Salkantay to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Travel Blog

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Salkantay Mountain -  is the highest peak of the Cordillera Vilcabamba standing 6,271 meters tall. It is located in the Cusco Region, about 60 km (40 mi) west-northwest of the city of Cusco. It's name means "Savage Mountain".

Machu Picchu - is a pre-Columbian Inca site located 2,430 metres above sea level.
It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, which is 80 kilometres northwest of Cuzco and through which the Urubamba River flows.
Firt day approaching Salkantay base camp.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti.

Day 1
 
I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30am, shivering in the frigid Cusco pre-dawn by Walter, the man who would be my guide for the next 5 days. It gets cold in Cusco when the sun isnt out, and that night was no exception. Almost immediately i am introduced to two Irishmen, Jason (Jaguar) and Liam (Lion, ill explain the surnames later) as we wait for the bus that will take us to Mollepata altitude 2,900 meters, the starting point for the Salkantay trek.
 
Upon boarding we find the bus packed with like minded people, and i sat down next to a cute chinese girl who introduced herself as Teresa, a med student from Oxford.
Teresa turned out to be an avid massage connoisseur. We talked for a bit and then tried to catch up on some lost sleep as the bus bounced and bumped its way up the winding path to Mollepata.
 
The town of Mollepata was akin to almost every other rural highland Peruvian town ive been in. Poverty and run down squalor surrounded by natural beauty of every color, shape, and size.
 
My group turned out top be quite large, 17 people in all, and after a brief breakfast we set out for the first leg of our hike. We spent 4 hours walking along a cliff line ridge road, and had lunch on a lovely hill over looking the valley. Afterwards we started gaining altitude at a gradual pace, slowly making our way to 3800 meters where we were introduced to our first views of Salkantay, silently looming, an appropriately named jagged snow capped behemoth.
Fog burning off the morning of the second day.
As sunlight waned and mountain cold descended we approached our base camp, a tent village with a few wooden shacks, an out house, and an extensive horse grazing range. We passed a lavish building with an outdoor hot tub, a retreat for affluent gringos. They bus em in, let them play at being adventerous, and bus em out. A few people lounged in the tub and I gave them a long jealous look as Walter the guide promised us sub-zero temperatures for the remainder of the night.
 
That evening, sitting inside a long tarp mess hall that encompassed our table and tents we got to know one another. Our guides Walter and Willy wanted to memorize everyone´s name so we played a game, matching first letter of name to an animal, and talking a little bit about ourselves. I wont name everyone, but i´ll introduce the people who played a large part in shaping my experience over the next 4 days.
Me, Jessi, Ali, and Moa with Salkantay waiting behind us.
 
There was Gregor the Gorilla, my tent mate and an engineering student from Germany with a tall wiry spiderman like frame with a passion for helping people and photography. Jason and Liam, the two Irsh dudes, Alison the Alligator and Jessi the Jellyfish from Texas, Richard the Rhino and Louise the llama from the U.k., Marco the Monkey and Paulo the Python, two doctor brothers from Brazil who turned out to be half Polish, and Moa the Mammoth from Switzerland, one of the most upbeat and content people i have ever encountered. I choose Mountain Lion as my moniker, a name that would bring much amusement later. We huddled around the table in our heaviest clothes, drinking rum over candle light and getting to know one another.
 
After some star gazing in the frigid night Greg and I decided to raid the hot tub we saw earlier.
Switchbacking up.
Arming ourselves with flashlights, swim trunks in hand, we crept thru the night back down the road. Commando style we approached the hotel compound and found the hot tub empty. Giggling like school girls, rum warming our veins, we stripped, changed, and with huge grins exhaling plumes of condensed CO2 dove into the deliciously hot water. Such luxury at the base of Salkantay was totally unexpected and immensely enjoyable. 20 or so minutes later we were spotted by a patrolling guard. While he puzzled over us we jumped out, grabbed out clothes, and ran laughing into the night.
 
Day 2
 
We were woken to calls of "Amigo, Coca Tea, Coca Tea Amigo!" Drinking the hot infusion of coca leaf we quickly packed and ate breakfast, making ready to leave base camp and climb from 3,800 meters to the Salkantay pass, at some 4,650 meters.
Me at the Salkantay pass, a couple of hours before i started hurling.
Walter explained that this would be our hardest day, and i think we all knew that. In those morning minutes before we set out i had very little idea just how difficult the day would become.
 
The first few kilometers were relatively easy and as the morning fog was burned away by a rising sun we were treated to spectacular mountain valley views, with snow caps standing guard over sparkling streams and rocky fields filled with grazing horses, flowers, and butter flies. As time passed the trail grew steeper and steeper and each step became a difficulty, with no end in sight. I kept checking the altitude on my watch hoping for a miracle that proclaimed "4600 meters!!!!) but the air grew thinner and everything took on a surreal hue. Stark outlines in the sunlight, with a haze around the edges of my vision, i huffed and dragged my feet up switch backs, over rocks and gravel and dirt, leaning on my staff like a drunkard on a sober friend.
Harsh beauty.
Minute dragged after minute, conversation ceased and our party spread out into a long thin snake, slowly inching its way higher and higher.
 
Mercifully the switchbacks ended and we rested on a small ridge, the valley behind us and Salkatnay in full view ahead. To my chagrin i learned we were only half way to the pass, and a full 4 hours away from our lunch spot. Only 2 hours had passed, yet it felt like an eternity had slowly been pulled from my chest.
 
I would like to describe the journey from this point to the pass, and the beauty located in between but i can not for i recall very little of it. I found it hard to lift my eyes and with my sight fixed firmly down to avoid dizziness i took step after step, stomach roiling. I can´t say how much time went by but at some point at 4,400 meters i sat down in the dirt and felt convinced i would lose consciousness.
Third day cloud forest.
From there the next 400 meters of altitude gain are a mystery. I recall reaching the pass, one of the last members of my group, to find people spread out on the ground, some sleeping, others looking around in wonder. Salkantay stood over us, and a signed welcomed us to 4,650 meters. I took a few pictures and flopped to the ground. I could not bring my eyes to look upwards.
 
We spent a some time there, taking it all in, taking a group photo and then had to keep going, our lunch spot till hours away. The altitude gain ceased and we made our way down rocky switch backs afoul with mule and horse dung. At some point i realized that my breathing was becoming very shallow and my heart beat was accelerating to a rapid drum drum drum. Nausea seized my intestines and i found myself vomiting, over and over again. When all the liquid inside my guts was gone i dry heaved on my knees, with Marco standing guard over me.
Boots being held together with some rope, tied by Greg.
Both he and Willy helped me make the rest of the way to our mid day camp.
 
I spent the next hour in a virtual waking coma, unable to talk, unable to move  much more than a few muscles. I vaguely realized that my expensive hiking boots were falling apart, the right boot losing its sole as the goretex disintegrated. I registered this from afar and Paulo came to check up on me. I had a burning fever, and my stomach was in knots. I was convinced, utterly, that i was not moving from this spot. I bade a silent goodbye to my family, and passed out.
 
I wasn´t out for long. Walter plied me with fruit juice and i drank re-hydration fluids that tasted like hot sweat. I was told i had no options but to continue till our second camp, some three hours and 800 meters below. I resisted but as the fluids made their way thru my body and the anti fever medication kicked in i realized i had to continue.
Urumbamba Valley
Leaving the group behind our assistant guide Willy and i crept slowly down into a cloud forest. I found my strength returning as the altitude meter on my Zero Drift Nike watch clicked down, but i was weak and my boots were at the end of their life span. Three hours later i stumbled into the camp with Moa whooping excitedly next to me, and collapsed into my tent. There was some talk of eating dinner but i would have none of it. I took an antibiotic kindly provided to me by Ali, curled up in my sleeping bag and entered an eleven hour long nightmare. While my dreams had been vivid and disturbing since leaving NYC, this night was particularly terrible, as fever clashed with anti biotic and my dreams took on an extremely sinister hue. I kept seeing the Empire State Building crashing into the streets below it, over and over again. I would wake up, go back to sleep, and see the same thing.
Cable car over the Urumbamba.
At some point predawn the nightmare and fever lifted and i found myself surrounded by caring dream shapes in the form of Bunk and Lester Freeman from The Wire. We were in their treme New Orleans reality (if you dont know what i mean, dont worry just go with it) and together we rebuild a house that was destroyed by Katrina. I woke up in the morning, weak with diarrhea gripping my bowels, refusing to eat, but dead set on continuing the journey.
 
Day 3
 
By this point my hiking boots were on death´s door. Greg and i tried to keep them together with some cord from my bag but this would prove to be futile. I purchased a pair of sandals from an elderly Peruvian man, and we set out for the next leg of our trek, a winding decent thru cloud forest and jungle. 
 
The day´s journey took us over trails thick with deep heavy mud, over streams and wet rocky crossings, from forest shrouded in cloud to jungle forest bathed in harsh sunlight.
Urumbabma Valley
By mid morning my boots were in my bag and my feet were adorned with sock and sandal. Staff in hand i felt a bit like Moses and a contemplated the irony of ditching my expensive belongings and continuing towards Machu Pichu like a poor native. 
 
We lost altitude at a rapid pace and i found the sandals a refreshing if wet change of pace. I noticed i was hopping and skipping down the trail, and even tho my stomach rumbled my fever was gone and my joy was growing. I felt much more at home in the wet forest than i did in the harsh thin mountain air and i rejoined the group in conversation that camaraderie that day. We reached our third day camp with a few hours of sunlight to spare and the group played a game of soccer in a village field.
 
That night we made a camp fire, played some drinking games, and were treated to a goodbye dinner from cook who would not be continuing with us.
Machu Picchu with Waynapicchu towering above.
I ate solid food for the first time in 36 hours.

Day 4

Most of us awoke from a restless night of little sleep. Our guides, cooks and porters had gotten drunk and partied loudly into the wee hours of the morning. The bus that was to shuttle us over to our trek start point never arrived so we all piled into a cargo truck and were treated to bumpy crowded open top truck ride. It was great fun and the views were stunning as we drove thru a fertile valley. We then took three person cable car suspended high over the Urubamba river. It was a very clear, hot, sunny day and i as one of the first people over. Feeling better than I had all trek i decided to set out alone for the first leg of the day's journey. There was something very cathartic in the solitude and i gained strength as i walked with all my gear, the sun blazing down on me, rivulets of sweat drenching my clothes.
Picnicing in Machu Picchu.


The Urubama river runs right to Aquas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and it led me to the rail tracks that i knew we had to follow to arrive at our destination by night fall. Following the rail i exalted in the beauty of the riverside valley and felt a thrill pass over me every time i realized that Machu Picchu was inching ever closer. I paused many times by the river to reflect on the beauty and after a few hours my group caught up. Together we hiked the last hour of our trek and arrived at Aquas Calientes.

Talk about culture shock. After 4 days of being out on our own in the wild we were pretty disgusted with the tourist trap town. Most of us had delicious showers (hot showers are such a wonderful commodity, and after 4 days on the trail a proper toilet becomes a godsend)  bought some supplies for the next day, had dinner, a couple of beers and retired for the night.
From the very very top of Waynapicchu.
We had a very early start the next day.

Day 5

We met outside the Hostel at 4am, and armed with insect repellent and flashlights we walked to the base of Machu Picchu mountain. Our goal was to get on line at the gates in time to be amongst the first 200 people so that we would be given a pass to climb Waynapicchu, the mountain that stands over Machu Picchu citadel.

One and a half hours and over 3000 grueling narrow steep sw
itchbacking stairs later we arrived, on time and eager to be allowed in. The gates opened at 6am sharp and Machu Picchu was ours for the day.
Marco, me, Louise, Jason, Paulo, Teresa, Moa, Ali, Jessi, Richard, Liam


We were given a tour of the citadel itself for a couple of hours by Walter and then had free reign to explore on our own. Moa, the Marco Paulo brothers, Richard, Louise, Liam and i decided to have a picnic on a grassy lawn inside the city and spent an hour eating and relaxing inside Machu Fucking Picchu! It was wonderful and i think we were all enchanted by where we were and what we were doing.

Next we climbed Waynapicchu. While not as long as the ascent earlier in the morning the path was incredibly steep at points, with the mountain on one side and a looooong fall into the valley on the other. Not for the faint of heart or for those who suffer from extreme vertigo. The views were amazing and the climb was worth every single second.

Instead of going down the way we came a few of us decided to descend the opposite side of Waynapicchu to visit the moon temple located there.
Crazy climbing down Waynapicchu backside,
This turned into an ardorous adventure, filled with incredibly steep paths and more stairs, always more stairs. We all had our fill of them by that point. By my estimation we climbed over 5000 earlier in the day. Tired from days of walking and exhausted to the bone we climbed out of Waynapicchu a few hours later, vowing to never use stairs again.

We spent a couple of hours inside Machu Picchu and called it a day. Since our train/bus back to Cusco wasnt till 930 the next few hours were spent lounging in hot springs and drinking heavily.

I arrived back in Cusco at 3am, exhausted but amazingly content. The previous 5 days held more adventure then the last 5 years, it seems. I experienced and saw things i will never forget, and no matter how hard the journey got i would do it all again in a heart beat. I sit here writing this with a tinge of sadness that the trek is over, but filled with a desire to ensure that this was not my last adventure.

And now for goodbye drinks with the awesome people that experienced all this with me. Tomorrow I'll write some more about Machu Picchu, and post more pictures.
clauudita says:
what? only $185. Do you remember the name of the agency? Great great blogs by the way :o)
Posted on: Mar 16, 2012
wolfrelic says:
Thanks for the kind words. Prepaid groupd, $185 alked into an agency off the Plaza in Cusco.
Posted on: May 22, 2010
RJ82 says:
wow quite a group!
was this a prepaid package tour or did you just hop on a bus and found fellow hikers?
Posted on: May 21, 2010
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Firt day approaching Salkantay bas…
Firt day approaching Salkantay ba…
Fog burning off the morning of the…
Fog burning off the morning of th…
Me, Jessi, Ali, and Moa with Salka…
Me, Jessi, Ali, and Moa with Salk…
Switchbacking up.
Switchbacking up.
Me at the Salkantay pass, a couple…
Me at the Salkantay pass, a coupl…
Harsh beauty.
Harsh beauty.
Third day cloud forest.
Third day cloud forest.
Boots being held together with som…
Boots being held together with so…
Urumbamba Valley
Urumbamba Valley
Cable car over the Urumbamba.
Cable car over the Urumbamba.
Urumbabma Valley
Urumbabma Valley
Machu Picchu with Waynapicchu towe…
Machu Picchu with Waynapicchu tow…
Picnicing in Machu Picchu.
Picnicing in Machu Picchu.
From the very very top of Waynapic…
From the very very top of Waynapi…
Marco, me, Louise, Jason, Paulo, T…
Marco, me, Louise, Jason, Paulo, …
Crazy climbing down Waynapicchu ba…
Crazy climbing down Waynapicchu b…
Machu Picchu
photo by: NazfromOz