While shivering, I put on a thin layer of thermal clothing. Over that goes fleece pajamas, thick wool socks, an extra sweater and, finally, my purple hat. Wrapped thickly, I wrestle myself into the small sleeping bag specially suited for temperatures down to -15 degrees Celsius. Once I lie down I also pull a thick blanket over that sleeping bag. As I lay gazing at the stars through the glass roof, I breathe in and out deeply. A cloud forms in front of my face and I just hope I can get some sleep. Nothing could be further from the truth, unfortunately: soon I get sick and have to go to the bathroom all night in the freezing cold. The next morning, the guide suggests that I continue on horseback on the Salkantay Trek to almost 5,000 meters of altitude. We are nowhere near Machu Picchu and already I feel like giving up. As I try to wolf down hot chocolate and a sandwich, tears are in my eyes. What to do? Hoist myself up the mountain or let the horse do all the work? | In this article, the story of the Salkantay Trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu. How does this end? Of course, including many tips and information.
The 5-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
The highlight of our round trip Peru. The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is a trek through several natural wonders. You walk over 70 kilometers over snow-capped mountain peaks, past beautiful blue lakes and through the tropics. There are several variations of the Salkantay Trek: 3, 4 or 5 days. And then you can also decide how luxurious and organized you want it. If you have enough time, I definitely recommend the 5-day trek. In doing so, you walk less per day and have more time to rest. And besides, a 5-day trek is simply a special experience.
Under “practical” at the end of this article you can read all the practicalities about the trek. From costs, places to stay and organization to heaviness and what to bring.
The alternative to the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is still the most popular trek to Machu Picchu and is often fully booked as early as 6 months in advance (check availability here), but the Salkantay Trek is a great alternative. The Inca Trail is known for its ruins and history, while the Salkantay Trek takes you through impressive nature. In 5 days you are literally both standing with your feet in the snow and lying by the pool in your bikini. Of course, we only did the Salkantay Trek, but it is generally considered tougher than the Inca Trail.
The Salkantay Trek Peru from day to day
The night before departure, our guide joins us at the hotel for a briefing. What is going to happen and how does it all work. We get a nice map with the route, mileage per day, a description and more useful information. Good to look at in advance. We go to sleep early, because at 4 a.m. the next morning the alarm goes off….
Day 1: From Cusco to Humantay Lake (12 km)
At 4:30AM we were picked up by a small van at our hotel. Together with 6 more travelers and our guide, we drive in 2 hours to Mollepata for breakfast and toilet visits. After breakfast, the bus ride continues for another hour to Challacancha, where the trek to Machu Picchu begins.
Equipped with a backpack, warm clothes and hiking poles, we walk 12 kilometers this first day. We start at 3651 meters altitude and after lunch and a tough uphill climb, we arrive at Lake Humantay at 4221 meters altitude. I’m having a pretty tough time and therefore arrive at the very last.
It is freezing cold, windy and cloudy, but the lake is still fantastically beautiful to see. A wonderful first day you could say.
Sleeping at Salkantay Sky Camp
The first night we sleep in the most beautiful place ever. In Soraypampa at the Salkantay Sky Camp. These are sort of glass igloos where you so look at the stars from your bed. All wrapped up with my 3 layers of clothing in my sleeping bag with a hat on my head I look at the dark sky. A truly magical place to sleep and truly a must-see if you are there.
A difficult dilemma: on foot or on horseback?
Unfortunately, I got sick and felt terribly weak. Why, no idea. So after a night of almost no sleep, I was faced with a difficult dilemma: on foot or on horseback?
Day 2: The toughest day via the Salkantay Pass (22 km)
Over breakfast, I chat with Jimmy, the guide and the others in the group. What shall I do? I did not sleep, had diarrhea and threw up a few times. And we have to walk 22 kilometers and also go up in altitude to 4638 meters. Of course, I know about myself that I always have some difficulty walking up high in the mountains, but ultimately I came here to hike the Salkantay Trek. And I would really feel like failure if I went on horseback. So I decide to take my chances and walk.
Up to the Salkantay Pass
After stuffing myself with painkillers and diarrhea inhibitors, we set out. The toughest part of the Salkantay Trek is quite steep uphill. There are many people who do do this stretch on horseback, and although I feel pretty lousy I am quite proud that I did go on foot.
The route is tough and I have great difficulty getting myself up the hill, but in the meantime I also enjoy the beautiful views. We are getting closer and closer to the snow, closer and closer to that highest point. I go slowly at my own pace while the rest of the group seems to have it much easier.
Made it to the top!
And then suddenly we are there! There on that summit of 4638 meters and proud that we made it. Really a fantastic feeling! It is cold there, but our guides have nice hot coca tea with them. Of course, many photos are taken of this memorable moment in this fantastically beautiful place before we face another difficult stretch.
I am feeling much better by now and now all we have to do today is go down. Now don’t think this is very easy, because this too is difficult. It is raining and the ground is muddy and slippery, but fortunately we have our walking sticks. We have to descend from 4638 meters altitude to 2870 meters, which is a pretty tough descent. Which requires very different muscles and we soon feel that. The changing landscape and climate makes it magical: in one day from snow to a temperate climate.
Sleeping in Andean Huts
At the end of the day, we arrive in Chaullay. Here we sleep in cute little huts on stilts, have a hot shower and, for a fee, wifi to update my parents about this great adventure.
Day 3: Relax in thermal baths (18 km)
Day 3 is definitely the easiest day. We walk from 2870 meters altitude to 2017 meters, so we only go down. Sometimes along deep precipices over narrow ledges, over bridges and through streams and always with amazing views.
Major climate change
The day before yesterday we were in bed with thermal clothing and a hat on, now more and more clothes are coming off. Because the lower we get the warmer it gets.
Hot Springs Cocalmayo
Already around lunchtime, we arrive at today’s destination. It is wonderfully warm and we have a choice: either relax at our jungle huts or go to hot springs. Half of the group, including us, choose the hot springs.
The guide takes us in an hour to this beautiful spot another 500 meters down into the valley. Beautiful pools where it is not so crowded when we arrive. We enjoy the lovely warm water all afternoon. Something good for our muscles. By the evening we get back in the car to return to our camp, rested.
Cost hot springs: 40 soles (10 euros) per person.
Sleeping in Jungle Domes
As if we haven’t had enough unusual places to spend the night on this trek, the Jungle Domes can be added to the list. Green igloos that really made us feel like we were in the jungle. We finally slept a little better to begin the next day’s last spirited day before arriving at Machu Picchu.
Day 4: To Aguas Calientes along the trail (18 km)
Day 4 is the second hard day and the last day of hiking. Our guide gives us the option of doing part of it by car, as the downhill section in particular is incredibly tough. Still, the whole group is determined: we will all go on foot.
A glimpse at Machu Picchu
Along the way we ended up opposite Machu Picchu, where we could already catch a glimpse of the Inca city. The sun is shining brightly and we can’t wait to get across there.
The trickiest part
I found the most difficult part of this day to be the end, when we arrived at the train station. From there you can take a train to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, but we all went on foot.
Not a very difficult stretch, over 2 hours only 200 meters uphill. But after 4 days of walking, almost no sleep, being sick ánd suddenly considerable heat (because we are now below 2000 meters of altitude) our bodies are fed up. Walking slowly along the trail toward the terminus. I am really looking forward immensely to a normal bed and hot shower.
Lodging in Aguas Calientes
In Aguas Calientes we are staying with the group in a nice hostel, where I am extremely happy with that bed and the hot shower. What a gratitude after 4 days of suffering.
In the evening we all have a sumptuous dinner together for the last time. And we get explanations for tomorrow. The most important day: Machu Picchu!
Day 5: Machu Picchu
Around 4:30AM, the four of us lined up for the bus to Machu Picchu. The rest of the group will walk, as will many other travelers. But after 4 days of hiking we don’t feel like climbing another mountain. So we choose the easy way.
When I was still in elementary school, I already made a paper about Machu Picchu. Still without a modern computer, I cut out pictures and pasted it between the text. And now, 26 years later, I am finally here.
Everyone knows that famous picture like the one below. But trust me: even if you know exactly what it looks like, standing there is truly magical.
Salkantay Trek practical
Cost and where booked
We wanted to have everything well organized and not have to search for an organization at the last moment, so we booked the Salkantay Trek several weeks in advance. We were not looking for the cheapest option, but for an unforgettable trek, special places to stay and a wonderful experience.
And it totally turned out that way! We booked the Salkantay Trekking with Local Hero Travel who arranged this perfectly for us. We wanted everything included, including hiking poles and sleeping bag.
The stay was at the most wonderful sleeping places ever, had a very knowledgeable and engaging guide, a small group of 10 people, fantastic food (vegetarian too) and perfectly organized.
The cost for this 5-day Salkantay Trek is €650 per person (excluding booking fee). This included everything (also the return trip to Cusco, entrance to Machu Picchu, food, lodging, hiking poles, sleeping bag, etc.). Only at some places of lodging did we add the (low) cost for a hot shower and wifi. It also does not include the 40 soles (10 euros) for entrance to the thermal baths. This is all optional, therefore exclusive.
At Local Hero Travel, you can specify your budget and whether you want it more luxurious or more basic. As mentioned, we were looking for a more luxurious version with more convenience and especially special sleeping accommodations, but so it can be cheaper. Then, for example, you don’t sleep in a Sky Camp but in tents. It can be arranged exactly the way you want it. Also fewer days if 5 are too many.
We were impressed with how well it was all organized and especially the places to stay: wow how beautiful! It was really worth the money for us. And although it was pretty tough, it also was an experience to never forget.
Do you also want to hike the Salkantay Trek? Indicate your preferences here and receive a quote from Local Hero Travel.
What to bring with you during the Salkantay Trek
You go away for 5 days, the climate can change in an instant, and you will find yourself in both freezing cold and heat. That means you have to take quite a bit with you, but fortunately they have a handy solution for that. In fact, you get a duffle bag where you can put your stuff. This is carried by donkeys, so you only have to carry your daypack with essentials for the day.
We had arranged with Local Hero Travel that the sleeping bag and hiking poles were included. If not, you must bring these yourself.
What to bring?
- Trekking backpack (Mine is 20 liters and has a rain cover, very recommended)
- 3 long-sleeved shirts
- 3 shirts with short sleeves
- 1 pair of rain pants
- 1 pair of thermal pants
- 2 hiking pants
- 1 waterproof jacket
- 1 warm sweater/jacket
- A packing cube to orden your backpack
- Cap or hat
- Hat for cold weather (is really needed!)
- Hiking shoes and socks
- A rain poncho (was also needed in our case)
- Sunscreen of at least factor 50
- Extra pair of sneakers
- Your swimwear
- A quick-drying towel
- Flashlight and batteries
- Water bottle (we had this one from Water-To-Go with water filter)
- Mosquito repellent (DEET)
- Snacks (chocolate, dried fruit, etc)
- Camera and charger
- Extra money
- Medication (diarrhea inhibitors, something against nausea, possibly against altitude sickness, medication you always need, finimal and/or paracetamol)
Where do you leave your backpack/case during trekking?
Take only the essentials with you while trekking, leaving the rest in your suitcase or backpack. We just put our backpacks in our hotel in Cusco and I assume that is possible in any hotel or hostel.
Lodging during the Salkantay Trek
We were really impressed with the places to stay. Especially the first one: really fantastic! We stayed here:
Night 1: Sky Camp
Glass igloos giving you views of the mountains by day and the stars at night. Impressive is really the right word. You can’t shower here (unless you like an ice cold shower) and it’s freezing. Between 5PM and 8PM there is electricity in the igloo, which you can use to charge your phone and camera.
Night 2: Andean Huts
Another special stay: Andean huts on stilts. Very small, but also very nice. Here, wifi (10 soles; 2.70 euros) and a nice hot shower (10 soles; 2.70 euros) are available for a fee.
Night 3: Jungle Domes
A wonderful stay in green igloos in the jungle. Because suddenly here you are in warm weather. So here it is also a lot warmer at night and you no longer need your thermal clothing.
During the 5-day Salkantay Trek, you will encounter literally any type of weather. And everywhere, the weather can turn in a matter of moments. We went in June and had fine weather. Both overcast, freezing, heavy rain, sun and heat. You are in the mountains at high altitudes where the weather can turn in no time and where you need thick clothing as well as a t-shirt. Prepare well for these extremes and do not expect 5 days of sunshine.
Level of difficulty
How tough it is for you depends on several factors. Such as your own fitness, whether you have knee problems and how well you can stand the altitude.
For me, the uphill sections were the toughest. I don’t suffer from altitude sickness, but it takes a lot of effort to hoist myself up. As a result, I am always the last of the group: I hike quite slowly and felt rather weak compared to the rest. Very happy I was with my walking sticks: they really help to alleviate some of the heaviness.
Downward I personally like it better, although that’s also pretty heavy. There are some steep sections and that is a strain on your knees. If you have knee problems then you are definitely going to suffer from this and it may be more convenient to do these stretches on horseback or by car.
In addition, it depends on whether you have altitude sickness or not. In any case, you would do well to acclimate to Cusco for at least 3 days or so before hiking the Salkantay Trek. Drink lots of water along the way and take pills with you in case you get a headache or really altitude sickness. Because I live at a high altitude I only start to notice altitude around 3500 to 4000 meters altitude. I then get a headache that goes away quickly with a finimal.
Then there is the weather. As mentioned, we experienced everything from sunshine to heavy rain. As you walk uphill, cloud cover is often finer against the heat, and bright sun or heavy rain or even snow can make the trek quite a bit heavier.
If you are in somewhat of a good shape, like long walks and don’t mind losing a little weight then you can definitely do this trek. With proper preparation, though.
How to get back to Cusco
After Machu Picchu, we went by train and bus to return to Cusco. The train left at 4:20PM and took 1 hour and 40 minutes. Upon arrival, a van was waiting to take us to Cusco. This ride took about 1.5 hours. Between 8 and 8:30PM we arrived in Cusco. Again, this was all arranged by Local Hero Travel and included in the price.
Yes it was grueling (for me), but so amazing. The Salkantay Trek truly felt like a victory and an experience to remember!
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