Salkantay Trek: a Terrific Trail to Machu Picchu

Salkantay Trek is without doubt one of the best ways to experience Machu Picchu. Since Inca Trail is booked out months in advance and only allows limited amount of people per day, it’s hard to get a spot on it. Besides, Salkantay Trek is perfect for nature lovers. The trek includes parts of the old ways that Incas used as well as a hike to a beautiful lake, mountain pass, walks in the jungle and much more. If you are looking for a special experience and are not afraid of being physically active, this one is for you.

In this article we’d love to tell you more about how our Salkantay days looked like.

Day 1 or how sleep can be more important than a starry night

The trek started early: our guide picked us up at our hostel in Cusco around 4 am. A small van drove the whole group to the Mollepata town (altitude: 2857m). We had breakfast, bought our  Salkantay Trek entrance tickets (both not included in the price) and continued our way to Challacancha (altitude: 3651m), where we started our first hike. After the bus ride on the winding road I felt like my breakfast was begging for the way out. Luckily, once I got out of the car into the fresh air of Peruvian mountains, it all went away.

Our hike to first night’s accommodation was not very challenging. During that time we learned a lot about Incas, local flora and fauna, customs and much more. Our guide, Edgar, was very knowledgeable (and fun!) and we could ask him whatever we wanted, starting with “what plant is this” and finishing with the old shaman traditions. Besides, he always had coca leaves in his bag – a very practical thing to have, considering the altitude. It was also a great opportunity to meet the group. Our path lied through the beautiful valley and it took us around 2.5-3 hours to reach the Sky Camp at Soraypampa (altitude: 3869m).

Soraypampa glass domes and mountains

The view from the first night’s campground was breathtaking

When we reached glass domes, we got settled in and afterwards enjoyed our lunch. I must tell you, the food with Salkantay trekking was amazing! I don’t think we have ever finished all the food on the table – there was always plenty of it and the variety was fantastic. On the evening of day 1 they even made me an early birthday cake – that’s probably the only time in my life when I was surprised to get one, truly unexpected. And yes, we got dessert every day. In our crew we had a chef, an assistant chef and the horseman, who moved around with mules (a muleman?). They all seemed very nice and we got a quick chance to meet them later in the day.

After lunch we hiked to the Humantay lake (altitude: 4221m). That wasn’t an easy hike, but we all made it. Looking back – it wasn’t that hard either. But if you asked me right after I reached the top, I probably couldn’t answer, cause I would still be catching my breath. The view of the lake is absolutely stunning! Snowy mountains, blueish-green water – it reminded me of scenery in New Zealand. Hundreds of years ago Incas used this lake for astronomy: at night they could see reflections of stars in the water. Coming back from the lake was a bit easier for me (in my book uphill is much harder than downhill), but it still took some time.

Humantay Lake

Bright water of the lake reminded us of scenery we saw in New Zealand

Peruvian nature

Where’s Wally (Read: Anders)?

Peruvian mountains

Stunning views to the other side as well

Back at the camp we enjoyed our afternoon tea, dinner and then we went to sleep, as next day we had another early start. At night, when I woke up for the bathroom run (oh, all that coca tea..), the sky was incredibly starry. It was unbelievable, but also extremely cold and windy, so I don’t have any pictures to share (run to the glass dome, Forest, run!). I wish we weren’t so tired after the early start and hike to the lake, so we could stay up longer to capture this beautiful moment and enjoy it together.

Salkantay trek glass domes

Salkantay trek glass domes

Glass domes looked amazing when we descended back to the camp

Day 2 or how I spent my 24th (khm, 30th..) birthday

Dirty hiking shoes

Sorry for the details, but had to be honest: traveling is not all just beautiful views and delicious food

Many people say that second day of Salkantay trek is the hardest one. Isn’t that the best way to celebrate entering a new decade of your life? Well, my special day started with delicious breakfast and.. horseshit. Please, don’t hike in your white sneakers (and no, I didn’t), hiking shoes are worth investing in! While leaving our camp, we had to walk through the field where horses were parked during the night. It was very wet, so everyone had to be inventive to carefully walk around it. I wasn’t so graceful, and my hiking shoes got their first portion of fertilizer.

In the beginning of the day we got some information, but later on there wasn’t too much talking: everyone was saving their energy and their breaths. We had to go through Salkantaypampa (altitude: 4154m), “The Trail of the 7 Snakes” and Suyroquocha (altitude: 4491m). The higher we went, the worse the weather got. I was incredibly happy that we had hard shells and raincoats for extra protection for our bags. It was raining and it was cold, so proper equipment is extremely important for Salkantay Trek. Before the final stretch to the Salkantay high pass (altitude: 4630m), our assistant chef was waiting for us with snacks and coca tea.

Hut at Salkantay Trek

A house like that could easily remain unnoticed. Chameleon much?

Yellow flowers

In this cold and misty weather even tiny little flowers looked magical..

When we reached the mountain pass, my face was freezing. A mix of snow and hail met us on the top, and the view was cloudy due to the weather, so we didn’t stay long and continued our way down. Though brief, this was a very special experience – you get a sense of achievement, when you finally reach the top. There we were standing, cold and wet, but with big smiles on our faces – and I thought: I wouldn’t have my 30th birthday any other way.

Salkantay High Pass

As you can see, proper gear was much needed

Afterwards everything was working in reverse. The further we got, the lower we got and the better the weather was. We were all soaked and cold before lunch, but afterwards layers started to come off and suddenly.. we were in a jungle! That’s the Salkantay trek for you, ladies and gentleman: from hail and snowy mountains to the jungle in one day. On the way we also saw some Inca terraces and more amazing Peruvian nature.

Group hiking Salkantay Trek

Peruvian nature

The scenery change was quick but smooth at the same time.. makes you wonder: are there places around your home that exhibit such an incredible changes while you don’t even notice it?

We reached our accommodation in Chaullay (altitude: 2870m) after dark. That evening we slept in tents set up under the roof; mother nature destroyed old huts. Exactly as the day before, we got our dinner and went to bed shortly after.

Day 3 or the best way to relax in the middle of the trek

That day was a bit more relaxing than others. The walk was quite easy and only took us half a day. We were walking towards the jungle domes in Luchabamba (altitude: 2017m), and we had plenty of time to stop and talk about nature, climate, wildlife and more. We saw different species of orchids, small and not-so-small waterfalls and rock formations.

Sun above the mountains

Peruvian nature

Peruvian nature

A spring in Peru

The positive side in comparison to the previous day was that due to the good weather and slow pace we had time to make plenty of photos!

After our lunch in Luchabamba we went to the Cocalmayo hot springs. Last hot springs we visited were in San Pedro de Atacama, and this time it was way better! Views of Peruvian mountains were beautiful, and hot springs were really hot in comparison to the ones in Chile. That day we felt like it was well deserved: soaking your tired body in warm water after 2,5 days of early wake-ups and trekking.

Cocalmayo hot springs

No naked pictures of us in the pool – but here’s the view – yes, please! The place has different pools with different temperatures, and of course, natural spring with cold water where you can cool yourself down

Day 4 or swinging in the sky

On this day our group was divided in the morning. Not everyone felt like they could or wanted to do the uphill hike again, and some people wanted to try zip lining instead. There was another Salkantay trekking group that did the trek at the same time; 3 people from their group and 3 people from our group joined together and continued the hike, while the rest took a bus to the zip line. The hike was not that easy, but since the weather conditions were much better than on Day 2, it didn’t seem as harsh.

Infinity swing in Peru

Of course I couldn’t resist giving it a try

We walked past some of the most amazing swings I’ve seen (and I’m from Estonia – we invented swinging as a sport – google “kiiking”). Or at least these were the swings with the most amazing view. On the way Edgar showed us Inca Starbucks and Peruvian coffee trees, and told us about coffee making traditions. We passed through a jungle, until we reached Llactapata (altitude: 2736m). This was where we got our first view of Machu Picchu. We also saw other Inca ruins and spent some time taking photos. Then we started our descend to Hidroelectrica (altitude: 1771m), where we were reunited with rest of the group for lunch. By that time we have said goodbye to our chefs and ate in a local restaurant.

Sign to Machu Picchu

View during Salkantay Trek

There wasn’t many kilometers left to Aguas Calientes and we continued our way following the train path. Of course it started to rain, but Anders was in such a good mood that it was hard to avoid being cheerful next to him. When we reached Aguas Calientes (altitude: 1900m), we checked into our hotels and met up for dinner and last instructions.

View during Salkantay Trek

Aguas Calientes welcomed us with a beautiful rainbow

Day 5 or it was all worth it

That was it, our last day. To go up Machu Picchu (altitude: 2400m) you can either take stairs or take a bus. As you might have guessed, we love hiking (even when it’s hard), so we went up the stairs. It took us around 50 minutes. 50 minutes of stairs. Not the normal stairs you have in your apartment building, but rocky steps, all of different sizes and kinds. So no, it wasn’t easy, but so worth it! We reached Machu Picchu before the opening, so we were probably within the first 50 people to get it. And it was absolutely amazing! When you see all these structures, how it’s built; when you hear more about Incas’ life and work, you get a whole new appreciation for this civilization. Sometimes I think that they were far smarter than we are with all our technologies and possibilities.

Machu Picchu

At last..

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Some say you can’t see the sunrise because Machu Picchu opens too late for it, but it’s not entirely true – yes, it’s bright outside when you enter, but the sun still makes its way through the hills and the play of colors is simply amazing

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Beautiful sunrise at Machu Picchu

Our guide gave us a tour around Machu Picchu, showing main parts of the city and providing lots of interesting information. After we said goodbye to Edgar we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some of us have purchased tickets to the Machu Picchu mountain (altitude: 3061m), some went to see the Sun Gate, others just stayed around to hang out in this majestic Inca city. Can you guess what we ended up doing? Yep, as if we didn’t do enough uphills, we went up the mountain.

Hiking up the mountain Machu Picchu

I mean.. why not?

That was probably the hardest thing during these 5 days. Not just because of 1 more hour of difficult stairs, but because it was the last thing to climb, and we knew it. But on the top.. oh, that view. Staying there, on top, looking at Machu Picchu and Peruvian mountains, it seemed like there isn’t anything I can’t do, there isn’t a mountain I can’t climb. Or at least that’s how I felt after I was able to breathe again. Unfortunately, photo taking in our group in the morning took a bit longer time, so our tour started and finished a bit late and we didn’t have time to see the Sun Gate. But you know what? There must always be something to come back to. And there is definitely still something for us in Machu Picchu, in Cusco, in Peru.

At the top of Montana Machupicchu

Final top of the Salkantay Trek!

View to Machu Picchu

This is how the Inca city looks like from the top

View to Machu Picchu

Magical hills of Peru

It might seem like this is what we did it for, here it was, our final destination! But for me and Anders Machu Picchu wasn’t the highlight of our trek. The whole trek was a highlight.

A beautiful train ride brought us to Ollantaytambo (altitude 2750m), where company’s bus took us back to Cusco. The final moments were a little messy. They gave us big white plastic bags to have our belongings in (so they can take duffel bags back). We had to do it quickly, so Anders and I ended up walking with these huge bags back to our accommodation. It wasn’t very comfortable (plus, we looked like bums), but we made it and all ended well.

Hummingbird at Machu Picchu

Beautiful hummingbird

Llama at Machu Picchu

Here’s some Machu Picchu wildlife for you

And last..

This trek was a fantastic and incredible experience. I would highly recommend it to everyone who likes a bit of a challenge and wants to see Machu Picchu. Right now, while writing about this, I close my eyes and I can still see it, like it was yesterday. Beautiful scenery, people’s faces, the taste of coca leaves, the smell of the jungle. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.

About Salkantay trekking company – their office is a mess, but the trek was great: food was fantastic, we absolutely loved our guide and the whole experience. Big thanks to all our wonderful team: our guide Edgar, our chef, assistant chef and horseman, and our teammates – Linda, Pam, Illene, Laura, Lin, Justine, Thomas and Ellie. And of course, I wouldn’t have done it without Anders. He is the one who makes me want to challenge myself, and I’m happy that I had him with me. At all times.

Salkantaylove, everyone!

Salkantay Trek group

Mountains at Humantay Lake

Laguna Humantay

Mountain view

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Salkantay Trek Facts:

Total distance: 70+km (without Machu Picchu day)

Longest distance per day: Day 2, 22km

Highest point: Salkantay pass, 4630m

Lowest point: Cocalmayo hot springs, 1600m

Biggest ascent: In one go: Day 2, 769m; In two bits: Day 5, 500m+661m=1161m

Biggest descent: Day 2, 1768m

Food: 9.5/10

Difficulty: 7/10

Recommended: yes

What to do before the trek? Check out our post on Salkantay Trek preparation.

Machu Picchu

More on South America:

Food and Drinks to Try in Buenos Aires and Uruguay

What to do in Santa Teresa

How to Choose a Tour in San Pedro de Atacama

Salkantay Trek: A Terrific Trail to Machu Picchu | Bearly Here

Salkantay Trek: A Terrific Trail to Machu Picchu | Bearly Here

Salkantay Trek: A Terrific Trail to Machu Picchu | Bearly Here

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