JAN 26, 2016 – I started walking at 7:30 on this last day of my trek. An hour later I got to a place that called itself the “Andean Starbucks”: The hut of a local coffee farmer, where I was able to taste some excellent coffee that was grown and processed there, in the village of Lucmabamba. The farmer even showed me how he roasts the beans on the fire. Full of energy, I continued uphill to the Incan ruins of Llactapata. Just before arriving there, I spent about an hour following a trail that supposedly led to the ruins of Punculloc, only to find that it didn’t go anywhere useful. Then I ate lunch at the Llactapata ruins and started descending towards Hidroeléctrica, where I arrived at 3pm. The trail along the railway tracks from there to Machu Picchu Pueblo was full of tourists and very flat, but still beautiful as it followed the river. I arrived at the municipal campground by 5pm and decided to stay there for a night. From the next day I had a hostel reservation, but since I had given myself four days for the hike, I now had a free day to spend in the village before my visit to the Machu Picchu site. After drying my tent and clothing, I went to the Hot Springs, whose highlight are the cocktails that can be ordered from within the pool. Being a municipal facility, they are very cheap to visit, albeit quite dirty.
Route: The turnoff to Llactapata is well indicated and the trail is in good condition. There are signposts towards Hidroeléctrica. Shortly after the waterfalls, the trail ends at a road. Turn right and follow the road for about a kilometer to arrive at the railway station. Register at an information booth along the way (no entrance fee). Again I used OpenStreetMap for verification; the entire trail is on it. No water between Lucmabamba and the campsite/lodge below Llactapata. Carry 2 liters and refill as necessary. Small tiendas sell food along the rails in Hidroeléctrica and in several places on the way to Machu Picchu Pueblo.
Summary: The Salkantay trek is a great alternative to the crowded and expensive inca trail. It is easy to do on your own with proper preparation and does not require any special permits or campground reservations. Thanks to the numerous camping options, you can adapt the length of the trek to your fitness. Doing the Llactapata variant in three days is pretty tough.
JAN 25, 2016 – When I started walking in the morning it was already 8am. Apparently the tour group got up much earlier because they caught up with me at Salkantay pass, even though they had camped down in Soraypampa. At that point I was really glad to be doing the hike on my own: Two girls in the group were carried up to the pass on horses, and one of them knew nothing better to do than lighting a cigarette once she had arrived. Since this was not quite the company I was looking for, I only took a short break and then started descending at a fast pace. Just after noon I was down in the valley at Chaullay, where the group was likely to spend its second night. I was a bit disappointed when I arrived below Collpapampa and found that the hot springs mentioned in this account from last year were no longer in service. Or maybe closed for the rainy season? Anyway, from there I took the trail along the river towards Playa Sawayaco, which went up and down quite a bit. Flora and fauna were amazing on this stretch; I saw some nice butterflies and even a toucan. There were several campgrounds on the way and I hesitated to stop for the night, but I continued all the way to the village, where I arrived around 5pm after many breaks for photos and snacks.
The village is very poor and has apparently been supported by the Canadian government with some infrastructure. Several small tiendas sell food and beverages. I found a free campground in front of a shop just before the bridge over the river, where even a toilet and cold shower was available. Next to it was a ridiculously high building, apparently a simple hotel. The campground owners were very nice and encouraged me to move my tent under a shelter when a thunderstorm was imminent. They also sold me cold beer.
Route: Simply downhill from the pass to Chaullay; the trail gets wider at Wayramachay camp. Do not turn right before Chaullay as that trail goes to a lodge, instead walk through the settlement and down to the river, then uphill again to Collpapampa. From there follow the dirt road until a bridge, where the trail to Playa turns off to the left. Signposts exist only at campgrounds and in villages and aren’t very helpful, but again OpenStreetMap is pretty accurate. Most of the village of Playa Sawayaco is missing on the map, but the campground is indicated correctly. Again it’s enough to carry 2 liters of water, but refill it when necessary as you may walk 1-2 hours without water access.
JAN 24, 2016 – I set out on what is called the Salkantay Trek, a common way of getting to Machu Picchu on foot without using the inca trail, on which a guide is mandatory. This trek starts in the village of Mollepata, two hours and a half from Cusco. Most group tours do it in four days (plus one day to visit Machu Picchu), so I planned on using “up to four days” for it while choosing a slightly longer variant (via Llactapata).
My van picked me up in the city center at 4:30am. I had booked the bus ride to Mollepata with a tour agency for 35 soles. By 7am I was on Mollepata’s main square, and half an hour later I was walking towards Soraypampa. The tour group I had travelled with took longer to prepare because they had to organize their baggage and load the horses first. The trail was easy to find thanks to blue signposts, installed just a few years ago. After a steep first part, I arrived at a creek which I followed to Soraypampa with almost no further climb. I had my lunch break and continued up to Salkantaypampa, about an hour further. The campsite there was so beautiful that I hesitated before going on, but then I decided to at least go have a look at the next one. By 3:30pm, I was in Suyroqocha, where I spent the night. The campsite at 4480m was nice too, with the exception of the toilets, which were out of order. Once the fog lifted, I could see the nearby glacier, whose noises of crashing ice blocks I had heard through the fog, and the majestic Nevado Salkantay.
Route: Easy to find using the signposts, which start about 200m from the main square of Mollepata. There is a long stretch without signposts after the first “parador”, but the trail is clearly visible. Then an “alternative route” is indicated to the right, which I didn’t follow. At the second “parador”, go uphill towards the creek, then follow it for the rest of the way to Soraypampa. I had a hard time finding a river crossing, but there was one about 200 meters upstream from the village. From there on, signposts are sparse, but the trail is still well maintained and very well documented on OpenStreetMap: From the campground, continue on the trail up the valley on the right, following a creek. At Salkantaypampa, climb steeper uphill towards the left side of the valley to arrive at Suyroqocha. Water nearby for most of the way and at all campgrounds; do not carry more than 2 liters. I did not notice any grocery stores after Mollepata, there may be a kiosk or two but they were closed. Guesthouses are available in Soraypampa though.
JAN 23, 2016 – In a day and a half, I visited the center of Cusco with a walking tour and prepared my solo trek to Machu Picchu. Besides buying supplies, I had to rent a sleeping bag, book the entrance to the old city, and buy a train ticket back. I stayed at the Supertramp hostel, which had recently opened and is perhaps the most well-built hostel I have seen. Each dorm bed has a large locker next to it, a curtain for extra privacy, and power outlets inside and outside the locker. From the terrace one has a great view over the rooftops of Cusco. The staff of the hostel was very helpful in planning my hike, and I left a part of my luggage there until I came back.
The city has an Inca heritage, which can be seen on many buildings: Some walls are preserved the way they were built, out of large carved stone blocks, fitting so well together that no mortar was required. But most Inca buildings were at least partially destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered what used to be the capital of the Inca empire. Nowadays Cusco has more than 300’000 inhabitants, and if you walk a few blocks from the center, it quickly stops feeling like a touristy city. The streets near the central market, for example, are busy with locals selling fruit to each other, rather than ones trying to sell massages (best price, amigo), to every gringo. Cusco is full of contrasts that way, between rich and poor, colonial and Incan, fake and authentic. Its setting between hills is beautiful, and an hour-long run is enough to get on top of them, where farmers are working on their fields.
JAN 21, 2016 – Just an hour and a half from Paracas lies Ica, a large city with hardly any tourists. Instead, visitors to the area flock into Huacachina, a desert oasis just five kilometers from downtown Ica. The lagoon in the center of the settlement is artificially fed nowadays, but it still looks picturesque with all the sand dunes around it. I had planned to sleep in my tent, but I arrived after dark and there was no official campsite, so I stayed at a hostel instead.
A nearby shop rented out skiing and snowboarding equipment, which apparently originated from the Swiss resort of Verbier. I rented a board and spent the morning trying it out. As one might expect, sandboarding is very similar to snowboarding, you just have to apply wax before every descent and you go a bit slower, similar to heavy deep snow. It’s fun! Unfortunately there were no lifts, so I had to walk uphill every time. In the afternoon I went for a sand buggy tour with a group. This was fun too, as the driver used the dunes to create a riding experience like on a roller coaster. The same night I boarded a bus to Cusco, and it was the longest bus ride of the trip so far: 17 hours.
JAN 20, 2016 – From Lima I decided to go to Cusco by bus rather than airplane. This allowed me to see two very worthwhile attractions I hadn’t heard of before. The first one was Paracas with its Ballestas islands, nicknamed “poor man’s Galápagos”. The fauna was not half as cool as on the famous Ecuadorian islands, where dragonlike geckos can be found, among many other animals. But the Humboldt penguins, sea lions and thousands of birds were still an attraction. The pelicans were perhaps my favorite creatures there, and their slow take-off made it easy to take pictures of them in flight. Apparently the bird droppings, called Guano, used to be collected and sold as fertilizer. According to our tour guide, this has been discontinued in order to better protect the birds’ habitat.
In the afternoon, I rented a bicycle and rode into the nearby desert reserve with people from my hostel. This trip turned into a little adventure when my chain broke, just as I started riding back to catch my bus. Thanks to friendly locals, I still made it back to Paracas on time, only the owner of the rental bike was not too happy to learn that he would have to pick up his crappy vehicle from the desert. Luckily he had neglected to keep a deposit, so he didn’t have much of a choice.
JAN 19, 2016 – I had booked a hostel in Miraflores, which is where most hostels (and tourists) are. It’s a good thing taxis are not too expensive in Peru, because Lima’s airport completely lacks any public transportation. There are van lines passing near it, but their use is apparently discouraged for safety reasons. Once arrived, I explored the city on foot, by bike, and by bus. Its structure is interesting: The historical center is a cheap area nowadays, and mostly locals live around it. The hillsides around the city, where one might expect penthouse districts, are poor neighborhoods. Most of the rich people live on the coast instead, in the Miraflores and Barranco districts. From the top of Cerro San Cristobal, where a van took me for less than two dollars, it became apparent just how small the “developed” part of the city is: Most of Lima consists of raw brick buildings, interspersed with simple huts. Apparently there is a tax incentive for never finishing to build your house, but I still think the city is poorer on average than any European capital, or than Mexico City for example. I wouldn’t make that statement for Peru as a whole, since countries like Bulgaria or Romania are much poorer in rural areas than in the big cities, which doesn’t seem to be the case in Peru. But that’s just my personal impression from the little I’ve seen of all these places.
The downtown area is full of colonial buildings, most of which were rebuilt several times due to earthquakes. In Miraflores, some ruins from the pre-incan Lima culture have only recently been found and excavated under a former landfill. The impressive pyramid, called Huaca Pucllana, is built entirely of adobe bricks, which allowed it to survive all the earthquakes.
JAN 15, 2016 – After all the language lessons and hikes, I only had two nights left to spend in San Pedro, at lake Atitlán. My original plan had been to stay there longer, perhaps in several villages around the lake, but then I made the Spanish lessons a priority. During my day in San Pedro, I first hiked to the volcano with the same name – this one was safe to do as a solo hike – and then visited the coffee plantations and a local processing plant with a guide I had met on the summit. In town, I drank the best espresso I’d had in a long time, made from organic beans grown on the slopes of the volcano. Sadly, though, many people in Guatemala drink imported instant coffee. San Pedro is a weird place: It has a main street full of tourists, with restaurants, hotels, an American-owned party hostel and one or two clubs, but just a few meters up the hill, its inhabitants go about their daily business, largely undisturbed by the gringos. The cheap accommodation prices attract hippies and long-term travellers, but they don’t seem to blend with the locals much.
From San Pedro, I took a van directly to the airport of Guatemala City. I skipped the capital entirely in favor of volcanoes and language lessons. I don’t know what I missed, but generally I’m not a big fan of large cities without a functional rapid transit system, so it was an easy decision.
JAN 14, 2016 – At the end of my stay in Antigua, I booked a two-day group hike to Acatenango, Guatemala’s third highest volcano and one of the most popular among tourists. The tour operator I went with was the cheapest in town, and it soon became apparent why: We were a group of about 25 people, and instead of a van we were taken to the trailhead in a former American school bus with a very impatient driver. He tried to make some extra money by charging us a park entrance fee that wasn’t due, but upon complaining we got the money back the next day. The camping equipment provided by the tour company wasn’t the best either, but the guides were friendly and we had a good time despite the minor shortcomings. The ascent was some 1700 meters to the base camp, where we set up our tents and prepared a simple dinner in the campfire. Early the next morning, we ascended the last 400 meters or so, in time for an amazing sunrise above the clouds. During our time on the volcano, we witnessed several minor eruptions of nearby active volcano Fuego – we didn’t see fire or lava, but it was impressive nonetheless.
JAN 11, 2016 – From Antigua it was possible to visit Pacaya in a half-day group tour. We left in a van early in the morning and then ascended in about an hour and a half from the park entrance. Villagers were renting out horses for the lazy. Since Pacaya is active, climbing to its top is forbidden, but we got to some nice viewpoints below the summit, from where other nearby volcanoes could be seen. Steam was coming out of many holes along the hillside of Pacaya, and some spots were hot enough to roast marshmallows. I was a bit disappointed not to get to the summit, but it was my first visit to an active volcano, and I thought the steaming rocks were pretty cool. I also found a petrified tree. Apparently one could even see lava up until two years ago, but we weren’t that lucky.