Last month Abbey S., a Latin America For Less travel advisor, traveled to southern Peru for a second dose of Machu Picchu magic. But this time – instead of taking the train – she laced up her hiking books and embarked on the multi-day Salkantay Trek to these famous Inca ruins. The high altitudes of this region added to the physical challenge of the experience, but made the satisfaction of completing the journey that much more sweet.
Salkantay Trek: From snowcapped peaks to Machu Picchu
The Salkantay Trek is a remote footpath through the Cordillera Vilcabamba that leads to Machu Picchu. The Inca trail is named after Salkantay Mountain, the highest peak in the region. For centuries, this snowcapped mountain has played a central role in the spirituality and astrology of Andean cultures.
In company of a team of trekking experts, Abbey and friends set out to conquer the switchbacks up to the base of Salkantay Mountain on day one of their 5 days/4 nights adventure.
“Before the trek we stayed in Cusco for two days to adjust to the altitude,” said Abbey. “It was hard the first day of the trek going up, but I was never really sick.”
After making the uphill climb, the group settled into their campsite located at the base of Salkantay. Outside temperatures really dropped when the sun went down and Abbey regretted not having brought more layers for warmth.
The next morning a steaming cup of mate de coca (coca tea) coaxed Abbey from her tent. Fortunately, the warm beverage and surrounding scenery were enough to recharge her energy levels after a restless sleep.
“We started hiking around 7:30 a.m. on the second day of the trek and reached the top of the pass about two hours later. It was such a moment of relief,” said Abbey.
Ryan, another travel advisor, and Abbey make it to the top of the pass.
The guide gave everyone three coca leaves. Like others in her group, Abbey was instructed to hold the three leaves in the shape of a fan, close her eyes, and make a wish. Then, they left all of the coca leaves as an offering to Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Earth).
The trail then began its gradual descent into more tropical vegetation. Abbey started day two of the Salkantay Trek dressed in a warm winter coat and by that afternoon she was comfortable wearing a tanktop.
“There were a lot of extremes. Salkantay is a huge mountain covered in snow and then beautiful, jungle-like scenery in a valley,” Abbey said. “It was definitely diverse and really cool.”
Over the next few days the group passed through quaint tradition villages and crossed mighty rivers. Their interactive guide pointed out interesting plant life and shared his knowledge of native cultural practices, which enhanced the group’s appreciation of the surrounding region.
Each day of the trek was planned to perfection. Designated people from the trekking team set out in front of the group to prepare meals in advance and even set up the tents.
“Porters helped carry our bags and there was even a cooking crew,” Abbey explained. “The food was so good! I don’t even know how they made some of the food. On the final day, they made a cake for someone’s birthday.”
After their descent from the mountainous region, the group walked the final stretch of their journey (about 3 hours) along the train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes.
“The first time I visited Machu Picchu I took the train in from Ollantaytambo. It was actually nice walking into Aguas Calientes because we got to see the back view of Machu Picchu more clearly, which I hadn’t seen the first time.”
The next day Abbey and friends visited Machu Picchu. Although their muscles were still sore from the previous days of high altitude trekking, they made the steep climb up Machu Picchu Mountain. The stunning view over the Inca ruins at the top was amazing. And seeing the Salktantay peak off in the distance – a reminder of how far they’d all traveled – was described by Abbey as “the icing on the cake.”
Would Abbey do another multi-day trek? Absolutely! Despite the physical challenge, it was an amazing and rewarding experience. The Lares Trek (to Machu Picchu) or the W Trek (in Torres Del Paine, Chile) are next on her list!
Plan your own high-altitude adventure
Britt is a California native who left her home to explore South America in 2013 and now lives in Peru. She’s just a little obsessed about planning getaways with her family, scuba diving, and trekking.