Peru — Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

by Josh Adventure
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Intro

I had never travelled to a non-English speaking country before, aside from a brief border stint into Tijuana, Mexico with my parents as a kid. I had no idea what to expect and when my friend found us an insanely good deal on a full round-trip package to Machu Picchu in Peru, I couldn’t say no!

We opted in for the Salkantay Trek instead of the Inca Trail for a more serene and relaxing journey to the ancient city. It sees about a quarter of the number of tourists, and stretches almost double the distance. Plus, it doesn’t require booking nearly as far in advance. However, it’s the Inca trail that was the historic route to the mountain top.

Altitude

We received our packing list about a month in advance of departure. The tour included all of the core essentials for camping like the tent, sleeping bag, and pad. We just had to make sure to take care of personal essentials like clothing, cameras, battery backups, and personal hygiene items. While no vaccinations were required for entry, altitude sickness pills were crucial. My home city was 350 meters above sea level, and we would be climbing to excess of 4,200. You will feel the difference and shortness in breath as you hike — even for the most fit!

A popular local drink to help with altitude is Cocoa Tea. It’s actually the same plant used to create the street drug cocaine; however, the dosage you’ll get in one cup of tea is 1/5 the amount of the intoxicating cocoa alkaloid. Suffice it to say, I skipped on the exotic tea option.

Rainy Season Deals

The best deals for Peru adventures are usually during the rainy season (November to April). On top of that, we opted for an insanely long journey via New York in favour of better ticket prices. It took us 52 hours to get to Cusco from Western Canada. We also almost didn’t make it amidst the chaos and closures due to Hurricane Sandy in New York.

By the time we finally did arrive at our destination, my brain had melted. However, we did massively luck out with the weather on arrival! And being in the capital city of the former Incan empire was pretty cool.

Hiking Day One

We met up with our guides and the other tourists that we would be spending the next week with. They were mostly Americans looking for the same life-changing experience. After a short stop in the village of Mollepata for any last final supplies from civilization, the journey began.

The first day was by far the hardest. It was a make it or break it experience where technically it would still be possible to turn around for anyone unable to complete. The porters loaded all of the gear onto mules and we headed to our first lunch; passing a scattering of homes along the last stretch of dirt road.

Rude Tourist

A British woman that was with our group became irate as the incline started becoming more challenging. She thought she had booked herself into a luxury multi-day trip, not a backpacking adventure. Her frustrations grew increasingly erratic when she wasn’t able to effectively communicate with the guides. I offered her to translate using my iPad preloaded with Spanish and she retaliated furiously by saying “I’m English, they can learn my language.” We were in their country! We were their guests. Hell, they were even packing out our portable toilet deposits. I couldn’t believe what she was saying. It wasn’t long before she got her way and they sent her back on a mule. I’ve never been more embarrassed to be a tourist.

Campsite at Salkantay Mountain

The first campsite was at the base of the 6200m Salkantay mountain. We had gone from lush tropical-looking scenery to tiny shrubs and trickling streams reminiscent of the Canadian alpine. The mountains around us were still snow-capped! The porters did all of the hard work setting up camp: putting up and taking down the tents, disposing of waste, and cooking meals.

Meals on Trail & Pace

Meals were very light and often consisted of bread, beans, rice, tomato, avocado, and cucumber. And, the pace of the group was so diverse that I would often be over an hour ahead of the group. Some opted in to even riding the mules during the steeper sections of trail! But, it gave me plenty of time to really get to know my travel buddies and teach them the core essentials of Johnny Bagel — a famous backpackers card game also known as Shithead.

Bug Spray

Neglecting to use bug spray was one of the worst mistakes that I made! During our descent towards what felt like the tropics, we passed massive aloe plants, waterfalls, and more tiny little villages. We even got to try some unique edible bush fruit along the way. But not before the backs of my legs began to itch. I didn’t notice until it was too late, and I was freckled in hundreds of tiny red gnat bites. Another member of our team began to scratch and he wound up with a wicked infection.

Lost in Translation

One of the small villages we came across I was incredibly far ahead, and I decided to use my iPad to translate and ask if I could pay someone to use a shower to clean up. I typed in a quick transaction from English to Spanish and showed it to one of the locals. She looked confused. My friend eye-rolled, and pulled me aside from ignorantly said “Josh, they live in the mountains, they probably don’t know how to read and definitely don’t know what an iPad is.” I glared at her for the rude commentary. In the end, she wasn’t entirely wrong. As it would turn out, they didn’t know how to read or even speak Spanish at all. They still spoke the traditional Quechua language. Impressively, upwards of 25% of Peruvians still speak it!

Mud Slides

Many of the towns and villages along the trek have been hit with disastrous mud slides in recent years due to the melting glaciers. The most recent being in Santa Teresa where a massive chunk of the Salkantay glacier broke off and flooded the entire town.

Santa Teresa Hot Springs

We cheated a little bit. We hitched a van ride for part of our journey, as the group consensus was that we wanted a detour to Santa Teresa to enjoy the hot springs. Wine, Pringles, pop, chocolate bars, and all the other luxury items that could’ve ever wanted. We binged before doing a relatively flat walk along the edge of the river towards the hydro electric dam where we would say goodbye to our guides and hitch a short train commute to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes.

We tipped amply and also exchanged international currency and other souvenir trinkets. I’ve never seen anyone so amused by a Canadian toonie before!

Guinea Pig, Ceviche, and Pisco Sour

Peru is known for its exotic animal meats and that was one of our first meals in Aguas Calientes. When the host brought out the cooked guinea pig, a local delicacy, I nearly gagged. They’re not often kept as pets in Peru. I couldn’t do it, but that didn’t stop the rest of my table from playing with it and eventually chowing down.

It was time for me to have some Ceviche instead – which is a lemon-lime infused fish dish with onions, chilli peppers, salt and pepper. Washing it down with the other local favourite, a Pisco Sour. It’s a type of brandy with lime juice and egg whites. Surprisingly not too bad, but it packs a punch!

Machu Picchu

Discovery

Hiram Bingham III, a real-life adventurer (albeit not archeologist) that Indiana Jones was modelled after, rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911. After being guided to it by local farmers, he believed it was the Lost City of the Incas. As time would go on, archeologists would later acknowledge it as an estate for the then-emperor. And on top of that, it was only an estate for 80 years until the Spanish stormed in. However, it did house upwards of 750 people! Bingham may have gotten a lot wrong about it in his original reports, but his tales did bring in a lot of funding which towed in the real experts.

Getting There

It was a little lacklustre to have to take a bus to the top, but that was a story unto itself! The path snakes back and forth through tons of switchbacks. It also feels like a single lane road. The tour busses almost scrape against each other or seem like they’re going to tip over the side of the cliff as they pass side by side. Now that was one way to get my heart pumping — if the excitement of being in my Indiana Jones costume going to ancient ruins wasn’t enough already!

My top picks while roaming the ruins at the summit:

The Water Mirrors

Bingham thought of them as a mortars to grind potatoes and corn, and others thought they could even be used for ritual sacrifice and retaining blood. Or, perhaps for divination. Another possible explanation? An astronomical tool.

Terraces

The hundreds of artificial terraces were engineered for farming and drainage to prevent erosion. The mountain top is normally drenched with over 70 inches of rain annually, so irrigation wasn’t even needed!

Intihuatana Stone

The Intihuatana stone (in tah wait an-ah). Possibly used for offerings and sacrifices, to calculate the solstices, a representation of Huayna Picchu

Temple of the Condor

Temple of the Condor – a natural cave that looks like the bird. It was the most sacred one of the Incans who believed the bird was the messenger for the heavens.

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu – a towering mountain overlooking Machu Picchu – which was likely the residence for the high priest and virgins.

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Sun – where you can clearly see the distinct differences between the quality in craftsmanship used for the wall stones versus other less prestigious buildings.

The Royal Tomb

But, apparently no bodies were ever found there!

Temple of Three Windows

One theory is that the windows represent the underground, heaven, and the present.

The Principal Temple

While once adorned with countless artifacts, it’s been a struggle for the Peruvian government to recover thousands of the appropriated heritage pieces from museums and universities. Thankfully in 2011, the University of Yale agreed to return over 5,000 of these taken out during Bingham’s expedition.

Sun Gate

The view from the Sun Gate which provides the most recognizable photo of the area – and was the primary entry to the ancient city. If you can, get here on the early morning tour and watch the sun cast first light onto the buildings below.

Tourism & The Future

The site is normally swarming with over 2,500 tourists per day. While there have been rumours there were plans to close it to the public in the future, they are unfounded. However, the volume of daily traffic may eventually be throttled.

One thing that interested me is when our tour guide mentioned that portions of the site have been reserved and unexcavated for future generations. Perhaps then with better technology we will be able to reveal the truth behind so many of the questions we still have to this day. The Incans didn’t have any formal system of writing, so most of what we know is from anecdotes from the Spanish conquerers.

More to See

Would I go back? Absolutely. I would love to do the Inca route and spend more time in the country seeing other highlights. It truly was a trip primarily for the hiking trek. The glorious colours of Rainbow Mountain and the Nazca Lines still call to me. Peru hasn’t see the last of Josh Hill…

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