The Salkantay Trek, an Incredible Hike to Machu Picchu
We always knew we wanted to visit Machu Picchu while in Peru but there was one thing that we weren’t quite sure about. Should we do it the easy way and take the train, or should we do it the hard way and hike there?
When people talked about hiking the Inca Trail, I always thought that it wasn’t for me. For starters, I’m not a fan of camping. I was only 23 years old when I last camped in a tent and I didn’t miss that experience. I enjoy a long day of hiking but I also prefer a nice warm bed to crash in at the end of it!
Before visiting Peru, I hadn’t done any multi-day hikes, mainly because I would have needed to camp overnight. So, upon arriving in South America, we were still unsure about our trip to Machu Picchu. We hadn’t even done much research into it, thinking that we could simply decide what to do last minute. We now know that is not the case, especially if you want to hike the Inca Trail.
Some advice from fellow travellers
Then, one day while we sat in a cafe on Plaza de la Independencia in Quito, we met an English couple who had just arrived in Quito after spending a few weeks in Peru. They mentioned a hike to Machu Picchu that we hadn’t heard about before, the Salkantay Trek (yes, we had done little to no research by then!).
They’d loved it so much that we found it very tempting. They mentioned sleeping in a skydome and an actual bed, so I made sure to ask for the name of the company they had used. Once I’d googled Salkantay Trekking, I quickly decided that we wouldn’t be taking the train.
It turned out that this hike was a highlight of our trip to Peru and of our time in South America so far. So, if you’re unsure about it, read on to find out more about the Salkantay Trek. We just might convince you too!
Why choose the Salkantay Trek over the Inca Trail?
Why should you do the Salkantay Trek rather than hiking the Classic Inca Trail? Well, there are many reasons why.
You need to book the Inca Trail very early
The Inca Trail is so popular that you have to book months in advance. We were simply not that organised! We didn’t know exactly when we’d be arriving in Cusco until about six weeks beforehand, by which point we had no hope of booking a spot on the Inca Trail. The Salkantay Trek is much better for people who don’t plan their trips months in advance.
The Inca Trail is overcrowded
The Inca Trail is so popular that it has become overcrowded. We wanted a hike where we could enjoy some beautiful natural surroundings, without hordes of people around us spoiling the experience. Although the Salkantay Trek was busier than we’d expected, we still found it very enjoyable.
The Inca Trail is more expensive
The Inca Trail costs a lot more than the Salkantay Trek. So, if you’re travelling on a budget, the Salkantay Trek might be a better option for you.
The scenery is quite different
The Inca Trail takes you past Inca ruins along the way, so it’s a cultural journey, as well as a hike. But the Salkantay Trek is more about incredible scenery, mountain passes and jungles, rather than Inca ruins.
So, while the Salkantay is not quite the same experience, believe me, just the views along the way make it worth doing. Plus, there’s no chance you’ll be tired of seeing ruins by the time you reach Machu Picchu.
Horses carry your gear, not porters
We’d heard how badly some porters are treated on the Inca Trail. They are loaded up with tonnes of equipment and forced to wear inappropriate footwear. To be honest, being an animal lover, I was also worried about the horses. It pained me that an animal would have to work hard just so that I could do the trek.
So, the first thing I checked was the condition of the horses. I am not sure about all companies but the horses used by Salkantay Trekking on our hike seemed well treated. They were not malnourished and after carrying our gear to the next camp for a couple of hours, they were put in a paddock nearby and rested until the next day.
Our guide mentioned that Salkantay Trekking rotates the farmers that they get their horses from so that farmers are not tempted to overwork their horses to maximise their income.
It made me feel better that the horses were not overworked. However, this may not be the case for cheaper companies so, as always, make sure you do your research beforehand.
There are better accommodation options
If sleeping in a tent is not your thing, you have some better accommodation options on the Salkantay Trek, depending on which company you use. With Salkantay Trekking we slept in proper beds every night. No, it wasn’t “glamping” but it was still comfortable.
When is the best time to do the Salkantay Trek?
Cusco has only two seasons, wet and dry. Of course, the dry season (from April to November) is the best time to do the Salkantay trek if you want good weather. However, June to September is also the most popular months and the most crowded ones, due to summer holidays in Europe and the United States. The wet season is from December to March. In particular, February is renowned for very poor weather conditions, so think twice about doing it then.
So, given that, May and October offer the best combination of weather conditions and crowd numbers. We did our hike at the end of September and we had great weather with absolutely no rain for the whole four days. However, we were told that we were very lucky. Our guide said that just a few days earlier, his group had hiked the Salkantay Pass in miserable conditions, taking two hours longer than the three hours it took us!
When and where to book your trek?
Unlike the Inca Trail which you have to book 6 to 8 months in advance, the Salkantay is not as popular. That means that you can book it last minute when you arrive in Cusco.
We booked it online a month beforehand just because we had already decided which company we wanted to use and we wanted to secure the date that we had in mind. It turned out that we only had a group of 10 with a maximum of 12 so we probably could have booked on arrival to Cusco. Some say the prices are much cheaper if you book in Cusco. I am 100% sure this is true. However, cheaper doesn’t always mean better.
Which company to use?
Many companies organise the Salkantay Trek. Cusco is packed with them. However, you should do your research before booking. Some tours might seem cheap but, as always, you get what you pay for. Sometimes it’s worth spending a little more money to have a much better experience. If something goes wrong during the trek, you want to be with a company that can ensure your safety.
We chose Salkantay Trekking because they were recommended to us and because of the standard of accommodation that they provide. We are glad we chose them because our trip was perfect and everything went very smoothly. From the accommodation to the food, to the way they looked after their staff, we couldn’t fault them.
What about the altitude?
The trail you walk along reaches altitudes of up to 4,650m and altitude sickness can be a problem and can happen to anyone. You never know how it will affect you, regardless of how fit you are.
So to prepare yourself for the big hike, spend a few days acclimatising in Cusco before the trek. We’d suggest getting there at least 3 days earlier. Also, make sure you don’t just sit around for those three days. You’ll acclimatise faster if you exercise your body a bit each day.
We were fine everywhere else in the Andes of Ecuador, Colombia and even in Arequipa and Colca Canyon. But on our first day in Cusco, I had a headache and I constantly felt very tired. My heart rate went crazy every time I exerted myself a little and I was constantly out of breath. Simon had tingling in his fingers, arms, and at one point even in his chest which concerned him! It went away but you don’t want that when you’re starting the trek!
So now about the trek.
With Salkantay Trekking, there are a few different Salkantay Trek options, 5 days, 4 days and 3 days. We chose to do their 4-day hike.
This is the breakdown for our 4-day hike
Day 1 – Cusco – Mollepata – Challacancha – Soraypampa (Humantay Lake)
Walking distance: 12 kilometres
Highest elevation: 4600 metres
On day one you have a very early start to the trek, 4 am to be precise! It was not much fun but we’d kind of grown used to early starts for tours in Peru!
We were picked up from our hotel and driven to Mollepata (a 3-hour drive away) where there was a checkpoint and we had to pay 10 Sols per person. We also stopped for a quick breakfast before getting back on the road to Challacancha where we began our hike.
The first part of the hike was a seven-kilometre (3 hours) walk to Soraypampa where our camp for the first night was. The hike was a little challenging, mainly the first three kilometres which were mostly uphill. The altitude didn’t help but we made many stops along the way to admire the views of the soaring Humantay Peak in the background.
Arriving at Sky Camp
On arrival at camp, (the beautiful Sky Camp) we were served a lovely and filling lunch. Sky Camp is at the base of Salkantay Mountain and therefore offered some incredible views. The best part was that our sky dome’s clear roof was really good for star gazing at night.
After lunch and a short break, we left for our afternoon trek to the Humantay Lake. The hike was a five-kilometre round-trip up the hill and then back down again. It was tough, especially because of the altitude and, once again, we had many stops along the way.
This glacial lake is so beautiful. Its blue-green water is so clear that you can see the rocks on the bottom. Many people visit Humantay Lake as a day trip from Cusco. Fortunately, by the time we reached the lake, many of them had already been and gone and it was pretty tranquil.
Back at camp, we ate an early dinner and prepared for a nice (if rather cold) night under the stars. To be honest it didn’t take me long to fall asleep; it had been an exhausting day.
Day 2 – Soraypampa – Salkantay Pass – Wayracmachay – Chaullay
Walking distance: 24 kilometres
Highest elevation: 4650 metres
The next day was another early start with a 5 am wake-up call. We were much happier about that once we realised that a hot cup of coca tea delivered to our dome was part of the deal!
The night before had been cold but we were very prepared and so well rugged up that we slept like babies! After breakfast, we set off on the most challenging day of the trek. It began with a hike to the highest point on the trail, the Salkantay Pass.
To reach the pass (at 4650 metres above sea level), we hiked uphill for seven kilometres, conquering a set of curves called the seven snakes along the way. It wasn’t easy but boy, the scenery was so spectacular that you completely forgot about the pain.
Reaching the top of the pass
After three hours we made it to the top, to be treated to another hot cup of coca tea and a sandwich by our chefs who had hiked up the pass ahead of us. Amazing!
We spent a little over half an hour relaxing at the top, eating and taking photos, before we moved on again to make our way down the trail towards lunch. But before that, our guide took us on a little detour to visit the Salkantay glacial lake. We were treated to more amazing views.
Our lunch was a further five-kilometre walk down the hill. Then, after lunch, we had another 10-kilometre hike amongst tropical forest before reaching that night’s camp.
We were all extremely exhausted by the time we reached Chaullay. We were glad to discover that the camp had hot showers (for a fee) and we all queued up to finally get a wash!
After dinner, we had another very early night and once again we slept like babies.
In Chaullay we slept in Andean huts.
Day 3 – Chaullay – La Playa – Santa Teresa – Hydroelectric – Aguas Calientes
Walking distance: 26 kilometres
Highest elevation: 2750 metres
Day three was a lot easier compared to the first two. We were hiking at a much lower altitude and with minimal ups and downs. Our morning walk was through the Andean jungle, past some beautiful lush green landscape. We mostly followed the curves of a river and we visited small villages along the way.
Once we reached La Playa, we were given a coffee making demonstration and had our last lunch cooked by our fantastic chefs.
After lunch, we had a short bus ride to Hydroelectric where we then walked alongside the train line for 10 more kilometres before finally arriving in Aguas Caliente.
We checked into our hotel, had another early dinner, a well deserved Pisco Sour, and as always an early night. We had another early wake-up call the next morning for the grand finale!
Day 4 – The Grand Finale. Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain
There are two options to reach Machu Picchu. You can hike the 1600 steps up to the gate or you can take the bus up. Because we had tickets to hike Machu Picchu Mountain while in the site, we opted for the bus so that we wouldn’t be completely exhausted once we arrived.
We had 6 am tickets and caught the first bus (5.30 am) which meant queuing for at least an hour beforehand. Once at the top, we were one of the first to enter but the queue behind us was packed. It certainly didn’t feel intimate. Once they opened the gates, everyone rushed in.
However, we managed to get some good viewing in before Machu Picchu became too crowded and, as expected, it is truly an amazing sight. We walked around taking photos for over an hour before our guide gave us a quick explanation about the history of the place and we headed off to hike up Machu Picchu Mountain.
Hiking Machu Picchu Mountain
After three days of hiking, walking up Machu Picchu Mountain was not an easy task, especially because there were so many stairs! But we made it and it was definitely worth the effort.
If you want to hike Machu Picchu Mountain, you’ll need an extra ticket on top of the entry ticket for Machu Picchu. You can get it when you book your ticket or ask your tour agency to organise it for you. Your ticket gives you an allocated time to hike the mountain, so don’t be late! Tickets currently cost US$25.
On the other hand, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu, you’ll need to book your ticket several months ahead. Book as early as you can.
Once down from the mountain, we spent some time wandering around the ruins themselves. By that point, many more tourists had arrived on site. However, we still managed to enjoy our visit.
By the time we finished, we were exhausted, so we decided to get the bus back down. But the queue was so long that we ended up walking down the 1600 steps to the foot of the mountain and then another half an hour more back to our hotel in Agua Calientes. In hindsight, this was a crazy decision because all of that downhill walking made my knees ache for the next week!
In the afternoon, we caught the 4.21 pm train back to Ollantaytambo (included in our trek) and were then transferred by bus back to Cusco.
We were glad it was over but we were so proud of ourselves for completing the hike without any issues.
Can you hike the Salkantay Trek alone?
Yes, you can but we wouldn’t recommend it. While it is more expensive to take a tour, everything is organised for you from the start to the finish. That includes pretty much everything from your accommodation, meals and drinking water, through to transfers, porters (horses), entrance fees and so on.
More importantly, the trek itself is not an easy one and the altitude makes everything worse. Many people fall ill during the trek, often due to the altitude. What if you do it alone and you get sick?
For us it was a no brainer, we always prefer to spend a bit more to ensure we have a comfortable and safe experience. We also didn’t want to deal with organising every step of the way, hiring camping gear, carrying all of our gear, finding food and water along the way and booking camping grounds. For us, that’s too much of a hassle after a long day of hiking. I would only recommend it if you are a very experienced hiker who is used to doing hikes similar to this alone.
Where to stay in Cusco before and after the trek?
There is no shortage of accommodation in Cusco and you can find something for every budget.
We stayed in Askha Cusco and it was very homey. The staff were very friendly and they looked after our bags while we were on the trek. They provide unlimited coca tea (and other types) throughout the day, which was very handy. We certainly needed it, especially for the first few days.
The best part was that it was close to everything in town and close to many of Cusco’s best restaurants. It turns out that Cusco has some fantastic places to eat (see our list of the best restaurants in Cusco)
Best on booking.com
If none of those hotels take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all the major accommodation sites. We use it all the time.
What should you pack for the Salkantay Trek?
That’s a very good question and packing will be a big part of your preparation for the Salkantay Trek. You need to make sure you bring the right gear without overpacking.
Here is a list of the most important thing you will need for the trek:
This is a “real” hike, so don’t even attempt it wearing normal walking shoes. This is no walk in the park. You’ll need good hiking boots and preferably ones that you have already worn in a bit. New shoes that haven’t softened up yet are more likely to give you blisters. Also, it would be a good idea to opt for waterproof boots, especially if you’re hiking during the rainy season.
A day pack (30 Litres maximum)
The pack horses will carry the bulk of your gear but you will need to carry anything you’ll use during the day in a day pack. For example, extra layers of clothing, water, snacks and sunscreen. Make sure to invest in a rainproof cover for your bag.
Sun Hat and beanie
Yes, you need both, who knows what the weather will be like. It could be sunny or it could be miserable with icy cold winds. Be prepared for both scenarios.
We rented these from our trekking provider but you can also hire them in many places around Cusco. If you are not travelling for long, it’s even best to bring your own but make sure it’s suitable for this kind of weather. It should at least be rated down to – 5 degrees.
Wearing layers is the key to enjoyable hiking on the Salkantay Trek. Make sure you bring many layers that you can add or remove accordingly as the weather changes. Merino wool base layers are fantastic to keep you warm at night and even during the day. Bring long and short sleeves shirts and hiking pants with removable legs.
A windproof and waterproof jacket
You will need this at the high altitudes, especially if you encounter bad weather.
You can hire these in Cusco. We didn’t need ours in the end but it’s best to be prepared.
Sunscreen lotion and insect repellent
You can get sunburnt easily at high altitude, even on a cloudy day. Plus, you are not far from the Equator. You need to wear good quality sunscreen lotion and even better insect repellent.
The insects on the trek were some of the worst we’ve seen in our year of travelling. We used insect repellent throughout the hike and we still ended up covered in mosquito bites. It looked like we were not the only ones. We saw many others doing the hike that had bites all over their bodies.
Which lotion works? I don’t know, ours didn’t and it didn’t seem like many did. But I wouldn’t go without because god only knows how many bites you’d get if you didn’t apply anything.
Refillable water bottles
You only need to bring water for day one. After that, you will be able to refill from camp. Make sure you have a refillable water bottle or two, or a backpack with a camelback built-in.
You can also just use your phone as we did. Some camps don’t have electricity or it is only available for a short time.
We only needed to use our battery pack once in the 4-day trek because most of our camps had some sort of electricity to recharge our phones and cameras with. But on that one occasion, it was good to have one with us.
I never used hiking sticks before doing the Salkantay Trek but boy was I glad we hired them. They were lifesavers on downhill parts. Your legs will thank you for it. I will never do a long hike without them now; I am hooked. You can hire them in town or from your trekking company.
Camera and spare batteries
Just stating the obvious here, of course!
Our trekking company provided each of us with a roll of biodegradable toilet paper but if yours doesn’t, bring your own. Most toilets along the way do not provide toilet paper.
Our camp on day one only offered cold showers and we were told that it was not recommended to use them because it was so cold outside already. So bring baby wipes to wipe yourself clean after day one.