Salkantay Trek: A Beautiful Hike to Machu Picchu, Peru
Can you imagine a better way how to reach iconic Machu Picchu, one of the world's wonders, than to hike to it? Salkantay Trek is one of the most popular hikes among travelers when in Cusco, Peru. Read the hiking guide about our experience with Alpaca Expeditions altogether with tips, advice and beautiful photos.
For a long time, Salkantay Trek in Peru has been known as an alternative trek to the famous Inca Trail which every day leads travelers from all around the world to mysterious lost Inca's city, Machu Picchu. But don't be fooled. Salkantay Trek is no longer an overlooked brother of Inca Trail (how it can even be when the National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine named it among the 25 best treks in the world!) and definitely not only an alternative for those who don't have enough money or who cannot plan their holiday several months in advance to make a reservation for the more traditional hike. It is an option for hikers who want to experience the beautiful mountainous scenery of the Andes, see an incredibly diverse nature of Peru and at the end be blown away by one of the South American highlights and a must-visit place which is on every traveler's bucket list, Machu Picchu.
Everyone who visits Peru wants to see Machu Picchu, and we felt that walking Salkantay Trek will be the best and the only right way how we can do it. Not only we wanted to see more from Peruvian wilderness, learn more about flora, fauna and traditional way of life in the Andes, but also we always enjoy the feeling when something we want to see so desperately is well-deserved. And hiking the Salkantay Trek met our expectations in all aspects.
SALKANTAY TREK FACTS
Salkantay Trek is 62 kilometers long when you walk from a small village Soraypampa to Aguas Calientes. Some travel agencies (to reduce cost) or independent travelers can start in Mollepata, in that case, add another 10 kilometers. The trek takes 3 to 4 days to finish, but the most common is to walk from Soraypampa to Aguas Calientes in four days. Be prepared to walk every day between six to nine hours, so at least a basic level of physical condition is required.
The highest point you will reach on this trek is over 4600 meters above sea level, the Salkantay Pass. To avoid altitude sickness, try to arrive in Cusco at least two or three days before the trek start and try to do some physical activity. There is a lot to do near Cusco - we can recommend an uphill climb to Pisac Ruins or visiting the Rainbow Mountain.
The proper acclimatization is very important (you've probably already noticed we never skip this part when hiking in the higher altitude) because you will spend the first night 3800 meters above sea level, the next day you will cross the pass and will sleep about 3900 meters above sea level. Although no one can ever know how the altitude will affect him, it is always better to be prepared and know what to expect (you might experience a headache or breath shortage). Don't take the chance of altitude illness recklessly. During our travels, we've already seen quite a few people who were very sick, and it is nothing pleasant to deal with in the mountains where the help might be far away. Apart from your health, you can ruin your entire trip.
When it came to flora, we felt amazed what a diversity we could have seen in only four days. From inhospitable and harsh mountainous environment we descended little by little to cloud forest, rainforest and finally to the jungle. In a single sentence - you won't be disappointed by Salkantay Trek when it comes to nature and spectacular views.
HOW TO HIKE SALKANTAY TREK: WITH A TOUR OR INDEPENDENTLY
When you arrive in Cusco, you will probably feel overwhelmed by so many travel agencies selling the multi-day Salkantay Trek. But if hiking with a group is not your cup of tea, you can also do the trek independently. Here we sum up pros and cons.
Hiking with a tour | This is the easiest option for how to enjoy the Salkantay Trek. Generally, the hardest thing will be to find the right, professional and honest tour operator. Always remember you will get the service you've paid for - sometimes it is not worth to save a couple of dollars and ruin your experience.
When taking a tour, you don't need to worry about food, transportation, campsites or equipment (tent is usually in the price, you must only rent a sleeping bag with linen, mattress or walking poles if needed). Always check if the bus and entrance to Machu Picchu are included in the final price. You will also walk only with your day pack as the travel agencies have porters who carry your extra clothes for you.
What can be a downside of hiking with a company? You never know who will be your fellow hikers and what their level of fitness will be. Also, if you won't get the service you paid for, you cannot do much with it while in the mountains.
Independently | Honestly, no matter how we love hiking alone, sometimes it is better (and more comfortable) to join a group. You can for sure hike the Salkantay Trek without a guide (it is the advantage and difference from the strictly regulated Inca Trail), but if you don't have all the camping stuff, you must rent everything - tents, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment. Also, you will need to arrange your transport to the starting point and from the end of the trek, carry all your stuff, find every night a place to sleep, book a hotel in Aguas Calientes and buy your Machu Picchu tickets. There are a few campgrounds along the trail (some are private), and you shouldn't pay much for it, but there is a lack of options where to buy food and water. Think twice (especially if you are not a well-experienced hiker) as sometimes arranging all those things on own don't, after all, come cheaper.
The advantage of hiking independently is that you can plan your itinerary, and you can always walk at your own pace. Also, the security on the Salkantay Trek is not a problem we did not even meet any aggressive strayed dogs.
We hiked the Salkantay Trek with a tour operator, so here we can share our experience.
HOW TO CHOOSE A COMPANY FOR THE SALKANTAY TREK
That's a hard one. In the city center of Cusco, you'll find agencies offering the Salkantay Trek literally on every corner. We have three main criteria and usually go from there. It is always better when the company has in a portfolio more hikes than only the Salkantay Trek. More tours mean more customers, more experiences and more staff who can be well-trained. The second criteria which help us to decide are references from travelers we meet along the road. Very often we meet same-minded travelers who are seeking similar experiences and require a level of service as we do. The third source is Tripadvisor - we read tons of reviews but do not make our decisions based only on those reviews, as sometimes people complain about things which are not that significant for us.
Because the Salkantay Trek is nowadays quite popular, you should not have a problem finding relevant information, and it should be easy to choose a winning tour operator who will be able to provide the best service and meet your budget.
We chose to trek with Alpaca Expeditions, the number one tour operator in Cusco. Alpaca Expeditions is a moderately priced company (not the cheapest one on the market, but still far from the expensive companies) and ensures that customers will get a top level of service. Apart from that, we found several reasons why to choose it. In the first place visiting Machu Picchu and overall hiking the Salkantay Trek was one of our must-dos in South America and we did not want to end up disappointed. Secondly, when traveling long-term, we more and more feel that it is important to support companies who treat their employees well (and believe us it is not a standard in South America). That's why we wanted to collaborate with a company which pays well their porters, horse guides, chefs, and guides. Alpaca Expeditions goes a bit further and runs several social projects to help porters and their families to live better lives. They call their team Green Machine and porters get all the equipment, the same food as hikers, better wages than in other companies plus Alpaca Expeditions support their families (especially kids) as well. Also, the company in the recent past broke a tabu and employed first women, not only in the office but also as guides or porters.
WEATHER: WHEN TO HIKE THE SALKANTAY TREK
With a bit of preparation, you can hike the Salkantay Trek all year round (only think twice in case you plan on hiking in February). The official dry season starts in May and ends in October. During those six months, you have a high chance to see clear skies and enjoy the sunshine throughout the day. Expect lots of hikers especially in July and August when people in the USA and Europe have holidays.
Rainy season starts in November and ends in March. Hiking in this season is always hit and miss. We did our hike in mid-November, and to be honest, had milder weather than we expected (and what weather forecast predicted). It can happen that you won't see much because of low clouds, but as per our experience, the weather in the Andes changes quickly, and it is exciting to watch peaks around peek out of the clouds. It rains the most in February when there is also a higher chance of landslides, mudslides and some sections can be impassable. That’s why reputable companies, including Alpaca Expeditions don’t run the trek in February.
Martin also wanted to hike in the rainy season to get a moody picture of Machu Picchu. You can tell if he was successful.
Before the trek, we had approximately an hour-long briefing where we received our duffel bags, met our guides, our fellow hikers (it was 12 of us) and where our guides in detail explained everything about the hike and answered all our questions.
From the outside, Alpaca Expeditions' office looks inconspicuously. But once we entered the courtyard, it was like we walked into a beehive. In the building, there are several offices, many guides, tourists preparing for their hikes, all buzzing with excitement, but our check-in went smoothly from the very beginning. A gentleman took us to the office, scanned our passports, offered us a hot drink and took us to a room prepared for hikers starting the Salkantay Trek the next day. From this very moment, we were assured and felt that we are in good hands.
We booked the 5.5-day version of the Salkantay Trek. It is the unique and new itinerary, and we were happy to experience it. How is it different and what can you see along the hike? Here's our day by day itinerary.
DAY 0: CUSCO - SORAYPAMPA
There is no hiking on the first day, so we will call it Day 0 in our itinerary. It is a departure and acclimatization day. We left from Cusco at 3 PM in a private van which took us to Soraypampa campsite. The ride took about 3 hours with a short stop in Mollepata, where is the checkpoint. After our arrival, our guide accommodated us in the cabins where we were about to spend the first night. We arrived just on time to admire the sunset over Humantay mountain, and because the night was clear, we could watch stars from our beds. After light dinner, we got a short presentation about what to expect the next day and went to bed early.
DAY 1: SORAYPAMPA - HUMANTAY LAGOON- SALKANTAY PASS - WAYRACMACHAY
The first day of hiking was the toughest one. The advantage of the longer itinerary is visiting the Humantay Lagoon early in the morning. Although there are many private campgrounds in Soraypampa, no other company in Cusco has the same program as Alpaca Expeditions at the moment. It means that early in the morning we started our 1.5 long climb to the Humantay Lagoon sitting 4200 meters above sea level. Thanks to our early start, we were the only group on the lagoon's shore, and we could enjoy the beauty of this lake only in our small group. We didn't meet anyone else until we descended back to Soraypampa where we could spot first one-day hikers making their way up.
When we descended from Humantay Lagoon, we straight away started our ascend to Salkantay Pass. The pace of our group was reasonable, and we had plenty of time to stop and take photos of our surroundings. We could see mountains around us on and off as the clouds and winds changed the scenery quickly. After about three hours we had lunch in Soyroccocha, and after a short rest, we started our final ascent to the Salkantay Pass. The climb was steady but not strenuous, and after an hour we arrived in the Pass. Because it rained during lunchtime, we did not have high expectations, but when we arrived in the 4600 meters where the Pass sits, we were pleasantly surprised with the views. I think we spent about an hour there only to enjoy the glacier, mountains around us and also the victorious feeling.
And then, it was time to descend to our campsite, Wayracmachay. It took us about three hours to get there, mostly because we were all the time turning our heads back to observe the towering mountains behind us.
DAY 2: WAYRACMACHAY - COLLPAPAMPA - LA LORETA
The second hiking day was not hard because of the trek profile but because of the length. It was the longest day when it comes to the distance, 20 kilometers. In the morning, we started our descend to a lunch place Collpapampa. It was also a day when we left the mountains behind and walked into a cloud forest.
We could admire the cloud forest in its best as it was cloudy all the way down. Along the way, we could observe the changes in flora and fauna. We walked through lush green scenery and from time to time found beautiful flowers along the path.
After lunch, the sky started to clear, and we carried on for another four hours to La Loreta campground. This section led along the river, with another micro-climate which allows people to farm here coffee, avocados or passion fruits which we could taste right from the trees. This day was long, difficult for our knees because of the long downhill section but we had a huge motivation to finish this part - a hot jacuzzi in our private campground.
DAY 3: LA LORETA - LLACTAPATA
The third day was the shortest, 12 kilometers, but because of some health troubles of one of our team member, we came to the campsite as usual, around 5 PM. The first section of the hike was easy, mostly flat and led us to one of the original Inca trails (horses cannot walk those parts) and to tropical forest and coffee plantations. Here we had time to rest a bit, pick coffee beans and learn the whole cycle of the coffee. And of course, we tasted some!
In the afternoon, after coffee tasting and delicious guacamole, we had to carry on to our destination Llactapata. It was incredibly hot, and we had to make our way up (chased by mosquitos) which was not easy, but all those viewpoints along the way made it up. But the best view awaited for us at Llactapata ruins (the only ruins you can see along the Salkantay Trek). When we arrived at ruins, we could for the first time get a glance of Machu Picchu on the opposite side of the valley. Our campsite was in a perfect place only a couple meters below Llactapata ruins so we could enjoy the beautiful sunset and sunrise over Machu Picchu.
DAY 4: LLACTAPATA - AGUAS CALIENTES
The next day morning we woke up to one of the most spectacular sunrises and views of the Salkantay Trek. The clouds were rolling over the slopes of impressive mountains, the first light of the sun was illuminating the Machu Picchu ruins and we could enjoy a hot cup of coca tea. The world was simple at that moment.
The fourth day of hiking, we set off with an idea of a hot shower in a hotel in our minds. We had to walk downhill for two hours to get to Hidroelectrica Station (which we could see from our campsite the night before), an artificial 300 meters high waterfall which generates the electricity for the region of Cusco. From here we walked a short while to the Machu Picchu region checkpoint. The last, 10 kilometers long section to Aguas Calientes is almost flat because it leads along train tracks.
We don't know how it happened, but we did not meet any other hikers along the Salkantay Trek, so it felt a bit strange to see so many people, all of a sudden, going the opposite direction than us. After approximately two hours, we arrived in Aguas Calientes where our guide brought us to a hotel where we were about to spend the last night. We could enjoy a free afternoon (there is an option to go to hot springs in the town for additional S/20, but no one from our group had the energy to go there). Instead, we enjoyed a hot shower, wifi service, complimentary mint tea and had a rest in our room. In the evening, we met once again with our group to have the last dinner and went to bed early, because we had to get up before 4 AM the next day.
DAY 5: AGUAS CALIENTES - MACHU PICCHU - CUSCO
And the most awaited day has come. We got up at 3:30 AM to have enough time to be at our meeting point at 4:30 AM. The reason was simple. It was Sunday (usually the busiest day on Machu Picchu), and also we wanted to go to the Sun Gate before our Machu Picchu tour. At 4:45 AM we were already standing in a line waiting for the bus from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance gate. The first bus left at 5:30 AM, and because we were on the fourth bus, we arrived at the entrance at 6 AM, right when the gate was open.
It was pouring rain. When we entered the grounds, we couldn't see anything. What a surprise it was when after five minutes the wind scattered the clouds, and we could catch the most iconic view of Machu Picchu.
After this beautiful welcome, full of new energy, we started our climb to the Sun Gate (although in this weather we knew there wouldn't be any spectacular views). After 45 minutes we arrived at the gate. Unfortunately, we could not see much, but who wouldn't like to stand next to such an important structure of Machu Picchu?
When we got back down, the official tour with our guides started. We could admire the views of the whole archeological site, the beautiful settings (Machu Picchu means old hill), more or less preserved structures and precisely cut rocks from which all buildings in the Machu Picchu are built.
The whole walk around the strictly guarded site took us a bit more than two hours and because we wanted to spend here as much time as we could it took us another hour and a half to reach the exit. The rules in Machu Picchu are pretty strict. It means you can walk only one way and can't return to places you haven't had enough time to explore. We were still lucky, as we could spend there six hours, next year, all visitors will have only two hours to see it all.
After the visit of Machu Picchu, we took a bus to Aguas Calientes (expect to wait about a half an hour in the line), had lunch in the town and waited for our scenic train which took us to Ollantaytambo village, another significant former Inca's place. Here a driver from Alpaca Expeditions waited for us and drove us back to Cusco. What a wonderful but long day.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY
If you have at least a medium level of fitness, we believe you should not have any difficulties to finish this trek. The hardest day is the first one when you will climb 300 meters to Laguna Humantay, descend back and start ascending to the pass about 700 meters up and then 700 meters down to the campsite. Otherwise, there are no steep or slippery sections.
What we found the most difficult about the Salkantay Trek were the constant changes of elevations and temperatures. From about 4600 meters you will descend to 2000 meters above sea level and from a cold, harsh, windy and possibly rainy weather you will appear in the hot and humid areas of the Peruvian jungle. Those changes were quite challenging for our organisms. Some of our fellow hikers were using pills against high altitude, so in case you are not sure how your body will react, you can try those.
FOOD AND DRINKS
We can guarantee you one thing. You won't be hungry when hiking with Alpaca Expeditions. In all probability, you might even eat better than during your travels. The most impressive is how the chef and sous chefs were able to prepare delicious food in 4000 meters after they carried everything on their back while using a simple gas burner.
For breakfast, we usually had a variation of eggs, bread, jam, pancakes, fruits or porridge.
Lunch and dinner consisted of meat (chicken, fish or beef), potatoes, rice, yuka, vegetables, corn, cheese, soups, pasta, and we can't forget the delicious guacamole (and also the super tasty cake because a member of our group celebrated a birthday).
We also received every day a snack - a piece of fruit and something sweet to replenish our energy along the hike.
Because water along the Salkantay Trek is not drinkable, we always received boiled and cooled down water for the entire day, plus tea, hot chocolate or coffee during all meals. And of course, we cannot forget to mention the hot coca tea we got from our porters every morning to wake up our senses (and also to fight with the altitude).
ACCOMMODATION & CAMPSITES
We were pleasantly surprised by our campsites. First of all, we had them all only for ourselves (it was the beginning of the low season, so this might not be a standard), but also cooking shelters, eating tents or buildings and toilet facilities looked pretty nice.
We spent the first night in Soraypampa campsite. It is a private campsite where Alpaca Expeditions built brand new cabins and facilities. All cabins are facing Humantay Mountain, and we could watch countless stars above us when in bed.
We slept the next three nights in tents. The first campsite was in Wayracpunko, where all our tents were under roofs, so we were protected from the rain and wind at the high altitude. Also, for the first and second night, we got extra blankets to ensure we are not cold (and we weren't thanks to this extra care).
The next campsite La Loreta was exceptional as it is Alpaca Expeditions' private campsite with two jacuzzies and swimming pool. We can't even express how great was to relax in the jacuzzi after two long days of walking. In this campsite, we could also enjoy a hot shower. How refreshing and desirable that evening was!
We spent the last night in the Llactapata campsite, and although the camp is not private, it is owned by a local family, and only Alpaca Expeditions has permission to use it. From this place, we could overlook Machu Picchu and snow-capped mountains. We were blessed with perfect weather both evening and morning and couldn't even imagine sleeping in a more beautiful place. This campsite's settings and spectacular views from there were unquestionably one of our highlights of traveling in South America. Also, the feeling that after three days walking, we are so close to Machu Picchu was amazing.
On the last, fifth night we had a hotel room booked in Aguas Calientes. When making the Salkantay Trek reservation with Alpaca Expeditions a three-star hotel is included, but you can pay for an upgrade in case you are looking for something more luxurious. We enjoyed our free afternoon and especially hot shower. The night before visiting Machu Picchu was short but very comfortable one. Real treat after three nights in tents.
Honestly, the biggest downside of traveling in Peru (and overall in South America) so far were guides and their level of English. Fortunately, it wasn't the case with Alpaca Expeditions as all their guides must have certification and must pass a test. Because it was 12 of us in the group, we had two guides who were funny, knowledgeable and well-trained. Everything went smoothly thanks to their skills, and we were glad to be in their team. What we usually appreciate the most when traveling is the authenticity. Our guides grew up in the area and knew a lot about the everyday life of local people they could explain all superstitions and myths which are closely tied up with nature - mountains, and rivers.
WHAT TO PACK
Because of changes of the altitude and climates, you will need a bit of everything. Take a warm jacket, long-sleeved t-shirt and trousers to have something warm to wear in the camp. Otherwise, pack lots of layers. T-shirts, shorts, leggings, broken hiking boots, flip-flops, swimsuit, underwear, socks, headlamp, toiletries, rain poncho, rain jacket, a bottle of water and day pack (30 liters should be enough).
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO BEFORE THE SALKANTAY TREK
Cusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Budget: Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range: Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury: JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
To check other accommodation in Cusco, click here.