With the Inca trail passes selling out months in advance and our lack of forward planning throughout our trip, we chose the popular alternative Salkantay trek to take us to Machu Picchu. Day 1 and we were picked up at 4:30 in the morning by our guide Efra and taken on a sleepy 3-hour drive to Soraypampa, the starting point of our trek located at 3,700m above sea level.It was here that we met our fellow trekkers – Emily and Amy from USA, our chef and his assistant along with the three porters and horses who would be joining us on the trek. In quite the contrast to our Torres del Paine ‘W’ trek, this time we carried little more than a bottle of water with the horses left to carry the rest (sorry horses but oh so good!)Our breakfast table was set with the inspiring scenery providing the perfect backdrop to begin our 4-day trek. Fuelled and ready, we set off into the valley, surrounded by rocky mountains. In contrast, directly in front we stared at the snow-covered Salkantay Mountain which stood tall at 6,270m above sea level. The landscape was incredibly beautiful – between the mountains, fields and small stream flowing to our right it couldn’t have been more perfect as we began our 3-hour climb. Salkantay Mountain is probably one of the most impressive mountains I’ve ever seen and standing tall in front, it definitely inspired us to continue as we zig-zagged our way to our lunch spot, 500m higher than our starting point. If I never have to hear the word “switchback” again I’ll be happy, those steep climbs were hell! Poor Amy was recovering from a bout of food poisoning prior to the trip and really struggled with the climb, but luckily we had a spare horse that could carry her to the top. I feel I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t want be to be on the back of that horse as well!By the time we reached our lunch spot everyone was ready for a nap! We enjoyed the mountain of food cooked up by our chef and lied down for a while before it was time to continue. We had another 400m to climb before we reached Salkantay Pass, the highest point of our trek and although continuing seemed impossible at the time, the view from the pass was well worth it!After a number of photos and time spent admiring Salkantay’s beauty we began our descent from 4600m and continued on the path to Huayracpunko (3800m), our campsite for the evening. The contrasting colours of the different rocks mixed with the lush green pastures looked amazing as the valley widened out and the sun began to set around us.While I’m always looking forward to the downhill parts, in many ways they are just as difficult as the uphill and we stumbled along, slipping on the loose rocks as we made our way down. At one point we walked along original Inca steps, hardly noticeable until Efra pointed them out but then looking back you could definitely see a pattern in the overgrown path used so many years ago.We continued along, clouds filled the valley and the path began to flatten out. Soon enough, our campsite was torturously visible in the far distance so we pushed on, finishing our first long, 15km day of hiking. We ate like Incan Kings and stood outside admiring the moon-lit mountains surrounding us once more before bed.“Hello, Good Morning” was the sound we awoke to as Efra waited outside with two hot cups of coca tea. It had been a cold night however with our thermals, -20C duck down sleeping bags and additional blankets, we had felt quite cosy in our tent. We layered up before breakfast and not too long after we were on the move once again, leaving the chef and porters to catch up later on. Did I mention I love not having to pack up tents?We walked around the edge of the valley, watching as it transformed from rocky mountains to leafy green jungle. We descended further and continued winding around, the path was full of small ups and downs as it led us to a river bed and back out the other side.After lunch we continued, walking along a road, crossing the river once again and continuing deep in to the jungle. We passed waterfalls as we followed the river into the valley, hiking up and down, up and down continuously for hours before the road flattened out once more. We walked through a small village filled with livestock and children playing volleyball before continuing through to our second night campsite, La Playa (2400m)Day 3 and it was necessary to stretch our sore muscles following yesterday’s 18 kilometres of ups and downs. We walked gradually downhill for an hour where we began the Inca trail leading to Llactapata Incan ruins where you can also view Machu Picchu from a distance. This was a solid three hours directly uphill over the mountain and it just felt like it was never going to end! We would walk towards a corner only to turn the corner and find that the hill continued again and again and again! Emily walked in front of me and I watched as her body language indicated enough for me to know there was more hill awaiting me around the corner.Suddenly, it seemed like the tallest of trees were surrounding us and we realised we were reaching the top of the mountain FINALLY! We collapsed in a heap, almost in disbelief that we had actually made it to the top and with a further ten minute walk, we arrived at the Llactapata Incan ruins. From the ruins we had a magnificent view of the mountains surrounding us, as well as Machu Picchu. We lied on the grass, recovering from our huge climb only to then began our descent back down the other side of the mountain. Three hours to climb up, half that time to climb down. It certainly still took its toll on our weary bodies but we stumbled along, reaching the river bed once more.We walked past the hydroelectric station before arriving at our lunch spot, also home to the train station where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes, pit stop for the thousands of tourists visiting Machu Picchu. The town is located in a pretty impressive spot, surrounding by large rock walls covered in greenery with the river running through the middle of town. We were completely wrecked and checked in to our hotel where we had our first showers and relaxed after three big days of trekking.We were up before 5am ready to catch one of the first buses to Machu Picchu. The day had finally arrived, something we had been looking forward to for so long and now after trekking 50 kilometres in three days, we would finally be rewarded. The bus ride was slightly daunting, although it was dark; the edge of the road was still visible as we zig-zagged up to the entrance of the site. We joined the masses already lining to enter the site and then at 6am we entered, walking along a path and up some stairs before we had our first view. I don’t care how many pictures you may have seen of this place, seeing it in person is incomparable. I try and avoid the word breathtaking as from a literal sense it doesn’t really work but when it comes to Machu Picchu, maybe I can make an exception. Do I think you should see it in your lifetime? Definitive answer – YES.The sun was yet to rise as Efra took us up the stairs to the best viewing point of the site. We laughed at the alpacas standing on the cliff face, something we had seen on book covers and postcards and assumed they were probably photo-shopped but no, there they are ready for the shot. We took photo after photo, feeling like none of the photos were doing justice to the beauty and enormity of the site and its surrounds.
Efra spoke to us about the history and we watched as the sun began to hit Huaynapicchu and then continued to light the whole site. For those who may not know, Huaynapicchu is the mountain you generally see in the back of most photos whereas Machu Picchu mountain is opposite, further from the site itself. The actual name that the Incas used for the site is unknown, likewise for the mountains, Huaynapicchu and Machu Picchu (only so called today as that is the Quechua words for big mountain and small mountain).Once the sun had risen we continued to walk through the site as Efra pointed out various features before leaving us with time to explore ourselves. As you walk past high walls of carved stone, through doorways and tunnels, you wonder how such a complex system of buildings was ever constructed while imagining what more you may have been able to see should it ever have been totally completed. On one hand it seems mind-boggling that they would choose such an isolated place, but as you walk the grounds and look out over the surrounding mountains it does seem like a majestic setting akin to no other.After hours of walking and admiring, sitting on the hill and occasionally laughing at the hoards of tourists that from a distance looked like tiny ants making their way through the different passages, it was time to leave Machu Picchu. We took our last photos, still trying aimlessly to get that one photo that captured exactly what we felt as we stared out in that last hour before we said goodbye.
While you can take the train direct from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, there was something really rewarding about having trekked for days in order to make our way to Machu Picchu. We had the opportunity to retrace the steps and paths that were built so many centuries ago and then arrive at such a sacred place, with its undefined history giving it a mysterious quality that only adds to the whole experience. Photos do not do it justice – you need to experience it for yourself!