Salkantay trek/Machu Picchu ( Peru)

The ‘Salkantay’ (meaning ‘Savage mountain’) trek was something we had wanted to do for a long time and were determined to do independently. We researched extensively; reading blogs and chatting to locals. Our main challenge was getting to the start. From reading various blogs there were two start point options: either Mollepata or Calachanca. We knew we could potentially get a local bus at 4am but would need to change buses 3 times. We decided to pay 30soles (15aussie dollars) each for transport only to Calachanca. . We didn’t want to walk from Mollepata to Calachanca, as we had read that this section of the trek was just uphill on road, therfore, we went for the Calachanca option. We downloaded the only maps we could find and took photos of various blogs, shopped for three days food and enough water to hydrate a whole village, then went about getting an early night for an early pick up at 4.15am.

Day 1 Cuscu – Salkantaypampa

Rudely awoken by our alarm at 4am, we set about eating our porridge and banana staple diet, then packed up and waited for our ride. After only a 10 minute wait, we heard a small vehicle beeping and assumed it was for us. We waved and we asked ‘ Salkantay’ he said ‘Yes’ and promptly put our backpacks in the car. Once in , Vanessa asked him if he was part of the tour, as she was a little concerned that there were no other people and it wasn’t a minibus. The driver looked confused and then confessed that he was not. We quickly realised that he was in fact just a taxi driver. We got out and unfortunately had to walk back up the very steep hill to our hostel. ( lesson learnt never get into strangers cars without double and triple checking!). We waited a further 15 minutes then got into the correct mini van, with other travellers. After stopping at various other hostels and filling up the van, we were finally on our way. The ride to Mollepata was very scenic, alongside large cliff sides and impressive mountain ranges. The first hour was paved and the second wound through mountainsides, passing idealistic hamlets precariously perched on the side of cliffs. Hilariously the driver realised an hour into the ride that he had left someone behind! Even funnier was that his two friends were in the bus and hadn’t mentioned the fact that their friend was not onboard. He therefore had to catch a taxi to Mollepata independently.

Once arrived we paid the fee of 10 soles each to enter the town, which most tour companies had explained but some people had not been told and got quite upset, as they had thought that the fee they had paid included everything. After a heated discussion, they paid, as they were not able to enter otherwise. Then the ‘circus act’ of tour companies proceeded to try and organise mules/donkeys to carry each persons belonging, whilst the group went into a private house and ate breakfast. We just ate our own food and thanked our lucky stars that we were not part of the whole fiasco. Each individual was only allowed 5kg per mule, which most people had organised but a few did not know about and therefore had to carry their own large backpacks. We waited patiently, hoping to get going soon. After an 1hr we were all finally ready. We drove a further 1hr, climbing slowly and steeply through the mountains on a dirt track not really wide enough for two vehicles. This worried Vanessa immensely but we arrived safely.

Once at Calachanca the two of us grabbed our backpacks and started hiking at 10.30am. The trail was a clear track, winding slowly up the mountain side. We felt good and did this section quite quickly, leaving the rabble of the tour group far behind us, despite carrying all our own gear.

We met the aquaduct and continued to follow the trail but now on a much more gradual incline. The trail crossed several interesting bridges and was narrow at times.

We walked for around 3hrs before reaching Soraypama village. This was where most people on tours stopped for the day. We thought that stopping at 1pm was silly and would leave us a tough 22km the follow day. Therefore we ate lunch and spoke to a couple that had just stayed overnight at the pass. They mentioned two possible camping spots. We aimed for the first camp spot, and would reassess once there.

The hike up to the first camp area ‘Salkantaypampa’ was ruthless, (possibly because we were carrying too much water and food), we stopped several times to catch our breath, as by this point we were already at 3,900 meters and climbing to 4,100 meters for the first possible camp spot.
Reaching the open grassy valley, the almighty Salkantay mountain greeted us with its graceful beauty. We stopped and took it all in. There was also a little house/tuck shop selling refreshments, rubbing in the fact that we had just carried up 4 litres of water each.
After looking at mapsme which indicated a further 3 hrs up to the pass at 4,650m, we decided that it would be best to acclimatise where we were overnight and eat/drink as much as we could, to lighten the load.

We searched for a flattish area to camp and started setting up. Whilst doing so, three other hikers (Danny, Tom and George) walked past. They stopped to chat and we explained that they had a further 3hr up hill climb. They also agreed that it would be too much to complete and set up camp a little away from us.

We cooked dinner, gazing at the ‘Salkantay mountain’ , played cards (Jon loosing!!) and fell asleep at a late hour (for us) of 8pm, ready for a sunrise wake up to start the climb early.

Day 2 Salkantaypampa camp to Chaullay

We awoke at 5.30am just as the sun rose, to be greeted by magnificent views of Salkantay as the sun hit it. After adjusting to the cold (our tent was covered in frost) we proceeded to have a quick but filling breakfast. Jon then set about washing the dishes in the nearby stream (from which his fingers took several hours to recover) whilst Vanessa packed up the tent, despite the close attentions of a cow which insisted on getting in the way.

We set off in record time at 6.10am. In spite of the cold we did not wear coats as we knew the first couple of hours would all be uphill. We were quickly grateful for the decision to stop and rest early the previous day, as our packs were lighter and we felt stronger as we wound our way up towards the pass. Although the going was slow due to the steepness, the altitude did not seem to affect us as it had at the same stage during our Bolivia hike 2 weeks earlier.

We stopped briefly for some photos and about an hour into our day, came across a clearing and another camp site with a small number of tents at around 4400m (1km before the pass). At first we were a little bummed that it was not shown on Mapsme as we would probably have chosen to camp there but when we realised that everything was covered in thick layers of ice, we agreed that our campsite was sooo much better.

We walked onwards and upwards, increasingly slowly as we headed towards the pass. Below us we could see several mules following, carrying gear and the occasional hiker who had chosen to ‘get a lift’ but, due to our early start,  we were the first to reach the pass (4630m).

We stopped for a few minutes as the sun started to hit us. Took some photos of the beautiful surroundings and even heard an avalanche on the far side of the mountain. We felt really smug that we had ‘smashed’ the most difficult section of the Salkantay trek and all before 7.30am!

The rest of the day was literally all downhill. We peeled off a layer or two of clothing as we descended and the sun rose. As we were hiking independently, we saw no other hikers until the end of the day but were constantly passed by locals with mules carrying hiking gear for those in tours.

We stopped for lunch in the picturesque Wayranachay, with its unusual cave-like grotto which doubled as a pigsty.

Due to our early start, we reached the small village of Chaullway (2900m) shortly after 2pm. This was our scheduled stop for the night and we quickly found a perfect spot to pitch in one of the 2 campsites in the village. For the rest of the afternoon we sat and watched as groups of weary hikers rolled into camp, whilst we ate dinner and drank a beer. At 7.30pm we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer and hit the sack for a well earned sleep.

Day 3 Chaullway to just before Llactapacta

Woke up a little later (7am), ate breakfast and watched as tour groups started the grand organising process before their departure. We set off around 8am, heading straight down the valley towards the river, crossing a bridge to only climb back up to the road. We walked along the road for 10 minutes then turned off to the next village. Walking through it we noticed signs to hire bikes and thought that it would also have been an interesting alternative for the 2nd half of the Salkantay.

We carried on along the road, winding it’s way down to the valley/river. Checked ‘mapsme’ to make sure that the turning down to the river was indeed the correct one and we hadn’t missed the path. Crossed a bridge and climbed steadily up the track. The sun was blaring down and things were getting a little hot as we continued up. We stopped in awe of a elderly local gentleman walking along casually whilst carrying what looked to be several very heavy pieces of wood.

Once at the top we continued following the path up and down the mountain side, crossing several interesting bridges along the way and passing several landslides. We noticed that some tours had chosen to walk along the road on the opposite side of the valley and felt sorry for them, as it was extremely exposed to the sun and, to be honest ,a little same same.
We walked past a passion fruit vine yard and stopped at the hamlet called Winaypoco camping for a snack. It so happened that there was tour group who had also stopped there and contained some of the people that we had shared our transport to the start with on day one. We chatted about the last couple of days and then swiftly left (as we didn’t want to be stuck behind the group). Leaving the hamlet Jon was excited to see a pully system to transport goods/people across the river and jumped in for a photo.

We kept going for another couple of hours, crossing even more narrow sections of recent landslides (Vanessa crossed with particular care, whilst Jon skipped along them).

Arriving in Playa, we hung our tent out to dry, ate lunch and stocked up on food from the local store.
We asked around about the next section, as we were unsure of where it started and how long it would take. We were told it would take a further 20minutes walk along the road to find the track heading up the mountain to Llactapacta and a further 3hrs to the top.
We set off after an hour break around 1.30pm. Walking along the road was pretty uneventful apart from finding several large avocado trees. We decided not to take any as they weighed too much and wouldn’t ripen for days.
We soon found the turnoff to Luqmabamba and Llaqtapata .

The steps took us past several hostels and some coffee stalls, then narrowed to a track. We climbed for what felt like forever. The sun was beating down on us and we stopped at every possible shaded area to get some sort of relief. Sweat was uncontrollably escaping from every pore.

We were ecstatic to hear water and soaked our heads and bandanas in a small waterfall to cool down.
We kept going, thinking that the top must not be too far, as we only had 800 metres to climb but with backpacks things were slow. We bumped into George (one of the three Americans from day 1), who explained that he had hurt his knee and was taking things slow. We wished him well and continued. Only another 20 minutes later, we were surprised to find a hut perched on the side of the mountain, where the other two Americans (Tom and Dan) were sitting waiting and drinking a beer. It was approximately 4pm at this point and we were sure it wouldn’t be far from the top and our planned campsite at the ruins of Llactapacta, with distant views of Machu Picchu. However, asking the hut owner, he said that we had in fact another hour and 30minutes before the top. Based on this information we all decided that the possibility of hiking in the dark would not be a good option and decided to camp where we were.
The owner went out of his way to make us feel at home, helping Jon set up the tent whilst Vanessa went for a cold but well worthwhile shower. He gave us free corn, coffee, shared all his food and let us use everything in his kitchen. We were all taken aback with his hospitality. The teller left us and headed down the hill to town, but not before we bought two large beers and two delicious Snickers bars from his small store.
After dinner, we hung around outside chatting with our three newfound friends about life in general and star gazed for hours. The sky was intensely lit with so many stars and the milky way was so clear. Our latest night so far…9pm!

Day 4 – Just before Llactapacta to Agua Caliente (aka Machu Picchu town).
We awoke from our mountainside sleep to find that the clear night sky had clouded over and that the mist was setting in. This didn’t bode well for views of MP at the top of the mountain. The 5 of us had all packed up and were ready to set off, when the heavens opened. Fortunately we had a shelter and were happy to sit it out whilst playing cards.

After 45minutes or so, the rain was still coming down hard and our shelter became increasingly busy as more and more rain drenched hikers (who had set off early in the morning to climb the mountain) joined us to escape the elements. With a dozen or so people sheltering under our roof and the rain easing off slightly, we finished what seemed like the longest game of ‘bullshit’ ever and decided to head off.

Up we went again. After only a few minutes and to our relief, the rain stopped and even more surprisingly, we reached the top of the mountain. This struck us as odd, as our host had told us that we had 90 minutes more to the top, rather than 20. We quickly realised why he had been so accomodating and that we had been suckered into staying the night.

Fortunately for us, the mist lifted sufficiently whilst we were at the top, to allow us distant views of Machu Picchu in the distance. We set off again (downhill this time) and within a few minutes had reached the Inca ruins of Llactapacta. Whilst not on the same scale as MP, they were still worthy of a short photo stop.

We then had a very treacherous descent of approaching 1000m to Hydroelectrica, which took us nearly 3 hours due to the very wet and muddy surface. We reached the bottom of the decent shortly after 1pm, crossed the narrow suspension bridge (after paying 3 sol each for the privilege) and proceeded along the dirt road, past a very impressive waterfall, until we reached the start of the train line to Agua Caliente (aka Machu Picchu town).

Stopping to speak with the guy in the ticket booth, he informed us all that the cost of the 45 minute train journey was a hefty US$30 each and that we could walk the 10km route alongside the railway line in approximately 2 hours. The day was still young and we all felt relatively fit (also the next train was not for another 90 minutes) so we all decided to walk.

The 2 of us grabbed some fruit, whilst our American friends bought some empanadas and we all set off walking alongside the railway line. At first this seemed a little strange but as more and more people joined us and passed us in the opposite direction, we soon realised that this was a common occurrence.

We crossed a couple of bridges en route, someone started whistling ‘stand by me’ as we did so…and after approximately an hour of walking beside the rails we all had to step back from the line whilst Peru Rail train ambled slowly past us in the opposite direction.

Soon after we stopped at a cafe to rest and eat a granola bar before tackling the final few km to Agua Caliente. At around 4pm we reached a train platform with a sign indicating we had only 1.7km to MP town. We struggled a bit over this last section as it was mainly uphill on dirt road and we were tiring but we were glad to have completed the Salkantay trek in the correct timeframe. We said a temporary goodbye to Dan, Sam and George as they had pre-booked accommodation and we set about finding a hostel in town with a bed and hot shower (our first for a few days), a very large dinner and an early night before our early start to climb to Machu Picchu the following day.

Day 5 – Machu Picchu (MP)

We had planned to climb MP on the 5th day of our hike, as we were confident we could do the Salkantay in this timeframe. As it turned out we could have completed it in a day less if absolutely necessary. The cost of entry to the MP site is 125 sol (Aus $56), which increases to 200 sol if you wish to climb MP mountain (of course we paid for this one!). If you book about 8 months in advance it’s also possible to climb the much smaller Wayna Picchu (the iconic mound in all the photos behind MP) but obviously this was fully booked long before we got there.

The problem of course is that, as you have to pre-book your entry at the very latest on the day before, you are always at the mercy of the weather…therefore we held our collective breaths when we woke at 5.45am and looked outside at the sky. To our delight the sky was pure blue with barely a cloud to be seen.

Having arranged our hike independently rather than as part of a tour like the majority of people in MP town, we were a bit in the dark as to how best to access the MP site. We knew that the entrance to the site was approx. 500m above the town and that the steps leading to the entrance were over a bridge approx. 1.5km back down the road from MP town, so we set off walking down the road at 6.40am. Within a few minutes we were passed by a number of tourist-laden buses. Evidently 90% of visitors choose to take the bus up to the entrance…but taking busses when you can walk isn’t our thing.

We crossed the bridge (parting with a few soles and showing our entry passes in the process) and quickly located the steps. We then began the steep climb upwards. In essence, the steps take a centre line up the hill whilst the road winds itself from side to side.

Therefore the steps cross the road on many occasions before the top. After what seemed like forever but was only 45 minutes, we reached the entrance and stood (sweating) behind lots of excited bus-going visitors of all ages, shapes and sizes. We both wished we had left 30 minutes earlier to have been at the head of the queue.
Once in, after a brief altercation with a security official who suggested that Jon’s backpack was too large…but relented when we pointed out that everyone else had day bags on and the only difference was that Jon was carrying both our gear…we entered the site. After a couple of brief moments we reached the first building, then rounded it’s corner to be greeted by the most majestic first view of Machu Picchu you could imagine. Despite our sweatiness, we rushed forward and asked a random stranger to snap the first of many awesome photos of the view and the two of us.

Once we had composed ourselves after the jaw-dropping, picture-perfect view, we decided it was best to head up Machu Picchu mountain early, before it got too hot and busy (also it closes at midday). In hindsight this was a good decision as it got very hot early that day but we soon questioned the wisdom of not bussing up from town. Quite simply MP mountain is high…more than twice the height of Wayna Picchu mountain that you see in all the photos…They ask you to sign in before heading up and when the guide told us 90minutes each way, Vanessa’s face was not a happy one “I thought this was our rest day”. Anyway, we started climbing (again), all the time with the views over MP getting increasingly spectacular. We were the 101st and 102nd signed in that day but must have overtaken two thirds of them (we noticed some less fortunate people simply gave up) during the 55 minutes it took to reach the top. Once there we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views over Machu Picchu and of surrounding mountain ranges, with barely a cloud in the sky. As we sat there admiring the view and eating a granola bar each we worked out we had already climbed over 1300m (from 1800 to 3100m altitude) and it was only 8.30am! We vowed to give our tired legs a break and take it easy for the rest of the day.

Once we had descended again to the ruins we set about exploring. What struck us was the scale, as it is far larger in real life than the pictures suggest. We took another walk to the Inca Bridge, which involves a very narrow (in parts) ancient footpath with very high sheer drops below. We decided against the walk up to the Sundial viewpoint (no charge) as others advised it was less impressive than the MP mountain views.

At around midday, with hunger setting in, we tried to find some shade to sit and eat our pre-packed lunch whilst looking down over the site; only to be informed by a security officer that we could only eat at the cafeteria back at the entrance/exit gate. We moved on reluctantly and set about undertaking an elaborate and extremely risky covert picnic operation (one eating whilst the other took watch) on a grass terrace out of view of the guard.

Once our hunger was satisfied we moved on exploring the ruins; occasionally eavesdropping on one or more of the more informative tour guides escorting their patrons around the site. We reached a kind of terraced paddock area in the centre of the city and stumbled across a handful of llamas, who have clearly been planted there by the Peruvian tourist board, as they were far too at ease with the tourists. Up to this point we had doubted that llamas actually existed in Peru as we had not seen a single one on our 4 day hike, compared to hundreds when we hiked in Bolivia. Shortly after moving past them, they decided to chase each other in our direction, resulting in Vanessa almost getting stampeded and Jon taking a selfie with a particularly friendly one.

By 2.30pm we had had our fill of culture and decided to head for the exit and banos. After a brief stop at the cafeteria for a cool drink, we decided against queuing for the busses back down the hill (an overpriced $15 US) and opted to walk back down the steps…Note that Vanessa did this voluntarily, despite Jon’s recommendation that she take the bus. 45 minutes later we dragged our weary legs into Agua Caliente (aka Macchu Picchu town), more than satisfied with our day’s activities.

Day 6 – return journey to Cusco

This was supposed to be a straightforward return train journey from Agua Caliente (aka Machu  Picchu town) to Ollankaytambo (1 hr. 45 min.) and then a 2 hr. minivan ride back to Cusco…but it’s worth documenting so that others can make informed decisions.

We were informed by various sources (including “the book”) that it was necessary to pre-book the overpriced (ranging from $75 to $150 US p.p. depending on time of day) train from MP town back to Ollankaytambo or Cusco, as they get booked up early and there is no alternative mode of transport back to Cusco…so we did.

The first part of the above is mostly correct, as they are generally full, although we met people on our train who had booked only the day before. However, if you are happy to walk along the railway line the 10km from Agua Caliente (aka Machu Picchu town) to Hydroelectrica, you will find plenty of minivans that shepherd groups of tourists/hikers to and from the more popular, overbooked (and probably overpriced) Inca Trail. For a small fee…we would suggest around 30 soles ($10 US) one of these will happily drive you back to Cusco, although you may have to wait a short while until one becomes available.

As for us, we pre-booked the smaller and fractionally less expensive Inka Rail rather than the larger, more popular (and noisier we might add) Peru Rail for the journey from MP town to Ollankaytambo, only for it to break down half way into the trip. After a 2 hour delay (luckily we had no pre-arranged onward travel, unlike others in the carriage) we reached Ollankaytambo. We had covered the 16km in 3 hrs 45 minutes at an average speed of 4.27kph (impressive) but at least the hapless and apologetic stewards served us all an extra cup of coffee/tea as compensation! Fortunately the 2 hr. minivan ride (10 soles pp) from Ollankaytambo to Cusco was very straightforward :-).

Summary: Definitely worth organising and hiking the Salkantay independently. This allows you the flexibility to commence hiking and stop when best suits you, depending on weather and how strong or otherwise you are feeling. Water is plentiful on the route and food is available after day two, so no need to overburden yourself. Ensure to have warm gear (particularly for day 2 and the pass) and expect rain at some point. You can Pre-book Machu Picchu entry before you start but it is also possible to book for the following day when you arrive in Agua Caliente (aka Machu Picchu town). Payment for this needs to be in cash but there are ATMs in town. You can get to the start of the route by local bus or by joining one of the tour group minivans like we did. Getting back, if you are prepared to walk 10km to Hydroelectrica you can also get a lift; otherwise, pre-book the overpriced and unreliable train.

Footnote: Our American hiking buddies Dan, Sam and (hope the knee is OK) George opted for a day of rest before going up to Machu Picchu, the day after us. Unfortunately it rained heavily from 5am for about 4 hrs. Which showed us just how lucky we were.
Thankfully the guys waited around until midday when the skies cleared enough to take some good shots. However, all the planning in the world won’t guarantee that the sun will shine for you when you get there.