Cusco is the tourism hub of Peru, and for good reason. The city is quite unique, the central downtown rests in a large valley, the remainder radiates out and up the surrounding mountains. At night the hills light up like stadium seating shining flashbulbs on you from all angles. History and fast food, luxury hotels and stray dogs coexist in harmony. Where coffee shops and fake alpaca sweater vendors now stand, the Incan king once sat upon his throne. Incan building foundations stand strong, supporting the Spanish colonial buildings which reside in the late civilizations capital. It is the jumping off point for any trip to Machu Picchu and the historic relevance of the city is unrivaled in South America. Cusco, in its modern form, is built for travelers, loaded with great food, coffee, hostels, markets, and entertainment options. Upon arrival it was clear that this was a place I could hang around for a while.
My first few days in Cusco were similar to many other stops on this Peruvian excursion: snacks at the market, free walking tour with obligatory pisco sour, laundry, etc... But once business as usual was attended to it was time to get ready for the main event, Machu Picchu. There are a staggering number of ways to get to the great ruins, and seemingly infinite tourist agents trying to sell you the trip any way you like. One can hike the Inca Trail, take a train, take a bus, take a bus train combo, trek through the jungle, raft, mountain bike, zip line, or take just about any other mode of transportation. No matter what you choose you end up at the town of Aguas Caliente just below the ruins and your wallet will feel a lot lighter.
I knew hiking to the ruins was the only option for me. One of the most intriguing aspects of the visit is the mystery and seclusion of the forgotten city, a context I feel is lost through a bus window. The proper Inca trail was out...doing this requires planning months in advance, a mandatory guide, and about my one month budget in Peru. However, the less talked about, less regulated Salkantay trek was supposed to be just as scenic with a fraction of the foot traffic. Best of all you can do it solo. The traditional Salkantay is a 5d/4n trek with the last day being your visit to Machu Picchu. And though this looked awesome, my schedule didn’t quite have the time and my legs were still recovering from Colca Canyon. I opted for an abbreviated 3d/2n version, loaded my pack and headed off.
There are many launch points for the Salkantay, but if you want the most bang for your buck (or time) Soraypampa is the place to go. A sort of highlights only version of the hike, you start day one on the main ascent up to the Salkantay Pass with great views of the namesake mountain and the surrounding glaciers. From the top it’s a two day decent into the jungle, and eventually, without even knowing it, you are standing below Machu Picchu.
After two hours of dirt road straight up hill from Cusco; busses of all size and quality congregate at Mollepata. This tiny town only registers on the map due to its use as a common starting place for this hike, and the local authority (whoever that may be) makes a nice living charging a S./ 20 per person entry fee to simply pass through. It’s easy to get to Mollepata from Cusco, but that’s where proper information tends to end, Getting to Soraypampa still required another hour of car travel, and how to make this happen wasn’t as obvious. I consider it lucky that the driver of the bus to Mollepata happened to be going on a hike with his family from Soraypampa. After some bartering and a decent bit of confusion a price was set to continue the ride up the hill and drop the remaining passengers at the trail head.
Overcoming transportation logistics was behind me and it was smooth sailing ahead...until I took account of the weather. Fog laid thick over everything, and a constant mist occasionally meriting the title of rain left the ground soaked. There was no sign of improvement but as always, the possibility that it could take a turn for the worse lingered. There was no real option to turn back but the idea bounced around for a moment. There aren’t many positive accolades to discuss about hiking in the rain for three days and seeing nothing. That isn’t what happened, but the outset sure looked grim as as I mounted my pack and began to climb.
The first and hardest day of hiking was challenging, but not grueling. And the quality of scenery, even with heavy cloud coverage, was pretty stellar value for the effort exerted. As we approached the pass, brief glimpses of Mt. Salkantay added some perspective of scale to our environment. Deep, humbling groans of the glacier cracking and flexing under stress from the sun ricocheted off the mountain walls. Hidden avalanches rumbled in the clouds. The mountains were teeming with activity hidden from sight, a fitting preamble to our destination.
On the other side things began to clear. A deep, green valley sat below framed by jagged mountains. As I descended the rocky tundra turned to lush grasslands, the vegetation grew taller, became wooded and before sunset I was immersed in dense jungle. Plantations of maracuya, coffee, and bananas rambled by and bright blue, red, and orange butterflies chowed down on the colorful vegetation.
The jungle thickened, large mango and avocado trees sprung up taunting the coveted fruit high over head, and a set of train tracks emerged from the overgrowth. A swarm of tourists hovered around the tracks as colectivos came and went. A large train stood waiting, anticipating its ascent to Aguas Caliente and the entrance to Machu Picchu. As the only passenger train in the country of Peru, the Peru Rail line is priced to match its scarcity and thus was not an option I was interested in entertaining. Instead, along with hoards of other budget conscious backpackers I hoofed it. After two full days of hiking the gentle gradient slowly wears you down, and towards the top, three hours later, all one can think about is how glorious footwear removal will be. A delicious Italian dinner was consumed in the tourist village (there is not a shred of Peruvian authenticity in this town) and I turned in to prepare for the 4:30am wake up call.
Nondescript silhouettes gathered en mas, backlit by headlamps, waiting for the flood gates to open. At 5:00am initial ticket checks commenced and a mad dash up the endless staircase began. The walk up to Machu Picchu includes over 3000 steps, and being that the bag check for the site is located at the main entrance perched high above, it ment full backpacks were coming along. We had been hiking for days, at altitude for close to a month, and in pretty good shape at the time; the whole affair was a quad blasting, sweat seeping maylay for forty-five minutes. However exhausted at the top, the effort was worth it, quickly I was through the gate, bag checked and staring out at one of the most famous views in the world.
My first opinion on going to Machu Picchu when coming to Peru was actually one of doubt. It was going to be exceptionally touristy, extremely expensive, and to be honest I did not think it could live up to the hype. Luckily, long before I even departed for Lima a good friend set me straight.
"Yes, it was crowded, but it's one of the most amazing places I've ever been."
It was a trusted opinion and one that would be echoed for weeks to come. Entering the site was the type of experience you could do again and again, getting chills every time. The architecture is stunning, the panoramic views awe inspiring, and the llamas plentiful. It's necessary that you are accompanied by a guide for the first two hours of your time in the site, but the history is fascinating. The site was built from "the top down” meaning the workers broke down the highest rock formations of the location to create stones for building out the citadel, preventing the need to carry stones up from the river basin below. They also constructed the entire stepped terrace structure before beginning any additional construction. This not only provided land that could be cultivated for the residents, it also made the site resistant to erosion and earthquakes. Advanced drainage systems, accurately carved sundials, lunar & solar calendars, and precisely cut stone buildings humble one to the intelligence and ingenuity of a civilization far removed. It's an awesome place, there is no way around it. Worth the price, worth the time, worth the travel, worth the hype.
Machu Picchu was over, and with that, Peru felt wrapped up to an extent. I spent almost two months in this amazing country and feel as though I only scratched the surface. My bucket list is longer than when I arrived, and a return journey is no doubt a necessity.
Adios Peru, Hola Boliva. Ciao!
The point of this blog isn’t to be a “how to” guide, there are plenty of people doing that on the internet (with variable levels of quality...). But occasionally there is something that for whatever reason simply doesn’t exist on the internet in detail. For that reason I have included a run down on how to do the abbreviated Salkantay trek on your own below; maybe one day someone can find it useful. There isn't any color included in this, so feel free to skip along if you don't plan to hit the trail anytime soon.
Some Notes: We did this hike in low season (mid-December) and it was no problem at all to simply show up places. In peak season it may be very important to check ahead if you are hoping to get beds along the way. We also had no problem buying tickets for Machu Picchu the day before in Aguas Calientes, we did this since we did not know if we would hike for two or three days. On the Machu Picchu website you can check how many tickets are available for your desired dates, if the number is dropping quickly you may want to purchase ahead of time.
How to Hike a 3d/2n Salkantay Trek Without a Guide and for Way Cheaper
- Take the collectivo to Mollepata from the stop on Apuri road S./15 (this is marked on Maps.Me)
- In Mollepata there is a S/. 20 'tourism' charge to enter Mollepata, not sure who but someone is making a killing off this.
- Mollepata is still an hour drive up hill from Soraypampa so the best bet is to barter with the driver to see if he will continue up the hill after dropping the rest of the bus. If unwilling, ask if he has a taxi driver friend who he can call to organize the transfer. It is better to organize this ahead of time but if not it should be possible to find a driver at Mollepata willing to take the trip
- For three people the total cost was S./ 115 (45 for the trip to Mollepata and an additional 90 for the remainder)
- You can certainly get this cheaper with better spanish and if you are not leaving on a Sunday.
- From the parking lot of the Soraypampa trail head there are two possible routes to take
- To the left (looking at the trail) takes you to the glacial lake and NOT the Salkantay go right on the far side of the ridge to get onto the Salkantay trail.
- From the trailhead it's a straight shot up and over the pass, through the valley, and eventually to the town of Challey (19km). Here there are homes where you can pay S/. 10 to set up a tent or approx. S/. 20pp to get a bed in a hostel type situation. We worked out a deal to purchase some snacks from the small shop and they waived the tent fee. Water, beer, gatorade, and candy is available for purchase at pretty normal prices. They have equipment so it isn't completely necessary to bring your own.
- From Challey it's a long road walk 15km (all downhill) to the town of Playa. Here there is a refugio where you can get lunch if you did not bring your own food. They also have pretty good coffee from their plantation. You can walk the remainder of the way to the Hydro Electrico Train Station (an additional 15km and probably a second night) or take a bus S./ 15pp.
- At Hydro Electrico it is a straight shot up the train tracks 10km to Aguas Calientes where you can spend the night in a hostel before your visit to Machu Picchu
- We bought our Machu Picchu tickets at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes (closes at 8:00pm) the night before our visit. This is cash only and at the time of writing S/. 152pp.
- At the top the stairs to Machu Picchu there is a back check for S./ 3pp. This is super convenient but unfortunately it means you need to climb up and down with your full pack if you don't want to return to your hostel in Aguas.
- After your visit to Machu Picchu hike back out the way you came to Hydro Electrico. From here a collectivo back to Cusco will run you about S/. 25pp. It's a rough ride....be prepared.
The total cost came to roughly S/. 300pp or about $100 USD all in. We spoke to many people taking tours of a similar route and they were spending anywhere from $180 - $270. Do it yourself! It's easy, rewarding, and a great hike.