Salkantay Trek - Alternative Route to Machu Picchu

My first multi-day trek was on the Classic Inca Trail way back in 2000 while working as a Tour Leader … and I was immediately hooked. The scenery, the camaraderie, the archaeology and the sense of achievement upon arriving at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu after four days’ hiking added up to a wonderful experience. 

Luckily, I had to do the Inca Trail a further nine times as part of my contract, and this enjoyment never wore off. I got a kick out of seeing how the landscape changed with the varying seasons and weather. And it was fun getting to know the trek crew and guides I was working with regularly, and who made the experience so enjoyable for the passengers through their hard work, good humour … and excellent cooking in seemingly trying conditions. 

Now no longer a tour leader accompanying groups around Peru, the opportunity to go trekking in the spectacular Andes mountains have been much reduced. But, after years of longing, I finally completed the Salkantay Trek, one of the alternative routes to Machu Picchu, in July 2015. 

This route actually goes higher than the Inca Trail, and the first night we were camping at 4,150m (13,615 ft), with a quite incredible view of Tucarhuay (4,600 m / 15,092 ft) and Salkantay (6,264 m / 20,551 ft) Mountains, and their respective glaciers. 

Despite being tired from the day’s hiking, I made the effort to climb up the lateral moraine left by Salkantay Glacier. I was rewarded with a vast lunar landscape of rocks and craters, left by the retreating ice sheet. To reiterate the power of the mountain, I could hear the occasional sound of the glacier calving a kilometer above me and falling rocks and ice. It was easy to see why locals - past and present - have worshipped these mountains as gods, called apus. Awesome, in the true sense of the word. 

Once over the Abra Salkantay pass at 4,525 m (14,846 ft), the sparse vegetation soon gave way to lush cloud forest and high jungle. As we descended, the temperature rose, and layers of clothing were shed. We descended some 2,000 m (6,562 ft) over the course of the day, and I could feel this in my calves and knees by the end. The peaks of the Vilcanota Range were still visible, but we could also now see the Vilcabamba Range

From 8am on Day 2 onwards, it was almost continual descent to Hidroelectrica which, as it sounds, is the site of a hydroelectric power station that provides power to the entire Cusco region and beyond. It is also the last stop on the train line from Cusco.

Built in 1936, the track once went all the way to Quillabamba, a further three hours away, but the extreme rains brought on by 1996’s El Niño washed away much of the track … and this has never been replaced. 

The one exception to this general descent was a climb of 600 m (2,000 ft) from the campsite on Day 3 of the trek, in Lucmabamba, to the recently uncovered ruins of Llactapata. (For an excellent description of the discovery of this site, I recommend Hugh Thomson’s A Sacred Landscape). 

Not all trek operators take this route, preferring to stay in Santa Teresa on Day 3, and then to walk or drive along the Urubamba River valley to Machu Picchu; but they are undoubtedly missing a treat, as the views from Llactapata over the ruins of Machu Picchu are magnificent. 

A word on the campsites: after the natural wonder of the first night, the next two had a much more human character, being located in the gardens of local families. This offered a nice insight into their life.

We were taken through the whole coffee production process, from plant to cup, by our Lucmabamba host, which was fascinating.

We were also lucky to coincide with the Copa America football tournament. We watched Peru beat Bolivia 3-0 in the quarter-finals, and then Argentina v Colombia (one of the most brutal games I’ve ever seen!), in the company of local farmers, crowded around the one TV in the village. 

I am also happy to say that the crew and guides are as obliging and thoughtful as I remembered, bringing back all the positive trekking memories from 15 years ago! 

The climax of the trek, for my fellow hikers, was a day exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu with the guide. My reward, having visited Machu Picchu numerous times, was to inspect 15 hotels - and the thermal baths - in Aguas Calientes. It's not all beer and skittles working in tourism!  

For more information on the Salkantay Trek, or any of the routes to Machu Picchu, please get in touch