Visiting Machu Picchu has always been high on my bucket list. Something about the exclusivity of the whole thing has always peaked my interest; the fact that it was recently discovered and may not be accessible for much longer is enough to draw the attention of any adventure seeker. As I embarked on the pilgrimage to the ruins I was not prepared for the challenge or the awe that the experience would inspire.
There are a few different ways to visit Machu Picchu, the most basic of which is to take a train to the town, and then a bus to the ruins. This is what I would call Machu Picchu light. It doesn’t involve the 4-5 days trekking, so while you may not be exhausted while visiting the ruins, I think that part of the experience would be lost. Secondly, and if you are fit enough, you can choose to hike. At the ruins, there was a clear distinction between the fresh-faced “cheaters” and the exhausted, limping hikers. Choosing to hike offers a plethora of options as well, as recently a few alternative treks to the ruins have emerged. The most popular trek is, of course, the Inca Trail. Walking on authentic Incan pathways while passing ruins is certainly spiritual, however, the trail is limited to 500 hikers per day. This means a few things: 1. You have to book your trek well in advance to ensure a hiking pass and 2. You will be hiking with LOTS of other people. In addition, these treks run anywhere between $500 to +$1,000. Evaluating that information, I decided to opt for a third option: the Salkantay trek.
The Salktantay trek is named after Salkantay Mountain, which is Kichwa for “Savage Mountain”. So, instead of following old traditional Incan steps, we climbed this mountain, and utilized Incan trader paths to get to our destination. There are no permit regulations on the trek, but the trek is far less popular, meaning far fewer hikers and more serenity. Additionally, instead of forking over tons of money just to hike, we paid a mere $220. Almost everything was included in that cost, from food, the tent rental and the guide to our Machu Picchu entrance and transportation back to Cusco—what a steal!
We prepared for the trek… not at all. Truly, we were hoping that our acclimatization from Quito and the Incan God’s good will would propel us up the mountain. Gyms in Quito are really expensive for my salary, and running in the altitude and the bus fumes of the city is hell on earth, so I just hoped for the best. In retrospect, this was a really stupid way to approach a 4-day trek up a mountain and I would recommend hitting the gym hard before coming.
After about three hours of sleep due to a noisy shared dorm, broken beds, and a 4:00 am wake up call, we were off to Mollepata and the beginning of the trek. Day 1 was absolutely all up hill, but it was fine because our legs were well rested from months of sitting and watching Netflix, and the excitement of the adventure took over. I sweat through my t-shirt within the first half and hour and it never really dried, but I made it.
The first part of the hike took us up through a valley along a few amazing lookout spots. The green mountains rolled on forever. After stumbling into the lunch spot we had a relatively flat stretch until the campsite. Actually, we were exhausted and could see the campsite for about 4 miles, and it just kept getting farther away and seemed to be more of a mirage than any type of reality. This illusion was aided by the fact that we walked past an incredible hostel with satellite TV and Jacuzzis, which just didn’t seem fair. But the entire 4 miles or so were some of the most remarkable because dead ahead loomed Salkantay Mountain and her glaciers.
We walked around 10 miles that first day, climbing 3937 ft. to our campsite at Soraypampa, which is at 12,750 ft. It was a cold night, and our sleeping bags called. By 8:00 I had passed out, praying that my legs would take me up the mountain the next day.
We woke up bright and early at 5:00 to our cooks shaking our tents and offering us tea, which is the best way to wake up. This was the hard day, and I knew it. We started for the mountain, and I already knew that I was in trouble. We climbed and we climbed and we scrambled over rocks and we climbed. We gained more altitude the day before, but on tired legs it was a different story. While it was cold the previous day as we increased our altitude, climbing further brought even more frigid weather and I was thankful for the alpaca hat that I had bought in Cusco. Realizing how out of shape I was, I hit a wall (and I hit it hard) about 100 feet from the top of the pass, and it took a lot of coaxing from both Kirsten and Luke to drag myself up the rest of the way.
By 10:00 am I had climbed a mountain! We were at 15,190 feet but unfortunately, I couldn’t see a single gosh darn thing. We were enveloped completely in a cloud and the freezing sprinkles of rain ensured that there would be no great vistas today. Instead I huddled at the top, trying to keep my fingers from freezing and falling off, and cursing Mother Nature for my bad fortune. Yes, I knew that it was rainy season. But, we all like to believe that it would never happen to us… that our perfectly planned vacations would never be ruined by something as silly as rain.
We began our rapid decent of the mountain slipping down loose rocks. Our bad luck from the top of the mountain followed us as it began to rain. And then it began to pour—it poured freezing water for about 2-3 hours… and we still had another 4 hours to hike. Honestly, this was horrible. I was completely soaked, utterly frozen, and my warm sleeping bag was 8 miles away. I could handle the physical exertion, but this tested my limits.
Miraculously, after lunch and as we descended a little bit more, we left the clouds behind as we entered the cloud forest. This part of the trek was amazingly beautiful. I felt like we were in Hawaii or on Lost. The lush green mountains rose on either side of us, and tons of waterfalls poured down the sides. At one point I looked at the mountain next to me and counted around 15 waterfalls. To make this more spectacular, there were slight clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains, which made it completely surreal. It was a muddy walk from the rain, but it may have been my favorite part.
Our camp was at Colcampampa, and we had descended to 9,514 ft. After walking about 11 miles, we peeled off our muddy clothes and called it an early night.
This was probably our least eventful day on the trek, as we just walked along a road. This wasn’t just any road though, it traversed through the stunning cloud forest, and we had perfect weather and lovely views all day. Since we were back at a normal altitude the weather had heated back up and we were able to wear shorts. We walked around 11 miles to the town of La Playa where we had lunch.
The normal Salkantay trek actually takes 4 days and 5 nights, but we opted for a shorter version since we didn’t have much time in Peru. What this meant was that we combined two days into one. So, after lunch we took a short bus ride to the town of Hidroelectrica, where we had the option to take a $25 train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is the kick off point for Machu Picchu, or we could walk another approximately 6 miles. Having come so far already and being on such a strict budget, we walked. The walk was really nice and it took us by a river, through the woods, and gave us our first sight at the actual Machu Picchu ruins high in the mountains!
By end of these long 17 miles I was done. Utterly exhausted, I was unable to fully extend my legs because my calves were so tight. Walking hurt. I mean it really hurt. All I wanted was a nice long bath and sleep. Luckily, there isn’t really camping in Aguas Calientes so we stayed in a hostel with real beds! But, sleep was not part of our agenda, because the next day was Machu Picchu!
Evading sleep for the fourth day, we woke up promptly at 4:00 to begin our ascent to Machu Picchu. Again, there are a few ways to get to the ruins. You can take a $25 bus from Aguas Calientes, or you can walk up to it. Let me just say this—NOBODY told me how stinking hard this “short walk” would be. It was 4:30am, it was raining, and I was walking up 121 flights of stairs. There was no end; it was stair after stair after stair, with the rain mixing with my sweat. Somehow, everyone else on the planet was more fit than me, and passed me with sorry looks in their eyes. Panting, sweating, and dying, I made it up in 50 minutes, and I would qualify that as the hardest 50 minutes of the entire trek.
But, I was at Machu Picchu! I had completed a difficult hike, and had earned my seat at the table. I stamped my passport and was in. Of course, I was greeted with more steep Incan stairs, which my poor legs struggled to climb, but I was there! As day broke, the clouds that sat over the mountains, which some may find undesirable, made the experience absolutely unreal. It felt like I was on a strange, foreign planet. So high in the mountains, so isolated, and unable to see anything but clouds, green mountains, and ancient ruins, it was remarkable. It was never super clear, but when the clouds rolled in all you had to do was wait for them to lift again, rewarding tiny miracle views of the landscape. Honestly, the feeling of being in the mountains and the vistas from the ruins were the best part. I was on top of the world.
Machu Picchu, meaning Old Mountain, was built over 70 years in the 15th century and abandoned at Spanish conquest of the region. Defying the Spanish tradition of invade, take over, and destroy that was typical of the region, Machu Picchu just simply vanished, overgrown with brush and left to the secret of fleeing locals. In 1911 an American professor who was looking for a lost Incan city stumbled upon one of the best kept secrets to date—an Atlantis of sorts buried under the jungle, perched high in the mountains, containing the keys to a lost civilization.
Since it’s discovery, the intrigue of the lost city has led millions to Machu Picchu. Remarkably, only 15% of the ruins have been reconstructed, so what you see is the real deal. Climbing the stairs was partaking in the same daily ritual carried out for years by the Incas. It was time travel, and it was beautiful.
So, was it hard? Certainly. But, was it worth it? More than absolutely. The challenge made the reward that much sweeter. Aching exhausted, and coming down from our adventure-high, we made our way back down the mountain, back to civilization and reality with nothing but a few photos and sore muscles to show for arguably the most remarkable experience I’ve had to date.