I inhaled the hollow air and struggled to focus on the rugged mountain views. Salkantay Pass, at 4,600 m. (15,090 ft.), was steps away, and the air thinned with each inch of ascent. This was the high point of the Salkantay Trek, the more challenging route to Machu Picchu.
As I arrived at the pass, the sparkling glaciers of Nevado Salkantay Mountain stopped me in my tracks. The contrasting moonscape that surrounded me was barren and drab. I tried to breathe. This was day 2 of our 5-day trek to Machu Picchu. We chose this trek for better views and to experience its 15 ecosystems, as well as to avoid the crowds and mandatory guide on the Inca Trail. The Salkantay is gaining notoriety, but only felt crowded during this short morning stretch to the pass.
We were staying at accommodations run by local families who live along the trek. It’s an ethical and authentic approach to self-guided hiking in a country overwhelmed by commercial adventure tourism. These families arranged for our transportation from Cusco to the trailhead, with a stop for a delicious breakfast at a relative’s home. On the first day we enjoyed a short hike along an Inca canal to our first accommodation, a humble, self-built construction located directly on the trail. After a filling lunch, we hiked to Humantay Lake, located at 4,200 m. (13,779 ft.).
Humantay Lake is framed by Nevado Humantay, a mountain so imposing that it has only been climbed once. Despite its hostility, the mountain adds a charismatic backdrop to the azure waters of the lake, making it a popular destination for day hikers. We were late enough in the day that most of the day hikers had gone.
After a delicious breakfast on day 2, we left our cozy accommodation at Soraypampa. Ahead of us, the valley glistened with the bright colors of the local porters and mules. Hundreds of hikers, weak from the altitude, crept along the trail, stopping occasionally for a mandatory break enforced by their guides. We were the only hikers without guides, and we relished our independence.
We continued on as the guided groups behind us trickled onto Salkantay Pass. We knew the groups would stay on the pass long enough for the guides to prepare some coca tea, and we were happy to descend in peace, interrupted only occasionally by porters and horses. We retrieved our bags and had lunch at a simple refuge in Wayracmachay, a hanging valley suspended just above the Amazon cloud forest. The next 3-hour stretch would be the first time we would have to carry our own bags.
After lunch, the high-altitude moonscape gave way to Amazon cloud forest as we continued our long descent from the pass. The brilliant green jungle engulfed us as its resident birds welcomed us with song. We were warned about mosquitoes on this stretch, but luckily, they had been scared off by the approaching thunderstorm.
We arrived at Challway after 1,813 meters of descent, partially through a downpour, ready for a break. Challway is a small village made up mostly of hikers’ hostels sporting a chilled vibe. Hammocks, green lawns and a small bar welcomed exhausted hikers.
On day 4 the trail undulated through lush jungle as it moved along the Rio Santa Teresa Valley. We finally discovered that the mosquitoes we had been warned about were tiny black flies and we kept our skin covered. The trail was narrow in sections, but walkable. We didn’t have any sustained climbs and enjoyed the oxygen levels at this elevation.
The next day we began our ascent to our first view of Machu Picchu with a walk through lush green coffee plantations. Along the way we passed a small homemade coffee stand labeled “Starbucks.” Up to now, coca tea had been the featured hot drink. Coca is the plant that cocaine is made from. Before it becomes a drug, it’s a local plant just as important to the Andean people as green tea is to the Japanese. They say coca is effective against altitude-related symptoms. You can drink it as a tea, get candy with coca in it, or chew coca leaves directly.
At the top of the ascent, we emerged onto a grassy perch to layered views of sharp, jungled ridges. The structures of the legendary Lost Inca City appeared in the distance, perched unassumingly on a ridgeline between two cone-shaped peaks. To the right, glaciated peaks played hide and seek behind the clouds.
We descended into the valley and eventually arrived at the Hydroelectric Plant, a train station that plays a critical role in providing supplies to Agua Calientes, the village at the base of Machu Picchu. The tracks are lined here with restaurants and shops. The trek continues along the tracks through a peaceful valley to Agua Calientes. Many skip this part of the walk and opt for a train ride, but we usually prefer to walk and were happy to save the money.
The one disadvantage of the Salkantay Trek when compared with the Inca Trail is that it doesn’t end directly at Machu Picchu. Instead, you end in Agua Calientes and travel up to the ruins the next day with all the other tourists. This gives you an opportunity though to visit Machu Picchu first thing in the morning when it is less crowded (advanced reservation required), whereas the Inca Trail Hikers arrive later in the day.
True to our nature, we skipped the bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu and opted for the trail instead, a peaceful prelude to the legends hidden among the niches and terraces of this revered site. Our trek concluded as we passed between the precisely cut stone walls and walked among the ghosts of the Inca. I gasped for breath once again. This time, due to the sacredness of my surroundings and not from the lack of oxygen.
Watch the video of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: