We love trekking (that’s backcountry walking to you Americans), and planned from the beginning to do a trek to reach Machu Picchu. Unfortunately the famous Inca Trail has become a victim of its own popularity, and prices are now $500 to $600 per person for the four day trek, and that’s if you can get a spot; the better times of the year book solid six or more months in advance. With all the budget travelers swarming around this area it’s no surprise that local outfitters have come up with a variety of cheaper and more readily available alternative routes to the classic Inca Trail. The Salkantay trek, named after the dramatic 20,500 ft mountain that the trail passes by, is one of the more popular of these alternative routes. It came strongly recommended by some people we’d met earlier on our trip, so we decided to give it a try.
The trek is normally a five day affair, but after getting stuck in Bolivia for a while we were short on time and arranged to complete the trip in four days. After shopping around for a while we concluded that most of the cheaper agencies were probably just getting commissions selling spots on the same bundled trips, so we booked with a nice guy we knew through our hotel. It was a bit over $200 US, which was actually quite a bargain when factoring in the included expensive entrance fees to Machu Picchu, the return train ride, a night in a hotel, transport, food, English speaking guide, etc.
We were picked up early in the morning the first day from our hotel and driven to a small town in the foothills where we ate breakfast, organized our group and received a quick orientation. The mules would carry about 15 pounds of gear per person, so we only had to carry a light day pack. Our guide was a nice younger guy who spoke good English and had been guiding in the area for something like seven years; between the classic Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek he said he preferred the Salkantay due to less crowds and more dramatic mountain scenery.
Sunscreen and bug spray applied, we started walking. The first few hours of the trek were a bit undramatic, with decent but uninspiring views and the route following a dusty vehicle road, thankfully without a lot of traffic. It was hot and after a while turned into a bit of a slog, interrupted by a tasty lunch and a fun break at a chicha shack. Later in the afternoon as we gained elevation the views improved and the temperatures dropped, and we started enjoying ourselves. Worn out but happy we stopped for the night in a dramatic valley, sleeping in tents set up inside a tarp pavilion to provide some wind protection.
Day two was the highlight of the trek. We got up early, had a quick breakfast, and started a long climb up to the pass near Salkantay mountain, which our guide told us had never been successfully climbed, despite numerous attempts. As we gained elevation the views kept improving, rivaling scenery from the Himalayas. We love this kind of high altitude country; the air is so crisp and clear, and I always feel a little bit giddy… maybe it’s oxygen deprivation. After a few hours of hard climbing we reached the pass. Denae and I both felt great and were pleased to have made it pretty easily, as we’d read some reports of this being a very tough hike.
Salkantay was a dramatic presence up there, looming hugely very close by. We watched an avalanche stream down one of the snow faces, apparently a very common occurrence. There were a bunch of rock cairns built by hikers over the years, and we took a bunch of photos. Our guide performed a hokey but fun little Incan ceremony.
Heading down the other side of the pass we passed steeply through a dramatic valley with lots of pasture for high altitude animal grazing, with a few little hamlets of people here and there. As we quickly lost elevation the temperatures increased and the vegetation became thick. The trail ran high above a river as we hiked on, finally stopping for the night at a little village where our tents were set up in a field.
Day three was a long one. We were tired from the day before and the scenery was much less dramatic, so the hours of hiking didn’t pass as easily. The trail dead-ended at a small village where we had lunch, then loaded into a van for a half hour or so ride to get to the town where our group was staying the night at a campground. There was a hotspring nearby which sounded amazing, but this was where we paid for making this a four day trip instead of five. Instead of being done for the day and going for a soak, we said goodbye to our group and loaded into a taxi with an assistant guide for a short drive to a hydroelectric project/train depot. Here we joined a throng of other hikers walking alongside the train tracks. It was getting late in the afternoon and we were losing daylight, and our new guide set a blistering pace to try and make it to Aguas Calientes before nightfall. We were pretty worn out, so two hours later we were very happy to finally reach our destination.
Aguas Calientes (hot waters, named for local hotsprings) is small town that exists almost solely to cater to the hordes of tourists visiting Machu Picchu, which is just up the hill from town. It’s packed with hotels and restaurants and bars, and is a little expensive as the only way to reach it is on foot or by train, which is also very expensive, hence our walk along the train tracks. Our guide dropped us off at a restaurant, where another guy led us to our hotel for the night which turned out to be a very nice place. We turned in early for the night, for once actually excited to wake up at 4am the following day: we were going to Machu Picchu!
So how would we rate the Salkantay trek? Well, the second day was incredible, and the rest of it was decent. I would say it was definitely worth doing, and as far as cost it was a good value. However, years ago Denae hiked the classic Inca Trail, and remembers the way it felt like an incredible journey, culminating in the arrival at Machu Picchu. They entered through the Sun Gate, an uncrowded entrance that only Inca Trail hikers were able to use, and only saw Aguas Calientes after visiting the ruins. In comparison, it felt to us like the Salkantay trek was basically unrelated to Machu Picchu; a nice hike that happened to finish near an access point. Hiking alongside railroad tracks to get to Aguas Calientes, a town which is reachable to anyone with a train ticket, then taking the morning bus or walking up the hill to the ruins, is just not the same level of experience that Denae had. We were totally fine with it, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re deciding between the two trips.