The Salkantay Trek is one of several treks to get to Machu Picchu.
Among these options are; the classic Inca Trail, the Lares Trek, the Inca Jungle Trek and the Salkantay Trek. I opted for the 5 day Salkantay Trek. I may be biased, but I think this was the most difficult, and beautiful of the treks. And I’m not the only one that thinks it’s great. The Salkantay Trek has been listed by National Geographic as being in the top 25 best treks in the world, y’all.
Preparation for the Salkantay Trek and the night before:
1. Bring a smaller backpack
Put everything you’ll need for the trek into this pack. This pack will be placed on the horses and brought to camp every night. Each trekking company has a weight limit on this bag, so be sure to check before packing.
2. Have a day pack
Just a small backpack that you will carry in addition to the small pack your horses are bringing every night. In this bag will be things like; sunscreen, mosquito spray, your rain jacket, etc..
Want a packing list for this? Great, I made you one! You’ll find this packing list at the bottom of this post!
3. Other bags
If you brought a large backpack to Peru, this will be taken back to the trekking company’s office the morning you begin the trek. Don’t forget anything from this pack that you’ll need for the next five days. You will not be able to get it.
Get all the rest you can. That 3:30 AM wake-up call comes up fast and getting plenty of rest the night before can only help.
5. Water & snacks
Go to the grocery store the day before and pick up some coca leaves, snacks, and altitude sickness medication. The trekking companies take very good care of you, and most likely you won’t need any snacks, but you never know, so bring some anyway! Get some bottled water so you can fill up your own water bottle for the morning. Grab some altitude sickness pills, you won’t have an opportunity to do so once the trek begins. These actually helped me a ton with the terrible headaches — I’m sure Ibuprofen or something similar would do the job as well.
There is the option to do several activities along the way, but you’ll need some cash to do so. 1-2 days before you leave, start getting cash out of the ATM. Many of the ATM’s in Cusco only allow you to withdrawal small amount of cash each day. Link to Cusco post here. I did not do this and was unable to get cash out the night before as I had already withdrawn earlier that day. Luckily, there was only 2 people in my trekking group and my guide was able to lend me money for the activities and I paid him back once we got to Aguas Calientes on day 4.
Please, please make sure to bring waterproof hiking boots, nobody likes swamp foot for five days. And for goodness sake, splurge on some great hiking boots. I, on the other hand, stuffed some hiking boots that were hiding in my closet in my bag and called it good. Don’t be like me. Get some good ones and take them out for a couple spins first.
Okay, let’s get to the trekking!
Day 1 is one of the easier days. You’ll being with a three hour drive to the start of the trailhead, stopping along the way for breakfast in one of the villages. This breakfast is not included and cost about 8-10 soles, so you’ll need cash here. Once you arrive to the trailhead, they’ll unload your bags and take back whichever bag you want sent back to the office in Cusco. There is a toilet at the trailhead, use it — it’s the last one for the next few hours until you reach camp.
The hike itself is four hours of fairly easy, flat walking with a lunch break, and an option to hike to a lake. I originally wanted to skip the lake because I wasn’t feeling great. My guide Marco urged me to try it as day two would be the most difficult and highest in altitude. This hike up to the lake is a good indicator of how the altitude will affect you for the rest of the trek.
For me, the lake did not go well. Ten minutes in and the looming lake above seemed more and more impossible. Being up that high makes your heart race just simply walking. A wretched headache appeared shortly after begin the ascent and was accompanied by a quick whooshing sound echoing through my head and ears. My breaths were short and I felt I could hardly fill my lungs with air regardless of how deeply I tried to breathe in.
The fellow hikers along the way were struggling as well, resting often and slowly making their way up the mountain.
The last half hour of hiking, I felt dizzy and light headed. But, considering I had made it this far, I reckoned I had to see that damn lake.
Anyway, the lake was amazing, turquoise and fed by a giant glacier.
Here’s that damn lake.
Our first night was settled in the Soraypampa Valley, surrounded by the towering Andes Mountains and lush greenery. As we walked in through the valley, I caught sight of some sweet little glass igloos and thought surely those were a bit too fancy for our group.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that we’d be spending the night looking at the night sky through these igloos! That snowy pass wayyyyy in the back is where you’ll be headed — Salkantay Mountain!
Shortly after we returned from the lake, we sat down for dinner in this larger glass igloo and hoped for a quick meal so we could get tucked into bed for the much anticipated (and slightly feared) second day.
I hardly felt I could hold down food, but did my best to get in a few bites — only because our cook had prepared an amazing meal on a camp stove with a headlamp and I couldn’t bear wasting it! Side note — the food that was prepared on the trek was some of the best Peruvian food I had the whole month in Peru!
Here’s your pro tip: layer up at night, it’s gonna be a cold one and keep your headlamp handy for your middle of the night run to the bathroom!
Day two is hands down the most scenic, beautiful, amazing and every other similar adjective — but this day is enough for you to wish for a warm bed and your mama.
This is the day you’ll make it to the Salkantay Mountain Summit. You’ll be woken early — around 5 am with a light tapping on your igloo door and handed some coca tea. This is your polite reminder it’s time for breakfast, and to ready for day two. For me, after the treachery that yesterday’s hike to the lake, my guide called over a horse ‘just in case.’ Turns out ‘just in case’ means, ‘you’re going to need this horse or you’re not going to make it.’
When to take the horse and when to hike it:
If you feel fine on day one, and didn’t have much trouble adjusting to the altitude in Cusco, you’ll be fine to make it over the pass. Not that it will not be challenging still, but the altitude will not make you rue the day you were born.
If you have felt ill since landing in Cusco, thrown up, had severe headaches, loss of appetite and everything else — you may find that taking the horse to sound more and more appealing.
I opted for the horse. I felt like such a wuss taking the horse up as I watched other hikers struggle to get over the pass. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have made it up the pass just hiking. And I figured I wanted to enjoy the day and not spend it nauseated and throwing up. So please, have no shame if this applies to you. I really did feel like the wuss of the group, but it would have taken me so, so long to get up the mountain and I would have been miserable. Keep in mind the horse will cost you extra for the day, roughly 100 soles — you will need cash if you opt for this.
After reaching the summit of Salkantay Mountain, you’ll be able to take a quick break, snap a few photos, and began the two hour hike down into the valley where you’ll have lunch. Take a look around a relish in you accomplishment for having reached the summit of Salkantay — the hardest part of the hike is over. In fact, this is called the “Gringa Killer” because of the difficulty and altitude all the way up Salkantay Mountain, many non-Peruvians struggle the whole way up.
And just to really drive this home, I saw a Peruvian man of about 70 years hauling a massive backpack up the summit in his sandals while I sat on the back of a horse trying not to vomit. ‘Tis no joke, friends.
This section of the hike winds through the cloud forest with wonderful scenery. After lunch, and a proper toilet — it may even flush AND have a door — you’ll set out for our camp, a hike of about three more hours.
These last few hours are muddy, mucky, full of rocks and all downhill. If you’ve taken my advice and invested in comfortable, waterproof hiking boots, you’ll be fine. If you have shit hiking boots like I did, your feet are going to feel evvveerrrryyy rocky step and you’ll be hurtin’. This was the last day I used my boots, the next three days I opted for the running shoes I had packed.
Day two is a doozy and allows you to see some of the wild parts of Peru. It’ll be a lovely feeling getting this difficult day behind and being one day closer to Machu Picchu! This night, you’ll make camp in the jungle in a family compound — several small houses circled around a grassy opening.
Here you’ll even find a tiny bar and an opportunity for a hot shower for a couple soles. You’ll have dinner and be plenty tired to crawl into your tent for the night shortly after.
If you’re going during peak season, day three will take you through the jungle. But, as it was rainy season (January) when I went, many of the trails through the jungle were flooded. During these times, the trekking companies opt for taking the road to stay safe! It’s still very beautiful and you’ll still be winding through the jungle — just not right through the thick of it during the rainy season.
Day three of the Salkantay Trek winds through the Santa Theresa Valley, with about 5 hours of hiking. Here, you’ll stop for lunch and have time to rest.
Hot Springs Option
You will have the option to visit the Santa Theresa Hot Springs. The hot springs are a short drive from the camp spot and so, so worth it! Your tired, sore muscles will thank you and you’ll feel rejuvenated and ready to finish up the hike after dipping into the hot water.
I’m convinced that these hot springs are life giving. PLUS, this may be your first chance for a shower in three days! You have to rinse off before hopping in. Probably because most of the people getting in have been hiking for three days and are covered in sweat and dirt and bug spray. They’ll have hot and cold showers here and our group, along with a few other groups we had seen on the trail stayed for several hours. After that, you feel ready to take on the next two days and finish at the iconic Machu Picchu.
We were picked up at the Santa Theresa Hot Springs by a van and taken back to camp where dinner was waiting for us. We made camp in the backyard of a families plot of land, our tents looking out over the lush rain forest.
This day of the Salkantay Trek is intended to take you Llactapampa, another Inca archaeological site in front of Machu Picchu. Day 4 is supposed to be your first glimpse at Machu Picchu from afar after several hours of hiking. BUT, our group opted to go zip-lining instead!
We were still woken early and hiked for awhile to get to the next town where we would be picked up to go. This activity will once again cost you a few bucks, but it’s pretty fun flying over the Urubamba River and rain forest.
In total, there 5 loooonng zip-lines and it was a great little surprise that we had the option to do this instead of hike for a few hours.
We were finished by mid morning, and the van picked us up and took us to the start of the hike to Aguas Calientes — the little town at the base of Machu Picchu.
After a few minutes of walking, we stopped for a quick lunch before beginning the last walking for the day.
The Way to Aguas Calientes
The remainder of the walk for the day follows the train track to Aguas Calientes. For the next few hours, you’ll see people passing by in the air conditioned train as you sweat and trudge along for about three hours. It’s an easy, flat walk — it’s just damn hot. There are a few places to stop along the way if you need a drink or a quick bathroom break — a few soles for each.
If you’re anything like me, the hot shower and real bed has been calling you for four days now. This will be one of the things that keeps your feet going forward.
We made it to Aguas Calientes in the early afternoon. Our guide brought us to our hotel, and told us what time to meet up for dinner and where. The hotel was simple, with comfortable beds and a real bathroom. I don’t think I’ve been so excited to shower in all of my life. Nor have I thought about a single shower so often.
The shower was cold. Not cool, but actually very cold. Many of the showers I had taken in Peru thus far were cool and few were hot. But this one…this one was freezing. The culmination of four days of hoping and dreaming about this shower went down the drain very quickly. It was the kind of cold shower where you just have to quickly swipe your limbs through. Washing your hair is a fight between getting JUST your hair wet and not your head. Anyway, it was a huge disappointment so don’t spend the four days leading up to it having daydreams about!
Prepare for Tomorrow
This is your chance to power up your electronic devices for the big day you’ve worked incredibly hard for. Be sure the camera, phone, GoPro and everything else get plugged in as soon as you get to the hotel. This way everyone you’re traveling with has time to get prepped for the morning.
You’ll have plenty of time to walk around this tiny little town. Stock up on cash at the ATM and grab some snacks for tomorrow. Be sure to get to bed early — tomorrow is your big day — Machu Picchu, finally!
Pro tip: Your tour company may give you a small snack for tomorrow. But if you’re planning on staying up at Machu Picchu and leisurely exploring, the restaurant up there is expensive. Bring your own snack and avoid having to exit the mountain…have an expensive lunch…and then re-enter the site.
This is it! The day you’ve walked miles and miles through the mud and the muck for. The day you’ve felt sick and tired, and itchy from all the mosquito bites for. You’re finally going to see one of the great wonders of the world, and god damned, you’ve earned it.
A full post on day 5 coming soon!
Have any of you fellow adventurers done this Salkantay Trek? Or, are you thinking about checking this off your list…?
Please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from ya!