The Guide to (Unguided) Machu Picchu
Ahhhh, Machu Picchu. One of the (new) 7 wonders of the world. An Incan civilization constructed in the 15th century, using tools and craftsmanship defying modern carpentry. 200+ stone temples and homes, hidden deep in the Peruvian Andes. Llamas and alpacas roaming freely, taking pictures and hand-feeding from tourists. It is no wonder that this is one of the most popular destinations in the world!
There are two common trekking routes to Machu Picchu: the Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trail. Both offer guided tours, but cost upwards of $500-$700/person. That’s my budget for a month! Now a guided tour certainly has its benefits: having your tents pre-made, your food pre-cooked, and donkeys carrying your equipment...
But where is the adventure in that!?
We were young, wild, and most importantly: poor. So with our budget of $100/each, Jimmy and I chose to complete the Salkantay Trek unguided! After a few days of recruiting new friends, planning and acclimatizing (ahem.. partying) in Cusco, we embarked to our starting village of Mollepata.
The first two days were the most challenging, trekking approximately 24 miles while gaining an altitude of 5,600 feet to reach the highest elevation at the Salkantay Pass, 15,190 feet. With 35 pounds of gear on your back and roosters ruining your (much needed) sleep at 4 am, this is a daunting task, but the views are well worth it. Tip: Drop your bags at your first campsite of Salkantaypampa, and head up to Humantay Lake for a refreshing dip to end your first day!
Days three and four were still long days, but with far less altitude gain. We woke early on day three, hitting the switchbacks in stride, trekking along the mountainside for the entire 11 mile day to Lukmabamba, the coffee capital of the region. A local family welcomed us in, offering organic coffee, and a lawn with a view. On a perfectly clear night, we ditched our tents, opting to sleep outside under the stars.
We woke on day four feeling tired, but prepared. The 12 mile day just didn’t sound intimidating anymore. We pushed uphill for hours until we reached our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance. From here began a long ascent to Hidroelectrica, where we followed the train tracks to the first (modern) city of the trek: Aguas Calientes. Tomorrow would be the big day!
At 4 am, we headed towards Machu Picchu, beating the crowds inside. We decided to climb the neighboring Montana Machupicchu, and were the firsts to reach the top.
Standing alone, amongst the early morning clouds, overlooking the ruins, a sense of confidence overwhelmed me. I had pushed myself physically and mentally in ways I never had before, and felt that I could do anything. I was dirty, smelly, and sweaty, but none of that mattered. I had just completed the adventure of a lifetime, but all I could think of, was that this was the beginning of something bigger.
The only question remaining was: Where to next?
For more details on how to plan your very own unguided trek to Machu Picchu, visit Nick's blog.