In April 2015, I did the Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu with REI Adventures and Mountain Lodges of Peru. It was a truly awesome experience and I highly recommend it.
I arrived in Cusco a day early because I have never been at high altitude and I did not know if it would make me sick or not. This city sits at 11,250 feet! I wanted to be able to rest if I was not feeling well. I could definitely tell that the air was thinner, but I never felt too sick. A cup of coca tea helped. So, I ended up with an entire day to explore the city on my own. I had a wonderful dinner at Chicha- a Gaston Acurio restaurant. Gaston Acurio is one of Peru’s most famous chefs. Please promise me you’ll try this sometime…. take pictures of your food if you are dining in a restaurant alone. They think you’re a food blogger and they bring you free dessert. This has happened to me more than once so I’m going to keep doing it.
On my second day in Cusco, I met up with the hiking group and guide Raul. In the afternoon, we set out on a guided tour of the city, the historic heart of the Incan civilization. Our afternoon exploration took us to many of the city’s most notable sights including the bustling Plaza de Armas (main square) and neighboring cathedral; the Santo Domingo Church, built atop the stone ruins of the once magnificent Inca temple Koricancha (Temple of the Sun), and the imposing remains of the monolithic Sacsayhuaman fortress, which offered bird’s-eye views of the entire red-roofed city far below. This is a fascinating city. Just last year, there was some road construction going on and they had to halt it because they found some Incan remains! All these years later!
That night my roommate kept me up very late, talking nonstop. For 64, she was very energetic. She told me she had had 5 cups of coca tea! That explains a lot.
On the next day we gathered early in the morning and began our drive towards the Salkantay Lodge, the picturesque starting point of our Andean trek. En route we visited the Inca ruins of Tarawasi near the town of Limatambo and stopped for a coffee break in the small village of Mollepata. We covered the final distance to the lodge via a beautiful 4-hour warm-up hike that began in the nearby village of Marcoccasa. Today’s hike was 5 miles. We reached our destination in the late afternoon, located in the spectacular valley of Soraypampa, crowned by majestic Salkantay (20,500′), a sacred peak in Inca mythology and the highest in this region of the Andes. We had the remainder of the day to relax and enjoy the fabulous views. The lodge elevation was 12,690′. It was challenging to sleep at high altitude. That is the only problem I had, it was just difficult to breathe. Finally after a couple of days I figured out that I needed to prop myself up with my pillow to be able to breathe and sleep better.
We spent the next day in the vicinity of the Salkantay Lodge while we continued to acclimatize before our trek to Macchu Picchu began. We went on a 4-hour hike to a glacial blue lake which allowed us to gain a greater appreciation for this valley’s rugged beauty. At the glacial lake, our assistant guide Diana lead a sacred blessing to Pachamama. Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. We made an offering of coca leaves and threw them in the lake. It was a beautiful day. Today’s hike was 4 miles.
Having spent the last three days at altitude, we were at last acclimatized and ready to begin our trek to Macchu Picchu! We set out early in the cool mountain air and hiked through the Rio Blanco valley, circling Humantay Peak across from Salkantay. We reached the highest point of our trip today (15,213 ft) as we hiked up a series of switchbacks over a pass that offers outstanding views of the snow-capped peaks of the Vilcabamba Range in every direction. With the south face of Salkantay towering above us, we kept our eyes out for Andean condors, often visible in this area. I’m not saying that getting to the pass was easy, but it was not as difficult as I thought it was going to be. I was definitely tired and out of breath at times, but I never felt like I was going to die. From the pass we continued our descent toward the Wayra Lodge (Wayra translates to “The place where the wind lives”). This lodge elevation was 12,812′. Today’s hike was 8 miles.
Following our big day yesterday, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the lodge and departed around 9am. We began hiking downhill above the Salkantay River and noticed the scenery becoming increasingly more verdant as we lost altitude. Our next lodge was located on a 1,000-foot promontory above the confluence of three fast-flowing rivers. We stayed at the Colpa Lodge, elevation 9,414’. Today’s hike was 6 miles. For dinner, we had Andean barbecue. I got to try “cuy”, which is guinea pig.
Today’s trek through the rural Santa Teresa River Valley took us downhill past vast coffee plantations (said to produce one of the best organic coffees in the world), banana trees and orchards. After a hot picnic lunch by the river, we trekked for another hour before being met by a private vehicle that transported our group a short distance (30-minute drive) to the last stretch of trail on the route for today. A final short climb along the Llactapata Inca Trail brought us to the Lucma Lodge, set in a lovely avocado orchard, elevation 7,003’. Today’s hike was 10 miles.
A hearty breakfast fueled us up for the last day of our trek and the initial 2-3 hour climb towards Llactapata pass (8,974′). Shortly after cresting the pass and beginning our 3,165′ descent, we were treated to our first distant glimpse of Macchu Picchu. As few tourists approach the ruins from this direction, our particular view was a unique treat. The final descent along the trail leading to the Urubamba River passed through more orchards and lush bamboo forests. Our hike today was timed to reach the river with ample time to spare before the train arrived that transported us to the village of Aguas Calientes, located a short distance from the ruins. We spent the next two nights at the delightful Inkaterra Hotel, a perfect base from which to explore the wonders of this magnificent site! Today’s hike was 7 miles.
Today I saw Macchu Picchu! I remember seeing a poster of Macchu Picchu on the wall in middle school. It was why I chose Spanish as my foreign language to study- because I dreamed of going there someday. This was my first view of it, and I got a little emotional.
Some of us opted to climb Macchu Picchu mountain today. It was quite challenging! 2000 steps to the top! For a while I was miserable, could not catch my breath and the lactic acid buildup was making my legs burn big time. Somewhere into it, I got into my groove and got that endorphin high and a burst of energy. The view at the top was worth it. I was literally in the clouds. I felt so happy up there for some reason.
In the afternoon, our knowledgeable guide lead us on a fascinating tour, recapping Machu Picchu’s rediscovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911 and explaining the significance of the various structures that cover the grounds. We returned to the Inkaterra Hotel in Aguas Calientes again that evening.
On the next day, most of the group stayed back in town to relax at the hotel, getting massages or what not, some went shopping. Since my roommate had been sick the prior afternoon and could not go on the guided tour of Macchu Picchu, I went back with her this day. I took her on a guided tour as best as I could. To my surprise I remembered the route through the ruins and most of the information he told us. She was grateful for that.
We caught the train back to Cusco in the afternoon. The group shared one final dinner together. After dinner, a couple of us ladies went with our assistant guide Diana to a bar in Cusco to go salsa dancing. That was a lot of fun. I used to go salsa dancing a few nights a week for many years, but it has been many years since I have done that. It felt good to do it again. Although, I was quite winded trying to salsa dance at 11,000 feet!
This was such a great trip. I never worry about signing up by myself for a REI trip. The group was all ages and a mix of couples and other ladies coming solo. We all love hiking and traveling and we all got along great. We shared a lot of laughs and I miss the people in my group and the guides. I hope that we cross paths again someday somehow.