If you are heading to Peru, chances are you are planning on seeing Machu Picchu. One of the 7 wonders of the world, it is usually the highlight of any travellers trip to Peru. There are numerous ways to reach Machu Picchu, and options for all budgets and fitness levels. In November 2018, I did the 5 day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. It was the highlight of my trip in Peru, and below you can find out what to expect.
Why choose the Salkantay trek?
Undoubtedly the most famous trek to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail. This is usually a 4 day trek, where you will follow what is thought to be the original route taken by Incas to Machu Picchu. There is a limit on the number of people allowed to trek the Inca trail everyday. This has led to it becoming very expensive. The Inca trail starts around $700 USD, and the price increases depending on how reputable your company is. Another problem is the fact that you must book far in advance – more than 3 months in advance during high season.
For these reasons the Salkantay trek is growing in popularity. Cheaper than the Inca trail, and with the possibility to book it just days before, many backpackers are choosing this route. The scenery is stunning, and you will reach a maximum height of 4600 metres. For me, this was the highest point that I had ever been. The trek usually also includes beautiful Humantay Lake.
How difficult is the Salkantay trek?
The trek has a reputation for being harder than the Inca trail. The first 2 days are at serious altitude. I really cannot stress this enough – acclimatise! That means, stay in Cusco at least 3 days before the trek. Some people skip this because they are short on time, but altitude sickness is serious and can ruin your trek. Altitude sickness is also a random beast, in that your physical fitness is not a factor. It can affect anyone at any time, the only proven way to reduce your chances of getting it are to reach altitude as slow as possible. The trek is also long, with lots of steep uphills and downhills. The second day can be as much as 9 hours of walking. As someone who has a very physical job (Dive Instructor), and occasionally runs, I found it pretty difficult. Doing a shorter trek beforehand, such as Colca Canyon, can also help.
The best time to trek Salkantay
There are two main seasons for trekking around Cusco. Dry seasons runs roughly from mid april to the start of October. Wet season starts mid October until the end of March. Whilst dry season is favourable, you may find it more expensive and crowded on the trails, with May to September being the busiest. I personally would perhaps recommend the shoulder months of October or April, but you could be risking a lot of rain. January is usually the worst month to trek Salkantay.
How much will it cost?
Before I left for Peru, I did a check online of Salkantay prices, and prices started around $400 USD. However, a cousin of mine went earlier in the year and told me to book on arrival at Cusco for better prices. I really would recommend doing this, unless you are on a really tight schedule and need specific dates.
I had originally wanted to trek Salkantay without a tour, but after looking into it further, I decided against it. If you already have camping equipment with you, then it seems like a good choice. however, once I had rented equipment, I didn’t think it would actually work out much cheaper.
Once in Cusco, I started looking literally the day before I wanted to depart. Some agencies actually had signs outside advertising cheap treks, and no where that I checked was full. After looking around the town, I found prices that ranged from $160USD to $440USD per person. Which brings me to my next point…
Which company should you choose for Salkantay?
Firstly, I checked on Tripadvisor for companies with good reviews. Then, armed with a pen and some paper, I visited a few to ask about prices and itineraries. In the end I opted for Machu Picchu Reservations, who I highly recommend. The price was $190USD, however I am sure you will only get a price like this booking close to your departure date.
Although some other companies were marginally cheaper, some companies have different prices for extras such as sleeping bags. Also be aware what exactly is included. For example, some companies don’t include some meals, which are very expensive on the trek.
Make sure that you book directly with the company too, and don’t use a “middle man”. there are plenty of cheap agencies around the square who will book the trek but you won’t actually know which company you will go with until the day. There were a couple of girls on our trek who had done this, and were not properly briefed on the trek, didn’t have some meals included and there was a lot of confusion as to whether they actually had Machu Picchu tickets.
Always ask if everything is included, such as transport back to Cusco. And dont leave for the trek without having a print out of your Machu Picchu ticket!
Salkantay 5 day Itinerary
Below I will detail day by day our itinerary. In general, most agencies use a very similar itinerary for the 5 day Salkantay trek.
Day 1 : Cusco – Mollepata – Humantay Lake
The first day, our group of 13 met at the Machu Picchu reservations office in Cusco, at 5am. From here, it is around 3 hours drive to Mollepata town. The road was intense and a few of us felt motion sickness. At Mollepata, there was an amazing breakfast buffet waiting for us. We hopped back in the minibus for another hours drive to the trail head.
This first day is all about Humantay Lake, an impossibly blue lagoon at an altitude of 4200m. The walk up took around an hour and a half, and make no mistake – it was difficult! As I trudged up the hill, I could feel my breathing become harder. There were horsemen ready to lend their services, but I was adamant I was going to walk. As I neared the top, I was barely shuffling, but finally I got to see the Lake and it was just a stunning as the pictures I had seen.
We were lucky this day, and in fact everyday of our trek, that we didn’t encounter any rain. Our guide kept telling us how phenomenal that was for the end of November! After the Lake, it was another hour and a half walk down to the camp.
The afternoon was spent relaxing and trying to ignore the oncoming headache, courtesy of the altitude. By dinner time, my head felt like it was exploding. I downed mugs of traditional Coca tea, and inhaled some alcohol provided by our guides, and the headache actually disappeared!
Day 2 : Salkantay Mountain – Chawllay
This day for me was the hardest I think, however everyone is different and some people in my group breezed through. From camp it was a long walk to the highest point of our trek. It took just over 3 hours, but bare in mind my group was crazy fit and ridiculously fast. I was always lingering near the back, but the rest of the group gave me the motivation to really plough through!
The hike up gives you some amazing views of the huge Salkantay looming ahead. The clouds would shroud and reveal the mountain quickly, so sometimes we could see the top and other times you wouldn’t know it was there.
Once at the top, and when I had finally caught my breath, I felt a huge sense of achievement. Here I was at 4600 metres above sea level, the highest I had ever been outside of an airplane! Our guide performed a little ceremony with rocks and coca leaves here, and passed round some “Inca Tequila”, which was a great touch! Every so often we would hear a great crack of falling rocks or melting snow.
We were so quick, we took a detour to Salkantay Lake, which was almost as breath taking a Humantay. As we continued downwards, several Andean condors circles overhead. After descending for around an hour, we stopped for lunch and a nap in the sun.
It was then another 3.5 hours slipping down to the evenings camp spot. I could really feel the climate change as we lost altitude, going from cool and fresh to humid and sticky. This day was really hard on my knees, and the total walking time was around 8 hours.
Day 3 : Chawllay – Llactapata – Santa Teresa
Our guide proposed a slight change of plan in the route, as there was apparently very high water levels and a chance we could get stuck. I didn’t fully understand the reason for the plan change, but I went with it anyway. It meant we had to pay 10 soles each and take a minibus, skipping a 3 hour walk along the road to the trail head at Lucmabamba. Here is the part of the trek that takes you onto the Inca Trail, and gives you your first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
It’s a couple of hours ascent though a humid and hot rainforest track to reach the top, and we had a short stop off for some coffee tasting along the way. At the top is a viewpoint where we waited for around 20 minutes for the cloud to clear and finally give us our first view of Machu Picchu. It was small and distant, but interesting to see from a different angle!
The descent took around 1.5 hours, and again was steep. I found it easier to go faster, almost skipping, as at this point my knees felt like the were smashed! We were picked up at the bottom of the track by the car, and transferred to Santa Teresa. Here we had lunch at our camp site, and then the opportunity to head to the hot springs.
It was optional and cost 25 soles for entrance and transport. I would say it was well worth it though, as the steaming hot water was just what my aching muscles wanted. That evening we had a BBQ and some beers to celebrate our achievements so far, having completed the hardest part of our 5 day Salkantay Trek!
Day 4 : Santa Teresa – Hidroelectrica – Aguas Calientes
On day 4 there was the option to do some zip lining for 100 soles, but none of our group went for this option. After breakfast, it was a near 3 hour walk along the dusty road to Hidroelectrica. It was super hot and monotonous, certainly not the most interesting part of the trek.
At Hidroelectrica we stopped for lunch. Barely a town, it is more just a collection of restaurants and a point for transport to collect and drop off people.
After, we walked for nearly 3 hours along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Another not so exciting walk, and a lot more people around than on previous days! Some people choose to get transport direct from Cusco to Hidroelectrica and walk the train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
On arrival to Aguas Calientes, I was surprised by how nice our hostel was! Me and Vincent were given an en-suite double room with a tv! We were expecting dorms so this was a lovely surprise. At dinner we went over the plan for the next morning, finalising times and we were also told you could take a bus up to Machu Picchu. Having walked this far, there was no way we were going to take the easy way out!
Day 5 : Machu Picchu!
The morning had arrived and it was a 4 am get up! With our pre made breakfast in hand that had been provided, we walked 20 minutes to the first check point. We were one of the first in line, but had to wait until 5am until we could pass. Here it is important to have your ticket and your passport.
When the gate opened, I would say there were around 200 people in the line. It wasn’t quite the mad dash to the top that our guide had told us about, however it was always getting towards low season.
The walk up is brutal after 4 days of trekking. It’s just steps, steps and more steps. I also felt so pressured as it had the air of a race, and I knew it wasn’t one I could win!
We reached the top at around 5.45am, one of the first in line for when Machu Picchu opened at 6am. As we walked through the gates towards our first viewpoint, cloud around us was thick.
This meant we weren’t greeted with the typical, photographed view of the ancient city. It was however a peaceful moment and lovely to enjoy it before hoards of other tourist arrived.
We spent 4 hours in the city, which went by extremely quickly. We walked up to the sun gate, which was longer than we thought but did give us some great views. Around 9 am the place was packed, and we were glad to have arrived so early.
We had to leave around 10am in order to walk back along the tracks to Hidroelectrica and arrive in time for our ride back to Cusco.
Seeing Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world, up close and personal was truly amazing. However, me and Vince both agreed that actually, it was the trek there that was the highlight of our time in Peru!
I really recommend doing the 5 day Salkantay trek, it’s a much more budget friendly way to get to Machu Picchu than the Inca Trail, and it will leave you with a great sense of accomplishment.
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