(Written for potential hikers of the Salkantay trail.)
Is it a good idea to do the Salkantay trek solo without a group and without a guide, sin grupo y sin guia?
Yes. It’s a tough trail in places, and carrying all your equipment makes for some long days, but all in all I think it was definitely worth it. There is something magical about hiking along the edge of a cliff through lush, virgin forest with only butterflies, birds, bees and beetles for company, and then arriving at a partially uncovered Incan ruin with a view of Machu Picchu in the distance.
Why do the Salkantay trail?
I wanted to do the Salkantay because:
* It’s described as one of the 25 best trails in the world by National Geographic
* It’s an alternative way to walk to Machu Picchu without paying exorbitant Inca trail prices
* It is more spectacular and diverse than the Inca trail
* It was a personal challenge for me; I hadn’t done a solo trek for several days before
* It is a manageable trail: not to difficult to navigate, fairly safe, and of a decent distance (up to nearly double that of the classic Inca trail)
One resource I think you should definitely have is Alexander Stewart’s ‘The Inca Trail’ (2013 edition or later). I used it constantly. It has the best maps, detailed descriptions of what to look out for, a map and guide to Machu Picchu, city guides for Cusco and Lima, and full details on lots of other trails. It includes information about the history of the Incas, fauna and flora, typical prices to expect, route options, places where you should stock up on food and water along the trail, recommended places to stay and eat, and realistic (honest) descriptions from a hiker’s perspective. I couldn’t have done the trail without it. No idea who Stewart is but he really knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm for the Cusco region shines through in his writing. You can easily pick out the relevant bits to you and it’s small enough to carry in a large pocket.
There are also several good blogs to help you plan your solo trek. I used these five:
* A family of four does the Salkantay without a guide, nice descriptions and energy (http://www.sayonarapushek.com/2015/05/12/salkantay-trek-without-a-guide/)
* Thrifty drifter, good suggestions (http://www.thriftydrifter.com/salkantay-questions-answered)
* A couple do the Salkantay without a guide, lots of handy items (http://salkantaytrekmachupicchu.blogspot.com.es)
* Another couple’s experience without a guide, good equipment list (http://www.backpackforever.com/knowledge/3/south-america/peru/hiking-the-salkantay-trail-to-machu-picchu-without-a-guide)
* An attempt at a semi-official Salkantay article, handy elevation guide (http://www.machupicchutrek.net/hike-to-machu-picchu/salkantay-trek)
Note that all these blogs have at least one piece of false or outdated information (including this one!), so you have to cross-check and do your own detective work.
I want to thank those bloggers for their information and encouragement. It was great to have real stories and recommendations whilst deciding what to do.
There are many versions of the Salkantay trail. The two most common ones are:
* 3-5 days including transport via Santa Teresa
* 5-7 days including most of the classic Inca trail
The first one is the one that most agencies offering the ‘Salkantay trail’ will offer you. I wanted to walk the whole way to Machu Picchu, so this one didn’t suit me. At the time of writing (Jan 2016) you can pay between $160-$400 for a guided version of this route, depending on what’s included and how well you can haggle.
The second one you follow a lot of the classic Inca trail and therefore must pay and have a guide. This option didn’t work for me either.
The Salkantay trail is still very much a DIY trail, I think. You have several route options, many places to camp, and options for making it longer, harder, or more exhilarating. You have to decide what’s best for you, knowing your goals and limitations.
My criteria were:
* Walk all the way to Machu Picchu
* No help from a guide, group, porter or bag-carrying donkey
* Pay as little as possible
* Start in Mollepata; many guided treks drive you further along the trail but I wanted to increase the authenticity and give myself more of a challenge
I chose a route which Stewart calls the Santa Teresa trek because it tends to go via the town of Santa Teresa, but then I diverted via the partially uncovered ruin of Llactapata to make the trail more like a proper hiking trail (fewer roads, no transport) and to include an Incan ruin.
If those are also your criteria then you might find my route helpful, but you can design your trek any way you want!
My route was:
* Day 1: Mollepata to Soraypampa via Marqocasa, 22km (can be done in 20km by walking on road)
* Day 2: Soraypampa to Ccolpapampa, 21km
* Day 3: Ccolpapampa to Lucmabamba, 15km
* Day 4: Lucmabamba to Aguas Calientes, 23km (includes Llactapata and a 3hr walk along the train tracks from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes)
* Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and exploring the city, lots of steps
When first planning I found all the town names very confusing, especially because each place had multiple spellings. I don’t have a good suggestion here other than to get yourself a map and start becoming familiar. Most online maps and those you get in Cusco are terrible. I used Stewart’s maps and a topographical map, and that was sufficient. Topo maps are hard to find, but I found one in a good camping rental shop just off the main square in Cusco, for S/25. You just have to ask around.
The trail does have blue signs in many places to help you along, especially in the first two days. However they’re not at every junction, and you can get lost. I’m a reasonable map reader, although I’m not an expert and had never done a big solo trek before this, and I got lost a few times. However, with the topographical map you’ll never be massively lost – on the first day I occasionally just followed some general direction defined by the shape of the hills and managed to rejoin the main trail soon. And you can often just ask the locals. If you’re more astute than me then you probably won’t get lost!
Most blogs will tell you that day 2 is the hardest because of the summit, and then the other days are easier. With a heavy pack on day 1 for a long distance, and with blisters on day 4, I found there to be three tough days and an easier one on day 3. Luckily the altitude didn’t really affect me so day 2 wasn’t as bad as it could have been; it’s mostly downhill anyways.
The trails you follow are paths used by local Quechua doing their every day business. This means the trails are well trodden and you’re never far from people. However one of the benefits of the Salkantay is that you feel more like you’re on your own. For 90% of the third day I was completely alone, I didn’t see another human being. In total for the first 4 days I’d say I was walking alone at least 95% of the time. Only occasionally I walked with other hikers or locals. All other hikers were either guided groups or locals, apart from a pair of students navigating themselves.
It’s hard to say whether it would be cheaper to do it alone than with a guided group, because of all the extra hassle of getting to and from the trail by yourself, and hiring the extra camping gear. I think the point here is that you shouldn’t expect to save loads of money, and you should expect a bit more hassle. But that’s the price of the solo trek, I suppose.
If you trust yourself to get to Machu Picchu in the number of days you plan, then you will save money and hassle by booking these things in advance:
* Ticket to Machu Picchu + Wayna (Huayna) Picchu. I think Wayna Picchu (and Huchuypicchu in front of it) are worth the price, but they will probably sell out in advance.
* Train ticket from Aguas Calientes (Pueblo Machu Picchu) to Ollantaytambo. There are only two ways to leave Aguas Calientes – an expensive train or walking 3 hours along a railway line to Hydroelectrica station plus some more transport hassle. My recommendation is to book the train in advance for something like 5pm on the day you do Machu Picchu, go to Ollantaytambo (around $60), then get a cheap collectivo (shared minivan) from there back to Cusco (S/8-10). Obviously you’ve got loads more options including hanging about in Ollantaytambo, but this is the route I did after lots of research and hassle, and I needed to get back to Cusco quickly to return the hired camping gear.
These are the costs I can remember:
* Good tent S/10 per day
* Basic cooking equipment including plates etc S/5 per day
* Sleeping bag (down) S/6 per day
* Sleeping mat S/4 per day
(I went to 9 different shops before finding these prices. You could expect to pay up to 30% more.)
* Gas canister S/25
* Food for 4 days incl. emergency rations S/40
* Bottled water for day 1 S/10
* Topographical map S/25
*Cusco to Mollepata: Public bus S/20
* Taxi S/10
* Other taxis in Cusco because I messed up the planning and got some unhelpful information S/20
* Train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo $59
* Collectivo from Ollantaytambo to Cusco S/8
* Entry to Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu S/150
Stocking up on food and water on days 3, 4 and 5:
* Food S/50
* Water S/30
Accommodation in Aguas Calientes:
*On day 4 S/25
* On day 5 because I didn’t book my train in advance S/35
I make that a total of around 775 Soles, which is about $210-230. Many of the guided tours exclude some of the costs I’ve included here (check if trains are included!). So basically I think you’re not going to save a lot of money (or anything at all) if you are by yourself. But you could shave another S/100-200 off my estimated cost if you planned better or had your own stuff.
A lot of blogs make strong recommendations for what you must have or do. For instance, hiking poles. I didn’t use them and I felt fine. I think you have to know yourself and use your hiking experience. So instead here are some things that worked for me and where I felt I made mistakes:
Things I’m glad I brought/did
* Alexander Stewart’s ‘The Inca trail’
* Good tent, ground sheet and sleeping bag
* Sun hat, or rather, a method for keeping the sun off the face and neck for long periods
* Sun cream
* Insect repellent (especially for Ccolpapampa campsite)
* Long sleeve shirt (so many uses!)
* Water purification tablets
* Good hiking boots (you’ll be waking on lots of loose rocks and through little streams)
* Rain resistant clothes
* Topographical map (especially for day 1, not needed so much for days 2-4, Stewart’s maps are good)
* First aid kit – lots of little scratches, bites and issues to deal with
* Knew just enough Spanish to get by
* Change in Soles to buy water and snacks at campsites
* In Machu Picchu, climbed the smaller of the two mountains which you can access on the Wayna Picchu ticket. It’s called Huchuypichu I think. Fewer people climb it, it’s a shorter, riskier climb, but you end up with a closer, unobstructed view of Machu Picchu, and you might just have the summit to yourself. (Obviously climb Wayna Picchu too, it’s amazing!)
Things I wish I had brought/did
* Proper blister kit, or had packed lighter (!)
* Booked the train out of Aguas Calientes earlier
* Knew more Spanish
* Planned the journey to Mollepata better. Probably the best from Cusco is to queue early in the morning for the collectivos in Arco Pata street in west central Cusco, but make sure you know what’s going on. Hiring a taxi to Mollepata could be S/200, it’s about 3 hours away.
* NOT drunk the tap water in a hostel in Aguas Calientes. Gastro enteritis is not fun. Special thanks to O2 Medical Network in Cusco who were excellent.
* More water purification tablets, or a larger budget for bottled water
* More food and water for the day in Machu Picchu. The rules say you can’t bring food into the city. But they didn’t check when I was there, and no one seemed to follow the rules anyway (except this muppet!). There are no places to buy food in the city and water is overpriced.
I trekked in summer, the rainy season. However I was lucky, it didn’t rain too much. Obviously adapt your needs to the weather, but keep in mind that you’ll be walking in lots of different valleys with their own micro climates. I think it makes sense to be prepared for anything from a hail storm to boiling hot – both happened on my trek but luckily the hail storm was ahead of me!
Many other blogs explain what to expect on each day so I thought instead of repeating that, it would be useful to suggest some key decisions you might want to make:
* Water: which parts of the trail have streams and which require you to stock up? Day 2 has plenty of fresh water, day 4 does not. Stewart’s book helped here. It seemed to me that mountain water is less likely to give you a tummy bug than hostel tap water, but in hindsight I should have bought more purification tablets just to be safe.
* Food: some campsites have small shops where you can buy sweets and old fruit, but these might be closed, depending on the season. I would suggest taking almost everything with you if possible. Normal hiking/camping ideas apply.
* Feet: the trail is very rocky, you cross lots of small streams (or rather, the easiest way for water to get down the mountain is for the trail to become a stream for a bit), and you will have steep descents for hours at a time. With a heavy pack I think it’s very advisable to wear proper hiking boots. Also to bring a decent blister kit.
* Campsites: day 1 campsite is likely to be Soraypampa unless you fancy a colder, more spectacular night or a longer first day (in which case choose Salkantaypampa or a site after the pass). Day 2 campsites could be a range of things. Most would choose Chaullay or Ccolpapampa, and these are effectively the same, they’re only 15 min apart. Day 3 really depends on what you want from your hike. La Playa is a large community but much less serene. Day 4: you’ll probably want to start from Aguas Calientes early the next morning, so probably go for a cheap hostel there.
* Llactapata or Santa Teresa? After 3 days of hiking, if you’re feeling tired it might make sense to get motorised transport to somewhere like Santa Teresa so you can have a thermal bath. But if you want to see a partially uncovered ruin without any other tourists, then I’d recommend camping in Llacmabamba on day 3 and doing the steep push on the morning of day 4 to see Llactapata. This was my hardest day, but also my most rewarding, because of hiking solo through lush, virgin forest surrounded by a huge variety of natural flying art. You’re on cliff edges most of the time, you’re likely to be alone, you get to see Machu Picchu across a gorgeous valley, and you get to play archaeologist at an ancient ruin.
* Clothing to bring: I’d suggest to get clothes which are flexible to handle a range of weathers: scorching hot, persistent rain, thunderstorms, and a cold night near the pass.
I think one of the benefits of doing it solo was that I could design my own route, change it if needed, and feel like I walked on my own to Machu Picchu. The guided tours get picked up in vans on day 3 – that wasn’t the experience I wanted. However I met some great people on the guided tours, and hung out with them in Aguas Calientes, and they seemed to have bonded and made great friends. So it’s about the particular experience you want.
Overall I think it’s an excellent trail to do solo, for these reasons:
* Challenging but safe and manageable
* Adaptable – you can change it as you go depending on what you want or how you feel
* Wild – you’re walking on the edges of cliffs a lot of the time, you pass close to a snow capped peak, you walk through virgin cloud forest, and you see many waterfalls
* Beautiful fauna and flora:
** So many types of dazzling butterflies, I thought I might want to become a fallatelist, but then I remembered a funny man once suggested that subject would get me nowhere
** Beautiful birds and their calls, a huge variety of hummingbirds (they might be just a one-note bird but they’re wonderful to watch at work)
** I also saw a snake, some crazy beetles, four Andean eagles and giant ants
** Forest that really feels untouched
** Bright and interesting flowers
Apparently there are moves to monetise the Salkantay trail as well, so I’m not sure how long it will remain a DIY trek.
Great memories. Good luck if you decide to do it solo 🙂