5 Day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
This past week, Daniel and I did the 5 day / 4 night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Really. The trek combines the perfect mix of camping, hiking, comfort and social life along the trail and culminates in a visit to Machu Picchu, which was absolutely magical. If you’re thinking about about hiking the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, DO IT. This is what you’ll see…
Cost: Our base cost for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was $185, plus $12 more for a sleeping bag rental. The cost includes all meals on the trek except breakfast on the first day, lunch and dinner on the last day, all camping equipment except the sleeping bag, a hostel in Aquas Calientes, the entrance to Machu Picchu and a bus back to Cusco at the end of the trek. We spent extra money on water during the trek (which isn’t provided and is majorly marked up on the trail), alcohol at some of the campsites, tips for the guides/cook, snacks, and a bus up to Machu Picchu, which we opted to buy instead of walking the hour up to it. With all extra costs, we spent about $260 pp for the trek.
Distance: The total distance we walked was about 50 miles spread across 5 days.
Time: The trek began with a 4am pick up on Day 1, and ended with a 9:30 pm drop off in Cusco on Day 5.
Difficulty: The trek was difficult. Most people on the trail were in their 20’s and 30’s.
Temperature: Pack for everything. On the first night I slept in two pairs of pants, a shirt, sweater, jacket, hat, gloves and two pairs of socks and was still cold. Third night, I was in a t shirt and shorts. The temps change drastically so pack for very cold and very warm weather.
Altitude: The highest point on the trek was in the Salkantay Pass on Day 2, where we climbed to 15,200 feet.
Remote: The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is moderate, both in terms of crowds and accessibility. Its possible to buy food and water at the campsites and even at markets along some parts of the trail. It seemed most of the campsites were accessible by road as well.
Why Trek with a Tour: We met a couple people doing the trail on their own. It is clearly marked and definitely possible, but I’m so glad we chose a tour. It meant we never had to deal with carrying heavy bags, the tent set up, or any cooking. When factoring in the cost of the food provided, the entrance cost to Machu Picchu, and the transport costs to and from the trail, I don’t think the price difference between using a tour company or doing it on your own is that great at all, or worth all the extra work.
Day 1: Humantay Lake – 7.5 miles
Day 1 started with a 4am pick up at our apartment. We drove around Cusco picking up other groups until our bus was completely full, and we left the city around 5:30. We had a two hour drive to breakfast (which was not included and had to be purchased separately) and there we separated our day packs from our extra luggage. The extra luggage was carried by horses on the trek, so it has a strict limit of 5kg per person. If you want to go over, you can pay $1.25 per kg.
After breakfast, we drove another hour to the trailhead. Here, our group broke into two, one on the 5 day/4 night trek, and another who was doing it faster, in 4 days and 3 nights. Our group had two guides and 18 people from all over the world.
We began with a 20 minute uphill walk, but it quickly flattened out into an easy and beautiful hike. We walked along the mountainside, high up in the air, with water flowing next to us and condors flying above. It was the perfect peaceful start to our trek. After about 3 hours of hiking, we arrived at our first camp site. We ate lunch (which was great. All the food was surprisingly delicious), got our bags situated in our tents, and then headed out again to Humantay Lake. The lake was an hour uphill walk from the campsite and it was definitely tough. However, once we crested the final ridge and saw the view, it was clear it was worth it! The snowcapped peaks and glaciers melt into the cold lake, leaving it a beautiful blue green color, shining in the sun. Gorgeous.
After some group pictures and a rest, we headed back to the camp site for “happy hour” with popcorn and tea, a hot dinner, and an early bed time. The view of the stars and milky way was stunning, but unfortunately it was too cold to sit outside and enjoy it. We were too tired anyway, and passed out around 8 pm in order to prepare for our 5 am wake up call.
Day 2: Salkantay Pass – 12.5 miles
Day 2 is the hardest day of the trek. We woke up freeeeeezing, so I really enjoyed the delivery of coca tea straight to our tents to start the day. We ate a quick breakfast and were out walking by 6am. The day starts out with a 4.5 miles uphill trek to 15,200 feet, the highest point on the walk. It’s not as high as Rainbow Mountain, but definitely nothing to sneeze at.
The uphill battle was broken into four sections, each with some flat hiking between it (thank God), but it was still hard. Those 4.5 miles were beautiful, with views of the Salkantay glacier egging us on, but took four hours of hard hiking to complete. Once we did though, the feeling was amazing and the views were even better. From the top of the Salkantay pass, we saw valleys and peaks stretching out in both directions. It was a stunning and well earned reward.
After two more hours of hiking downhill, and we reached a small outpost where we ate lunch. After lunch, the trek continued for another three hours of downhill trekking (which is harder than it sounds) until we FINALLY finished our hike at 4:30pm that afternoon.
Now, for the strangest part of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. As we began hiking downhill again, the climate around us completely changed. We went from dry, arid, mountaintops to a lush jungle within three hours. The temperatures rose and we started hearing birds chirping in the foliage around us.
The second campsite had a market with some beer and alcohol, and we celebrated completing the toughest day of the trek and the warming weather with a true happy hour and a hot dinner before passing out in our tents to prepare for the next long day ahead.
Day 3: The Jungle – 10.5 miles
Day 3 was easily my favorite day of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. First because it was mostly flat with rolling hills. Second, it was WARM. And third, it was beautiful! We continued our hike into lower elevations, and we were rewarded with parrot sightings, humming birds, fern forests, green tree tunnels, and multiple waterfalls on our hike along the riverside. The hike took around 6 hours and ended with lunch in a small town.
Afterwards, we took a bus to our next campsite. From here, some of the group opted to bus another hour to check out the nearby hot springs in Santa Theresa for an additional $8, but Daniel and I chose to stay behind. It was nice to finally have an afternoon free to spend reading in the warm sun. The campsite also had a puppy AND a kitten to play with, so I was in heaven.
The only downside was the brutal bug situation. Some say they were mosquitos, others gnats, but either way we all got eaten alive. I usually don’t have much of a problem when camping and rarely get bug bites, but this was on another level. Layers of deet and even clothes couldn’t protect us. Cusco locals say you can always tell which tourists visited Machu Picchu because they have lines of bug bites up their arms and legs. Ugh.
On a happier note, though, apparently night 3 is the party night. The campground had a bar with 30 cent shots of Inka Tekila (yes, you read that right) and lit a huge bonfire for us to enjoy. One wild dance party later, and we were all waking up at 7 am with many, many regrets. Like me leaving our boots out all night to get rained on, Daniel being severely sleep deprived, and others who accidentally slept OUTSIDE their tents and were absolutely massacred by the bugs in the night. It was ridiculous, but an amazing release and a good time with our new trek friends.
Day 4: Aquas Calientes – 6.5 miles
Day 4 on the Salkantay trek to Macchu Pichu starts out with three different options. We had the choice to either pay $30 for ziplining, pay $3 for a bus, or carry ALL our luggage (extra bags included) for three hours along the side of the road. Our group split pretty evenly with half opting for the zip lining (which they said was a great time) and the other half, not surprisingly, choosing the bus. The bus took us to Hydroelectrica. This small “town” sits at the end of the train tracks and is the last place accessible by road before Machu Picchu. From here, your only choices to get to the town of Aquas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu are by foot or by train.
We waited at Hydroelectrica for the zip lining crew, lounging on hammocks and eating ice cream sandwiches. When they arrived, we ate an early lunch and set off on our three hour journey for the afternoon. The walk was entirely flat, and entirely along the train tracks. It was shaded and had a river flowing along one side that a couple groups opted to jump in to to cool off. Two or three trains passed during our trip, and all in all it was a nice afternoon.
We reached Aquas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, and from the tracks it was another 20 minute walk into the pueblo and to our hotel. We arrived in the late afternoon. The town was much larger than I thought and really cute! It had tons of shops, restaurants, and winding cobblestone roads. I would have loved to explore it more, but at the time a hot shower and a nap were all that were on my mind.
We met up again with the tour group for dinner in one of the local restaurants, and afterwards it felt SO GOOD to sleep in a warm bed again!
Day 5: Machu Picchu – 12 miles
There are two different ways to get to Machu Picchu, by foot or by bus. Our group chose to walk, but we had purchased our $12 bus tickets with our tour so we decided to use them.
The group that walked left the hotel at 4am. The trail started near the train tracks 20 minutes from town, and is an hour uphill walk on a staircase. They arrived at Machu Picchu around 5:30 and waited for the gates to open at 6am to enter and begin their tour.
Daniel and I had a different experience. The first bus leaves for Machu Picchu at 5:30 so we thought we could get in line at 5am…. big mistake. When we arrived at the bus station, there were already at least 1,000 people in line ahead of us and we had to walk down the street for 15 minutes just to reach the back of it. Yikes. I was a little worried at this point, because we had to leave Machu Picchu around 11am to make it back to our bus in time, and I wasn’t sure what time we would make it up there.
The line moved at a moderate pace, and we were able to get on a bus at 7am after two hours of waiting. There is a lot of conflicting info online about the morning bus, but I’ll say this. We waited in line for 2 hours for the bus, and that cut into our time at the ruins. I wish we had gotten in line at 3:30am instead. We would have still waited two hours, but could have gotten on one of the first buses and been to Machu Picchu by sunrise. We were there in peak season, so maybe at other times of the year the lines are shorter, but my advice would be to show up earlier than we did for the bus.
So, we got to the ruins around 7:30am and had a bit over 3 hours to explore them. It wasn’t enough, and I wish we could have stayed later. If I did Salkantay Trek again, I would move my bus home back by one day, so I could enjoy Machu Picchu without constantly checking the time, and so I could spend more time in the town of Aguas Calientes. Oh well.
Back to the ruins – they were amazing. I saw them in textbooks and adventure guides my entire life, and while I was excited to see them, I wasn’t expecting anything special. But honestly, they were magical.
We started our solo tour by walking up toward the Sun Gate. This is the entrance that the Incas used from the original Inca Trail. It took about 45 minutes to reach it so we didn’t go all the way, but the walk had some of the most amazing views of the ruins and surrounding mountains from the entire park.
Afterwards, we headed back and explored the other parts of the upper levels of the ruins. Here is where you can get the famous view that everyone has a picture of. We sat for a bit just taking it all in and enjoying the moment. It was my favorite part of the day and one of my favorite parts of the entire trek. Actually, it was one of my favorite experiences of this entire South America trip if I’m being honest. It really was just a magical moment.
Our time was running out though, unfortunately, so we headed down into the ruins themselves. There is a marked trail through the ruins and we walked up onto the temple of the moon, took photos of some of the llama families just hanging out in the ruins, saw the Sacred Rock, which is carved in the image of the mountains behind it, and just enjoyed our time wandering through the ancient buildings surrounded by mountains on all sides. Machu Picchu is different from anywhere else because it’s not on a mountain side, but rather it was built in a small valley, high up in the air between two peaks. It is open air on almost all sides and the surrounding mountains are stunning.
At 10:45 am we began our long trip home. If you’re planning on visiting the ruins during peak season like we did, try to get up to them as early as you can. Even at 11 am when we were on our way out I noticed the crowds had grown a lot, and was happy to be escaping them.
We walked for 30 minutes down the mountain staircase and back to the train tracks. From there, it was another three hour walk back to Hydroelectrica. Luckily, we had left our extra bags at our restaurant there the night before, so we didn’t have to lug those with us to Machu Picchu or back to the bus on the last day. We stopped for a burger at one of the small restaurants on the sides of the tracks, and made it back to Hydroelectrica just in time to grab our bags and get our 3pm bus home.
Just a word of warning, the bus situation is a little hectic. You don’t go home with your tour group. There were hundreds of people looking for the right one, and different drivers standing around with small lists of names. Not really sure why they think this is the most efficient way, but basically we just had to find as many drivers as we could and check their lists ourselves until we found our names. Luckily we did, and settled in for the six hour drive back to Cusco. As usual, the drive was along the side of a cliff and our driver was a maniac, taking hairpin turns on gravel roads at breakneck speeds. All you can do in that situation is close your eyes!
Finally, we arrived back in Cusco at 9:30pm, utterly exhausted. We grabbed a quick hot meal from KFC (don’t judge me) and finally passed out at home. It felt so good to sleep without a super early wake up call!
The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever been on, and was one of the most satisfying, gorgeous, adventurous, strenuous and fun trips of my life! Visiting Machu Picchu is expensive no matter what option you chose, so if you have the time I highly recommend doing the Salkantay Trek. I promise, you won’t regret it!
All my love,