DISPATCHES FROM EXOTIC LANDS
We sent journalist Ben Groundwater to Peru to hike the longer, more beautiful, more luxurious, and far quieter, Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. This is his story……
Machu Picchu’s Salkantay Trail
The road less travelled
The condors overhead look minuscule, these huge birds rendered as tiny dots by distance. They glide in and out of the clouds, circling, searching for food, making serene progress past mountains clipped with snow. It seems like another world up there, ghostly and forbidding, but that’s when the realisation hits: I’ll be up that high soon. I’ll be hiking in those clouds; I’ll be trekking those mountains. Soon.
It’s the beginning of the Salkantay Trail, a six-day trek through the high Andes in Peru, and the scale of it is difficult to comprehend. Right now we’re just past the town of Mollepata, the last slice of civilisation proper we’ll see before we eventually stroll into a train station near the ruins of Machu Picchu in almost a week’s time. By then we’ll have gasped for air on mountain passes that sit higher than those condors circling above us now; we’ll have sloshed through cold rivers, enjoyed stunning scenery, been caught in a hail storm, swum in a glacial lake, made an offering to the mountain gods, and spent five nights recovering from it all in the most improbably luxurious lodges set in the most improbably rugged, amazing locations.
For now, however, the condors just represent a challenge, a dream. They’re up there four or five thousand metres above sea level – soon our band of 12 hikers will be too.
This is not the way most people get to Machu Picchu, that famous Incan mountain city. There are two well-known options: take the train from Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes and then ride a bus up to the ruins; or hike the Inca Trail, a three-day trek that makes an appearance on many a bucket list. The Salkantay, however, is a different approach altogether.
This path approaches Machu Picchu from the opposite side to the Inca Trail, but it’s longer, more challenging, more beautiful, more luxurious, and far quieter. There’s not a soul about as we lace up our boots at the trailhead, lashing supplies to a couple of horses before setting out onwards and upwards.
This is officially known as Mountain Lodges of Peru’s “Lodge to Lodge” trek, and that’s a key difference between this experience and the backpacker-style camping of the Inca Trail. Where those hikers will be bundling up below a thin synthetic roof each night, we’ll be dining on three-course meals, drinking cocktails in hot-tubs and deciding whether it’s worth indulging in another massage. The days are long and sometimes hard – the nights are warm and comfortable.