Machu Picchu is to Peru what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, it’s simply impossible to get around it. I chose to visit the most famous of all inca ruins as part of a five-day hiking tour, the Salkantay Trek. With a total of about 65 kilometers, this route is approximately one and a half times as long and therefore less crowded than the better-known Inca Trail.
The size of the groups that embark on this adventure can vary greatly, in the worst case around twenty people or more. I consider myself very lucky; our group consisted of only three people plus guide and porters.
The day before the trekking, I checked in at the tour agency’s office in the center of Cusco. That’s where I met our guide Rosel and my two Aussi hiking companions Amy and Harrison. Rosel gave us a little preview of the route and difficulties of each day of the trek. In the end, we also collected the duffelbags to pack our cloths to be carried by the porters.
On the first day, we got picked up at our respective hostels at 4 AM. The ride in the minibus up to the trailhead took about three hours, a great opportunity to get back some of the missing sleep. As soon as we arrived, the porters unpacked some of the bags and prepared our first full-blown breakfast, including fresh fruit salad and Coca tea. A few Llamas were browsing around us while we dug in.
With thick clouds hanging in the sky, we could see little of the mountain range we would soon be crossing. Rosel was optimistic that the clouds would thin out soon. Turns out, Rosel is always optimistic about the weather.
The hiking started and as we were already over 4’000 masl, everybody felt the height. At some point the path got rocky and steep; we were gaining altitude quickly and soon we would reach the high point of the Salkantay pass, the highest point of the trek at 4’630 masl. It was windy and the temperature dropped to 2°C or 3°C. We went for cover behind some rocks and had a break while listening to Rosel and the inca tunes he was playing on his flute.
As if the cold wasn’t enough, it started to rain as we started our descent. A few kilometers down the path the porters set up the lunch tent and started to prepare our food. We defrosted our hands on a warm cup of Coca tea and listened to some anecdotes of Rosel. What came next was one of the bigger surprises not connected to natural beauty of the last months; the porters started handing us one platter of food after the other, and we couldn’t believe our eyes nor our taste buds. Rice with vegetables, fried fish, salad, some kind of potatoes with cheese and more, all beautifully prepared and very tasty. Weirdly enough, what these guys cooked up in an improvised kitchen in the corner of the tent would put many cooks in a modern kitchen to shame. After stuffing our bellies in awe, we continued down the mountain until we reached our camp site. The weather was kind enough to allow us a glimpse of the stunning surroundings and the clouds made for a rather dramatic scenery. After our tents were set up, we made ourselves comfortable and awaited dinner time. Who would have thought that this trekking would also turn into a small gourmet trip through the Peruvian cuisine?
The next day we walked further down, pretty much to the bottom of the valley that was opening up in front of us and along the river, until we reached the next camp site. It was raining from time to time and the views didn’t really call for a lot of photo-activity. The camp site was a piece of land next to the mosquito infested river where Alpaca Expeditions was setting up an infrastructure with a swimming pool, showers and a house with a kitchen and dining room etc. Given the huge amount of mosquitos in the area, I couldn’t really share the guide’s enthusiasm for the place.
In the morning, after an amazing breakfast, there was another surprise. Rosel had learnt the day before that it was Amy’s birthday and so he instructed the cook to prepare something for her. Once again, he outdid himself by miraculously producing a decorated cake that, while prepared with simple ingredients, was both nice to look at and a pleasure to eat. And I have no idea where he got that chef-uniform from.
Rosel had warned us that the third day would be the toughest one, and I guess he wasn’t wrong. The rain was gone and the sun was strong. After about an hour and a half of hiking through plane terrain we took a right and started climbing up a part of the original Inca trail. The heat called for as little clothing as possible, but the freaking mosquitos turned it impossible to dress adequately and I ended up with long trousers and my rainjacket. I was practically a walking sauna.
At the top of this never-ending uphill hike we stopped at a small ruin called Llactapata from where we could see Machu Picchu glued to the mountain across the valley; two days before we would step through its gate.
A short but steep walk down we reached our campsite for the night.
Day #4 was a nice 15km of hiking through the valley and along the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes, the small city at the foot of Machu Picchu. It’s an ugly little town full living exclusively off Machu Picchu tourism. After dinner Harrison and me checked out a little bar and had a few drinks including the mandatory Pisco Sour.
After a few nights in the tent I was glad to lie down in a proper bed this night, eventhough I knew it wouldn’t be for long: the alarm rang at 4AM. The idea was to catch one of the first buses heading up to Machu Picchu. Yeah, I know, kinda disappointing to drive up there after hiking close to 70km during the last four days. The night before it was raining and the sky was completely grey when we left, so we were more than happy to see the cloud cover break open as we arrived. We were one of the first to get into the ruins that day at 6AM and eventhough expectations were high, it truly was a fantastic experience to stand there and take in the view of these mysterious and legendary temple ruins and the nearby mountains with fin clouds hanging from them like cotton candy and the early morning sun coating it in a golden layer. We went completely picture and selfie crazy before having a single breath, so you will excuse the monotonous nature of pictures to follow…
By the time more people arrived we have had enough time to appreciate the full glory of the place and to take pictures. We made our way to the Inka Bridge, a narrow and hidden path entering Machu Picchu. It’s partly carved into the mountain and opens up a cliff of up to 600m beneath it. While not accessible anymore, it used to be a secret entry for the inca army.
In order to complete my Machu Picchu experience, I made the hike up to the sun gate, once the main entrance to the city and the endpoint of the inca trail.
We then made our way back to Aguas Calientes where we caught our train to Ollantaytambo. From there a van of Alpaca Expeditions picked us up and brought us back to Cusco where this unforgettable adventure ended.