Our third day on the Salkantay Trek brings a totally new kind of scenery, the alpine peaks of the previous days giving way to lush green jungle, colourful wildflowers, and fleeting glimpses of Machu Picchu as we near Aguas Calientes. It’s a long day in terms of kilometres, but an altogether undemanding trek into town on mostly flat or downhill terrain— which is something of a relief considering the busy schedule on the cards for tomorrow.
Trail stats: Chaullay to Aguas Calientes
Elevation gain: 250m
Highest elevation: Chaullay (2,900m)
Trail hours: 6hrs
Highlights: Walking through lush, tropical cloud forest; beautiful waterfalls and rivers; our first glimpse of Machu Picchu on the walk to Aguas Calientes
Campsite: Hotel in Aguas Calientes
We enjoy a wonderful sleep-in this morning, our guide Nico knocking on our door with coca tea at a luxurious 5.45am. This late alarm is the direct result of our walking pace, so clearly our group’s quick clip has paid off. It is also so much warmer here in the cloud forest than it has been in the high mountains, so it really is a pleasant morning on all accounts. After a tasty breakfast of apple cake and more tea, our group rolls out of camp and hits the trail just after 6.40am. It feels like midday compared to yesterday’s dark departure.
Our trail winds through thick vegetation, undulating up and down in short bursts as we cross rivers, pass waterfalls, and overlook the valley floor. With every step, the day gets hotter and the sun more intense (especially on my already-burnt hands), but the frequent shade makes it all bearable. I’m also more than a little stoked to be in shorts again.
The walk to lunch is approximately 5hrs according to the notes we received at our trip briefing, but we manage to cover the 16km in under 4hrs, a happy surprise for all involved.
Since we are trekking a 4-day version of the Salkantay rather than the full 5-day route, we will be driving 2 sections of trail today on either side of lunch. This morning, it’s just a 20min ride in a rickety old van to reach our lunch spot at Playa, where an absolutely insane spread awaits us. The food is always delicious, but the chefs have outdone themselves today— chicha morada, fried chicken, pizza, guacamole and home-made chips cut into the shape of the Inca Cross are all on the menu. It’s our last lunch together as a group and it couldn’t be more delicious.
After stuffing ourselves full of wonderful food and enjoying a much-needed rest in the shade, Nico leads us into the forest to gather some coffee cherries for a demonstration on coffee production. I’m not a coffee drinker myself, but the smell of the beans roasting over an open fire is undeniably delicious. Dad gets to freshly grind the beans, which are brewed into tiny cups of coffee for each of us to sample. As a courtesy to those around me (who are wholly unprepared for the spastic I become after having caffeine), I let dad have my cup.
By this point, we’ve spent around 2hrs at Playa, so we quickly shift some essential items from our duffels into our day packs and walk across the river to meet the van. This second leg of the drive is around an hour and will bring us all the way to Hidroelectrica, from where we have the distinct pleasure of walking to Aguas Calientes along the train tracks.
Eileen elects to take the afternoon train to Aguas Calientes, but the rest of the group power walks (and it’s not a leisurely power walk, it is full-ball, zero-stops-or-you’ll-be-left-behind, every-woman-for-herself power walking) along the train line for 2.5hrs to reach our hostel. It’s certainly not my favourite part of the trek, but we actually get some pretty wonderful views of the ruins and Huayna Picchu as we approach town. And despite the dramatic increase in temperature that’s left everyone a bit sticky, most of the route is in the shade so we really can’t complain (although that doesn’t altogether stop us).
Arriving in “Machu Picchu town” is slightly overwhelming given that we’ve been in the mountains for the last few days— every second restaurant is advertising pizza and ice cream, tourists crowd the streets, and stalls are filled to bursting with colourful alpaca jumpers and hats. We pass through pretty much the entire town to reach our hotel, but the hot shower that awaits us is an incredible motivator to just keep moving.
An astonishing amount of dust has combined with the layers of sunscreen and bug spray that I’ve been lathering on to make a terrible, muddy mess of just about every exposed surface on my body. I feel like I’ve never been so dirty (in a couple weeks, I end up about 25,000x dirtier after 10 days of no showers on the Huayhuash Circuit, but I am blissfully unaware of this yet).
We enjoy a final dinner together as a group, during which we go back and forth about 500 times as to whether we will walk up to Machu Picchu tomorrow morning or take the bus. Either way, we need to leave the hostel just after 4am— the walkers will be climbing 1,800 steps up to the ruins while the riders will be queuing up for the busy bus. Save for me, dad, and Clara (my Spanish roomie), everyone elects to take the bus.
I’m hoping I won’t regret this tomorrow, especially as we are climbing up Huayna Picchu, arriving back in Cusco long after dark, AND THEN packing for another 4am trekking departure on the Ausangate Circuit the following day. On the other hand, I definitely get some sick sense of satisfaction out of a long day on the trail, so how could I pass up the opportunity to really stack it on? I think this officially makes me a glutton for punishment.