The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

I’ve put off writing this post for weeks. Months. Because, for the life of me, I can’t remember the stories I wanted to share from our time on the Salkantay trail; the ones I thought, if documented and sewn together properly, would make for an entertaining (and lighthearted) narrative about our time in the Andes. But because the last thing I wanted to do was journal on my iPhone for an hour each night of the trek, I convinced myself that if I spent just a few moments taking detailed notes at the end of each day, everything would rush back to me when we got home. But it didn’t. Because once we got back we were barely unpacked before taking off for India. And once we got home from India, I spent the next two months trying to digest everything that happened there while also tending to a husband who developed a pretty gnarly case of dengue fever.

But I digress.

Even if I had gotten a chance to expand on my thoughts during a time when they were still at the forefront of my memory, I’d likely still be here today, admitting this: I had no idea what the hell we were getting ourselves into with the Salkantay trek. We’re seasoned hikers (thanks to our proximity to the Rockies), so I just kind of assumed we’d be good to go because walking through the mountains.. how hard could that be? But when that big black van unloaded us and all our shit at the trailhead – and I realized other humans (and horses) would be schlepping the aforementioned shit through the mountains – I lost it. Like, lost it-lost it.

Within a few seconds I was hyperventilating. A few seconds after that, sobbing uncontrollably. Eventually I found myself far removed from everyone else (Thom included), pretending to be intimately photographing a couple of horses so I didn’t have to explain why my cheeks were tearstained or why my face was as red as that reindeer’s nose everyone sings about during the month of December. Eventually I caught my breath, wiped the tears from my face, and attempted to gather my composure because the reality was this: THERE’S NO TURNING BACK NOW, SISTER. Though, for a good portion of the trek, I found myself wishing I had. Don’t get me wrong, the hike was ecologically diverse and stunning in a way that often left my mouth agape – but it also came with a very, very unexpected crash course in Privilege 101. A crash course I didn’t necessarily want to experience for five days straight. On our honeymoon.

So this is where I stress the importance of finding a tour company that pays their workers – their guides and porters and cooks – a living wage; a company that is committed to bettering the lives of the people who are responsible for making their business go ’round. Unfortunately, as the hiker, it means you’re not going to be able to go on the $400 trek. But that’s ok because I’d venture to say that another human’s quality of life is far more important than you saving a few hundred bucks to go on a hike where you don’t have to do a damn thing aside from ensure your body gets from point A to point B. Right?

Right.

Almost one year later, I still can’t shake that feeling. The one I felt when we first arrived at the trailhead. The one I felt all those nights in the tent. The one I felt when I woke up to our cook, Esteban, greeting me with a toothy grin, a warm washcloth, and coffee. And the one I feel every morning I get out of bed. That feeling, it hovers and it haunts. And it continually reminds me – on a daily basis – how immensely lucky I am to have grown up in a bubble where the roads are paved with yellow bricks and opportunity lingers around what seems like every goddamn corner.

That feeling, it may be the souvenir I never wanted.. but it’s one I’m going to fight like hell to hold onto, as long as I live.


TRAVEL NOTES

– We went during the month of September and hiking conditions were perfect (though we did get caught in a short thunderstorm, so make sure you pack a poncho) (packing list is at the bottom of the post).
– You get what you pay for: a good trek will cost $750+ per person (ours was $950 per person). We went with Exploreandes (a certified sustainable tour operator) but heard good things about Chaska Tours, too.
– Tip your crew! We wound up overtipping (because our guide was an asshat) but the general rule of thumb is 50-75 soles per porter (we had two), 100+ soles for the cook, and 50-150 soles for the guide (this is not per trekker, it’s total from the group).
– Do not skip the opportunity to visit the hot springs. In fact, if you’re thinking about doing the Inca trail, you should consider the Salkantay for no reason other than the fact that you get to spend a few hours soaking in a giant tub of warm water.. at sunset.


More from our South American honeymoon: Lomas de Arena Regional ParkLa Paz, Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni, Lake Titicaca, and Cusco, Peru.

Setting off on the Salkantay Trek!Estancia El Pedregal MollepataUntitledGrubbin'Carrying our shit.UntitledUntitledSalkantayIt was -13ºF when I took this photo.M I L K YXMe & my kankenHumantay LakeGOOD MORNINGUntitledHorses hydratingEsteban's traveling kitchenWild strawberriesUntitledUntitledUntitledUntitledLOMO SALTADOEeeeesteban!UntitledCoffee fruitUntitledCoffee fruitRoastingCoffee on the SalkantayUntitledUntitledThe clouds were killing me.LlacatapataUntitledUntitledMachu PicchuMachu PicchuCedric at Machu Picchu

WHAT TO EXPECT

There’s no denying that the trek itself is physically demanding and pretty damn tough. Not climb a 14er-tough but tough in that you’re adjusting to a new altitude and eating new things and hiking for hours on end, each day. I was pretty damn fit going into the hike, but it still managed to beat the hell out of me. So in the event you’re thinking about trekking the Salkantay to the ancient city, here’s what you can expect:

DAY 1
Departed from Cusco just before 6AM and stopped in Mollepata for a quick breakfast. Hiked 3-4 hours uphill then set up camp at the base of the Salkantay (15k feet). Temperatures dropped to well below zero; slept in multiple layers, with hats and gloves.

DAY 2
Woke up super early (4AM early) and climbed two hours uphill to the lagoon. Took a 30 minute break then hiked downhill and stopped for a long lunch. There was an opportunity to rinse off in a stream (though no one took it, aside from Thom). After lunch, we continued hiking for 3-4 more hours before arriving at camp for the night. Thom got eaten alive. I remained bite free (A+ blood, FTW).

DAY 3
Woke up before sunrise for a hella steep, ~7 hour downhill hike. It was, undoubtedly, the toughest of all the hikes (Thom agrees). We arrived at camp shortly after noon and relaxed on a coffee plantation. We picked beans, roasted other beans, drank the freshest coffee I’ve ever tasted, learned about the importance of using good quality beans and pure water, etc. We headed to the Santa Teresa hot springs later that day (the springs were the main reason Thom chose the Salkantay) and, this time around, my A+ blood failed to keep the biters away.

DAY 4
Started the day with an early-morning hike and a pretty steep uphill climb, caught our breath at Llacatapata, then continued hiking 3-4 hours downhill to arrive in Augas Calientes. We splurged on a nice hotel (you should, too) but most people opt for hostels as you’re really only there to sleep. We went for dinner at Indio Feliz and it was incredible.

DAY 5
MACHU PICCHU. Before leaving, we had a decision to make: climb an hour’s worth of stairs to get to the ancient city or take a bus. We opted for the bus because we had just spent four days hiking and we wanted to save our legs for exploring Machu Picchu. It turned out to be a good decision because once we started wandering, I realized how exhausted I was. If I had climbed up, they would have had to carry me out on a stretcher – and I am not exaggerating in the slightest. We came back around noon and went straight to La Boulangerie de Paris for bread and pastries, then had a farewell lunch and headed back to Cusco.


PACKING LIST

At the risk of sounding like a gear elitist, the quality of your gear will have an impact on how comfortable you are during any trek. We especially love Fjallraven, Topo, Patagonia, Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Keen given that they make products that are strong and durable.

Footwear: Hiking boots, runners, and flip flops (you’ll want them for wearing around camp)
OuterwearNano puff jacketfleece jacketbeanieall-season gloves, and a merino wool buff
Pants: Keb trousersnikka trousers, and crop pants
ShirtsMoisture-wicking long sleeve crewmoisture-wicking hoodie, and tank tops (x2)
UndergarmentsOasis long sleeve crew (x2), Oasis leggings (x2), underthings, and wool socks (x6)
Bags55L technical packKanken Big, packing cubes, dry bags, and camera insert (if your tour company doesn’t provide sleeping bags, you’ll need one of those, too)
Etc: Swim suit, toothbrush, toothpaste, facial cleansing pads, wilderness wipes, tissues, hydration systemSPF 45 sunscreen, natural insect repellent, and chemical insect repellent
Food: Instant coffee (Starbucks VIA Italian roast is my favorite), nut butter packs, dried fruit, and a random assortment of energy bars
Camera: Canon Mark II + 24-105mm f/4 lens
+ A clean outfit for exploring Machu Picchu

*Thom pretty much brought the same gear (but a Tortuga pack instead of the technical pack)

Machu Picchu

19 Comments

  • Reply Abby | Lace & Lilacs 12 August 2016 at 7:52 AM

    Oh, Ashlae, this post is utterly incredible. Your photos are stunning and I enjoyed reading every word. I wish I was the kind of person who genuinely likes hiking, because this experience sounds phenomenal. But I wouldn’t last a day hahah. ;) Anyways, loved this.

  • Reply Heather 12 August 2016 at 8:14 AM

    Beautiful photos and even more beautifully written. If only we all had that same souvenir in our possession. What a world it would be…

  • Reply valentina | sweet kabocha 12 August 2016 at 9:17 AM

    Your photos are gorgeous and that experience seems amazing. But I’m not a hiker at all, that’s why I always say to my bf “I would love to come in Nepal with you when you’ll finally decide to go, but I think I’m gonna die there if I follow you”.
    Thanks so much for you honesty btw!
    Have a wonderful weekend :*

  • Reply Sofia 12 August 2016 at 9:34 AM

    I did that same trek too about 10 years ago. Yes I do remember how absolutely beautiful the scenery was, how impossibly closer to mother nature you could ever feel. etc. But I also remember how terribly physically demanding it was, how I was still sick because of the altitude (even though I had already been over 3500 m for the last 10 days), and how every single step seemed so difficult to do. I’m a person that eats healthy, I do plenty of sports, I consider that I’m very fit and well, but given the opportunity to do it again, I’m not sure I could go through with it. Would you?

    • Reply Ashlae 15 August 2016 at 8:17 AM

      Hi Sofia –

      I definitely would! Though we’ll either do the Inca trail or go on a self-guided hike next time we head that way. :)

      • Reply Sofia 21 August 2016 at 3:43 PM

        Good on you! Actually I think yes I’d do the Inca trail which is supposed to be easier :)

  • Reply Joyce @ Sun Diego Eats 12 August 2016 at 10:48 AM

    Appreciate the discussion of privilege, it’s something I always think about when I’m bargaining with a vendor in Thailand or tipping the kid that wheelbarrowed our luggage to our hotel from the port in a tiny island in the north of Brazil. In the end the $20 USD or so you are trying to save has a tremendously higher impact (especially factoring in the currency exchange) on their lives. Namely I think of all the things I thoughtlessly and unnecessarily spend $20 (Amazon prime, grain free cat food, Netflix….).

    Great info for the Inca Trail too and Machu Picchu too, the hike looks beautiful. We skipped the trail part when we went and took the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (my dad was travelling with 3 teenage girls, no way he was going to additionally subject himself to a multi-day hike in our volatile company). But whenever anyone tells me they are going to Machu Picchu my most important tip is 1) WEAR LONG PANTS 2) bring repellant.

  • Reply Anya 12 August 2016 at 11:21 AM

    Wow Ashlae, this is so amazing – the writing, the breathtaking photos, everything. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  • Reply dana 12 August 2016 at 6:24 PM

    Such a bad ass. Thanks for sharing all these in-depth tips! I thought you would’ve killed it for sure, no effort. Thanks for being honest!

  • Reply Clara 13 August 2016 at 1:07 PM

    ABSOLUTELY STUNNING PICTURES-
    LOVE YOUR POST, THANKS FOR SHARING-XX

  • Reply Lazy Sunday #3 | The Sugar Hit 13 August 2016 at 2:17 PM

    […] honesty and saturated, atmospheric, ethereal photos make me happy on the daily. This post about Macchu Picchu is like a deep breath […]

  • Reply Stacy 14 August 2016 at 8:03 AM

    Beauty. Thanks for the post and the reminder that nothing is cheap, somebody pays, and it’s usually the person that can least afford it. Do you know “The Yellow House”? You girls remind me of one another when you are traveling, I think you occupy the same heart space.

    • Reply Ashlae 15 August 2016 at 8:19 AM

      Hi Stacy –

      Oh man, I adore Sarah and her blog. <3

  • Reply Pistachio and Raspberry Fields Ice Cream Cake – Ice Cream Sunday - Golubka Kitchen 14 August 2016 at 8:24 AM

    […] Ashlae’s Post on The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu – blown away […]

  • Reply Sophie 14 August 2016 at 5:02 PM

    Beautiful photos, Ashlae! I love how you’re such a bad ass boss lady and tell it like it is. I’d surely be panicking / crying there right along side you.

  • Reply Randle Browning 15 August 2016 at 7:33 AM

    Hey Ashlae! Thank you for sharing all the details, even the stuff that was upsetting. My husband has been wanting to do this trip for a while, but we’ve also been worried about the situation with the guides and whether paying makes us complicit in something…? Anyway, thanks for being so open and honest about it. On a lighter note – it’s so helpful to see all the gear you brought and exactly what the hike was like! I’m glad I read this, because I didn’t realize quite how intense the trek would be. Question – was it possible for you to eat vegan on this trip? It looks like in the photos you could while hiking but maybe not at the restaurants?

    • Reply Ashlae 15 August 2016 at 8:16 AM

      Hi Randle –

      You’re only complicit if you go with a cheap tour company. Otherwise, being a guide/porter/cook is one of the best jobs to have in Peru’s tourism industry. We found out at the end of our trek that one of our porters was actually able to go to culinary school with the money he made from working the trek – which warmed the shit out of my heart. As for eating, I rarely have problems finding vegan options while traveling, and especially not in Bolivia or Peru (and not on the trek, either).

  • Reply Erin 16 August 2016 at 7:55 PM

    You continue to be one of my favorite people on the internet and we all know… there are A LOT of people on the internet. And thanks for sharing your gear list!

  • Reply Maya | Spice + Sprout 16 August 2016 at 8:01 PM

    This is such a beautiful post in so many ways. I feel like it is so important to recognize the privilege you (we/ people) have in different situations – including the privilege of being able to reflect and write about an experience in an informed way. I really appreciate the honesty here, and also research in talking to real people to know the actual situation of their lives, and not just assuming (as you wrote about in your comment above). So great! Your photos are absolutely stunning. I am super stoked to try out a hiking adventure like this in the future!

  • Leave a Reply