Graham, a member of the Llama Travel sales team was lucky enough to be sent on the 4 day Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, a popular alternative to the renowned Inca Trail. This is his account of a magnificent four days.
During my four days of hiking the Salkantay Trail – the lesser known, but none-the-less stunning route to the fabled ancient city of the Incas, Machu Picchu – I was struck by the sheer beauty and diversity of the environment. We ascended ancient Inca paths guarded by majestic snow-capped peaks; navigated our way down rocky mountainous dirt paths in a throng of mule packs, and traipsed along valley paths enveloped in tropical foliage. This is a blow by blow account of the trail.
Day 1: 15km, approximate walking time 7.5 hours
My first day began with a 03:30 start at the hotel in the Sacred Valley. After a 3 hour journey winding through the surrounding valley, we arrived at the small community of Mollepata where we were briefed on the details of the day ahead over a hearty breakfast of eggs, freshly baked bread, fruit and coffee.
A further scenic drive - 45 minutes through the mountainous roads north of Mollepata - saw us arrive at the start point of our trek in Challacancha. Here, we met the other members of our party; our two chefs and two porters.
At 09:00 we joined the trail itself, meandering along mountainous dirt roads for the first hour, mule packs laden with equipment racing
past us, expertly led by experienced porters who had trodden this path many times before. We were immediately humbled by the sheer beauty and grandeur of our surroundings; the cavernous valley flanked by towering snow-capped peaks and the gurgling river below us.
An hour or so later we veered of the road to join a well-trodden mountain track, and were awarded with our first glimpse of the trail’s namesake; the Salkantay Mountain or ‘Savage Mountain’ in Quechua. After a quick photo-session and refreshment break we continued along the ever-steeper trail to our lunch site at Salkantaypampa, located at 4150m. Here a temporary camp awaited us and our chefs had prepared a welcomed three-course meal of soup, chicken and vegetables, and rice pudding.
Once we’d feasted it was back on the trail for the final push towards our final stop for the day. Our first challenge of the afternoon was to maneuver through a series of switchbacks aptly named the Siete Culebras or ‘Seven Snakes’. It was during this short ascent that the group began to experience the effects of the altitude. Our guide, Fabricio, who had traversed this route several times, set a manageable pace for the group though, ensuring that everyone arrived at Soroycocha, our first campsite, happy and content with the day’s walking.
At approximately 16:30 we arrived at the campsite where our tents had been erected and afternoon tea prepared. We then had an hour to relax before dinner. Warm soup, trout and chocolate cake were consumed over a synopsis of the day. At 4480m, the temperature is prone to sudden and severe drops, and sure enough, over the course of dinner each of us crept off to our tents to don more layers, until we were all wearing every item of clothing we had packed. At 21:30 we were suitably frozen and elected to adjourn to our tents. En route to our tents we were all stopped in our tracks by the mesmerizing site of the Salkantay peak set against the constellations of the night sky. We climbed into our thermal sleeping bags and drifted off in wonderment, and impressively, warmth.
Day 2: 21km, 7 hours
Woken by our porters with a warm cup of coca tea at 06:00, we started the day enjoying our hot drinks from the warmth of our tents, while gazing out at the magnificent scenery. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and fruit we hit the trail towards Abra Salkantay – the summit of our journey at 4630m. We trudged our way along the path reaching the pass at 09:00.
Instantly we were awestruck by the beauty of the landscape around us. To the south rose the Salkantay peak in all its splendor, complete with glaciers clinging to the face of the Vilcabamba Cordillera. To the north the valley unfolded, culminating at the edge of the cloud forest.
Before we began our descent we each picked a stone from the pass to create an apacheta – an offering to the Gods of the mountains – and placed coca leaves around the structure whilst Fabricio performed a prayer. We reached Wayramachay (3850m) in time for an early lunch.
Being in the heart of the cloud forest, we were gradually enveloped by cloud over the course of the meal. After lunch we started to descend, dipping below the cloud line once again. Right away we noticed the change in environment as we entered a luscious, humid, environment with humming-birds feeding on colorful orchids, trees brimming with passion fruit and the all too familiar buzz of mosquitoes.
For the next few hours we traced the ever-growing river towards the small settlement of Colpapampa at 2870m – our second campsite. Here we had the luxury of a warm shower followed by another generous dinner.
Day 3: 14km, 7 hours
After our morning feast of freshly made pancakes with jam, dulce de leche and copious amounts of coffee and coca tea we were ready to begin the day’s trek. We began with a gentle descent towards the banks of the Totora River before crossing it to tackle the steep incline to the path that we would follow for the rest of the day to the tiny community of La Playa.
This section was brimming with waterfalls, rainforests and the plants burst with fruit - passionfruit, bananas and avocado were all in the offering. We took advantage of our bountiful surroundings with many snack stops, serving as a distraction from the humidity.
Our third camp was Lucmabamba. Arriving mid-afternoon, we enjoyed lunch looking out across the valley, to the soundtrack of parrots squawking overhead. Earlier that morning we had arranged a minibus to take us on the hour-long journey to the nearby town of Santa Teresa to indulge in the natural thermal springs that the town is known for. We soaked our weary bones, submersing ourselves in the pools, increasing the temperature with each pool. The soak was followed by a Cusqueña beer before we headed back to camp for dinner and bed.
Day 4: 18km, 7 hours
We awoke to the calls of parrots and the smell of freshly brewed coffee from the surrounding plantations. After a recharging breakfast we stepped on to an original Inca path that would lead us to the archaeological site of Llactapata, our highest point of the day. The path curved through many coffee plantations where locals were attentively tending their crops, before leading us higher up the valley’s sides to enjoy the glorious views.
As we reached the crest of the ascent, Fabricio made us peer and squint through the foliage into the distance. After a few bemused looks we were informed of what lay ahead of us; the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. At Llactapata we enjoyed a packed-lunch in one of the most magical settings imaginable. Machu Picchu lay ahead of us; the peaks of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain flanking the smaller crest of Uña Picchu and the citadel itself.
This view is arguably the best view of Machu Picchu, and while we admired it, Fabricio shared the history of the site with us, as well as the various scholarly theories associated with this enigmatic icon. It was a lunch to savor. Once we had finished our lunch and managed to tear ourselves away from the spectacle in front of us, it was time to descend to the Urubamba Valley below. The path twisted its way down towards the bubbling river and we followed it to the tiny railway station to board the train for the final leg of our journey to the town of Aguas Calientes, the base for all visits to the Lost City of Machu Picchu.
The afternoon was spent reminiscing over the past 4 days, and recovering from the equivalent amount of time on our feet. It was a magical experience, and when we went to Machu Picchu itself the following day, the experience was all the more special for it.
If you would like to experience the Salkantay Trail for yourself, you can view our Salkantay Trail Holidays here, or make an enquiry online. You can see our Inca Trail Holidays here and our general Peru Holidays here.