Backpacking with Becky: Trekking Salkantay to Machu Picchu
Updated: Oct 23, 2018
Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the modern world, also know in Quechua as "Old Mountain". This breathtaking site is visited by upwards of 1 million tourists per annum, each coming from different paths. There is an overabundance of opportunities to make it to this ancient city: bus, train, car, even zip lining and water rafting through the jungle ... like I said, overabundance. However, a long time ago I decided I wanted to hike through the mountains to Machu Picchu, and when my grandmother passed away last year I finally decided to make that dream a reality. Initially, I had my heart dead-set on hiking the famous Inca Trail, but seeing that those guided treks were sold out for months in advance (only 500 tourists and trek staff are allowed on the Trail per day in order to preserve it), I searched for other options. After much research I decided to book my trip with Salkantay Trekking. Their reviews were top notch and the itinerary looked insanely awesome. With my French ami, Anelise, along for the adventure, we set off with our trusty guide Ramiro and the rest of our group on the 5 Day Salkantay Classic Trek.
1. Treat Yo' self... to the Right Equipment
If you're going to be hiking over 75 miles in 5 days (which is what I ended up doing), you had better be outfitted to the best of your ability. Beginning with your shoes! If you are new to the trekking scene, like I was, make sure you get fitted before you buy. I ended up going to an REI store in the city to be fitted in person (you can do this with shoes AND backpacks), and the staff was incredibly helpful. They started by asking what trek I was going on, how long I had before I left (so I had time to break-in the shoes, if needed), and if I have an injuries they should know about. Once I decided on a specific shoe model I was able to try them out on a faux boulder located in the store. PRO TIP: If you are going for a shoe fitting try to miss the weekend crowds. You might be fighting for a sales associate's attention if you go during peak hours.
Besides the shoes, I was able to buy all the rest of my equipment on Amazon. Literally everything you need is there! Read reviews and make sure you order early so you have enough time to return items if there is an issue.
2. It's Going to Be A Lot Higher Than You Think
Now, I am a beginner long hiker/trekker myself so this goes out to all of the other newbies! Before you engage in any longterm physical activity like a multi-day trek you must be in good physical shape. I'm not talking about Chris Hemsworth as Thor physical shape (yummm), but like I said above: you're going to be walking over 75 miles of hills, forests, and stairs in 5 days. Before your trip walk as much as you can during the week, and on the weekend go to your local national park and spend the day breaking in your new hiking boots.
However, nothing, I repeat: Nothing will be able to prepare you for the change in altitude. Most information will tell you to arrive in Cusco, Peru (the starting point for most tours heading to Machu Picchu) at least a few days before heading on your trek so your body can become accustomed to the new altitude without the sickness. FUN FACT: Cusco is actually situated a few thousand feet higher than Machu Picchu so being there for a few days is pretty beneficial. However, Salkantay Mountain is several thousand feet higher than Cusco! Listen, I thought I was in pretty good shape before I went on this journey, but when we started climbing up to the Salkantay Pass it felt like I was starting to lose control of my body because I couldn't catch my breath. Freak out, right? Nope, wrong. Altitude sickness can take many forms- mine took the form of breathlessness. What did I do? I slowed my pace. As the fable goes, slow and steady wins the race. Now, I wasn't the first person to the pass- in fact, I was dead last, but crossing a finish line is still crossing a finish line. And when you get to the top and have a view like this who cares?
My advice: listen to your guide and listen to your body. The worst thing you can do is let your ego get in the way. The scenery is unlike any other so enjoy. It's not a race or a competition. Plus, if you're really not feeling well your guide can arrange for you to ride an adorable horse all the way up to the top! #winning
3. The Weather Has a Mind of Its Own
The Salkantay Trek may start off in the mountains, but by the second evening you'll be sleeping in Andean Huts made out of Peruvian feather grass, and the third night you'll be in Jungle Domes- the name is self-explanatory. That's a lot of different climates (!) so be sure to pack accordingly or you many end up like this on your first evening...
Be sure to pack clothes that allow you to add or subtract layers while walking. I had to wear gloves (my socks) for a few hours one morning and by the afternoon I was wearing a t-shirt. Don't worry if you have to wear the same clothes a few days in a row. Everyone is smelly together.
4. "What Can I Get Here That Has No Sugar, No Carbs, and Is Fat Free?"
Yeah... don't ever be that person, BUT if you have dietary restrictions you are in luck! I've been eating mostly plant based for a little over a year, and when I booked my travel to Peru I was about 90% sure I would be eating at least vegetarian the whole trip. Nope! When you make your reservation with Salkantay Trekking they ask if you have any special dietary restrictions or food allergies. I wrote down that I was vegan, fully expecting to only eat rice and beans the whole trek, but to also lose 10lbs in the process. Wrong again! I cannot tell you my surprise when at our first meal the cooks (who traveled with us and cooked without modern appliances) had made a vegan platter for each course especially for me! Every time a soup, a main course, even a dessert came out to the table, there was a special plate for this American girl. And when I say I "courses" I mean courseS. Lunch and dinner was always a three-course meal and included some of the best meals, and cutest presentations, I've ever had the pleasure to devour. We ended up needing to hike 75 miles just so we could keep eating the incredible food. Isn't he adorable?!
5. It's Worth It
Okay, so people do tell you this. I mean, there's a reason it was named one of the Seven Wonders, but there is no way I can describe to you the eagerness you get waking up at 3am to hike up Camino Peatonal, the final trail leading to "Paradise on Earth", in the pitch black darkness of night...
or the peacefulness you feel standing in the Machu Picchu citadel standing among the ruins...
or the feeling of accomplishment when you finally finish hiking up an additional 2070 ft to the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain...
By the time we descended the site **make sure you get your passport stamped before you leave!** and started to make our way back to Cusco I was beyond exhausted... but more than that, I was proud. Proud of myself for completing my first multi-day trek. Proud of my group for sticking together and supporting each other all week. Mostly proud though that I did what I set out to do: discover a new piece of the world, push myself to my limits, and have great stories to share.