There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu, one of the most scenic and iconic is the Salkantay trail. The Salkantay trail is typically tackled by putting your body through 5 days of tough hiking at altitudes ranging from a lowly 1500m up to a nose-bloodying 4600m.
Nestled safely into the high slopes of the Urubamba valley, surrounded on all sides by jungles, insurmountable mountains and some rather deep valleys, every trail that leads you to this great city is stunning in its own right. However, if you’ve chosen the Salkantay trail, you’ve chosen well.
The Salkantay Trail is one of only two Ceremonial Inca Trails, the other is obviously the Classic Inca Trail (the expensive one where you need to book in advance). All other trails were typically designed as commercial routes to and from the great Incan city of Machu Picchu.
This post is meant as a guide to let you know what you’re in for if you choose to tackle this hike, what to pack, what to wear and what new adventures lay in store on each day. Hopefully, by reading through this post you’ll be much more aware and better prepared to “Survive the Salktantay trail”.
We’re not going to lie, Sarah and I booked this trail because the tickets for the Classic Inca Trail had sold out more than 4 months in advance. However based on our experience, we definitely do not regret it – we thoroughly enjoyed our trek and overall experience and will simply come back and do the Inca Trail another time.
Salkantay Trail Preparation
First of all, when you have a 5 day / 4 night hike ahead of you, packing lists become quite important – especially when you are limited to only 4kg of weight per person (5kg each but 1 kg is typically reserved for the sleeping bag).
We’ve been travelling the world so far with two backpacks and two day packs. For the Salkantay trek, we packed the smallest of our backpacks with our trekking gear (Sarah’s) and the rest of our travelling clothes, shoes, toiletries etc were packed into our larger backpack (mine) and left at the hostel ready for our return. This means that bag-wise we were taking the following on the trek:
- 50l Backpack (8kg in weight – 5kg per person limit)
- 25l Day Pack (Sarah’s – probably weighed around 4kg)
- 30l Day Pack (mine – probably weighed around 3-4kg – less clothes)
The Salkantay trail takes you through high wind-swept (and often rainy) mountains, past ice-cold glaciers and down into the deepest jungle – all in the space of 2 days. In order to prepare for the changes in temperature, humidity and weather it’s better to pack versatile clothing that can be used in a few of these situations.
Based on our experience, we thought we’d write down what we recommend to pack both in day packs and in your larger backpack / hold-all for the trip.
Remember the Day Pack needs to be light enough to carry for hours on end. You don’t want something that is going to wear you down or give you back problems while going up the steep slopes.
- Sunscreen & Sunglasses
- Insect Repellent (for the 2nd day onwards)
- Lots of sugary sweets
- Lots of breakfast / cereal bars
- 2l of water each day (depends how much of a drinker you are)
- Hat & Gloves if you’re not wearing them already
- Spare jumper / fleece
- Toilet Paper
- Hand Sanitiser
- First Aid Kit (more on that below)
- Be careful to leave enough space to store any clothing that you take off for warmer weather
Backpack / Clothing
This one is more down to personal preference in terms of clothing but the following worked for Sarah and I and was pretty average for the rest of the people we saw trekking.
- 1 pair of Hiking boots / trainers
- 4 pairs of comfortable socks (ideally hiking socks – just reuse day after day if still dry)
- 5 pairs of underwear
- Hiking trousers (preferably waterproof)
- Shorts (if it’s nice and sunny or you want to look good in photos)
- Leggings (for the women)
- 4-5 t-shirts / tops (include some thermal tops)
- Swimming costume
- Sandals / Flip-flops
- Your own sleeping bag (or you can rent one)
- Toiletries (keep it small)
Sarah and I managed to double this up and pack it into a single backpack weighing less than 8kg. By the end we had used all the clothes at least once.
In terms of bathroom stuff, wet wipes are especially important for the first couple of nights. On and after the second night you will have the option to shower (some cold, others hot) at the campsites. So if you’re wanting to indulge you need to bring along some shampoo, conditioner and soap – only enough to last a few showers though.
- Shampoo / Conditioner
- Wet-Wipes (2 or 3 packs – possibly 100 sheets in total)
- Deodorant (roll-on is good, spray is better for clothes)
First Aid Kit
This one is pretty important and should be kept in a small container in your Day Pack so that it’s accessible at all times.
- Ibuprofen / Paracetamol
- Antibiotics (this was a life-safer as Sarah’s wisdom tooth had flared up at the start of the trek)
- Re-hydration sachets
- Imodium (diarrhoea relief)
- Coca Leaves (if you want a bit more energy or are suffering a little with the altitude)
- Extra bug-spray
- Antihistamines (for the jungle bites)
- Blister plasters
Day 1 – Sayapata (2900m) to Soraypampa (3850m)
Be prepared for an early start! Our pick-up from the town of Cusco was scheduled for 4:30am, we then proceeded to pick up a few more passengers around the city before heading out towards our breakfast destination of Mollepata which takes a few hours. It’s typical that the other people at breakfast and in your bus will be your trekking group – so try to make friends early!
After breakfast at approximately 8am we reached our drop-off location at the start of our trail – Sayapata. It’s at 2900m above sea level. Here we made sure our day-packs were in good shape, watched the porters load the mules with our larger backpacks and nervously started our journey upwards.
The first 45 minutes are switchbacks with a pretty steep angle, this was daunting for us, as within the first 5 minutes of walking up we were struggling with our breathing – even though we’d already spent over a week in and around Cusco acclimatising to the altitude.
During this first stage, when you’re already struggling and realise you have 5 more days ahead of you it’s easy to lose a bit of hope. My best piece of advice is to remember that it is simply the altitude wearing you down. Yes you’re out of breath but that’s all it is, your muscles are still fine, and when you stop to rest for 2 minutes you’ll (hopefully) feel normal again. Just try to find a pace where your breathing is consistent (it’s not going to be like taking a stroll down the beach) and you’re not feeling like you’re expending more energy than you’re receiving through oxygen.
Small steps, short / frequent breaks, lots of water and sugar are the techniques that worked for us.
The trail on the first day is comparatively easy. After the 45 minute hike up to the top of the trail, you follow an old aqueduct system that runs pretty much flat for about 6km until you reach your first camp “Soraypampa” in the middle of the valley.
When you get to camp you’ll find yourself surrounded by mountains, glaciers and clouds but you should also be fresh enough to attempt the hike up to the mountain lake called “Humantay Lake”. Trust me, it’s beautiful and you wouldn’t want to miss it.
This afternoon hike is harder than the morning, it’s all uphill for approximately 1 hour. Take it slow and steady as you’ll need those calves for tomorrow morning!
If you’re lucky, when you reach the top of the ridge, the sun will come out and present you with a spectacular scene of glaciers, lakes and mountains – all in one picture. The clouds come in pretty fast up there so if you catch a break in the weather like we did – take your chance and get some good pictures.
A few crazy Americans were there at the same time as us and decided to jump into the lake. This is a glacial lake and as such, temperatures are around zero degrees – bear that in mind if you decide to take the plunge.
There are a few different camp sites here but they all have flushing toilets and even a small shop to buy water for the next day. Dinner was served around a large table for the 13 of us. A 3 course meal consisting of soup for starters, self-service dishes for main and a hearty pudding – they surely know how to feed you up on these trips.
A nice surprise was that we had straw shelters over the top of our tents – this kept us a little warmer and drier during the first night. This is important as the first night is by far the coldest of the lot. It was 1 or 2 degrees celsius (Early October) in the night. Thermals, wooly hat and sleeping bag liners are thoroughly recommended.
Day 2 – Soraypampa (3850m) to Challway (2920m) via Salkantay Pass (4600m)
The hardest day of the Salkantay trail is definitely the second. In total you walk for almost 22km. 8km of which is uphill towards the highest point of the trail – Salkantay pass at 4600m. It’s quite tricky to pack for as you start off going up hill into the freezing cold mountains (October) but end up in the sweltering jungle – all in the same day. Make sure you leave enough room in your day pack to store your hat, gloves, scarf and jacket if possible.
We were awoken at 5:30am with a coca tea in bed and a huge breakfast – I believe we had pancakes and porridge with additional coca tea and coffee. We started hiking at 6:40am heading towards the imposing snow-capped Mount Salkantay which we could just about glimpse through the thick clouds in the far distance. Spirits were high after such an amazing first day experience with the lake and we were looking forward to walking all day under the shadow of the mountains.
Unfortunately when you’re on these adventures there’s one aspect that you can never control – the weather. As we walked, the mountains were shrouded in clouds and we could see little of the Mount Salkantay even as we approached the pass itself.
One thing to note about the Salkantay trail is that there are frequent rest-stops. Most of which allow you to visit a bathroom (for a small fee) or purchase some water. These are typically spaced every 2 or 3 hours. Unfortunately, if you’re in need of a bathroom break between these stops, your only option is to “pay your respects to Pacha Mama” (natural toilet).
The first 8km are all uphill and many of us struggled with the final push towards the pass at 4600m but we all made it in the end. The most athletic of us were there 20 minutes before the rest and unfortunately spent over 20 minutes in the freezing cold at the top of the mountain waiting for the others. As soon as everyone had caught up and arrived at the top of the pass we were off again, if only to get out of the ice-cold rain that numbed our aching limbs.
The next 14km (give or take) were probably harder on me than the first 8km. I absolutely hate going downhill. The only thing I hate more than walking steeply downhill – is walking steeply downhill on loose, ankle-breaking rocks and this is exactly what is in store over the next 3 hours or so.
Despite the difficulty of the footing, the walk is absolutely stunning, we were fortunate enough for the drizzle to stop and the sun to start poking out of the clouds on our way down. I can’t adequately describe the sensation as you wander down from 4600m to nearly 3000m in a single afternoon but rest assured that travelling from rocky mountain passes to lush forest trails within a few hours is something you’ll never forget.
Another thing that we won’t forget are the insects, there are many of them – ensure that on this second day you have sprayed a liberal amount of insect repellent ready for the jungle areas. It may not seem it on the way down, but believe me – from here until Machu Picchu you will be targeted by these tiny stinging gnats.
That night we camped at a place called “Challway” where there were cold and hot showers, plenty of bathrooms and the same hut-style camping setup as the previous night. We had dinner at the top of the lodge – another 3-course masterpiece, though we were plagued a little by giant moths the size of our dinner plates. One major difference here, was that the temperature overnight was warmer and much more welcome than the previous night.
Day 3 – Challway (2920m) to Santa Teresa (1550m)
Day 3 saw us continue our steady march downhill, although this time we had to take a truck-path for 3-4km as the rain over the course of the week had taken it’s toll on the hillside surrounding part of the Salkantay trail. Huge landslides had made the trail impassable in some areas and we had to skirt around using an adjacent (and rather boring) road.
Once clear of what we thought were the last of the landslides, we crossed a rather impressive river on a rather fragile looking bridge and rejoined the Salkantay Trail.
Although we were still heading downhill, I must say that this part of the trek was possibly my favourite. There was a single path that led alongside the cliff walls and cliff edge, in some places it was thick with lush jungle, at others it was bare rock.
We even had to cross a very narrow and dangerous ledge where the landslides had taken most of the path away. Peruvians seem to be unfamiliar with the term “Health and Safety” and we had to (very slowly and carefully) navigate ourselves across.
It’s worth noting that when trekking, you may become separated by 10 minutes or so with other members of your group. There is typically only one guide so be sure to stay safe and be careful while trekking. It’s also a good idea to buddy up with someone else if you’re travelling independently so you can watch each others backs.
You’ll notice that the further you descend, the hotter it becomes. After several hours of walking you’ll start to see some dramatic changes in the scenery as well as the wildlife around you. Keep your eyes open for many varieties of orchids as well as hummingbirds and other tropical birds.
Eventually you’ll be walking alongside the river on a path that will lead you to a car waiting to take you to a camping hostel near Santa Teresa! Take some time out and have your lunch, don’t bother with a shower just yet – as you’ll be taken to some hot springs in the afternoon.
The hot springs are a welcome reprieve from walking – and will do wonders for those sore limbs. There are 4 different pools varying in temperature from around 32-38 degrees celsius, we stayed in the hottest for an hour.
On this day you’ll have reached the end of the Salkantay Trail as it was supposed to be walked, it will also be your last day of camping. The rest of the trail involves roads and railways – this will be tackled tomorrow!
Day 4 – Santa Teresa (1550m) to Aguas Calientes (2040m)
Day 4 is exciting. You’re well rested from the thermal springs and a night in a warm tent, you’re at the bottom (or near enough) of the mountain and the rest of the walk to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) is flat and easy-going.
From the hostel you may have a choice of either walking to Hydroelectric (the town before Aguas Calientes – on the other side of the mountain), taking a bus (which costs a little money) or doing a Zipline (which costs even more money).
These decisions divided our group a little, some people had already booked onto the Zipline, others really wanted to walk (even though it’s following a concrete road) and a few of us were pretty tired and wanted to save a little energy for the walk across the train lines in the afternoon.
We can’t speak for the morning walk as we took the bus, but the afternoon walk around the mountain following the train tracks is a pretty nice stroll. It’ll take around 3 hours to complete and you should arrive in Aguas Calientes at approximately 4pm.
At the start of this trail you’ll have your first glimpse of Machu Picchu – high on the mountain side. You’ll also be able to clearly see Huayna Picchu mountain.
We were set up in a nice hostel with private bathroom, double bed and a hot shower. While Sarah was taking a well earned nap – I took a stroll around Aguas Calientes, which has a rather respectable handicraft market and plenty of bars and restaurants.
Make sure you get an early night, as tomorrow morning you’ll be waking up early to get in line for the bus to Machu Picchu (or alternatively – an early morning climb).
Day 5 – Aguas Calientes (2040m) to Machu Picchu (2430m)
Machu Picchu day, the culmination of 4 days of hiking, cold showers and even colder nights comes around quickly. For some, they only have a few hours to spend at Machu Picchu as they have chosen the cheaper option of returning to Cusco by bus. Sarah and I took the train which is approximately $90 each, but taking the train meant that we could stay at Machu Picchu until well after 4pm. The others had to leave around 12pm to have enough time to walk back to Hydroelectric for the bus.
To be clear, there are approximately 3 options for Machu Picchu day.
- Take the train in the evening (pretty much every hour after 6pm) and then catch a bus back to Cusco (arriving around 10/11pm)
- Positives – spend longer at Machu Picchu
- Negatives – very expensive
- Take the bus back from Hydroelectric (takes around 6 hours)
- Positives – much cheaper
- Negatives – long walk back, less time at Machu Picchu
- Spend an extra night in Aguas Calientes then take the bus back from Hydroelectric
- Positives – slightly cheaper than train, more time at Machu Picchu
- Negatives – extra night cost, long walk back at noon following day
Those options are for returning back to Cusco from Machu Picchu, but there is another choice you will have to make in the morning. Whether you are going to climb up to Machu Picchu or take the shuttle bus ($12 per person each way). Some of us decided to climb – and said it was harder than any part of the Salkantay trek (2000 steps straight up). Sarah and I decided to take the bus, as we wanted to be fresh to walk around Machu Picchu all day.
In the morning of this last day you MUST get up early if you want to catch a decent picture of sunrise at Machu Picchu. We were told to line up on the main street (near the train bridge) at 4:15am. We got there at 4:10am and were approximately #150 in the queue, this equates to being on the 5th bus up to the top. Buses don’t start leaving until 5:30am and they run every 5-10 minutes.
This means that if sunrise is around 6am – it’s VERY UNLIKELY you’re going to get that sunrise photograph. Missing the sunrise was a little upsetting as we were told we would be able to get there for sunrise, but it seemed to be a blatant lie – our sunrise was at 6am (Early October) and the bus takes 25 minutes to reach the top. Even the first bus would have deposited it’s passengers outside the gates with only a few minutes to spare. Not enough time to get to the city for sunrise on that particular day.
But despite this, it’s an amazing experience – one that you’ll never forget.
So, the question everyone asks is: “What are the advantages of doing a trek to see Machu Picchu over taking the train?”. There are many answers, but my personal belief is that trekking to Machu Picchu, whichever trek you choose, increases the anticipation and “spirituality” of the place. You’ll feel as if you’ve earned it a lot more when you’ve walked 4 days to see it. Having a guide point out the Inca ruins along the way and treading in the footsteps of history is an experience in itself but one thing you must do is save some energy (and some fresh clothes) for Machu Picchu itself.
It’s a journey vs destination argument, and arguably they carry the same weight, but come on…it’s Machu Picchu!