The South America Diaries: The Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu (Part 1)

Caroline Joyner on 13 July 2018
Day One. “Can I borrow that Llama’s coat please?”

Our minibus zig-zagged the dirt roads, clinging perilously several times to the edges of the cliff edge. Whilst trying to get around a hairpin bend the bus driver bumped into a tree and chipped the corner of the minibus. Good start. We had set off from Cusco, already 3400m above sea level before even the roosters were up. Cusco, once the centre of the Incan empire is a beautiful colonial town set high in the Andes at 3400m and from where we had set off before the roosters were even up. We were fast approaching the start point of the Salkantay trail, a 5 days trek which ends at Macchu Picchu. The Salkantay trek is a great alternative to the classic Inca trail for many reasons, infact I have a whole other post on this topic! After finally making the start point at Mollepata we set off for a few hours of pleasant hiking towards Camp 1. As we turned the final corner we were rewarded with our first views of the dramatic Salkantay peak glistening in the distance and on arrival we found the tents already up and tea and snacks on the table waiting for us. This was no ordinary camping experience. We had an army of cooks, porters, mule handlers and 2 guides with us and we even had a toilet tent. First rule of trekking in Peru – don’t assume you won’t have a 5-star camping experience! Lunch and dinner were 3 courses of gourmet food every day; fresh soup, various roulades, every kind of potato imaginable (Peru has about 200 types of potato), tender meat with all sorts of sauces, all beautifully presented in the middle of the Peruvian Andes. Camp 1 was positioned at the bottom of Salkantay’s glaciated mountain face and as the sun quickly went down the ice shone in the moonlight. At 3800m above sea level things got very cold quickly, we hastily put on the entire contents of our backpacks. It seemed so strange to be so close to the glacier rather than glimpsing the white peaks in the distance. During the icy cold night (it got down to minus 10) the silence was only broken by the grumbling mini avalanches above.

Day Two. The wonder of coca leaves

We woke to incredible views and a cup of coca tea brought to our tent. Today’s hike including climbing the Salkantay pass at 4700m, which with the altitude affecting our every breath was not going to be easy. According to our local guides chewing Coca leaves was going to somehow help us transport ourselves effortlessly to the top of the pass. The Coca plant is found in the Andean highlands of South America and is the base ingredient for cocaine, however, the raw plant is totally safe and something the local population swears by. The idea is to place a wad of dried leaves in-between the mouth and cheek and gently suck it; the juice helps you to breathe, is nutritious and gives you energy. The guide stuffed 20 leaves in his mouth and waltzed up the mountain playing an Indian flute, I managed about 10 as the taste was not pleasant, but it did help me to trudge very slowly up to the top, gasping and puffing the whole way. From the top, the moonlike mountainous landscape stretched for miles and the Salkantay glacier loomed so close it seemed like we could touch it. Another a few hours of downhill stumbling and the barren mountainous landscape had disappeared, being replaced with lush Andean cloud forest. As we walked along a ridge through a steep valley suddenly the temperature dropped. After lunch the guides assured it was only another 2 hours to camp, however in Peruvian time this was 3-4, and after 6 hours already that day the last 3 were tough. Camp 2 was a tiny local village consisting of 2 wooden huts. A peek through the door revealed all sorts of animals running around in the ´house´ – guinea pigs chickens, puppies, cats, hens, pigs… and no apparent room for the family to sleep. We amused ourselves playing with the children who clearly loved the steady but small stream of hiking groups coming through.

Day Three. Only 5 hours – what a doddle!

We continued through the valley along a narrow ridge which dropped steeply away down to a river. We had now descended into lush rainforest amongst orchids, tropical fruit, hummingbirds and butterflies, and the contrast to the first 2 days was surreal. After a very tame 5 hours we arrived at a larger village situated by a river. Here the residents had clearly given up their failing agriculture in favour of selling things to trekkers camping in the huge campsite there. The filthy kids played in the dirt on the street and asked us for sweets as we walked past, later they even came to our tent to ask for sweets. This was so different to back in Huaraz where they saw few tourists and seemed almost scared of us, here around the Cusco trekking zone the local way of life has very much been impacted by tourism, however far less so than at the classic Inca trail camps.

Read part 2 to find out what its like to arrive at Macchu Picchu...