Monday, 13 June 2011

Up and Down in Peru: the Salkantay Trek

An alternative to the famous Inca Trail is the Salkantay Trek, also starting from Cusco.  It is about 80km, all uphill on the first day, followed by two days of walking downhill and then a big up and down on the last day, concluding with an unbeatable approach to Machu Picchu.

Day 1

After a 6am pick up from our hostel we were driven from Cusco, along beautiful valleys to Mollepata.  Along the way there were always cows, pigs, dogs and chickens alongside and often in the road.  After a short stop for breakfast in Mollepata (some trekking companies start walking from here) we were driven uphill on a narrow dirt road for another 80 minutes to our starting point, near Challabamba, where we met the cowboy and horses.

View from the start of the trek
At last, we got to start the trek in bright sunshine, a group of five trekkers with our guide Fernando.  We set off from an altitude of about 3,800m, continuing to follow the dirt road for two hours of gentle uphill walking, while the cowboy and our two cooks loaded everything onto the horses.  A nice, easy introduction to the trek!  We stopped for lunch at Soray Pampa, a very basic campsite on a river, before starting on some serious uphill walking for another 2.5 hours.  The gradient was tougher, the path now rocky, but the views up to glaciers and a moraine more than worth the effort.

Camping the first night
We were following a river for most of this section, but on reaching the moraine encountered some serious switchbacks, with the altitude making the ascent even harder.  As dusk was falling we saw viscachas hopping about on massive granite boulders.

The crew had gone ahead to set up the tents at Salkantay Pampa, start cooking and get the kettle on!  We were camping rough at 4,500m and it was bitterly cold overnight.

12 kilometres, all uphill.

Day 2

An early start - up at 6am for coca tea and breakfast, then walking soon after 7am.  Getting out of my sleeping bag was a shock but after a very slow 40 minute walk to the Salkantay Pass I had warmed up.  The combination of cold air and altitude really slowed me down.

Standing at 4,600 metres above sea level
We spent a while taking photos and adding to the many cairns made by previous hikers.  Much snow was visible although we were well below the snowline.  From now on it was downhill all the way!  The mountainsides were slowly being illuminated as we started the descent and as soon as the sun appeared over the ridge we were quicklly removing layers and enjoying the warmth.  This part of the trail follows the rivers downhill and is surrounded by huge, grey, lichen covered boulders.  On either side of us the mountains rose steeply, green at first but snow covered far, far above us.

The vegetation changed rapidly as we descended into the valley, first with trees appearing and then scattered houses and livestock.  The valley steepened into a gorge with amazing views of the white water of the river.  While waiting for the cooks to prepare lunch we enjoyed a quick snooze in the sunshine.

The afternoon session continued downhill on a narrow trail winding along the side of the valley, before we finally reached a rough campsite (it had a squat toilet and a cold outdoor shower).  25 kilometres today.  We arrived in time to relax and enjoy the view in the last of the sunlight, surrounded by high mountains on all sides.

Day 3

Another 6am wakeup and trekking again just after 7am.  This was the "easy" day - only 16km and all downhill.  We set off on a dirt road, following a set of switchbacks carved into a landslide!  There had been many landslides in recent years in this area and part of the trail was closed.  But after a while we dropped sharply off the road, across a rustic bridge over the river and back up the other side onto the trail proper.

Rustic bridge
There was now more of a jungle feel, with longer grass, banana plants, many orchids and the occasional palm tree.  We could feel more humidity, a welcome change after the dry air in the high mountains.  The narrow trail was exciting in places where it had only recently been retrodden across landslides.  We saw a couple of other groups walking today - we had seen very few people so far, adding to the sense of tranquility and remoteness while walking.

After the previous two days, the campsite at Playa felt almost "built up", with a proper toilet and indoor (but still cold) shower, some shops and a coffee shop!  We had the afternoon free and spent much of it sitting on boulders on the edge of the river, reading in the baking sunshine and soaking our tired feet in the chilly river water.  A well deserved rest!

We said goodbye to the cowboy (our bags would be taken by road or train from now on).

Day 4

This was the toughest day of all, another 25 kilometre day, with 3 hours uphill to kick off!

We were woken at 5am this time with more coca tea and on our feet just after 6am.  In previous years, trekkers have walked to Sanata Teresa from here and enjoyed the hot springs, but they were washed away in flooding last year.

Inca steps
Thirty minutes on an easy, undulating dirt road warmed us up, ready for two and a half hours of tough ascent.  We climbed Inca stone steps, passed through coffee plantations and snaked back and forth up the mountain side.  The oppostie side of the valley became ever more distant and eventually we could see more and more mountains behind and above the opposite ridge.  This climb was relentless - quite steep and leaving me breathless, but at the same time beautiful.  We enjoyed a rest at the pass of Lucmabamba, surrounded by trees, before continuing down the other side.

After just ten minutes we were rewarded with our first view of Machu Picchu, far across the valley but with many buildings and walls clearly visible.  A steep but short descent took us to a mostly intact Inca checkpoint where we again paused to enjoy the view of Machu Picchu.

From here the descent is insane.  There must be a hundred short switchbacks as the trail literally drops straight down the mountainside.  I took most of it at a jog, feeling the air getting warmer with the drop in altitude.  The trail eventually crosses a river, with a big suspension bridge then remains flat along the river as far as Hidroelectrica, so named for the power station that uses the river to generate electricity.  There is a stunning, forked waterfall here which appears to be overflow from the power station.

We stopped for our last lunch with the cooks alongside the railway line.  This is the end of the line from Cusco.  After saying goodbye we had another two and a half hours uphill to Aguas Calientes.  This is a very gentle uphill (apart from the start where the train line has a couple of zig zags) as the path parallels the train line all the way to Aguas Calientes.  This route follows the base of the Machu Picchu mountain, curving uphill and staying close to the river.

The first view of the town is deceptive, with just a few hotels appearing from the trees, but as you enter the town it becomes apparent that it is much bigger.  The train line runs right through one of the main streets and I can't think of anywhere else I have been able to sit outside a restaurant with trains running past!

We wasted no time heading up to the hot springs for a long, relaxing soak to help recover tired muscles.  Not the best hot springs I have been to by far, but still welcome after all that walking.

Day 5

The final day was for visiting Machu Picchu.  I'm not going to write much about it because many people have already done so and better than I can, save to say it is well worth the walk out to the Sun Gate and to the Inca Bridge.  After all that trekking I was too tired to get up at the recommend time of 3:30am to guarantee one of the 400 places to walk up Huayna Picchu.

Llama racing

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

The Inca Bridge - no longer crossable!
Our guide gave us a great and detailed tour of the ruins before leaving us to make our way back to the train for Cusco (actually Poroy where you are driven the last 15 minutes into Cusco because it is much faster to drive than take the train down the final series of zig zags into Cusco).  The train is slow at 3.5 hours but a wonderful experience in daylight with big windows in the roof as well as the sides, giving great views of the mountains as it snakes uphill following the river.

Who we went with

We booked with Chaska Tours who subcontracted the trek to Centro de Operaciones Turistas.  Overall I was impressed, we had a good guide, excellent food.  and good quality camping equipment.  On the downside, Chaska and Centro need to get in sync because several details that Chaska gave us when we booked the trek didn't match up with Centro (for example charging $US10 to hire a thermarest when Centro include it; different starting location).  The trek cost $US460pp plus tips and I would recommend them.