A popular hike to Machu Picchu from the direction of Cusco, and alternative to the Inka trail is the Salkantay trek. Generally it is done in dry season, often with tour operators which provide food, tents and donkeys to carry your gear. People usually take a car to about 4000m, hike the remaining 600m to the pass and descend to Aguas Calientes at about 1800m. Luckily, there is no need to register, it’s allowed to go alone, you technically can do it in any direction, and bikes are not forbidden. Sounds like a plan!
What I like about these peruvians is their limitless faith in the strength of the human body and their positive mindset. When we told people that we would go over Salkantay, the wrong way, with our bikes and about 25kg of luggage per person, they just said it will be steep and stony, smile and shake our hands. One guide asked us to inspire more people and to give recomendations, so that’s what I’ll try to do.
We cycled up to 2880m on a gradually diminishing road, that took us two days. From there we started on the proper trail, pushing the bikes up to 3780m in the first day. We cycled maybe 100m distance in total, otherwise it was lifting, dragging, pushing and pulling. A stone you might step over easily becomes a serious obstacle with a loaded bike. The second day we went up to 4000m only, it rained like hell and what’s the point crossing the pass in that weather? No view at all, while we would pass between steep mountains and shiny glaciers.
In the evening it cleared out and the next morning started very beautifully with a view on Salkantay, ‘the second most prominent peak of Peru’. Towards the afternoon it started getting misty and rainy again. By half past five in the evening we finally, exhaustedly made it to the pass. At the last part, the trail got even worse. Partly we had to take bikes and luggage seperately. It treated us with big stones, stairs, some ups and downs and all of it spiced up with a shortage of oxygen. Luckily we got a few holes in the mist so we could see the Salkantay peak towering over us while at the pass. Wonderful! The constantly recurring sound of ice crashing down from its glaciers was sometimes louder than thunder.
By dark we rolled down to a flat spot at 4480, camped and had a tasty Christmas dinner! Pasta with mackrell, apart from some potato powder and spices the last food we had left. The next day we started with the already mentioned potato powder before rolling down to the road, a lot easier than the way up! It took us all the way to Mollepata before we found some foodshops. To make up for the hungry day, we got ourselves a big ass Christmas cake and a boatload of vegetables. We ate all of it while camped in some Inca ruins on the way down, one of the best camping spots so far!
From Mollepata it took us two days to reach Cusco , having to cross another 3700m pass after descending to 2200m. Cycling on asphalt is a lot more speedy than on loose rocks. The Cusco valley is different from anything we have seen before in Peru, it reminds more of the Swiss alps than the Lima desert, high mountains or jungle. Cows graze just by the road, and cheese is sold everywhere, a surprise as until now we could barely find any shop selling cheese.
Some advice for Cusco: stay in a hotel just outside of the touristy gringo area (the historical center) and pay less than half for the same or more luxury.
Some recommendations for the trail:
Make sure you can lift you bike, quite often it’s necessary. I had to turn my top bag and the tent into a backpack in order to make that possible. Not the most comfortable solution, but better than nothing.
The Ortlieb side panniers also get stuck quite often, a slimmer bikepacking setup would be better.
Take less stuff than we did! Dragging a bike up is not so hard, the added weight makes it difficult.
If you go in the rainy season: get a waterproof tent, seriously. Also consider taking a lot of food. That way it’s possible to wait out the rainy days. Usually if a day is really shit, the next ones are quite sunny. In general we experienced abour one shitty rainy day per week, the others varying from sunny to lightly overcast.
Finally, the trail is really easier when taken in the direction everyone follows, towards Machu Picchu. Though easier is not always better of course.