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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Mighty Salkantay - Machu Picchu Part 1

Seeing Machu Picchu is on a lot of people's wish list when it comes to travelling. Many of you know that we've been trying to get there for the last 10 years, but for one reason or another it didn't happen until now. And why not now? What better way to celebrate Ron's 60th birthday? At least that was his thinking.
Looks like an ad, but we took this picture!

You can get to Machu Picchu a few different ways; there's a lovely train that leaves from a town outside Cusco, that will take you to Aguas Calientes where you load yourself on to a bus (or walk) to MP, you can take the traditional Inca Trail, a four day three night hike over the original Incan roads, past ruins and through the Sun Gate to the mother of all ruins, or you can do as we did, hike the Salkantay trail, through the amazing countryside of Peru. There are less ruins on this trail, but more climate zones and nature. The Salkantay trek is five day, four night trek, including the day at Machu Picchu. It's a more difficult hike, technically, and you go through at least three different climate zones. (There are some longer hikes that take you to other Incan ruins, which might just be your cup of tea, but as this was our first trek, we decided not to overdo it.)

The Salkantay is what Ron chose to do and I, being the loving wife that I am, agreed to go along. You've seen our preparation; we did everything we could to get ready for the challenge, but even that fact didn't make me feel any better when we arrived at our preparatory meeting the night before the trek started. We were the first there and then two young men showed up, perhaps 20 years old at the most, then two young women arrived, both in their 20's. I tried to keep my cool, but really how was I going to keep up with 20 somethings? One of the girls looked like she was suffering from the altitude and ultimately decided to wait to take her trek later. We also discovered that a couple was missing, but would be at the meeting point the next morning.
The new "selfie" fad...of kilter photos
Our guide went over the trek plan...showing us the elevations we'd be tackling, the distances we'd be walking and our stopping points, both for lunch and for camping. Then he gave us the good news, we weren't going to have to meet at 4am, but at 5! A whole extra hour of sleep. (As if!) We were issued duffle bags for our personal items and instructed on what else to bring - cold weather gear (gloves, knit hats, scarves), rain gear, walking poles, water bottles and, of course, our camera.

We slept fitfully that night and awoke at 3:40am in order to grab some breakfast (and more importantly, coffee), brush our teeth and walk down to the meeting point by 5am. It was there that we met the other couple, a bit closer to our ages, thankfully. With little delay we headed off towards our starting point, with the sun still sleeping in the east.

I guess this is were I should introduce our trekking buddies. We were led by the intrepid Elvis, who was mildly under the weather, but still good to go. The two lads, Joe and Andrew, from England, Jess from Australia and Derek and Ana from Poland...very international, no? Ron and I were the oldest in the group...not a usual experience for me, but I sucked it up anyway. It didn't take us long to mesh and we were laughing and having a grand time by early the second day. (Never underestimate the amusement factor of two young British lads...I highly recommend that you get your own pair, if you venture out on a trek.)
Elvis is taking the picture...
You might ask how we came to select Llama Path Tours. We did a lot of research on the top trekking companies in Peru and their name kept coming up. They have an excellent reputation for treating their porters well and fairly. We were impressed to see the porters well equipped with hiking boots and all-weather wear, nicely branded in the Llama Path's signature red colour and logos. The men seemed happy to be working there. Along the trail we saw porters in flip flops, rubber boots, Croc knock offs and clothes not fit for the weather. Llama Path also sets up load limits for the porters (which is especially important on the Inca Trail, where everything needs to be carried by people - no horses or cars allowed) and makes sure that they have a good run of days off after a trek so they can go see their families. (At least that's what the porters told us when we spoke with them.)

Now that the laundry is done and the fridge restocked, with no further ado...our big adventure:

How we conquered the majestic Salkantay mountain in the Veronica mountain range.

Looks pretty easy - on paper
The trek took us through the Peruvian Andes, up the back side of Machu Picchu and through the pass near one of Peru's highest peaks. The scenery was incredible and so was the experience. While we aren't the best campers, we survived three nights in a tent, only by the grace of Sebastian, our chef on the trek, but that's another post, I'm afraid.

We  took a private van to a place called Mollepata, where we had a nice little breakfast. We then loaded ourselves and our gear in to the back of an open truck and drove for another hour or so, to reach our starting point. This was our first taste of real Peruvian transportation (or more to the point South American). Honestly, I've seen so many people getting around this way, but this was my first chance to experience. I know, I're wondering when the actually physical activity starts...

It was mid-morning when we started the official hiking portion of our trek. We trekked up to a canal that feeds the fields along our route and then had an easy walk to the camp for lunch.
After lunch, we tackled a fairly decent incline, getting our first teasing glimpses of the Salkantay, as it flirted with us from behind the clouds.

Arriving at the Humantay glacier lake, a two hour hike from camp, we were pleased when the wind came up and blew the cloud away, revealing these fantastic views.

Cloud rolled in and out with mind boggling speed, but we got to enjoy the beauty of the landscape and were rewarded by indescribable views of our goal for the next day; the impressive and stunning Salkantay mountain. Apu Salkantay was kind. (He's the God of the Mountain.)
After dinner, we bunked down in the cold of the mountain and prepared for an early start the next day. Day two would be our longest and most challenging day; scaling more than 800 metres (2,624 feet) on steep, rocky inclines and variable weather, not to mention 24kms and 10 hours of hiking, not including our lunch break. Before we went to bed, we had a look at the Salkantay, rising out of the darkness and glistening in the moonlight, before yet another bank of clouds rolled in, tucking in the mountain for the night.

We woke before sunrise and had a breakfast by headlamp light. Our tour group woke us with hot coca tea and a carb rich breakfast. We packed up our sleeping bags, geared up and headed out, just as light became bright enough to see through mist of morning. Our offerings were rejected by Apu and we only caught glimpses of the glacier as we stumbled over loose rock and followed switchbacks up the steep mountain path.
Switchbacks up the mountain

I'll be honest (aren't I always???), it wasn't that bad...despite the altitude, inclines and terrain, we made it in fairly good time. Just before we turned the final curve to the summit, we could hear people cheering, so knew we were close. It spurred us on and we sped up to the pass. It was amazing to have achieved something that seemed so overwhelming when we first started. The cooking crew passed us on the way and waited for us for half an hour at the top with a thermos of hot coca tea and some cheese sandwiches. The British Lads (as we've come to call them) were particularly happy for the extra nourishment, but aren't all teenaged boys???

(L to R) Derek, Andrew, Ana, me, Ron, Elvis, Joe and Jess

After leaving the traditional 3 coca leaves in a fan under a rock for Apu, we still had another two hours down the mountain until we reached our lunch camp and the rain started to kick up a little, but the scenery was (once again) amazing. The landscape felt a bit like the Scottish Highlands or the Irish countryside. After lunch we hiked another four hours to Collpopampa to bunk down for the night

I'll leave you with photos from our lunch and dinner spread. Up next...our easy day and the hot springs of Santa Teresa.
Quiche, yes, real men DO eat it.

Warm veggie salad

Chicken in mushroom sauce

Obligatory rice, can't have a meal without it!

Beef and cheese in tortillas
Choclos (corn) and fresh cheese
Chicken ceviche

Pumpkin soup

Trout, fried with chimichuri sauce


  1. Welcome back home ! !

    Great pictures, it actually looks really difficult on paper...
    I cant imagine doing serious hiking at 4600 meters.

    1. It didn't seem that bad at the time...the first half hour to hour always sucks, but after that you hit a stride and carry on.

  2. Salkantay Trail is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.