5 day/5 night Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu

Trip Start Apr 21, 2010
Trip End Jun 29, 2010

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Thursday, June 17, 2010

After arriving back from Puno on June 15th and both having recently gotten over illnesses, we set about trying to book the Salkatay trek to Machu Picchu. We hoped to book it for the 18th or so, but were soon told that there would be a city-wide strike in Cusco on the 17th and 18th, during which most businesses would be closed and all transportation into and out of the city would be cancelled. The strike was because of outrageously high gas prices in Manu National Park, where--ironically--there is a large reservoir of natural gas and oil that is currently being extracted.

Anyways, this meant that we either hang out--stranded--in cusco for three days, when most restaurants and stores would be closed, or try to leave the night of the 16th, before the strike begun (this trek normally starts off at 5 in the morning). We opted for the latter and set off at 10 PM that night. We booked with a budget tour company and things definitely started out pretty rocky. First, they were about 45 minutes late in picking us up from our hostel, and then we sat in the tour bus with 30 other trekkers while the tour organizers desperately tried to organize the modified trek schedule. After waiting for trekkers to run back to their hostels to grab their forgotten passports and insect repellent etc., we stopped to fuel up the tour bus and propane tanks. Finally, at about midnight, we set off on the 2.5 hour drive to the tiny Andean town of Mollepata (2900 meters above sea level), where we were finally told which group we were assigned to, and herded off to a restaurant to spend the night, since normally this is a 5 day 4 night trek and starts with a morning pick-up. All 15 of us in our group rolled out our sleeping bags on the stinky restaurant floor and tried to get some sleep before our 6 AM wake up call. Between the loud snoring of our group members and the seemingly confused rooster who crowed ALL NIGHT and well into the morning, Jason and I slept for maybe 25 minutes the whole night.

Bright and early the next morning, we awoke to an over-priced breakfast at the same restaurant that we had slept in (this meal was not included because as I mentioned it normally starts in the morning, not the night before and naturally, since the restaurant owners knew we had no options, they took full advantage). Still trying to be positive and hopeful, we set off on our journey. It took 9 hours to arrive at our first campsite (including lunch break and rest stops), which was 1000 vertical meters from Mollepata. The walk took us from typical Andean scenery of towering mountains and dry grasslands into high pastures surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The first campsite was cold, about -12C, and we bundled up in all of our cheap Cusco woolies, feeling distinctly non-Canadian.

The next day was the biggest challenge of the hike—an elevation gain of 1000 meters in 4 hours to reach Salkantay pass. Salkantay is a snow-capped mountain believed by the Andean peoples to be the guardian to the Peruvian jungle. After a 4:45 AM wake-up call and a meager breakfast, we were off. Now, a 1000 meter gain in 4 hours is nothing to sneeze at in normal circumstances. Throw in tired muscles from a 9 hour uphill trek the day before, high altitude (our highest point was at 4600 meters) which can make even the simplest exercise seem taxing, cold weather, and a 15 pound backpack (we were able to put some weight onto the pack mules) and it suddenly becomes a lot harder. Anyways, we both made it in just under 4 hours. After a well-earned celebration at the top consisting of cognac shots supplied by our guide and offerings to Salkantay (in return for safe passage to the jungle), we took a group photo and started the downhill climb. After passing through the snow-capped Salkantay pass, the scenery changed dramatically as we descended from barren glacier-topped mountains to lush rainforest. It took another 7 hours of downhill trekking to reach the second campsite, which was a beautiful meadow looking over green peaks and valleys.

All of our tents, food, chairs, etc. was hauled on pack mules led by a local man and his young son, who together with the cooks were the heroes of the trek. Every day they were up way before us preparing the mules and starting breakfast. Then while we were eating breakfast they would tear down the tents and load up all the supplies onto the mules, do our dishes and clean up the campsite. Then us trekkers and our two guides would set out, and about 2 hours later the horsemen and the cooks would pass us on the trail—on foot and with relaxed ease—in order to beat us to the next campsite to start the process all over again. The horsemanīs son was no more than 6, and I am still not sure how I felt about a child setting up my tent, lifting his body weight in supplies onto mules and speeding past me on the trail in order to have my tent and sleeping mat set up for when I arrived. I felt a little guilty, a little lazy, and a lot impressed by this apparently normal upbringing. Donīt worry, we tipped all the staff very generously and expressed our appreciation.

The second night we figured we deserved a beer or two to celebrate our victory. There was a little snack shop at the campsite, filled with supplies that were all packed in on mules since there are no roads. Naturally, the snacks and drinks were outrageously priced (a whole 10 soles for a 1L beer, about $3.50 lol). This turned out to be a terrible idea since we both woke up with a cold. But we trudged on fairly unaffected the next day, which was a 6 hour hike through more rain forest to the final campsite. After a brief bath in the freezing cold but beautiful glacier-fed river, the germs started to kick-in, along with the exhaustion from the past three days. We both awoke on the 4th day quite miserably sick, and thankfully only had a fairly flat 3 hour hike ahead of us from Hydro Electrica town to Aguas Calientes town along the railroad tracks. However, the mules had returned to Mollepata by this time, so we were responsible for carrying the full weight of our bags. Anyways, we finally made it to Aguas Calientes town, which is at the base of Machu Picchu and accessible only by train or foot. We slept the rest of the afternoon and woke up at 3:30 AM to begin the final hike—the climb to Machu Picchu. Why so horribly early, you ask? Well, the tall mountain in all the millions of pictures you have seen of Machu Picchu is called Wayna Picchu, and is the only look-out point from which you can see all of Machu Picchu. It is a highly coveted picture-taking spot, and because of the steep and narrow path that leads up the peak, only 400 people out of the 1000-something visitors daily (the vast majority of visitors arrive on tour buses) are allowed to make the climb. This creates a frantic dash to be the first in line at the ticket gates, and we discovered just this when we set out on the 1.5 hour uphill climb to Machu Picchu at the refreshing hour of 4 AM. It was pitch black, broken only by the wavering lines of trekkerīs headlamps, frantically trying to pass the group ahead of them and arrive before the barrage of tour buses. The actual trek is composed of original stone inca steps, which are not your average 6 inch stairs, but rather thick slabs (many are close to 2 feet in height) of broken rock overgrown with foliage. Not only was it very difficult to see where you were going, but it was stressful because as much as you wanted to take a rest so you wouldnīt pass out, you were terrified of the group behind you passing you, lest you forego the coveted Wayna Picchu ticket. To say that it was a challenging hike would be a gross understatement, but it was also a really amazing experience to hike an ancient inca staircase under the stars in the warm morning air, surrounded on all sides by towering mountains.

We arrived just before the first tour bus pulled up to the gates at 5:30 AM (yes!!) and were quickly supplied with Wayna Picchu passes. It didnīt dawn on us quite yet that this entailed another gruelling 1.5 hour steep climb up inca steps (must say that I was cursing the incas more than once during the 4 AM stairmaster hike), so we happily accepted our rewards and waited in line 30 minutes for the gates to open. We were one of the first 100 people through the gates, and quickly clamboured for a spot to watch the sun rise over the mountains onto Machu Picchu. Even though the panaramic picture of Machu Picchu is world famous and plastered on virtually every wall and manu in Peru, it still took my breat away. It was just as magical and impressive as I had hoped, and well worth the effort to get there.

It turns out that we were very luckly with our trek booking, because the day we arrived at Machu Picchu (June 21st) was also winter solstice. And like many other temples built by ancient cultures, Machu Picchu was constructed to capture the sunīs first rays perfectly in a window in the temple of the sun on only two days out of the year--summer and winter solstice. Around 600 people waited in anticipation, cameras ready, for the magical moment to arrive. And waited. And waited and waited until 7:30, when it became clear that the clouds had hidden the sunrise and the magical moment had come and gone unseen. We then took a brief walking tour of the ruins before lining up to climb Wayna Picchu. After comprehension dawned on us that this was going to be another seriously challenging hike, Jason decided to sit this one out and I went it alone. It was an incredibly steep and narrow path and I thought I was going to pass out from fear on the perilous way down. But the view was amazing and I really did feel like I was on top of the world.

Tired of walking, hungry, and just tired, we said goodbye to Machu Picchu and headed back down to Aguas Calientes on an over-priced tour bus which felt marvelous for our tired bodies (purists be damned!). And here we are, waiting for the train to take us back to Cusco.

Looking forward to a SHOWER and some well-deserved rest.


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Mom on

Wow. Wow. And WOW! What an experience!

You write of your trek so well and in such detail that I almost feel as if I had been there with you--thank you! (Good thing that this is the case, since I'm pretty sure I'd need a few months of intense aerobics and strength training to manage such a trek!)

Very delighted for (and proud of) you both. Can't wait to see pics and hear all about it in person!

Beunos dias,


Sis on

Awww! such memories! Love u!

Ann Edwards on

Great writing. Great pictures! Loved every minute of it. Also great courage!! It has been years since I met you in Canada at Ken's ceremony. Glad to be able to read and see your adventures. (Hello, Jason) Ken's "Auntie Bill"

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