If you are heading to Peru then there is a 100% chance that seeing Machu Picchu is going to be somewhere on your agenda. Even the most “I hate touristy places” kind of people still make time for these mountain-top ruins – and with good reason. After two months of living in Peru, I finally made my way to Machu Picchu along the Salkantay Trail with my incredibly tall Dutch friend and I’m not gonna lie – it was pretty incredible. I’ve seen a billion photos, paintings and sketches of Machu Picchu since living in Cusco – I’ve even seen people wearing it on their hats/hoodies/t-shirts – but NOTHING compares to actually seeing it in person.
I got there at 6am with a bus load of other travellers and got to see it bathed in the morning’s first light with wisps of cloud snaking through its ancient walls. Even the sight of Americans posing as llamas and some German school children jostling each other for space to take a selfie and then comparing said selfies couldn’t ruin it for me. But, while it’s all well and good telling you how great it is there, the point of this article is actually to show you how to get to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail without a guide. If you ask any of the tourist agencies about doing the Salkantay solo they will tell you a bunch of horror stories about people dying or getting eaten by bears or whatever. Don’t pay any attention to this. They sell Salkantay tours so it’s not in their best interest to encourage you to go alone. But it’s easy, exciting and fun, plus not having a guide gives you the freedom to stop whenever you want and take any detours you want (although I don’t recommend this – getting lost in the mountains isn’t ideal). So how do you do it?
The first thing you need to do is to get from Cusco to Mollepata. You can do this pretty easily by hopping in a colectivo (minivan) but you will need to leave at 4am in order to catch your next method of transport. OR DO YOU? Being the creative genius I am (it was completely my friend’s idea) we took a colectivo to Mollepata the night before we wanted to start the trail and just stayed in a hotel there. This meant we only needed to get up at 7 in order to catch the truck that leaves from the main square and goes to Soraypampa – where you will want to start your Salkantay hike. You can actually walk from Mollepata to Soraypampa but this will add an extra day to your hike and isn’t really that interesting in terms of scenery (it is still beautiful but just not as great as what is to come). If you do choose to walk, however, you will get the chance to see a glacier lake which is apparently pretty cool (I’ve seen a lot of lakes and wasn’t massively bothered but if lakes are your thing then go for it).
So once you’ve got to Soraypampa, either by foot or truck, you can start your hike for real. This is by far the hardest part of the Salkantay trek. It is predominantly uphill and goes all the way up to 4,600m. At this height the altitude can really fuck you so make sure you take it slow and take plenty of breaks or you will have a very bad time. Once you make it to the summit you’ll see a lovely sign telling you that you are at 4,600m. This is where you can stop panting and crying because from here on out it’s mostly downhill. Keep walking for an hour or two until you stumble upon your first campsite. You might be tempted to set up camp here because you’re exhausted and you’re already there (that’s what we did) but I urge to walk just a few more minutes and you’ll find even better campsites with even more facilities. Now you can rest.
I won’t bore you with details of the rest of the hiking because it honestly couldn’t be easier – the entire Salkantay is clearly marked and is virtually impossible to stray from. You just follow the route and when you get tired you stop in the next village and either climb in your tent or stay in a guesthosue. Simple. Eventually, on your third day, you will get to the Hidroelectrica – a sign that you are nearly in Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes, for those who don’t know, is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu and just about the worst place you will ever go. So from the Hidroelectrica you need to walk for about 2 and a half hours along some train tracks that will lead you to Aguas Calientes. Once you get here you will need to find yourself a hostel for the night but guess what? They are all REALLY REALLY EXPENSIVE. Ok they’re not that expensive but compared to anywhere else in that part of the country they are about triple the price. But it’s one of the most touristy places in the world and they can charge whatever they want so you just have to bite the bullet and pay.
There is literally nothing to do in Aguas Calientes except eat and sleep and I recommend you do a hefty amount of both. I also recommend you ignore all the carbon copy touristy restaurants that offer the exact same 20 sole ‘menu del día’ and head to the local market, which is located just off the main square. Go upstairs here and you’ll see where the locals eat. I don’t want to sound like one of those dickheads who “only eats with the locals because it’s more authentic” or whatever but you can get a two course meal for 8 soles – less than half what most of the restaurants charge – and it’s better quality and bigger portions. You’d be an idiot to pass that up.
Now for the final stretch. To get to Machu Picchu you have two options: walk or bus. If you walk it is going to take you about 2 hours and it is all up hill so make sure you take some energy bars with you and leave at around 3:30am so you get there as the site opens. If you take the bus then you don’t need to leave the hotel until about 5am (hello lie in) but it will cost you about $25 for a return ticket. Basically you need to decide what is more important to you: money or time. Whatever you do remember to buy your ticket to Machu Picchu the day before from the office in the main plaza and remember to take your passport both when you buy the ticket and when you go to Machu Picchu. You get a cool Machu Picchu passport stamp when you leave the ruins so if you love showing off all your cool stamps (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t) then don’t forget to get one.
Once you’ve left Machu Picchu and got back to Aguas Calientes, it’s time to pack up and head back to Cusco – don’t worry you don’t have to hike back along the Salkantay Trail. You can either walk back along the train tracks to the Hidroelectrica or splash out on a very expensive train ticket to get there. I did the latter but only because my mate injured himself and was pretty much incapable of walking. If you can walk, walk. At the Hidroelectrica there will be about a million colectivos waiting to take you back to Cusco. Don’t pay more than about 30-40 soles for the privilege of riding in their vehicle as they race along narrow cliff-side roads at a speed that will make you want to call your mother and tell her you love her. Once you’re in the colectivo you can relax – you’re going to be on the road for at least the next 6 hours.
So now you know how to get to and from Machu Picchu it might be handy to know what you should take with you on the Salkantay Trail. Pay close attention:
- Sleeping bag
- Roll mat
- Gas cannister and the thing you screw on top to cook stuff (I don’t know the medical term for this)
- Little saucepan
- Cutlery (I forgot this and ended up spearing pasta with a twig I found – not ideal)
- Water purification tablets (these are amazing and allow you to fill your water bottles up in the streams rather than buying loads of water at the get go and carrying it with you)
- Rain poncho
- Map (I didn’t have one but I reckon it would have been helpful)
- Lots of layers (to put on gradually as you go up and strip off as you come down)
- Food – energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, pasta & sauce, ramen etc.
- Around 400 soles in cash (I doubt you’ll spend this much but better safe than poor)