The High Alpine Approach to the Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu
The Classic Inca Trail is overrated and over-subscribed.
It’s still worth doing if you could manage to get a permit as only 500 people ( including guides, cooks and porters ) are allowed on the trail each day – which is still a lot in my opinion.
A popular alternative nowadays is Salkantay Trek – which strictly speaking is a misnomer as the original one refers to the high alpine approach via Inca Chiriasqa Pass ( 4,950 m a.s.l.) that skips the the more rural and less scenic part of the Classic Inca Trail and joins it only after the village of Wayllapampa and as such would be subjected to the same quota system and the same restrictions as the Classic Inca Trail.
Inca Trail &Salkantay Trek
What the trek now popularly advertised in Cusco ( where most tours operators are located ) refers to is a mishmash of three trails and should be properly called Mollepata – Salkantay – Santa Teresa Trek which culminates at Machu Picchu typically on Day 5 of the trek.
There is only one high mountain pass involved, uninspiringly called Salkantay Pass at 4,580 m at the shoulder of the majestic Salkantay massif, the rest is mostly downhill and level and is usually substituted with some form of transport where the trail is no more than a glorified rural dirt road. The route is often described as a “ back door “ approach to Machu Picchu as it arrives at the official access town to Machu Picchu, Agua Calientes from the west, passing the Inca ruins below first along the river Rio Urubamba.
The trek is not only less strenuous compared to its Classic counterpart but it also draws less people and you are less likely to camp amidst crowds of other trekkers on the way. Scenic-wise it’s wilder and more spectacular as you will not only traverse plenty of cloud forest but also a proper glacial landscape and an alpine tundra with a tropical jungle valley all thrown in on the first 2 days of the trek, it’s just mind-bogglingly varied !
But to me the best thing really is to have a proper rest in a town with modern amenities the night before visiting Machu Picchu as I found myself all worn-out by the time I got to Machu Picchu on the Classic Inca Trail and didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I’d thought after all the efforts.
Arriving at Cusco fresh and overwhelmed by its sight and sound ?
So next time if you fly into Cusco clueless with what to do for the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and is gutted to learn that the Classic Inca Trail is all booked out till the following summer the alternative Mollepata – Salkantay – Santa Teresa Trek is actually not a bad substitution and you could save yourself some money to spend on lodgings, meals and booze while getting to see the awesome Inca citadel as well !
This is what I’d like to do with all my collection of 360° panoramas from different treks I’d done in the past. Combining different forms of photography the visual impact is more compelling and gripping in my opinion.
For a synopsis of the trek please watch this video before you embark with me on this 5D4N adventure 🙂
Get the most from this Google Earth 3D reconstruction of the trail we are about to take !
I was there in 2005 when the glacier was retreating so fast that it was deemed dangerous to visit many interesting ice formations like the much touted “ Ice Cave “ and it might just be as well for the weather was atrocious with snow, sleet and rain and the sky was so low I hardly did see anything.
The place was packed nonetheless and the many vendors there selling souvenirs and snacks were doing a brisk business.
Pastoruri Glacier the world’s only tropical glacier accessible by road had been the life line for many locals scraping a living in nearby villages, principally Catac. In peak season the glacier used to pull in tens of thousands of visitors a year but now the number is dwindling to less than one third a year and fast decreasing.
The reason – the glacier is dying.
In actual fact many of the glaciers in Cordillera Blanca, the range of Andes north of the tropic of Capricorn, home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers have been sounding their death knell in the last couple of decades: 40 % of their surface area has disappeared since the 1970s and Pastoruri alone has shrunk by half in the last 20 years.
The process is likely to be irreversible and there’s no better case in point than Pastoruri for it has since the early 2,000s fractured into two halves, with the northern lesser part now no more than a pitiful slab of thin ice standing forlornly against the dark granite of the cirque of Cerro Pastoruri. The southern half fares a bit better as it still bears a semblance to a glacier but it is exsanguinating fast and its meltwater has formed a large glacial lake just buy its edge.
As the glacier retreats the once heavy-metal-rich rock surface is now left exposed to the elements and the run-off meltwater nowadays contaminates the river and soil downstream with cations that decrease their bioproductivity.
Sooner or later this part of Peru will have a crisis at hand….
With this background information my second visit a few years later was more like paying homage to a dying giant, a victim to the phenomenon of global warming. As expected the number of tourists going there was a far cry from when I first visited it in 2005. The whole parking lot was vacant save one tourist minivan which I rode in. Gone were all those vendors and all the hassle and bustle that left me with a indelible impression then.
Unlike many others I took the left paved trail from the parking lot to see the glacier’s northern member first. Along the way there are still many signposts left standing though all those strange ice formations they described were all long gone, leaving only bare dark granite behind with marks of serrations.
Then came the pitiful sight of what’s left standing below the new exposed northern peaks of Cerro Pastoruri – just a small excrescence, like an unsightly outgrowth 🙁
I didn’t linger long for it was just so painful to watch. I then scurried back to take the right trail and that duly brought me to the southern half of the glacier – it still looks grand with its 10 m high terminal face, glistening with a tint of blue under the sun but the many crevasses on its surface tell a different story – it’s retreating and fragmenting inside 🙁
A lot of the rocks on the ground have distinctive shiny streaks in them, and I think they are mostly composed of iron pyrite. No wonder the glacial meltwater will be rendered acidic and as it runs off the terrain it will carry more dissolved minerals on their way, some less desirable than others…..
This would probably be my last visit to this glacier and many predict that what’s left would be gone within the next decade or so.
Without knowing the sad story behind the glacier of Pastoruri a tour of the place is still rewarding just for its majestic landscape and mountain setting and I would still highly recommend it !