The Salkantay Trek, the Hardest Physical Challenge I’ve Ever Completed

The Salkantay 4-day trek had been booked since July and I’d been dreading its arrival. I went through phases of trying to get fit, struggling to find both time and space to squeeze in some proper exercise. But the day had arrived and I couldn’t escape it, attempting an early night to prepare for the 4am wake up and pushing aside my anxiety to enjoy some sleep.

From Cusco we drove three hours to the starting point in Challacancha, taking advantage and getting in some more sleep while we drove. Our group was made up of 12 girls and we called ourselves the Pachamamas, reflecting the traditional way of living by Mother Earth. Day one was the warm up, a bit of uphill to begin with and then a couple of hours of flat before arriving at our accommodation. Fitness levels may not be the issue – well, in my case it was – but it’s the altitude that gets you. By the time we finished the very gradual uphill switchback trail we found ourselves out of breath and questioning whether we would be able to survive the full trek. Thankfully by the time we got through the flat section our confidence levels were back up and we were keen for lunch, being given a one hour period for rest before it would be ready.

Having been away for so long and having to worry about what to eat on a daily basis, it was nice to sit down at the table and be given a spread of options that I didn’t have to choose in the first place nor prepare. The afternoon was spent climbing to Humantay Lake, the “real preparation” for day 2 our guide told us. Situated at 4600 metres above sea level we spread out along the trail and each took our time getting to the top, stopping when necessary and pulling out our rain jackets when the icy snow began to fall from above. The Lake was a mix of green and yellow with a snowy mountain backdrop and more mountains in the distance. We had the chance to sit up there for a short while, taking it all in before making the walk back down, our hiking poles proving beneficial on the rocky, steep path.

We spent a night in sky domes with glass roofs to let us admire the night sky as we fell asleep, trying to forget about the cold as temperatures dropped below 0. It was an early start the next day with the first half of the day all up hill to complete the Salkantay pass, something I almost gave up on multiple times. It took everything I had to make it to the top. I struggled with the altitude and the lack of oxygen and my body felt tired and weak, unsure if I was cold or hot as the sun popped out from behind the clouds every now and then. The afternoon was all downhill providing me with a different form of pain, my trusty hiking boots unforgiving on my toes as my feet landed heavily on the terrain, fighting to keep my balance at the same time as the rain came down on us, turning the dirt path into a muddy mess.

Day three was longer but easier. The sun was out and jackets, beanies and gloves were packed away. We entered the cloud forest which made for a beautiful path through the trees, giving us some shade when needed. The afternoon was spent walking from Hydro Electrica to Aguas Calientes, 3 hours following the flat train track, envious of the trains that passed us with their very fresh, relaxed passengers on board.

Aguas Calientes was a beautiful town, clearly benefiting from the mass tourism it sees on a daily basis. It was full of brightly lit restaurants and souvenir stores, with small overpriced convenience stores in every gap between. We ate dinner in a restaurant before getting to our hostel, bringing in an awful smell as we entered and dispersing our somewhat disgusting daypacks throughout the place.

After a night’s sleep in a real bed with real linen and a hot shower we arose for another 4:30 departure, waiting to get the bus up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Through the gates we hiked up some stairs only to be enclosed in a huge cloud blocking out any possible view. I had to laugh, after almost 60km through rain, icy snow and the hot sun, the end point did not deliver. We walked up a bit further and finally the mountains poked out above the cloud, giving us a better view with the clouds providing a nice effect. We celebrated our achievement and took our obligatory photos before bidding farewell to our excellent guides and going our separate ways for the day. Eliza and I headed to the gate to hike up to the tip of Machu Picchu mountain, something I almost regret purchasing three months before. My body already in a world of pain I had to endure 2600 stairs to get to the top, stopping at each landing and fighting the urge to turn around, eventually making it to the top and finding I preferred the views from lower down but I pretended not to realise.

Overall, the experience was incredible. It was undoubtedly the most challenging hike I’ve ever done but the reward was evident. I have to be honest and say it hasn’t been my favourite hike within South America, with these countries providing so much beauty in their landscapes I think I prefer the Quilotoa loop in Ecuador and perhaps the hikes available in Huaraz, in northern Peru. However, Machu Picchu is another of the seven natural wonders of the world that I can tick off the bucket list, and the Salkantay trek was the best way for me to get there, giving me a bigger sense of achievement when I saw the view than I would have felt if I had just traveled there by bus and train.