11 Feb The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The Complete Guide
Many people have hiking to Machu Picchu on their bucket lists, but most assume that they will hike the famous Incan Trail. However, the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is actually the better option for hikers and photographers alike. This alternative route takes an extra day to hike and much better stamina. It follows the Incan commercial route through the Andes Mountains rather than the religious route that the Incan trail follows. Hiking the Salkantay Trek was one of the craziest experiences that I have had in my life. There is truly nothing like it.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The SAVAGE
Salkantay means “The Savage” in Quechua, the native Incan language in Peru. That is exactly what this trail is: Savage. I am not surprised that the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu has retained both its popularly and its name. I was a little bit naïve when I signed up for Salkantay. I had always wanted to see Machu Picchu. In college one of my degrees is actually in Spanish which means that I had studied the Incan fairly in-depth as well. I was going to be spending that summer volunteering in Ecuador, and I wanted to end my summer with one really awesome excursion, so I decided to go to Machu Picchu. I have never regretted that decision.
While researching Machu Picchu, I quickly realized that the lamest way to see Machu Picchu is just by going straight to the temple itself. I mean, if that is your only option, by all means GO, because the temple itself is AMAZING. However, I crave adventure. I wanted to see it all and experience it all. So I began looking into the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is a 4 Day/3 Night trail that goes to Machu Picchu from essentially, Cusco. This is the most famous trail to this wonder of the world.
As I did more research, I started seeing this word “Salkantay” with no true understanding of what it was. I learned that instead of being a 3-4 day trek, it is a 5-6 day trek. I also learned that it was known for having better scenery on the trail. After doing this minimal research, I booked it for the beginning of July, and my mom decided to join me. She blindly trusted me as we moved toward this “Savage.” I’m so honored that my mom trusts me so much, but maybe I should have done more research.
Arriving in Cusco
When we arrived in Cusco, we arrived by plane. The Cusco airport is a small airport, but you feel completely safe as soon as you walk out of it. You are immediately immersed into Peruvian and Incan culture as you hear the sounds of people from speakers as you leave your gate. We grabbed a taxi and headed to our hotel.
One thing that I love about traveling with my mom is that she does not slum it. I can always count on her to book an amazing hotel, and that is exactly what she did. We stayed in the Sonesta Hotel Cusco which was an amazing choice. It was close to the center of town which made walking to the different areas in Cusco incredibly easy. Restaurants were easily accessible and the hotel itself was clean and comfortable. The interior of the hotel was beautiful, AND they hold your luggage for free while you are on your hike!
We were signed up with SAS travel (we booked about 4 months in advance) for our hike. They, like most travel companies, make sure that you meet as a group the night before the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu to go over any last-minute things that we needed to know. They also gave us the duffle bags that we would fill with our clothing and that the porters would carry during the trek. Most treks have porters that will carry the majority of items for the hikers so there is only a need for you to carry a day pack with your lunch and water.
On the first day of the hike, we drove about two hours on a bus from Cusco to the start of the trail. The drive itself was amazing; I was captivated by the mountains right from the start, but I was also already feeling exhausted. One thing that many people are not fully prepared for when it comes to Machu Picchu is the altitude. Altitude sickness is a very real, VERY common problem when visiting this wonder of the world. Cusco sits at a happy 10,000ft altitude and the peak of the Salkantay trail is a whopping 15,000ft. This means that air is limited, breathing is hard, headaches and stomach issues are very real, and exhaustion comes easy.
I was lucky that I spent my summer in the mountains of Ecuador, but my mom had been home until now, in Florida, at sea level. The altitude was VERY hard on both of us, but especially her. Make sure that you spend AT LEAST 3 days in Cusco before going on this trip so that your body can adjust in time. We spent 2 days there, but honestly, we could have stood to have one more. The trail guides will advise you to stock up on coca leaves before beginning the trail, and they even brought us to a place for breakfast where we can by them, and I did! (More on this later).
Day 1 of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The Beginning
CUSCO – MOLLEPATA – SAYLLAPATA – SORAYPAMPA – SALKANTAYPAMPA CAMP
The bus drove us to to Sayllapata aka the true starting point of our journey. When we got out of the bus, we took a group picture and met our team. On our team there were: Four crazy British Boys, Two German ladies who smoked like fiends and smoked everyone with their hiking speed, a man from China who spoke minimal English and did his own thing, a few of us from the USA, a couple from the UK, a couple from the Maldives and India, and a man from Romania. It is safe to say that our group was a very diverse mix, and honestly, that made it such an amazing experience.
Our trek included porters that carried the tents and duffle bags on the horse route through the mountains and our two guides. Both of our guides spoke English, Spanish, and Quechua which meant that is was very easy to communicate with them and learn from them as we hiked. I actually took advantage of this opportunity over the week to practice my Spanish and learn some Quechua too. When in Cusco, do as the Incans did.
The first hour of the hike was honestly one of the most difficult parts. My mom and I didn’t think we would be able to complete the hike if the whole thing was like that. It seemed impossible. They dropped us off, and there was this beautiful dirt road that we thought we were going to follow, but instead of walking along the road, they had us turn to our left and scale the side of this mountain! It had to have been a 60 degree incline. At this point in my life, I have a completed a lot of different hikes at different degrees of difficulty. This one hour section was by-far the hardest section of any hike.
We think they did this to shock our lungs and get us used to the altitude. It definitely shocked us. However, once we completed this section and got up the actual trail, we felt ready to take on the Savage. The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu was going to be one of the biggest adventures of our lives.
The first day of the hike, after the crazy beginning, was actually relatively flat. There was very little up and down which worried me a bit, knowing that tomorrow we would have to hit 15000ft altitude, but currently we were only around the 10000ft mark. I knew we had a long way to go, but in the end, I was glad that the day was not as intense as it could have been because I was already exhausted. We hiked many, many miles. When we reached the base of Soraypampa, the mountain next to Salkantay, we found our campsite.
The Bonus Hike
The campsites are set up along the way so you don’t have to set anything up. The porters beat you to the sight and set up your tent so you just have to find your number. They also set up a big dinner tent where we gather to eat and hang out. At this point in the hike, we had the option to do an extra hike to a glacier if we wanted. I was exhausted, but I never want to pass up an amazing photo opportunity. My mom, who was fighting altitude sickness, stayed back to get some R&R.
The hike was to take about an hour and a half round trip, and I’d say that was an accurate estimate. We went from camp up the mountain side next to us, and it was a great experience for me. The sun was setting so the view were amazing, but we were also fighting to get up and down before the night struck and we ran out of light. I made it down in just enough time. The hike up was difficult because I was tired, but I put in my headphones and went into my zone.
Read More: The Perfect Travel Playlist
Having the perfect playlist made all the difference to me. It just felt like me and the mountain. I felt like I could just be one with nature. It was truly and amazing moment to climb the side of the mountain with Holocene by Bon Iver in my ears and know that I am the luckiest person in the world in this moment. When I got to the top, I found my glacier and my lake, and I was blown away.
The First Night
The first night was the coldest night. We were very glad to have our warm socks and sleeping bags. We slept in tents, and we were COLD. Falling asleep was easy though considering how exhausted we were. Waking up, however, was HARD and very cold.
Day 2 of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The Savage
SALKANTAYPAMPA – COLLPAPAMPA CAMP
Taking on Day 2
Day two was the entire reason the trek was called “The Savage.” On day two, our goal was to traverse from a roughly 11000ft altitude, to a 15000ft altitude, and then back down to about a 8000-9000ft altitude. Our job that day was to scale the mountain. To climb Salkantay. To take on the Savage.
This day my mom opted to take a horse up the mountain. It cost her about $20USD but was totally worth it. Because of her altitude sickness, she didn’t want to fall behind or feel sick again, so the horse option allowed her to scale the mountain and truly ENJOY it. I honestly never saw her happier until we reached our final destination. She highly recommends it. That left me to pretty much hike on my own as the group quickly spreads out based on pace.
Reaching the Top
I, again, put my headphones in and started my battle with the mountain. The climb was steep, there was no getting around that, but it felt more like an endurance run than a sprint. The higher I got, the slower I had to go because of all of the stops that I had to catch my breathe. Once you hit that 14000ft altitude mark, breathing is truly no joke. I slowly made my way up the mountain, taking in the journey, taking all the pictures, and enjoying my life.
Reaching the top was like nothing I have ever experienced. The joy that I had was as high as the freaking altitude. There was ice everywhere just because of the sheer height. And the two Austrian women who beat me up there by like an hour, were smoking. I am constantly amazed at their lung capacity and hiking skills looking back.
The Trek Down
The trek down was deceiving far. Keep in mind, we haven’t had lunch yet and it is around 12pm when we are at the top. We can see a tiny silver reflection down in the valley, and that is our stopping point for lunch only. It takes us another two hours of intense downhill movement to get to the valley and to the spot for lunch. This means that as a group, we didn’t eat until almost three. By this time, my heels had broken into a SERIOUS blister. But I’m not quitter, so I wrapped my feet with as much tape as I could find and put my shoes back on. I highly recommend bringing something like this blister cover with you on the trip as well as some sports tape to keep in your day bag. You will be miserable if you don’t have it and you need it.
The trek down the mountain was even more beautiful than the trek up it. However, we did not reach camp until around 6:30pm when the sun was setting. We descended down into the jungle. This was the portion where we needed hiking poles more than anything due to the nature of the descent.
But I mean, look at these views.
Day 3 of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The Jungle
COLLPAPAMPA – LLUSCAMAYO – LA PLAYA CAMP- HOT SPRINGS
Waking up on Day 3 was the most difficult of all of the days. I was EXHAUSTED, and my mom was still not feeling the best although she was feeling a bit better. Today was jungle day. I was excited about jungle day because we had already seen valleys and scaled a mountain, so today would provide a different experience for us. My mom and I hiked together during the entire jungle day, and it was nice to spend some quality time with her.
Day three of the trek consisted of waterfalls, cliffs, jungle, and some awesome butterflies. However, let me tell you something right now, if you are afraid of heights, this is the wrong trek for you. We had one person who almost couldn’t finish due to an inability to get past the cliff sections. There are many sections of the trail where there is cliff up on your left side and cliff straight down on the right side. There were times when the path was maybe two feet wide. I loved it. Some people would not.
The Hot Springs
This day ended at the Hot Springs where we would set up camp. Most of the hiking was done in the early morning which allowed us time in the afternoon to rest, relax, and enjoy each others company. The hot springs were nice. We had our tents right next to them and could go to bed early if we wanted, or we could take a dip in the hot springs. They were really more like warm springs, but after hiking over 45km at this point, it was all I could have ever wanted.
Bonus: This was technically my only shower of the trek.
The night before the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu started, our guides joked with us that we should bring rum with us on the trek. The four college-aged British boys on this trek took him VERY seriously, and brought rum. A LOT of rum. When we arrived at the hot springs, there are many locals that set up shop at the tables around the springs. Each local owns a set of tables, and if you sit at those tables, you are to buy their goods. They all sold Pisco Sours (A Peruvian Favorite) although I wouldn’t recommend it on a hike due to the raw egg in it, beers, sodas, and liquor. And let me tell you, my group bought all of their liquor.
My group decided that taking shots until the bottle was gone was good idea. I did not. My mom and I had our drink to take away some of the soreness in our legs, and then we stuck with our water and dinner. Everyone else, made the most of the bottle that was brought, and the THREE more that were bought. I spent much of the night enjoying watching the festivities and watching the incredible moon rise over the mountain.
Now that was an experience.
My guides told us the next day that they had never seen a group get as drunk as ours. I would have to agree and I laugh when I think about it all of the time.
Day 4 of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: The Final Stretch
LA PLAYA – LUCMABAMBA – LLAQTAPATA – HIDROELECTRICA – AGUAS CALIENTES
The next morning, most of the camp was throwing up. My mom and I, however, felt pretty dang great. She finally didn’t feel any sickness, my legs were feeling rested from the hot springs, and we were ready to go. Most of the trek so far, we had been at the back of the pack. But today, today was our day to shine. While the line of hung over hikers took the back of the pack, we raced to the front, only surpassed by our Austrian chain-smoking friends.
This day was really cool because we were now climbing another mountain, but we knew it was the one that would take us to our final destination. Once we reached the top of this mountain, we were shown Incan ruins. This was the first time on the trek we had really come across any. Our guide sat us down and told us the history of the area. It was really amazing to me to think that the Incans used to take the Salkantay trail all of the time, but carrying goods to sell! The must have been in awesome shape.
The problem with day four was that we kept thinking that we were almost there, and it kept being farther still. Today was the day that we would reach Aguas Calientes and be able to end our Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. We were surrounded by mountains, and we knew that we were now descending with the purpose of making it to the train.
Once we FINALLY reached the Hidroelectrica (The train), we knew we had made it, but it hadn’t really set in that we were done hiking. We all celebrated with drinks. I honestly don’t know why they would want to drink more after throwing up all morning, but nevertheless, we enjoyed drinks and a meal while waiting for our train.
The train took us to Aguas Calientes which is the town that sits directly below Machu Picchu. Before Machu Picchu was discovered, this town had only about 8 families living there. Now, it is a BOOMING tourist city. This town was designed for tourism. There are hostels, shops, and resteraunts everywhere you looked.
As a group, we checked into our hotel for the night. A HOTEL. It was a dream come true. My feet were so destroyed that they were black from dirt and dust and the wrapping around my blister had molded to my feet. As my feet swelled, everything just kind of solidified in place. It was gross.
At the hotel I was finally able to take a SHOWER. I cried from happiness.
We had just hiked 36 miles in 4 days.
I couldn’t believe what I had just accomplished, and I was so happy to have my mom by my side. After exploring Aguas Calientes, doing some shopping, and eating a lot of food, we turned in for the night. And let me tell you, we slept GOOD that night.
Day 5: The Wonder
AGUAS CALIENTES – VISIT TO MACHUPICCHU – CUSCO
The plan was to wake up at before the sunrise (around 4am when all was said and done) to get in line for the bus up to Machu Picchu.They gave us the option to walk the 1.5 hour walk up to Machu Picchu, but after the trek, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in our group opted for the bus. We were done with the hiking portion.
We did in fact make it up to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise. However, I will leave my post here because Machu Picchu is a post in and of itself.
The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was the best decision I have made when it comes to traveling. While the Incan Trail is the classic hike, completing Salkantay comes with a level of pride and accomplishment that you don’t get from the Incan Trail. It is significantly harder, but it truly is the experience of a lifetime.
In an effort to not make this post too overwhelming, I have saved the actual Machu Picchu experience for another post. Subscribe to the blog to be the first to know when I post it! 🙂