Updated 11 months ago

The lesser-known way to Machu Picchu

Where the Salkantay Trek begins
With Peru’s famous Inca Trail becoming increasingly overrun – forcing travellers to battle stiff competition for peak season permits – the lesser-known Salkantay Trek is quickly gaining a reputation as both a less-crowded and more strenuous alternative.

A good level of fitness is required due to the high altitude. But the extra effort pays off. The trail offers mind-blowing visuals and takes in a variety of ecosystems – from cloud forests and alpine peaks to glacial lakes and tropical jungles. Following in the footsteps of the highly trained Inca messengers, the four- to five-day odyssey culminates at the ancient site of Machu Picchu.

A steady climb up
Departing Cusco – which is among the world’s highest towns at nearly 3,500m – we began with a steady climb from the tiny village of Marcocasa up through the Rio Blanco Valley. Following a wide gravel track, we passed occasional villagers on horseback, pausing periodically to marvel at cliff faces plunging steeply into the lush green valley below. Ascending higher to the panoramic view point at Challacancha, we caught our first glimpse of the snow-capped Humantay and Salkantay mountain ranges, their serrated peaks stabbing at the underbelly of the sky like giant daggers.

For now, no permits are required to tackle the Salkantay Trek, but this could easily change in subsequent years.

Setting up camp for the night
After a full day’s hike (around 15km), the scenery became increasingly mountainous; the Salkantay Ranges appeared more intimidating as the last rays of sun disappeared behind their face. At the Soraypamapa campsite, our tents had already been set up by the dedicated team at Bioandean Expeditions, but the temperature had plummeted from bracing to bone chillingly cold – enough to warrant an outer shelter wrapped around our individual tents. As dusk set in, I wandered around camp to take photos and came across a trio of horses tied to a wooden fence, the snow-capped mountains providing a striking backdrop.

The coldest night
As the cooks prepared dinner inside the mess tent, I happened upon a young boy, who laughed and ran away when I asked his name in faltering Spanish. With the wind picking up and darkness setting in, we huddled over bowls of hot soup and flasks of tea before stumbling back to our sleeping tents. Even wrapped in a tent within a tent, huddled deep in my sleeping bag, it was the coldest night of my life. Come 5:30 am, I was glad that the offer of coca tea marked the beginning of a new day’s trek.

Trekking to Mt Salkantay’s highest pass
Ascending to the highest pass of our trek was tough going. The air became thinner and the effects of altitude made climbing much harder. A jagged stone trail cut a path between the Tucarhuay Mountain to our left and the Salkantay to our right. Though well worn, the undulating trail was rugged under foot, with loose stones and gravel requiring focussed trekking as we headed deeper into the mountains. Periodically, we would pass local horsemen leading small herds over the ranges, appearing suddenly out of the mist only to vanish again as quickly as they’d materialised.

Atop the ‘Savage Mountain’
After several hours traversing the northeast ridge, we finally reached the pass. At 4,650m, we might have only been at half the height of Everest’s summit, but it was still a decent effort. Unfortunately, low level cloud cover resulted in a total white out, blocking what would ordinarily have been a spectacular view.

The name “Salkantay” is a Quechua word, meaning “Savage Mountain”. With conditions changing so rapidly, it’s easy to see how this peak – the highest in the Willkapampa mountain range – earned its moniker.

Many ecosystems in five days
Beginning our descent, we trekked over sweeping plains towards a cloud forest and a scenic viewpoint at Huayracpunka before heading on towards the jungle. The second day was the longest by a few hours but also the most impressive thanks to the striking alpine peaks we had all to ourselves. It was dark by the time we reach our next camping area at Chaullay.

A necessary break
Over the next couple of days, we hiked through the upper jungle and crossed the Lluskamayo River, taking time to bathe in natural hot springs near our campsite at the small town of Santa Teresa. Following a railway line by foot, we finally reached the town of Aguas Calientes (pictured), where we kicked back and rested up for the evening. A hot shower and a cold beer never felt so good.

A quiet arrival at Machu Picchu
On day five, we were up at dawn to catch the first bus to Machu Picchu, a 25-minute transfer from town. It was still dark when we entered the site; we were among the first in and only a small group of lamas were there to greet us. The rising sun soon revealed one of the world’s most revered ancient sites, rising 2,340m above sea level and enclosed by the mountainous jungle of the upper Amazon Basin. Initially built in the 15th Century by the Inca Empire, the site was abandoned in the 16th Century and was only rediscovered in 1911 when a Peruvian guide led Yale professor Hiram Bingham to the “lost city”. It was a fitting finale to one of the world’s most spectacular treks.

BBC Travel |By Guy Wilkinson