“Pay no mind to the porters. They are inhuman and will pass you quickly…
So, for those unaware, there exist multiple trekking paths to Machu Picchu. Everyone knows of the Inka Trail and the archeological wonders it hold, but what you might not know is that  only 500 people are allowed to start on the trail per day (including porters and guides), and  you must book the trek online several months beforehand to even have a chance at a spot. Not to mention that with 500 people starting the trail at the same time, it’s [retty overcrowded. So here I am to give you some alternatives that you do not have to book months ahead of time, are not crowded, and are half the price of the Inka Trail! So what are your choices? Well behind door número uno, we have a Jungle Trek going at around $200 for 3-4 days, where you spend your adventure mountain biking, river rafting, and Ziplining your way to Machu Pichu. Behind numbers two and three are the lesser know treks taking you to some more scenic mountain ranges, prices varying. And behind door number four, my personal (biased) favorite, is the most popular alternative trek to Machu Pichu: The Salkantay.
Before we move on, you might be asking where on earth do I book these fabulous excursions? It’s simple. Just step outside your hostel in Cusco, and there is surely a tour agency within 10 feet. I’m not exaggerating! There are dozens scattered about the city! You can just pick an afternoon to stroll about, duck inside a few and compare prices and benefits. The particular agency that I booked my trek with was called “Puma’s Treks,” and is located in the main square (recommend!). You might be a bit afraid that you might not get a spot for the day you want, but that is nearly impossible. They have treks starting every day, and due to the popularity of the Inka Trail obscuring the fabulousness of these alternative routes you will never feel overcrowded on your beautiful hike! So do not pay premium prices online for security! Be spontaneous and book when you get there! Another good reason for booking in town is because you should stay 4-5 days in Cusco before climbing to even greater altitudes.
So here is what you can expect on the Salkantay!
No sleeping in today! The earliest you will be woken up is 2 am, and the latest is 5 am! What time you have to be awake depends on when your guides will be picking you up from your hostel. Your guide, who will speak English, will pick you up at the door of your hostel, and you will be shoved into a small bus for an hour and a half while it takes you to the start of the trail. No worries! You will be so sleepy and out of it, you will most likely sleep the whole way. Next step is breakfast in Mollepata. You will be lead to a small room and fed a tiny breakfast (I will explain the importance of snacks in a moment), but what you need to be after is the pot of coca tea. Yes, coca as in Cocain. No, you will not get high. Yes, it will help prevent altitude sickness. Drink it! This is also the time to look at the people you will be effectively living with the next five days! My group was rather diverse, with 3 Spaniards, a French pastry chef, an Israeli fresh out of the army, two Brits whom had never hiked before, an australian, two ‘Mericans other than myself, as well as our Peruvian guide, porter and two chefs! All in all, it was fantastic group and loads of fun! Okay, before we move on, let’s go over your packing list!
– Frigging fantastic hiking shoes! DO NOT BE CHEAP!
– Warm Clothes! I’m talking layers people! The peak hiking season is smack in the middle of winter, and can get to below 0°C at night!
– Good sleeping bag and pad, which can be rented in Cusco.
– Water bladder and filter (or tablets), because while hiking it is nice to be hands free in your hydration! AND YOU MUST HYDRATE! Dehydration will quickly lead to altitude sickness!
– Hiking poles if you have bad knees.
– Sunscreen and bug spray; loads of each!
– Earplugs for snoring comrades, and an iPod for when you need a musical power boost to get up a hill.
– Toilet paper! Steal some from your hostel! DO NOT LEAVE WITHOUT IT!
– Headlamp. Once the sun goes down, it is truly dark!
– Snacks, snack and more snacks! Hiking equals hungry! Food is power!!! Load up! There is also small vendor stands along the way and at base camps, but are uber expensive, so also bring cash.
– A nice 20-30L backpack with waist straps to put it all in!
*Most gear can be bought or rented in Cusco, and your hostel will store your bigger luggage for you during your trek.
Ok, now you are all set and at the entrance of the trail! Here your guide will re-explain to you what your about to do: The trail starts off at about 2700 meters above sea level and peaks at 4680 meters! That’s climbing about 2000 meters in two days! The length of the hike comes to be about 79km total (35miles ish), so hit the gym beforehand. On the first day, you are going to ascend to about 3100 meters where you will make base camp at Salkantaypapa, with a total hiking distance of 12km. The guide will tell you that the second day is the hardest because it has a steep incline for about three hours, but personally I found the first day to be hardest because while it was not a terribly steep climb, it was uphill the entire way! We started out as a group, but gradually the overachievers, the average, and the slowpokes became separated. Luckily the hike is very straightforward, and whenever there is a crossroads the guide will stop until the group is all together again before proceeding. This will continue for the better part of 5hrs, and just when you think you are unable to continue, the trail gives you a present. You get the most incredible view of your destination: Mount Salkantay. Yes, the trail is named after a mountain. The trail is an Inkan Road as well, even though there is no longer a stone path like the one on “THE” Inka Trail due to its discovery by the conquistadores and it’s subsequent overuse by horseback. This trail was one of the giant networks of roads created by the Inkas, and even though it was not the quickest of paths, it leads directly to one of their old gods. Mount Salkantay is a God who was deeply revered by the indigenous people! Much better than some old dwellings, right? And you understand why they would revere it, as it beautifully imposes upon on the landscape, everpresent and defiant.
At day 1’s halfway point you will stop for lunch at a gorgeous vista. Our food may not have been the most delectable, but it came in copious amounts which was far more important! And don’t forget your dose of coca tea! Afterward, our group layed out in the grass and passed out for a good hour! Our guide told us we could leave when we want because the rest of the way was a straight shot to camp with no worries of getting lost. Only three more hours! The camp was at the base of the mountain, and we made it just before dark. I was in the back with the other slowpokes. Camp consisted of a tarp shelter under which the tents resided and a paddock for the pack horses. Once the sun disappeared behind the mountain, the cold truly started setting in. I pulled on every layer of clothing I had with me (definitely underprepared), gulped down dinner and climbed into my sleeping bag in search of conserving any bit of body heat! Make sure the pad you rent is insulated. Oh, and make sure to brave the outside cold for a few minutes to take in the stars and have a come to god moment before freezing your ass off and running for the shelter! Alarm set for 5:30 am!
Oh my god. It is 5:30 am. You hate the world. Then somebody hands you a hot drink, and you think you have never before experienced such kindness! The cooks will wake you up, gently or brashly depending on their demeanor, and hand you a cup of coca tea to drink inside your sleeping bag. You then have about twenty minutes to be up and at’em, packed, and at the breakfast table. You must carbo-load as much as possible, for today you have the steep ascent! You will climb from 3100 to 4689 meters in three hours. Now is the time for power boost playlist and chocolate bars within reach! I had The band Junip playing most of the way up, as they are soft yet fast enough for a good hiking pace and they just have that mountain hiking kinda feel about them! Don’t worry about making small talk with the others, because it is so high you are all struggling to catch your breath, and chit chat doesn’t help! Also, pay no mind to the porters. They are inhuman and will pass you quickly even though you set out twenty minutes before them. What else… Oh! Use the toilet before you set out! You won’t see one for a while.
The peak of Salkantay is what you have been striving for the past two days, and it doesn’t disappoint. When you pull yourself up that last rocky hill to the top, the scene takes your breath away (not just because of the altitude!). You had set out around 6 am, and due to the tall mountains all around you the sun has been chasing after you all morning, stealing more and more of the mountains shadow. When you reach the top, the sun is finally reaching its zenith, and the land on both sides of the mountain stretches before you. Snow capped peaks a stones throw away, forests in the distance, and a peaceful air of calm far from the reaches of civilization. Take a deep breath, take it in. You have just conquered something few people in their lives will ever experience…….. aaaaand it’s photo time! Selfies galore! Even though photos will never be able to truly be able to capture the vistas magnificence, the commemoration is in order! After about an hour of taking it all in, it is time for the decent. For those of you who often hike, you know that the downhill portion can be even worse than the ascent! It may not be physically exhausting, but the strain it puts on your joints in not to be underestimated! If you brought poles, now is the time to use them. If you have bad knees or ankles, you must bring a brace! You have about five hours total of downhill hiking (lunch after about two) to base camp at the altitude of 2850 meters. Oh yes! You are climbing down everything you climbed in the past two days in five hours! But I do have some good news. For one, the trail is completely straightforward, so you can take it at your pace. Me and my new friend Jane took a little too long with the mountaintop selfies, so we kept each other company in the slowpokes group! You have gorgeous view the whole way down of mountains and valleys, and after about three hours you descend into a tropical rainforest! Remember, due to the extreme altitude changes over a short period you are most at risk for altitude sickness today! Drink tons and tons of water, and make sure to tell your guide if you feel sick! He has the power to stick your butt on a pack horse! Today camp is a bit nicer and warmer! You can even pay to use showers, but there is no point since you will be trekking through mud the next day. Camp was made in a small village and even had a TV! So we were able to sit back with an overpriced beer and watch the World Cup.
I think day 3 is the most fun regarding the hiking! You are trekking through the jungle and it is a combination of hills and descents, so you don’t get too tired and it’s not too bad on the knees! I found it super enjoyable to be walking under the canopy and next to the river after seeing nothing but mountains for the past couple of days! There are even a couple of waterfalls! The hike is around 4-5 hours as you descend to a little town at 1900 meters. There you will stop for lunch, and be picked up by a small bus to take you the rest of the way to Santa Teresa where you will stay for the night. The town of Santa Teresa is nice, but the city is not what you should be excited about. It’s the hot springs! The Colcamayu hot springs are probably the most beautiful I’ve ever been to, not to mention the surrounding scenery is gorgeous! Bathe yourself in the different temperature pools and heal thyself! Tonight at camp you shall feast on marshmallows roasted over a roaring fire!
First things first, it’s now time to tip! The cooks and porters deserve a tip after all their hard work, especially when you do the math! The trip cost $250 total, the entrance to Machu Pichu and the train back alone cost $210 togeather. Thus you are only paying $40 each for their services, and how much of that makes it back to them? Be generous. Now, on to the activities! Today there are two options. The first is to hike all the way to hydroelectric town and then on to Machu Pichu! The second is to go Ziplining! I prefer the second option, as afterward they transfer you to hydroelectric by bus so you can finish the hike to Aguas Calientes (it’s not a pretty hike to hydroelectric)! Cola de Mano adventure company boasts one of the highest and longest zip lines in the world at a cheap rate of $30! You get discounts on this if you sign up for it when you book the whole trip back in Cusco! It is completely worth it and totally safe! The lines can withstand 10tons of weight, so unless you have been sneaking way too many cookies when mom’s not looking, there is no way it will break! You get to try a total of six zip lines with experienced guides, and even do some cool stuff on the last ones like hanging upside down or flying like Superman (men beware of crotch abrasion)! After your bus drops you in hydroelectric, all that’s left is a 3hour hike. It is completely flat and runs along the train tracks! The scenery is beautiful, but be careful not to get hit by a train while taking it in! Finally, you shall reach your destination: Aguas Calientes.
This story is continued in a separate post because Machu Pichu deserves its own!