5 day Salkantay trek hike to the Machu Picchu (11 – 15 January)

The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is an alternative to the Inka Trail and considered by most to be the best alternative route (and maybe even better!).
• The Salkantay Trek is listed as one of the 25 best treks in the world by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.
• The Salkantay Trek is definitely one of the very best trekking adventures that you will find in Peru and in the continent of South America.
• After the Inka Trail, the Salkantay Trek is the 2nd most popular trek to Machu Picchu (but a lot less crowded).

We chose this trek because of above reasons and because it was considerably cheaper than the Inka Trail.

Walking Distance – 12km / 7.45 miles
Starting Elevation – 3350 meters ASL / 10990 feet ASL
Highest Elevation – 4600 meters ASL / 15091 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 3920 meters ASL / 12861 feet ASL

We needed to wake up 3.30 to be ready by 4 am – this is when we were picked up by the tour company from our hostel. When all members of our hiking team were picked up we drove about four hours to the starting point of our hike. We had a nice little breakfast at some local’s family house. Followingly, the tour company set the mules ready to carry our things and we started our hike about 9.30. So, we did not have to carry all our clothes and gear ourselves. Each one of us got a duffel bag and was allowed to put 7 kg of personal things inside. We took some warm clothes, flip-flops and hygiene stuff with us, which in the end were all really handy. During the hike, we carried only snacks and water and rain clothes in our backpack.

The first day was relatively easy and mostly flat. It was about 8 km to our campsite. The first section of the path took us over a few deep valleys along the side of a mountain. At some parts of the trail, an old aqueduct could still be seen which until now supplies water to farmers in the lower valleys. We were also quite lucky because we saw a condor flying over our heads. Our tour guide – the mountain king Carlos, explained that this means good luck. The condor is a holy bird for Inkas and to see him in nature, is a true privilege. On the way, Carlos also introduced us to many local plants what the old Inkas used for medicine.

When we reached the campsite, we had a little rest after which we had lunch. And then again rest. Right away we were amazed by the food cooked for us. It was a proper three-course meal cooked by an international chef – or this is at least how our tour guide called him. Already at the first lunch, we felt that there is going to be no possibility to lose weight on this trip despite walking a lot every day. The food was just amazing!

In the afternoon we hiked up to the Humantay lake. This was 2.5 km of steep uphill hiking. But it was worth it. This place is considered as one of the most beautiful sights in all the Andes with unbelievable blue-green water reflecting the mountain glaciers of Apu Humantay. It seems like something out of a dream or fairy tale! We spend a good one hour there enjoying nature. Luckily, coming down was much easier. After this hike, we had a so-called happy hour which was snacks and tea and then dinner. The food was amazing, again!

We spent the night in the skydomes. With the clear sky, it should be amazing to watch stars from the bed. Unfortunately, the night was rainy and cloudy so we couldn’t. On the other hand, despite the first day was relatively easy, we were still quite tired especially after the hike to the Humantay lake. So, we fell asleep pretty quickly anyway.

Walking Distance – 22 km / 13.7 miles
Starting Elevation – 3800 meters ASL / 12467 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2750 meters ASL / 9022 feet ASL
Maximum Altitude: 4650 meters ASL / 15255 feet ASL

Second day. It was the hardest day and most probably the most difficult hiking day we ever had. We needed to hike 22 km that day. First, there was a 7 km trail up the hill to Salkantay pass after which there was a downhill part of the trail til our campsite.

Kaija decided to do the first part til Salkantay pass with the horse. We needed to pay a little extra for it. Jaanus decided to do it the hard way and hike all the way up to the pass. This is how he looked when he finally made it to the top.

Although we got some nice views on the way, it started to cloud up and it rained a bit, so, unfortunately, we could not enjoy the views from the top. Despite that, both of us were extremely happy to have completed the most difficult part – Jaanus hiking and Kaija horseback riding, which is also not as easy as one would imagine. The horse continuously tried to walk along the deepest cliffs and on occasions, it was pretty frightening. We were amazed by the strength of the horse handler, who kept to horses on track and run after them if they wandered off for greener grass. During the 7 km uphill, he did not have a break at once.

At the Salkantay pass, we also made a short break to thank the mountain gods for protecting us through this journey. This ceremony included holding three coca leaves and blowing onto them and at the same time thanking the mountain gods. In addition, we made a tower of stones. This is also a tradition that during your way uphill, you will choose a stone to carry with you and on top create a tower. The bigger men in our group managed to bring up the base stones and the girls covered the ones on the top.

Continuing, there was a 5 km downhill walk to our lunch site. The walk downwards was on a serpent-shaped, rocky, gravel path which quite difficult to walk after the extensive morning climb. It was also raining so the road was slippery. Legs were tired and we needed to watch every of our step not to twist the ankle. After lunch, the way down was nicer. It might have been because the weather started to clear up and we could see the amazing views. There was a perfect valley outlook that was absolutely stunning! In the afternoon, we entered the upper part of the Amazon jungle, which is also called “the cloud forest”. This was a 10 km (6.2 miles) hike through the thick and magical tropical forest.

The second night we spent in the Andean huts. This was not so spacious as the Skydome on the night before but considering we were in the middle of nowhere then this was just perfect. Tour company also provided us with warm sleeping bags so despite nights being cold we were warm.
We also got rain during the second half of the day. This meant that our clothes were wet. Even the clothes which were safely in the bag were a bit moist because the air was just so humid. We did not know whether we will have dry clothes to wear in the morning, but despite the worries, we were so tired that we slept like babies.

Walking Distance – 10 km / 6.3 miles
Starting Elevation – 2750 meters ASL / 9022 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2400 meters ASL / 7874 feet ASL

We woke up at 6 am. Just like the previous days. Or to be exact the previous days we woke up 5.30am. I forgot to mention that every morning we were wakened up by our guide by serving the hot coca tea to our bed. Not a bad way to wake up every morning. Coca tea is kind of a tradition here, it helps people to cope with the altitude and gives you energy. Some people also just chew coca leaves to cope with the altitude. This we did not try, but the tea was great!

We especially waited this day because at the end of this day we would go to visit the natural hot pools. We started our trek to the small town of La Playa through the Santa Teresa Valley. We experienced totally different and new, lush landscape during our 6 hours of hiking – we saw rivers, waterfalls, wild orchids, and plantations of coffee, banana, passionfruit and avocado trees. This is why we liked this hike a lot because on every step nature and landscape was changing.

We also visited an organic coffee farm before we headed to our campsite. Our tour guide explained the process of picking, cleaning and roasting coffee beans and later on we got to taste some of the local coffee as well – freshly prepared by the local people!

This night we spent in the jungle domes. Similar to the first-night skydomes but without glass walls/ ceiling.

Shortly after lunch, we had a minivan which took us to the natural hot pools. On the way, Carlos Inka inked us 😊 All natural colors from local plants.

We spent 2 hours in total in the natural hot pools. It was just a perfect way to relax after 3 days of hiking. Our muscles and joints appreciated it a lot! Many people from our team had very bad knee pain and also painful blisters on the feet. Both of us were quite lucky that our joints were still managing to keep up with the burden, initially we were really scared about our knees because the previous hikes have shown that this is our weakest spot. Fortunately, the hiking poles were so much of help, that our knees did not have to let us down. By writing this – we feel like really old people complaining about joints hurting, but what can you do… 30+ is getting to us.

So the day three was a fun and relaxing day. But the next day’s challenges were already waiting for us, so again went to bed really early to start before the dawn.

Walking Distance – 18 km / 11.2 miles
Starting Elevation – 2450 meters ASL / 8038 feet ASL
Campsite Elevation – 2000 meters ASL / 6561 feet ASL (Aguas Calientes hostel)

The beginning of the day was really difficult. We had about 5 km of steep climbing uphill along the famous Inka trail. It turns out that Inkas were actually tall people because part of the trail was stairs and they were really high. Many people think that Inkas were small because people living in Peru are quite small today. Jaanus really struggled the first half of the trail. Luckily after 2 hours, the hardest part was over and we had a little rest.

We continued to the impressive archeological site of Llactapata where we also could see the Machu Picchu on the other side of the valley. Llactapata is believed to be a watch post of Machu Picchu. At first, it was cloudy and we could not see anything, but soon it cleared out. We not only saw the ruins of Machu Picchu from this spot, but also Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. At the viewpoint was a super cute dog family with 2 puppies. Most of the time we spent feeding our treats to the dogs and petting them.

Then we walked another 2 hours, luckily downhill, to our lunch site. This was the first lunch with a local family and we already started to miss our international chef from the previous days. After lunch and a waterfall shower for Jaanus, we continued our way to Hidroelectrica from where we needed to follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. The weather was getting really hot, so we had to get some extra layers of sunscreen.

Some people say that following the train tracks is the most boring part of the hike. So this is also the reason why some people decide to take the train to Aguas Calientes for an extra 31 USD. We decided to hike. The trail was flat so this was not difficult to us at all, and Kaija really was a fan of this part of the hike, because the views were extraordinary. This is the same trail used by the American professor Hiram Bingham who rediscovered Machu Picchu after centuries of it being lost to the outside world!

In Aguas Calientes, we could enjoy a real bed and shower in a real hostel and have a restaurant meal after living 4 days in the forest. To be honest, this time actually did not feel like living in the forest because we had pretty advance accommodation (apart from a hot shower) and meals were restaurant quality. Thereby it was like sort of luxury glamping. Despite that, we very much enjoyed spending the night in an actual house in the real bed.

Activity Overview: Touring Machu Picchu with a hike to the Machu Picchu Mountain

We had a choice whether we hike 5 km to Machu Picchu out of which 2 km is straight uphill along the stairs or we take a 12USD bus which takes us up to the Machu Picchu site. We decided that we take a bus because we did not want to be exhausted when we make it up there and could not enjoy the place what we came here to see initially.

When we first arrived it was foggy, but soon the clouds cleared and it stayed sunny all day.

Besides, we decided that we will hike to the Machu Picchu Mountain as well and we thought it might be too much climbing for one day. To clarify, there are 2 mountains which you can climb when you are already up in the Machu Picchu site. One is Mountain of Machu Picchu and the other is Huayna Picchu. For people visiting just Machu Picchu, this comes with an extra cost of 25 USD per person, but it was included in our tour price. The views from both of the mountains are considered to be spectacular. Machu Picchu mountain is supposed to be easier to hike, but it takes bit longer to reach the top. Huayana Picchu hike is shorter but steeper and more dangerous. But on top of Huayana Picchu you will see the best view to Machu Picchu archeological site and recognize its condor shape from the distance.

In the end, I think we made the right decision to take the bus, because it was quite a challenge to reach up to the Machu Picchu mountain – but totally worth it. The views and experience from up there are something else which you get just exploring the site. Up there you can get a much better notion of how difficult it must have been to build and also how well the site is protected by the surrounding mountains and valleys. It is difficult to put all the emotions we had into words, maybe pictures will carry some of it, but definitely visiting Machu Picchu is a memory for the lifetime. Did you know that last year they discovered another lost city of Inkas? They don’t have a name for it yet and the location is kept as a secret but maybe in a couple of years’ time it is possible to visit another lost city of Inkas 😊

After the Machu Picchu mountain hike, we were quite tired and also a little bit in a hurry to catch our train from Aguas Calientes. We spent a half an hour to walk to the famous Inka bridge, which ended up to be a small bridge along a steep cliff, the very dangerous secret Inka trail to Machu Picchu which is most probably not used anymore.

We also walked around the archeological site, look at the magnificent
stonework of the Inkas. We looked for the most important buildings to be done our of huge stones which all fit perfectly. The less important buildings are built from smaller stones. For our surprise, the stones were all much smaller than we had expected and seen in Sacsayhuaman near Cusco. The place was full of tourists and we were the lucky ones among those thousands of people. Since it was rainy season and all the 4 previous hiking days had been cloudy, we were really worried that we will not see much also at Machu Picchu. We do not know whether it was the condors luck from the first day, but the sky cleared up right when we got up to the archeological site and it was sunny til the end of the day. We were just enormously lucky!

To sum up, if you like to hike then this is the right way to visit Machu Pichu. Alternatively, you can take buses and trains from Cusco. First, you need a bus to Ollantaytambo and take a train there to Aguas Calientes. As a matter of fact, only the train ticket itself is already 100 USD. In total, we paid 460 USD per person for our hike and the tour company we use was http://www.salkantaytrekking.com This was all inclusive tour so we did not have to worry about the food or transport and also sleeping bags and trekking poles were provided. They are considered as one of the best if not the best. There are also many other companies providing the tours with less price but we are not sure what exactly was included. There are also companies providing luxury hiking of the same where you can sleep in houses every night. On top of the tour price, be ready to tip the guy who transports the bags with cargo mules, the chef, and the tour guide. This was not specifically mandatory, but Peru has a tipping culture so if you visit Peru you need to take this into consideration.

For the braver hiker, we can also recommend taking this hike by yourself. This way it is possible to save some money. All the trails are available on the maps.me app, so it is pretty easy to navigate. Also, if it is no high season, there should not be a problem to get accommodation in the villages along the way. The only difficult thing is to plan the food and water supply for 4 days in a row. So your backpack will probably be a bit heavier than ours. But if you are an experienced hiker, go for it and you can probably save 100-200 USD.

Please also check out our Instagram account and our story about this hike and also other stories of our journey 🙂

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