WARNING – The following article is very long but seeing as we haven’t posted in a while I’m sure all you avid Rucksack Reverie readers will be ecstatic …
After a long 16 hour coach from Ica we had finally arrived in Cusco. We had been looking forward to Cusco since we started planning our trip so we were pretty excited. The main reason is obviously Machu Picchu and the trek to get there. As we had been at low level altitude since Huaraz we needed a few days to re-acclimatise ourselves to the high altitude. We also needed to buy some gear for the trek to not freeze at night. These days were spent sorting things out, booking onto a trek and walking around Cusco which is a lovely place in itself with plenty to do. We decided to book the Salkantay 5 day trek with Machu Picchu Reservations with an extra night in Aguas Calientes in order for us to climb Machu Picchu mountain as well. The trip only set us back $240 each including all our food, entrances, accommodation, sleeping bags and guides. So without further a due here is our post on the Salkantay trek and Machu Picchu.
Day 1 – Humantay Lake
We set off from Cusco at 5AM with the rest of our group (around 18 in total) and our guides Vladimir – who is in fact from Peru although his name says otherwise – and Rubin. The next 5 days were spent trekking, sleeping and eating with this amazing group. The drive took us around 2 hours to get to the breakfast stop and then a further hour to where we were to begin the hike. We carried with us our small day bags and the horses carried our duffle bags and sleeping bags for the whole 4 days.
Day 1 was a trek up to lake Humantay which was meant to be one of the easiest days, however both of our legs were asleep for the whole day and we found it really difficult, possibly something to do with all that food in Lima. The trek was uphill towards a beautiful lake with views of the whole valley below and the looming Salkantay mountain above. Our guide told us some crazy stories of different people attempting to climb this dangerous mountain and explained that no official agencies in Cusco offer trips up here due to the danger of avalanches and the difficulty in climbing it. All in all we walked 10km and climbed a total of 400m or so throughout the day. A good training day.
After the long slog uphill we eventually made it to the laguna with a magnificent rainbow of colours and we had a snack while our guide explained some of the Inca history and the invasion of the Spanish. We had time to take photos and then made our way back down to where we began the uphill slog. From there it was a 40 minute walk to where we were spending the night. We had a huge lunch of stuffed avocado, vegetable soup and platters of rice, vegetables, potatoes and two meat dishes cooked by three incredible chefs. Then before the temperature dropped we settled into the wooden triangle huts. Each hut was for two people and had a thick floor mats and even electricity which we were all very impressed by.
Just before the sun set we all made our way up a nearby hill to watch the sunset across the Salkantay mountain which turned from white snow to a beautiful pink shade. Once the sun had gone down we quickly returned to our huts as the freezing wind picked up and the temperature dropped to below zero. Dinner was a feast just like lunch with a soup starter and then several big dishes to choose from.
Before heading to bed we stopped quickly due to the temperature to look at the stars which filled the sky, we had never seen anything quite like it. What an amazing start to our trek. We were all in bed by 8pm as our guide Vlad had warned us the next day would be the hardest and longest with a 4am wake up call.
Day 2 – The Salkantay Pass
After a filling breakfast we began the hike just as the sun was rising, the beginning trail was up and down for an hour before we reached the beginning of the ‘Gringo killer’ as our guide called it, this was the Salkantay pass and is considered one of the hardest days as we walk 22km and walk up to an elevation of 4630m. As we stood at the bottom of the pass we can safely say we were all pretty terrified. After taking a short break Vlad led the group up and told us to walk at our own paces and that we’d meet at the top of the zigzag trail. This was a very long slog with quite a few other hikers making their way up and lots of the horses carrying luggage. Eventually after several zigzags we made it to the top where we all collapsed. The view down as you can see was incredible with the distant mountains and then the path twisting up with lines of horses going down.
This sadly was not the end of the uphill as we still had another 2 hours until the very top. The next section was through the mountain pass, walking past huge rock boulders and snow-capped mountains.
Then we began the final uphill slog which wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be and soon we were at the freezing 4630m elevation and were looking at the Salkantay mountain from the closest we had been yet. We took some group photos and then our guide showed us how to make an offering for the APUS – Andean gods. In Inca religion the term refers to a mountain that has a spirit that is alive. The Incas believed the Salkantay mountain to be one of the principle deities controlling fertility and weather in Cusco, so an offering had to be made. This involved Inca pisco and piling rocks one on top of another. After a while we all began to freeze so it was time to start the downhill slog which was to take a further 5 hours in total.
The first 2 hours were bearable because we had lunch at the end, this section was past huge boulders of rock and through the fog. We arrived at some huts where the chefs were already cooking another feast of different dishes, soup and hot drinks which helped us regain some strength for the further 3 hours. This took us further down to the high jungle where the humidity really hit us and the bugs started to bite. Our knees were taking a beating and our strength had completely disappeared. These 3 hours felt like the whole day but eventually we arrived at the campsite for our second night. We had gone from 4630m to 2900m in the second half of the day, so it was time for a baby wipe shower, change of clothes and a cold beer. The evening was spent playing cards and talking until dinner was served.
Day 3 – The Jungle and Llactapata
Our third day was changed slightly. Instead of just hiking downhill for most of the day we hiked up again through the humid jungle. The reason behind this was to make day 4 easier. We woke early once again at 4:30am for breakfast before setting off in the van to reach the trail head a bit further down the mountain. After a 30 minute drive we got off at a coffee plantation to watch the process and sample the produce. Having already been on a coffee making tour in Costa Rica we were mainly looking forward to just the drink at the end. Stu grinded some coffee beans to powder and we sat around drinking the amazing coffee.
After a nice start to the day it was time to start what was to be another gruelling climb. Todays walk was on a part of the jungle Inca trail. Not the one to Machu Picchu but just one of the many others built by the Incas and we had roughly 450 meters to climb in the humid jungle. The climb was not as relentless as some others we have done luckily. There were a few parts where the path levelled out and at one of the stops there was a fresh water source where we all re-filled our water bottles with some nice ice cold water. After a while we made it to the first actual pit stop where there was a small kiosk shop selling drinks and snacks. We stayed here a good 15 minutes admiring the view of the valley sprawling out below us.
We set off for the final climb where the path alternated between steep steps and paths. All still going through dense jungle, at one point Vlad pointed out a huge poisonous spider. We finally made it to the top of the mountain and were treated to some recently discovered Inca ruins called Llactapata which overlooked the valley below and we could even glimpse Machu Picchu the other side of the valley. LLactapata means the elevated place and was thought to have been a resting and shrine place en route to Machu Picchu. It was initially discovered in 1913 but only since 2003 has there been any excavations ongoing. Vlad was telling us that if we came back in the future one day the site will be fully excavated by then and will look very different. It was really cool seeing it like this and we were very happy to have taken this route to see Llacapata. We walked around the ruins, took photos and had a nice long chill before starting our descent right back down the other side of the mountain to our lunch spot.
The descent took just over an hour for us and the van was waiting for us at the bottom to take us to our campsite where we also ate lunch. For the rest of the afternoon we were very glad to no longer have to do any walking. Instead we were taken to the Santa Theresa thermal springs. This was such a nice thing to do after 3 long days of hiking and thoroughly deserved. We ended up staying 2 hours in the different pools of water, ranging from 35 to 40 degrees in temperature. We were still in the pools when it was the night, apparently some people stay in them until 2am!
We were then dropped back off at the campsite for dinner and our party night. We bought a carton of wine for the pair of us as a nice little reward but didn’t stay up too late dancing as we were both pretty tired. Not before having some Pisco shots from Vlad’s phallus mug…
Day 4 – Hidroelectrica & Aguas Calientes
For our 4th day we were allowed to have a lie in! Yes only a 7am wake up call, felt luxurious. We were also given two choices for the morning. Walk to Hidroelectrica along the road or go zip-lining for an extra fee of 30 pounds. Being low on funds and having already done some zip lining we decided to walk. Plus skipping the morning 10km would have felt like cheating! So after our final breakfast prepared by the amazing chefs and unfortunately saying goodbye to them we set off along with 6 others from the group whilst the others took up the zip-lining option. We’ve got to say this part was not interesting. The walk was along a dirt road to get to Hidroelectrica, 10km long with cars occasionally on it too. The most excitement we got was some birds defending their chicks from a condor. We tried to get some photos but the birds were too quick for us.
We made it to Hidroelectrica in 3 hours instead of the 4 hours we were told it would take. By this point we were feeling quite tired and very dehydrated from all the dust flying up on the road. We were waiting for the zip-lining crew for almost 2 hours so we got a bit bored after a while but at least we were sitting down and relaxing. The rest of the group eventually joined us and we had a typical Peruvian set meal lunch. Not quite the food we had gotten used to but still very tasty.
After lunch it was time to finish the days hike and get to Agua Calientes. The path followed the train rails all the way. It was a lovely walk with plenty of shade for most of the way. The last 1h30 became really hard for both of us, definitely a case of all the previous walking catching up with us big time. Towards the end we could see some of the Machu Picchu buildings on top of the mountain from below which provided us with a bit of motivation to quickly finish the walk. We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 5pm, checked into our hostel private room and then had a couple of hours before dinner so we went for a couple of beers. The town was very busy with lots of bars, restaurants and shops. Everyone ends up here before and after Machu Picchu, those who get the train up, those who just do a day trip and those who hike all the way. We enjoyed a nice final dinner with everyone and all went to bed at 8:30 as we needed to be up at 3:30am the next day to get to Machu Picchu for gates opening.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu
The day was finally upon us! After getting up at 3:30am and starting our walk to the path entrance at 4am we were let through at just after 5am. There are two options for getting to the main gate, one is the bus and the other is walking up a path that goes straight up. We walked with pretty much the whole group. The path was a series of many steps climbing roughly 400 meters in one hour with the sun gradually rising. The path was mostly separate to the road through the jungle which added to it. By the time we made it to the top at 6:05am there were already loads of people waiting to get in. Fortunately the queue moved super quick as everyone already had their tickets.
We were finally in!!
The first thing to see as we entered was the sun rising over the main part of Machu Picchu from a higher viewpoint near the entrance. Vlad somehow managed to get us to the best area of it to get some incredible photos. The morning wasn’t without fog but we think it made it even more beautiful revealing Machu Pichu at different points.
Vlad explained that once you start walking in amongst the lower buildings and main plaza you follow a one way train to the exit, there’s no turning back. Therefore we walked up to another area where Vlad gave us a mini history lesson about Machu Picchu for roughly 45 minutes. For these 45 minutes everyone listened carefully, we were sat outside in the morning sun over Machu Picchu. This was to be Vlad’s final part of the tour and after this we were left to our own devices and said goodbye to him. Legend! We learnt that the very first ‘guide’ of Machu Picchu was a young 11 year old boy who lived with his family hidden in the ruins of this high city. He showed Hiram Bingham – the first to discover this lost city – around in 1911.
Before it got too hot and with some morning sun still left, we all decided to walk up to the sun gate. The walk was a bit longer than we expected. The view from the sungate was beautiful from an even higher vantage point. We sat down there for a good 30 minutes before having to get up and go to the entrance of the Machu Picchu mountain trail we had foolishly booked onto. Below is a picture from the bottom on the mountain…
So for a bit of background knowledge, Aguas Calientes town is at 1500m altitude, Machu Picchu is at 2000m and the summit of the Machu Picchu mountain is at 2500m. The mountain path takes you all the way to the top. In normal circumstances it would have been fine, but after 4 days of hiking we could really feel it in our legs just a few minutes in. The path was simply 2700 steps to climb. We won’t lie, half way up we almost caved in to goback down as the climb was ridiculously hard. We already had amazing views from half way up and started to think it can’t get much better so why bother. Boy we are glad we decided to keep going!
After a big struggle and drenched in sweat we got to the top. It’s hard to describe just how incredible it was up here. Not only did we have a complete aerial view of the whole of Machu Picchu but also of all the surrounding valleys. It was a real hawk eye view being this high up. Here are some of the pictures we got from the top.
The walk down was much easier apart from a small section of narrow steps with the cliff the other side. After getting all the way down we then decided to head to the Inca Bridge, the last thing to do before setting foot in the one way system. We hadn’t actually heard about this part before so we were pretty unsure on what to expect. After a short 15 minute walk we got to the bridge. The bridge is now long gone but the history about it was really interesting. We managed to overhear a guide explaining that this used to be an escape path from enemies attacking the city and the Incas could very easily destroy the bridge by removing the foundations holding it up, therefore trapping all enemies.
After admiring the landscape and the bridge we made our way back to the main part and we started walking in between the buildings. Unfortunately by this time the afternoon tour groups had arrived, they linger, they take selfies every 20 meters and they don’t let people pass. We guess this was the main disadvantage of having spent 3 hours doing the mountain. It really did make it hard to enjoy. We had at least seen everything we really wanted to and seen the aerial view though. Plus we were getting very tired at this point so we made our way through fairly quickly in order to get back down. Here are some pictures we took of the buildings.
To get down it is the same as coming up, walk or bus. We thought we would treat ourselves to the bus. This was before we saw the size of the queue, so we walked down which wasn’t as bad as we were expecting along the same path. With the walking done for the day we got back to our hostel and had a nice long and well deserved chill out before getting some food later on.
Day 6 – Back to Cusco
The trek went into our 6th day as we stayed the extra night and we decided to get the bus back rather than the train. We needed to walk back along the train tracks to Hidroelectrica and get the bus around 2/3pm. The walk was 10km we really didn’t need at this point but it had to be done. We eventually made it back to Cusco at 9pm and went straight to bed. We were well and truly shattered!
This brings us to the end of our time in Cusco, Salkantay and Machu Picchu. It fully lived up to expectations and even surpassed them. An absolute highlight of the trip. Over the course of the 6 days we hiked 100km in total and climbed close to 2000m. Epic in every single way!
Anyone looking to do it we would recommend doing the Salkantay trek rather than the Inca trail. It’s more diverse, has more micro-climates and it is way cheaper. No brainer for us!