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Looking Back: Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

One year ago, I adventured on a trip of a lifetime. I am constantly asked about the details of this adventure and I realized I never really shared about it so in true blogging form; I hope to inspire you to get outdoors and travel more and if Peru is on your agenda, feel free to reach out to me with any questions. I fell deeply in love with Cusco and I actually am still very interested in going back for the long (ish)-term in the near future (sorry Mom). The food, the language, the bright colors, the cobblestone roads, the alpacas, the attractive Latin men; it is all just so wonderful and I am so grateful I was able to spend time in this gorgeous corner of the world.

 Machu Picchu was a place I wanted to visit for years and for whatever reason, until last year, I had never set foot in South America. I promised myself I would go on one international trip a year after completing undergrad and although I stuck to my promise, I was waiting for the “perfect time” to explore the beauty of South America. I did not want to constrain myself to a tight budget or a tight timeline.

 I told myself I would visit Peru for a month with a pretty liberal budget if the opportunity arose. While I was sipping my coffee and scrolling through my work emails in May of 2017, an email from WHOA Travel popped up in my inbox with a one week trip to Peru in March 2018 that included a 4-day Salkantay trek with a visit to both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. I immediately sent in my $500 deposit and I could not believe it was actually happening. I was excited to meet some rad women that would eventually become long-term friends and I was stoked that I didn’t have to obtain permits and do all the legwork that is required when booking an international trek. I was officially going to Peru.

WHOA Travel: Women High On Adventure

I heard about WHOA Travel through some girlfriends in my hiking circle who went to Peru the previous year with WHOA and they had an amazing time and highly recommended WHOA. WHOA Travel is a female international adventure travel company that plans extraordinary trips around the world to trek to the top of some of the tallest peaks and most beautiful mountain ranges on earth. It is a company ran by women for women. Because it is a full-service travel company; it is a bit pricey and of course you would save money if you planned everything on your own but one of the main goals of booking with WHOA Travel is to meet fellow female adventurers; a chance to meet lifelong friends. I was willing to fork over a little bit of cash to have someone else plan out all the details and to travel with some adventurous ladies. The price included everything except airfare, alcohol and odds and ends such as travel insurance, meals in town and snacks.

I booked a red-eye flight direct from LAX to Lima, checked one duffel bag, spent a few hours in the Lima airport and took a small plane to Cusco. I flew LATAM and had a great experience with that airline aka nothing horrific happened.

 I decided to spend 25 days exploring Peru and although the Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu were the highlights of my visit, I also wanted to take some time to explore the Amazon and go on a quick scuba diving trip outside of Lima. I wanted to stay with a local family on a coffee farm in the jungle outside of Cusco, I wanted a couple free days to explore the ruins in the sacred valley, I wanted to ride ATVs, I wanted to meet with tailors to hopefully design some handbags using local textiles, and I wanted to eat all the ceviche and kiss all the llamas I could find (I had a llama growing up so these beautiful animals hold a very special place in my heart). Although WHOA Travel planned every single detail of the Salkantay Trip (they did an amazing job); I still had my work cut out for me. I spent a couple of months planning out all the details, asking for advice from friends who explored the area and I was pretty excited how everything came together.

Mountain Gods Peru

WHOA Travel works diligently to employ ethical and hardworking local trekking companies for each country they adventure in. This is an important aspect because the international mountain trekking industry can be pretty corrupt. WHOA Travel makes sure each member of the trekking team is tipped appropriately, treated with kindness, has the proper gear and is fully taken care of. Part of the trip cost includes tips for the local trekking companies, which means that each client does not have to spend time deciphering what amount is considered a fair and ethical tip. Mountain Gods Peru is the local trekking company WHOA Travel hires in Peru and these people are pretty incredible. It is a small company run by Elizabeth and her husband Ronnie (both total sweethearts and pretty impressive hikers). This young couple will go to the end of the earth to make sure every client is well taken care of every single day of the trip. Elizabeth invited us to her home village where I met her mother and siblings and I learned how they weave alpaca and sheep wool into some of the most beautiful blankets and purses (my credit card bill strongly reflected how much I loved this craftsmanship). If I ever went back to Peru, I would 100% hire Ronnie and Elizabeth as my guides, regardless of which trail I decided to hike.

Four Day Salkantay Trek: The holy grail

The Salkantay trek is an alternative route to the very popular and well-traveled Inca Trail. I am not a fan of crowds or overly touristy places so anything off the beaten path is my jam. We slept in tents along the way and visited a local coffee farm on the third night. Our crew was in charge of leading the donkeys and mules that carried our gear and our chef was absolutely incredible. Unlike Kilimanjaro or Everest, the Salkantay Trek goes through small mountain villages so there were plenty of opportunities to grab a beer, an avocado and even pay for Wi-Fi. They provided tents and sleep mats and I opted to bring my own sleeping bag and pillow (you can also rent these pieces of gear from Mountain Gods). I personally did not find this trek difficult but did find it incredibly beautiful. Some of the gals did get altitude sickness but all 12 of us completed the trail and had an adventure of a lifetime. We trekked past waterfalls, lush rainforests and coffee farms, and eventually hiked along the Santa Teresa River. We spotted tons of wildlife including chinchillas, which are native to South America. The bright colorful flowers, exotic birds, flocks of butterflies and divine waterfalls were enough to hold our attention the entire time. We sat down to home-cooked delicious 3-course meals in our mess tent, we had random dance parties in the middle of the trails, we laughed, drank local beer, played sappo, practiced our broken Spanish, and bonded over one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. We had nearly perfect weather and I was a bit cold only when we arrived at camp the first day but quickly warmed up after drinking hot tea and snuggling into my sleeping bag. I would guess the lowest temperature we hiked and slept in was 32-35 degrees but that was only for one night and the subsequent morning. The rest of the trek was fairly warm and humid. Salkantay Pass was the highest elevation on the trek and it was absolutely stunning with sharp rugged peaks and gigantic glaciers that were covered in snow. The trail was not crowded at all; we maybe came across five other trekking groups. On our last day we caught at train to Aguas Calientes where we spent the night in a popular touristy town and slept in a cute hotel so we would be rested for our journey to Machu Picchu the next morning. I still keep in contact with 5 of the gals I met on this trip and I actually have a couple of future trips and hikes planned with a couple of these women. The following was our day-to-day Salkantay itinerary:

Day 1: Cusco to Sorayapampa to Soirococha

  • Elevation: 3,400 - 3,900 - 4,400 m

  • Distance: 9 km

Day 2: Soirococha to Salkantay Pass to Collpapampa

  • Elevation: 4,400 - 4,600 - 2,850 m

  • Distance: 22 km

Day 3: Collpapampa to Luchambamba

  • Elevation: 2,850 - 2,000 m

  • Distance: 6 - 7 km

 Day 4: Luchambamba to Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes

  • Elevation: 2,000 - 1,890 - 2,050 m

  • Distance: 14 km

 Day 5: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

We stood in line at 3am to catch the first bus up to Machu Picchu so we could beat the crowds and watch the sunrise over these stunning ruins. Mountain Gods Peru and WHOA Travel planned all the details including the permits and entry times. Machu Picchu was incredible and there really are not enough words to describe the beauty and peace I experienced. We also obtained permits for Huayna Picchu, which was by the far, the most challenging part of the trip. It was a total ass kicker. There were many sections that required the use of both hands and feet to scramble upwards and everyone knows how much I hate climbing mountains on all fours! There are sections that include railings and cables for support but when you finally reach the top, the views of the Citadel and surrounding landscape were extraordinary and well worth the climbing effort.

Rainbow Mountain: A misadventure

Rainbow Mountain, formally called Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors), is located in the Andes in the Cusco region of Peru. In order to get to the trailhead, it’s a three-hour drive from Cusco. Just 4 years ago it was entirely covered in snow, and now it is naked (due to Global Warming) showing off its rainbow colors formed from mineral deposits over the years. Photos of this mountain are plastered all over social media and although this was not super high on my agenda, I figured, “why not?” I was already there so why not make a day trip out of it. After all, kissing a llama on top of a brightly colored mountain was a once in a lifetime experience.

It is all fun and games until you realize you stepped into a tourist trap.

We departed from Cusco at 2am and drove up apparently very windy and dangerous roads. While the other gals were getting carsick I was passed out in the back to work on my beauty sleep. We arrived bright and early, ate a quick breakfast, rented an emergency horse for our group and hit the trail. There were people everywhere you looked. People were standing, sitting, walking, and riding horses wearing some of the most ridiculous clothing I have ever seen. The trail was covered in horse poop and I just wanted to get to the top, snap a photo and pretend this day never happened. I hate crowds, especially crowds in the outdoors. At about 16,000 feet I started getting altitude sickness, I quickly summited, took a few photos, and literally ran back down the mountain. The views were subpar, and people were everywhere, yelling and shouting. This was the only negative part of the trip and it was not worth the $400. In hindsight, this could be done as an overnighter to beat the crowds, which apparently is a better option. I would not recommend this trek, but if you want to get the popular Instagram photo then go for it, I guess. I would consider this a strenuous hike because of the steep elevation gain as it is a 5.7 mile out and back trail with 3,000 feet of elevation gain (yep about 1, 000 feet gain per mile) for a summit of just over 17,000 feet.

Gear: Packing list

I am kind of a gear snob and although WHOA does provide an extensive packing list, I did not bother looking at it (to be honest I did not even realize it existed). I needed to pack smart since I was only bringing one checked bag bag, one carry-on and one personal item for 25 days but I planned on doing laundry throughout my trip and wearing the same outfit over and over again. I wanted ample room in my suitcase since I knew I was going to come back with tons of gorgeous handicrafts (alpaca blankets, scarves, artwork, coffee, handbags and jewelry). I planned on flying all over Peru so I did not want to have to drag around too much luggage with me. I ended up purchasing the North Face large duffel bag with backpack straps and this bag is a game changer, It is my go-to- travel bag and I will probably purchase another one in the near future. This was my personal gear list that I brought solely for the four day Salkantay trek:

  • 2 pairs of hiking leggings

  • 2 Dri-Fit short sleeve shirts

  • 1 thermal long sleeve shirt

  • Silk long underwear for sleep

  • Rain pants

  • Rain jacket

  • Puffy jacket

  • Daypack (22 liters)

  • Water bladder

  • Gloves

  • Pack cover

  • Trekking poles

  • Fleece sweats (for sleep)

  • Beanie

  • Baseball cap

  • 3 pairs of wool socks (Thanks to People Socks)

  • 3 sock liners

  • Sleeping bag (35 degree rated)

  • Pillow

  • Electrolytes

  • Sunglasses

  • Face wipes

  • Baby wipes

  • Sunscreen

  • Chap stick

  • Keen hiking boots

  • Headlamp

  • External battery pack

Cusco: Coffee, pisco sours, ruins, and ATVs.

Cusco is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever stepped foot in and I am already itching to go back. I spent an extra week in Cusco exploring the town and adventuring through the Sacred Valley. As always I downloaded an offline Google map of Cusco and walked everywhere in town. I hired a car to explore the ruins but other than that, I never had to take taxis anywhere (except for the airport).  I spent one night on a coffee farm with a very kind local family (who only spoke Spanish) in the jungle about 3 hours outside of the city and although I was eaten alive by mosquitos, I learned everything about coffee and cocoa on this adventure. I ate some of the most delicious local food, drank way too much coffee, and saw some of the most stunning views of the valley on the drive up there. I booked this amazing experience through Cocla Tours a local company that is ran by David Mora, who is a very kind soul and I would highly recommend getting in touch with David if you are planning a trip to Cusco. The family that hosted me was very kind, funny and generous and by hosting international tourists like myself through Cocla Tours, they were able to send every one of their children to University.

While in Cusco, I also took a cooking class from a Michelin Star chef and drank one too many Pisco Sours during this class, which is probably why I cannot remember any of the recipes we learned. Pisco is their local liquor and I became quite fond of it during my stay in Peru.

You cannot visit Cusco without visiting the local markets, getting your photo taken with an alpaca and visiting the ruins in the Sacred Valley. I visited SO many ruins and although they were beautiful and majestic they eventually started to blend together (sort of like churches in Europe or temples in Asia). I decided to mix it up a little and rent an ATV to explore the rest of the ruins. I would highly recommend exploring a few of these ruins and make sure to stop by the salt flats, which are beautiful and incredible. The following are a list of ruins that I visited:

  • Sacsaywamen: Closest Cusco ruins of the Incas.

  • Ollantaytambo

  • Qenqo

  • Koricancha

  • Tambomachay

  • Chinchero: Inca Ruins and Small Village Life.

  • Salinas de Maras: Salt Mines in the Hills.

  • Moray

  • Pisac

  • Raqchi

Side-trip to the Amazon

I knew I had to visit the Amazon on this trip so I decided to fly to Puerto Maldonado and spend a few nights deep in the jungle sleeping at a local eco-lodge. Puerto Maldonado is a pretty tiny airport and upon landing I knew I was in for a treat. It was so humid I could barely breathe. I found my driver and after a quick car ride to the edge of the Amazon River I boarded a motorized canoe and we were off. After about a 45-minute-boat ride we arrived at a place with a few scattered huts along the river. I was taken to my sleeping hut and was told that the electricity only worked from 4pm-8pm. I closed the door behind me, immediately stripped down into my bra and underwear, and stood in front of the fan trying to cool off in anyway possible. I was thankful I was only here for 2 nights as opposed to a week (which was part of my original plan). Although it was gorgeous, it was so humid; sweat was forming in-between creases on my body that I did not even know existed. I went on quite a few guided hikes (during the night and day), visited an exotic animal rescue center, and took a night boat ride along the Amazon where we spotted black caimans and a hydrochoerus (the largest rodent on Earth and apparently very difficult to spot).

 It was pitch black at night (you cannot even see 6 inches in front of you) and the jungle came alive with every insect and animal imaginable. Sleeping in the Amazon was incredible but definitely a “one and done”. During my night hike, my guide turned off the flashlight and a giant bat flew right into my face. I could not see him but I could hear and feel the flap of his wings and I jumped 3 feet off the ground and let out a piercing scream. My guide could not understand why I was scared and basically told this story to every other tourist we met the next day.

Lima: Scuba diving and ceviche

Although I was not very excited about going to Lima, my departure flight from LAX was out of Lima so I figured I would spend a couple days here eating ceviche and since Lima is a coastal city I wanted to scuba dive in this area. I am a pretty avid scuba diver and have been diving all over the world for the past 11 years and although Peru is not exactly known for its diving; I knew I could potentially dive with sea lions, so why not? I booked a two-tank boat dive about 2 hours from Lima and the conditions were pretty similar to Southern California (cold, low visibility, kelp forests, and dark) with the exception of lots of small colorful sea life and sea lions! Yep, I got to dive with very smelly sea lions. The dive boat was full of local Peruvian divers and therefore our dive briefing was in Spanish. I asked if many international tourists dive here and they responded “no”. Everyone on the boat was very welcoming since I was the only tourist and native English speaker and all in all it was a pretty fantastic day to be on the water.

I spent the rest of my time in Lima eating ceviche. Seriously, I found a map that listed all the cevicherias in the Mira Flores district. I stayed in Mira Flores since it is considered a trendy and safe part of Lima (like every big city, Lima can be dangerous) and I really had no desire to go into the city center to see the capitol and government buildings, deal with traffic and the crowds so I stayed within a 5 mile radius and walked everywhere using my offline Google map. Cevicherias are little restaurants that serve every type of ceviche imaginable and they usually open around 2 pm. In two days, I ate at 6 cevicherias. At one point, I texted one of my best friends back home and said, “I am currently eating at my third cevicheria of the day”. Ceviche in the States does not stand a chance against ceviche in Lima.

After spending nearly a month in Peru, I was hooked. Peru is a beautiful country with a colorful and warm culture, filled with breathtaking scenery, mouth-watering food, gorgeous craftsmanship, kind people and adorable llamas and alpacas. I would recommend spending minimal time in Lima and taking more than a minute to explore every corner of Cusco (and if you have time take a trip to the Amazon).

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Kristen Fuller

Explorer of cliffs, mountains, oceans, and deserts by day and night.