Traveling has taught me a lot. Sure, there's the whole, "experience the culture", "don't ignore your wanderlust", "be a phrase that you'd see on Pinterest"; but among those, I learned a lot about myself. The most surprising one? I'm outdoorsy AF. Sure, I enjoy a nice hike every once in a while. And sure, nature is great. But I honestly never thought that I'd be hiking once a week, rapelling waterfalls on weekends, and, oh yeah, hiking like, 65 miles to Machu Picchu. And that's what I'll cover here: how I did, how I felt, how I thought I was gonna die but didn't, and how you can do it too! Ooh yeah, and a lot of photos, obvi.)
First things first - most people hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is the most famous one and a little less intense than Salkantay. Not that I'm an expert by any means, but the Inca Trail seems more interesting if you're a) a history buff b) really, really like ruins or c) not looking to climb mountains n' stuff in between. Also, if you're a poor planner, Inca won't work - you need to get tickets at least a few months in advance, as they only allow 500 people on it at a time. It's also hella expensive. That being said, Salkantay is the second most popular, but also a lot more difficult; it's longer (51 miles compared to 26) and you reach a lot higher of an altitude climbing (15,215 feet vs. 13,800 on the Inca). There are also a bunch of other things to climb on Salkantay; think more mountains and beautiful scenery, less stairs/royal road/ruins.
So, if you're trying to make the decision, the things above helped me decide. But also, they didn't, because my friends kind of already had planned on doing Salkantay and I kind of just hopped in because it sounded fun and I really wanted to see them. Buuuut if I had made a conscious choice then I would have still picked it. Even though I thought I might not make it at times. Here's how it all went down. I slash we (my friends Amy and Kelli):
- flew into Cusco from Lima. It's really the only option, unless you wanna take a long bus ride. But flights aren't too expensive. We stayed in the San Blas area in an airbnb that was PERFECT. (Note: San Blas tends to be way cheaper than the main square.) We even got to watch the Spurs Finals game in Spanish thanks to the cable TV. I'd reco staying in an airbnb the night before instead of a hostel, especially if you're with a group since it's way more affordable, but also because you probably won't sleep well in a hostel. Since we only had one night before actually hiking the next day...
- we walked around the town, I rented hiking shoes, (HIGHLY reco - I used Rosly and they were amazing and cheap) and grabbed pizza before our early morning. Also note: the altitude was crazy high and hard to get used to. Expect to be breathing heavily going up a couple of flights of stairs. I kind of wished we had an extra day to acclimate, so I'd reco that as well if you're planning on doing this.
- gathered our squad.
we used Refugios Salkantay and they were AWESOME. Another note: this is mostly self-guided. We did not know that. (We should have paid more attention.) HOWEVER, it made the trip a lot more bearable and less stressful than having to deal with a huge group. Essentially, you meet up with the hosts in every place. At the beginning of the trek, your guide will tell you where to go. You'll drive a little bit outside of Cusco to start the trek, and they provide all the transport in cars or vans. You'll also meet some of the nicest, most humble humans ever. The people you stay with aren't just tour guides - they're families, coffee farmers, and amazing cooks (the food was so good, and no joke, they even cooked vegetarian for both of my friends.) Most of the time we were alone in the refuges because it was the end of high season. But it was really nice being able to sleep (and I don't think other people would have been a problem at all). Anywho, loved this company - wouldn't have met the amazing people we did or have the same experience if it wasn't for them. Also, they're very fairly priced compared to a lot of other companies out there. And no, this isn't a sponsored post. I just really liked them. ONTO LE HIKE!
Mollepata --> Challacancha --> Soraypampa --> Laguna Humantay
- We got picked up from our AirBNB at 6 AM and headed 2 hours out to Mollepata, where we met a super nice woman who explained the path to us (in Spanish, FYI if you don't speak it, it may be a little difficult, but the map helps!) and gave us coffee and eggs. From there, we drove 10 more minutes to the beginning of our hike, which was five hours total to the next stop (and refuge site) Soraypompa. A car took most of our stuff and we just had hiking backpacks on. We walked and walked and walked some more until we reached our lunch spot/refuge!
"This is nothing!" we thought to ourselves, in obvious naivety.
- drank a ton of coca tea (it helps with the altitude), coffee (it helps with our crankiness), and ate this amazing lunch they made us because we were SO hungry. We were then told that there was another mountain practically next door that leads to this beautiful lake - it was also a "test". Papi (an adorable old man that met us at the refuge) helped serve us the food while telling us that he'd lead us to the starting point of this mountain and then tell us where to go. This was a "test" because he told us that the elevation got up 1100 meters just on this hike, and it was only an hour long to the lake - if we made this up and back in less than 3 hours, we'd be prepped for the next day, AKA the longest and hardest one, AKA this hike times THREE. He urged us to take walking sticks (complimentary with the company) so we shrugged and were like,
"No sweat, how bad could this be?"
It was pretty bad.
But bad in the best way. Bad in the, "oh shit, I can't breathe but it's okay because I'm hiking up this amazing mountain and taking selfies with horses."
We reached the top after almost collapsing (seriously the altitude is NO JOKE) and actually gasped when we turned the corner to discover...
- freaked out out at how incredible this place was, caught our breath, freaked out at thinking that we'd have to do this times three tomorrow, and ended up back at the refuge with Papi and the cook (we were the only ones staying there that night). As the sun set, it got REALLY dark and REALLY cold. How cold?
"Showering is not an option and instead I will be wiping my body down with makeup wipes" cold.
See below the unused shower (though very nice) and our beds, which were so comfy but hooooly moly thank god we were inside and had a ton of blankets, because it got down to 29 degrees F in our room.
Day 2: the toughest one
As I said before, Papi told us that our test was only the beginning of our trek. Day 2 was insanely long, difficult, and tiring. (As was Day 3 and Day 4 but I mean c'mon we're crazy people hiking over 60 miles here, what do you expect?)
Soraypampa --> Abra Salkantay --> Huayraqmachay --> Challhuay
- woke up at 4:00 AM to the sound of knocking from one of the staff members - it was hot coca tea time! (not quite the normal tea time, huh?) We got up, put on allllll our layers, and headed for breakfast out in the dining area at 4:30. Don't I look excited?!
- left at 5 AM to begin our hike after giving all of our stuff to the horses to carry *PART* of the way. (more on this later). They'd take our stuff all the way to Huayraqmachay where we would have lunch. We were told the first three hours of the hike were the hardest. After that, it'd be flat, but for most of it, we'd be ascending very steep hills at a pretty high altitude. We'd also be climbing a giant mountain (Abra Salkantay) that has an altitude of 4,600 meters (over 15,000 feet).
- hiked. And hiked. Almost puked. Ate a granola bar. And hiked some more. And about 4 hours later...
PHEW! That was a long morning. But we did it! We descended the mountain only to realize that...wait a minute...we haven't eaten since breakfast at 4:30 AM. It was almost noon and we were STARVING. Everyone remembered together that we were supposed to have a snack stop somewhere in between coming down the mountain and lunch, but that never happened, and we're not entirely sure why. But, 2.5 hours later, we finally got to lunch, which was delicious.
Here's the part where it got hard. After this 7ish hour hike we had already completed, we not had to get all of our bags and CARRY THEM 3 MORE HOURS. We said goodbye to our beloved chef, and goodbye to our beloved horses - because now, we were kinda on our own for the time being. I was able to fit my hiking backpack in my carry on backpack that I had brought, but Amy and Kelli def carried two backpacks on them the whole time. #troopers. And we hiked...and hiked...and hiked some more...
- finally arrived in Challhuay, where a man that was ready to drive us to our next refuge found us just in time before we were about to collapse. We got in the car, half-not knowing if he even worked for the damn company because we were so tired, and sat there for an hour and a half saying how proud we were of ourselves. We made it to our next stop, LUCMABAMBA! (Say it three times fast it's seriously so fun.) We didn't know that we'd have to hike up a shit ton of stairs to get to our little room, but we made it, again, and promptly took advantage of the first hot shower that we'd had in almost 3 days.
- a sweet family awaited us and told us that we'd be eating dinner whenever we were done. We ventured to their kitchen afterwards and met the whole fam, including an adorable cousin, another super nice old man and woman, and a giant tarantula that showed up. (I had to yell, "Cuidado! Una arana gigante!" to them for them to even realize it.)
- ate an amazing dinner with them and got to know more about them, something that we would've never gotten on a normal group tour. The family ran a coffee farm ON SITE (which we were staying on) and told us we'd be getting a tour of it in the morning (at 6 AM because that's around when the chickens cock-a-doodle-do). So we woke up the next morning and did just that. We also got an AMAZING BREAKFAST SPREAD HOLY CRAP IT WAS SO GOOD. Ok, here are photos because they do it more justice.
^oh yeah, we passed this hiking hahaha.
- left our coffee friends finally and got on to....
Day 3...still effing hard.
Lucmabamba --> Llactapata --> Ahobamba --> Hidroelectrica --> AguasCalientes.
- hated my feet. Mostly because, well, I couldn't really feel them. Blisters and all, it was another 6 hour day of hiking. We took off for our three hour walk to Llactapata (these names are ridic, by the way) in which I thought I legit couldn't breathe. No, seriously, about an hour in I almost hyperventilated so hard that I had to stop and take a break. It felt like my throat was closing, and originally I thought it was possibly an allergic reaction, but I soon realized that I was just a big wimp. (Ok, not a wimp, but still. My pride was like, UGH.) We saw some cool ruins, however, and this amazing view; if you look closely, you can actually seem Machu Picchu in the background!
From here it was more hiking to lunch, where we ate at a restaurant in Hidroelectrica. Now, mind you, we had hiked a helluva long way. Our company suggested hiking THREE MORE HOURS with ALL OUR STUFF (AGAIN) from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. We laughed in their face. We bought tickets at the station (this town is srsly just a train station and restaurants) and it was worth every cent of that $30. If you're that short on cash, it's your call. But like, if you can't feel your feet, it's SO worth it. Also, the train is super nice and the views are incredible - the roof is even see-through! Another note to mention re: the photos below - our hands swole up like sausages and it was hilarious so we documented it. GOSH HIKING IS THE BEST!
And that was it for our portion of the trip with Refugios Salkantay. From here on out, it was just us. Feeling proud and also hating our bodies at the same time, we finally got to AC and checked into our hostel, showered, and ventured out for pizza, pasta, and a well-deserved glass of wine. And then we promptly went home to sleep like babies because we had ONE MORE DAY left and another early wake-up call: 4 AM. (Oh yea and we ordered two desserts and one had quinoa because Peru effing LOVES quinoa.)
Why did we wake up at 4 AM? To actually HIKE up to Machu Picchu instead of taking the bus that goes to and from every five minutes. WHY? Because we're insane, that's why. But we did see a pretty nice sunrise...
And then...we finally made it.
Obviously we made friends with every llama/alpaca that we could. But when we hit the top of that steep climb up...it was incredible. The views. The feelings. The people. Special thanks to my amazingly athletic marathon-runner friends, Amy and Kelli, for putting up with my "are we there yets" and "hold on I legit can't breathes". You guys are lifelong friends and I'm so happy I got to experience this with you!
And to the readers that are curious about if this experience was worth it? (Regardless of how many times I almost died...):
And there you have it folks. My Machu Picchu journey, all compacted into one tiny yet very long blog post.
coming up! Rainbow Mountain (because I didn't climb high enough on Machu Picchu?) and a four day excursion to Bolivia!
Professional writer, designer, and do-it-aller. Remote Year citizen/alum. Currently living in San Francisco and probably trying to avoid the terrifying amounts of pigeons.