Salkantay Trek: 74 km to Machu Picchu
January 1, 1970
by María José Ojeda
When it comes to Peru, visiting the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu must be the first thing that comes to mind: one more checked item on the “Wonders of the modern world” list. The next step to follow is deciding how to get there, and there are multiple options to choose from. Either you go by bus or train or you can decide to turn up the level of adventure and do a trek, which is the option I chose. From the classic Inca Trail to the more relaxed Jungle Trek, you will have here again different hiking options. The one I chose: the exceptional Salkantay Trek.
5 days of hiking and adventure
The classic Salkantay Trek consists of 5 days of hiking through numerous landscapes, each one as marvelous and different as the other. In fact, you will encounter warm and astonishing jungle environments when going down to 1900 meters (7055 ft) and cold and breath-taking ones while going up to the highest point of the trek: the Salkantay pass at 4 600 m (15 090 ft).
First Day: a calm hike that leads you to the highlight of the trek
For me, the first day of hiking is the easiest one. You will walk 13 flat km surrounded by little rivers, water flows, and mountains. If you are on a tour, it is also the ideal moment to get to know each member of the group and share stories and anecdotes with people who probably have similar interests than you. Day one is also the shortest day of hiking since you start at 10 am and get to the camping site for lunch. The perfect way to begin the trek for those who are not that used to the altitude yet.
After lunch, you will have the incredible opportunity to hike all the way to Lake Humantay. This is an optional hike; however, no one should choose to stay behind. Located at 4200 meters, this beautiful greenish blue lake is most definitely one of the highlights of the trek.
As for the night in the camping site you should note that this is the coldest one and that despite the hot coca tea that is given to you, it is essential to have a warm jacket and a good sleeping bag.
Second Day: hiking up, and up, and up… don’t forget you coca leaves!
It is said that this is the hardest day, not only because you walk the most but also because you go the highest. You wake up early in the morning and begin a four-hour hike all the way up to the Salkantay Pass. It is indeed a hard walk because of the altitude which makes it hard to breathe and impossible to go at a fast pace, hence the extremely useful coca leaves (they help you breath better and take away the exhaustion). Nevertheless, it is not an impossible hike and once you get to the end of it you will find out that it is completely worth it: there is nothing in the world like the huge rocks, the magnificent snowy mountains and the spiritual energy of the Salkantay Mountain.
The rest of the day is completely downhill, and even though you will be exhausted once you get to the camping site, you will be proud and glad that you did those 22 km. There, you will be rewarded with a hot shower, a nice meal, and a warm weather: perfect circumstances to sleep like a baby.
Third Day: a jungle path all the way to the hot springs
This is a nice day of hiking through the jungle, enjoying the sounds of the animals and the river, the warmer weather and interesting information about the plants and their use by the Indigenous tribes around there. Compared to the day before, it is an easy and relaxed walk that becomes even more bearable knowing that after lunch you will be taken to the hot springs so that your swollen muscles get the treatment they deserve.
Fourth Day: getting to Aguas Calientes… almost there!
Another optional activity is planned for the morning of Day Four: zip lining. It is a definite dose of fun and adrenaline that will put you in an optimistic mood for the rest of the day.
Afterwards, you will be taken to the Hydroelectric from where you will start a couple of hours hike all the way to the city of Aguas Calientes. It is a nice and easy walk following the train tracks. Besides, along the way, you will be able to see the first sights of the great Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes is a small town full of hostels, hotels, and tourism since, besides the Inca Trail hikers, travelers need to arrive there in order to get to Machu Picchu. Once you get to Aguas Calientes you will finally get to sleep in a bed in one of the hostels of the city, and it’s a night of sleep that you will need since Day Five is an early starter.
Fifth Day: Macchu Picchu awaits you!
Machu Picchu is closer than ever before and it will be waiting for you quite early in the morning. You will wake up at 4:00 am, get ready and walk half an hour to the first door, which opens at 5:00 am and where you will have to present your ticket and passport. From there to the second door you have hundreds of steps to go, so breathe, take your time and enjoy the sunrise. The second door opens at 6:00 am and once you are in, you will finally be able to rest while enjoying the view of one of the most complex and developed ancient cities.
I would advise having a guide for this part since most of the information they give about the Inca civilization and the recent discovery of Machu Picchu is extremely surprising and even unbelievable. Then, you will realize how clever and advanced these indigenous people were and how lucky you are of getting to be there.
After the short tour, you will have time to explore and discover. Machu Picchu is a huge place and even though it is full of tourists you will always find amazing and peaceful places if you take the time to walk around and enjoy each step. Go to the Inca Bridge, the Temple of the Sun and if you get the opportunity visit Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu, which are additional hikes that will make you feel you are on top of the world. Finally, do not forget to take the famous selfie with a Machu Picchu llama or stamp your passport on the way out.
A few pieces of advice
When booking your tour
The Salkantay Trek isn’t as booked as the Inca Trail so booking online in advance isn’t necessary and it’s often much more expensive. I would advise to get to Cusco first and book through one of the agencies there. This is the one I booked it with, but cheaper ones and equally safe ones can be found:
Adjust to the altitude
Take at least three days if not more to adjust to the altitude in Cusco. If not, altitude sickness and its headaches could ruin one of the best experiences of your life. Once in Cusco, make sure to go to San Pedro’s market and buy lots of coca leaves or coca candy, they can be real lifesavers when it comes to the altitude.
The shortest version: the 4-day Trek
There is a short version of the trek: the four-day one. Don’t let that fool you: one day less doesn’t make it easier but harder. They take away the hot springs and the zip lining so that you can get one day earlier to Machu Picchu. I would much rather take my time and enjoy every activity than rushing into it.
Pack lightly but smartly
Some of the tours will give you a 5-kilo bag where you can put the things you won’t need during the day such as your sleeping bag. However, you will have to carry the rest. This means you will have to pack lightly so that you do not add to the exhaustion of the hiking, but do not forget to take the weather into consideration: jackets, gloves, and scarves are needed, mostly during the first day.
Enjoy and keep a positive mind
It is an adventure and anything can happen. For me, it was a rainy and cloudy day when I got to Machu Picchu. Just make sure you don’t let that affect you, each experience is worth living and nothing would be worse than letting your mood ruin your trip. Eventually, the sun always shines.