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The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

Are you traveling in Peru? Then it’s obvious: you’re visiting Machu Picchu! This preserved Inca city not only has an incredible location, but also a fascinating and mysterious history, and is one of the Wonders of the World! These ruins are not to be missed. The sunrise at Machu Picchu definitely gave us the chills. And you know how to make your visit even more extraordinary? Make it the highlight of a five-day trek! We’d be happy to share our experience on this trip, the Salkantay Trek.

Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek?

The most famous route to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail, which partially follows the original ‘camino’ of the Incas. It sounds impressive and it probably is. However, there are several reasons why we chose the alternative, the Salkantay Trek.

We have to be honest… The main reason why the Inca Trail wasn’t an option for us is that we couldn’t book it anymore. Only five hundred lucky people are allowed on the trail each day. In other words, you have to book well in advance, especially during the peak season. We were unfortunately too late…

But we didn’t complain! The Salkantay Trek has several advantages. First, this trekking option is much more budget-friendly compared to the Inca Trail, which is almost twice as expensive. Secondly, the trails of the Salkantay Trek are said to be less crowded. The route is also much more diverse than the Inca Trail. Not only do you hike through the jungle, but also over mountains and vast “pampas”. The Salkantay Trek was rightfully named one of the 25 best treks in the world by National Geographic. After all, we don’t shy away from a physical challenge, and we actually enjoyed tackling the full 73 kilometers with 4500 meters of elevation gain. No pain, no gain!

On your own or organized?

There are numerous organizations that offer all-inclusive Salkantay Trek packages. However, it is also possible to do it independently. We are still undecided as to what is the best choice. We appreciate nature the most when we can enjoy it in peace and at our own pace, without blindly following the tour guide’s schedule. However, it’s nice to know that all accommodations are arranged, meals are provided three times a day, and especially that your equipment is transported.

We ended up choosing the organization Machu Picchu Reservations in Cusco, which we are very happy with. They offer excellent service at a reasonable price. We paid 300 euros for five days, including all accommodations, three meals a day, the entrance fee to Machu Picchu, and the train ride back. They also offer three or four day treks, but for those options we’d refer you to the organization’s website.

The evening before we left, we were invited to the Machu Picchu Reservations office in downtown Cusco for a briefing. We went through the entire itinerary together, received some practical tips, a clear packing list, and a duffel bag to carry up to seven kilograms of belongings.

Day 1: Humantay Lake

Rise and shine early! The adventure began at 5:45 a.m. at the office. From there, we boarded a van for the two-hour drive to Mollepata, where breakfast was served. After that we had to drive another hour to Soraypampa. Here we loaded our duffel bags onto horses and began the trek.

In two hours we hiked to the highlight of the day: Humantay Lake. This intensely blue mountain lake sits at an altitude of 4200 meters above sea level and is a sight to behold. Fortunately, the crowd of day trippers left shortly after we arrived, giving us a peaceful half hour to recover from the climb.

Later we had to descend quite steeply to Quiswarniyoc – seriously, who comes up with these names?! – where we would spend the night. After a delicious and hearty lunch, the sleeping quarters were assigned. First we settled into a hut with a thatched roof and glass walls, which allowed us to enjoy a beautiful view from our mattresses. Later we discovered the glass igloos, or sky domes, and luckily one was still available. So we moved in!

Our guide invited us to join him for dinner, during which he gave us his personal presentation about the mountains and the surrounding area. At the center of his story was Pachamama, also known as Mother Nature, to whom the Incas and many Peruvians still attribute divine powers. It all sounded a bit abstract to us, but he spoke with great enthusiasm.

That evening we fell asleep with a view of the Milky Way. Sleeping in our sky dome was truly a unique experience, especially since we were surrounded by mountains and could admire the starry sky in all its glory.

Day 1: Humantay Lake

Distance 6.5km
Duration 2 à 3 uur
Altitude gained 570m 380m

Day 2: Salkantay Pass

Once again we had to get up before dawn, but this time we were awakened with coca tea in bed. The coca leaves would give us the strength to face the longest and toughest day of the trek. On the agenda: a climb over the magnificent Salkantay Pass and a long, long descent to the next campsite at Chaullay.

It was still quite chilly when we started the climb. The locals refer to this first section as “the gringo killer“. A bit condescending, but perhaps justified, as we were huffing and puffing like most of the other hikers in our group! We had climbed to 4630 meters, and at that altitude there’s a lot less oxygen in the air than our ‘countryside lungs’ are used to.

After a long and well-deserved break at the top of the Salkantay Pass, it was time to head back down. About halfway down we stopped for lunch at a small house in Wairaqmachai. As we continued, we gradually left the mountains and entered the jungle! It got warmer and warmer with every hundred meters we descended. And so we finally arrived at the campsite in Chaullay in shorts and t-shirts. Once again, we were allowed to choose a charming cabin with partially glass walls. Since we were the first to arrive, we were able to choose our favorite spot with a view of a waterfall! The campground itself was very simple. There was only one functional toilet, we brushed our teeth at the sink where the kitchen staff washed the dishes, and you could only take a lukewarm shower for a fee.

Day 2: Salkantay Pass

Distance 21km
Duration 5 à 6 uur
Altitude gained 620m 1750m

Day 3: Santa Teresa valley

Relax! Today was going to be a shorter hike that would end at the hot springs. However, we still had to get up when it was pitch dark outside. This was one of those moments when we cursed the fact that we were traveling with an organization. Fortunately, the coca tea that was delivered to our door made up for it.

We walked for half a day through the Santa Teresa Valley, passing numerous coffee, passion fruit, avocado, and chocolate plantations. We stopped at various places to buy locally made chocolate or to roast and taste coffee beans. At Playa Sahuayaco we boarded a bus that took us to Lucmabamba. Here the tents were already set up for the next night. It was wonderfully warm here, allowing us to lounge in the sun with a beer in hand, and even the ice-cold shower was refreshing.

In the middle of the afternoon we took a taxi to the Colcalmayo hot springs. This excursion was optional, so we had to pay the driver and the entrance fee separately. We were happy to do so, as it was nice to relax in the warm water after a few challenging days! Afterwards, we shared several pisco sours with the group. The atmosphere was lively and even our guide indulged. We took advantage of his tipsy state to convince him to wake us up at a more reasonable hour of 6 o’clock the next day!

Beware! By now we were in the middle of the jungle and it was swarming with insects. A highly effective mosquito repellent is essential. Especially near the water, these buzzing pests made life quite difficult for some members of the group. The next day they woke up with hundreds of mosquito bites.

Day 3: Santa Teresa valley

Distance 10km
Duration 2 à 3 uur
Altitude gained 240m 710m

Day 4: Llactapampa and Hidroelectrica

The final leg of the trek had begun. And it was going to be another challenging day! In the first two hours we had to climb another 800 meters to reach Llactapampa. It was hard, but we were rewarded with an incredible panorama. What did we see in the distance?! Oh yes, we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu! This made our visit to the Inca ruins even more special. It was amazing to see the astounding location where the city was built. You don’t quite grasp this when you’re actually in Machu Picchu itself.

From Llactapampa we only had to go down, but it was still a long way to go. First we walked to Hidroelectrica for lunch. We enjoyed our meal at a local restaurant next to the railroad. The rest of the day we followed the railroad all the way to Aguas Calientes. Occasionally a train from the Inca Rail passed by.

After 23 kilometers we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, also known as “Machu Picchu Town” because it was built solely to accommodate visitors to Machu Picchu. The town lacks charisma and consists mostly of restaurants and a huge souvenir market.

We stayed in a very simple hotel and got a double room. We were quite lucky, as others in our group were put in dorms. After some back and forth to the front desk, we managed to get the hot water running and finally enjoyed a hot shower for the first time in four days. Wow, that felt good! We turned in early because the next day was D-Day!

Day 4: Llactapampa and Hidroelectrica

Distance 23km
Duration 5 à 6 uur
Altitude gained 1175m 1160m

Day 5: Machu Picchu

At four o’clock we had breakfast, because we had tickets to enter Machu Picchu at its opening time at 6 o’clock. To get there, we had to climb two thousand steps in the dark! Some members of the group decided to leave a little later and take the bus to the entrance, but we considered that cheating. We wanted to get there on our own!

And wow, it gave us an incredible feeling! Since we were among the first tourists to enter, the “streets” were still very quiet. From the iconic postcard spot, we looked at an almost empty city. We waited for the sun to rise and illuminate the ruins. It was truly a goosebump moment that we will never forget!

After visiting Machu Picchu, we headed down the stairs, had lunch in Aguas Calientes, and then took the train and bus back to Cusco. The train is more expensive than the bus, but we highly recommend it. If you take the bus, you have to get to Cusco before noon and you’ll be in a hurry at Machu Picchu. In addition, the train ride itself is an experience thanks to the large windows (including in the ceiling) that offer amazing views!

Day 5: Machu Picchu

Distance 12.5km
Duration 3 à 4 uur
Altitude gained 720m
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