Peru: A Cheaper Trail to Machu Picchu

The Salkantay Trek is a great alternative to the crowded Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay Trek is a great alternative to the crowded Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

Hiking to Machu Picchu, without the $500 Price

By Michael Molyneaux

Mules carrying packs in Salkantay Pass, Peru. photos by Michael Molyneux.
Mules carrying packs in Salkantay Pass, Peru. photos by Michael Molyneux.

Arriving into the tiny mountain village of Colpapampa, high up in the tropical Lluskamayu valley, I´m greeted on the road by the shy smile of a young Peruvian girl. Her bright eyes flutter nervously between the visitor and the ground; her puckered forehead swimming between emotions.

Anita, 8, is wearing clothes more dirt than rags. She calls her “Papa” who emerges from a low, mudbrick house. His back fills the doorway.

“I’m looking for a place to camp.” He points indifferently to his back garden where, somewhere among the rocks, drying cowhides and wild guinea pigs, there’s a spot for me. I put down my rucksack and the rest of the family comes out to greet and inspect me.

The Trail

It’s my third day walking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, named among the Top 25 treks in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine. The route has grown in popularity since the Peruvian government restricted the number of walkers on the classic “Inca Trail” in 2004.

In order to walk the Inca Trail in the high season visitors have to book months in advance. To go with a tour company, it usually costs over USD $500.

So the Salkantay Trail now receives around 100 visitors a day, is free to use and offers some of the most spectacular views in the Willkapampa mountain range, located in the heartland of the
Peruvian Andes.


Tough First Two Days

The first two days are no walk in the park: two 8-hour uphill climbs over rocky trails breathing thin, chilly air. But the views are equally breath-taking; the sublime mountain silence always worthwhile.

Having cleared away the rocks and faeces from the back field, ready to pitch the tent, I walk back down to find Anita and her “Papa” sitting on an old wood-plank bench looking crestfallen: “We lost the chicks” Anita tells me, a knot of tears shivering up her throat. They jump up, pointing towards a field and start tracking again.

As I´m putting up the tent Anita and her sister, María, come and watch, giggling into splayed fingers. I ask them how old they are – 8 and 10 – and the quickness of their return question reveals their secret intentions: “can we help make the tent”.

Watching them work at my side, needing few instructions, I’m convinced they would’ve done a better job alone. I give them a few “soles” (the Peruvian currency) for their work and they skip off, happily clutching the coins to show their father.

Hundreds of Operators

Anita makes up the tent, and then accesses her work.
Anita makes up the tent, and then looks over her work.

There are hundreds of tour companies in Cusco offering the 5 day / 4 night Salkantay trek, starting at around 500 soles (£100) per person. They’ll arrange the transport, a guide and mules to carry the food and camping equipment.

Lighter on the purse-strings but heavier on the shoulder-blades, is the option to go it alone and take your own gear. The footpath is clear and well sign-posted and the route is perfectly safe. Every day you will pass other trekkers doing the same.

You can rent a tent and sleeping bag in Cusco for around 40 soles (£8) and the tourist information office on Calle Mantas will give you a map of the trail and show you where you can buy snacks and water along the way.

Colectivo” or “combi” (shared minibus) will take you 3 hours up the road to Mollepata. From there you start the ascent; passing through several small villages, from which you have spectacular views out over the lush, green valleys to the east.

The view down the Mollepata Valley. Day 1: Cusco – Mollepata – Soraypampa From Avenida Arcopata in Cusco a local “coop.”

You´re already up at 3000m, so it´s wise to have spent a couple of days in Cusco becoming acclimatized and buying some coca leaves to help stave off the altitude sickness.

When you reach Soraypampa in the evening, cooled by the shadow of Salkantay, there are safe and flat campgrounds where you’ll be undisturbed and offered amazing views of the snow-capped mountains.

Exhausted and knowing you’ll be rising early the next day, you slip into your sleeping bag believing the hard, boney ground to be a luxurious bed in a 5-star hotel.

Day 2: Soraypampa – Colpapampa

In the small hours, seeing it was light, I crawled out of my tent to pack up and set off. Instead of dawn, a bright shower of moonlight covered the ground and silence hung cold above the ground.

Rising again at 5am the pre-dawn stars were still visible overhead; a pale streak of daylight had appeared over the tree-tops.

Hiking to Machu Picchu, Peru.
Hiking to Machu Picchu, Peru.

I packed up my portable, million-star hotel and began the ascent, zig-zagging up the steep mountain switchback to the glacial moraine at the foot of Salkantay.

Your efforts are rewarded with sweeping vistas out over grassy plains and the high pass where, looming close by, you see Salkantay (6271m) and Huamantay (5850m). There’s also a small lake that provides an ice-cold reflection of the Andean sky.

Salkantay means “Savage Mountain” in Quechua. It´s easy to understand the logic for this name. The jagged, glacial ridges and snow-encrusted gullies are not inviting.

And, because of the great vertical relief, since the first ascent in 1952 the mountain has only been summited a handful of times. The Salkantay pass is the last major ascent on the trail.

The high, cold mountains start to give way to long tropical valleys where wild horses roam the hillsides and where there were so many new bird and flora species that I stopped noting them down: miners, hummingbirds, timamous; orchids, pisonays, mangos. The list is endless. The colors captivating.

I saw butterflies a poisonous, Inca cola yellow; some so black they looked like the shadows of other butterflies; and one that was appeared to be a transparent flying leaf whose body flickered on and off with electric violet flashes as it flew.

The rain-curled ferns and lichen-covered rocks sit as they have for centuries: serene and grey and unmoving, like old Buddha’s of time. The cool-smelling earth and the silence of the valley stretch out in repose, that to which all prayer aspires.

Cusco couple in traditional dress.
Cusco couple in traditional dress.

Being of the view that it´s easier to carry food in your stomach than in your rucksack, by the third day I had none left in either.

From that point on my meals consisted of coca leaves for chewing, river water for drinking and dried crusts of bread for keeping hunger at bay. Luckily I was approaching Colpapampa, where you can buy a hot meal in a family-run cabin and pitch your tent on soft, flat ground.

Day 3: Colpapampa – La Playa

When I arrived in Colpapampa it was late afternoon and the sun was already disappearing behind the hills.

Having joined us on the little garden bench, Anita’s grandparents are laughing in the sun, chewing coca leaves mixed with bits of black resin they pick off with their dirty fingernails. They tell me, in Quechua, the resin is called “Llipta” – a mixture of lime and vegetal ash that helps with the extraction of the coca alkaloids and gives you instant strength. It seems to have been channeled directly to their tremendous, unspeakably friendly, toothless smiles.

They talked quietly amongst themselves in Quechua. Out of nowhere the old woman let out a demented scream, apparently aimed at the dog: “get that little pig, you filthy beast!” and lost herself in a deranged burst of laughter that her husband joined in with, without seeming to know why. I noticed his fingernails were completely black from working out in the fields.

I would guess he was over 70. Later I saw him carrying a bundle of wood three times his size on his back from the next village. His skin was as old and tough as railroad wood.

Cow heads in a Cusco market.
Cow heads in a Cusco market.

The next morning, still dark, the old crone was up before all of us, tending to the animals in the moonlight, her sleeves rolled up, smoke already rising out the cracks in the old stone outhouse.

From the lush, grassy plains of Colpapampa the trail snakes down the valley following the path of the Llskamayu River through tropical vegetation with dense swathes of forest on both sides of the deep valley.

I was walking along a quiet dirt road, following the path of the river, when I heard a motorbike’s engine approaching. The bike slowed as it passed and I heard the driver ask if I was going to La Playa. I shouted “yes” and, a hundred yards further down, he stopped and signaled for me to get on.

The young Peruvian farmer lifted his young daughter onto the handlebars of the old Yamaha and I got on the back. We drove in silence along the rocky road as I looked around at the trees and sky and the endless green canopy below.

The wind was cool and the sun coming up over the hills cast an orange light on the high ridges. My bag felt light and I knew I would get to La Playa ahead of time. The clouds were high and, gazing around, breathing in the cool clean air, the sun flickering through the over-hanging trees, I felt altogether happy.

When we arrived in La Playa I bought the farmer and his daughter soup and rice and we listened to the river going by outside the little, ramshackle restaurant. Some men were hammering down a metal roof and the trees were screeching with cicadas.

Day 4: La Playa – Hidroeléctrica – Aguas Calientes

La Playa is a little different from the remote, scenic campgrounds you become accustomed to along the trail. There are lots of little cafes playing Cumbia music. They sell expensive sandwiches and beer and don’t mind finding change for a hundred.

Aguas Calientes, a welcome relief after the hike.
Aguas Calientes, a welcome relief after the hike.

From La Playa you take the Colectivo to Santa Teresa, a small town where there are plenty of restaurants. Then it´s another Colectivo ride to the very un-Inca sounding “Hidroeléctrica”, which is not a village but a huge hydro-electric plant which was established in 1985 to harness the tremendous power of the fast-flowing Urubamba River.

Around this site, several small kitchens have been set up to serve the needs of passing tourists.

You then have two options depending on how tired you feel: either take a train to Aguas Calientes (the village where you stay overnight before walking to Machu Picchu) or walk there along the railway line. The thrill seekers can also have a go on the longest zip line in South America – the Cola de Mono.

Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu village, is like Inca night in Las Vegas. It´s more like a theme park than a village and an obnoxious caricature of everything that is sacred about the Inca culture.

The 'road-to-machu-pichu'
The ‘road-to-machu-picchu’

Drunk tourists with camera-flashes for faces wheel around the streets until they’re herded into restaurants where they sit without talking and pay a fortune for the privilege. A meal there costs around 50 soles (10 pounds).

If you walk one block from the main square you can get a three course Peruvian meat dish with soup and juice in the marketplace for 6 soles. Arguably the best part about Aguas Calientes is being able to ease your aching muscles in the thermal baths after which the town is named.

The shops are stocked full of llama holograms, plastic antiques, and gaudy electric Inca warrior icons with slogans like “Awaken the Puma Within” and “Sense the Spirit of the Condor” that resemble dubious self-help guides. The streets echo with panpipe covers of 80´s classic rock songs mimed by feathered Indians like the ones you sometimes see in city centers on rainy Saturday afternoons.

Butterflies along the trail near Machu Picchu.
Butterflies along the trail near Machu Picchu.

There were two industries in the town: tourism and waste management. The first involves mechanically perfecting a few phrases in English, a ventriloquist´s smile and the art of haggling.

The second group sits among enormous heaps of rubbish and separate plastic bottles from the other waste with tired hands and grey faces. But the latter work goes on behind closed doors on the edge of town; away from the circus streets where everyone is smiling under the colored, electric lights.

There are hundreds of ways to arrive to Machu Picchu, a hundred tour companies with every pitch and scheme imaginable to sell you the “Inca dream”; but, unless you take the same string of Colectivos back to Santa Teresa, there is only one way to leave: the Peru Rail-operated rail service that costs between 80 and 500 dollars per person.

Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu – Cusco

The remnants of the night´s downpour drip from the tips of leaves and hummingbirds come out to feed on nectar loosened by the dew. The early sun spills down in shafts of light and blue mountains trail off into the distance. By the roadside on the way back to the station at Hidroeléctrica the banana trees form a thick wax canopy that warms the trapped moisture. Some of the leaves are as big as yacht sails.

Back in Cusco wild-eyed Americans in the San Blas backstreets offer you the chance to “trip your nuts off in the Andes” with “the Peruvian Peyote” (Ayahuasca). There are also “sweat lodge ceremonies” where sweating “rituals” accompanied by prayer and song are said to purify the soul and body.

Cusco street tango.
Cusco street tango.

Back in Cusco I kept my head down, found a cheap hotel room and calculated the distance to the coast. I was swept along by the fast flowing traffic of street vendors and tourists with porcelain-white legs.

Everything you needed was there, handed to you on a plate: neon casinos, luxury restaurants, affordable transport, cheap massages.

It wasn’t long before I forget about the mosquito bites, the breathless uphill struggles, the long spells of boredom. I was desperate to go back.
In the morning shadows of old churches and tall buildings, carved statues of well-fed bishops and hotel-cornice gargoyles, watched over taxi drivers and shoe shiners yawning, beginning their daily rounds in earnest.

The street vendors could be seen dragging along battered metal kiosks and six-foot-tall metal candy-trolleys with the grey faces of men who’d been asked to carry around their own coffins forever.

Getting There: London to Cusco from £600 return (

When to Go: September/October (before the rainy season; after the peak tourist season)

Accommodation: Hostals available in Cusco from £6 a night (

Michael MolyneuxMichael Molyneux is an English teacher from Preston, UK. He studied philosophy at university and has published several collections of poetry. He is currently working in Yasuni, Ecuador, with wildlife field guides.

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