“Oooh, Machu Picchu!”
Even my mom caught the hype when I told her we were headed there last week. As excited as she’s been about our travels, I think that was the first “Oooh!” of our trip she ever uttered.
We kept our expectations low, however. Maybe it’s our reflex reaction to the prevailing travel wisdom: “Machu Picchu is the granddaddy of South American sights.”
But add to Machu Picchu a hike to the foot of a hulking 20,575 foot (6,271 meter) glacier, a walk through Andean valleys, and a skim of the Peruvian jungle. Throw in a diverse and upbeat group of travel companions to share the slog across switchbacks and up giant staircases, and the march to Machu Picchu becomes an event, a series of accomplishments and a trip well worth taking.
That was our Salkantay Trek.
The Ascent to Salkantay Glacier
After surviving a hail storm and a slippery “short-cut” obstacle course of mountain streams, cows, cowpies, and rocks, we dined with our group at the 3,900 meter (12,800 foot) campsite of Soraypampa. Cold, wet and disoriented from altitude, more than a few of us entertained sneaking off to the five star lodge across the valley. But in the cache of the Humantay and Salkantay glaciers and the star clouds of the Milky Way, we worked ourselves to sleep.
“Buenos dias! Mate de coca!” Our guide Henrique seemed a bit too cheerful for a frosty 4:30 AM wake-up. Through our tent flap, two tin cups of piping coca leaf tea appeared. We huddled around the steam and mustered the courage to leave our warm sleeping bags.
Fortunately, a beautiful, clear day awaited us.
Shortly after 6 AM, we began our walk up. As we carved our way through gravel and rock, the sun began to rise over the peaks above us. The previous day’s fresh snowfall glistened with clean perfection. Photo-worthy views emerged at every turn.
Feeling sluggish and facing the most daunting set of switchbacks of the ascent, we reached for our stash of coca leaves. We tucked a wad of leaves in our mouths and chewed. Hoping for the clarity and energy boost that all locals promised, we pushed on with our mantra: “One foot in front of the other.”
After more than three hours of full ascent, we reached the pass at 4,650 meters (15,525 feet). The cairns laid there recalled similar stone piles neatly arranged for prayer and direction in places Nepal and Sikkim.
The Way Down
Our descent witnessed a rapid transformation from the barren and crisp to the lush and balmy. When we stopped for the night, Sebastian, our horseman, arranged our tents on a verdant hillside clearing with an expansive view of the valley below. Exhaustion and relief reigned at the end of a long day. Some celebrated with a cold shower. We opted for a cold beer instead.
Our trekking group – nine people, four nationalities, and a 41-year age span from eldest to youngest – conversed its way from the day’s reflections to life in Peru and the effect of the “War on Drugs” in South America.
Day 3 of our trek was marked by wild orchids, tropical flowers, lush bamboo and waterfalls. In the few small villages we passed along the way, homes often appeared the same shade of mud brown as the recently turned fields that surrounded them.
Across the canyon, a road was being carved out of the mountainside, reminding us again of the never-ending struggle between man and nature. Landslides — likely the result clear-cut logging — marred the landscape. But it was clear that Mother Nature would win this battle by wiping out sections of the road with the next round of heavy rains.
The weather continuously warmed until our arrival in Santa Teresa, where we relaxed our aching muscles in the natural hot springs. We submerged ourselves in an effort to take refuge from swarms of bugs with ferocious appetites for human blood.
We had completed 57 of the 75 kilometers of the trek. We were in the home stretch.
On Day 4, just a few more kilometers, a hydroelectric plant, and railroad tracks stood between us and our fourth and final night in Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu – Our Final Destination
Gluttons for punishment, we began the uphill grind from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu on foot at 4:30 AM.
Motivation for such a departure: to arrive early enough to obtain one of the 400 available daily permits to climb Wayna Picchu (the steep mountain seen in the background of every Machu Picchu photo). Between us and our goal lay a maddening series of switchbacks and steep rock stairways, and a 400 meter (1,300 foot) climb that would leave us drained and drenched in sweat.
When we arrived, Machu Picchu and the surrounding peaks remained shrouded in morning fog. The light was soft; the atmosphere was — for lack of a more appropriate cliché — mystical. Terraced fields cascaded from the ancient city, showcasing yet another of man’s battles with nature. When we asked the guide why we don’t see terraced fields in Andean villages today, he responded: “We’re too lazy now to build them.”
Makes you wonder what happened to the culture in the intervening years.
Machu Picchu strikes us as one of those places best appreciated as a whole, in the context of its surrounding environment. In this way, it's possible to begin to grasp what the Incas had accomplished: the installation of a complex, functioning city into an uncooperative mountainside.
Whether you've been to Machu Picchu or not, chances are that the most common images you've seen of it carry a familiar quality about them. Sometimes it takes looking at something iconic from a different perspective, however, to broaden your understanding and appreciation of what it might have taken to create all that's behind the icon. And so it is with Machu Picchu in Peru.
Machu Picchu is impressive from just about every view, but the perspective in this photograph provides a visual on what “perched high on a mountain ridge” really means.
It's not just the steep terraced steps that you see, but it's the sheer drop after about the fourth step that really registers. Imagine what it must have taken to build such a massive structure on top of this mountain, to carve terraces out of the mountain face, and to trace it in great stone — all over 500 years ago in an age without the aid of machines to move rock and soil.
Incredible, really. And an Incan definition of ingenuity and perseverance.
A walk up to the top of Wayna Picchu (an endeavor not for the faint of heart) affords one of these all-encompassing panoramic views. From there, Machu Picchu appears a hillside birthmark amidst a vast, imposing mountain range.
And as the day drew to a close and the crowds thinned, we took a cue from these folks:
Why the Salkantay Trek and not the Traditional Inca Trail?
Slots on the traditional Inca Trail are restricted to 500 people per day and demand is so high that booking 3-5 months in advance is usually required. We almost never book anything in advance since our plans change as projects and opportunities arise. And so with the Salkantay Trek we were able to book just days before when we arrived in Cusco.
The traditional Inca trail is littered with Inca ruins. On the surface, this sounds ideal. However, we’ve heard stories of trekkers who begin to suffer ruin saturation and fatigue, so much so that by the time they arrive at Machu Piccchu, they feel some letdown. Not so with Salkantay where the trek is defined by imposing glaciers, lush valleys and high jungle; Machu Picchu is the only set of ruins you will see. If ruins are your focus, the traditional Inca Trail is obviously the route for you.
We also trek to get away. The Salkantay Trek offers a low-traffic alternative to an undoubtedly more crowded traditional Inca Trail. Having said that, reports suggest that people are not falling over one another on the traditional Inca Trail. One final consideration: perhaps due to demand and reputation, treks on the Traditional Inca Trail also tend to be better organized.
Taking all this into account, were both options available to us at the time of booking, we would still have opted for the Salkantay Trek.