5 Days Hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

September 28 through October 2, 2015

We started our journey to the Salkantay trail at 4:30 in the morning after boarding the tour van with other hikers. The full van drove for around 3 hours until we reached a small town for breakfast.  We packed our own food to save money.  There were a few others who did the same. After a quick breakfast, the tour guides weighed our second bags to make sure the mule could carry them-we were allowed one day bag and an additional bag of less than 5 kilos for the mule to carry. Scott and I carried our food and some extra layers of clothing and the mule carried our sleeping bag and other belongings that we didn't need to access while hiking.

We bought some rain ponchos next-door to the breakfast restaurant and then boarded the back of a truck to reach the starting point of the Salkantay trail. It was standing room only in the back of the truck and we were herded in like cattle. After bumping around for about 40 minutes and conversing with two fellow hikers- Angelica from Brazil and Carmen from Hong Kong, we reached the starting point. The massive group of hikers was split into two groups of 18, each group with 2 tour guides 2 cooks and 1 horseman. Our group was named the pumas by our tour guides. We were a diverse group- couples from Germany, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia and 4 solo travelers from Brazil, Hong Kong, Australia and the US. 

Hiking to our campsite during our first day on the Salkantay Trek, Peru

As we hiked we talked with some of our group memembers and admired the unbelievable views around us. We hiked for 7 hours or so the first day. We reached our campsite and found our tent. The tents had been set up inside of an area enclosed by tarps to protect from the wind and cold. We dropped off our things in the tent and decided to hike up the mountain a bit further to check out the glacier lake (another 3 hours, roundtrip). The steep uphill trek, though not far, was tough- we were glad to have the hiking poles we bargained for the day before at a market in the Sacred Valley (30 soles for 2 poles...9.5 USD)--They had initially been asking 25 soles for 1 pole. 

The glacier lake during our first day on the Salkantay Trek, Peru

The glacier lake during our first day on the Salkantay Trek, Peru

The glacier lake during our first day on the Salkantay Trek, Peru

The following day was the longest day of hiking and the highest in elevation as we reached an alitude of over 15,000 feet near the top of Salkantay mountain (Salkantay in Quicha means Wild Avalanch). The hike was absolutely beautiful and quite cold as we started around 6AM (We woke up before 5 to the cook knocking on our tent with coca leaf tea ready for both of us). On top of the mountain, we stood in a circle with our tour group and gave offerings to "Pachi Mama" mountain god, an ancient practice to honor and give thanks to nature- the thanks was narrated by our guide in the Quicha language.

Scott Biales explains about our trek up to theSalkantay Mountain pass (click for video)

Picture with group, (click picture to see another panoramic of Salkantay Mountain)

OUR GROUP POSES ABOVE 15K FEET AT THE SALKANTAY MOUNTAIN PASS, PERU

We spent the remainder of the day hiking down the mountain ending at our campsite around 5pm.  During the hike down we noticed the climate and vegetation change with the lower elevation. We descended into the high jungle which was hot, humid and buggy. We hiked for 10-11 hours and walked over 28 kilometers.  We arrived in time for tea- each night the chefs provided us with hot chocotlate, tea and snacks before dinner. We were in bed sleeping shortly after dinner, around 9.

We arrive at our second campsite after a grueling 28 km hike

After our experience hiking the Colca Canyon we were worried about not being fed enough food during the trek.  We were shocked to find the meals extremely satisfying.  We ate family style for each meal.  Breakfasts consisted of bread, jam, butter, teas, and either pancakes, fruits, granola, or ommeletts.  Lunches and dinners were similar--soup first and then a second course consisting of rice, veggies, noodles, and a meat of some sort.  I think it's possible that I (scott) even gained weight during 5 days of hiking 10 hours a day.

Tea time just before dinner

Dinner during our Salkantay, Peru hike (click to view video)

The third day of hiking took us through the lower jungle. It was the most relaxed day of hiking with mostly flat trails and our guides stopping frequnetly to talk about native plants. They showed us hallocinogenic while bell shapped flowers (a 72 hour high), mountain strawberries and blackberries, a stem of a flower that tasted like blueberries, the plant citronella comes from, how to make an instrument from bamboo, and Andean mint.

Scott eating passionfruit during the hike

The group learns how to use bamboo as an instrument

We passed through a couple camp grounds where we stopped for a free snack of passion fruit. After sevreal hours of hiking we hopped on a van to take us to our next camp ground. We dropped off our stuff and boarded the bus again to head to the hot springs. The hot springs felt wonderful, especially beacuse the weather had cooled down drastically from some afternoon rain.  

Enjoying a dip in the hot springs during our 3rd day hiking

After visiting the hot springs, we had dinner and then a party around a bonfire to celebrate conquering the highest altitude any of us had ever encountered. We started the celebration with a shot of Inca tequilla and then danced around the camp fire with our group to latin and american music.

Drinking and dancing near a bonfire on our 3rd night camping

Our forth day of hiking took us along a road toward hydroelectrica, a power plant where water from the mountains is converted to energy. After a stop for lunch, where an adorable kitten stole the remainer of our chicken, we continued our hike along the inca train rail line. We were actually able to walk on the train track as the trains came very infrequently and very slowly.  Hiking along the track is a common alternative trek to hiking to Macchu Pichu-we passed many other hikers on the way.

The parrots saying "Hola" (click to view video)

Adorable kitten steals our chicken bone while eating at hydroelectrica

Angelica and Carmen play on the train tracks during our last 10km stretch to Aguas Calientes

Train track leading to Aguas Calientes

We followed the rail line until we reached our destination, Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Macchu Picchu. Here we stayed in a hostel and enjoyed our first hot shower! After freshening up, we headed out to explore the town and collect snacks for the following day's trip to Macchu Pichu (the cheapest lunch at Machu Picchu is $40 USD, so we were surely going to avoid that cost!) We were amazed at the expensive prices in Aguas Calientes but, considering the town exists for tourists and is used by many toursits as their entrance point to Macchu Picchu it's not all that surprising. We bought some fruit and nuts for snacks then met our group for dinner. We had a very early night since we had to wake up at 3:50 the following morning.

We left for Macchu Pichu at 4:15am and hiked from the town of Aguas Calientes to a bridge about 30 minutes away. The bridge opens at 5am, and is the only access point for the steps leading up the mountain to Macchu Picchu (unless you want to pay $12 for a 30 minute bus ride). A line had already formed at the bridge by the time we arrived. The line moved quickly once the bridge opened and soon we were ascending the stairs. (Some people opt to take the bus to Macchu Pichu instead of the stairs, but where is the fun in that?! We earned our way to Macchu Pichu) We hiked the ~2,000 steps up while it was still dark and arrived to the entrance of Macchu Pichu at 6am- right as it opened. 

Waiting in line for the bridge to open for Machu Picchu at 5am

Sylvie hikes up the thousands of stairs to Machu Picchu at 5 in the morning

View of Machu Picchu (click to view video)

We were some of the first to arrive at Machu Picchu (Quicha for Old Mountain) and Scott raced to the top to get a beautiful picture of Machu Picchu free of tourists. It truly was remarkable to behold such a sight without any tourists. We watched the sun rise through the sungate over Macchu Picchu. For the next two hours, from 6-8am, our tour guide lead us around Machu Picchu, educating us about the buildings, the lay out, the inhabitates and it's creation. It took 70 years to build and was never fully completed before being abandonded as the Inca's fled the spanish and retreated further into the Sacred Valley.

Another view of Machu Picchu

The Inca's built Machu Pichu on ascending terrace to prevent erosion. They used these terraces for agriculture as well. They grew corn, potatoes, quinoa and kewicha on these terraces and their live stock grazed here as well.  The soil for the terraces was brought from other locations as the mountain soil was not very fertile. The Inca's layered each terrace with gravel, sand from the river, and then soil.  Actually, Inca is inccorectly used to refer these civilzations, Inca's were soley the kings, the rest of the people were Quicha's. 

The buildings were made of stone from the mountainside- all granite. Though some structures used a form of concrete mixed with alpaca hair, many of their structures were built so soundly that they didn't require concrete. The Inca's cut and shaped stones with concave and convex edges and wedge the stones into one another. Their structures had a wider base and narrowed out toward the top- this construction was used to withstand earth quakes. The Incas took a lot of care while building their civilizations, many caluclations were made before the placement of homes and temples--the location of the sun and the moon was taken into careful consideration. Infact, their sun temple was placed just so, so that the light of the sun illuminated the temple during the summer and winter solstace. No doors were used in any of the homes, just a stone door way. Homes were just a place to sleep- people were supposed to be busy all day, helping the community through farming, playing music, and harvesting stone in the quarries. People with disabilities played music as they were not able to complete the more physically demanding jobs. Our tour guide took us through some of the homes of the upper class- these homes were larger, of nicer construction and had 2 floors. We also observed a large area of buildings surrounded by a stone wall that was used a school for the higher class. Only about 50% of Macchu Pichu is currently visible. The rest is still hiding under the over growth of vegetation. In the next several years it will continue to expand and it is escavated.

Some of the many traces in Machu Picchu

Walking to the Inca Bridge in Machu Picchu (click to view video)

After touring Machu Picchu, Scott and I continued farther up the mountain above Macchu Piccu to check out the Inca bridge and the sun gate. We walked for 30 minitues to reach the Inca bridge and then another 40 minutes to reach the sun gate. We walked along a portion of the original Inca trail to reach the Sun Gate.

Scott didn't find the Sun Gate to be anything special.  We finally called it a day around noon and made our way back to our hostel...after the hour-long hike back.  Just as we were walking into our hostel it started to pour--talk about good timing.  We both fell asleep during the 2.5 hour train ride and 2 hour bus ride.  We were finally in our beds by 11.  What a week!