It’s the iconic Peruvian attraction, gracing the cover of countless guidebooks and drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. For many, it’s the first image that comes to mind when they think of South America and it’s the reason to visit Peru.
We knew visiting Machu Picchu would be one of the major highlights of our trip, and decided it would be worth doing one of the intensive multi-day treks to get there.
The “classic” trek is the Inca Trail, following old paths used by the Incas themselves to reach the mystical lost city. Unfortunately, this trail has strict usage limits put in place by the government, and as a result books up months in advance and is quite expensive.
We opted instead to take an alternative trek with our friends Michele and Jessica, which would entail five days hiking through the 4,600m (15,100 ft) Salkantay mountain pass before descending through the high jungle to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, situated at 2,430m (8,000 ft).
After an early morning pickup in Cuzco, we met our group and had breakfast in the small town of Mollepata, near the start of the trail.
Following our recent experience trekking the Colca Canyon, we opted to buy a couple cheap walking sticks to assist with the steep and slippery parts. Luckily, we were able to have our sleeping bags and other heavy items transported by the mules, which proved to be a big help.
After almost eight hours of non-stop hiking up 1,000m (3,300 ft) vertical ascent, we reached our campsite for the first night, cradled between impressive snow-capped mountains.
We checked in early after a hearty dinner, struggling to fall asleep in our very cold tents.
The next morning, we were woken up very early by the guides and set off on the most difficult and highest part of the trek – the Salkantay Pass.
Once again, Heather was suffering from the effects of the high altitude, as we had noticed before climbing the Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. After lots of positive encouragement, along with some shots of pressurized oxygen offered by a fellow trekker, we finally made it to the top of the pass.
We caught our breath and celebrated the accomplishment, while soaking in the beautiful vista.
Next, it was time to begin our descent. We hiked down some 2,000m (6,500 ft) over the rest of the day, shedding clothes as we dropped altitude and entered milder climates. That second night, we set up camp on a grassy hillside, overlooking a lush mountain valley.
The third day we descended deeper into the high jungle, passing a number of spectacular waterfalls and lush vegetation.
That night, we camped outside a small town, where we were able to enjoy the local hot springs.
By the fourth day, we were completely exhausted and everything was aching, but the end was in sight. After hiking a few hours in the morning, we “cheated” and hopped in a minivan for part of the way, before making it to the final stretch, which involved following a shallow railroad track to the town of Aguas Calientes.
As the touristy town next to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes has all the modern tourist facilities one would expect. We marched into town, happy to finally reach civilization and ready to enjoy a cold beer and a warm shower.
We celebrated the end of our trek, and put our heads down early once again so that we would be able to get up before dawn for the main attraction – Machu Picchu.