Heart of Puma, or Puma Sonq’os in Quechua, was the name given to our trekking group by our guide, KJ. The Salkantay Trek, often dubbed as the best alternative to the Classic Inca Trail, is typically completed in 4 or 5 days, with the final day spent at the crown jewel – Machu Picchu. KJ described the Inca Trail as the best option for a cultural and historical experience, while the Salkantay Trek has better natural landscapes and rugged hiking. My buddy Jacob and I opted for the 4 day/3 night trek with Salkantay Trekking. The diverse Peruvian landscapes ranged from alpine glaciers to lush jungles. Our group of ten hikers bonded quickly, which made the trek especially enjoyable. But our Salkantay Trekking team propelled the trip from great to excellent. KJ was accompanied by an assistant guide (Manu), as well as a chef, “assistant to the chef”, and “horseman” who transported our bags and set up camp. The food was delicious and plentiful. It didn’t take long for my fellow hikers to acknowledge my reputation as a bottomless pit. The incredible views, rewarding hiking, excellent food, and great company made for a memorable Peruvian trekking experience. Here are a few of the highlights from the 4-day trek:
Altitude acclimatization was a bit of a challenge on the first day, particularly during the uphill portion of the hike. Nonetheless, much of the hike was flat during the early part of the day. After an energizing lunch and coca tea (which helps prevent altitude sickness), we hiked through a broad valley up to Humantay Lake – a glacial lake at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. Jacob and I went for a quick swim in the icy water. The chilly temperature was bearable for a few minutes, though I felt like I couldn’t hold my breath for more than a second under water. I came up gasping for air, only to find that there was limited oxygen at this elevation anyway. Nevertheless, the quick dip in the turquoise lake was refreshing and energizing. We returned to our campsite, the company’s signature sky igloos, for a quick dinner before retreating to our room with a view. Stars were visible in the early evening before the super moon created a bright nightlight until dawn.
The second day was the most challenging, consisting of significant uphill and 26 total kilometers. In the early morning, we hiked directly towards Salkantay Mountain, AKA Savage Mountain. The closer we got to the mountain, the more savage it became. Staring down the giant, imposing alpine glacier was a humbling experience. After sucking wind during the menacing climb, we finally made it to Salkantay Pass, the highest point of the hike – 4,630 meters, or 15,190 feet. Far above the clouds with incredible views. It was also quite chilly, which made me thankful that I bought my alpaca hat and matching gloves at the Sunday market in the Sacred Valley. After taking in the scenery, we made an offering of coca leaves to the mountains, and then continued onwards towards another beautiful spot: Salkantay Lake. The lake boasted the same turquoise color as Humantay Lake, but the treacherous climb down meant no swimming (and the mini-avalanche confirmed that it wouldn’t be a good idea). As we descended to lower altitude, we hiked through broad valleys before entering the high jungle. Landscapes changed from snowy glaciers and rugged mountains to green mountains and lush vegetation. The temperature warmed up quite a bit as well. We made it to our next campsite, a local farm, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon before getting some sleep after the big day.
The third day consisted of beautiful rainforest hiking along a roaring river. Waterfalls, tropical fruits, and beautiful views of the valley made for a wonderful morning hike. We stopped for lunch at a local spot and KJ gave us a coffee tour, starting with the plant all the way down to the finished product. It’s an interesting process, especially in a rural Peruvian village. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but the sample I had was delicious. After lunch, the 4-day crew parted ways with the 5-day crew, and we headed to Hidroelectrica by van to prepare for a 3 hour hike along the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes, AKA Machu Picchu Town. We were all running on fumes during the 3-hour hike along the railroad track. There had been protests at Machu Picchu a few days earlier, and the protests had now moved to Aguas Calientes, shutting down the train. As a result, there were several locals walking along the tracks rather than taking the train that day. It was a communal experience amongst locals and tourists. The lush vegetation and steep mountains surrounding the tracks made for a scenic walk towards our destination. Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, we had dinner and then retired to our hotel to rest up for Machu Picchu in the early morning.
Machu Picchu Day. We were among the first to arrive at Machu Picchu before the gates opened at 6:00AM. The surrounding landscapes were reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Steep, jagged green mountains with low hanging clouds and patches of fog swirling around. My first view of Machu Picchu stopped me in my tracks. Pictures can’t capture its beauty and mystique. It was important that we arrived early with minimal people around. Looking down into the ruins and the beautiful backdrop was a mesmerizing experience. We had an hour or so of great views before the fog rolled in and restricted our views. Though the weather wasn’t ideal, I was thankful for that first hour with Machu Picchu nearly to ourselves. After a tour led by our guide, KJ, we explored the ruins and hiked to the Inca Bridge and Sun Gate. Our visit to Machu Picchu was the perfect culmination of our Salkantay Trek. After about 6 hours at Machu Picchu, we hiked down the steep steps towards Aguas Calientes. We were wiped out after a full four days of physical activity and had no problem sleeping on the train and bus back to Cusco.