So, you’ve decided to do the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Great decision! The Salkantay Trek was some of the most incredible scenery I’ve seen on a hike. It will take you to up to breathtakingly high altitudes, mountain lagoons, across Salkantay Pass (4630m) through beautiful valleys, and then down into Amazon jungle, all the way to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. You will experience probably just about every season, from snow to hot humid jungle heat. You can literally feel the difference as you are dropping in altitude.
The Inca Trail is closed in February, which was one of the deciding factors in doing the alternate trek of Salkantay to Machu Picchu. Another deciding factor was the price difference – $200USD (or less) vs $700+. The Salkantay Trek is also longer and (apparently) more challenging than the Inca Trail (although I still would say it is only moderately difficult).
While 850 people do the Inca trail every day (plus staff and porters), you will find that the Salkantay Trail is less advertised and therefore there are fewer people on the trail. We hardly saw any other groups while we were trekking, and our guide told us that the Inca Trail can pretty much be a single file line up of people! One of the key differences between Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail is that the Inca Trail is paved, Salkantay is not. For this reason, the Inca Trail is more famous, and also a lot more expensive. The permits for the Inca Trail are costly, and that money goes straight to the government. It doesn’t make sense for the government to promote other trails to Machu Picchu (even though many exist), as they won’t make any money out of those trails. The cost to get onto the Salkantay Trek is 10 Soles – and this is privately owned so the government doesn’t see any of that.
I have had quite a few people messaging me with questions about the Salkantay Trek. So here it is, all in one place, everything you ever needed to know about doing the Salkantay Trek (in general, but also in the rainy season. I’ve included some of the more frequently asked questions (and things I wish I knew before I left!).
What to expect and how hard is it?
Expect long days (20km+ per day of walking), some steep and challenging sections, but an incredible journey which will take you to some spectacular scenery which many other people will never get to experience. I would say the trek is easy to moderately challenging.
Please note that depending on which company you do the trek with (or if you do it alone), the route may vary a little.
Pick up from Cusco at 5.30am. Drive to Mollepata for breakfast, before continuing on to Soraypampa where you start the hike. I found the hike pretty cruisy on the first day, mainly flat. Apart from the 30-45 minutes of very steep uphill hiking to get to Humantay Lake, which was (arguably) the toughest part of the 5 days. Once you arrive at Humantay Lake, the hard part of the day is done. You can enjoy the wonderful view of the blue/green lagoon, before walking steeply downhill and then mostly flat to the campsite.
This is a long day (23+ km), which takes you up to Salkantay Pass (4630m). The day starts with a steep, but short uphill section (not as steep as the day before, but definitely enough to wake you up), followed by some flat areas. It took us about 3 hours to get to Salkantay Pass, and it is all uphill mixed with some nice flat parts to give you a bit of rest. The last 15 minutes are definitely the most difficult, as they take you up to the highest point of the trek. Once you start getting up past 4300m altitude, it gets extremely cold, so make sure you are adequately prepared. It started snowing around 4500m and didn’t stop until after we started descending. Once you’ve reached the top, pat yourself on the back! The hard part is done. Because we did the hike up pretty fast (normally it can take up to 4 hours), our guide suggested we go to check out Salkantay lagoon, which added a few extra KMs to our day, but was a nice view.
You then begin descending, which is lovely because it slowly gets warmer and starts to become easier to breathe. It is about 1.5-2 hours to get to where you have lunch, followed by another 3 hours to get to the night’s campsite (mainly all downhill).
There is an opportunity to pay 10 Soles for a hot shower here, and you can also buy snacks, beers and soft drinks.
It is quite amazing to see how quickly the landscape changed. I found it difficult to believe that the previous day we were in high altitude landscape which was green but without many trees or plants growing. Day Three brought us through the edge of the Amazon basin, which meant that the trees were thick and luscious, the air humid and thick and much warmer than the day before. Wear shorts on this day and make sure you have a lot of mosquito repellant ready! This is not a difficult day at all, but it is long (20+km). You will have the opportunity to go to the hot springs (10 Soles entry + 15 Soles transport round trip). It was worth every penny. We also ended up having an unexpected party by the bonfire this night, which was really fun!
The plan changed a little on this day, we couldn’t walk to Aguas Calientes via Llactapata due to the landslides. So this day was perhaps a lot easier than it would normally be. Another long day (again more than 20km), and the last few hours follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes which is 11km all flat! Once you get to this section, you can rest assured that your hard work for the day is done! We stayed in a hostel in Aguas Calientes which was lovely after the last few nights in tents. They had hot showers and comfy beds. If you’re feeling like you need extra pampering, you can also get a massage in Aguas Calientes for about 35-40 soles for an hour.
This is the day you’ve been waiting for! Machu Picchu! Leave all your stuff at your hotel and only bring a small daypack with the things you need for the day (water, camera etc). As our plan was to go to Machu Picchu in the morning, we didn’t want to half-ass it. We woke up early, and made sure we were the first people there. We left Aguas Calientes at 3.50am and arrived at the checkpoint by the bridge at 4.10am. The checkpoint doesn’t open until 5am, so then we had a bit of waiting time to eat our breakfast. People started trickling in, and by 5am when the checkpoint opened, there was a lineup of at least 100 people. Our group was already first in line and so we started our journey up the 1900 stairs to the top. Bring an extra shirt in your daypack so that you can change at the top. It is so humid and you will get sweaty powering up these stairs. It took us roughly 30-45 minutes to get to the gate at the top. The gate doesn’t open until 6am, but we were delighted to be first in line to the entrance.
Notes for Machu Picchu:
Due to the new rules starting this year, you can only walk around Machu Picchu ONCE! No backtracking. Make sure you get all the photos etc that you want the first time around. I recommend starting from the Guardhouse at the top to get a photo like this one, before making your way around the main city section. The only way you can get around this rule is to purchase a ticket to one of the mountains (Machu Picchu Mountain or Wayna Picchu), which will allow you to enter Machu Picchu twice.
I recommend getting a ticket to Wayna Picchu if you can. Wayna Picchu has ruins on it which are pretty amazing to see, considering how steep the mountain is, and I found it difficult to wrap my head around how they must have built it. We started up the top at the Guardhouse to get the classic Machu Picchu pic without any people in it, before heading down to make our slot to climb Wayna Picchu (there are only two slots daily and only 400 tickets available, so make sure you try to book in advance if possible). Note than Wayna Picchu takes around 2 hours round trip, including time to take photos. We actually only took about 40 minutes to get to the top, but then spent almost an hour taking photos and waiting for some clouds to clear. It was then 30 minutes to get back to the base.
We then finished the Machu Picchu circuit and came back to the entrance, where we used the bathroom (there are none inside!) before reentering. We then hiked up to the Sun Gate, which takes you on the original Inca Trail (the actual last part which would be the part the people hiking the Inca Trail enter Machu Picchu through), has an incredible view over Machu Picchu and is worth the detour. I think it added less than an hour and a half, including hiking up there, stopping for pics and a snack and then hiking back down. We then went across to the Inca Bridge, which is only a 15-20 minute detour but is really interesting to see. If you don’t have a mountain ticket, then after you’ve taken your pics at the Guardhouse, you should go to the Sun Gate and Inca Bridge before exploring Machu Picchu, as you won’t be able to go back up there again.
Once we walked back to Aguas Calientes, I checked my step counter and we had done 27km that day. No wonder my feet were sore!
What was it like doing the trek in rainy season?
Rainy! Expect and be prepared for it to rain. I was wearing a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, rainproof cover on my backpack and then I put a plastic poncho over the top of everything – when you are walking all day in the rain, the water will eventually start to soak through your waterproof jacket and so the plastic poncho just adds an extra layer of protection.
The first day when we were hiking up to Humantay Lake and back down, it pretty much rained all day. We were lucky while we were at the lake that it cleared up for a brief moment so we could enjoy the incredible scenery. However, when we continued hiking down towards our campsite, it started pouring and we were walking in heavy rain. I was only wearing trainers, which was fine for me because I am not a fan of big hiking shoes unless I absolutely HAVE to. However, my trainers got absolutely soaked through. Even people with waterproof hiking shoes eventually got wet feet as there was so much rain.
The second day, the day you hike up to the Salkantay Pass, it rained and rained. By the time we got up to about 4500m altitude, we were wet and it had started to snow. So I was very cold. Luckily, our guide kept us moving and we got through it alive! I would recommend you have your layers ready for this day, especially a thermal layer is very helpful!
The third day, it wasn’t raining but we were affected by the previous day’s rain. There was a landslide so big that we couldn’t continue on the usual path. We had to cross the river in a pulley system, which they normally use to transport goods across the river. It was an unexpected surprise but added a sense of adventure to the journey. We then had to continue along the other side of the river for a couple hours before we could cross back to the other side (this time on a bridge).
You have two different options of routes for day four of the Salkantay Trek. The company we went with normally takes the Llactapata route which takes you on part of the original Inca Trail. Unfortunately, the Llactapata route was completely washed out with landslides and it was too dangerous to take this route. So we had to take the alternative, which was to walk to Hydroelectrica from Santa Teresa and then walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
What to bring?
This will vary a little depending on what kind of packer you are, and if you are doing the Salkantay Trek on your own or with a tour. I did the Salkantay Trek on a tour, so didn’t have to worry about bringing a tent and food (if you were doing the trek on your own then there are a lot more things you would need to think about). I am also the type of person who would much rather bring less and just wear the same clothes over and over again. If you are the type of person who would like to wear fresh clothes every day, then adjust accordingly. Keep in mind that most of the tours you will be able to give a duffle bag (which they supply) with up to 5kg of stuff for the mules to carry. You will still need to carry a day bag with things that you need during the day (including extra layers for the cold days where you are at altitude). You will not have access to your duffle bag until you reach the camps later in the afternoon. So ANYTHING you could need during the day you should have in your daypack.
Here’s a detailed list of everything I brought:
- Water bottle (at least 1L, but not more than 2L). You can buy water fairly regularly along the way, so it is better to save yourself from carrying extra weight and buy water along the way. It was roughly 10 soles for 1.5-2L. There is also plenty of fresh water along the way and you could fill up your bottle (however if you do this, make sure you treat your water first! You can buy water treatment pills in Cusco. Or bring them with you from home).
- Water purification tablets (if you aren’t going to buy water)
- Camera + any related equipment. Trust me, you do not want to miss the scenery here!
- Any medication you need during the day. A portable first aid kit, including bandaids for any blisters /ankle tape if you use it.
- Snacks. The food they give you is great and plentiful, but not a bad idea to have a few snacks also to keep you going in between meals. I wouldn’t waste too much weight by carrying a lot of snacks though, just a couple of small, lightweight things will suffice.
- Rain cover for your backpack. Essential in the rainy season, but probably useful in any season.
- Ziplock bag or waterproof pouch to put valuables in.
- Passport – you need this to get into Machu Picchu so don’t forget it!
- 2 x Hiking tops
- 2 x Leggings
- 1 x thermal long sleeve top
- 2 x sports bras
- 6 x undies
- 5 x socks
- 3 x thick wool high socks
- 1 x warm hoody
- 1 x waterproof jacket
- 1 x waterproof pants
- 1 x shorts
- Plastic poncho
Clothes for camp:
So you have some clean things to wear while sleeping.
- 1 x wool jumper
- 1 x track pants
- 1 x shorts
- 1 x t-shirt
- Bikini (for the hot springs)
- Toiletries (Deodorant, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste etc)
- Small towel (You can have a shower on night 2 and also in Aguas Calientes)
- Toilet paper (also helpful to bring some coins as a lot of the toilets along the way cost 1-2 soles).
- Mosquito repellant!!
- Headlamp or torch (it can be really dark at night).
- Charger or battery pack
What’s the altitude like?
No one can predict how the altitude will affect you. It made me feel breathless and like my lungs couldn’t keep up, but other than that I escaped some of the worse symptoms like headache and not being able to eat. Our guide made sure we had lots of coca leaves and coca tea, which are local remedies against altitude sickness. My best advice would be to spend at least a few days in Cusco acclimatising (if you aren’t already acclimatised).
Can you rent equipment in Cusco?
Yes, there are many shops in Cusco which specialise in camping equipment. There’s a little street/alleyway at the top of the square (just off the North-East corner), which has many of these shops where you can rent/buy pretty much everything you could need. We went to a shop all the way down the end of this street, named Himalayas, they seemed to have reasonable prices. There you could rent hiking boots (although I just wore trainers and they were fine), rain jackets and pants (I rented some rain pants for 10 soles, although they were only 30 soles to buy – I was never going to use these ugly pants again!). We rented a sleeping bag from the company we did the trek with, but all these shops also rent sleeping bags and tents.
Transport Options on Return:
You will have two options to return to Cusco.
You can walk from Machu Picchu back to Hydroelectrica (roughly 11km, 3 hours) and get a bus (6-7 hours).
Pros: Cheaper than the train
Cons: You will need to leave Machu Picchu by 11am and won’t arrive back in Cusco until 8-9pm.
You can get the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantambo (1.5 hours), then continue by bus to Cusco (another 2 hours).
Pros: You can spend a lot more time at Machu Picchu and have time to do the extras like hiking up one of the mountains, visiting the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge. You don’t have to then hike all the way back to Hydroelectrica. The train has windows in the roof so you can enjoy a beautiful view of the mountains as you are rushing past. Much faster to get home than the bus option.
Cons: A one-way train ticket is about $70 USD.
I took the train and I have no regrets! I would recommend the train option any day. If you are trying to save money, I can understand why you would want to get the bus. In this case, I’d recommend trying to stay in Aguas Calientes an extra night so you can have more time exploring Machu Picchu and the mountains there is to offer. Think of how much effort, money and time you have spent to get to this wonder of the world. What’s a little extra so that you can enjoy it properly, in all its glory?
Hope this article has been of help to you! If you have any more questions, feel free to comment or contact me on Instagram.