitude of 4,600m. This was actually quite cold, bring some warm layers of clothing! We shared the route with a few dozen grazing cattle and our own horse crew which left after packing up our tents. Behind us we saw one other large group which caught up to us over lunch.
Snow at the pass
Over the afternoon we dropped a thousand meters in altitude. The snowy alpine terrain was switched for muddy jungle tracks and both the number of insects and the temperature kept increasing.
Because the weather on the pass had been so bad we hadn’t dawdled, our guide was very surprised that we reached the campsite at 3pm - before the horses had made it. That evening we had awesome accommodation in Chaullay. Beers, hammocks to read in, open air second floor camping spot that afforded decent views. It certainly helped that it wasn’t raining!

Day 3 - Cable car crossing

Followed the trail down river and saw waterfalls. Edwin pointed out lots of orchids, and we ate wild strawberries while walking. At one point we needed to cross the river and the method was a rather high cable car. There was room for three people cramped onto the platform and it was quite an effort to pull across the river.
Hopefully it's not tied up!
Day three was only a half day of walking and everyone was quite happy to stop at lunch time. We all enjoyed the incredible buffet lunch that Salso prepared for us. This was the last time we saw the horseman and our noble steeds - from here on we’d have to carry all our stuff or pay extra for transportation!
That afternoon we visited the hot springs in Santa Theresa! Being a fast group we had the hot springs all to ourselves when we arrived, but the Inca trail trekkers and Jungle adventure junkies soon helped to fill the pools. A cold shower was a violent start that turned out not to be necessary - as the hot water pouring out of the pools was also available to wash off the jungle mud.
Soaking tired muscles at Santa Theresa
The pools had no chlorine and didn’t have the characteristic sulphuric smell. Instead they offered deep crystal-clear water with a smooth pebbled bottom. The pools were so good you almost forgot how sore your muscles were from the previous three days of hiking.

Day 4 - Llactapata

Our group decided to split up for day four; one couple opted for the adrenaline of taking the longest zipline in South America, while the rest of us convinced our guide to take us on a slight detour to the ruins of Llactapata along the Inca Trail.
We had a sad farewell to Salso the cook on day four. He got up incredibly early that morning preparing us packed lunches and breakfast. We left our main bags with him to take on the train.
Breakfast was served at 4:30am to give us ample trekking time. It was a small drive by taxi to the Inca track up to Llactapata. We saw lots of orchids, bananas and flowers on our walk up. Edwin pointed out eatible foods such as blueberries which were a welcome change from our sweets. From the ruins we saw across the valley to get our first cloudy sighting of Machu Picchu.
Heading up to Llactapata
We rejoined the main Salkantay route at the powerstation town of Hydroelectrica. From there it was a few hours walk in the rain along the railway to Aguas Calientas. Sarah didn’t seem to like this part of the journey much…
Having fun
Our tour operator had organized a night in a great hostel with private rooms including hot showers. We were taken out for dinner at an average restaurant that served really good Pisco Sours. Although we had to get up early the following day for Machu Picchu we all indulged in a couple of these amazing drinks.

Machu Picchu

We set off walking from the town very early in the morning to avoid the crowds. It took us about an hour and a half to climb the 1700 steps to the historical ruins.
After the gates opened at 6am our Salkantay guide gave us a tour of Machu Picchu. We visited the major highlights and heard what each area was used for in Inca times. The following photo looks over to Wayna Picchu which we climbed later in the day.
Somewhat scenic place
The weather was mostly overcast but that didn’t dampen our experience. Wandering through the ruins we enjoyed taking in the sights. We had mid morning tickets to climb the peak of Wayna Picchu. The path up to the temple at the peak was very steep and slippery. We stayed at the ruins on top for an hour waiting for the clouds to dissipate and give us a good view over Machu Picchu.
Tiny steep steps
The last thing we did was visit the Inca Bridge, a half hour walk around the mountain exposing more of the Inca’s amazing engineering. Much of the walkway was built on impossibly steep cliffs, with brick supports built straight down nearly a hundred meters to the next natural abutment.
Incredible support
To top off our trip we walked back to Aguas Calientas and enjoyed a few cold beers and played more cards with our fellow travelers. Our train left a few hours later and before we knew it we were back in the comfortable Loki Hostel in Cusco.

Tips for the Salkantay Trek!

  • Don’t book the late train back to Cusco from Aguas Calientas (6:45pm seemed perfect)
  • Bring lots of snacks (weight isn’t too much of an issue)
  • KB tours were really great. Used by Loki Hostel, although it can be cheaper if you go directly to them in Cusco.
  • Book your Wayna Picchu tickets well in advance. Two people in our group tried to get them on the day but it was full.
  • Save a change of clothes for Aguas Calientas and carry them in your day bag. It is annoying to shower and then put on your trekking clothes while you wait for the train with your bags!
  • Llactapata is worth a visit on day four!
  • Enjoy!
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