Let me start by saying that travelling is amazing, money comes and goes, and safety is the most important thing above all. While fortune was not on our side during the Salkantay Trek, we had SO many guardian angels looking our for us that I am forever indebted to. With that being said, August 15-19 2018 were some of my most emotional and stressful days spent travelling I have ever had! Read on to find out why!
Just to give you a bit of a background – the Salkantay Trek is one of the best treks in the world, and very popular in Cusco as an alternative to the Inca trail as there is no permit requirement. The trek takes 5 days and 4 nights, and ends up at Machu Picchu. We wanted to do this trek as we didn’t want the financial or time commitment of the Inca trail, as you have to book it so far in advance!
We had to wake up at 4:30am for our 5am pick up. Good thing we had finished our packing the night before, because the bus showed up 15 minutes early and we had to scramble to get outside quickly when the driver showed up! We were on the bus for about 3 hours when we got to a town where we had breakfast and our bags for the mules got sorted. Generally in Peru everything in disorganized and seems to work and this was no different. I started to feel uneasy when I saw everyone else get their rented sleeping bags from the guides except for us, and when I asked there was no indication we needed sleeping bags on their list. Long story short we had to pay 100 soles and our guide thankfully was able to find us sleeping bags, though their quality was not meant for the cold temperatures – he did what he could! He said one was 40 percent efficient and the other was 90 percent efficient in the cold. He tried to call our agency but of course their was no answer so we hopped back on our bus with a bad taste in our mouths and a lighter wallet.
One of the surprises that I didn’t anticipate for my trip to Peru was how terrifying some of the roads here are. Our 1 hour drive from the breakfast spot to the trailhead was no exception. I am absolutely terrified of heights and could not look out the window, as our road was essentially a dirt path carved into the side of a cliff. The scariest parts were when a vehicle was coming in the opposite direction and both vehicles somehow have to squish by each other when there is only room for one on the road. If you have ever been to Maui, think Road to Hana but unpaved…… and the car rental company would 1000% never let you drive on it.
We arrived at the trailhead for the trek and started hiking. We had an easy day the first day, with only 11km total and 5 to our base camp. The most difficult part of the hike on day 1 was getting used to the altitude as we started at about 3200m – not a problem for Kristy and I as we had been up high hiking previously in the Colca Canyon but definitely an issue for others! Generally everyone was just constantly out of breath.
Our trek to base camp was beautiful, scenic and our guides, Ruben and Rogelio, gave us plenty of information about the local flora and fauna. Learning is so engaging when it’s immersive!
We arrived at our base camp (about 3900m altitude) before lunch and to our pleasant surprise, the food that was served to us at lunch and during the entire trek was fantastic. We had just come from our Colca Canyon Trek in Arequipa and the food there was just okay – but this food was phenomenal. After lunch, we hiked up to Humanatay Lake, a beautiful glacial lake under the Humanatay Glacier. 2 new friends, Kristy and I decided to jump in the lake, which was cold and invigorating and later learned not allowed…… it was only for a few seconds though and we really enjoyed the dip!
The first night on the Salkantay was by far the coldest! It was probably between -5 and -10 degrees Celsius and Kristy and I had to literally put on every item of clothing we brought with us on the trek with hope of getting any sleep. It was too cold to leave the tent after we got in, so we did some frantic teeth brushing and spitting into a tissue and called it a night. Thankfully right before we tried to sleep, our guide Rogelio showed up with an extra blanket that Kristy used since we figured out that she ended up with the coldest sleeping bag. I wouldn’t say we got a ton of sleep, but wasn’t sure if it was because of the snoring on all sides from surrounding tents, the freezing cold, or our nervousness for the second and most difficult day of our trek!
We woke up bright and early at 5am for breakfast and started our long day around 6am. Our main difficulty for the day was conquering the Salkantay pass, standing at between 4630 and 4680m (our guides and the sign told us different information). This mountain pass was so hyped up that we thought it was going to be terribly hard, but it wasn’t really that bad! Our little crew of 4 women found the hike up to the glacial lake the day before more difficult as it was steeper. We summited the pass around 8:30 or 9am and everyone was pretty excited! In total from base camp we gained about 600m of elevation.
Our day wasn’t over after this pass – we now had 1200m of elevation to lose! We descended for about 3 hours and 600m in a pretty cold mist to the spot where we had lunch and we started to feel really cold as it began to downpour. If you do this trek definitely bring a poncho – you will thank me when it rains!
Our guide Ruben, before we got going, told us that the weather would drastically change for the next descent to our camp, as we were leaving the alpine and entering the jungle. He was right! We went from freezing rain to muggy, buggy greenery as we lost our final 600m of elevation for the day. We remarked that we had never changed clothes so much in one day – we felt every possible weather scenario over our 10 hours of hiking!
We arrived at camp about 3 hours later, completely exhausted. We were thankful that it was significantly warmer than the first night. The bugs were pretty intense, but my extra-strength Deet lotion kept them away. Our guide Rogelio showed up at our tent again, this time with a really amazing sleeping bag. I’m pretty sure that it was his own personal sleeping bag as the guides had bed accommodation for the 2nd and 3rd nights while the hikers were in tents. Like I said before, he was a guardian angel to us.
The third day of hiking was pretty calm. It was a lot of up and down around a giant river, and by this day everyone’s bodies were catching up to them. We were excited to reach our lunch spot that day as it meant the end to our hiking as we would be visiting the Calca (not Colca) hot springs in the afternoon! These hot springs were the nicest I have ever been to and the water temperature was great. We were so excited to be immersed in water as everyone was quite sweaty and generally gross at this point. That night we had a bonfire at our campsite and it was really fun because our group, and the other group at our site got together and had a big dance party!
The next morning hikers were given the option of going zip lining for an extra price or hiking an extra 11km to the lunch site. Kristy and I knew we had the zipline included on our receipt but after the sleeping bag disaster we were wary about whether we had actually been put down as “paid” or not. Our guides called our agency who said yes we had paid, but it was strange because Kristy and I were sent to this other zipline company while everyone else in our group that opted in went with another company. We geared up and made friends with the people in our group, including 2 of the nicest people I have ever met from Jasper, Alberta. Everyone in their group was doing the Inca Jungle trek which is a 3 day adventure where you bike down a huge mountain, zipline and go white water rafting! It sounded like fun also. We had a blast ziplining, and also had the chance to cross this suspension bridge while attached by 2 carabiners to these thin cables. It was terrifying but so fun!
We were on such a high from the whole experience when we got down to return our gear and the zipline lady told us we owed her 100 soles each for the zipline ($40 CAD). Kristy and I indignantly showed her our receipt which she refused to acknowledge and a pretty intense showdown occurred. She said the agency never paid her, we yelled and said we already paid and didn’t even have enough money to pay, and we started to walk off but the lady threatened that the bus to our lunch spot wasn’t leaving until we paid the money. She kept trying to call our agency with no answer (as suspected based on the sleeping bag situation that occurred previously) and we stood angrily in the same spot for about 30 minutes but it felt like hours. Finally Kristy asked me if we should just pay and we both felt bad about holding up everybody else waiting on the bus. We told the lady we could pay what we had so she let us pay 100 soles for both of us which was half of what we originally asked. We got into the bus fuming with anger and it drove us to the lunch spot in the town of Hidroelectrica.
The afternoon hike was a 12 km trek from our lunch spot in the town of Hidroelectrica to the town of Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu. We walked along the train tracks and it was very humid and buggy, but we made it! Thankfully there is lots in this town: ATMs for the cash we lost, a nice hostel with a shower that we enjoyed staying in and comfortable beds for a somewhat civilized sleep! Kristy and I had already decided that we had zero desire to do 2 hours of stairs from the town to Machu Picchu the next morning so we bought one way bus tickets for $12USD each. It was my 9th day of hiking in 2 weeks so I figured that we deserved a break.
We had our last dinner as a team in a restaurant in town that night. As we were eating our guides were trying to figure out entry tickets for the next morning and, shockingly, they mentioned that they had everyone’s ticket except for two people….. can you guess who those two people might be? Soon after, when everyone else received their 6am entry tickets, we were passed 12pm entry tickets that our terrible agency had booked for us. This complicated things as we would be with the major crowds and miss our bus (that we had to walk 2 hours to in Hidroelectrica) that we were scheduled to catch at 3pm. This meant we couldn’t be with our group in Machu Picchu and wouldn’t have a ride back on the 6 hour road to Cusco. Kristy and I both almost burst into tears at the restaurant when our guides pulled us aside and told us they had an idea…….
I asked our guides if this had ever happened to them before, and they said no. They then produced for us 2 photoshopped tickets that had the first entry time on it! The guides said that it was good we were taking the bus up because there was only one “check” for our ticket where they just look and stamp, where if you hike up there are two checks. They said we needed to go up on the bus with the fake ticket then show our real ticket at the gate where they scanned us in, and then explain and pray that they would let us in right away at 6am, or if we were lucky at 9 or 10am instead of noon. That way we could still see Machu Picchu but make the bus back to Cusco in Hidroelectrica at 3pm.
As desperate times called for desperate measures, we woke up at 3:20am and lined up for the first bus up the mountain at 3:45. We were so thankful it wasn’t freezing and that time went by quickly! There were probably 150 people ahead of us in line when we got there. Some people from our group woke up late but hopped in line with us and Kristy and I said they were lucky we were there!
At 5:30, about 5 buses pulled up, and we hopped on with our fake Machu Picchu tickets. Kristy and I were SO NERVOUS! We met up with our guides and group at the top and the guides looked like they were both going to have a stroke. They told us to pretend we weren’t with anybody and had no guide so that the gate staff would be more understanding. We told everyone we knew to stop talking to us and prepared to show our real tickets and explain, when at the last second our guides told us to use our fake ticket instead! The gate staff read our tickets, then started scanning them when they looked confused. One of the staff pulled us aside and said our paper ticket said morning entry, but when scanned the computer said we were booked for afternoon entry…..
At this point Kristy and I realized we would have to give the performance of our lives to get into Machu Picchu on time. I started fake crying and hyperventilating and Kristy could barely look at me for fear of bursting out laughing. While we were making a scene, our Canadian friend from Winnipeg (who was hospitalized, mentioned him in my last blog post) saw us and started talking to us when I fake cry screamed at him “You caught us at a bad time hopefully see you later!!”. This part was pretty funny as we had caught him at a bad time earlier in the week. The staff member tried to call our agency no answer and we kept crying, making a big deal about making the bus and being by ourselves. Someone we knew in line later told us that we looked really convincing. This staff member, John, went into the office and came out again and quietly told us to return at 8am to enter. We thanked him profusely and waited in the rain and fog to hopefully enter the gates. We also touched base with one of our guides who was relieved and said he would meet us inside. One hilarious thing we noticed were the abundance of rules posted outside the gate while we waited with about 6 stray dogs.
At 7:45, we tried to get inside and asked for John, but were refused and told John wasn’t back until 8:30. Thankfully about 10 minutes later, wonderful John appeared at the gate, scanned us in, changed something on the computer and let us through. WE WERE IN!!!
Ruben and Rogelio met us on the other side with hugs and tears of joy. They offered to find us a guide to explain history and stories to us but we were so happy to be inside we told them that we didn’t need one!
Machu Picchu itself was absolutely magical. I will make another post about it next as it deserves it’s own blog post. The one thing I will mention here was it was pretty fun to let everyone in our trek group know (and our Canadian friend from Winnipeg) that we had entered successfully as we explored the world heritage site.
We decided to leave around 10:15am, and good thing we did because it was so busy it took us about 30 minutes to actually exit! We climbed down the 1000+ stairs to get back to the trail to Hidroelectrica and we were thrilled that we had decided to take the bus up – I would equate the stairs up to Machu Picchu to the Grouse Grind in Vancouver.
We power walked back to Hidroelectrica in just under 2 hours and were absolutely exhausted. Everyone else in our trek group eventually joined us at the waiting spot for the bus, and Kristy and I joked that our names might not be down for a bus back to Cusco based on our previous misfortunes. I suppose we tempted fate as our entire group was called onto one bus at 3pm except for us. At this point we were beside ourselves with stress. A person in our group told us to try sneaking on but the bus lady didn’t have any of it, didn’t let us on because there was no room, and the bus we were supposed to be on drove away.
The lot where the buses were was so disorganized that I didn’t really understand how anything got done. We tried to ask a few drivers if we could pay to get on but no one seemed to understand or help us at all. Right before Kristy and I had a major meltdown the Canadians from Jasper, who we met at the zipline, called out to us and told us they were in the same situation where most of their crew left on a bus without them! Talk about people being in the right place at the right time. With them were 2 Spanish-speaking Argentinian guys who were also stranded and together we figured out that we could all share a taxi to a small town and then a bigger 11 passenger van to Cusco for 45 soles each (about $18 CAD). At this point money didn’t matter anyway and we were SO HAPPY and thankful that we had previously met these Canadians, ran into them right when we were at our breaking point, and were in the company of some native Spanish speakers. We really needed them and they saved the day for us big time!!!!
The taxi ride itself was pretty uneventful other than having to ascend this giant mountain pass and generally being quite bumpy and scary for the entire 6 hours. When we transferred into the 11 passenger van some locals got in with us including a mom and 3 year old child (who didn’t make a noise the entire 6 hours I might add) I knew that we could make it Cusco safely…… except for one small segment of the drive when it looked like we were going to drive right into an uncontrolled forest fire (don’t worry, it was actually high above us).
As it happened I think we even beat the bus with our trek people on it as one of our friends messaged us and said she saw our van pass them!
We arrived to Cusco around 10pm exhausted, grateful and freezing. Despite our many annoyances on this trip, we were unbelievably lucky and thankful for these 4 absolute angels that helped us get back to Cusco.
Our guides had told us to go back to the agency and demand some money back, so we did that first thing on Monday morning. We found some tourist police in the main square after about 20 minutes of searching – as it happens there are about 3 different kind of polices officers in the main square of Cusco alone – and they accompanied us as we marched into Willy’s tour agency. It was pretty entertaining getting in there as you could see every agent trying to sell tours on the street cautiously stepping back when the police and us approached – probably a telling sign that we aren’t the first tourists to experience these issues. We gave Willy a piece of our minds and him and his colleague were quick to run out of the office, grab us 200 soles ($80 CAD) and give it back to us!!!! We weren’t expecting any money back, we more so just were angry about the stress we had to endure over the last 5 days, so this was an added bonus. We did have to write and sign a statement saying that we got the money back and made sure to write that our guides on the trek were not at fault and were wonderful. The whole exchange finished after about 10 minutes. Again, it happened so quickly we later decided this must be a pretty regular occurrence.
Our one concern was that we didn’t want our guides to get in trouble for the faults of our agency, so we visited the tour company that our trek ran through later and wrote another detailed note about what happened. We met up with our guide Ruben later in the day and updated him on our scenario like we were old friends. Due to the confusion the previous day with when we’d see our guides last, we were happy to see Ruben again as we were finally able to pass on him and Rogelio’s tips which were very necessary and deserved.
There you have it- the ups and downs of our Salkantay experience. (Sorry for the delay and any mistakes in writing this – I did it all on my iPhone!) It could have gone a lot better, but it most definitely could have been worse. We are now in retrospect happy to be safe and in one piece, and now we have a story to tell. In the words of some German girls we met in Lima who lost all of their credit cards within 12 hours and had to spend the night on a stuck minibus in the snow, “We survived! So now it’s funny”.