Traversing the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu – Ryan Wilson

Traversing the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson

By far the number one thing people bring up when they find out you’re going to Peru is Machu Picchu. In fact, that’s probably the response at least 95% of the time. To be fair, prior to stumbling upon photos of the Cordillera Blanca on Google Earth one day, Machu Picchu was always the first thing that came to my mind as well, so it’s a hard thing to fault.

After spending about half a year well off the tourist trail, the thought of hanging around hordes of travelers wasn’t exactly exciting, but I figured it would be odd to spend so much time in the country and not see what all the fuss is about. When I found out there was a ride/push-able trekking trail that traverses a glacial mountain pass and then dives into the jungle leading toward Machu Picchu, I couldn’t resist…

Starting from Abancay, I decided to first head in the wrong direction to circumnavigate Nevado Ampay along a super quiet road with sections cut out of a sheer rock wall. It was essentially an extra 60 miles of ups and downs just to avoid 10 miles of kamikaze truck and taxi-filled pavement, but it’s about enjoying the journey, not just getting to the destination, right?

After bottoming out at a lowly 6k feet in a sweltering canyon along the Rio Apurimac I started the long (multi-day) climb back up to 15k. A little ways up sits the small town of Mollepata, which already begins to show the early symptoms of a “tourist town”. Food prices are up (12 soles for Arroz con Huevo?!?). Locals aren’t quite as intrigued by your presence…

Heading up the mountain further, the road eventually ends, and with it, the tourists truly come out, all prepping to hit the Salkantay trail in the morning. I manage to avoid the herd on the trail and decide to camp out on the summit, in probably the gnarliest thunderstorm I’ve ever been outside in. It was one of those loooong nights where the lightning is hitting so hard and so close that you just bury your head in your sleeping bag, clamp your eyes shut, and try to will yourself to sleep (to no avail).

Dodging lightning bolts all night, I survived, woke up to a fresh layer of snow, and started the rocky 10k ft plunge into the jungle.

It’s worth noting that while the rules regarding bikes on this trail are vague, I ran into someone who appeared to be a park ranger who told me that bikes weren’t allowed on the trail, before allowing me continue. This conflicts a bit with the fact that I spoke with a few local guides that walk the trail on a daily basis, and all were very helpful in providing tips and talked with me about other folks who have ridden it, or downhillers from Cusco, whom they have shuttled with horses/burros to the top to ride it. If I had to guess, the increase in tourism on this trail is slowly leading to more strict regulations, so the rangers may not be as kind in the future. Fair warning! It would be very disappointing to ride up the 9,000 feet to the top and get turned back.

Getting to Machu Picchu with a bike from the bottom of the Salkantay trail is a bit tricky since the only path sits alongside a set of train tracks, and is unquestionably a no-bikes-allowed scenario. Following Joe Cruz’s beta I tried to sneak in at night along the tracks to avoid the super expensive train ride and was greeted by two armed guards with AK47’s at a base just up the trail who kindly pointed me back toward the (closed) ticket office. The security has likely been beefed up here since Joe’s visit as well. This meant dropping the $$$ equivalent of about 30 Peruvian meals on a 20-minute train ride into the town at the base of Machu Picchu called Aguas Calientes (though it has been rebranded as Machu Picchu Pueblo).

Aguas Calientes feels like another planet compared to the rest of Perú. Wall-to-wall tourist shops, overpriced (and shitty) gringo restaurants lining the streets, and endless voices popping out from every crevice asking if you want a “masaje” (massage). While the ruins are truly an awe-inspiring sight to see before the hordes flood in, if you’re interested in coming to Peru, I could probably give you a list of at least a dozen other places to check out that will leave you with a better experience. Still, it’s worth seeing once and marveling at what life must have been like there a few hundred years ago.

One such experience happened by chance after leaving the tourist zone, heading through the Sacred Valley and into a small town called Urcos on the day of the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception”. Now, if you’re in Peru for any amount of time you’re almost guaranteed to run into some sort of festival, parade, etc. Someone once told me there are 3,000 traditional Peruvian festivals per year. They don’t need a big excuse to blast music and dance through the streets. However, this one was definitely poppin’ off bigger than any I had previously stumbled upon, continuing for two full days with seemingly every person in town participating in some way or another.

As much as any Andean vista or Incan ruin, the joy that these people love to express on a daily basis is what makes Perú a place I plan to visit again and again for the rest of my life. The fact that there is a lifetime’s worth of quiet twisty mountain roads is just an added bonus!

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Follow Ryan on Instagram and at his Tumblr.

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  • “Let me see your passport…”

  • charlesojones

    absolutely incredible!

    • charlesojones

      I just viewed the photo set the first time. Now I took the time to read the story. Equally inspiring. Thanks, Ryan.

  • Nealipo

    Amazing! Thank you for the continued coverage of this adventure.

  • steve

    That rainbow shot!!!

  • Bryce Dillon

    Stellar shots as always! Will you ever do a bike check so we can see the ins and outs of your setup?

    • Here’s a breakdown on the bike itself: http://theradavist.com/2016/08/44-bikes-27-5-rigid-mtb-ryan-wilson/

      Also keep an eye out around here for more detailed write-ups on all of the gear I’m using, which should start popping up soon!

      • Bryce Dillon

        Awesome, thanks!

      • colavitos_ghost

        As a (much less adventurous than you) bike touring enthusiast myself, I’d be very curious to know what your repair kit looks like… have you had any major mechanicals? Have you needed to do any significant maintenance/parts replacement (chain, tires, cassette, cables, etc) during your travels in S. America?

        Any insights would be appreciated!

        • I’ll go into more detail about this soon, but I have extra chain links (not an entire chain). I’ve got 1 extra tire with me and a couple tubes in case I have an issue that the sealant doesn’t take of. Extra cables, spokes, derailleur hanger, and plenty of bolts/washers, straps, zip ties, and gorilla tape for any random stuff that can happen.

          I dented my front rim pretty good, but otherwise it has been ok.

  • Adrian Menzies Knowles

    Amazing photoset

  • Milochky

    This is amazing. so much inspiration here.

  • Lewy

    Seeing the front rack setup has me planning on running one on my ECR and getting rid of my bar roll. I have been running a front rack on my Krampus and loving it. Great photos as usual.

    • Yeah, I have officially converted into a front rack person. Too handy and versatile to go back. I can definitely recommend the Pass & Stow!

  • Adam Leddin

    Well that photo story just made my life.

  • Andrew Pedersen

    bwoah

  • ANBL

    oooh amazing shots!

  • DAMN YOU, RYAN!

  • Holy shit, this is incredible. Some of my favorite Ryan Wilson of ALL TIME.

  • Kawika Samson

    g’dayum!

  • Wanhala

    That gradient photo man!

  • Robert Mauriello

    i love it

  • debineko

    It just gets better. Great captions. And the cat?

    • That was at a store way out in the middle of nowhere. The best part is that the woman who ran the store was actually in the darkness watching with a big grin as I was taking glamour shots of her cat. Too bad it doesn’t show up!

      • debineko

        Knowing she’s there watching with a big grin adds another dimension. I wouldn’t cross a cat that look at me like that.

        • Rex Lombardi

          Oh man, and we´re stuck on some Rindo, how (almost) boring. This is so good here, it hurts to look at it.

          • debineko

            I’ve found my inner Peru.

  • Pascal K

    oh man! the rainbow shot is out of this world.

    • What’s cool is there are giant glaciers directly behind where that photo was taken, and the photo after it is just turning 90 degrees to the left. So much diversity to the landscape.

      • Pascal K

        Sounds almost surreal, really great stuff Ryan!

  • Joe Cruz

    Ryan—tremendous photos, as always! Sorry (but not surprised) to hear that the security at Hidro electrico has been improved so that you were turned back. Hope that Salkantay continues to remain unofficially open to bikes, what a spectacular ride.

    Joe

    • Thanks! And thanks for having the info up to push me toward doing it!

      It would definitely be a shame if they stopped allowing bikes. I guess the next option would be to try to link up the Choquequirao trail to the road that intersects at the bottom of Salkantay trail? I was definitely tempted to check that out.

  • breed007

    Putting “Ryan Wilson” in the title alongside one of his photos is redundant. You can immediately pick out his work on here. Great set.

  • recurrecur

    Wow.
    Really curious about the 2nd cage under the downtube is about. Fuel bottle?

  • Ryan

    Where do I sign up for the Ryan Wilson alert system?

  • Matt

    Killing it! Love the photos.

  • Public_Parent

    Wow! Awesome; thanks for the photos and report. Very inspiring.

  • ChrisG

    Easily one of the most awe-inspiring sets I’ve seen on here. Awesome

    • Eli Brock

      Anywhere* ditto.

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  • AdamBike99

    You will be able to live off the proceeds of the most beautiful calendar(s) ever (for the next 10 years) with these shots! ;-)
    Holy cat- these are amazing Ryan. It’s too bad Machu Picchu has gone down the tourist trap toilet, but your breathtaking images portray why it is indeed such a mecca…

  • DamagedSurfer

    Wow Ryan, yet again mind blowing shots. Your installment has officially become my favorite photos featured on this site. (No offense Jon). To me it’s so vitally important that we continue to explore this world and bridge our gaps and realize we have more in common as a species than we think. Extensive world travel changed my life for the better. Cheers Ryan.

  • moe

    As much as I like the bikes, I love the stories in which they are more like a “enabler” for the actual content! Keep up!

  • got directed here from google+ amazing story and photo set .

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  • Ken Clark

    Looking at the photos and reading the story was a nice little daydream break. Beautiful and thanks!

  • Alan Swanson

    Awesome! What month did you do the Salkantay and how long did it take to get from the pass to the bottom of the trail? Strange that riding the tracks is such a big deal – don’t people walk that all the time?

    • It was November while I was doing the Salkantay. It took maybe 5 hours to get from the top of the pass to the bottom of the trail, but I stopped and hung out in one of the little “villages” along the way, had lunch, etc. Also my front wheel was pretty badly dented, so I was babying it (walking) on some of the super rocky stuff near the top.

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  • Gerard Soler Mampel

    Hey Ryan, so you could get to Hidroelectrico by bike and then had to buy a train ticket to Aguas calientes? Could you go to the Macu Picchu with your bike (not riding but on the train and hiking afterwards?) Do you know anyone who has done it recently? We are planning to do it in a month.