The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: Everything You Need to Know
This past week, Daniel and I did the 5 day / 4 night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu and it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.
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, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s everything you need to know to make it happen!
Distance: The total distance we walked was about 50 miles spread across 5 days.
Time: The trek began with a 4 am pick up on the first day and ended with a 9:30 pm drop off in Cusco on day five.
Difficulty: I will give this trek about an 8 out of 10, mostly due to the climb on day two.
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. On the third night, I was in a t-shirt and shorts. The temperature changes drastically with the elevation so pack for very cold and very warm weather.
Altitude: The highest point on the trek is 15,200 ft at the Salkantay Pass.
Trail Accessibility: The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is moderate, both in terms of crowds and accessibility. It’s 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.
Important to Know: Unlike the Inca Trail, you do not to book the Salkantay Trek months in advance. Daniel and I went in the high season and only booked it in an office two days before we left. Read the 6 Different Ways to Get to Machu Picchu for more details.
How Much Does the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Cost?
Our base cost for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was 600 soles / 185 usd, plus 40 soles / 12 usd more for a sleeping bag rental. The cost includes:
- All meals on the trek except breakfast on the first day and lunch and dinner on the last day
- All camping equipment except the sleeping bag
- A hostel room in Aquas Calientes
- The entrance ticket to Machu Picchu
- 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
- 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 850 soles / 260 usd pp for the 5-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
Should You Trek With a Tour Group or On Your Own?
Daniel and I decided to do an organized tour for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, but we also met a couple people doing the trail on their own.
It’s clearly marked and definitely possible, but I’m so glad we chose a tour because 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 on the Salkantay Trek: 7.5 miles to Humantay Lake
The first day started with a 4 am 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 5 kg 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 that was going on the 5 day / 4 night Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, and another who was doing it faster in only 4 days and 3 nights. Our group was moderately sized, with two guides and 18 people from all over the world.
Starting the Hike
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 only 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 hike 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 that extra work was was worth it! The snowcapped peaks and glaciers melt into the 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 in order to prepare for our 5 am wake up call the next day.
Day 2 on the Salkantay Trek: 12.5 miles through the Salkantay Pass
The second day is definitely the hardest day of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.
We woke up absolutely freezing, so I really enjoyed the delivery of coca tea straight to our tents to start the day. Then, we ate a quick breakfast and were out walking by 6 am.
Climbing to Salkantay Pass
Our hike began out with a 4.5 mile uphill trek to 15,200 feet, the highest point on the trek. 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.
Down into the Jungle
After we crested the Salkantay pass, our day continued with two more hours of hiking downhill. We reached a small outpost where we ate lunch and afterward the trek still continued for another three hours of downhill walking until we FINALLY finished our hike at 4:30 pm that afternoon.
This is where you’ll start to notice something very strange on your Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. As we began hiking downhill from the pass, the climate around us completely changed. We went from dry and arid mountaintops to a lush jungle within three hours! The temperatures rose and we started hearing birds and other wildlife chirping and chatting 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 with a true happy hour and a hot dinner before passing out in our tents to prepare for the long day ahead.
Day 3 On the Salkantay Trek: 10. 5 miles in the Jungle
Day three was easily my favorite day of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
First, I loved it because it was mostly flat with rolling hills. Second, it was WARM. And third, it was beautiful! We continued our hike into the lower elevations and 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.
Afterward, 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 25 soles / 8 usd, 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 it’s safe to say I was in heaven.
Beware the Bugs
The only downside of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu 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 three is the party night on the Salkantay Trek.
The campground had a bar with 1 sole / 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 on the Salkantay Trek: 6.5 miles to Aquas Calientes
Day four on the Salkantay trek to Macchu Pichu starts out with three different options. We had the choice to either:
- Pay 100 soles / 30 usd for ziplining
- Pay 10 soles / 3 usd for a bus
- Carry all of our luggage (extra bags included) for three hours along the side of a hot and sunny road
Our group split pretty evenly with half opting for the zip lining (which they said was a great time) and the other half choosing the bus ride to Hydroelectrica.
Hydroelectrica is a small 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.
Walking to Aquas Calientes
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.
Finally 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 and I found that 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 on the Salkantay Trek: 12 miles at Machu Picchu
There are two different ways to get to Machu Picchu: by foot or by bus. Our group chose to walk, but since Daniel and I had already purchased our 40 soles / 12 usd bus tickets with our tour we decided to use them.
The group that walked left the hotel at 4 am. The trail starts 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 6 am to enter and begin their tour with our guide.
Daniel and I had a different experience.
Taking the Bus to Machu Picchu
The first bus leaves for Machu Picchu at 5:30 so we thought we could get in line at 5 am…. 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!
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. Luckily the line moved at a moderate pace and we were able to get on a bus at 7 am 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 3:30 am 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.
We got to the ruins around 7:30 am and had a bit more than three hours to explore them. It wasn’t enough, and I wish we could have stayed later. If I did Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchuagain, 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.
Back to the ruins though – they were amazing! I saw Machu Picchu in textbooks and adventure guides my entire life, and while I was excited to see them I wasn’t expecting anything special. Honestly, though, they were magical.
Hiking to the Sun Gate
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 in the entire park.
Afterward, 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, and 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 that’s 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.
Getting Back to Cusco
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.
By now our tour was done and we were on our own. Daniel and I 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 were able to leave 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 to Hydroelectrica just in time to grab our bags and get our 3 pm bus back home.
Finding the Right Bus
Just a word of warning, the bus situation is a little hectic.
There were hundreds of people looking for the right one, and different drivers standing around with small lists of names. I’m 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 9:30 pm, utterly exhausted. We grabbed a quick hot meal from KFC in Plaza de Armas and finally passed out at home. It felt so good to sleep without a super early wake up call!
Everything You Need to Know For the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
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!
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