Salkantay Trek: 3 People No Guide
I am devoting this blog to a recount of my trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay trek in order to add to the online information cache for future hikers. This trek is spectacular and very doable without a cumbersome group of strangers and the prices attached to going with a tour company. I went with my sister and my boyfriend and found 3 to be a very agreeable number for distribution of pack weight and camaraderie. We did some planning but left many things to be decided on the way so that there was room for spontaneity. We felt confident because this is such a traveled trail and it winds its way through many villages and towns where advice can be solicited. We stretched the trip over 7 days but it is usually done in 5. It is worth taking more time if there are areas that you are very interested in (such as devoting a whole day to Machu Picchu as we did).
coca (altitude is a very real issue out here, coca made the difference more than once)
sleeping bag (0 degree fahrenheit was very nice)
trekking poles (never used before but extremely helpful for the long ascents and descents)
cooking stove (tiny self-lighting camping style stove purchased on amazon beforehand was perfect)
gas cartridge (sold all over downtown cusco, used less than half of our 15.9oz can)
light-weight food (there is also food for sale almost every night if you don't mind higher prices)
hiking clothes (long sleeve/long pants because of the sand flies)
clean change of clothes
warm layers for salkantay pass
water filter (regardless of staying in a few places with running water we filtered everything to be on the safe side)
*etc (all the other things you would want on a camping trip i.e. toiletries, bug spray, sun screen)
Day 1: Cusco to Mollepata (2.5 hr bus)
We decided to travel only to Mollepata today instead of getting up at 4am to be hiking by 8am as most other groups do. We planned to take a collectivo bus from the end of Calle Arcopata midmorning. There are no set departure times but they seem to leave regularly enough between 5am and 12pm, ask any hostel or hotel concierge and they should have the correct time and place to find a ride. We arrived around 1030am and were immediately summoned to the correct bus. It was a bit more expensive than we had anticipated (20 sole) but for a 2 hour ride it didn't seem outrageous, we also didn't feel the need to haggle as we usually did. The ride was fine but quite rocky so if you get queasy easily bring something to calm your stomach.
Mollepata is a cute little village on the side of a hill with very friendly people. We arrived around 12pm, ate our packed lunch, and found a hospedaje with a very welcoming host right off the plaza. We were still hungry and wanted to make sure we had more than enough energy for the following day so we went back to the plaza and sat at one of the booths that lined the road with ladies offering similar meals. It was cheap and absolutely delicious. This was probably one of the better meals we have had so far in Peru. The stay at the hospedaje was 25 soles per person for a dormitory style room (which felt larger as no one else was staying in the entire building. The place was owned and operated by a very friendly family who also had a restaurant on the upper floor and a small business being run out of the front (this place is seems to be a meeting place in the evening at the upstairs restaurant for families and people in the town and had an overall good atmosphere). We ate dinner (5-10 sole) and an early breakfast (10 sole).
Day 2: Mollepata to Sorayapampa (7-8 hrs hike)
After breakfast we were out the door by 8am - a bit later start then we had wanted but still left us plenty of time. We took a road from the square staying along the left side next to the only church in the plaza and kept straight until the street came to a fork where there was a blue sign telling us to go right for the Salkantay trail. These blue signs are well posted all along the route. We walked along a dirt road, with tour busses passing us by now and then offering us rides all the while (these become more and more appealing as you begin you uphill hike with a full back but the walk is defenitly worth the extra effort. We soon reached another fork/sign which pointed us towards the walking trail on the left/buses on the right). From here on the views were more and more breathtaking. We passed many rural habitations and could see the main road on the other side of the valley now and then. Another blue sign pointed us towards a foot path into the greenery on the right side of the road. We were a bit skeptical but a man coming down the path assured us it was the right way.
The day was mostly uphill and sometimes quite steep making for a challenge with our big packs. Although it is a bit difficult this hike is beautiful, covered with many interesting plants, animals and so-forth with numerous scenic places to stop and catch your breath as well as huts to restock if you are low on supplies. We alternated between dirt road and foot path until we reached the main sign which outlined the trail the rest of the way to Sorayapampa. We had lunch around 12:45 at the lookout where you can see all the way to Sorayapampa. There were signs for a mule path and upward for a hiking path but we could not see any trail on top of the hill so we took the lower. This was a nice trail for a couple hours, then we hit the road. The hard dirt roads can get old rather quickly but luckily it was only about an hour or so more to our destination so the road hiking was not bad. We arrived at Sorayapampa around 3:15 and set up camp away from the tour settlements across the river from a large horse and mule pasture with a full view of Mt. Salkantay. We made food and settled in, but soon realized we needed to relocate because we were in a wind tunnel that came down the valley from Salkantay. We moved closer to the side of the hill for protection and went to sleep early.
Day 3: Sorayapampa to Chaulley (9-10hr hike)
We tried to be on the trail by 6:30 but underestimated the time it took to pack up and make breakfast. We were on our way by 7 after the tour groups. The hike to the trail head was straightforward and beautiful as it had snowed at night covering every hill/peak in sight and left only Sorayapampa valley dry. Unfortunately, we caught up to most of the tour groups and started the climb amongst people and mules. The trail had also turned into a river from the snowfall so we had to climb along the steeper sides but it got better the higher we went. The views were mind-blowing and the strenuous hiking was rewarding. With a few breaks, we reached the top around 10:45.
Then came the long descent surrounded by waterfalls and glaciers into a large green pasture where, after an hour and half, we reached the place where all the tours had arranged for lunch. We had not packed enough so we went around the different vendor tents asking if the cooks had meals to spare. After being denied a few times, we found guys who were willing. They gave us two courses (soup and a medley plate) very graciously. We had to be sneaky and eat behind the tent because they did not want their bosses (tour operators) to see. We gave them 20 sole and went off to continue the hike down. Trekking poles were so helpful during this bit because it was steep, slippery, and very rocky in places.
We reached Chaulley, a little encampment with showers for sale and a place for solo campers, around 4:30 and set up camp. We were sore and groggy but managed to make a good dinner and enjoyed a couple beers while the locals took turns beating various groups of tourists in games of soccer (football). It was a bit loud that night as we were in the middle of all the tour encampments but we slept well nonetheless. We were unsure about whether to take the trail or the road the following day so I asked around some of the groups and most were taking the trail. I would recommend this unless there is a landslide (ask a guide before you set out because they are relatively frequent).
Day 4: Chaulley to La Playa (4hr road/6hr trail hike) to Santa Theresa (30min drive)
We slept in a little but got going shortly after all the tour groups had set off. We were still unsure about which route to take but started off on what we believed was the trail. This actually took us to a dirt road (despite what a local taxi driver had assured us), so we resigned ourselves to this. However, after about 30 min we saw the start of the trail across the river. There is a path down to what was once a little hot spring (but no longer exists due to most likely a mudslide) with a blue railing and a bridge across to the trailhead. We considered the trail for a short while but decided to stay on the road due to the fact that our packs were feeling especially heavy and we were noticeably sore from the previous day(s). We arrived at La Playa around 12:00pm and used a hospedaje's yard to purchase a 10/s plate of food and cook the rest of our rice/peppers in conjunction. We were considering whether to pitch camp there or migrate to Santa Theresa. A young man came up and offered a taxi ride for a reasonable price to Santa Theresa which we concluded would put us in a better place to complete the journey in the time we allotted ourselves. We finished our meal and took him up on the offer after some hesitation.
He took us all the way to the hot springs on the outskirts of the town where we were able to pay 10 soles collectively for our group to camp and 10 per person for entry to the pools. We set up camp and went down to soak. There were a lot of tour groups there during the afternoon but enough pools (with varying temperatures) to accommodate. The only downside of the evening were the sand flies which only became worse as late-evening drew closer but stopped once the sun had set and the bats began their work. We came equipped with lots of bug spray and sun lotion but had to spray ourselves step by step as we got out and move quickly to avoid becoming overwhelmed. (something my boyfriend lost the fight against on the way to retrieve something from the tent). The great part about camping at the site was the nighttime swimming we were able to enjoy without the crowds and with a lack of insects.
Day 5: Santa Theresa to Hydroelectrica (3-4hr hike) to Aguas Calientes (2-3hr hike)
We arose around 7, packed up, and went up to the hospedaje above the springs (easily notable and well advertised once you are in the springs) for juice which the owner had come down to offer us the night before. It looked like a cute place, if we hadn't been camping we might have considered staying up there. Afterwards, we went down and under the impression we'd on the road walking again. (the owner of the lodge told us there was a nearby trail off the road to Hydroelectrica). However, a man came up and offered us a taxi and some advice. Luckily we took him up on it because the road ended up being more confusing than we had originally thought/we would have never figured out where to go by simply walking. He took us down a neighborhood road to the beginning of an unmarked path. We hiked up a steep hill, followed his directions, and turned left at the top. We thought we would get back on an actual trail but unfortunately there was none only a long, hot, dusty road. It was only when we came across other hikers that we were sure this was the only way to Hydroelectrica. If I did it again I would have taken an early taxi back to Lucmabamba (where there is a trail to the ruins of Llactapata and on to Aguas Calientes). Most tours give the option of going to the hot springs OR the ruins but it is possible to do both!
After a much needed lunch/snack break at the station, we set off along the tracks to Aguas Calientes. You need to hike up a small path to the higher set of tracks (the lower ones that you first come up to are not usually open for walking and the locals have no issue showing you to the correct entrance). This last leg of our initial journey felt long as we were sore and weighed down by a heavy lunch, but the increasingly beautiful (lush jungle trail) is a welcome relief to the harsh walk just a few hours before. The knowledge of being so close to the destination exciting to be so close to our destination. We reached Aguas Calientes around 4:00 and lethargically went in search of cheap lodging. We found a good hospedaje right off the main plaza for 25 sole after asking another random, helpful local. Finally took much needed showers, went for food/drink, and went to sleep early. Take note that this is a very expensive area and while in other cities and towns 25/s was able to get our little group very agreeable amenities, here the cleanliness and comfort was subpar.
Day 6: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (1-2hr hike)
The original plan was to give ourselves a bit of time to sleep in the morning since we planned to spend the whole day at Machu Picchu (whereas most get up early and come down by early afternoon to make it back to Cusco) but the 6:30am aerobics class in the plaza one building over had different plans. We ended up getting a quick breakfast and started on the 15 min walk to the gate at the bottom of the Macchu Picchu pueblo.-Make sure to bring your real passport and printed out ticket to the entrance. Note that many websites claim this hike to be difficult but it is very easily done if you are not wearing large packs, etc. We started up the stair hike by 8:15 and got up to the main entrance shortly before 9, slightly less time than expected. It was another tough ascent but very enjoyable without heavy packs as you actually have a chance to enjoy the scenery on the way up. Once we got in to the ruins we had to go straight up to the gate to the Montana to make it within our time slot to hike. We did not realize how steep this hike would be (especially after our hour up the first stairs) but we managed to make it to the top in a little under 1 hour (the entrance guide suggested 1hr 30min). It was an amazing panorama at the top and very satisfying after such a long journey.
The Montana closes at 12 at which time you have to be on your way down, so if you want more time I would suggest getting the 7-8 time slot. We made our way down slowly taking in the views, and ate our packed lunch at the bottom overlooking the main ruins. We had not brought enough water or food so we went back down to the gate and bought water and a bit more food. (remember this is a tourist attraction and things willed be priced as such) After this we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the ruins, which were really amazing and they exceeded all of our expectations. We knew the ruins would be vast but even our full day left two of the main areas out of reach by closing time- so be sure to leave earlier or have a second day planned if you want to take time to fully explore the entire area. We started back down a few minutes before closing at 5.
We had thought there was a road out of Aguas Calientes but it turns out there is only the train or walking (along the train tracks). After we accepted the reality of the situation we planned to walk back to Hydroelectrica the next morning.
Day 7: Aguas Calientes to Santa Maria (2 hr walk/1.5 hr taxi) to Cusco (4 hr bus)
We made the walk back to Hydroelectrica along the jungle tracks once again, this time taking our time to admire the surreal environment and were ushered into a car by a young man offering 15 sole per person to Santa Maria. It was a sketchy dirt road along precipitous mountains but he was a safe driver. He convinced us to catch a bus in Santa Maria but we soon found out it did not leave for another 3 hours. The main buses leave early in the morning, at 3, and later in the evening. We opted for a collectivo for 25 sole per person that which supposedly left in 30 min yet this was rural Peru so we paid and sat around to for more people to fill the little collectivo. We did not end up leaving for an hour and a half later- the once comfortable seats had also lost their luster as were crammed in the back seat with one too many people leaving my sister and boyfriend to sit over the edge of the side seats balanced on the hard plastic seat belt buckles. This continued for 2 hours to Ollantaytambo, the road was very windy so bring medication if you have a delicate stomach and something to put under you if you have the misfortune of being on an outer seat. The incredible glacier/high jungle mountaintop/ cloud forest views made up for the discomfort and to our relief a passenger got out at Ollantaytambo so that we were able to all have adequate room. It was another 2 hours to Cusco and the bus let us off about a 20 min walk to Plaza de Armas.
All and all it was an amazing trip and we felt quite fulfilled to have completed it on our own. It is very doable in 5 days (as opposed to our 7 days) and if you don't mind the extra weight on your back (unless you own lightweight equipment) it is quite easy to accomplish on your own. This hike will remain high on my list of wonderful experiences and I would recommend it to anyone with a bit of backpacking experience.