Machu Picchu is one of those travel destinations that seems to be on everyone’s bucketlist. Its soaring peaks and ancient streets steeped in rich history draw thousands of visitors each day, making it one of the most visited sites in the world. While there are many ways to reach Machu Picchu, trekking is by far the best route. Walking up to this incredible place allows one to savour the mystical site’s rugged natural beauty and intriguing surrounding and makes finally reaching the ruins an even greater reward.
There are many trekking options to get to to Machu Picchu, each with their own set of pros and cons. When we were in Peru we chose to do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu and will share more about this incredible 5 day, 4 night trek!
Trekking Options to get to Machu Picchu
One of the nice things about Machu Picchu is that there are several options to get there and each traveller can chose a trip that fits their personal travel style and budget.
Trekking options to get to Machu Picchu include:
- The Inca Trail
Of course, the most infamous trek to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail. Generally done in 4 days this trail follows the route that the VIPs of the Incan civilization used to get to Machu Picchu. Due to its popularity and concerns about overuse and trail erosion the Government of Peru has placed a limit on the number of people who can hike the trail. Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca trail each day, only 200 of which are trekkers, the rest are guides and porters. As a result, this fabled route to Machu Picchu typically needs to be reserved up to six months in advance and will cost in the range of $500-$3000. Given we were on a trip around the world and didn’t know exactly when we would be in Peru this was not an option for us (or our budget!) If you’re considering the Inca Trail you should also know that it is closed February of each year for cleaning.
- The Lares Trek
This alternative to the Inca Trail is considered to be the most cultural route to Machu Picchu. It is generally done in 3-4 days and the highlight is spending time in various small villages in the Sacred Valley. It is less crowded than other routes to Machu Picchu, unfortunately, to the point where we couldn’t find a tour agency in Cusco that had a group departing or would organize the trek for us on short notice.
- The Vilcabamba Trek
Another option we had researched before arriving in Cusco was the Vilcabamba Trek to Machu Picchu. Remote and challenging, this trek has its fair share of history as it passes the location where the Incan people made their last stand after fleeing Machu Picchu, and where they were ultimately defeated by the Spanish colonizers. Due to the fact that it is remote and challenging it’s also quiet and offers more privacy than other treks in the area. Unfortunately, as with the Lares route, we could not find a tour operator that was organizing groups for this trek on short notice. Online estimates put the trek at a staggering $1200usd per person, ouch!
- The Inca Jungle Trail
Not so much a trek as an organized tour leading to Machu Picchu, we had heard good things about this route to Machu Picchu from various travellers we met along our trip in Ecuador and northern Peru. The Inca Jungle Trail is easily booked from Cusco for around $125-200USD and offers varying combinations of mountain biking, zip lining, riding a tour bus, rafting, and hiking to Machu Picchu. It sounded fun but wasn’t quite the trek we were looking for.
- The Salkantay Trek
Given the title of the post, obviously this is the trek that we booked to get to Machu Picchu and will be the focus of the rest of this post. The trek is named after Salkantay Mountain which stands at 6,271m, higher than any peak in North America. The Salkantay Trek offers challenging hiking to a mountain pass with scenic vistas, although it doesn’t actually summit Salkantay. You’ll visit glacier fed Humantay lake, get up close to Salkantay, then descend into the jungle forest. You’ll also get some of the “touristy” extras with the option to visit hot springs and zipline in Santa Teresa. It’s easy to book on short notice in Cusco, and extremely good value for the price you pay. It’s an insanely popular hike, so don’t expect any mountain solitude like you can find trekking in Huaraz for example. In many ways the Salkantay trek is both the best and worst of hiking all at once. The views are positively breathtaking, but the trails are often crowded, covered in litter, and it can feel as though over tourism has ruined what was once a peaceful, alternative path to Macchu Picchu. When your porter delivers you hot coca tea to your tent first thing in the morning, it feels positively luxurious, but then you’re herded into what is basically a stable to camp on the first night, which feels decidedly less glamorous. The hot springs on the afternoon of the 3rd day are most welcome after 3 days of hiking, but the borderline-forced zip-lining on morning of the 4th day seems to interrupt the flow of the trek. In short, it’s a very unique hiking experience that is less about getting to far away remote places, although there is some of that with Humantay and the trek up to Salkantay Pass, and more about making your pilgrimage to the iconic place that has inspired so many before you. Only it’s a pilgrimage with hot springs, dance parties, zip-lining, and in our case, catching the World Cup final on a 64′ tv in Hidroelectrica!
How to Book the Salkantay Trek
The Salkantay Trek can be booked in advance online if you have limited time in Peru – just look up travel agencies in Cusco and email a few asking for a quote. That said, you can expect to pay more for the convenience of booking from out of country. Since we were flexible on time we simply walked around Cusco when we arrived, talking to various travel agencies near the Plaza de Armas and eventually booked with one that had good reviews on Trip Advisor, that we thought sounded organized and offered a decent price.
How much does the Salkantay Trek cost?
The price of the Salkantay Trek really depends on the style in which you wish to do the trek. It can cost as little as $170 per person, up to $3,000 per person. What changes for the price range? Think tents vs luxury lodges with included jacuzzi tubs, wifi, and massages. The jacuzzi tubs and massages sounded pretty nice, but they’re not really your typical trekking experience so it probably goes without saying that we went with tents and sleeping bags! (as nice as a massage would have been after each day..). We booked the trek, including tickets to Machu Picchu for $180USD per person plus $10 each to rent a down sleeping bag for the duration. Bear in mind that this price does not include the bus to the hot springs, the entrance to the hot springs, and the not-really-all-that-optional zip-lining. You can expect to pay another $15-50usd for those. You will also be asked to provide tips for the cooks and muletiers which for us was about 50pen (approix $16usd).
When to hike Salkantay
The Salkantay trek can surprisingly be done year round. That said, you may want to plan your trip based on your tolerance of poor weather or crowds.
Dry season in Peru is from May to November and this is typically the most popular time to do the trek despite the cold nights (especially during the first night of the trek) June – August are especially popular, which of course means larger crowds on the trail and a stupid 4000-5000 people per day at Macchu Picchu itself.
The trek is still doable during the wet season (December – April), although showers can be expected multiple times a week. If you’re ok with hiking a muddy trail you’ll be rewarded for your troubles with greener hillsides, wildflowers, and smaller crowds. It is worth noting that Macchu Picchu can be completely obscured by clouds and fog and the chances of that happening are higher during the rainy season.
We completed the trek in early July. and as promised it was dry, cold, and crowded (but well worth it!). While 4000-5000 people visit Macchu Picchu per day during the high season of June-July, we didn’t feel overcrowded. The ruins are massive so the crowds disperse once inside and we didn’t feel like we were elbow to elbow with people the entire time. Another thing that may have helped with this is that we got there right as it opened at 6:00am and I suspect it gets busier later in the day.
Salkantay Trek Itinerary
The Salkantay Trek can be done in 4 days (3 nights) or 5 days (4 nights). Costs will be slightly cheaper for the 4 day version but not significantly so.
The main difference between the two itineraries is seen near the end of the trek at Santa Teresa. The 4 day version skips the hot springs at Santa Teresa, opting to continue hiking to Aguas Calientes allowing an earlier visit to Machu Picchu the next day. Hot springs after 3 days on the trail sounded like an excellent way to relax and unwind sore muscles so we opted for the 5 day version of the trek.
Day 1, Cusco to Soraypampa
Our trip started early with an early 4:40AM pickup. Most tour operators will pick you up at your hotel on the way out of town but because our hotel was not located in the central strip of the Plaza de Armas we were asked to meet at the Plaza at 4:40 where our bus would pick us up to begin the trek. After dropping off our bags at we waited at the Plaza and a Peruvian man came up to us, checking our name off a list and advising us to wait there for 10-15 minutes while he wrangled up other travellers that had slept in. After he returned, he asked “do you have your passports?” Crap! We did not and they’re required to enter Machu Picchu, so Mr Zen ran back to the hotel to get the passports from the bag (close call!). We then walked over to another square and got on a bus, waiting another 10-15 minutes for more travellers to join us. From Cusco it’s a 2 hour, 20 minute bus ride to Mollepata so after our early morning rush we popped in our headphones and tried to catch a couple more hours of sleep.
At Mollepata the bus stopped and dropped us off at a restaurant for breakfast which the tour operator had been clear was not included in the price of the tour. More buses came, dropping off somewhere in the range of 150 gringos that were set to begin the Salkantay trek so not surprisingly, our 15 Sole breakfast was a bit disappointing.
After breakfast the guides set to weighing bags that would be carried up the trail by donkey and horse porters. The limit per person was 4kg which is a bit low considering our sleeping bags seemed like they weighed about 3kg each. We weren’t overly surprised when our bag came in at 10kg. The porters charged 5 soles per kilogram overweight so rather than trying to desperately repack we paid our 10 soles (3USD) and were done with it. There were more than a few grumpy faces during this part.
After weighing everybody’s bags we were divided into our trekking groups of 10-12 and introduced to our guides for the next 5 days. Our group was quite diverse with folks from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden. We gathered around our guide Veronica as she named our team (Sexy Donkeys) and briefed us on the rest of the day. We then all got back on the bus and set out to drive another hour to the trek’s starting point.
From our drop off point it was an easy 2-3 hour hike with about 500m elevation gain to our base camp for the night at Soraypampa. As we hiked the gentle trail we were both a bit surprised to find vendors selling snacks and drinks (even beer) and bathrooms. I guess we should have expected such a popular trail to be a bit more developed but it still came as a surprise, especially compared to the remoteness of the trekking we had done in the Cordillera Blanca only a few weeks earlier.
As we approached camp the development continued and our guide pointed out various luxury camps that would have cost up to 3,000USD. We continued on to our “basic” camp where our porters had already set up our tents and set out to cooking our lunch. For only $200 per person we still felt pretty pampered to not have to deal with those tasks.
At camp we had a delicious lunch and put our gear in our tent before hiking up the ridge to Humantay Lake. The hike to the lake takes about an hour but is steep with an elevation gain of about 400m. We hiked around the lake for about an hour, revelling in the views of the glacier fed lake before heading back to base camp for dinner.
Due to its elevation the Soraypampa camp was very cold, the coldest on the whole trek. Make sure you pack lots of layers for this night. If needed you can also rent blankets for 10 soles a night.
Day 2, Soraypampa to Chaullay (and Salkantay Pass!)
Day 2 is the longest and most challenging day on the Salkantay trek so we were up at 5AM to get ready. After packing up and eating the breakfast (pancakes!) that had been prepared for us we hit the trail shortly after 6AM. The hike leads you through the valley and up to a pass dwarfed by Salkantay. It took our group about 4 hours to the highest point of 4600m (an elevation gain of about 800m from camp). We enjoyed a stunning view of Salkantay, snapped a whole bunch of photos, and huddled to stay warm. Our guide, Veronica gathered us off the side (a little sheltered by the wind) and performed a short ceremony with an offering to Pachamama (mother Earth). Afterwards we took one more group shot with Salkantay in the background and rushed off the mountain to warm up.
We descended into the valley for approximately another hour before breaking for lunch. After lunch we descended a somewhat dusty trail to our camp at Chaullay. At camp we bought a beer to celebrate our accomplishment as this is without a doubt the most challenging day of the Salkantay trek. The day totals in at 22km of hiking with almost 2km of elevation change (800m up, 1.2 down). With a final elevation of 4,600m this is nothing to underestimate. If you’re worried about the challenge don’t fret, you can still complete the trek as you can rent a horse to take you to the pass at the Soraypampa camp for 100 soles. (2018) You will still have to hike down to camp at Chaullay but this certainly eases a lot of the challenge of the day.
Chaullay is a small village and the camping was much less rustic than our previous encampment at Soraypampa. You could purchase Wifi for 10 soles (we didn’t) or even a massage (we didn’t ask). The campsite also had a cute dog named Baileys who immediately made himself comfortable on Thea’s lap! Compared to Soraypampa, Chaullay was quite warm at night due to its lower elevation and we all slept well…although that may have had something to do with the day’s exertion.
Day 3: Chaullay to Santa Teresa
Day three on the Salkantay trek started a bit later, we were up at 6AM and on the trail shortly after 7. The goal for the day was to hike 16km in the morning, mostly downhill to our lunch location, “Playa”. Veronica was full of jokes about the ladies getting their bikinis ready for the beach (playa means beach in Spanish) As we set out we crossed the river and got some excellent views up the valley and towards Salkantay pass where we had hiked the previous day. The pace was generally much slower and Veronica took the time to show us various local plants and explain the medicinal use within the community.
As on the previous days, there were a few stands on the way selling snacks, drinks, and more. We usually skipped them, but one that stood out was the “Tambo” stand with delicious grenadillas (like a sweeter passionfruit) – 2 for 1 sole, or a whole (massive) avocado for 3 soles. Buying snacks at the various stands is not only a great way to get some fresh food along the trail but it is a good way to support the locals – everything you spend goes directly to them.
We continued on, following the river for several hours, eventually coming to Playa where we enjoyed another excellent lunch prepared by our cooks. At lunch we said goodbye to our two Mexican friends who had opted for the 4 day version of the trek. They would be leaving on a separate bus to Hidroelectrica, where they would hike for a few more hours to Aguas Calientes, and visit Machu Picchu the next day. After exchanging contact information and saying our goodbyes we relaxed for about half an hour, before jumping on our own bus to Santa Teresa (about one hour away).
At Santa Teresa we dropped off our bags and changed into swimsuits, before once again getting on the bus, off to the hot springs! We soaked for several hours, easing sore muscles and enjoying the warm water and cold beer.
Back at Santa Teresa there was a briefing during dinner on the options for the next day. A separate zip line company came in to show a video of the zipline option which cost $30 USD each. Included in that would be a transfer to Hidroelectrica where we would all meet up for lunch. Not being too excited by a morning of ziplining we formed a plan with some other members of our group to split a taxi to Hidroelectrica for 10 soles each. You also had the option to hike 11km to Hidroelectrica, but our guides made it pretty clear that the hike would be along a dusty road with not a whole lot to see. We love hiking but we’ve been pretty spoiled to hike in beautiful locations with great views and 11km along a dusty road didn’t seem too exciting.
With the presentation over we thanked and said goodbye to our cooks and porters as they would not be coming with us for the rest of the trip. Our guides brought out some Incan Tequila, and with that, the night turned into a bit of a party. Indeed, by the end of the night the owners were handing out trays of Inca Tequila which made for a rough morning on Day 4.
Day 4: Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
Feeling a bit worse for wear the next day our group piled into a taxi and on the way we drove by the ziplines, frankly they didn’t look quite as exciting as they did in the video presentation so we didn’t regret our choice too much. The timing had worked out well and the final game of the FIFA World Cup was on so we waited at Hidroelectrica for several hours watching the game until the zipliners finished and then had a disappointing lunch together, already missing our cooks.
After a morning of relaxing we finally hit the road to Aguas Calientes in the early afternoon. The hike to Aguas Calientes is easy and flat and takes about 3 hours along the railroad.
As mentioned earlier, this part of the Salkantay itinerary felt a little clunky. It worked well for us that the World Cup Final was taking place the same day but had that not been the case, several hours of waiting at a restaurant for the rest of the group isn’t the most exciting day. A nicer itinerary for those not interested in zip lining would probably be to hike to Aguas Calientes in the morning and meet the rest of the group for dinner. This would allow a bit more time to explore the town and potentially check out the hot springs.
Our group had what would be our last dinner together in Aguas Calientes. Afterwards we all hit the town to buy snacks – lunch would be provided the next day but we were forewarned that it was fairly sparse. A tip – look for the local market as prices there are much cheaper than some of the more touristy shops. For example, a lady was charging 2pen per grenadilla in her tourist shop when they were the more normal 2 for 1pen price in the local food market.
Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu!
Alright, this is the day! 5 days of trekking culiminating at Machu Picchu! We were out the door a little bit after 4AM to do the short hike from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu gate. Veronica had advised us to be out the door no later than 4, but knowing that the gate doesn’t open until 5 we caught a few more minutes of sleep before heading out with no consequence.
At 5AM they opened the gate and after a quick glance at our tickets and Passports we were on our way. It was still dark so a headlamp or cell phone is a good idea, although there were lots of others climbing the stairs so you could have survived without. There are over 2,000 steps from the lower gate of Machu Picchu to the upper gate and hiking the steps took about an hour. It was pretty steep and tough going, we were drenched in sweat after only a few minutes, so it’s a good idea to bring a second shirt to wear once you get to Macchu Picchu since it’s very cold there before the sun comes up.
If hiking 2,000 stairs at 5AM doesn’t sound like your idea of fun it’s also possible to take a bus to the base of Machu Picchu. Round trip departures from Aguas Calientes cost $20.
After the strenuous hike up the Machu Picchu stairs our group met at the base of the site at 6AM before heading into Machu Picchu itself. There was blissfully a woman selling hot coffee for 4pen at the top of the stairs. We have never been so grateful to see Nescafe which we usually despise.
Because Machu Picchu is so insanely popular we were curious if it would live up to expectations and it definitely did. The site is huge and we spent about 4 hours in the historic city, exploring the Sun Gate, Incan Bridge and ruins of the city.
A Couple Tips on Machu Picchu
- Make sure you do use the bathroom before entering the upper gate. There are no bathrooms in the city and re-entry is not allowed. They cost 2 soles at the gate and the lineup is massive but you don’t have much choice – consider yourself warned.
- There are a number of items that aren’t allowed in Machu Picchu that are losely enforced. Hiking poles are not allowed unless you have a disability, backpacks above 15L aren’t allowed, etc. Lots of people get in with them but there is always a chance they will ask you to check your bag at the gate. That happened to me – despite others in the group having bags that were larger so it seemed pretty random. It cost 2 Soles to check a bag, you could likely fein not understanding and keep walking without anybody stopping you.
- Make sure you pack your Passport and your entrance ticket. It sure would suck to hike for 5 days to get there and not be able to get in! That said, one of our group members had lost her Passport on the trip and after explaining the situation she was able to get in without issue.
- There is nowhere to buy food inside the gate, so bring some snacks and water in. You will be hungry after all those stairs!
- Be sure to depart early for the stairs. We saw some folks coming up in the heat of the day and it looked very painful, even more painful than a 4AM wakeup.
- Each ticket allows 4 hours in the site. Machu Picchu closes at 5PM.
- Allegedly you are only allowed to go one way so it is recommended to start at the Sun gate. But again, this is loosely enforced.
- The park gets up to 5,000 visitors per day during high season – expect crowds and be nice to others. Try to take turns taking selfies, be patient, etc.
After we felt like we had fully explored Machu Picchu (coincidentally, when our stomachs started rumbling…our snacks were in the checked bag!) we headed out, down the stairs, and then hiked 2 hours back to Hidroelectrica along the train tracks. There are plenty of snack stalls and even restaurants along the way. We had a delicious cup of real coffee along the way back before stopping for an almeurzo for 10pen in Hidroelectrica. Please pack all your garbage out. Many turists don’t which leads to conflict with the people who live along the tracks.
Back at Hidroelectrica we had a bit of drama with the buses departing back to Cusco. As there were many buses for different agencies our group was not all on the same bus. Most of the buses gather on the road outside of Hidroelectrica and the driver will stand outside shouting names off of his list but it turned out the bus our agency had booked was another 5 minutes up the road which we only found out after searching fruitlessly for our bus. This caused a bit of stress as we didn’t find our bus that was supposed to depart at 2:30 until a bit after 3. We didn’t need to be worried though, we waited another 20 minutes for others to arrive after finally finding our bus.
One can also take the train back from Aguas Calientes which is faster and saves a bit of a hike back to Hidroelectrica. This adds to the trek’s cost, but not significantly. Most prices seemed to range between $180-$250 depending on the mode of transportation and time of your train ride. Earlier train rides cost a bit more as you’ll be able to see the Peruvian countryside.
We weren’t too worried about the train so we opted for the bus ride back to Cusco which took a bit over 6 hours. We arrived back late and tired and spent the next couple of days resting.
What to pack for the Salktany Trek
- Passport – you’ll need this to enter Machu Picchu
- Machu Picchu Ticket (Unless your guide is providing it to you in Aguas Calientes)
- Bug Spray – bugs can be bad, especially in the jungle portion of the trek
- Sunscreen, Sunglasses, and a Hat
- Warm Clothes
- Water – You can buy bottled water along the way but we swear by Katadyn Filter bottles. They’re more convenient (you can refill them anywhere), they’re a responsible choice as they reduce the amount of plastic on the planet, and they will save you money.
- Snacks – Pick up some extra snacks for in between meals. Nuts, granola bars, etc. You can also buy more snacks along the way.
- Battery Pack for your Phone(s)
- Cash – as we’ve mentioned a few times there are a lot of things you can buy or rent along the way so pack some extra money.
- And of course, a camera (This is the camera gear we use)
Salkantay Trek Map
Safety on Salkantay
- The Salkantay Trek does have significant elevation. Take a bit of time in Cusco before the trek to allow yourself to acclimate if you are coming from sea level. Be sure you get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of fluids. Take it slow, especially on day two as it is the highest elevation. If you are feeling the effects of elevation the best advice is to “go down”. Guides and locals will tell you to chew on coca leaves but science hasn’t really found any evidence that they work for altitude. One study however, showed that they might help metabolize your food more efficiently so they could help give you a but more much-needed energy. All that said, while 4600m is high, people do climbs and treks that are at much higher elevations. The most important thing to do is spend a few days acclimatiing in Cusco and hike slowly.
- Water should be boiled, filtered, or drank from a bottle on the trail. You can buy it along the trail but we recommend purchasing a filter bottle to be more environmentally conscious.
- Stay warm! The first few days of this trek can be very cold, especially at night. Pack lots of warm clothes to keep warm.
- Be careful with donkeys during the first half of the trek. Not only do they kick up a lot of dust (a buff helps with this) but they don’t care about where you are and could potentially push you off the trail. Stop and let the donkeys pass and stay to the mountain-side of the trail.
- The bugs can be bad towards the latter half of the trek. Pack and use bug spray.
- Last but not least, this is a challenging hike and quite often folks go on it without much hiking experience. You should be in good physical shape and go at your own pace. Don’t worry if you’re lagging behind the group – take your time. There’s no rush and often if you’re the first to arrive, you just have to wait for the others the longest. This is a fun chance to trek with fellow travellers and make some new friends. Enjoy the journey as much as the destination!
Respecting nature on the Salkantay Trek
While you will see garbage along the trail like pop bottles, toilet paper (yep, sometimes used), etc it’s not okay to leave it on the trail. This is a busy trail but that doesn’t make it okay to litter. If you bring it with you, pack it out. There are plenty of garbages along the trail so please take your trash to the closest stand selling goods or town. Looking for extra points? Pick up some of the plastic bottles you see along the trail and take those to the nearest garbage as well!
In closing, this trek is a fun and interesting way to get to Machu Picchu, making it a good alternative to the Inca Trail. Don’t expect a remote wilderness hike, but do expect great views and a challenging trek. Itineraries will likely differ slightly depending on your tour agency but it’s nice that this trek can really be done on any budget and for any style of travel.
Hopefully this inspired you to consider the Salkantay Trek or answered any questions you may have had. Do you have any other questions? Let us know in the comments!