We did the Salkantay Trek (5 days/4 nights) to Machu Picchu without a guide/agency and it was the hardest hike I've ever done. The Salkantay is a cheaper alternative to the Inca Trail, since the Inca Trail requires a permit and the Salkantay is free.
Normally, when you go with a tour they'll have porters and mules to carry all the heavy stuff for you, and cooks to prepare every meal. But the tours range from $250 - $550 AUD (per person), so Mr. Human and I decided we would do this old thang budget style. But man, was it tough. We were carrying more than 30kg of gear between us and it rained every single day.
Below, I tell the full story so that you may understand how this hike sucked but also how it became one of our most vivid and fond memories. No regratz.
For those who are reading this and embarking on doing the trek themselves, don't let my meldorama stop you haha. Read on to find out more.
Day 1: Cusco - Mollepata - Soraypampa
The hike started with a 4AM wake up as we needed to catch a minibus from Cusco to Mollepata. We had the bright idea of walking the 30 minutes to the bus stop, so that we could "practice for the hike". Instant regret haha.
Once in Mollepata, we had two choices. Walk the 7-8 hours uphill from Mollepata to Soraypampa (campsite for first day) OR try get a ride with a tour group/taxi most of the way up and then just walk a few hours.
Unfortunately, tour vans had already left and they didn't have space for us, so we were forlornly dreading the long-ass walk ahead of us. We had breakfast in a cafe and I was woefully taking one last pre-hike poo when somebody started trying to open the bathroom door. I was confident in my faithful lock and continued my woeful poo. Suddenly, the door banged open. "What the hell!" I yelled at a stunned man's face. He quickly shut the door and I crankily finished my poo.
Mr. Human and I left soon after but when we walked outside, a guy standing next to a tour van came up and started apologising to me. It was the Poo-Interrupting Man. I told him it was alright (but it really wasn't) and he asked us if we were doing the Salkantay Trek. I think he was feeling bad because he offered us a lift with his tour group. I obviously let all bygones be bygones and accepted haha.
Their tour group turned out to be pretty cool, they actually all worked for an adventure tourism company called Lima Tours and were quality-checking the same tour they offered their customers. The ride up with them was really fun - they'd all been in the business for years and shared heaps of knowledge with us.
After we got dropped off, Mr. Human and I started our hike, very pleased to have skipped 5 hours of uphill walking. What a blessing the poo-interruption turned out to be!
The first day hike was only 3 hours and was quite relaxing, getting us settled into the mountainous landscape.
However, it started to rain big fat drops JUST as we arrived into Soraypampa and we had to quickly set up camp at the first campsite we saw. Coincidentally, it was the same campsite as the tour we'd hitched a ride with, and they welcomed us as friends.
We hid out in our tent for a while, letting the storm of the outside world lull us into a siesta.
When we woke up, all was silent and we peeked outside.
We had some lunch outside, under a little shelter where the porters of our tour group friends were chilling whilst the tour was visiting a nearby lagoon. (NB: Porters usually do all the grunt work for tour groups such as carrying gear, taking the mules, washing dishes, prepping everything, setting up tents, etc. And they usually don't get tents, it's very common for them to just sleep on the ground or find a nearby cave).
It felt wrong to be eating up all our lunch in front of them so we offered them some of our olive bread and salami. One of the things I like about South Americans is that they always accept food, even if it's from complete strangers. It felt like we shared some sense of camaraderie with them, I guess because Mr. Human and I didn't have the luxuries the tour groups had and were carrying everything ourselves.
They offered us some coffee:
You can see in that single two-worded question why I love the Spanish language so much. For one, it's nice they have a word for "friend" that is so much more commonly and endearingly used than in English. And also because Latinos add '-ito-' to the end of basically everything. It makes the word diminutive - so in this case he means "Friend, a little coffee?"
We were all settling down to enjoy our warm coffees and watch the rain begin again when one of the porters suddenly spotted the tour group coming back early from the lagoon. "Esta los jefes!" he called ("It's the bosses!"). All the porters started scrambling to pack away the coffee evidence. One of them looked at me with fear in his eyes, and with his last breath he whispered "Run, amiga."
Only joking but we did actually have to run and hide in our tent with our coffee haha.
I found it soo hilarious though because I would probably do the same thing. Sneak a little coffee from the bosses here and there haha.
Later we made our pasta outside under the shelter again, accompanied by our new porter friends and a crazy lightning storm. 3700m up, we all sat huddled together against the rain whipping us from all sides. The thunder rumbled through the sky, as if there was a world above us that was cracking open. It was a very cold but special moment as we all watched lightning after lightning light up the world.
Day 2: Soraypampa - Salkantay Pass - Wayramachai
From all our research, we knew that today was meant to be the hardest hike because you need to ascend 800m (3-5 hours) to the Salkantay Pass (altitude: 4600m) and then descend 1,800m (another 4-5hours) to the village of Chaullway. We're talking 8-10 hours of just hiking. Let me preface this by saying, at high altitude, even a flight of stairs makes me start puffing haha.
It's safe to say that the ascent to Salkantay Pass was pretty bad for me haha. Many many breaks were taken. In fact, I was basically overtaken by every single person on the planet. During one of my breaks, our porter friends passed us and I must've looked pretty bad because one of them even offered to carry my backpack up to the top. I refused but you can bet that I later added it to my list of hiking regrets.
Anyways, I'm pretty sure in the last 20 minutes to the pass, I became delusional. It was cloudy all over - all we could really see of the scenery was the occasional peaks through tendrils of cloud.
And then.. there was a small opening in the clouds and a few rays of sunshine shone through. I basically dropped to my knees and raised my hands to the sky, shouting my thanks to the sun god Inti.
Finally, we got to the top where the amazing view of Salkantay made the entire climb worth it.
NOT. What is that!! Where's the mountain!!!!
Oh wait, look, I think I see him...
NOT again! Anyways this went on a few more times haha as the winds whipped the clouds around us.
If I thought the ascent was bad, the descent was even worse. It started raining, and it didn't stop. Mr. Human walks a lot faster than me and raced ahead. For long stretches I was the only slow soul I could see, alone in a constant rain cloud. This was probably the lowest point of the hike. The trail had turned into rivers and water got inside my boots. Every step, I was squelching in a puddle inside my boots.
Later we bumped into our tour group friends, who were on a much more luxurious tour than us. They didn't have to carry any gear or food and - AND - their porters and cooks had raced ahead of them to set up a lunch tent. They literally had a big dining tent and a 3-course meal ready waiting for them. Don't ask me how but they had grilled trout for their main. I think one of the funniest things about becoming friends with this group was to see the differences between our budget trek and their luxury tour.
For OUR lunch, we managed to find a little cow shelter that had cow poo all over the floor and we ate a piece of bread each. I don't even have a picture, it was that depressing haha. The mental picture was basically this:
We continued trekking through the rivers and rain for a few more hours, ready to give up at any point but having to push on. We needed to find a sheltered area to camp for the night otherwise we'd have to carry a wet tent and gear the next day.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we decided to give up on getting to Chaullway (the usual campsite for the second night) and camped early in a picnic spot called Wayramachai.
We discovered that almost everything in our backpacks was damp and cold. Our sleeping bags, clothes, my jacket...
I was pretty worried we were gonna freeze to death that night. Not only that, we had no more water. But Mr. Human was more optimistic and saw it as more of an adventure.
At some point, the rain finally stopped and he went off to look for a water source. I huddled for warmth inside the tent. Suddenly, I heard Mr. Human shouting my name, yelling for me to come outside.
It was Salkantay.
We just stood in awe for a while as soft clouds wrapped around the great mountain. It was the most perfect peak imaginable.
As night fell, we could now rest knowing what Salkantay looked like. And what was on the menu for dinner, you may ask? More bread and alphabet soup haha.
Next up, we go to bed. Read on in Part 2 to see if we ever wake up again...