5 days on the Inca Trail; The Salkantay trek to Matchu Picchu
Despite popular belief, there is more than one Inca Trail. In fact there are hundreds. The Incas spread far and wide around South America and the central point for many of them was Matchu Picchu and the mountain city that developed there. No one really knows why Matchu Picchu exists, how it was actually built or why it is where it is but most Inca roads lead to it. Many believe it was a pilgrimage for Incas to travel to it in order to worship, pay homage to the gods and/or Inca kings.
My pilgrimage to it begins in the Inca capital of Cusco. A busy valley city that expands into the hills. Here you will find all you need for your trek including guides, equipment and supplies if needed (check out our Salkantay Trail kit list here). Our guides were from Salkantay Trekking and after a brief meeting with them the night before we set off at 3 am in a minibus with a day bag and our 7kg duffel bag that would be carried by the horses and mules.
A few hours later and a quick stop to pay our 10sol entrance fee we arrived for breakfast at the Salkantay Sky Lodge. Definitely the place to stay the night before if you want to splash out; Their Glass dome lodges allow you to lie in wonder of the mountains and stars.
A quick visit to the loo, top up on water and snacks and a chance to buy some wooden walking poles for 5 sol each and we were off.
Taking it easy as you gain altitude will help you acclimatise quicker, Also plenty of water and breaks. Altitude effects everyone differently. You can be the fittest person on the trip and be the worst effected. Your guides will be keen to keep moving and will want to stick you on a horse at the slightest sign of weakness but take your time and you will be able to do it. Once you get to the top it’s all downhill and loosing even a few meters at altitude will make you feel a lot better.
A climb up the 7 snakes is not as bad as it sounds, again take your time and watch out for endless trains of horses and mules who seem to lap you as the day goes on. Always step over to the mountain side of the path not the drop side, when they get near you.
After this you head upward at not too steep a gradient (although it feels worse) and with good visibility Salkantay looms into view.
Onward and upward towards the saddle at 4630m and adrenaline filled excitement as you reach the highest point of the trek.
After a short rest the trek must continue and you are rewarded with spectacular views down the valley as you trudge for what seems like forever into camp 1. Hot drinks, food and a windy tent await but toilets are available in some form or another (you may have to pay dependant upon your trekking company).
The day begins bright and early. A friendly wake up call by a porter with a cup of coca tea and a breakfast to set you up for the day. This is the longest of all the days at around 26km but it is predominantly downhill. You follow the valley side for 10km until you reach the first village for a bit of lunch. For us this was just a sandwich and snacks but others had small 2 course feasts.
The terrain continues to develop from mountain to jungle and the valley is inspiringly endless although you may not feel that way towards the end of the afternoon and you still can’t see camp.
After lunch we were guided down the bus track on foot, the inca trail had become damaged in floods of early 2016 and although it was reopened and we saw plenty of others using it, with our group the bus route was a safer option as huge landslides were cut across by extremely narrow paths and we had many a traveller with sore and battered feet.
Camp 2 was at a small and wonderful site called Loretta. It is built into a number of Inca terraces and has toilets, a cold shower (not too bad if you arrive in the heat of the day) a fire pit and an open cabin for eating. It is just before the main town and is defiantly worth making sure your guides use this site as others in the town are noisy and very messy.
Another cheery wake up with coca tea and a walk through town to pick up one of the main and preserved Inca trails. Horses are not allowed on this part of the trail so it is worth checking if or how your gear is getting to the next camp. We took only our day bag and a sleeping bag. Everything else would meet us at camp 4 the next day below Matchu Picchu.
Once through the town the Inca trail heads steeply uphill through jungle. Expect high humidity but also the chance to try/buy fresh Peruvian coffee. At around £5 for 500g of freshly roasted beans you can’t go wrong and I don’t even like coffee, must be the altitude?
A little further and you will find avocado of the giant variety, a perfect treat with a little salt and a cup of coffee to prepare you for the next struggle.
The trail contours upwards through the jungle for sometime but the full day is only around 16km and you should make camp by early afternoon.
A few opportunities along the way to break, use a toilet (for around 1 sol) buy some snacks and energise are welcome as you slog upwards. This is also the only day that we used water purification tablets. Every other day the mules had carried spare water for us at lunch but today, although we could have brought water at one of the 2 or 3 shelters we opted to collect water from the last stream before camp at around 11am.
The reward for all of the effort and hard work is breathtaking. As you descend down the other side of the jungle mountain you have just climbed and you reach your first clearing, the mighty Matchu Picchu and Wainu Pitchu with a snippet of Inca terraces come into view. Even better is the realisation that you are 5 min from camp and that this will be your view for the rest of the day and the next morning.
A campsite with an unrivalled view. Certainly one of the most incredible places that I have ever camped and it will be hard to beat! High up in the mountains, overlooking the valleys below, looking across to one of the 7 wonders of the world and view of the milky way once night draws in.
The food at this camp is taken care of by the onsite restaurant and it did not disappoint. Avocado salad, as fresh as it could possibly be and grilled trout from a trout farm we would pass in the valley the following day. Worthy of a photograph each. Perfect end to a hard but worthwhile day, apart from the giant bat sized moths who joined us! A hot shower and fairly good toilet are available here too.
What felt like a sprint down hill to the floor of the valley. Lots of sore knees; walking poles are extremely useful here! It should take around 2 hrs but we managed it in 1.5 as everyone was keen to get down. Next you cross the rope bridge, don’t bounce on it, our guide showed us a photo of it from the previous month when it half collapsed. You’ll have to pay to cross but your trekking company should have taken care of this.
Finally you reach the railway and after lunch you will follow it for 10km until you reach the launch point for the finale of the trip, Matchu Picchu itself. Along the way you will meets hundreds of others either heading back from or going with you towards Aguascalientes, many of them will smell an awful lot better than you having caught a bus or train most of the way.
You may also pick up a stray dog or two for a bit or in our case all the way up to Matchu Picchu.
Camp 4 is about 20min walk from Aguascalientes and only 1 min from the Matchu Picchu entrance. Perfect for an early start. Aguascalientes has plenty of shopping, money changers, ATMs, restaurants and wifi should you need them but the campsite has a small cafe with a welcoming sofa, good food, cold showers and toilets and is right below the ruins of Macchu Picchu.
Matchu Pitchu day! An early start to avoid getting stuck in a queue on the trek up. You could catch the bus up but where is the accomplishment in that, after 4 days of walking you need to finish it off right. Queuing begins in the dark at 4am with the gate opening at 5. You will need your passport and ticket. If you haven’t brought one already then it’s too late and you will struggle to get in. Also check if you have the option of the bus down to the town on your ticket. This may get you away from the mid day crowds quickly. If not you can buy a ticket the night before in the town.
The walk up takes around 1-1.5hrs. It’s a slog but worth it as you look smugly on those who have paid for a bus ride up. At the top it is a busy rush to use the toilet (the only one available on the mountain – 1 sol), stamp your passport and get through the gate into the ruins. You will find a guide here if you don’t have one already. It’s worth it as there are no information signs etc available and their knowledge is superb.
As you head in, quickly take the circuit that goes high to get the best shots of the ruins with the least amount of people in it. Up high on the terraces is the shot that everyone is after so be quick.
Now you can relax a little and enjoy the ruins. Take your time and head around the various circuits. Your guide will fill you in as you go but be very aware that by 9:30am the place will be rammed.
Guards keep the traffic moving but they also stop you from sitting, eating and generally doing anything fun. Definitely don’t try and climb around anything or go the wrong way in a one way system, they are not fond of that! If you head out of the ruins or end up out because you got stuck in a one way system, so long as you still have your ticket and passport you can get back in.
It is a really busy and hot place so take plenty of water and try to get up there as early as possible. If you can, make sure you catch the sun rise over the mountains, magical!
We decided to leave at 11am although we could have stayed until 12. It was just too busy for us by then and we had spent a good amount of time there. You can pay extra and take a walk up to the sun gate higher up or even head up Matchu Picchu mountain itself. The crowds will be much smaller in these places. If you are getting a bus down be sure to get there early or face a looooooooooooooong wait in the mid day sun.
From the town you can walk out back along the railway to a bus|taxi, get a bus straight from town or take the train along the valley in either direction, which is very comfortable and offers yet more stunning views of the valley, river and Inca terraces.
In all it was an amazing experience and one I highly recommend. It’s possible to do this trek or other Inca trails without a guide if you know what your doing and have the right gear. It will take a bit of research but it would be worth it. You can also make it a lot more comfortable and opt for staying in cabins, some that include hot tubs etc, but where’s the adventure in that! I can say that in hind site, at the time I think I would have dived in fully clothed had the opportunity arrived!
If you are thinking about this, or another long distance hike, check out our Salkantay Trek Must have kit list!