The Inca Trail vs. Salkantay
“Do the Salkantay Trek instead,” they said. “It’s much less crowded than the Inca Trail,” they said. “The Inca Trail was completely booked, so we did the Salkantay Trek instead, and we’re so glad we did,” they said.
Perhaps those excuses were valid long ago, but not anymore. Before arriving to Cusco, we met more travelers who said they were hiking Salkantay instead of the classic 45-km Inca Trail. While hiking the Inca Trail I even asked my guide, who leads both the Inca and Salkantay Trails, which trail was more crowded? He didn’t hesitate to say they were the same. However, Chris and I had the entire Inca Trail and most of the ruins…all to ourselves! (More on that later.)
The Tour Company
“Go with Llama Path,” they said. “They’re all about responsible tourism.” Sure, their websites says they are making a difference for the porters, but Tierras Vivas, the smaller company we ended up going with, claims to promote responsible tourism as well. Whether or not their claims are true, the main three differences I saw between Tierras Vivas and the other three major companies (Llama Path, Alpaca Expeditions, and G Adventures) were:
1. All three major companies clearly had more $$$–their buses were badass (as opposed to our simple van), and all the porters had matching uniforms, which made me wonder if the money from the higher cost of their tours actually went toward helping the porters, or toward advertising.
2. All three major companies supported large groups, ranging from 8-20! With the exception of one 3-person private group from Alpaca Expeditions who paid $800 each, we were the only other fewer-than-4-person group…but each of us only paid $550. Tierras Vivas told me that their maximum group size for the Inca Trail was only 4 and to our delightful surprise our group was only 3–Chris and I, and a solo girl from the Netherlands. We were super stoked to have such an intimate group.
3. Sleeping bags were included in our price. When we unraveled our sleeping bags at our first campsite, we were surprised to find North Face sleeping bags rated to -15ºC. Score! Although other companies charge more, they don’t actually include sleeping bags as part of their package. Granted, we had to carry our own sleeping bag and personal necessities but we didn’t mind because once again, this was camping! (After having done El Misti less than a week earlier, we felt pampered on the Inca Trail.)
Despite the Peruvian law claiming it is now illegal for porters to carry more than 20kg, it was clear that EVERY SINGLE COMPANY WAS BREAKING THAT LAW. One porter from another company even proudly told Chris and I that he was carrying 30 kg! I learned in Peru (not just for the Inca Trail) that companies will make whatever claim they can, as long as they can attract tourists and make a sale.
With all that being said, we were still extremely satisfied to have gone with Tierras Vivas. Our meals were comparable to everyone else’s–plentiful and gourmet. Here is one dinner, consisting of fried potatoes, spinach and cheese, and trout:
Because there were only 3 of us, 1 guide, and 6 porters, we were able to be more personal with the porters. We were also the only group that didn’t have a porta-potty and toilet tent. I was actually horrified at the idea of making a porter carry a porta-potty and I was very glad that our company didn’t do that to our porters. I mean come on…this is camping! I highly recommend this company due to not just the competitive price, but mainly due to the intimate group size.
The rare highlight to the whole 4-day/3-night trek was our ability to have the whole trail and ruins to ourselves…for at least an hour at a time! It was unfortunate that the other girl in our group had knee issues, so our guide stayed with her and told us to hike ahead and that we would regroup at lunch and at the campsites. Before we headed out, he would point at the map and give us a quick explanation about the ruins, and then we were off on our own. Because everyone else was in a larger group, going at a more leisurely pace and were forced to stay together, Chris and I would pass up each group and make it to the ruins in half the time they estimated. We literally had the entire trail to ourselves. We even spent at least an hour at some of the ruins and left before any other group could show up! It was fantastic. “The Inca Trail too crowded?” I asked in my head. “Not for us!” The campsites were definitely crowded, but that didn’t matter.
Some photos from Day 2 (the hardest day) below. The very start of the hike began with a steep ascent up to the highest point of the Inca Trail: 4200 meters. This mountain was called Abra Warmiwanuska. They say the average time from our campsite to the top was 3 hours; we did it in 2 hours, some did it in 4 hours. It was a long way up but it was peaceful since the other hikers were far behind. In retrospect, we really weren’t “fast.” With the altitude, there was no way for me to hurry up the mountain. We just didn’t take any breaks; we simply let our bodies become immune to the fatigue and kept it slow and steady.
The top! Look down at that valley below! Our goal was to make it before any porter could pass us and we made our goal. It was at least another 20-30 minutes before the next set of hikers could make it up and it was incredible to have the serene mirador all to ourselves.
Then it was a long, steep descent that killed many people’s knees. We had a long lunch break before the next steep ascent and descent over Abra Runkuraqay. It drizzled on us a bit as we entered the ruins of Runkuraqay but the clouds cleared as we approached the impressive ruins of Sayaqmarka.
The last day kind of sucked because everyone had to wake up around 2am just so the porters could catch their 5am train back home. Although the remainder of the hike to Machu Picchu was a piece of cake, we ended up tacking on the extra hike up Machu Picchu Mountain (an extra $55 not included as part of the tour) and the final hike down to the town of Aguas Calientes (because a $12 bus ride was just ridiculous).
The morning was fogged in, which was typical for the area. During our morning tour of the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu, it was mostly dark and overcast. The number of tourists and tour guides reminded me of Disneyland and Angkor Watt; others I spoke with from the Inca Trail were at this point exhausted and wanted to get the fuck out and away from the crowds.
Although access to Machu Picchu Mountain was from 7-11am, we waited until 10:45 to start the climb up due to the thick clouds. Our hope was that the sun would burn off the clouds. Despite being awake since 2am and not having the freshest set of legs, we made it to the top in 43 minutes!!! (The estimate is 1.5 hours up for the 652 meters of elevation gain and 1.5 hours back down and we finished the whole round-trip in 1.5 hours. WOO!) Unfortunately it was mostly fogged in.
And finally, upon our return to Machu Picchu, we took the obligatory postcard photo of the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins. By that time the clouds had cleared and the sun shone brightly upon the ancient city. It was perfect.
And finally, we had to leave Machu Picchu to catch our train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. From the park entrance we had two options: to pay $12 each for the 30-minute bus ride down to town, or hike the 1-hour downhill shortcut. We had time to kill and knew that the cost of 2 bus tickets would equate to 1 night at a hotel, so we used our remaining energy and hiked the concluding path to our entire Inca Trail trek. We did not regret this hike at all; it was beautiful!
About two hours later we arrived to the town of Ollantaytambo where we transferred to a colectivo. It was a final 1.5 hours in the colectivo before we were dropped off in Cusco by 7:30pm. We quickly grabbed our favorite street food of papas rellenas for dinner, returned to our hotel by 8pm, showered, and passed the fuck out. Words cannot describe how incredible the Inca Trail was, nor can they describe how awesome we slept after starting the day at 1:45am to hike to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, down to Agua Calientes, taking the 2-hour train and 1.5-hour colectivo, and finally arriving to the wonderful comforts of a hot shower and familiar bed.