If you want to avoid the Inca Trail crowds on your way to Macchu Picchu, Peru, there is a more challenging way: try hiking up and down mountains and camping in the open on the Salkantay Trail
Everyone wants to visit Macchu Picchu at some point in their lives – and with economic problems continuing back home, many people are deciding to go now. Part of the experience is, of course, the several days' trek through cloud forest to get to it, but the Inca Trail is always over-booked and for most travellers, prohibitively expensive. If only there were an alternative route through the mountains that you could book a day in advance from Cusco, at less than half the price of the Inca Trail...
Thankfully, there is – the Salkantay Trail. For $170, you get four days of trekking through some of the most amazing scenery in the area and end up at Macchu Picchu itself on the fifth, with a trail- and a cultural guide, food, mules and tents all provided. Prices fluctuate as high as those for the Inca Trail itself, but haggling still rules supreme – and all agencies provide the same services. Despite a few niggles (eg, my reservation getting lost for the last night in Aguas Callientes), I would be happy to reccommend looking at Nice Tour Peru (www.nicetourperu.com.pe, Cuesta Santa Anna 567).
The first day of trekking is all uphill, in gorgeous sunshine (at least in June), through a valley carved by glacial action, scored with dozens of sparkling streams and flanked by highland forest, to your first night´s camp at roughly 4,000m. If you can handle the biting cold, you might be able to appreciate some of the most beautiful stars it is possible to see without a telescope: they are so large and bright in the sky, it takes quite an effort not to reach out for them.
The subsequent morning's climb takes you through an impressively barren landscape to a staggering height of 4,650m, just below the level of snow on the neighbouring slopes. From here, the Salkantay Pass itself, things get easier: having passed frozen rivers and ponds, bare fields and scree slopes, the way is mostly downhill again. Soon you reach more temperate climes and verdant surroundings, with banana and coffee plantations interspersed among wild avocado trees and purple-tinged corn.
The third day is relatively effortless, speeding up as you meander downhill for the morning, then jumping in a truck for a scenic drive down a mountain dirt road to your next camp, branches whipping at your head from the overhead canopy and the road disappearing down the valley slope a few scant feet to one side. That evening is spent in Santa Theresa, a town with the wonderful gift of hot springs, in whose thermal baths and "Inca showers" you can soothe your complaining muscles.
It is possible, though you specifically have to ask for it, to go a separate route on the fourth morning, one that takes you up a rough stone staircase carved into the very mountain itself, to the ruins of an Inca checkpoint (Llactapata) from which Salkantay is visible high up on your right; Macchu Picchu itself lies directly ahead across the valley. Best of all, nearly no one goes up there, so you´ll have the fantastic experience of the climb, the subsequent view and a sun-kissed nap all to yourself.
From there, the trail merges with the Inca Trail as you approach your final night´s rest spot to prepare for the challenges of climbing up to the ruins themselves in the pre-dawn stillness. Standing on top of Huayna Picchu, looking down on the citadel, the seemingly endless terraces and the route you have just come, you won't be able to do anything but grin to yourself and your companions – despite your dirty clothes, blisters and aching legs.
A few words of warning: it is a very hard trek, especially for the first two days. If you have problems with altitude sickness, as I most definitely did (it hits you in different ways, but splitting headaches, nausea, and total and immediate lack of energy are all possible), it will be a matter of sheer willpower. Despite all the problems I had (the first and third of the above), at no point did I feel it wasn't worth the exertion. It also gets very, very cold: on the first night, the temperature will dip to about -5C. No matter what the weather has been like in Cusco, take very warm clothes. Finally, bring a torch, as trying to use the toilet at night can be a risky business, as can climbing the near-vertical steps to the entrance of Macchu Picchu in pitch darkness.
A great place to recover from the trek, and as a general base for your time in Cusco, is the Loki Hostel, situated high on a hill overlooking the city centre. With a young crowd and a great bar atmosphere it is a good place to meet people to go on the trek with you, since going in numbers increases your bargaining power with the tour agencies. Prices range from $8-27 per night, for which you get some of the hottest showers in Peru, comfortable beds and beguilingly friendly staff.
Of the 17 people I met who had completed Salkantay, each could only speak of it using positive superlatives: the best, the most amazing, the most challenging. If you're after something a little different from the Inca Trail, but equally breathtaking – and especially if you're on a budget and want to avoid the crowds – Salkantay could well be the trail for you. At the price, it really can't be beaten.