Hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my South America 3-months trip. Stunning views, snow-capped peaks of the Vilcabamba Mountain Range, nevados and lagoons, not to mention the end of the trip to Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the world.
The Salkantay Trek has gained popularity as an alternative route to the Inca Trail, probably the most famous trek in Latin America. Entries to the Inca Trail are kept under control directly by the Peruvian Government and no more than 500 people a day, including porters and guide, are allowed to walk along this path, leaving room for more or less 200 tourists a day.
The Salkantay Trek is a much less beaten path but no less beautiful. Most people do it with a guide, even though is possible to do it on your own.
On this article, I will guide you day by day through this wonderful trekking.
Best Period to Visit
April-May and the dry season are both good periods to hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. I personally did it at the end of March: it rained a lot, but we were still lucky to have good weather windows to enjoy the amazing landscapes.
Booking the Tour
Cusco is where you will probably book every tour in the surroundings. Avoid at all costs online booking, as it will result in a big scam: the service is exactly the same, the price is thrice the one you find in Cusco.
The price for the Salkantay Trail 5D/4N should include transport with the bus, lodging (3 nights in camping, 1 night in hostel in Aguas Calientes); all meals with exception for the first-day breakfast and the last day lunch and dinner; a 5 kg bag horse-carried, porters, cooks, and guides (English or Spanish, just ask. Many times you will be told that the guide speaks English, although everything he can say is ‘The tip is up to you’); tents, mattress (usually the non-inflatable ones), and warm sleeping bag; entrance to Machu Picchu and transport back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica. It doesn’t include the hot springs (10 soles) and the zipline in Santa Teresa (100 soles), as well as train transportation, for which you have to pay extra money.
My suggestion is not to pay more than 170 $; online bookings can be up to 500 $. For more tips on tour booking and travel agencies and operators in Cusco, click here.
What to Bring
In the dry season, rain shouldn’t be a problem. It’s strongly advisable to bring sunscreen and insect repellent, no matter the season. I carry two types of repellent and I alternate them.
In the rainy season, expect to be wet all the time. Bring spare socks, although the biggest challenge is keeping your boots dry. It doesn’t matter how waterproof they are, after 5 hours under the rain the will be wet anyway. An old but gold trick is to put plastic bags between socks and boots. In this way, at least your feet will be dry. During the night it gets pretty cold. Bring your fleeces and some warm underwear.
Meals should be sufficient to keep your hunger away, but this depends on the tour operator. I suggest bringing snacks (chocolate, nuts, dry fruit). Coca leaves really help with altitude sickness – if you’re not for homeopathic stuff, bring some pills. Keep in mind the highest point will be at 4600 m above sea level – not a joke even for fit people.
A waterproof and windproof jacket is a must.
Day 1 – Mollepata to Humantay
The first day involves a very early alarm clock: the pick-up is scheduled around 4.30-5. The bus ride to Mollepata lasts around 3 hours. The entrance to the village, thanks to the new governmental policies, is 10 soles per person. Here you can have a breakfast and buy the last-minute needs, like toothpaste, toilet paper, and snacks.
At 9, the bus leaves Mollepata to reach the starting point of the trek. The road is horrible and prone to landslide, but your Peruvian driver surely knows his job.
After the briefing, be ready to start walking at 10. According to the speed of your group (usually 15-20 people), the first camping site is reached around 13. Here, you will have lunch and your tent set up.
The first day involves an optional visit to the Humantay Lake. I strongly suggest to make the effort and go, because the view is amazing! The one-hour walk is uphill on a muddy terrain, so hold yourself and use walking sticks if you have them. Enjoy your time on top. Going down takes a bit less; be careful with the mud, again.
The dinner is early. Wrap on your clothes and be ready to spend a cold night. The campsite, called Soraypampa, is at 3850 m above sea level.
Day 2 – Humantay to the Middle of the Rainforest
The second day is the hardest one, no doubt. For this day you can rent horses and arrieros (horsemen) for 100 soles. The elevation change and the altitude will probably shorten your breath, but, again, the reward is worth the toil. Breakfast is at 5.30 and you start walking at 6.30. Around 8 there is the first stop, at a straw-roofed hut selling drinks and souvenirs. The second checkpoint is just below the Salkantaypampa. From here, if the weather is magnanimous, you can stare at the snow-capped Salkantay. It’s really impressive. We were lucky to have a clear sky for half an hour before the clouds covered it all.
Chewing coca leaves in this stretch really helped me. Once on the top, our guide decided to show us the Laguna Salkantay. This was apparently not included, but our group was fast enough to be on top earlier than scheduled. The clouds cleared for few minutes allowing us to see the lagoon.
The way downhill is again muddy and rocky. After lunch, you slowly enter the rainforest habitat. It’s humid as hell and full of mosquitos – don’t forget to apply your repellent on your uncovered body parts. The Apurimac river is going straight down in the valley with a powerful roar.
Around 4 pm you reach the second camping, at an altitude of 3000 m. The location is wonderful. There is WiFi (not included), but I have been told is pretty slow. There is also a shop selling usual stuff – snacks and drinks.
Break and dinner, and again going to sleep early.
Day 3 – Rainforest to Santa Teresa
After an early breakfast and 5 hours walking, with all the due breaks, you reach La Playa, where you have lunch. From here, you’ll be transported to the campsite in Santa Teresa. In the afternoon, you can decide whether to go to the aguas termales (the place is called Cocalmayo). The entrance is 10 soles, plus 15 soles for the bus back and forth the campsite. It’s not a great expense if you think that the same activity in Europe would cost minimum ten times more. Furthermore, after a few days, you’ll have the chance to get a hot shower! There are three pools: 10, 25 and 35 °C. If you find a flip flop around, it’s mine – I lost it there.:)
The campsite is pretty fine, the tents are set up on a wooden floor and they even have a well-equipped bar with alcoholic drinks. You can enjoy them in the evening around the bonfire.
Today you have to decide whether you’ll do zipline or not. There are different companies, and this activity might be included with your booking. The Vertical Zipline company covers 100 soles for 5 lines and one suspension bridge; it’s probably the best of all, talking with a bunch of people who were pretty unhappy with other companies.
Day 4 – Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
You get up not so early this morning (recovering from the presumable hangover). If you’re still not awake, don’t worry! Zipline gives you a burst of adrenaline – lines are up to 900 m long at 300 m high. Once the cool thing is finished, you’ll be transported to Hydroelectric (included). Here, we had lunch. It might be that your guide will walk you up to Aguas Calientes.
The trail from Hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes goes along the train tracks, and it takes 2.5 hours on average. Here, you’ll get to your hostel and you will have the afternoon to explore the village. We stayed at Eco Mapi hostel – triple room with private bathroom. It was a pretty cool one. This judgement comes from the fact there was toilet paper in the bathroom, something that is very hard to find.
Aguas Calientes is full of touristic spots and minimarket where to buy food, drinks, and other supplies. I suggest the market: it’s very cheap and it’s where I took my lunch for the next day. There’s a big feria artesana to buy plenty of souvenirs of Machu Picchu and Perù in general. Negotiate the price if you buy in stock.
Many lounge bars offer a 4 x 1 deals on cocktails like pisco sour: it’s a scam, as one cocktail costs 25 soles. Be aware as well for the set menu; many restaurants have a hidden fee of 3 soles (still didn’t get what’s for).
The dinner is still included in the tour, as well as the breakfast for the next morning. You’ll be given it during dinner or at the hostel and it usually consists of snacks and a sandwich.
If you plan to take the bus to go up to Machu Picchu, there are booths where you can buy tickets: the cost is 25 $ (not soles) round trip.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu and Back to Cusco
When you book the tour, the agency will almost surely say that the last day you will wake up early to avoid the tourist crowd. Well, we woke up earlier than scheduled and started walking at 4, reaching the crossing point at the bridge in 25 minutes. The swindle is that the gates open at 5, no matter at what time you arrive. Expect already a bunch of people in front of you: Again, take it easy!. The Machu Picchu opens at 6 and you have one whole hour to climb 1.7 km of steps. Although many people wake up early, after the second staircase they are already slowing down. My trick: slow and steady. In 45 minutes you will be on top. Shortly after, the buses start to arrive.
What I did as soon as I got in, was climbing up to the highest point I could to take some good pictures without so many people hindering the landscape. Unfortunately it was cloudy, but still, I took some good shots.
Then, it’s time for the guided tours. Our guide was young, prepared and funny, so we learned a lot from him. After the guided tour you have a couple of hours to explore Machu Picchu on your own. The Sun Temple (where the Inca trailers enter the Machu Picchu), the Inca Bridge and the Guardhouse are all good spots to take pictures. There are tons of posts on how to visit Machu Picchu, so I redirect you to google for that!
If you have booked the return to Cusco by bus, you have to be at Hydroelectric at 2.30 pm. If you have booked the train back to Cusco, you’re going to have more time. Make your calculations and try to catch whatever you are taking on time: the train is expensive as hell if you lose it. The bus to Cusco from Hydroelectric is around 35 soles.
Here your Salkantay Trek ends, after many miles and stunning landscapes.
Hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is a great experience for mountain and nature lovers, hikers, history seekers. It’s a more than valid alternative to the more beaten Inca Trail. Take your chance to hike it before it becomes too crowded, as it will probably be in a few years.
If you have any kind of question, please leave a comment! I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
Livin’ la vida!