#take12trips challenge: The Salkantay Trail, Peru: the Alternative Inca Trail

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First and foremost, choosing our big #take12trips challenge was easy; Peru has Macchu Picchu, varied scenery and some of the best food in the world. Choosing how to get to Macchu Picchu however was more difficult. For ages we thought the only way of reaching Macchu Picchu was through the Inca Trail or by train, but after speaking with the good folk at G Adventures we were all on board with the Salkantay Trek.

Unlike the Inca Trail, the Salkantay is a high-altitude trek that takes in varied scenery through the Salkantay mountain pass and down through the Amazon Rainforest. The trail gives trekkers the opportunity to do lots of side trips in between the main trek, which we took ample opportunity to do.

Salkantay sunshine 2

On the first day, we arrived at the campsite early and consequently decided to hike up the glacier lake Humantay.

Salkantay Kirsten 2

Humantay mountain lake 2

In the evening, the clear skies and lack of any modern lighting whatsoever gave us the ideal conditions to capture the stars on film (and pretend we knew a lot about constellations). Fun fact: the Incan people are the only culture in the world that used the black/light space around the stars, and not the stars themselves, for astronomy studies.

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The second day of the trek was a whole other beast altogether. The trail was a long, uphill slog towards the Salkantay mountain pass, 4,600 metres above sea level. Altitude sickness made it’s presence known, but excessive quantities of sugar and high-altitude dance parties around giant boulders took care of that. By the early afternoon we made it to the mountain pass, where its cloudy and snow-covered landscape was a sharp contrast to the flat desert we had arrived at yesterday afternoon.

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The Salkantay mountain was considered a sacred site of the gods to Incan culture, and over the years the moving ice and snow have released mummies stored in its crevasses by the Incas. Of course such a revered mountain has also attracted numerous mountaineers wishing to scale it’s peak, and with an 88% chance of death there’s a good chance of more recent bodies to be found sliding down the mountain too.

Our guide, Carlos, told us Pachamama (the goddess of the earth in Incan culture) particularly heard the wishes of visitors to Salkantay, and told us to think hard about something we wanted and bequest it to Pachamama, who would hear and deliver our wish. Countless trekkers had contacted him months after the trek to say their wishes had come true, Carlos told us.

Now, I’m not saying it’s not true or true, but I wished for a good hard drink after reaching the pass, and a month later while perusing through a magazine featuring hiking in Peru, there was a recipe for a cocktail called Pachamama. Whether she’s working through a backlog or testing the patience of wishers, I’m not sure, but she gave a good recommendation.

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After the windswept deserts and mountains of day two, day three proved to be the complete opposite. Exotic flowers and trees shaded us from the piercing sunshine, while butterflies in every colour imaginable  fluttered around us. Waterfalls and rapids dotted the surrounding mountains, as did the slightly ominous evidence of landslides on the side of some of the faces. We made it to the end of the trail for day 3 in good time, which gave us plenty of time in the afternoon to visit a coffee plantation and natural hot springs. After several hot, sticky days with no showers, the hot springs felt like an unbelievably warm bath (as long as you could ignore the 80+ people also soaking next to you). Regardless, it was an excellent end to the day.

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Given the leisurely pace and inclines the day before, we figured our last day on the Salkantay Trek would be a walk in the park rainforest. Holy hell, were we wrong.

The last part of the Salkantay Trail is on a portion of the Inca trail, which means lots of stairs up a hill with lots of humidity. Part of our mistake was asking where the end of the trail was, which turns out was at the train station, which wouldn’t have been too bad, had there not been a massive mountain we had to hike over first. Scattered remains of Incan ruins and various coffee plantations provided a welcome distraction, and at the top of the mountain was our first glimpse of Macchu Picchu, which we viewed from an old Incan temple.

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Eventually we reached Santa Teresa, our train station, which took us to Aguas Calientes, the main outpost for Macchu Picchu and the end of our Salkantay Trek. The next morning, we rose early and watched the sun rise over our final destination.

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