Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu

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May 12th 2014
Published: May 10th 2014
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The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu had all the ingredients for a great trek. It would be a walk through constantly changing scenery and a number of different ecosystems ranging from high mountain to high jungle, taking in mountain cloud forest en route. In addition to the spectacular scenery it would also pass several Inca ruins along the way and would of course finish with the biggest, best preserved Inca ruin of them all, Machu Picchu, the one time lost city of the Incas.

On a personal level it would be a challenge not so much to walk the miles - the distances involved weren´t huge - in total we would cover approximately 70 km. Although there would be two long, 8 hour plus days, the real challenge would be the climbs which would often be at altitude. 3 of the 5 days would involve total ascents close to or in excess of 1,000 metres.

The walk would involve early starts, (wake up calls ranged from 4 - 5.30 am) and three nights roughing it under canvass. With a highest camp site at 3,900 metres. the weather, or more specifically the cold would be a definite factor. In many ways this would be a voyage into the unknown - how much sleep would we get? what would the food be like? how would we function at altitude? And given that I would be part of an organised trek perhaps the biggest unknown of them all how would we gel as a group?

Team Yahtzee

We started off as a diverse group of 12. The other 11 were:

Ross and Chloe (Canada). Two newly qualified doctors with a couple of weeks to spend in Peru. Ross and Chloe weren´t supposed to be on our trip but Ross had got sick on the day their trip was due to set out so had delayed a day. They would walk with us for three days before moving on to join their original trip for the final day at Machu Picchu

Flavio and Julia (Mexico). In Peru to celebrate Flavio´s 52nd birthday (the day of our arrival in Machu Picchu). Flavio explained that his children had bought him the trip having previously sent him to Las Vegas and New York. Flavio, was funny and a little eccentric. He spent much of his time comparing his current hardship to previous birthdays and swearing revenge on his family but clearly loved the experience. Julia was quieter perhaps as a result of her lack of English - we were a predominantly English speaking group.

Constantine and Maiya (Germany). Also doctors in their early 30s, coming to the end of their 5 month world trip, having decided on a career break. Constantine and Maiya excelled themselves by bringing Yahtzee and encouraging everyone to play in the short evenings available to us.

Daniel (Germany) - mid twenties, had left his job to travel for a couple of months in South America. A friend of Constantine and Maiya´s, whom they´d met along the way. Daniel was my tent mate.

Jasper (Holland) - mid twenties, on holiday in South America for 5 weeks. Jasper by his own admission had a tendency to analyse and a dry sense of humour. I really liked Jasper. You were never sure whether his questions, observations and non sequitors were serious, intentionally funny or self mocking.

Chris 1 (New York) - early 30s. Of Peruvian extraction but American by adoption, now
 Day 2 - Salkantay Mountain Day 2 - Salkantay Mountain Day 2 - Salkantay Mountain

Our route was to follow the valley round to the pass to the left of the mountain
volunteering in Northern Peru and hoping to make his move to Peru permanent. On something of a personal quest.

Chris 2 (New York) - mid 20s on a 6 month trip before starting an MA in game design. There was something of the "tigger" about Chris. A keen practitioner of kung fu, he would bound ahead of the group, strike kung fu poses for photos or lead us in stretching exercises ahead of the day´s hiking.

Esther (New York by way of Mexico). The baby of the group at 23. Very enthusiastic and bubbly. I think one of my abiding memories will be Esther chuckling away no matter how steep the climb.

I should not overlook our guides Paulie (short for Hipolito) and Oscar. Paulie, the team leader, spoke very good English, and was a mine of information throughout the trek, pointing out flora and fauna and dispensing Inca histories. There was also a touch of the showman about Paulie, and he liked nothing better than surprising us. Oscar on the otherhand was quieter and more serious - perhaps exacerbated by Paulie´s constant exhortations to lighten up. They were both very good at their jobs, making sure
Day 2 - Team photo at the top of Salkantay PassDay 2 - Team photo at the top of Salkantay PassDay 2 - Team photo at the top of Salkantay Pass

Putting faces to names we are left right; Jasper, me, Constantine, Esther, Maiya, Daniel, Chris (1), Chris (2), Julia, Flavio, Chloe, Ross
we were all in good fettle, keeping us safe on the trail, constantly making themselves available to take photos, and sharing with us some of their experience and insight into the beautiful country we passed through.

Paulie was keen to engender group spirit. This seemed to involve lots of group circles, clapping and high fives. He also encouraged us to agree between ourselves a team name. We finally settled on "Fast and Furious", Flavio´s comment on the pace we were setting, before deciding to change it posthumously at our post-trek celebratory meal to "Team Yahtzee".

Day 1 Mollepata to Soraypampa

The first day was reasonably short. Following an interminable round of pick ups (which did little to engender confidence in the organisation of the trek) we drove 2 hours to Mollepata before walking 12 kilometres to our lunch and camp site. The way was "Peruvian flat" - a term which we came to realize meant constantly up and down, but with no significant ascents. That said the total ascent for the day, as we walked up the valley to Salkantay mountain, was 1,000 metres.

The campsite at Soraypampa was pretty basic but, as with every other
Day 3 - Local river crossing in the absence of a bridgeDay 3 - Local river crossing in the absence of a bridgeDay 3 - Local river crossing in the absence of a bridge

Not a means of transport I was in a hurry to test
day of the trek, the tents were set up prior to our arrival, testifying to the hard work and organisation of the support staff. We had a couple of horsemen, who led a team of ponies ahead with personal kitbags, tents, food and cooking utensils and a couple of cooks who endeavoured to to greet our arrival with hot food. Site facilities invariably included a separate cooking area and meal tent, which became the social hub.

After a very good, 3 course lunch, we bedded into our tents. The tents themselves were under the cover of a plastic tarpaulin, which would ensure that we remained dry and provide a little extra insulation against the cold of the night. After the first night the sites gradually increased in size and range of facilities.

In the afternoon we hiked up the hill above our campsite to a beautiful, torquoise lake. It was a stiff, 300 metre climb, and had been pitched to us by Paulie as optional. It said much for the evolving group spirit that we were all keen to take up the challenge in weather that was at best indifferent.Unfortunately the weather closed in on our arrival at the lake so our time exploring was limited, and we beat a soggy retreat to the relative comfort of our campsite.

The first day had been enough to provide answers to a number of the uncertainties I had identified ahead of the trek:

1. We would not go hungry. The cook and his helper produced consistently excellent food, working miracles in very basic conditions. Lunch and dinner were always 3 courses - an apppetizer (e.g.dressed avocado, spicy salad etc.), followed by a soup and main, which usually involved a meat options, lots of local vegetables and plenty of carbs (2 from pasta, rice and potatoes). The food often featured local specialities such as quinoa soup. We were almost always hungry after trekking and meal times soon became a highlight.

2. Everyone was glad to be here. It soon became apparent that everyone was excited about both the trek and its eventual destination. We might make jokes about our hardship but everyone was really determined to enjoy themselves and pull together.

3. It would be cold at times but we would not freeze. The first night was very cold. We stepped outside at one stage to look at a spectacular nigh sky but after a few minutes even the hardiest and most ardent of stargazers trooped back to our tents. In the event the tents were fairly snug and our sleeping bags and thermal layers did their job.

4. Camping would be hard work. It had been a very long time since I´d entertained the idea of camping - not really since the Inter-rail holidays of my student days and in the mean time the ground had got no softer. Our early starts, and daytime exertions ensured early bed times (bed at 8.30). Night´s were at best uncomfortable. The best I can say about the tent side of camping is that I survived it

5. There would be casualties. Nothing serious, but the usual collection of stiff limbs and blisters, although I avoided the latter. Chris (1), walking in rented boots had to sit out day 3 with boot/ankle problems. Constantine got sick on night 3, and had to sit out day 4. We were all at times very tired and a little sore either from sleeping (or not) on the hard ground or from the day´s trek.

6. Finally, I can categorically say
Day 4 - Llactapata Group PhotoDay 4 - Llactapata Group PhotoDay 4 - Llactapata Group Photo

A study in contrasting poses - Chris (2). me, Jasper, Esther
that Yahtzee is not a game of skill. I say this as a one time champion. It was though a great way of bonding a disparate group of people. Games were extremely keenly contested. Our numbers necessitated forming teams and much thought was given to team make up and names. Rarely can each roll of the die been so avidly scrutinised and tactics so hotly debated.

Day 2 - Soraypampa to Chaullay

Day 2 would be the longest of our mandatory walk (22kms) (whilst day 4 via Llactapata was longer this was an option chosen by the walkers) and would take us to the highest altitude (4,600 metres). We started before 7 and by 10.30 had completed the climb to Salkantay pass. There was a half hour section of switchbacks that represented a steep climb at this altitude, but all in all it was a great morning´s walking.

At the top of the pass Oscar led us in a small ceremony to thank the mountain for its bounty. I have mentioned in previous blogs that the belief in Pachamama retains a relevance to the local people and that the mountains had a spritual significance to the Incas. The ceremony, which just involved building a small col and leaving small offerings of food and coca leaves was a nice, cultural connection to the route we were walking, a reminder that the meltwater from the mountain, today as years ago, brings fertility to the valleys.

We walked a further 2 hours along Peruvian flat (this time down) to our lunch stop, and another much needed 3 course meal. The walk in the afternoon was long but at times beautiful. We descended a further 1,200 metres in 4 hours to 2,900 metres, down through cloud forest towards high jungle - along the way there were deep green valleys, spectacular views back up to the mountain, hummingbirds, orchids and wild flowers.

I think we were all pretty tired when we made it into Chaullay at about 5.30pm, but again the tents were up and best of all there was cold beer to greet us and the knowledge that what had looked on paper to be the hardest day was behind us.

Day 3 - Chaullay to Playa

Day 3 would be downhill all the way. A five hour, 12 km trek above a steep river valley, through high jungle - a testemant to the land´s fertility, a riot of vines and plants including passion fruit, coffee plantations and avocado trees . The path included some treacherous passsages where mudslides had eroded the way leaving a vertiginious drop, to the raging river below. The walking was warm work in humid conditions and it was good to reach our lunch time rest spot and complete the day's walking.

That afternoon we headed off to the local hot springs to soak our weary limbs. After 3 days´walking with little in the way of creature comforts it was a very great pleasure to spend a couple of hours lieing in the warm, bath temperature water looking out at across the green hills.

Day 4 - Playa to Aguas Calientas via Llactapata

There were two morning options for day 4 - a trek to Llactapata, an Inca site offering views across the valley to Machu Picchu, or for those who had tired of walking, ziplining through the forest canopy. I was torn but felt I´d come here to walk and, as I´d heard that Llactapata was both an excellent walk and weather permitting offered exceptional views of Machu Picchu, opted for the former.

Llactapata didn´t disappoint. It was a steep climb up through some beautiful high jungle countryside. This was some of my favorite walking, tough but always very tranquil, with very few other people on the trail. We crested the ridge at the top of the hill and dropped down to Llactapata. The cloud relented long enough give tantalising glimpses of Machu Picchu.

We joined the rest of the group for lunch followed by a mercifully flat walk into Aguas Calientes, along an abandoned railway line in the lee of Machu Picchu itself. In total today was 24 kms, a lot of it in warm, humid conditions, after a 5.30 am wake up call. It had been a very long day but the walk in the morning had been great and now the end was literally in sight.

Day 5 - Machu Picchu

We overnighted in a hostel in Aguas Calientes - it was good to be in a bed again! And tough to drag myself from it at 4am to start the trek up to Machu Picchu. The idea was to start walking at 4.30am in order to get to the entrance to Machu Picchu for the 6am opening time and be amongst the first onto the site. Even at this time the numbers travelling up to Machu Picchu were considerable. The walk from the foot of the hill up to the entrance gate is a soul destroying 45 minute climb up 1,700 steps. Again it was warm and humid. As night faded to half light I was grateful not to be able to see the hill towering above us. There was nothing for it but to get your head down and put one foot in front of the other. Eventually we arrived breathless and soaked in dew and sweat at the entrance gate.

It was a damp, misty morning as we entered Machu Picchu, cold at this altitude (2,500 metres). The site itself revealed itself slowly through the mist. Paulie gave us a guided tour of the main features of the site, expertly navigating us through the crowds - there is no avoiding other people at Machu Picchu, an estimated 5,000 visitors a day pour through the main gates and throng round the main site. The site itself sits on a saddle between two mountains so space is at a premium. As the light and weather improved Machu Picchu slowly revealed itself. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling sight, at times seeming to float in the clouds. Steep terraces drop away into the firmament and one can only marvel at the building skills and the astronomical knowledge that went into the construction and alignment of the buildings.

Our tickets included an option to climb Cerro Machu Picchu, one of the two mountains that about the site and tower down over it offering fantastic views down onto the site and across the valley. This would be the final challenge, a further 600 metres climb, all of it up steep, uneven steps.

It may have been the climb itself, coming shortly after the earlier exertion of walking up to the site, or the warm, humid weather, but this was as hard a walk as I´ve done. It was lung-busting and leg-destroying. I was booked onto a train out of Aguas Calientes which I simply couldn´t miss, so I had no choice but to push on. In the end it took me a purgatorial hour but the view from the gods down onto Machu Picchu was simply breathtaking. It's not an experience I'm in any hurry to repeat but if was a fitting end to a great walk and an excellent few days.

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