Exploring the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Part 2 – The Trek
Last November, Jackson Hole Ski Patroller Pete Linn and I traveled to Peru to explore the Salkantay Trail (ST), an alternate route to the popular and crowded Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
As guides ourselves, we opted to do the trip without an outfitter to have the freedom to move on our terms. It was a last-minute decision, so we only had a couple of weeks of planning and preparation before we found ourselves in Peru, ready to embark on adventure.
Part 2: The Trek
We had flown from Lima to Cusco, spent two nights in Cusco at 12,000ft to acclimate. In the dark morning hours of November 6th, we departed our small Cusco hostel, El Tuco. In the back seat of the old, beat-up miniwagon, Pete and I both reached for seat belts that did not exist. Our driver crossed himself as we pulled away; it was clearly going to be a daunting drive. It often seems like foreign expeditions come with some road travel excitement, and this trip was no different.
Two hours after leaving Cusco, we hit a random roadblock and were stopped for two hours. Then, it took us another three hours to wind up steep, rugged unpaved roads to our launching point of Soraypampa.
On the trek, we quickly found that all our maps, both from the Internet and from shops in Cusco, were inaccurate and distances unreliable. Lack of information makes for a true adventure, like our second day that evolved into a 30 mile stretch (due to bad maps) and included 10,000 feet of combined elevation loss and gain in order to reach an appropriate camp spot with the basic requirements of water and enough space for our sleeping bags and/or tent.
Our packs weighed around sixty pounds; having to pack for such a wide range of climates definitely created some weight, but it felt good to be prepared. Over the next few days we climbed up and down various mountains and crossed from the high alpine into heavy jungle heat and humidity. We went from snowstorms into rainstorms and were surprised by tiny, persistent bugs that left large, itchy, swollen bites.
Two days later we arrived at the village of La Playa late in the evening after the 30-mile push, and camped in a restaurant backyard among chickens and ducks. There were few viable spots to camp as we trekked along steep canyon hillsides for many miles. As we entered the rural village, the locals were friendly and welcoming, encouraging us to stay in their yards as we walked into town.
The trek can be done over three to seven days, depending on fitness and other objectives. There are numerous peaks en route ranging from 17,000ft to 20,000ft that have undoubtedly been summited in the past by Incans and natives of the Andes mountain community, but that see very little traffic in this day and age. There is ski potential in some of the higher mountains on and around Salkantay Peak, but only during the winter season (June to September). Ice and rime plaster the high faces in the springtime.
We didn’t see another traveler until arriving at the ruins of Llactapata on the last day of our journey. From our high campsite that night, we enjoyed spectacular views across the jagged valley to the cliff-side perch of Machu Picchu. We shared the site with only two other hikers, brothers from Brazil with their outfitter, Alpaca Expeditions. The clear evening gave us time to dry out our wet gear and reorganize our packs for the last few days of travel.
The town of Aguas Calientes is a shock to the system after a few days in the quiet mountains. For the final approach to the remote, walled-in town, we walked along the rail tracks in the hot, humid air. Reaching the town’s inner confines, we were immediately struck by the bustling tourist venue, replete with French bakeries, Italian cuisine, and high-end hotels.
We wrapped up our short stay by hiking from town up the Inca stairs into the ruins of Machu Picchu. We then climbed to the entry points at the far ends of the site, including the summit of Machu Picchu Mountain, the Sun Gate, the Inca Bridge, and more. After days covering steep ascents and descents with heavy packs, we really felt our calf muscles, pounding and stretching as we climbed up and down the large stone-block trails laid by the Incas. But the ones we really felt for were the women who were in high heels.
And, to wrap the journey much as it had begun, we had a four-hour delay on our train ride back to Cusco. Hit by a landslide, with a large boulder breaking through a window a few cars up from us, our train retreated a hundred yards to wait for a clearing of the track.
As the monsoon storm pummeled the roof above us, Pete and I agreed that the best part of our travel was not knowing quite what we were going to get as we discovered a new culture and new mountains, embracing the unique elements of a more rugged approach to seeing one of the world’s great landmarks.