The Salkantay Trek, offering hikers the opportunity to walk beneath the region’s highest peak and enjoy some truly spectacular alpine scenery along the way to Machu Picchu, has been gaining popularity in recent years as an awesome alternative to the expensive and often crowded Inca Trail. After hiking the Inca Trail a few years ago, I was dying to see how Salkantay compared and, of course, experience the magical Machu Picchu all over again! I managed to convince my dad and stepmom (with extremely little convincing actually involved) to join me in Peru for a few weeks of trekking, and first up on our itinerary is Salkantay. By the end of day 1, we are all obsessed and I’m mentally planning a third trip to Peru.
Trail stats: Challacancha to Soraypampa & Humantay Lake
Elevation gain: 670m
Highest elevation: Laguna Humantay (4,200m)
Trail hours: 4.5hrs
Highlights: Stunning views of Humantay and Salkantay glaciers throughout the walk; hike up to beautiful Laguna Humantay; sleeping under the Milky Way in the Sky Domes
Campsite: Sky Camp at Soraypampa (3,920m)
Dad, Eileen, and I are picked up outside of our Airbnb in Cusco by our Salkantay Trekking guide Nico promptly at 4.10am (an hour I usually aim to have no recollection of). Thankfully, it proves all too easy to fall asleep on the 2.5hr drive to Mollepata, where we eat a quick breakfast and drink some coca tea before continuing a further hour to the trailhead at Challacancha.
I’m still pretty groggy when we do pile out of the van just after 8am, but my day pack is completely ready, my duffel (full of sleeping clothes and toiletries that the horses will carry) is organised, and all that’s left to do is listen to Nico go over the day’s itinerary one final time (dare I say ad nauseam). We end the huddle with a group chant of “Team Pachamama” and then hit the trail for the first section of the walk to Soraypampa. Spirits are high.
Almost immediately, we are treated to incredible views of Humantay looming at the end of the valley. Although it’s not the “main mountain” of the trip, it will feature heavily in today’s itinerary which culminates at the spectacular Laguna Humantay, and it is bloody beautiful.
The morning goes by quickly, even with Nico’s constant stops to point out (and, invariably, make us smell) various native flora along the route, and we reach Soraypampa around 11am. We will actually be camping here for the night, staying in amazing glass-roofed Sky Domes that offer incredible views of Humantay and Salkantay, as well as unparalleled stargazing— but that doesn’t mean we are done walking for the day.
After an hour of free time that pretty much everyone spends napping in their Sky Dome (which conveniently doubles as a sweat lodge in the midday heat), we regroup for lunch in a large communal dome with the best views of Salkantay. A seemingly endless stream of food emerges from the kitchen, each dish tastier than the last. Needless to say, everyone is impressed by the food and eats more than is probably advisable right before a long uphill climb.
For this 4-day trek, Dad, Eileen, and I are joined by a group of 5 Californians (Annie, Omari, Karen, Eric, and Sean) and a lovely Spanish girl (Clara, who is also my roommate for the trip since neither of us has someone to share a dome with). We spend a little time getting to know people at lunch, but as soon as the food vanishes, so does everyone back to their dome for another hour of napping. I am not typically a napper, but the combination of a very late night with friends in Cusco and a 3.45am wake-up necessitates a break from my strict no-nap principles and I’m fast sleep in our little Swedish sauna before I even have time to reconsider.
Finally caught up on rest, the group dons their day packs and sets off for the final walk of the day— up to Laguna Humantay and back. This has recently become an extremely popular 1-day tour from Cusco, so I’m thrilled to be able to combine it with our Salkantay Trek while we’re already nearby, see what all the fuss is about… Expectations are pretty high, given the many rave reviews we’ve heard about this hike and the absolutely insane photos I’ve seen. Spoiler alert: we are not disappointed.
The climb is fairly steep and no one is moving quickly as a result of the altitude, but we still make good time up to the lake, arriving within an hour of having departed camp and much sooner than Nico predicted (a theme which continues throughout the hike and probably gives us a bit of false confidence for the treks to come).
And suddenly, all of the panting was entirely worth it for this view. A beautiful lake, in almost unbelievable shades of blue and turquoise and green, sits at the base of the enormous glacial peak, Apu Humantay. It is quite possibly one of the best views I’ve ever seen, and despite the rising popularity of Laguna Humantay as a day hike, there aren’t an irritating number of other people around.
Dad and I spend the next hour hunting for the perfect photo spot along the lake shore (“Ok, let’s do orange jacket on, backpack off, sitting down…Now yellow jacket on, backpack on, standing up… look away… backpack off…look at me…Have we tried orange jacket on?”) while Eileen follows some of the Americans from our group up to the ridge.
About 100 photos later, dad and I also climb the ridge for a more aerial view of the lake. No matter the angle, this is a surreal place and I can’t help but run around in excitement, leaping across the trail with a blatant disregard for the altitude.
All too soon, it’s time to walk back down to camp, a journey that leaves everyone a bit sad (to be leaving this scenic spot that we could easily spend the entire day enjoying) and with sore knees (from the brutal downhill). The promise of an afternoon snack and the rapidly decreasing temperature both encourage our return (but I’ve got two pairs of gloves, so if we’re being totally honest, it’s mostly the food).
Thankfully, the rest of the evening is a blur of delicious food, both from our afternoon snack and the full dinner that follows not long after. As with everything we’ve been fed thus far, it is like being in an actual restaurant. Nico even introduces us to the chefs as we are polishing off desert and all the guests are shocked to learn that these 12-dish spreads have been prepared by just 2 men, one of whom is 19 years old.
After some brief discussions about the plan for tomorrow (including a 4.45am wake-up and 7hrs of hiking just to reach the lunch spot), we all scatter back to our domes to get ready for bed. Wearing every jacket I own and rolled snuggly into my winter sleeping bag (the domes would make extremely poor sweat lodges after dark, it turns out), I quickly drift off, dreaming of Salkantay Pass tomorrow and holding my breath for good weather.