Hiking in Comfort and Style: The Lodge-Based Salkantay Trek
A few years ago I was fortunate to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was a beautiful experience, and I loved almost every moment of this iconic hike. That being said: while I’m the kind of person who is thrilled to hike for hours every day, the need to crawl into a tent at night is less than ideal for me. Our local team in Peru has state-of-the art camping equipment and an entire team of porters, making the camping part of the Inca Trail as easy as possible, but the princess in me was still disheartened to face that thin canvas layer and a sleeping bag as my only comfort at night.
What if there was an option to hike through the stunning Peruvian Andes and arrive to Machu Picchu, but to stay in comfortable lodges with such amenities as Jacuzzi tubs and massage therapists at the end of each day? That genius idea is possible thanks to a local operator called Mountain Lodges of Peru.
I was lucky enough to experience the Mountain Lodges Salkantay Trek in April of this year. This was the end of the rainy season, which affected my experience a bit. Below I will describe each day of this fantastic journey, to give you a better idea of what to expect on this 5 night / 6 day hike.
Early this morning we are picked up from our Cusco hotels to begin the journey. After a few hours in the car, including stops at the Tarawasi Ruins and a weaving cooperative, we begin to hike along a modern aqueduct. This is an easy-going day with about 5 miles of hiking to reach our first lodge: the Salkantay Lodge, located at 12,690 feet of elevation. It is such a pleasure to come in from the rain, kick off our muddy boots, and be greeted with warm cups of Muña tea (an herb that is supposedly even better for fighting altitude sickness than the famed Coca Leaf, which is unfortunately also a diuretic). The Jacuzzi, which is heated at the beginning of the day so as to be ready by about 4:00 p.m., is perhaps my favorite Jacuzzi of the entire trip: we can soak with the majesty of Mount Salkantay smack in front of us. This is a far, far cry from a sad crawl into a tent for the evening. The princess is happy.
We start out in a morning drizzle for an acclimatization hike to the nearby Lake Humantay, which is adjacent to Mount Humantay. Today we are accompanied by two capos (the Peruvian word for shaman). They are going to perform a ceremony for us up at the lake. I’ll be honest – when I first heard of this plan I cringed a bit, having been exposed to similar “for tourism” ceremonies on previous trips that ended up feeling like a hollow shell of what it should be. Yet the joyful personalities of the capos as we hike, and their earnestness as they perform this sacred ritual, make the experience a highlight. Our guide translates for us as the capos prepare an elaborate offering composed of the sacred coca leaf, alpaca idols, cookies, and other symbolic items. We are handed 3 coca leaves and encouraged to ask the apus (Mountain Gods) for blessings for the rest of our hike and in our lives. To complete the ceremony, we later burn the apu package with Mount Salkantay in the distance, offering it to the Pachamama (mother earth).
This morning we prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead: summiting Salkantay Pass, at 15,213 feet of elevation. The climb is steady, and along the way we pass a family that sells snacks and drinks to the hikers. The children come out and delight in the attention of the group, one taking our hiking poles and creating a game of leapfrog with his younger brother. The peak looms in the distance. “Two more hours to the top!,” our guide says in a tone that is half encouraging and half warning. We summit in the rain. The magnificent peak achingly close, but I am unable to see anything through the dense clouds. Still, it is a proud moment to have made it this far, the highest I’ve ever hiked in my life, and we all enjoy taking pictures next to the sign that displays “Abra Salkanatay 4,629 metros sobre nivel del mar” (Salkantay Pass, 4,629 meters above sea level).
The journey down from the pass is muddy. We slip and slide our way down to the next lodge, which is also shrouded in clouds. We arrive just before lunch and are ready for a long rest. We all order pisco sours to celebrate our accomplishment and grab an appointment with the massage therapist, marveling at these luxuries available to us at the end of such a challenging day.
Having arrived the day before with zero visibility, I open my curtains and gasp at the shockingly blue sky. I run out of the lodge and am greeted by the other side of Mount Humantay glistening with snow. Wayra Lodge is the most remote of the MLP Lodges, and it proves to be my favorite of the trip.
One of the highlights of the Salkantay Trek is the ability to move through 8 different microclimates, giving you a sense of the incredibly diverse geography of Peru. Today we descend steadily from our lodge, which is perched at 12,800 feet. This is when the climate first begins to change and when we first start to sense that we are getting closer to the Cloud Forest. The sun is with us all day. We stop to have a rest at a local homestead, and I make the unfortunate mistake of setting my backpack a little too close to the chicken’s bathroom area; when I pick it up again, it has some chicken goo on it that I then obliviously smear down my right side. My incredibly helpful guide Yarik immediately jumps to the task of helping me get cleaned up. At this moment, the laundry service available at each lodge is more precious to me than ever before!
Today’s lunch is a special event. We arrive at Colpa Lodge, set at 9,414 feet of elevation, to witness the chefs preparing a Pachamanca, a traditional Andean way of cooking by making an oven of hot stones in the ground. We feast on cuy (guinea pig), chicken, and lamb as well as Andean potatoes and a pesto-like sauce made from Huacatay, or Andean mint.
Due to the rains, the main part of the trail we are supposed to hike on this day has been damaged, so we would have had to hike along the main road. Everyone in our group decides that a day of zip lining and visiting the hot springs at Santa Teresa is a better option. I wasn’t that excited for zip lining, preferring always to hike in mountain scenery, but the zip lining course turns out to be impressive. Getting up that high gives us incredible views of the Santa Teresa River Valley and surrounding mountains, and it is simply a lot of fun. For any families considering the Salkantay Trek, I would highly recommend you opt to include this experience. We then visit the Cocalmayo Hot Springs. These are one of my favorite hot springs on earth for their remote location and stunning mountain scenery. We end the day at 7,000 feet of elevation at Lucma Lodge.
The final day of trekking brings perhaps the biggest highlight: On this day we reach Llactapata, a set of ruins set across the valley from Machu Picchu. From here we get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, but from a very unique perspective. As we wait for our lunch, we each take dozens of photos of the ruins perfectly outlined in mist. For me, this moment alone would make the entire trek worthwhile. The thousands of other visitors who pass through Machu Picchu never get this perspective, and it feels very special to see the ruins from the back side. We hike to the valley floor, then ride the train from the Hydroelectric Station to the town of Aguas Calientes for the night. Tomorrow we will have our guided day at Machu Picchu.
A few details:
1. The night before the trek you will meet with your guides in Cusco and be briefed on the days ahead. Upon request, they will provide duffel bags in which you can put up to 18 lbs. per person. These bags will be transported between the lodges for you, sometimes in a vehicle and sometimes on a mule!
2. There is wifi available at each lodge. The speed will not be the fastest internet in the world, but it is enough to check email and stay connected.
3. Tips are included in the tour price for all lodge and logistical staff. The only tips not included are those for the main guide and assistant guide. MLP suggests a tip of $5-10/per day, per guide, but of course tipping is always at your discretion.
4. Payment for any additional purchases (such as alcohol, massages, and laundry) is made at the final lodge and is payable by cash (Nuevo Soles or US dollars) or credit card. Tips are collected in envelopes at the end of the trek and are payable by cash.
5. Electricity at the lodges is 220v and is available from about 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
6. Each lodge provides laundry service for the price of $8 for a small bag or $16 for a big bag (prices accurate for 2017).
7. At each lodge there is shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the showers. Hair dryers are available upon request from reception.
8. It is possible to take this hike from March to December every year, but the ideal months to take the trek would be from about May – October when statistically the rain fall is less.
If you’re interested in this unique (and comfortable!) Andean hike, just contact us to start planning today.