We left Arequipa late at night and arrived at the bus terminal of Cusco early the next morning. We found the cheapest bus from Arequipa to Cusco, just S/. 30, and the driver we got was a maniac. We felt like we escaped death closely quite a few times that night. It was one of the worst bus rides we had so far. From the terminal it was a 15 minute van ride across the city to get to the Intro hostel, our home for the next few days. Since the Colca canyon tour we’ve found a new (and temporary) travel buddy: Andrew, from the United States. We checked in at the hostel and could join their breakfast. We spent the better part of the first morning in Cusco comparing the offers from tour operators. Our focus was on finding a good deal for the Salkantay trek, a five day/four night trek over the Salkantay pass to Machu Picchu. Nearly all tour operators offer the same package, only the prices can differ greatly. We decided to travel with Loki Travel (from the Loki Hostel), as recommended by the Belgians from our Colca canyon trek.
We met up with some Swedish girls we met in Mendoza for lunch. It was nice to share our travel stories again and see some familiar faces. I had a great cup of coffee at the Coffee museum, but our lunch was smaller. Just an hour before we had some great waffles with ice cream. We just got very hungry from the shopping at the tour operators and our early breakfast. We strolled around for the rest of the afternoon. Not feeling like doing a lot after an exhausting night without a lot of sleep. We found a small restaurant with typical Peruvian food — albeit a bit touristy — and went to bed early.
Breakfast in the hostel was simple but plentiful. We played a couple of games of eight ball pool before we headed into town. The pool table wasn’t level and the small pockets made us play some very long games. At the Plaza de las Armas, the central square, we found another parade going on. It was for the police and their volunteers. We watched it for a while, before Angelo and I visited the cathedral on the square. The cathedral is built on top of the ruins of an ancient Inca palace. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, until the Spanish conquistadors arrived, and looted and destroyed the city. We got an audio tour of the cathedral. It contains a handful of interesting paintings and statues, which mix the Andean culture with the Christian religion. After an hour we met with Andrew again and went for lunch.
We took a taxi cab to furthest of the four Inca ruins in the vicinity of Cusco: Tambomachay. Known as the Inca baths, it is only a small but well preserved ruin. The water still flows from the natural sources into the canals of the ruins. The second ruins were just across the road: Pukapukara, the red fortress. It was either a guard house or lodge. Only walls remain of the structure, but it had a great view into the valley. We continued walking towards Cusco, 8km from the first ruins. All the way downhill. A kilometer before we got back to Cusco we encountered the last two ruins. First Qenqo (Zig Zag), a large rock carved for ceremonies. And finally Sacsaywamán. The largest of the ruins, a huge ruin of military significance. We strolled around the place until closing time, when we got kicked out by security.
Our third and final day in Cusco was focused on the preparations for the Salkantay trek. There were a few things left to get. We had until 5:30 PM, when our briefing would start. This meant we had a lot of free time too. Got a chance to sleep in that morning, drop off our laundry and play a couple of games of pool. We wanted to visit the central market for food, but it was closed as it was a Sunday. There were plenty of market stalls around the market, but the level of hygiene seemed poor. We decided to not buy anything at the market and just go to a supermarket. At the briefing we got to meet our guide for the coming week, who walked us through the itinerary of the trek and what to bring. After an hour we were free to go. We packed our bags in preparation before we got out for dinner. We decided to go to one of the restaurants at the Plaza de las Armas for a piece of meat. Time to get some rest before our trek.
Salkantay Trek #1
We had to be at the reception of the Loki Hostel at 4:15 AM to pick up our breakfast box. Our guide — Carlos — arrived 15 minutes later and took us to the bus. It was a couple of hours drive to a small village near the startpoint of the trail. We got to sort out our luggage for the horses, which could carry up to 5kg per person. And had some time to eat our breakfast. From the village it was another 45 minutes to the trail start. Everybody got off their buses, the horses were loaded with the equipment, and we finally started our hike early in the morning. We got split into groups. Our group consisted of 12 people. More than half was from the United States, two Belgians, a Norwegian girl and us.
Today was hiking practice. Going uphill for about five hours at an easy pace. We stopped frequently for breaks and to get used to the altitude. The trail followed irrigation channels into the mountains, where the fresh glacier water flowed. We arrived at our campsite past noon, where we got our first lunch. Two cooks traveled ahead of us with the horsemen. We had an avocado salad as a starter, then a bowl of soup, and trout as the main meal. To top it all off we got a cup of coca tea. We had a free afternoon, we could choose to either stay at the campsite or hike up to a nearby glacial lake.
The majority of us chose to hike up to the glacial lake. It was a steep walk uphill for more than an hour, but definitely worth it. We arrived as one of the first, and Andrew even took a dive into the ice cold water. The lake is at the foot of the Humantay mountain. Just on the other side is the Salkantay pass. I hiked up even further to the ridge for a beautiful view of the valley on the other side. Back at the campsite we had tea time first. Tea, coffee or hot chocolate with popcorn. We chatted for a while to learn our travel companions for the coming week. Soon thereafter dinner was served. A two course meal, with plenty of food to spare. We could never get hungry with the large portions of food that we got served. We went to bed early, it has been a long and somewhat exhausting day.
Salkantay Trek #2
It was nice that my sleeping bag was rated for temperatures of -10°C. It was freezing cold last night. We slept in tents, which were set up in a large open hall. We got woken up with a cup of coca tea at 5 AM. After half an hour our breakfast was served: pancakes and bread. Today was the prime of hiking: up to 10 hours over the Salkantay pass and down into the high jungle. Andrew, Angelo and I walked with our group and guide until the first long break. After the break we were allowed to go ahead and continue to the summit of the pass on our own. It took is only 2 hours and twenty minutes to reach the summit at 4650m above sea level. More than an hour later the last of our group arrived. We had all this time to enjoy the mesmerizing sight of the Salkantay mountain. We got a long story from our guide about the Incas and the trails they used. The trail we followed was an Inca trail too, which led to Machu Picchu and a nearby lost Inca city.
From the Salkantay pass we only had to walk downhill. Two hours later we arrived at our lunch site. The trail was tough to walk, with large loose rocks scattered everywhere. Lunch was another bowl of soup, a piece of meat with potatoes and vegetables, and a cup of tea as dessert. We continued for four more hours (for the group, we did it in under three) through high jungle towards the second campsite. The rocky trail turned into a dirt trail and got way less steep. Unfortunately we had to leave the beautiful mountain sights behind us. The second campsite was the first place on the trek with a shower, which we were glad to use. We had a couple of beers to celebrate the ‘toughest’ day of hiking. We played a variety of games before and after dinner. A cool way to get to know each other. We had tea time with popcorn and dinner with the same setup as yesterday. We continued playing games until we got tired and went to bed.
Salkantay Trek #3
Today was the last long day of hiking. We got out of bed another hour later. Besides the breakfast of pancakes and bread, we got a bowl of rice porridge also. A welcome addition to our morning diet. We have had the most beautiful day of hiking yesterday. It was only going to be a stroll over a road, through the jungle towards our lunch place. No rocks only the road, only the occasional passing traffic. Our guide had a good pace for the first hour or so, before we had the first long break. He showed us the way, but he stayed behind himself to help someone from our group — who possibly got a sunstroke and could not continue. Angelo and I completed the 5 hour hike in 3 hours and 40 minutes, and got plenty of time to relax before lunch.
After our lunch we got into a bus that took us to the third and final campground. It was an hour drive. Once there we got to change our clothing, get out swimming suits and get back onto the bus. We were dropped off at the hot springs just outside of the village. Four thermal baths, varying in temperatures up to 39°C. A great way to relax our muscles after three days of hiking. We spent more than two hours in and around the baths, before we returned by bus to the campground. After our dinner we got a shot of Inca Tequila from our guide, to toast on our successful hike over the Salkantay pass. We got a couple of drinks and had a great evening with a small party next to the campfire!
Salkantay Trek #4
This morning we said goodbye to our cooks, who prepared our meals for the last time. We thanked them and showed our appreciation with a small tip. Instead of hiking for three hours this morning, everybody from our group opted for the zip lining. The zip lining base camp was only five minutes from our campground. We got our safety harnesses and helmets, and were taken up to the first of the five zip lines. The lines were 1.5km in length in total. We went down the lines with speeds up to 90km p/h! On the fifth zip line we could choose two positions besides the normal way: Spider-Man (upside down) and Superman (on your belly). I went for the Spider-Man, lots of fun and a great perspective on the world. To get back to the base camp we had to cross a hanging bridge across the river. It was quite wobbly!
We got back into the van and were brought to Hidroelectrica for our lunch. From here on we would get our food in restaurants. After lunch we had to walk for three hours to Aguas Calientes alongside the rail tracks. Slow going and not very interesting. The trains from Peru Rail passed us a couple of times. They were one of the few interesting things on the way. The rail tracks are next to the river, in the middle of the jungle. When we got close to Aguas Calientes we catches our first glimpse of Machu Picchu high on the mountains. After we got our rooms in the hostel in Aguas Calientes, we had a couple of hours of free time. A quick shower first, and then off to explore the town and get some food and drinks for tomorrow. We had a some drinks with our group in an Italian restaurant next to the hostel before dinner. Off to bed early tonight, we have to rise and shine early tomorrow morning!
Salkantay Trek #5
We leave the hostel at 4:20 AM and walk for half an hour to the entrance of Machu Picchu. They opened the gates on the bridge at 5:00 AM. We hiked up the Inca steps for 45 minutes before we reached the entrance gate. We had to wait for fifteen more minutes before we could actually enter the city of Machu Picchu. For two hours long we got a tour of the city by our guide, learning about how and why they built the city. We had some amazing views of Machu Picchu due to the sunrise and clouds rolling in!
After the guided tour we said thanks and goodbye to our guide, and went to explore the city on our own. Our group split into several smaller groups, with everybody going to explore on their own. We stayed together with the Americans and the Norwegian girl. Besides the city itself, we visited the Inca bridge and the Sun Gate. The first was an amazing trail alongside steep cliff drops. We actually saw a part of this trail the day before, when we hiked next to the river. The Sun Gate is the point where the hikers of the Inca trail enter the city. It has a great overview of the city. Machu Picchu is a magical place, one of the most beautiful places I have visited in South America!
Angelo, Andrew and I returned to Aguas Calientes for a lunch. We strolled around the city some, before we bumped into a few familiar faces from our group. Besides us there were two others from our group that had the latest train out of Aguas Calientes, at 9:50 PM. We got a couple of drinks at a bar for happy hour (5 for the price of 1!). Before we got on the train we had a some great Italian food in the restaurant we visited yesterday. The train was very luxurious, including coffee and tea service. I fell asleep after my cup of tea, and woke up when we had to transfer to a van. The van took us from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco, where we finally arrived in our hostel at 2 in the morning. A long and exhausting day, but absolutely worth every penny!