Friday, November 24, 2017

The Salkantay Trek

As soon as we chose Peru as our honeymoon destination, we knew that we would have to see Machu Picchu. A little initial research showed us that we would want to trek to this world wonder. The views, solitude, and variety drew us to the Salkantay Trek.


Salkantay Trek vs. Inca Trail
We did not do the Inca trail, so this isn't a true comparison. However, our reasoning behind choosing Salkantay over Inca is as follows:
  • Salkantay has less traffic.
  • To do the Inca Trail, you must book through a guided tour. We prefer to hike on our own at our own pace. 
  • The Salkantay trek has a lot of variety in elevation, causing the scenery to differ greatly.
The Inca Trail is known to have more ruins along the way, however we figured Machu Picchu would dwarf any of these so we wouldn't feel like we missed out. However, our choice of Salkantay over Inca to avoid the crowds didn't exactly play out like we thought. In August of 2017, we felt overwhelmed by the number of trekkers on the trail with us. If Salkantay is the less popular trek, I can't imagine how crowded the Inca Trail is! We constantly felt like we were trying to pass someone or being passed. After the first day, the numbers dwindled, but our experience battling the Disney World sized crowd definitely put a damper on our hike over the Salkantay Pass on day two. 
Itinerary
We booked our trek through Refugios Salkantay. This company was amazing from start to finish! Their website is available in both Spanish and English, but don't let this fool you- we found that most of the Refugios employees spoke little to no English. Since I speak quite a bit of Spanish, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with each of them. If you don't know any Spanish, I suggest learning a few phrases, but you could still book your trek through Refugios without any problems. The well marked map they gave us and large Refugios signs made it easy to find the huts. 
We chose the "Complete Service 5 Day/4 Night" package. 
Day 1: Cusco - Mollepata - Soraypampa
Our Refugios guides picked us up from our Airbnb in the early morning on our first day. We drove about 2.5 hours to Mollepata where we were briefed on the trek (in English) and fed breakfast which we had to pay for (the only breakfast not included). We were given water and snacks and bought some insect repellent that we should have brought or picked up in Cusco to save some money. Then, we were driven another hour to Challacancha. We were not prepared to part with our packs, and insisted that we could hike with them for the two hours to Soraypampa though this greatly confused the Refugios employees. We're used to hiking with our full backpacks and hadn't thought to prepare day packs that morning. Though we could have carried our water, we were overdressed for the warm late morning sun and needed other items in our packs like sunscreen and, of course, my camera. 
The hike to Soraypampa was an easy stretch, and it felt great to finally be out on the trail after all the driving. It was also the most solitude we had all hike, though we didn't know how lucky we were at the time. 
We arrived at Soraypampa in the early afternoon, and appreciated an amazing Peruvian meal of rice, avocado, and banana veggie tortillas (kind of like egg pancakes). We settled in to our plywood room and awed at the llamas wandering around the hut. 
Shortly after lunch, we headed to the glacial lagoon, about an hour hike from the hut. This was our first experience that showed us the number of people who would be trekking with us. We didn't talk much as we hiked up single file with the hundreds of other travelers eager to see the beautiful lagoon. Fortunately, we arrived just in time to snap some pictures before the lagoon got too crowded. Though the pack feel was a little stressful, this side hike is a must!
Day 2: Soraypampa - Salkantay Pass - Huayracmachay - Chalway
We were woken at 5am with coca tea to start our ascent up the mountain. This was our coldest morning, and it was difficult to leave our layers of blankets to step into the below freezing air. After a filling breakfast, we began the climb. We took only day packs, and a mule named Tangy carried our packs up the mountain. Our guide let us hike alone, but stopped occasionally to check that we were doing OK. He hauled up the mountain leading Tangy wearing a pair of worn sneakers.
We arrived at the pass at 15,288 ft in the late morning. I was very nervous thinking about our glacial walk during Laugavegur, but this pass was much more tame. The crowd at the top was overwhelming, so we snapped a few pictures and kept moving. While we were walking, we watched the side of the mountain as an avalanche crashed down. 
We walked in the large pack of people down the mountain, the most crowded part of the hike. After the long ascent, we were anxious for lunch. When we finally saw Tangy tied outside a small plywood building, we were overjoyed to stop and eat. After lunch, we took our full packs and hiked downhill for another 3 hours. The crowd had thinned, though we were still usually in the company of other trekkers. When we arrived at the hut in Chalway we were exhausted and amazed at all we'd done in one day.
Day 3: Chalway - Playa Sahuayaco - Lucmabamba
If you chose the shorter hike, you drive from Chalway from Lucmabamba. This stretch was probably the least interesting of our hike, with the exception of Hydroelectic to Aguas Calientes. We hiked with only day packs along the road for quite some time until it changed into trail. It was incredible how different the landscape was from the day before when we hiked through the pass. Ending the day at around 7,000 ft, the flora around Lucmababa was an entirely different world from the Salkantay Pass.
Our stay in Lucmabamba was the nicest of our trek. The room had an attached bathroom with truly hot water, a great luxury in Peru. Additionally, the family their gave us a tour of the coffee farm with a detailed explanation of the coffee making process (in Spanish) that ended with a tasting of the best coffee I've ever had. We even bought a bag of coffee beans to bring back.
Day 4: Lucmbamba - Llactapapa - Hydroelectric - Aguas Calientes
After hiking downhill all day on day 3, it was a nice change to do a little uphill starting day 4. Then, we quickly became tired of the uphill after about an hour of straight up with no end in sight. Fortunately, this was another long stretch where we only carried day packs. We finally reached the top after about 3 hours and rejoiced when the terrain started back down. Heading down, we stopped at some ruins and looked over across the landscape to catch a glimpse of Machu Picchu. We continued down, down, down and enjoyed some jugo from a Refugios stop. 
Once we reached Hydroelectric, we ate lunch at a restaurant that was included with our Refugios package. Sadly, this last meal with Refugios was a downgrade from the homemade meals we'd enjoyed the last three days.  
After lunch, we picked up our packs from the restaurant and had the option to catch the train from Hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes, but we wanted to finish the trek. Unfortunately, the last 2.5 hours hiking along the train tracks is quite possibly the least satisfying end to a trek ever. We hiked with a huge crowd and were passed left and right since we carried our full packs and had 43 miles behind us. Many tourists only hike from Hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes in order to avoid the overpriced train ride. There is no path alongside the train tracks, probably to further incentivise the purchase of a train ticket. We went back and forth from hiking on the uncomfortable gravel to adjusting our strides to match the width of the wooden railroad tracks. When we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, we celebrated the end of our trek with a hardy meal and Peruvian beer.

Day 5: Machu Picchu
We woke up at 4:30am to line up with all of the other tourists who didn't want to pay for the Machu Picchu bus. We heard that if you do want to take the bus, you need to line up hours before the first bus runs at 5am. Our hotel packed us a brown bag breakfast of sandwiches and fruit to take on our way out. 
We arrived at the gate a little after 5 with our tickets and passports in hand. A couple did get turned away at the gate, presumably because they didn't have tickets. Be sure to purchase tickets online before hand and have them printed out ready to go. As soon as we were permitted through the gate, we took off, exhilarated by the thought of seeing a world wonder. Somehow the soreness in my legs had dissipated, and we passed groups of people as we practically sprinted up the stairs. The climb took about an hour which seemed fairly insignificant after all the hiking we'd done. 
When we got to the top, we devoured our breakfasts as we stood in line to get in. Countless Peruvians asked if we'd like to hire a guide as we waited. Though the official rules of Machu Picchu now say that every guest needs a guide, the rule is not enforced at all, just like the rule about no outside food. We elected to see the wonder on our own, stopping to appreciate every angle of the beautiful ruins. There are 3 set routes inside, though when we arrived there were so few people that we were able to go against the arrows that indicating the designated paths in order to see more. When it got more crowded, employees instructed tourists to follow the arrows and we were soon funneled out of the park by the path. Fortunately, tickets allow one re-entry. After a bathroom and coffee break, we got back in line to enjoy the ruins for a little bit longer. Though we'd seen plenty of pictures of Machu Picchu, experiencing the wonder was of an entirely different caliber. 


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