‘Please, with confidence.’
These words soon became the catchcry of our Peruvian tour guide, Leo, given how often it was uttered during our 7-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. This unfamiliar, yet endearing, turn of phrase alluded to the difficulty and challenge of crossing the Salkantay pass, reaching an altitude of 4600 metres before descending into the cloud forest, all the while battling the debilitating effects of high altitude and tough terrain along the way. It was integral to keep your concentration as one lapse of judgement, a second’s hesitation, could very well mean Pachamama (Mother Nature) getting the better of you. Alas, it was essential to proceed with confidence.
Why we chose to do the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
Given how interconnected the Inca trail is to Machu Picchu, people may not know that there are other alternative trails en route to the iconic Incan citadel. The most popular alternative route is the Salkantay trail; however, there is also the Lares route which takes hikers through local villages. The Inca Trail is the only hiking trail where it is mandatory to have a guide.
While people tend to do the alternative trails because the permits for the Inca trail have booked out (on that note: if you’re planning on doing the Inca trail—BOOK NOW. Permits sell out quickly particularly for the months of June, July and August), we decided to do the Salkantay trail because of a review by Australian travel writer Ben Groundwater that the hubby had read back in the day. See? Travel writers still serve a purpose.
Upon further investigation, we found out that the Salkantay trail was longer (it usually takes 5 days, although there is a fast-track 4-day option) and more challenging than the Inca trail, but also regarded as being more of a scenic hike. I can’t speak for the Inca trail, but I can tell you that we were not left for wanting of spectacular scenery during the Salkantay trek (see exhibit A).
The Mountain Lodges of Peru Lodge-to-Lodge Salkantay Trek
We did the Salkantay trek through the Mountain Lodges of Peru. We wanted to trek in style for our honeymoon and were immediately wooed by the descriptions of hot tubs, massages, 3-course meals and comfortable beds in luxury lodges after a day’s hike. The price for the tour was exorbitant compared to other operators, but you can afford to charge premium prices if you’re the crème de la crème of trekking tours. Given the hefty price tag, it’s not a tour where you’ll find any bohemian backpackers travelling the world on $5 a day but a luxury experience that you would reserve for a special occasion.
The trek turned out to be one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of our honeymoon. From the initial pre-meeting in Cusco, our tour leader, Leo, and his assistant, Jose (Pepe), took the utmost care of us, briefing us every evening on the next day’s activities and ensuring that everybody was having a good time and in good health—particularly as one person in the group had a severe case of altitude sickness and needed to go on an oxygen tank.
The Salkantay trek
The trek itself was in equal parts challenging and exhilarating. Although the hike was gruelling at times, the physicality was offset by the magnificence of the scenery that we were privy to every day. It’s a lot easier to forget about your aching muscles and shortness in breath when you have the distraction of the spectacular ice-capped mountains looming ahead.
What struck me the most was the contrast in landscapes that we experienced, passing all kinds of terrains and ecosystems during our hike. A panorama of majestic peaks and dusty golden valleys filled the horizon as we climbed to the highest point of the trek at 4600 metres, before gradually giving way to expanses of lush tropical jungle dotted with fruit orchards and coffee plantations upon our descent.
The contrasts also extended to the climate: one day, we were all fully rugged up with gloves, beanies and layer upon layer, trying to withstand the elements; the next, we were faced with a wall of unrelenting humidity, trying not to think about the sticky sweat clinging to our backs. It seemed that there was no telling what Pachamama would have in store for us.
It was remarkable how quiet the trail was, and after the first day the only people we saw were locals herding their donkeys along, or our own mules carrying our bags behind us. The tranquility of the trail meant that you could focus on regulating your own breaths and steps, and be present enough to take in the enormity and sheer beauty of the moment.
Pachamama is a word that you will hear many times while traipsing around Peru. The spirit of Mother Earth is extremely important for Peruvians, particular for the traditional Andean communities that reside away from the cities and who are even more subject to the whims of Pachamama and her elements. During the Salkantay trek, you will feel the essence of Pachamama around you, in the air and in the mountains. We were fortunate enough to participate in a traditional ceremony, where offerings (it seems that Pachamama has a sweet tooth) were made to Mother Earth and a safe passage through the Salkantay pass was asked for.
Salkantay trek vs Inca trail
I can only speak from my own experience from doing the Salkantay trek, but I thought it was a fantastic way to witness majestic landscapes and scenery, without the crowds that are usually drawn to the Inca trail. Camping tours can also be cheaper for the Salkantay trek (although the sites don’t have as many facilities) unless, of course, you’re opting to go on a Mountain Lodges of Peru tour, which will set you back quite a few sols. The Salkantay trek is longer and more physically challenging than the Inca trail, but is certainly achievable for those with an average level of fitness. Also, you do have to take a bus up to Machu Picchu from the town of Aguas Calientes.
However, the Inca trail is iconic and at the top of many bucket lists for good reason. It would be an incredible experience to walk the historic path as the Incans once did (note: on our Salkantay trek, the path joined up with the Inca trail towards the end), passing other Incan sites along the way and entering Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku Sun Gate.
As always, there are pros and cons for both options, and it really depends on what kind of experience you are after.
- Leave the trek until the end of your Peru trip and try to acclimatise in other cities. It is recommended that you stay in Cusco for at least two days before trekking.
- Purchase altitude sickness pills from your doctor just in case, and drink lots of coca tea and water.
- Pack appropriately and make sure to bring rainproof gear, good hiking boots, walking poles and a waterproof cover for your backpack.
- Bring sunscreen and mosquito repellant and proceed to smother yourself with it (I was bitten by so many mosquitos on the trek).
- Don’t forget to bring your passport to get into Machu Picchu. You can also get it stamped while you’re there!
- Climb Huayna Picchu for the best view of Machu Picchu.
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