Visiting Machu Picchu is one thing. Trekking there is another. The Salkantay is the alternative hiking adventure you can take if you didn’t want to reserve the Inca Trail Trek months before your travels.
So, what do you have to expect from a 5-day hiking trip through the Andes? Will it fit into your budget? What should you pack? And is it really all that difficult to hike it if there are mules carrying your stuff? Is it going to be fun? – I will answer all these questions in a bit.
10 Things you should know before you go on the 5-day hike to Machu Picchu
I assume you are currently in Peru or you are going to travel there soon. Visiting Machu Picchu is just one thing on the bucket list for Peru. Whether you are convinced or still deliberating to hike to this “new world wonder”, these tips will probably be helpful for you.
1. Acclimatize to the high altitude beforehand
If you’re not used to the high altitude because you live in a lower place, you should plan a few days in Cusco or Arequipa. This way you can get used to it and prevent altitude sickness. This won’t make breathing much easier, though. Before we did the trek, we spent 2 months in Arequipa. However, we were still short of breath but no getting sick.
2. How long is the Salkantay Trek?
The distances vary depending on what trip you are going to take:
5 Days (4 nights): 46 mi / 75 km
4 Days (3 nights): 33 mi / 52 km
3 Days (2 nights): 27 mi / 45 km
We did the 5-day Salkantay Trek, where the longest hiking days are Day 2 and 4. Here is what you can expect for distance and elevation day by day:
- Day 1: 8 mi / 13 km distance & 945 ft / 288 m uphill & 657 ft / 250 m downhill = Soraypampa (12834 ft / 3912 m) – Humantay (13779 ft / 4250 m) – Camp (13122 ft / 4000 m)
- Day 2: 13.7 mi / 22 km distance & 2068 ft / 630 m uphill & 5676 ft / 1730 m downhill = Camp (13122 ft / 4000 m) – Highest Point (15190 ft / 4630 m) – Camp (9514 ft / 2900 m)
- Day 3 (on road): 10 mi / 16 km distance & 2743 ft / 836 m downhill = Camp (9514 ft / 2900 m) – Lunch (6771 ft / 2064 m) – Car Ride to Santa Teresa Camp
- Day 4 (might be different now, this is from March 2018): 11.8 mi / 19 km distance & 1640 ft / 500 m uphill = Santa Teresa (5085 ft / 1550 m) – Hidroelectrica (6200 ft / 1890 m) – Aguas Caliente (6725 ft / 2050 m). If you do the zipline, you’ll take a car from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica and hike only 3 hours.
- Day 5 (just to Machu Picchu): 2.5 mi / 4 km distance & 1247 ft / 380 m uphill = Aguas Caliente (6725 ft / 2050 m) – Machu Picchu (7972 ft / 2430 m)
3. Is the Salkantay Trek difficult?
The Salkantay Trek is not an easy-peasy hike. Depending on your level of fitness and your ability to cope with the altitude, you may or may not reach your limits. After all, it is a 5-day adventure and not a day hike. The first two days are the most strenuous. And then the steep climb to Machu Picchu itself again. Day 3 and 4 are relatively relaxing.
People who are fit and do sports regularly may not have any difficulties. I haven’t done much fitness stuff or endurance training before, nor have I done many hikes in preparation. I survived the hike but let me tell you: I struggled hard! Especially the second day. But hey, that’s different for everyone.
You never know for sure before you try it. And worst case, you can hire a mule if you really cannot make it…
4. Know your level of fitness and persistence
This is close to the previous but worth mentioning separately. Really ask yourself if you can hike in high altitude on 5 consecutive days! Just be honest with yourself. And also think about if you are that type of person who can go beyond your limits and push through in case your fitness isn’t all that great. If you can persevere with the trek even if you reached your boundaries, you’re good to go!
5. Pack as light as possible
Don’t pack too much unnecessary shit. Seriously. Even if the mule carries most of your stuff, you still want to have as little as possible on your back when hiking.
6. Charging phones and cameras
If you are obsessed with photos like me, have enough battery and storage. The first socket will be in the camp on the 2nd day. You probably won’t take a laptop to store images and phone service or WiFi aren’t great for uploading photos to the cloud. So, have enough SD Card or phone space.
7. What to pack for the trek?
You’re probably wondering what you are going to need on this trek. Before I start with that I want to point out that tour operators rent out certain things like sleeping bags and walking sticks. That’s why I am not going to put it on this list:
- Cash (Soles): Bring enough cash for drinks, snacks, tips, as well as for food on the last day. The only ATM along the trip is in Aguas Caliente and the chance to get money there is like 10%. You can also exchange money in Aguas Caliente. That’s what we did.
- Pack warm clothes (1-2 long arm shirt, jacket, beanie/hat, maybe scarf and gloves, as well as a sweater) for the beginning. You can get them in Cusco if you travel only with summer clothes. The first day and night are very cold. I even left my sweater and hat on overnight because I was freezing.
- After the highest point, it’s warmer again. So, pack clothes for warm days too. A pair of shorts and 2-3 shirts should be fine.
- Swimming suit (for the hot springs in Santa Teresa)
- Sun hat and sunglasses
- Hiking footwear. We did this hike in sneakers and I wouldn’t recommend. I mean we did it and survived without any injuries but hiking shoes will give you more support.
- 2 – 3 pairs of wool socks
- Sandals or flip flops for the camp, showers, and the hot springs
- Rain jacket or poncho
- Personal toiletries (toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, and so on)
- Medicine & First Aid: It’s never wrong to bring some pain killers, blister bandages, normal bandage/liquid bandage, and Imodium. These things don’t weigh much and can go into your day pack.
- Mosquito repellant
- Some snacks such as chocolate, cereal bars, candies, nuts, energy bars, etc.
- Day pack for water bottle, snacks, camera, sunscreen, passport, etc.
- Headlamp or flashlight (don’t just count on your phone!)
Note: All these numbers for shirts and socks and what not is up to you. The first 2 days and nights are the coldest. Santa Teresa and further should be warmer. However, it can be that you will experience more rain and you may want dry clothes for the night. Therefore, plan accordingly. The other things is if you are choosing the car for your return (not the train), you’ll have to carry your clothes & stuff for the last night. This means you’ll have to grab what you need in Hidroelectrica and carry it to Aguas Caliente and back. If you take the train, your stuff will be delivered to the hotel.
8. Best time for the Salkantay Trek
Honestly, you can always get unlucky when it comes to weather. So, just prepare yourself with the right clothes and gear.
There is, however, a dry and rainy season that determine the high and low season. From late April to mid-October is dry season and the best time to do the Salkantay trek. The months from May to September build the peak season, whereas mid-March to May and October to mid-November are shoulder season. We started the trek in the end of March and finished at the beginning of April. We had a bit of rain but it seemed more like the regular weather in that particular area.
9. Entrance tickets to Machu Picchu have time slots
Your entrance ticket is limited by time (morning or afternoon) and entrances. The paths inside the gates are designed in a way that you’ll automatically leave the park. You can only re-enter once more after you left. The next time you exit, even if it’s before noon, you are unable to get in. You cannot go backward on most paths. So, you should really look at everything right away and maybe get a map.
If you purchased a ticket for the other mountains (Montaña Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu), you have time slots too.
10. Plan your accommodation properly
Don’t forget to plan your accommodation in Cusco properly. Stay a few days before the Salkantay Trek to acclimatize and give yourself a couple of days to reenergize after the adventure.
Where to book the Salkantay Trekking Trip?
Booking this tour is fairly uncomplicated because it is the common “last-minute alternative” to the famous Inca Trail. There are plenty of tour operators that range between US$ 180 and US$300 for the trip. Of course, you should select the operator carefully. Nothing is worse than picking a terribly organized tour.
We went to Machu Picchu Reservations, which is close to Plaza de Armas in Cusco. They have groups leaving every day and we paid USD 250 per person because we took the train back.
If you want to take a bus/van back, it would cost you USD 180, but you have to carry your own bags the last day (with whatever you need for the last night and Machu Picchu).
In addition, we paid for some extra things (see a list below), which were added on top of the USD 250.
They also offer the trek in 3 and 4 days. You would skip Santa Teresa (both) and Humantay Lake (3 days).
Tips for the booking procedure
- Whether you book with Machu Picchu Reservations or not, you should always ask as many questions as possible
- Ask what is included and what is not, e.g. some tour operators include water, and some don’t
- Discuss the pick-up and drop-off clearly
What is included with Machu Picchu Reservations
- Knowledgeable guide that tells you a lot about the area and culture
- Pre-departure briefing
- Transfer to Mollepata (first day), from La Playa to Santa Teresa (3rd day) & from Aguas Caliente/Hidroelectrica to Cusco (last day)
- Basic breakfast (5x), filling & delicious lunch & dinner (4x, all days except for the last day)
- Tea time: Popcorn & tea
- Wake-up “calls” with coca tea delivered to your tent (my favorite part)
- 15 lbs / 7 kg per person in a duffle bag carried by mules
- Campsites with sleeping mats (no pillows)
- Hotel room in Aguas Caliente
- Entrance ticket to Machu Picchu (early one until noon)
- 2-hour guided tour of Machu Picchu (by your group guide)
- First-aid equipment and oxygen bottle for emergencies
What is not included with Machu Pichu Reservations
- Water, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and other snacks/sweets (you can buy all these along the trek)
- Sleeping bag (additional cost)
- Hiking poles (additional cost)
- 10 Soles entrance fee in Mollepata on the first day
- 10 Soles for a hot shower at the second campsite
- Hot springs in Santa Teresa (plus transfer)
- Lunch and dinner on the last day
- Tips for mule guys, cooks, and guide
- If you choose van transfer from Machu Picchu to Cusco: No transfer of bags to and from Aguas Caliente (which means, you have to carry around your necessary stuff from Hidroelectrica station and back on the 4th and 5th day
Optional “add-ons” for extra fee
- Sleeping bag for entire trip (rental): USD 10
- Hiking poles for entire trip (rental): USD 10
- Hot springs in Santa Teresa (+ transportation): around USD 10
- Zipline with transportation: USD 20
- Entrance to Montaña Machu Picchu (hiking for 3h roundtrip): USD 20
- Entrance to Huayna Picchu (hiking for 3h roundtrip): USD 20
- Train upgrade to Vistadome (panoramic train): USD 25
What to expect from the Salkantay Trek day by day
The trek goes through a lot of different landscapes and it would be a shame to not show you some of my favorite photos. The Salkantay Trek is soooo worth the struggle with altitude. It’s ineffable beautiful. Even photos don’t transfer the “awwwwe moments” I had.
Day 1 – Mollepata & Humantay Lake
Taking the bus all the way from the pick-up point to Mollepata takes already a couple of hours away from the day. You are going to start very early so that there is enough time for hiking and getting used to the altitude.
Don’t be discouraged by the basic breakfast on the way because the lunch will be massive and delicious. When we got served the breakfast in Mollepata, I thought “How am I going to survive this if every meal is like this?”. Later I found out that many had this thought, which was why a few people got soup seconds (the appetizer at lunch that many had mistaken for the main dish because they thought lunch would be as small as the breakfast). The breakfasts are light for an easier hiking. Lunch and dinner are where they serve the good stuff!
We got dropped off in Soraypampa where they packed our duffle bags on mules and we started our hike to Laguna Humantay. A turquoise magnificent beauty in the Andes. The hike up is a good way to deal with the thin air in 4000 m (13000 ft) altitude. The truth is: I was exhausted. I was breathing heavily. I was stopping every few feet. It is not easy to hike in high altitude. However, the lake is a huge reward.
After taking in the view for a while, you’ll go the way back you came. Machu Picchu Reservations has its own campsite not far from Soraypampa towards Mount Salkantay. And it’s the most gorgeous campsite I have ever slept at. Not so much for the facilities but the stunning views are out of this world!
Note for the camp: No showers, no shop, and no sockets here. This was in March 2018 and may have changed.
Day 2 – Highest point & down to the rainforest
The second day covers the most kilometers and the most strenuous stretch. The scenery is changing a couple of times. It goes all the way up to the highest point where you’ll freeze and may see snow. Then you’ll walk through Scottish-looking highlands in order to get to the rainforest area. So much diversity in one day is truly impressive.
The scenic views are rewarding but they don’t overwrite the struggles of the trek. It is still the hardest day. You will hike from 13122 ft (4000 m) to 15190 ft (4630 m) in the morning. The air is thin at this altitude. However, once you reach the highest point of the Salkantay Pass, you’ll be good. Then it’s just going downhill.
At first, it is very rocky and dry until you start walking into more and more clouds. The scenery reminds me of the Scottish Highlands.
After the lunch break, it becomes rainier and muddier. Suddenly you are surrounded by a whole different landscape and you notice the tall trees, climbing plants and flowers – Welcome to the jungle.
The second camp is quite hidden in Chawllay and totally different from the first night. Your tent will stand side by side with others under a protective roof.
The advantages of this camp: You can take a hot shower here and buy drinks and snacks. The whole group had some drinks that night, which was super fun after a full day of hiking.
Day 3 – Along the street and river to Santa Teresa
The third day is my least favorite one for the hiking part. It just follows the road to Santa Teresa, which could be taken by a car. There isn’t a trail next to the road. So it feels a little bit pointless to walk instead of driving (yeah, lazy me).
There is a lunch break on the way from where you are going to be taken by car to Santa Teresa. The town is known for hot springs and if you don’t pick the 4-day trip, you can spend the afternoon bathing in hot springs.
It was my husband’s birthday so we enjoyed the hot springs and later, we celebrated all together around the bonfire. It was a fun night with the best group we could possibly have. We actually had so many drinks (including our guide and the crew) that we overslept a bit the next day. It was the first morning without a coca tea at the tent…
Day 4 – Zipline & train trek walk to Aguas Caliente
The Salkantay trek is something we probably only do once in our life. So we added all the extra stuff when we booked the tour in the first place.
Therefore, we ended up ziplining through a valley in the Andes. And it was fun! The scenery is incredible and the ziplines are pretty long. The last one was 1600ft (500m) and I was allowed to do the “Super Woman Pose”. The harness was turned around so that it connects with the zipline on my back. It felt like flying. One of the greatest zipline experiences I had so far. The zipline tour ends with a pretty long suspension bridge, which wasn’t as hard as I thought when I saw it from above.
After the little adventure, a bus brought us to the Hidroelectrica Station, where we met the others who skipped the zipline.
After lunch, we started walking along the train treks to Aguas Caliente – the gateway to Machu Picchu. The hike felt longer than it was because it just follows the treks. I felt like in an old movie, especially when James started playing his favorite “Guardians of the Galaxy” Soundtrack.
A real bed and a hot shower never felt as great as in Aguas Caliente. It felt luxurious. As if I haven’t had this in weeks although it only had been 3 nights.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu & Return to Cusco
The final day has come. The most important part and the reason why we did the whole trip.
I was excited! Until I had to get up super early to hike uphill. One of the guys in our group used the right words for this last hike: “Short but spicy.”
The steps to Machu Picchu lead straight up the forest on the mountainside. Hundreds of steep steps. I was envious about the people on the buses that drove by almost every time we crossed the street. On the other hand, I really wanted to say that I hiked to Machu Picchu. It took us about 45 min until we reached the entrance. Others in our group did it in 35 min or so.
I pictured the moment of seeing Machu Picchu to be special. I thought I would be speechless in amazement. In reality, the whole site was covered in clouds and we could barely see 300 ft (100 m) far.
Our tour guide showed us the ruins and talked about the historical significance of this place. When the tour was finished, it was time to hike to Montana Machu Picchu.
On the first steps, it was bugging me so much that I had no time to simply enjoy the site and that the weather was so bad. Looking up we were about to hike into an even thicker cloud layer and it was supposed to take 3h roundtrip. End of the story, we turned around and enjoyed the clearing view at the regular Machu Picchu site. Although I was a little upset with myself about not hiking the last mountain, I was just happy to have the time to enjoy Machu Picchu the way I wanted it.
When our time was up, we slowly walked to the exit and took the bus to Aguas Caliente. We still had plenty of time until our train. So, we had lunch and a couple of beers and waited. If you are taking the train, don’t plan too much time. Your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu is limited by time. So, you won’t be able to explore the ruins until the afternoon. There is nothing much to do in Aguas Caliente. So, don’t take a train as late as we did. The whole trip was exhausting and the last day’s waiting drained us even more, but we were happy when we got to our apartment in Cusco.
Hiking for 5 days in the Andes has been one of the most memorable adventures I have done so far. So, if you are still thinking about whether or not you should go, I tell you GO! If you are a stubborn person and push through, you can do it!