Salkantay Trek Days 2 & 3: Trekking From the High Andean Mountains to the High Jungle

The neat thing about the Salkantay Trek was that every day was different. Coming down from such a height, near the equator, meant that we were experiencing a lot of different ecological environments. For us this meant we saw and experienced different things each day of the trek.

The day we climbed up to the summit of the Salkantay Pass, we also had to get down to our campsite for the evening, before sunset. We walked 22km that day, winding up down at 2750m. We experienced a 2km elevation loss, following a small glacier-fed stream from the lofty heights of the mountain pass down into the rainforest. A knee pounding descent from one ecosystem to an entirely different landscape, we hiked along on a rather serpentine trail.

Our trail as it approached the plateau of Huayracmachay

Our lunch spot at Huayracmachay (just try to sound that one out, I dare you!), a settlement on a high plateau, perched between the high Salkantay mountain and the high jungle of its lower slopes, was a really neat place. Seeming to hang suspended right in the clouds, it marked the beginning of our descent into the cloud forest landscape.

Our trail as it approached the plateau of Huayracmachay.

It was a rustic settlement, to be sure, especially with the way the buildings seemed to be hunkered down, taking advantage of the shelter of available rockfall, but it had such a primitive quality to it that it felt timeless.dsc_9340

The conditions under which our cook prepared the lunchtime meal were extremely primitive (a blue tarp sheltering us and the cooking area from the wind, and a sheet metal roof over an open frame), and yet we still were given an exceptionally plentiful, hot meal. One great thing about our trekking company was their attention to the way food was prepared. No matter how primitive the conditions, they were careful about boiling water, food storage, and hand washing for themselves and us (before every meal we had a plastic bowl of hot water and soap with which to clean our hands), and we never got sick. The food was very plain, but always plentiful.

The camping version of lomos saltados, complete with potato fries. In the cup is chicha morada (a purple corn drink). We also had a causa relleña (stuffed mashed potato) with tuna inside and a vegetable soup. So much food!
After lunch, we hiked out, passing more primitive shelters like this pig pen enclosure that made terrific use of the boulders of the area.
This photo is for our climbing friends…. how’s THAT for a boulder?!? (See Bill there?) See any good lines? It’s too bad the approach is so brutally tough!

dsc_9370Soon we were hiking down through the Andean high jungle. As we hiked, our trail was hemmed in by ever more lush plantings. It was a place of ever increasing heat and humidity with a deeply cut valley and heavily forested slopes that reminded me of a scene from Jurassic Park! A  true rainforest, it had a wide diversity of plant and animal life. Though a cloud forest at these elevations, there was not a lot of moisture present, but we knew we’d hit the upper reaches of the rainforest environment once the bushes came alive with the clicking and buzzing of hummingbirds!

We were seeing this rainforest at the tail end of the dry season: it was early spring there, and the rainy season was about to begin. As a result, not much was flowering, but our hike through this vast ecosystem let us see the many ways in which people of the area lived, worked and thrived under its canopy.

Our campsite at Chaullay (pronounced “chow-yuh-eye”) that night was the most primitive of the entire trek. A seriously dirty place, it was a group campsite used by many trekking companies, and as a result it was unkempt and filthy. It had a quaint flock of chickens that roamed the place, cleaning up bugs and seeds, but it had the feeling of a backpacker hovel.  I’ll spare you the gross details. Suffice it to say that staying in a place like this is an enthusiastic-never-to-be-repeated-again check mark off the ‘ol life bucket list! I did that a number of times back in 1989, the year Bill and I backpacked in Europe, Turkey & Egypt. Been there. Done that. For good, now.

The next day saw us rising very early in an effort to be ahead of others who would be using the trail. This day, though fascinating from a cultural perspective, was not as much fun from a hiking perspective. The trails were crowded with large hiking groups (of 10-20 people), and it was a narrow trail, making it difficult to pass. There seemed to be far more people than the day before, so perhaps other trails came into the area??? We were getting closer to Machu Picchu now, so perhaps that accounted for it.

Both of the streams that meet here, the Salkantay River and the Chaullay River, flow into the Urubamba River, the river that bends around Machu Picchu’s site and eventually flows through Peru’s Sacred Valley and to the Amazon.

As we left camp and hit the trail, a wonderfully atmospheric mist hung in the air. The clouds were all around us, nestled down on the valley like a thick blanket.

We crossed many bridges like this on the trails through the rainforest.

The bridge Bill is crossing here is made in what our guide told us was a centuries old style… 2 logs cross the stream and have sticks, then a layer of gravel and mud put on top. I asked why they did this, thinking it would rot faster, but our guide didn’t know why.

For a while we hiked down along a switchbacking road that went through a narrow gorge. The cliff across the river was prime parrot habitat (they like to ingest clay and small stones to help them digest their food).
The gorge was quite something! I wanted to go canyoneering in it so badly!

We saw many beautiful rainforest flowers (lots of orchids) & plants, despite it not quite being the season for flowers there yet, being very early spring.


There were lots of tall sprays of showy orchids along the trail. This spray towered over my head!
Some of the flowers were spectacularly beautiful and so big! This one was almost the size of  my fist.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the rainforest environment is the way that such a variety of plants can grow in a single spot. Growing in layers, you get plants growing on plants growing on plants… like this tree branch segment acting as a host, supporting moss and lichen and bromeliads and epiphytes. Even orchids grow on trees in this way.
Apparently, Peruvians like to have this plant as a house plant and it has a funny bit of folklore to go with it. According to our guide, if the plant looks yellow and unhealthy, then your marriage is okay, but if the leaves are a vibrant green and the plant is healthy, then you have problems because your spouse is cheating on you!
We came across spectacular waterfalls.
And we hiked across and alongside gorgeous rivers that experience extreme volumes of water in the rainy season (see the tops of the grey rock areas… that’s the rainy season water level).
We crossed little streams without bridges.
We crossed little streams WITH bridges.
And we crossed BIG streams with BIG bridges.

This part of our trek was less about pushing limits, achieving lofty heights, working through the trials of  high elevation and taking in powerful mountain vistas as it was the day before. It was more about human culture and daily life in the high mountain jungle.

At times our trail clung to a mud bank above the river.

We were hiking through a place where people farm on incredibly steep slopes in rough, overgrown conditions. I use the term “farm” loosely, because that’s what our guide kept calling the small plots of land that we passed that were turned over to one form of agriculture or another. The steep slopes and the intense press of vegetation and trees made these farms unlike any association I have in Canada with the term!

This gate leads up to a farm.

Hiking through this landscape was an interesting cultural experience because we got to see small farm plots on impossibly steep slopes being worked by their farmers in action. In this part of the country they grew potatoes (of course… where don’t they grow potatoes in Peru!), coffee, corn, tomatillos, mangos, papayas, avocados, passionfruit, peaches, bananas and plantains… all on very steep jungle slopes.

A potato field, high on a cliff.


These are a type of passion fruit called granadilla (gren-ah-dee-ya), grown on a vine, they are trained along a wire attached to stick fence posts in a clearing in the forest.
This is what coffee looks like when it is ripe. We roast the seed inside.
This is what papaya looks like, growing on its tree.
This is what a coffee farm looks like… all the dark green leafy bushes are arabica coffee plants.
Our trail went right through a plantain (like gigantic bananas) farm.
Of course, there were also bananas with their strange, upright clusters that seem upside down, somehow.
This is an avocado tree.

The trail that we were on was a highway of sorts: a route being used daily by the farmers and pickers to get to their high altitude fields, a route to take to get their agricultural goods to the rivers and roads for transportation, and a route to access the services of the smaller towns along the way. They were only for people on foot, and not for horses or motorized vehicles. We passed (or were passed by) farmers going about their daily activities. Coffee was being actively picked while we were hiking through this part of the forest, so our timing was perfect to see that in action! (I will write another blog post about that experience).

Here a child carries a sack of coffee beans that he has picked early that morning (I took this photo at about 8am, so you can only guess how early he began!). We were told that coffee pickers only get paid if they harvest 3 sacks a day, otherwise it is considered community service. They get paid 30-40 soles/day ($10-13). often it is the women and children that do the picking.

It was amazing to me to see the ways some of my favourite Peruvian foods were getting to market. Harvested by hand on super steep slopes, bundled in sacks, hoisted by hand and hoofed by foot down to the road far into the valley below where they are taken by trucks from the nearest town on collections days… that’s some trek the food takes to get to market! We saw this time and again on our hike through the rainforest. As we approached the town of La Playa, we saw this in action…

From a distance, we saw activity on the other side the river. We had watched a man bringing a large sack down the trail. When he got to the water’s edge, he put his sack down and a woman who was waiting there hoisted it into a carriage of sorts.
Loaded with goods destined for the market, it was launched across the river with a great big shove. On the other side a woman and her daughter waited to pull it across, once it was stuck in the middle, suspended above the raging river, with a young boy playing at their feet.
On the side of the road, a pile of boxes and sacks awaited the offered vehicle that would take them to the warehouse in town.
This was the warehouse in La Playa.
Once a week the truck came through to gather the pickings and take them to Lima or Cusco… we were lucky to see it en route to the warehouse, only a few minutes after we passed through.

I have a seriously heightened appreciation for the foods I have been enjoying while here, given the incredible effort it takes to get them to market in Cusco. Take the granadilla… I think this is my favourite Peruvian fruit. With an egg-shell-like outer peel, the idea is that you crack it open, break a small hole about the size of a coin, give it a shake to loosen the seeds from the outer shell, then tip your head back and suck out the beautifully tart, slimy pulp-coated, delightfully crunchy seeds. I love them and ate quite a few as snacks on the trail, and then later, in Cusco, as part of breakfast or as snacks on our excursion days.

There were some entrepreneurial farmers at the roadside (well, at the track & trail side, actually). Knowing that this was a popular route, they set up small stands selling water and gatorade and pop and chips, along with fruits harvested from their farms. The photo above shows me, all hot & sweaty, devouring one that we bought at a stand like the ones below.

Some were quite quaint.
Bill buying granadilla at a trail side “shop.”
And some were hilarious! Just look at that sign.
There were even little coffee roasteries on the side of the trail.
They would roast the beans right there, trail-side. The pot on the right has the roasting beans it. They would grind them and then add hot water from the kettle on the left. We passed a lot of these stands as we hiked through the coffee growing areas. Our visit through This area was timed just right for the harvest, and for witnessing and participating in things like this. The coffee was really delicious… very strong and almost floral tasting.

Our day and a half spent getting down from the lofty heigths of the Salkantay Mountain, through the cloud forest and into the high rainforest were beautiful and enlightening. Representing about 30km of our overall trek, the days were long, but we experienced some spectacular terrain came away with a new understanding of “farming.”

To be continued…

5 Comments on “Salkantay Trek Days 2 & 3: Trekking From the High Andean Mountains to the High Jungle

  1. Nice. I didn’t really get a sense of the rainforest while we were there, although there was clearly more vegetation at Machu Pichu than the rest of our journey. The scope was too big and my focus elsewhere – I didn’t really dial in to what was growing at that altitude at the end of the dry season. Looking at your trails, I wonder if they’re even passable in the wet season?


    • Apparently, the trek we were on runs all season long, with the exception of one month when they do trail maintenance. It would be a very miserable, muddy trek in the full-on rainy season, I’d imagine. But as a good friend of mine always says, “There is no such thing as bad weather; there’s just bad dressing.” So you’d wear your rain gear and your sunny attitude and soldier on, I guess!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Peruvian Food & The Mercato San Pedro, Part 1 – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  3. Pingback: Peruvian Food, Ceviche & The Mercato San Pedro, Part 2 – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  4. Pingback: An Overview of the Salkantay Trek – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

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