Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
Getting to Machu Picchu
Starting in Cusco and ending in Machu Picchu; including transportation, lodging and food, less than $90USD was spent. I offer my own experience as a guide for shoestring travel and I hope the reader is able to visit this famous world heritage site.
The entrance fee for Machu Picchu must be paid ahead of time in the city of Cusco. This fee will be the most expensive part of your journey, around $60. Wake up early and buy your ticket in person at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, they limit tickets to 2500 a day. Factor this into your decision and make time to wait around for a few days before beginning your journey. Not to worry because Cusco is an amazing city deserving of a few vacation days.
Supplies- Camping gear is always with me when I travel. For this trip I highly recommend a tent and sleeping bag. I wear layers, a wool t-shirt, polyester long sleeve, wool sweater and a waterproof shell. Each layer was used for extensive amounts of time. A solid pair of hiking shoes is necessary, I recommend trail runners.
For cooking, I bring a 2 quart pot and a small stove that uses iso/butane. I had rice and lentils for dinner, a flat bread for lunch, which I put cheese on, and my breakfast was powdered milk and instant oatmeal. I bought all my food in the Mercado Central de San Pedro. This market is absolutely incredible, the amount of food and the diversity of the food is mind-blowing. You can buy 100 different types of corn and potatoes. I stocked up on lentils, cheese, dried potatoes, and eventually had a backpack full of exotic food. You can buy a fully cooked Guinea Pig on a stick!
Where to start:
Arcopata Calle in Cusco is where the “colectivo” (local bus) is. The bus, really just a large van, stops here every morning at 3am to bring people into the country side from the city of Cusco. I suggest getting there early and buying a ticket the day before as it tends to sell out. I was the only foreigner on the bus and we were packed in tight, no elbow room. This costs 15 sols, be sure and book all the way to Mollepata as it is the last stop for the colectivo. The ride is really beautiful, taking hairpins through the green mountains and hills of Peru as the sun rises.
Starting in Mollepata
In Mollepata— if you cant find the trail simply walk uphill, eventually you will catch it. There are some signs too, but it’s intuitive. Follow the mule tracks, pack animals are used to porter tourists up and down the trail. The trail takes many ups and downs, allowing for stunning vistas. The trail goes through farms and along ancient aqueducts cut into the mountains. It is a footpath that leads through the clouds.
Camping at the base of Salkantay
Follow the trail all day to the base of Mt. Salkantay, trust me, you will know when you are there. This mountain is huge, the highest peak of the Willkapampa mountain range, over 20,000′ in elevation. Camp here for the night. It’s also the spot where guided tours camp and the flat fields make it clear where you can set up a tent. There is some infrastructure built for the tourists which includes a bathroom.
Day 2, Salkantay pass
In the morning, have a healthy breakfast and be ready to climb Salkantay. The pass is located at over 12,000 feet which means you need to be prepared for anything. Climbing at high altitudes is extremely dangerous and should only be attempted if you are physically prepared. Difficulty breathing and elevation sickness will set in, be prepared for the experience. The coca leaf is easy to find in Cusco and is extremely useful in high altitude situations.
Climb the Salkantay Pass
Starting in the green pastures near the base of the mountain, the trail slowly gains in elevation and grade. Water gushes downhill, creating river channels and offering habitat for trout. The steep sides of the Andes create imposing topography forcing water off the edges, making spectacular waterfalls.
Near the Top
Nearing the height of the pass, fog covers the high altitude glaciers, hiding them from view. The deep booms of avalanches echo into the valley creating a constant drumroll of bass. The air is cold and I am forced to wear all the layers I brought. Each step is harder than the last as my lungs work overtime to sponge the thin air for oxygen. The landscape has changed from the green pastures of lower elevations to the harsh rocky moraine of high altitudes. No trees can grow up here and the plants that do are adapted for the harsh life.
Down from Salkantay
The climate on the other side is a stark contrast to the high altitudes. Cloud forest covers the mountains in a lush green carpet, home to bears, big cats, and a plethora of tropical species. The trail down is a steep one with almost no switchbacking. The temperatures quickly rise and the air is humid. Walking through local communities, the trail borders farms and historical sites. Inca ruins crowd the path and are visible through the overgrown jungle.
Stopping for the Night
In the valley opposite of Salkantay, there is a small town catering to hikers. The houses are built from sheet metal; pigs and chickens run along the path. The trail is worn down, I follow it over a tertiary stream to the river below. By this time, nearly the whole day had passed, Salkantay brings fatigue. The sun was setting and it became apparent I needed to eat dinner and get some sleep. I walked past a large inn built for the tour groups on the trek, the structure had two floors and a large mess area. Further down the path was a small farm, with a pasture cut into the hill behind the house. An elderly woman was eager to greet me and offered me a place to pitch my tent, 3 Sols! What a great deal, she also offered me a lot of beer, well below the government price. I passed on the booze, I was too tired from the hike to indulge.
I shared the pasture with a large pig and some chickens, both of which tried to get into my provisions. There was an outdoor water spigot that coupled as a shower and a sink. I didn’t even filter the water, it came straight from the ground. The toilet, down hill from the spigot, was a small enclosed shed, with a hole in the ground and a porcelain base. I was instructed to fill a bucket with water before entering and to clean up after myself. It was a great campsite to spend the night in and I slept like a rock.
Day 3, Finishing in Santa Theresa
The next town to reach is Santa Theresa but the trail splits into two options. The first was a road, cut into the side of the mountains. My other option was a foot path opposite the road on the other side of a river. The footpath was blocked from a rockslide forcing me to walk along the road. On the road I had the opportunity to talk to a multitude of other tourists also trekking. This was a welcome change after being solo for the last two days. The rain was unceasing, flooding the road way, everyone on the trail had wet feet.
One part of the road was built into the mountain so the rocks hung over the road. This offered much needed respite from the rain. After enjoying a couple minutes of dryness, I walked back into the rain. Instantly a rock, the size of a small car, fell off the mountain in front me. It landed near my toes and exploded on impact. I stood still for a second, breathing in the dust before I sprinted full speed out of that spot. That fucker rock nearly got me.
I continued down the trail towards town, spirit slowly sinking with every drop of rain that fell. Around lunchtime I had trudged into a small town with a tiny store and bought some Inca Kola. From here it was another 5 hours of walking in the rain to Santa Theresa. While walking I found company with a local guy, also walking into town. We passed under avocado trees, fruit trees and banana trees, we were surrounded by a forest garden. A red pick-up truck pulled up next to us and my companion negotiated a hitch into town. With road conditions being so poor, instead of sitting in the bed, we stood on it and held on to the roll guard, basically surfing down the road.
Santa Theresa to Luctmabumba
Once in Santa Theresa- I had two options. The first was bus directly to Hydro Electrica, this is the location of the Machu Picchu train which offers transport to the park. My other option was to find a way to the small town of Luctmabumba. Luctmaumba is located on the Inca trail and is close to some of the best preserved Inca ruins outside of Machu Picchu.
While waiting for the colectivo to Luctmabumba a local kid about 16 was flirting with a local girl next to me- also waiting for the bus. He was on a dirt bike and was very happy playing with the throttle. To impress the girl he started using his English to talk to me. He knew as many words in English as I did in Spanish so I played along. He asked me where I was going- I told him Luctmabumba. He laughed and said that’s where he lived! Then proceeded to ask if I needed a ride. Well, feeling invincible from the close call of death from the rock slide earlier, I took him up on the offer. I jumped on the back of his bike and away we went. The roads were not paved and weaved around farms, taking hairpin turns up the mountain. He looked back at me without slowing down and asked what kind of music I listen to. I told him “hip-hop” and without missing a beat he pressed a button in his pocket and the speakers he had zip-tied to his handlebars started pumping out some local beats; it was pretty good. I wish I could remember the artist names but I was hanging onto the luggage rack for dear life while he weaved between rocks and potholes. We dodged oncoming traffic and avoided chickens and animals that ran across the road. On these roads, the horn is used to communicate before going around a blind corner, which appear about every 2 minutes. Lucky the bike was faster than the vans and cars we forced to stop for us. The ride finally ended at the top of a large hill, on a large soccer field. He told me it was acceptable to camp there.
I paid 5 sols for the ride and thanked him for the speed. He hung out with me as I made camp playing with my digital camera and laughing at me while I tried to eat an un-ripened avocado. Sunset that night was magnificent, I was able to watch the sun illuminate the entire valley and witness flocks of parrots roost for the night.
Day 4, Inca trail
I woke up early in the soccer field and packed up camp, ready to begin the final approach of Machu Picchu. I asked some local women who were also up early,
“donde esta el sendero?”
Of course, they motioned up-hill, it’s always uphill. After climbing a very steep hill, I popped out on the trail, a nice footpath cut into the thick vegetation around it. The trail meanders up and down offering views of the jungle and the many towns in the area. Multitudes of butterflies flit around my head, creating a pageantry of color. The trail is well marked and cattle are common guests, using the narrow foot path to travel between pastures.
Off trail looking down on Machu Picchu
At the highest point of the trail, there is a small trail cut into the jungle. Feeling adventurous, I followed it, leading me to some large power lines carrying electricity from the power plant at Hidroelectrica . Here, at the top with all the trees cut down, I saw Machu Picchu, spread out below me, a city in the clouds. At the highest point of the trail I veered off on a not so well worn path. By climbing up the structures holding the cables and carefully ignoring the “no climbing” signs and barbed wire, I could look down on Machu Picchu!
Further down the Inca trail are the ruins of Llactapata. Excavated and reclaimed from the jungle, they offer an interactive site of well preserved history. Views of Machu Picchu are easily seen from here, another relic of the Incan Empire.
The Inca Trail leads me to Hidroelectrica, a power plant harnessing the immense energy of the river. From here there is a footpath to Machu Picchu and a train. I opted to walk instead of train, as train tickets cost $200. The trail is a lot of fun and it follows the river the whole way. Scores of other tourists were on it as the bus from Cusco deposits them at the trail head. I made a couple friends on the walk and met people from all around the world. Machu Picchu is a pilgrimage for all wanderers.
Following the river to Machu Picchu
It was a longer walk than I expected and I reached town after sunsest. Once there, I had to find some lodging and many hostels are prohibitively expensive. While searching, a local man came up to me and offered me a room! I haggled with him and got the price to 10 sols! What a deal, the place had a bunk, a bathroom and a kitchen. I shared the space with 4 other people who were also going to Machu Picchu. The kitchen had all the amenities I wanted, and after situating myself, I went to buy some groceries from the local market. Speaking with the other guests, we decided to wake up at 3am so as to climb the mountain and be inside the sacred city for sunrise.
Sunrise in Machu Picchu
Climbing the stairs to Machu Picchu is an arduous journey. 1900 stone slabs are used to create one of the hardest hikes in the world. Already steep, the high altitude, heat and humidity add to the experience. I highly recommend getting there early as many tourist groups and busses will be lining up to get in. Watching the mist slowly be burned away by the sun, making the lost city rise from the mist is a magical experience.
City of the Gods
Machu Picchu is aa pilgrimage worth taking. Thousands of people every year climb the steps and experience the magic of this “lost” city. Knowing where to end up is important, but but having autonomy in your route is the most important.