The Salkantay Trek is a 74km trek that will take you from the historical former Incan capital of Cusco to the breathtakingly beautiful Machu Picchu. There are many, many different options for tourists to consider for getting to Machu Picchu. This travel guide will aim to cover why you should consider doing the Salkantay Trek, the options you have, what each day encompasses and then some general tips.
If you arrive in Cusco without a plan and start looking at visiting Machu Picchu, you could easily get overwhelmed straight away. There is the famous Inca Trail, Jungle Trek, Salkantay Trek, Lares Trek, Choquequirao Trek, get the train, get the bus and walk, etc., etc. , etc.. So why, out of all these options, did we choose the Salkantay?
The Salkantay Trek comes highly recommended and it’s route takes you from the top’s of mountains in the morning to trekking through the jungles in the evening. Now, most people would say the Inca Trail is THE way to get to Machu Picchu. It may very well be, but with a necessity to book months in advance and a very high cost attached, it certainly isn’t backpacker friendly. Salkantay wins here for being budget-friendly and flexible.
We chose the Salkantay over the other trekking options as it’s got more recommendations and is advertised as being a moderate to difficult trek. One thing we definitely wanted was that feeling of having worked hard to reach the goal of Machu Picchu. For this reason, we ruled out the Jungle Trek especially. It seems like a fun way of reaching the end goal, but there wasn’t enough hiking for us!
Our first rule for booking the Salkantay Trek is to not book before you arrive. Only book when you are in Cusco. Now, this may cause your heart rate to beat extra fast if you are an ultra-prepared person (as I am), but trust me, you will pay a lot more money if you book ahead. We were in Cusco at the end of July/start of August – I’m not sure you could get any more into peak season, and we were fine booking 4 days ahead. There are so many tour companies in Cusco that there will always be space.
The amount of money this trek will cost you depends on a wide variety of things. Comfort is the first thing. If you want to stay in luxurious clear domed sky camps, Salkantay Trekking is your best bet. We talked to them and everything was double the price – even climbing Machu Picchu Mountain was coming out as twice the price. When they said the total price would be an eye-watering $450 we calmly walked out.
Most companies provide adequate sleeping conditions, so I see no need to spend extra on comfort – especially if you are backpacking. We went with Machu Picchu Reservations and paid $220. This included all meals, 5 nights accommodation (we stayed an extra night in Aguas Calientes), hiking poles for Aoife, 2 sleeping bags, Machu Picchu entrance and Machu Picchu Mountain entrance.
We had a pre-trek briefing the night before in the Machu Picchu Reservations office at 7 pm. There we met the rest of the group and surprisingly we had a small group, 10 in total plus our guide Irwin.
We walked to the office (only a few blocks away) at 5.30am and were bundled into a van to begin our journey of 2 hours to the town of Mollepata. We had breakfast here and paid a new, (not included) entrance fee of 10 soles. Everyone want’s a slice of the tourist’s money!
It is then another hour or so of driving to the trekking start point. Here we gave our stuff to the mules for transport and got our sleeping bags and walking sticks. We then began the looped hike to Humantay Lake. This is an uphill hike and it is quite demanding but rewarding when you see the colorful lake on arrival. There was a lot of people here as it has become a popular day trip – for this reason, the lake is quite crowded.
After descending we went to our camp for the night – Quiswarniyoc, which was a lovely place with little private huts for us to enjoy. There was another group from MP Reservations that were doing the shorter 4-day trip but still the camp was quiet. We had lunch before going to a mirador of the Salkantay mountain for sunset.
We got up, had breakfast and were ready to leave by 6 am. Unfortunately, every other group also had the same idea. This was the first time we saw just how busy the Salkantay trail was. There were literally hundreds of people all on the trail at once, and it became very uncomfortable to hike.
Eventually, we managed to separate from some of the slower groups and we really got to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. After 4 hours of intense hiking, we reached the top, and the highest point of the trek – 4630 meters above sea level. This is the Salkantay pass and you get a great view of the sacred Salkantay Mountain.
Here our guide did a ritual, a prayer to the Incan mountains gods. This gave us the time to really appreciate our surroundings and appreciate the rituals that the Incan people had. We then started our descent, passing some lovely views of colourful lakes along the way. As the weather had been indifferent there was a lot of snow around the pass which made it both tough to hike through and beautiful.
The descent on this day was tiring, in total about 5 hours with a break for lunch. I hate going downhill anyway but this was tough. It was amazing to appreciate going from a snowy mountain pass to a cloud forest in just a couple of hours, however.
Camp on this night (Chaullay) is a comfortable, private tent but with a cover over it, so if it rain’s you won’t get wet. You can rent a shower for 10 soles if you like!
Day 3 for us will possibly be different for everyone else. On Day 2 our guide asked if we would switch our route in order to accommodate a couple who had signed up for the shorter 4-day trek. This was no problem as he made it sound like we wouldn’t be missing anything by skipping the jungle walk but in truth we did. So our advice – don’t trust the guides to change your route!
Rant over, we woke up and hopped in a minivan to start Llactapata – the only part of the Inca Trail that is covered in the Salkantay. We went past a coffee farm and got the opportunity to try some. This was a tough hike, with lots of walking in the heat and it felt like it would never end.
Eventually, we got to Llactapata and it made it worthwhile. We were there on our own and you could see Machu Picchu in the distance. It was amazing to be able to see this magical place that we dreamed of visiting for so long – and it was so close! Aoife was able to zoom in and could see people there! We definitely recommend doing Llactapata if you are doing the Salkantay trek.
After this, we had to descend for a couple of hours before hopping back into a van and making our way to the town of Santa Teresa. There we had our own tent inside a covered area, but we were sharing the area with other groups. We got to go to the hot springs for 25 soles extra in the evening. It was nice but really crowded and not actually that warm!
This evening seems to be sold as some sort of party night with the camp selling beers and playing music. With two days of hiking left, we went to bed early, and could hear singing coming from another camp in the town!
Day 4 was again changed due to the decisions made by the guide at the end of Day 2. The guide tried to get everyone to go zip lining instead of walking from Santa Teresa to the start of the train tracks as originally intended. The rest of our group agreed but we came to hike and out of pure stubbornness we were making our guide hike with us.
We powered along a hot dusty road in the direction of Hidroelectrica. Our guide kept his distance as he knew of our anger and we met a Taiwanese guy along the way who was hiking independently. When we got to Hidroelectrica we waited for the rest of the group and then had lunch together. It was in the restaurant that we met two Americans who had injured themselves the night before partying in Santa Teresa – they couldn’t walk anymore so had to get the train!
We then began the walk along the train tracks from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. It is actually a lot more interesting then it sounds, with the numerous trains passing making for a good photo opportunity. We arrived in Aguas Calientes after about 3 hours and checked into our hostel where we had a big private room.
That night we had our last meal together and our guide informed us that he had to go back to Cusco and wouldn’t be able to show us around the ruins the next morning.
This is the day you will have been waiting for, Machu Picchu! We got up at 3.30am and walked to the bridge where a line of people were waiting already. The entrance across the bridge opens at 5 am and then you begin climbing up the steps to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
We arrived at the top after 1 hour of grueling steps to find that the entrance was absolutely thronged. Why do they let people who get the bus up arrive at the same time as people who have just climbed about 1 billion steps? Sweaty and annoyed we managed to barge our way through the crowds and began our tour of the amazing Machu Picchu.
As we had paid extra for Machu Picchu Mountain we were able to leave the site and go back in again. This is important as you have to follow a set route in Machu Picchu – once you leave somewhere you can’t go back to it. Unless you have a ticket to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huaynu Picchu. It also meant we could go to the toilet as there are no toilet’s inside.
We then climbed 2 billion steps up Machu Picchu Mountain, walked to the sun gate, and took another lap around Machu Picchu itself. But all of that is a story for a different day!
If you don’t stay an extra night in Aguas Calientes like we did you will have to start hiking back to Hidroelectrica by 12pm as the buses leave from there at 3pm. This is what we did the next day. The bus took about 6 hours and was abit crazy, but we lived to tell the tale!