After spending a couple days exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley – and getting acclimatized to the 11,200′ (3,400 m) of elevation –  we were excited to begin our 7-day private trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay trail.

We chose this route because it is substantially less crowded than the classic 4- or 5-day Inca trail. In fact, our guide later told us that only around 10% of their treks follow the 7-day Salkantay route. He said it’s a route he loves but doesn’t get to do very often.

After considering both crowds and weather, we settled on hiking during the shoulder season of late August/early September. This window is just prior to the start of rainy season (October–March), and just after the throngs of Inca trail tourists on summer holiday have tapered off. In addition to the seclusion this route and time of year offered, we also just wanted more time on the trail. Moreover, we’d read that the landscape around Salkantay, the highest peak in the Cusco region’s Willkapampa range, is breathtaking.

Day 1 (Monday, August 29, 2011):

Starting point – Mollepata (9,544’)
Ending point – Soraypampa (11,150’)

Elevation gain – 1,606 feet

Today we drove about two hours west of Cusco to Mollepata. Here, we joined our guide, Frank, our team of porters and a cook, and a few donkeys and horses, who would be our four-legged porters for the Salkantay portion of the hike. We began our journey atop a small hill where we caught our first sweeping views of the Peruvian Andes – majestic, rolling peaks as far as our eyes could see. Our hike this afternoon was particularly easy. The narrow, dirt trail wound around several miles of mountainside with little gain in elevation. Frank informed us that it would be good acclimatization for the following day – one of the two longest days of the trek and also our highest campsite.

Along the trail we stopped for our first lunch – some fresh and delicious pasta primavera, unlike any typical camp food we’d anticipated. We finished the meal both sated and impressed, and continued on the path alongside a steep gorge. As we rounded another corner, we spotted our first towering, snow-capped peak (Humantay, 19,413 feet). Not long thereafter, we descended down into the valley and made our camp at Soraypampa, our tent nestled amongst the snow-capped summits.

After the sun had set, we sat in the crisp, night air in absolute darkness, with no light pollution for hundreds of miles. The sky was like nothing we’d ever seen before – thousands upon thousands of stars flickering in the blackness. It was so clear that we could even discern the sweeping bands of the Milky Way, something I had never before seen and will not soon forget.

Day 2 (Tuesday, August 30, 2011):

Starting point – Soraypampa (11,150’)
Ending point – Pampajaponesa (14,110’)

Elevation gain – 2,960 feet

We awoke this morning to clear blue skies. The bright sunrise had washed the expansive valley with a warm, amber glow. After a breakfast of quinoa porridge and fresh fruit, we began our trek through the valley, meandering beneath the towering, snowy peak of Humantay. The trail took a sharp turn to the right, twisting between craggy peaks that rose sharply on either side. Suddenly, the immense, glaciated peak of Salkantay emerged from the valley in front of us. It was breathtaking. We continued hiking for a few more hours through the vast Salkantaypampa – a golden, grassy plain peppered with huge boulders and etched by a small, glacial stream.

As we neared the end of the valley, we stopped for lunch below Nevado Salkantay, now soaring with grandeur overhead. We had conveniently paused not far from some enormous rocks, a seemingly perfect, private ladies’ room. The ground on the far side of the boulders was uneven and rock-strewn, however, which required some awkward leaning on one of the stones. Unfortunately, I inadvertently rested my butt on some sort of spiny lichen, and felt an immediate burning sensation, much like a painful bee sting.

I walked back to the lunch tent rubbing my stinging backside and grabbed my pack. We were about to make a steep ascent to our high camp for the night, Pampajaponesa, around 14,000 feet. As the pain intensified, I pulled down my hiking pants to show Stephan. Indeed, a red rash had formed. I had to roll my eyes and laugh. Seemingly, every trip I take I have some sort of strange reaction to something – odd for someone with no known allergies. I considered taking a Benadryl (now a staple of my travel gear), but decided against it since I researched if there were any altitude-associated risks.

Next, we made our way up an exceedingly steep ridge, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in altitude. It was our first attempt at high-altitude hiking and, while we both felt fine, it definitely left us breathless at times. We continued ascending the steep slope for a couple more hours under the constant watch of Salkantay, its summit intermittently ensconced in puffy clouds. Finally we reached the top, each of us with a sense of accomplishment and me, gratefully, with a less-sore rear. Apparently a good hike is the perfect cure for a throbbing, irritated ass. Who knew?

After a well-deserved dinner this evening, we sat in the dining tent with Frank, playing cards, eating popcorn, and enjoying some delightfully-warm coca tea in the freezing night air. Our campsite was about 1 km from Salkantay, and about 6,000 feet below the summit of the 20,574’ peak. In the distance we could hear the crashing of small avalanches, tumbling from tremulous glaciers. It was an awesomely remarkable experience.

As we sat laughing, immersed in card games, we felt the wind pick up a bit. A short time later, I glanced down at the ground at noticed snow coming in the tent flap. We peeked outside to find a mix of blowing snow, thunder, and lightning. Seeing as this was my first real camping trip (way to wade in, right?), I was immediately apprehensive. I asked Frank if there were frequent snowstorms up here, to which he quickly offered a straightforward ‘no’ that I found that less than reassuring. Shortly thereafter we headed to our tent and noticed the snow had already accumulated on the ground.

It took us quite a while to finally fall asleep. Our tent was constantly buffeted by the snowy wind, and the nearby crashing sounds of thunder and falling ice from Salkantay enwrapped us. It was beautiful and anxiety-inducing all at once.

Day 3 (Wednesday, August 31, 2011):

Starting point – Pampajaponesa (14,110’)
Ending point – Sisaypampa (12,300’)
High point – Incachiriaska Pass (16,010’)

Elevation gain – 1,900 feet

I opened my eyes abruptly this morning. We made it! I had not been buried under feet of snow. In fact, the winds were now surprisingly calm and I could see the bright sunlight through our green, nylon dome. We unzipped the door and emerged into a winter wonderland. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she opens the door to a strange, new, technicolor world.

Our campsite and the neighboring hills were blanketed in several inches of powdery snow. The intense, blue color of the sky was amplified by the stark, white landscape. In front of us, the dark, jagged edges of Salkantay peeked out from the huge glaciers, dusted with fresh powder. We grabbed a cup of hot coca tea and stood beside the staggering peak in complete solitude and silence, awestruck by the incredible scenery. The views alone would have been spectacular, but the unexpected snowfall created an almost magical scene.

After taking in the magnificent snowscape over breakfast, we packed up and headed toward the adjacent ridge. At 16,010 feet, Incachiriaska Pass (“where the Inca cools down” in Quechua) would be our high point of the trek. With each step we took up the rocky slope, now slick with wet snow, the views got increasingly more beautiful. As we passed a pair of Andean geese investigating the wintry terrain, two glacial lakes came into sight, each with a distinct azure hue. Thinking nothing could possibly get more beautiful, eventually we crested the pass only to be rewarded with dramatic 360-degree views.

We looked back at the ridge we had just traversed. Craggy, snow-covered peaks climbed into the clouds as far the eye could see, and any trace of our trail or campsite was shrouded in snow. To one side, a barren, rocky outcropping, dotted with only a few tufts of dry, golden grasses, rose from the white terrain. To the other side, the immense glaciers of Salkantay dominated the landscape. In front of us, we saw the vast, snowy valley we’d be descending into, weaving its way between staggering mountainsides.

Our descent from Incachiriaska Pass into the plains of Sisaypampa was quick, and we spent the remainder of the day traversing the valley. The light dusting of snow quickly vanished, giving way to a stark landscape of gently rolling mounds draped in golden-brown grasses. The trail followed a small creek that carved through the valley floor, along which eye-catching scarlet lichens adorned masses of huge boulders. When we neared our campsite for the evening, beside a lone hut in the vale, the homeowner’s alpacas greeted us with a warm welcome as they scampered about the hillside.

Day 4 (Thursday, September 1, 2011):

Starting point – Sisaypampa (12,300’)
Ending point – Huayllabamba (9,843’)

Elevation gain – N/A

After two days of hiking where we were tested with steep, high-elevation climbs (and an impromptu blizzard), today’s hike seemed especially relaxed. We followed the picturesque Pampachuana River along primarily flat terrain through the narrow, grassy valley of Sisaypampa. The path gradually became shaded by dry, scrubby brush and small trees before entering the wider valley of Pampacahua. In the distance we spotted the peak of Nevado Veronica peeking out above the valley. Along the trail, Frank paused and plucked a handful of fragrant herbs from the bushes. He said that the small leaves were called muña, or Andean mint. The locals use the plant in traditional foods as well as for tea. Supposedly its medicinal properties include easing digestion. Frank said we would use the leaves for some fresh muña tea this evening.

We continued through the pampa, and crossed a small footbridge over an Inca canal that is still utilized by the small, adjacent farming settlement of Pampachuana. Descending down through the end of the valley, we eventually reached Paucarcancha (Incaraqay), our first set of Inca ruins. The site contained a series of terraces and retaining walls, as well as what appeared to be the walls of a few small rooms. The location was especially scenic. Situated near the junction of the Pampachuana and Cusichaca Rivers, the ruins overlooked layers of sharp peaks, their sheer slopes plunging to the fertile valley below.

After some more easy hiking in the afternoon, we reached our campsite at Huayllabamba. It was here that the secluded Salkantay route joined with the traditional Inca Trail. It was immediately obvious that this was the more-traveled route. We no longer had every campsite to ourselves. Rather, we were suddenly surrounded by several other groups of hikers, also en route to Machu Picchu. While we still enjoyed the latter portion of our trek immensely, we were now even more grateful for our first few days of total solitude.

Day 5 (Friday September 2, 2011):

Starting point – Huayllabamba (9,843’)
Ending point – Pacaymayu (11,810’)
High point – Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s) Pass (13,829′)

Elevation gain – 3,986 feet

This morning we departed Huayllabamba for our first full day on the Inca trail. A couple of hours from the campsite, our trail transformed into a series of stone steps that climbed into an enchanting forest of unca trees (Myrcianthes oreophyla). The native species is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN and is dwindling in number, now found in only small, isolated areas of Andean montane forests. We were now entering the boundary of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. After emerging from the dense woodland, we took a quick break at Llulluchapampa, a small, grassy plateau, where some friendly llamas took in the lovely mountain views with us.

From Llulluchapampa we headed for Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s) Pass, the highest mountain pass on the Inca trail (though some 2,200 feet lower than the Incachiriaska Pass we traversed two days prior). The trail that wrapped around the mountainside was an original Inca stone footpath. It was incredible to think that we were ascending a walkway that had been meticulously laid more than 500 years ago.

The climb was steep, although I think the previous days’ treks helped condition us. While Frank told us it took an average of about five hours to reach the pass, we managed to conquer it in about three hours. The views from the top were spectacular, and we were fortunate to have such a clear day. We peered back down into the Llullucha Gorge and across the valley at the lofty, snow-capped summits. Over the opposite side of Warmiwañusqa sat rows of jagged ridges, and we could see the trail stretching into the horizon – descending steeply to the valley below before again rising abruptly to the next distant pass.

Surprisingly, the trail descending Dead Woman’s Pass turned out to be much more taxing than our ascent. The entire 2,019-foot descent was over a series of reconstructed Inca steps, comprised of steep, uneven stones. By the time we reached the valley below, my knees were on fire. Looking back up at the ridge, Frank pointed out the rocky ledges that formed the silhouette of a supine woman, for which the pass was named.

We set up camp below the pass at a thickly-forested site along the Pacaymayu River. Because we arrived so early, we had a couple hours before dinner to explore. We wandered a ways up the dirt path that we would be following the next morning and were able to spot a variety of colorful flowers, as well as a number of different songbirds. Seeing the trail suddenly spring to life with striking birds and blooms made us even more excited for our upcoming hike into the cloud forest.

Day 6 (Saturday, September 3, 2011):

Starting point – Pacaymayu (11,810’)
Ending point – Wiñay Wayna (8,858’)
High point – Runkuraqay Pass (13,120′)

Elevation gain – 1,635 feet

Today we departed Pacaymayu and climbed for a couple of hours to the ruins of Runkuraqay, a small, round citadel perched on the edge of Mount Runkuraqay. The trail this morning was shrouded in a thick fog, and a gentle mist fell for most of the hike. We explored the site only briefly. The ruins’ main feature was the view overlooking the lush slopes which, today, was unfortunately obscured by clouds.

We continued our ascent for a short distance until we reached the Runkuraqay Pass (13,120 feet), our high point for the day. From there, we descended to Sayacmarca, a second Inca archaeological site overlooking the Aobamba Valley. At this point, the fog was beginning to dissipate, and we now had a hazy view out into the valley. Just below Sayacmarca, on the other side of the trail, sat the diminutive, terraced ruins of Conchamarca. Experts believe that the two adjacent sites were likely ‘tambos,’ small lodges along the original Inca road.

Our trek continued through the lush cloud forest, which was teeming with chirping birds and vibrant wildflowers. Indeed, we were even able to spot a number of eye-popping orchids. Peru is home to nearly 3,000 species of orchids, and Machu Picchu Sanctuary and the surrounding forests alone boast an estimated 300 species.

As we traversed the jungle, we passed through an Inca tunnel, carved into the rocky hillside. As the trail climbed out of the cloud forest to Phuyupatamarca Pass (12,136 feet), soaring, tree-covered peaks stretched out in front of us for miles. On a distant mountainside we spotted Intipata, a sheer stack of agricultural terraces built into a vertical cliff face. Similarly, on a hillside just below us sat the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the “village on the edge of the clouds.”

We descended the pass via another set of Inca steps. Again, they were irregular in size and many had been meticulously carved into the solid granite rock centuries ago. Soon after, we passed briefly through the ruins of Phuyupatamarca. These ruins were particularly interesting as the design was unlike any other site we had visited. In particular, the walls here were not the typical angular construction, but rather curled and almost wavelike.

After an endless number of stairs through the lovely, forested trail, we arrived at Intipata (9,186 feet), the site we’d spotted from the pass hours before. The enormity of the terraces was overwhelmingly impressive and the construction of such a project unfathomable. Our small footpath wrapped around the site and gave way to a spectacular view into the valley below, carved by the roaring Urubamba River. From here it was a short walk down to our final campsite at Wiñay Wayna (Quechua for ‘forever young’).

Day 7 (Sunday September 4, 2011):

Starting point – Wiñay Wayna (8,858’)
Ending point – Machu Picchu (7,972’)
High point – Sun Gate (8,924′)

Elevation gain – 66 feet

This morning we rose around 4 a.m. for our final march to Machu Picchu. Upon departing Wiñay Wayna, we walked for only a few hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint. At the small pavilion, we had to present our passports and trail permit for entry into the sanctuary. Although our early arrival put us at the head of the line, we still had to wait until around 5 a.m. when the park ranger arrived to approve our documents. From the checkpoint, we had a very quick walk. We navigated one last ridge around the hillside and climbed a small set of forested, Inca steps before arriving at Inti Punku.

Suddenly there we were, standing at the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), an ancient guardhouse that marked an original entrance to the ancient city. After 6 days, nearly 46 miles, 12,000 feet of elevation gain, and roughly 1,500 Inca steps, we’d reached Machu Picchu.

The view from Inti Punku was incredible. The crumbling ruins Machu Picchu rested atop the green mountainside, floating above the mighty Urubamba River and small village of Aguas Calientes. In contrast, a modern roadway to the Inca metropolis zigzagged up the hillside in a series of sharp, hairpin switchbacks. It was all somewhat unbelievable.

And while the great Inca landmark was the ultimate goal, the sight of the illustrious ruins turned out to be, unexpectedly, almost anticlimactic. For us, it really was about the journey to arrive there: Immersing ourselves in the tranquil countryside. Gazing up in awe at the icy slopes of Salkantay. Standing in solitude and wonder atop a 16,000-foot mountain pass. Being enveloped by the trees, flowers and birds of the unspoiled, tropical forests. Walking the same footsteps as the Incas did more than 500 years ago. To me, those were truly the most remarkable moments.

Total distance: 46 miles (74 km)
Elevation gain: 12,153 feet (3,704 meters)