The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu - Part I: Humantay Lake, Salkantay Pass, and a Local Coffee Farm
Updated: Jan 1, 2019
Trekking to Machu Picchu has been on my hiking bucket list for a while now, so I was super excited to get the opportunity to do it while I was in Peru on my medical mission trip. You can read all about that here! The most famous trek to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail, but after doing some research I decided to do the Salkantay Trek instead because it's more difficult and much less busy than the Inca trail. It was also less expensive because with horse access to trails you don't need as many porters. It still ended at Machu Picchu so I decided that Salkantay was the better option.
Friday, December 21, 2018: Cusco and Preparing for the Salkantay Trek Today was bittersweet because it was time to leave my group of clinic friends to start my backpacking trip. I've become pretty close with the people who were on the trip so it was sad to say goodbye to them this morning. When got on the bus to Cusco I realized that I was now truly solo. I usually don't mind being by myself especially when I'm hiking, but this time felt a little bit different. I had just been surrounded by a group of amazing people for a week and all of the sudden I was completely by myself.
I ended up booking my Salkantay trek trip with Alpaca Expeditions, a tour company with great Inca Trail and Salkantay reviews. After walking to their office and being briefed, I had some time to explore Cusco. The Plaza Mayor was really beautiful and I ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking the square before leaving from the office for the trek.
It was a three and a half hour van ride to our first campsite, Soraypampa, and I have to say it was a little tedious. The driver was flying around turns up and down mountain switchbacks on dirt roads. At one point we stopped at a convenience store for snacks and changed a flat tire on the van. It took about a half hour, so this gave me an opportunity to introduce myself to the other people on the trip. There were seven other people on the trip all of whom were from the US. There was a family of five and then two women in their mid-twenties. They all seemed pretty nice and the family was especially welcoming.
We made it to the "campsite" around 7:00, but when I stepped out of the van there were beautiful little cabins and a main building in front of me. It was the nicest campsite I had ever been to and we even had power in our cabins! It was a little chilly, probably 40 degrees out but still comfortable, so not having heat wasn't a problem. At 7:30 we got together for tea and dinner in the main building. All of the food was delicious! After dinner I went to bed immediately to prepare for the long day ahead of me. The ceiling of my cabin was made of glass, so I fell asleep under the light of the full moon above me.
Saturday, December 22, 2018: Our First Day and Most Challenging Day of Hiking Today marked the start of our first day of hiking the Salkantay Trek. We were woken up at 5:15 in our cabins with a hot cup of coca tea. It was a really pleasant wake up call and started the day off right. After a big breakfast we started off on our way to Humantay lake.
It took us a few hours to get up to the lake and we arrived around 9:00. Even though it was only a few miles from the campsite, the elevation gain and altitude made it really difficult. We took lots of breaks and drank a lot of water to try to ward off altitude sickness. Getting up to the lake was hard, but when we got there the views made it so worth it with the bright turquoise water and glacier covered mountains in the background. It was stunning.
On our way back down I started to notice that not all of us were going at the same pace. The two girls were struggling, no doubt due to the weight of their packs. Our other guide, Max, had warned them that they would be too heavy but I guess they didn't realize how difficult it would be. The family of five, two girls and a boy about my age and their parents did really well. The parents were a little slower than their kids and I, but they we're keeping up pretty well and didn't seem like the type of people who had any intentions of giving up.
Once we got down from Humantay lake we continued on the Salkantay Trek. I didn't realize that we would also be going through the Salkantay pass today, so when I found that out I realized we had a long day ahead of us. We met our aid horse and continued on the steady but gradually inclined path to our lunch spot.
I've never hiked at altitude before and let me tell you it's a whole different ball game. The trail wasn't particularly steep or difficult, but because we were at 14,000 feet and climbing to 16,000 feet, I was huffing and puffing my way up the mountain. It was a little embarrassing to feel so out of shape, and it really gave me a reality check into what I would be facing in the next few days. All of this being said, I was one of the faster hikers staying with the guide at the front of the group. It was also pretty easy for me to catch my breath, so taking 30 second breaks was good for that.
After a few hours I developed a pounding headache and every time I stopped to rest I got a little bit dizzy. The altitude was starting to get to me especially because I had run out of water so I was no doubt pretty dehydrated. I pushed through because I knew that the faster I went, the sooner we would make it to camp where I could refill water. We didn't arrive at Soyrococha, our lunch spot, until 2:30. I knew we were definitely behind schedule and the two girls were really struggling at this point even though our aid horse was carrying their bags. The best part about lunch was drinking hot tea after being out in the cold, rainy weather for so long. A few of the people in our group got oxygen from the emergency tank before we went on our way.
One of the girls that had been struggling had brought hiking boots that were 11 years old, so they had fallen apart by the time we got to lunch. Max, one of our guides ended up giving her his hiking boots, leaving him hiking in Nikes. This was the first of the many ways our guides went above and beyond to make sure we had a good experience on the trek.
The hike up to Salkantay pass was steep and tough. It felt like I was taking breaks to catch my breath every few hundred yards. My head was pounding and I was a little bit dizzy, but I kept drinking water in the hopes that it would go away. I can't say the same for the two girls were going really slowly and falling behind at this point. They both ended up riding the horse up to the start of the pass. The parents of the family that were on the trek, Kristen and Mark, made it up without any help so seeing them gut it out was really inspirational and motivated me to keep going. We were all relieved when we made it to Salkantay pass at 4:30.
Unfortunately it was so cloudy that we couldn't see anything in the pass. During the rainy season in Peru, it rains almost every afternoon. The good part was that from here most of the rest of the trek would be downhill. We hiked down for a few hours, but with the cloud cover the only views we had were of the wild chinchillas scurrying over the rocks.
It seemed like we were going slower and waiting longer for everyone to catch up as dusk approached, and I was getting worried that we wouldn't make it to camp by dark. Surely enough, night fell upon us when we still had a few hours to get to camp. Just before dark we got some great views of the mountains though!
We hiked following the light of our headlamps until we made it to camp around 8:15. This was a huge relief because at that point we we're all hungry and tired. I was lucky to get a tent all by myself, so I turned in right after dinner with the comfort of the hot water bottle they gave each of us and my toasty warm sleeping bag. Overall this was one of the longest hiking days I've had. I feel that at a lower altitude, this hike wouldn't have been difficult for me, but the elevation really took its toll. It was a really humbling experience, and made me realize that I should have trained harder and been in better shape prior to this trip. It was still a great day and I'm looking forward for more hiking tomorrow!
Sunday, December 23, 2018: Mountains, Rainforests, and Jungles All in One Day! Today started off with a 5:30am wake up call with a cup of tea and an amazing view. Stepping out of my tent I saw the mountains we had just come from, a pleasant surprise since yesterday was so rainy that we couldn't really see anything. Luckily I wasn't really sore from the day before and I felt refreshed after a good night's sleep.
After getting ready we had breakfast which was a great start to the day, and by the time we finished eating the sun was beating down. It was about 60 degrees outside. Before we got on the trail we were formally introduced to our porters, cooks, and horsemen. They were all really nice and seemed like they were having fun joking around with each other.
After that at about 7:45 we packed up and went on our way towards our lunch spot at Collpapampa. Along the way we dropped from the alpine zone to the cloud forest, the rainforest, and then into the jungle. It was all downhill, and it was really interesting to see how the terrain changed with the elevation. The alpine zone was unlike what we have in the white mountains with a lot more vegetation and large pastures of grass. It's much less delicate than the alpine zone in the whites, probably because there's a vast amount of land that encompasses it. It's similar to the whites in that it's very rocky, but the well beaten horse path made it much easier to navigate.
The cloud forest is where the clouds usually sit in the mountains. This area had many tall bushes and smaller trees, but was still high enough to be out of range of mosquitoes and other bugs. As we dropped in elevation the trees slowly started to become taller and there was more and more vegetation with less rocks. After a little while we came to the rainforest where we put on bug spray to protect us from the mosquitoes.
I had never been in a rainforest so I wasn't sure what to expect. The trees got taller and there was a lot more flora and fauna around the path. We saw orchids and lots of other flowers along with many different types of plants. There were also hummingbirds, green parrots, and butterflies everywhere. It was so beautiful seeing all of the different types of plants and orchids, but the downside was that there was now swarms of mosquitoes.
After just over four hours of walking we reached our lunch spot for the day. This was in a little town that had many campsites and amenities for tourists. Here we said goodbye to our horses and horsemen who did not continue the trek with us.
After lunch the two girls decided take the van with our porters to our next campsite. The rest of us set off into the jungle for a hike through the local farms. We were on the road for a good amount of time and walked along the path that the river had carved through the years. At one point we took a short cut and used a cable car like device to get over the river. It was scary but so much fun!
After that we walked through plantations that where they grow granadillas (Peruvian passion fruit), avocados, and coffee. It's the low season of year for tourism in the sacred valley, so many of the small shops that you can buy fruit from were closed. We still found some fruit on nearby trees though!
Soon we came across a river crossing that proved more difficult than expected. The bridge that had been there was washed away, so crossing was really tough. I didn't have too much trouble because I've navigated tough crossings in New Hampshire, but the rest of the people in my group were more tentative. Our guides Max and Javi ended up moving boulders to make the crossing easier and although it took almost an hour we all made it across.
We continued on in the jungle where we came across a poisonous snake on the trail. They're very rare and luckily it slipped away without hurting anyone. Soon after we found cutest little treehouse overlooking the valley near our campsite. When we got to camp around 6:00, I was super excited to relax and unwind after the long day. We were staying at Alpaca Expedition's private campsite, so there was a hot tub and showers which were amazing after all of the hiking we had done. Although we were staying in tents, this was probably one of the most luxurious camping experiences I've ever had! After dinner I went to bed right away, falling asleep to the sound of the flowing river just beneath the campsite.
Monday, December 24, 2018: Handmaking Coffee and First Glimpses of Machu Picchu The morning started early and after breakfast we got on the trail to "La Playa," a cute riverside town down the road. We stopped for a break there and I played with some local children which was really fun. As we walked through the the rainforest from La Playa to our lunch spot, we saw many different kinds of crops like bananas, avocados, coffee, and agave.
After a few hours of walking we reached the Inca trail that we would be following the rest of the way to Machu Picchu. There are many Inca trails all over South America, so although this wasn't the classic Inca trail to Machu Picchu, it was still one used by the Incas many years ago.
The trail was rugged but well beaten and at a steady incline, and after a little while we arrived at a local coffee farm. We got to male our own coffee starting by picking the ripe red beans off the plants around us. Then we shelled, cleaned, and roasted the beans in a traditional Incan pot. We then ground them and used a pour over method to make the coffee. I don't usually drink caffeinated coffee because it makes my ADHD really bad, but I made an exception because this coffee was amazing. The flavor was so smooth and not acidic or bitter at all. It was almost creamy and it was by far the best coffee I had ever tasted.
After lunch we had some time to rest before hitting the trail once again, so we stretched and did some yoga to refresh our legs and prepare for the impending uphill climb. The Inca trail was a gradual uphill slope, so not too difficult especially since we had dropped so much elevation the day before.
At one point we were all instructed to go at our own pace and meet at a local house and small market a ways above us. This was one of my favorite hikes of the whole week. We had done almost all of our hiking as a group so far, which helped me to get to know the other people on the trip, but since we all prefer to go at different paces it was great to do some solo hiking for a change. I love solo hiking, so it was really nice challenging myself to go at a faster pace for a little while.
I got into a good rhythm and although it was pretty steep in some spots, I made it up to the hut pretty quickly. While I was waiting for the rest of the group, I talked to a little girl who lived up there. She was five years old and very cute, letting me use their swing over the valley. This was pretty scary because there was nothing stopping me from flying off of the side of the mountain, but it was lots of fun!
After a little more solo hiking and waiting for the group, the family and I went to Llactapata, our first Inca site. The two girls were really far behind with Javi so we decided to just meet them at the campsite. These ruins were really interesting, and we caught our first view of Machu Picchu here. It looked really far away, which was a little intimidating because that was our destination the next day.
Our campsite was only a short distance from Llactapata, and had the same, beautiful views of Machu Picchu in the distance. The campsite was really nice, with a few really cute puppies that we played with. I helped the porters that had made it there already set up camp, but by nightfall, two of our porters, Javi, and the two girls were not yet at the campsite so we started to get a little worried. It had been a very uphill day so I felt bad that the porters were carrying so much of our stuff. I ended up carrying everything except my sleeping bag myself because I didn't want to add to their already heavy load.
Once they got to camp, we had a really nice Christmas Eve dinner and some beers to celebrate the holiday. It was great to spend some time with the porters and cooks to get to know them while they weren't working. We also did a Christmas Eve ritual to honor Mother Nature with coca leaves. It really opened my eyes to the Incan culture, and it was really special. After the ritual I promptly went to sleep to prepare for the early morning the next day.
The first few days of the Salkantay trek were really hard, but we had some amazing views and it was really fun having all sorts of new experiences! Stay tuned for part two of the Salkantay trek where I go to Machu Picchu and Lima before coming home to Boston!