The Salkantay trail – Day 1

It was really dark, rain was pouring on our heads and we couldn’t see more than few meters ahead. At that moment we heard a horse whine and the sound of hooves coming in our direction. We held each others hand and hoped that the horse will see us rather than smash into us and push us over the edge of the abyss.


Visiting Machu Picchu and walking Salkantay trail were probably only two things we properly planned for our South American trip. Planning itself was quite interesting. We knew about famous Inca trail – multi day trek following ancient Incas roads through mountains, forests and archaeological places to Machu Picchu. Many websites we read described it as amazing experience and best walk people can do. Problem was that at the time when we were visiting Peru (October 2018) number of people allowed to walk the trail was limited and required professional guide (to preserve ancient ruins on the way). Prices for this guided tour were starting at $500 which was a lot more than what we were willing to pay. So we looked for alternative trails. We were deciding between Salkantay and Lares treks. Both of them were getting more popular and busier by both solo travellers and travel agencies (aka guided tours).

Salkantay is more challenging – little longer (around 100km), its highest point it at 4.600 meters (Salkantay pass) and it should resemble original Inca trail more than the other. It also ends quite close to the Machu Picchu (you can walk all the way to Aguas Calientes). It is also more popular (and busier) among the tourists and agencies.

Lares trek is shorter and its highest point is “only” at 4.400 meters. More important is that it ends further away from Aguas Calientes – it is necessary to take a train to get there. On the other hand there are not as many tourists as on Salkantay trail and there are some hot springs on the way.

We decided to do a Salkantay trail because we wanted to see snowy peaks, lakes and walk all the way to Machu Picchu. Based on our research it was possible to walk this trail without a guide. Trail should be well maintained and well marked. It starts in little town (village) called Mollepata which is roughly 100km from Cusco and ends at the Hidroelectrica (last stop for the Cusco – Machu Picchu train), from there it is another 10km to Aguas Calientes. It is possible to walk or take a train (very expensive, this short stretch costs somewhere around $30).

One last thing we needed were tickets for Machu Picchu, in these days you can get them directly from Peruvian government at this address:

Current page looks a lot better than the one we had to use. Previous one used old Adobe Flash and it was really confusing to figure what is available and at what time. In the end we bought entry to the Machu Picchu with additional entry to mountain Waynapicchu. They admin only 400 people per day to visit the mountain. We bought the tickets three months in advance and were lucky to get there. Machu Picchu entry fee is 152 pesos and Waynapicchu is another 200 pesos.

Cusco Cathedral
Cusco Cathedral

Getting from Cusco

So we were in Cusco ready to start our Salkantay adventure. First thing was to get to the Mollepata. This journey was an adventure on its own. It started with the bus stop search. There was some vague information (even at the information centre) about its whereabouts. They told us the name of the road where the bus starts.

The road was pretty long and when we got there there were no bus stop signs, but we were lucky. There were some men sitting at the chairs at the very end of the road, talking with each other. When they spotted us, they started asking if we were looking for collectivo to Mollepata. We were little reluctant to follow them, but there was no other option. They showed us a minibus parked between two houses. It was even scarier than before. Luckily there was older couple sitting in it, so we agreed to go with them (for 20 pesos each). We did not want to put our backpacks on the roof of the car as we heard and read many stories about lost baggage. Instead we took them inside and put them on our laps. Car was quite small and this did not make it any more comfortable, but we were sure our backpacks won’t be lost on the way.

We waited like that for almost an hour, as there were still unoccupied seats. Once our driver got bus full we were on the way (it is quite common in Peru and Bolivia). It was a wild ride, it felt like the driver was going much faster than the road condition would allow. But he was a professional. After two hours we made a stop in one village, we knew it was not our destination but we were asked to leave the car anyway. Driver then explained that because only two of us were heading to Mollepata it is not worth for him to drive us there.

Instead his friend in a taxi would take us there. We did not understand him very well so were not sure if we’ll have to pay additional money to the taxi driver or not. But again we had no other option. Taxi was old and at some places probably held only by a layer of paint. Even though it made it to Mollepata. Our conversation with the driver ended when we did not accept his offer to get us all the way to Soraypampa (last place where you can get by car on Salkantay trail). He wanted 80 pesos for a ride which was too much for us.

First walk

Moyepata is the last village before the Salkantay trail starts. We read on the internet that it is a nice place where they are prepared for the tourists. When we got there we were welcomed by two ladies who immediately charged us Salkantay trail fee (10 pesos per person). So they were definitely prepared. After that we walked for 10 minutes through the village, looking for some shop or a restaurant. During that time we were stopped by at least three people in a car with offers to get us to Soraypampa – again for 80 pesos. It looked like that everyone who owns a car in the village is a taxi driver.

By some luck we encountered a house with open doors, plastic chairs and tables inside. It looked like a restaurant inside (they did not have any signs or boards outside). We entered and it really was a restaurant. We were asked if we wanted a lunch, we said yes and that was it, they had only one meal available so they did not bother to ask what we want. They were serving a soup (which was nice) and fried fish with rice (fish was very skinny, more bones than meat). It was not the best lunch we ever head, but it was cheap and filled our stomachs.

Mollepata - start of the trail
Mollepata – start of the trail

It was early afternoon and we were ready to start our walk. It was roughly 20km. Start was quite good, road was in good condition, Sun was shining and birds were singing. It was also quite warm (nice change after cold weather in Cusco). Tana read on the internet that there were loads of cars going up the trail and that they are happy to get hitchhikers on board, so we hoped we’ll get a free ride. We met three cars going our way, one of them was a taxi, one was fully occupied pickup and last one was lorry carrying some huge leaves. None of them stopped but at least guys in the lorry waved and smiled at us.

Road to Soraypampa
Road to Soraypampa

We were walking and walking, going up. Pleasant warmth turned into not very pleasant heat. We were sweating and getting tired, still lots of kilometres in front of us. To make it even worse, some really annoying flies appeared. They were small with big and painful bites. Seven kilometres from our destination rain started and it was getting dark quite quickly. We put our headlamps on and kept going. We had no other option as there was no cover around, rock face on the left and wild river on the right.

Rain and darkness on the trail

Out of nowhere appeared a building, at first we thought it was some animal shed. To our surprise older lady got out of there and started talking with us. She was probably offering us a roof above our head. We were little bit reluctant to accept it. There were multiple reasons for that, she was pointing her torch light into our eyes almost all the time so we did not see her very well, she was a stranger in the middle of nowhere and we did not know if there were some other people in her house. Lastly we thought we were not that far from our destination. Seeing our reluctance she started saying “agua peligrosa” – dangerous water. It was quite scary as it was really dark and our headlamps did not provide as much light as we would like to.

On the way to Soraypampa
On the way to Soraypampa

Anyway we decided to keep going. Shortly after we said good bye (adios in this case) we encountered first “agua peligrosa”. There was a concrete part of the road with little dip in the middle – trough to let a stream of water cross the road. It was not dangerous at all, not very deep and less than half a meter wide. We jumped over it with ease. But there was a question hanging in the air – is this the dangerous water lady was talking about?

It was really dark, rain was pouring on our heads and we couldn’t see more than few meters ahead. At that moment we heard a horse whine and the sound of hooves coming in our direction. We held each others hand and hoped that the horse will see us rather than smash into us and push us over the edge of the abyss.

Standing at the edge of the road with our headlamps pointed forward horses missed us. So we continued, on top of the rain, darkness and mud it was getting cold, really cold. We were regretting that we did not stay at the old lady’s place.

Salkantay mountain
Salkantay mountain

After some time, which felt like forever we saw a weak light in the distance. It was a house and there were some people in it. We knocked on the window and they let us in. It looked like a small store combined with a dining room. Family was sitting at the table, having a diner, candles set in the old wine bottles placed on the table. There was no electricity (and no heating). With our miserable Spanish we tried to tell them how grateful we are that they let us in for a little while and asked them if there is some accommodation nearby (we had a tent with us, but there was no chance we were building it on that cold rainy night).

We were lucky, it was not only a store and a house of that family but also a hostel. Father of the family told us to wait a little and went to prepare the beds. It was ready few minutes later, we got our own candle and matches and were shown our room. Two beds with multiple layers of blankets (weighting roughly 10 kilos) were waiting for us. It was very cold so our change from wet clothes to dry ones was lightning fast. Instead of comfort and space we went for maximum warmth and used only one bed.

This post is already quite long so lets end it here. In following post we will continue our climb, encounter some tourists and appreciate entrepreneurship of local people.