Salkantay Trail 2018
On our road trip we are in Cusco, a tourist city in southern Peru. Despite the rapid growth, Cusco has managed to retain its Inca authenticity. The world-famous ruin settlement of Machu Picchu is mostly responsible for the high demand of people from all over the world. For countless tour operators Cusco is the starting point of guided tours.
But that is not why we are here. We are attracted by a multi-day hiking trail that connects a small village in Cusco’s surroundings with Agua Calientes. The „Salkantay Trek“ is considered the most popular alternative to the „Inca Trail“, since this one is now subject to incredibly strict regulations. Apart from the fact that the limited permits for the „Inca Trail“ are booked out months in advance and we do not want to visit Machu Picchu, here is a strict bicycle ban! Therefore, we focus on the „Salkantay Trek“ and modify it according to our wishes. We will be on mountain bikes for four days and spend three nights outside. We will take every possible trail on our way, haul our equipment over the passes and supply ourselves. There are more than 3500 meters in altitude uphill in front of us, almost 4500 meters in altitude for our descent and a pass at over 4600 meters asl. The plan is to spend the last night at an Inca ruin and catch a glimpse of „Machu Picchu“. Then we have roundabout 1000 meters in altitude descending through the Amazonian rainforest into the valley. From there a public bus will take us back to Cusco. Since we are here for mountain biking instead of hiking, we speak about the „Salkantay Trail“.
Rationing, packing, lashing
Before we start, we stock up on provisions. Except for the milk powder for breakfast cereals, everything is available on the local market. The biggest challenge is packing all the volume on a trail bike. Therefore, we only take the most necessary dishes: a Bialetti, two cups and two bowls. Granted, the coffee is luxury, which we do not want to miss! The meals are similar to a generous snack. We arrange sleeping bags, sleeping pads and the tent to the handlebar and the down tube. On the backpacks we strap the schooners, inside we pack the pre-cooked eggs and potatoes. In addition, we have avocados, cornbread and cheese. Full of anticipation we settle in our Ford Transit for the night. At dawn we start.
Cusco – Mollepata – Soraypampa
With the first rays of sunlight we roll into Cusco. The city is already awake for a long time when we crank up to our bus stop. After a short negotiation about the price we put the bikes on the roof, wait until the bus has filled up and off we go. Two hours later we are in Mollepata. We start to ride towards Soraypampa and quickly get on a single trail. Almost 1500 meters in altitude uphill are in front of us. The trail runs over cultivated fields and through groves. A few horses turn their backs on us while we lift our bikes over their fence. At lunchtime we pass the timberline and find ourselves on an Andean trail. It goes up and down. A short downhill alternates with a steep ascent. The valley opens up and offers a wonderful view of the summit of Salkantay. We rest before we get on the trail again.
The last section on this day is a flowy downhill ending in a few kilometers to pedal until we arrive in Soraypampa at dawn. The darkness brings a starry sky and temperatures are dropping quickly below zero. After dinner we retire to the sleeping bags.
Soraypampa – Salkantay Pass – Colcapampa
Wake up, the sun is shining. After a restful and quiet night, we start the day with a coffee. We pack our bikes and head towards the Salkantay. With 6264m, the glacier-covered summit is the highest mountain of the Cordillera Vilcabamba. It towers majestically in front of us, shining in the sun and being caressed by cloud fields again and again.
With this view we start our ascent to the pass. As long as we can pedal, we overtake some tourists who have already started the trail section before us. From a certain height and with increasingly loose ground we decide to shoulder the bikes. We still have some way to go that day.
We meet another herd of llamas before we arrive at the pass, where once again astonished tourists look at us, because we appear with our fully packed bicycles on the shoulders in this magical setting. We find that after this ascent at 4630 meters we have deserved a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the clouds are hanging in the pass right now, which spoils the view a bit.
About 10 km downhill are in front of us – 100% singletrail. We start from the pass in partially exposed terrain with loosegravel, but that does not diminish the driving pleasure at all. Descending a few meters further the vegetation changes and the trail picks up on flow. Again, we overtake groups with mules and sherpas, who greet us in the usual way with incredulous delight.
We leave the tourist camps in Colcapampa behind and find our next sleeping place on a sheep meadow at the end of a small village. Again, we have a fantastic view over the jungle-like valley.
In the village we talk a bit with the locals who test our bikes. At the kiosk, we stock up on our water and fruit supplies and even get bags to keep our sleeping bags safe from rain and mud as we continue our journey.
Colcapampa – Sahuayaco – Llactapata
The sound of the alarm clock mingles with the rain drops on the tent. The valley is gray and there is not much to see from the jungle. But the bikes are clean again. We flee under a shelter on the roadside, hang up our tent and have breakfast.
Shortly after we finish our meal we are friendly chased away, as the shelter is a sales counter for souvenirs. Instead of our tent, they hang up various self-crocheted scarves and blankets that are offered to passing tourists.
Until Sahuayaco we have about 15km ahead of us – downhill! The trail winds along a fast flowing river and gets brighter with every meter driven. The clouds leave the valley and let the sun in. The bags from the kiosk keep our sleeping bags dry for the last night. Again and again we have small ascends ahead of us on an actually very flowing trail. We shoulder our bikes time and again to climb a couple of yards. We bounce and roll over bridges that are just as wide as our handlebars. Passing avocado trees and passion fruit bushes, we progress rapidly. Swarms of butterflies start flapping as we drive across their meadow. The trail surprises with some S2 and S3 passages whenever you least expect it.
However, we leave the valley again at the next intersection and would like to climb up to the LLactapata Ruins, where we want to spend the last night of the trip. There are only 800 meters of altitude on a fixed path. We see a wide, steep staircase that disappears in the jungle. The section in front of us is part of the official Inca Trail and that is exactly our problem – which is in the form of two gentlemen from the Ministerio de Cultura y del Ambiente. They mow the lawn on the Inca steps and won’t let us pass with the mountain bikes. „No está permitido!“ It is not allowed. Are we in Austria now?
We start to discuss. After almost one hour, one of the guys refers us to his boss. So we talk to someone in Cusco over the phone. Of course, he has the same opinion as his lawnmower. As we are Germans, we want to see this regulation written down somewhere. We do not want to give up on our plan. Meanwhile, two hours have passed and one of the guys says that he has a copy of the regulations in his house, which is on the way to Llactapata. Allez hopp, up there – but the bikes stay down. Liza is waiting with the bikes in a coffee plantation while Lev ascends 300 meters with the guy. What a disappointment. The text explicitly forbids riding bikes on the Inca Trail.
I call the guy in Cusco again – no chance. We may climb but without the bicycles. Cycling is prohibited on the Inca Trail.
When I get back to Liza at the intersection, it’s already been three hours since we started discussing the situation. The ruins are the highlight of this trip and we try to find a way to not violate the regulations nor leave the bikes in the valley.
The owner of the coffee plantation asks us about our problem. His pragmatic solution: The Inca Trail is only up to the ruins. The way down on the other side of the mountain has been created later – and is not subject of any laws written in Cusco. We smell our chance, provide ourselves with fresh coffee and shoulder the bikes. Let’s get started: We climb up to the lawnmower’s hut and suggest the following plan: The ascent to the Llactapata ruins is done by walking. We carry the bikes without leaving a single tire trace. We only start riding the bikes after passing the ruins. That way we do not break the rules.
Either it is the good nature of our counterpart or Liza’s positive vibes that makes our perseverance look friendly. We set up a handwritten document with our names and passport numbers, in which we sign that we, under no circumstances, violate the regulations. And our plan works out: we are allowed to ascend with the bikes! Although we could have paddled a lot on that trail, we are glad that we can make our ascent to Llactapata. Unfortunately, the negotiation has cost us more than four hours, that is why we use the headlamps for the last two hours.
At the summit a rudimentary campsite surprises us with an ice-cold shower. We arrange our tent and unpack our provisions. How fast a fun short day can turn into a long exciting one! We spend the night on a platform from where we can see Machu Picchu the next day. It lies on the opposite ridge. We are separated by a 1000 meter deep valley, in which we will descent after the Llactapata ruins.
Llactapata Ruins – Santa Teresa
The next morning, the view out of the tent shows … nothing except three other campers. After all, the rain has stopped. We hang our tent under a shelter to dry and treat ourselves with a coffee.
We wait until the clouds clear up and open the view for Machu Picchu.
With these impressions we start our way to the Inca ruins Llactapata. First, we carry the bikes through the wet and muddy jungle as we promised.
The sun is out as we arrive at the overgrown ruins. We start exploring the grounds and once again enjoy the clear view of Machu Picchu with a compulsory coffee.
The Inca Trail is now behind us. Waiting for us is one of the most beautiful trails of our Bikepacking tour, unfortunately it is already the last also. The narrow path winds its steep slope down in many switchbacks. The rain has done a great job and left the tracks muddy. The technical claim in the curves alternates with stony passages and is accompanied by incredible vegetation. At the end of the trail we stop at a small hut where a nice woman sells delicious fruit, which we can pick from the tree a few meters further. The lady tells us that she has never seen bikers on the trail and gives us some tomatillos for the rest of the way.
In bright sunshine we arrive in Santa Teresa. The plan is to take a collectivo back to Cusco from here. We ask around and get the information that we first have to go to Santa Maria and get a collectivo to Cusco there. While a helpful Peruvian arranges a taxi from Teresa to Maria, we treat ourselves to a menu of fish, rice and salad. After four days of cold potatoes, avocado and cheese, the warm meal tastes royal.
After the bumpy taxi ride from Santa Teresa over the pothole piste to Santa Maria, we have to wait another hour for the last collective to Cusco on this day. So we bridge the time with a well-deserved beer. After a few more hours of driving we arrive in Cusco sometime around 11pm. We are pretty exhausted and tired, but there is the last steep stage on asphalt waiting for us to get back to our bus. So we pull it together for the last time on this day and crank up the curvy road in full excitement to reach our cozy bed in the firetruck.
What a satisfying trip!