One of my favorite ways to experience a new place is to get outdoors and see some of its most incredible sights. While in Peru, I decided to get to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trek. The Salkantay is a 4- or 5-day trek through the mountains and cloud forests. Before I arrived, I booked a 4-day trek with Salkantay Trekking, a highly reputed guide company. In this post, I’ll share the story of my time on the Salkantay Trek, along with 25 of my favorite photographs.
Day 1: Altitude and Alpine Lakes
3:30 AM rolled around, the call time for our hotel pickup. Drowsy and cold, I made my way in the dark to the bus parked outside. We began our adventure with a 3-hour bus ride, winding through the Peruvian mountains. After about two hours, Humantay Mountain came into view across the valley.
Upon stepping out of the van, our guide, Odi, briefed us on the day ahead. We’d have about 20 minutes of uphill, he mentioned, followed by a few hours of flat trail to the campsite. Once we reached the campsite, we’d take a quick break to unwind, then hike up to Humantay Lake and back again. It didn’t sound too bad for the first day. Given that I was still adjusting to the altitude, at over 3,500 m above sea level, I was thankful for the reprieve.
Making it to the campsite was pretty easy, just like Odi suggested. Along the way, since I was traveling solo, I made friends with the other members of our trekking group. It turned out there were 2 other American girls, a Mexican couple, and two other Dutch couples. Because the hike was so leisurely, it was easier than I anticipated to carry a conversation, despite the thin air.
Once we arrived at the campsite, I was delighted to finally see the glass domes we’d have the pleasure of staying in. They didn’t disappoint – with cozy beds and striking 360 views, they were tiny glass houses made for the mountains.
After a quick break, we regrouped to make the steep ascent to Humantay Lake, an alpine lake hidden at the base of the mountain that carried its same name. This hike was much more difficult than our initial few hours, but it did offer breathtaking (literally) views of the valley below.
What greeted me at the top was a greenish-blue, quiet mountain lake with just a few other hiking groups there. It began to drizzle, giving the lake an air of mystery that was quite beautiful. The tops of the mountains were shrouded in fog, and the lake took on an even deeper hue of turquoise.
As we shivered in the piercing cold drizzle, Odi taught us that the Quechua people always give an offering of chicha, Peruvian sugar cane liquor, to Pacha Mama, the Incan “Mother Nature.” He poured some into the cap of his bottle and dropped it to the ground, watching as it seeped into the earth. Afterward, he took a sip of hip own, and passed around the bottle for all of us to try. When it came time for me to taste it, I downed the capful and winced. The alcohol burned as it went down my throat, but the sense of warmth from within was strangely comforting. In that moment, I think we were all really thankful for the chance to be completely immersed in this beautiful place.
Day 2: From the Tundra to the Tropics
Through the night, it sleeted heavily. The two American girls, Sara and Laura, shared a dome with me. We spent the night drifting in and out of sleep and listening to the soft tapping of the ice on the glass. Dawn rolled around and a few of the guides came to our door to wake us up, thrusting some coca tea in through the doorway.
After a short breakfast, we began our hike for day two. Odi told us that this would be the most difficult day, at around 14 miles of hiking. We packed our things and began working our way toward our trek’s “summit,” the Salkantay Pass. At a maximum elevation of 4,600 meters, the hike required an extra amount of endurance.
For nearly three hours we trudged onwards, taking small steps and stopping for air every few kilometers. Every so often I’d feel like the air was too thin, or my legs were fatigued, or I’d get frustrated for one reason or another. But then I’d simply look around, and everywhere I looked, there were stunning landscapes staring back at me.
Finally, Salkantay Mountain came into view, and I knew we were getting close. Odi passed by and mentioned that the night before, the trail received a good amount of snowfall. After spending a hot, humid summer in Washington, DC, it was refreshing to see some snow for a bit.
Finally, after another few minutes of climbing, we reached the Salkantay Pass. Snowy mountains and spectacular views greeted me wherever I turned. Proudly, I basked in a quiet moment of appreciation of my body and how much it endured to get to this point.
After a quick coca tea break, our group began the descent toward the cloud forests below. We stopped for lunch in a local village, then continued onward. As we descended, the landscape began to turn green. Worried that we wouldn’t make it to our campsite by nightfall, we hightailed it down the gravel trails, taking meticulous measures not to slip on the loose stones beneath us.
Looking back to where we came from earlier in the day, the Salkantay Pass became a faraway snapshot amongst the green of the cloud forest. We came a long, long way.
Day 3: Onward to Aguas Calientes
Unlike waking up to the soft pattering of sleet on our windows, on day three we rose to the sound of birds chirping in the trees. Today would be our longest hike, at around 16 miles, and the last stretch of our journey before heading to Machu Picchu.
The third day’s hike was much more leisurely than the previous two days. There was very little uphill walking, so I felt like I could take in the scenery around me even more without having to battle too much fatigue. Along the way, we stopped for a Peruvian fruit called granadillas, which are similar to passionfruit.
Onwards through the forest we walked, over streams and rock paths. The sound of birds singing accompanied us the entire way. Down the dusty trails, we saw all kinds of colorful plant life, from flowers to strange shrubs.
Our lunch spot was at a local coffee farm, where the owners taught us a bit about the coffee process. They grow different kinds of coffee in Peru, but the two kinds on the farm were a native Peruvian species and arabica coffee beans. The Peruvian species, our guide said, was quickly dying out due to a massive spread of a certain plant disease. On the other hand, the arabica plants were unaffected.
Next, the guides showed us how they dried, roasted, and ground the beans. Afterward, they invited us to try some of the coffee they produced. Naturally, I walked away from there with a bag for my own home.
After a hard-earned lunch, we caught a bus to the Hidroelectrica train station, where we walked the final 3-hour stretch of the Salkantay trail to Aguas Calientes. Although the hardest park of the Salkantay Trek was over, we still had one more day of outdoor time before heading back to Cusco – our ascent to the famed Machu Picchu.
Day 4: Daybreak at Machu Picchu
After a 2:30 AM wake up and a long wait for the bus, we arrived at Machu Picchu and were some of the very first people in line. Although it was early, it was worth getting up to see the place completely devoid of tourists for a few blissful moments. It was truly a spectacle, and I was especially thankful for the time we got to spend in the ruins without hundreds of other people around. Those quiet minutes were some of the most awe-inspiring of the trek.
Once the area began to fill up with a frenzy of tourists, the Mexican couple and I walked up to the Sun Gate, where the Inca Trail meets Machu Picchu. This area was much more quiet, with only a few other hikers here and there. It also boasted spectacular aerial views of Machu Picchu from above, surrounded by wispy clouds. By far, this was my favorite part of visiting Machu Picchu – being able to see its grandeur from so far away.
Although my journey on the Salkantay Trek is over, the memories of incredible landscapes and laughs along the way made the entire trip worthwhile. I am so glad I took on the challenge of seeing this spectacular part of Peru by foot. It is something I am incredibly proud of and thankful for.