Oh the Salkantay Trail. You were all I wanted for 5 days and more.
When most people think of trekking to Machu Picchu, they’ll usually conjure up thoughts about walking the Inca Trail, stumbling upon ruins each day, and sharing each day and night with a guide and fellow travelers. That’s definitely not our experience on the Salkantay.
The Salkantay Trail is a 60.5km (37.5 miles), 5-day endeavor leading to Machu Picchu. (Compare that to the 4-day 45km/26 mile Inca Trail). To be clear, one of the biggest differences with the Salkantay (and one of the things I worried about before we left for Peru) is that, instead of coming through the infamous Sun Gate on that final morning, you’ll walk directly from the over-touristy Aguas Calientes. But, honestly, if you’re looking to go at it solo, are willing to give up some ruin-hopping along the way (there are plenty of ruins to see in the Sacred Valley before or after your trek), and are ready for some pretty incredible views, the Salkantay may be for you.
While we (a friend and I) went ahead and did the trek solo – after a lot of deliberation up to the last minute – there are plenty of companies that offer guided treks. I’d recommend waiting until you’re in Cusco to book anything, as the entire area around Plaza de Armas is filled with tour booking offices and you’ll be able to pick the best fit, and usually get a better deal than if you booked online before arriving. The cheapest tour we found ran around $180/person, up to about $550/person and higher.
Obviously, if you go guided, it’ll usually depend on how many amenities you want on your trek. (I’ve also read a couple warnings about responsible tourism on the cheaper tours especially, since guides and porters may not receive a fair share of the cost – just be aware and shop carefully). We went in January 2016, which is rainy season, but got pretty lucky with weather during our time.
We only spent 1.5 days in Cusco before leaving, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. We were just lucky to not get hit hard by altitude sickness before we left, but a lot of people do, no matter how fit/young/etc you are. Remember to drink lots of water and as much of the coca tea you can. We took it mostly easy, only walking up to Cristo Blanco the day before our trek, which was a challenge enough in itself. It’s a weird feeling climbing into the top bunk and feeling short of breath when you consider yourself a pretty fit person.
We also spent the day before the trek shopping for last minute items: food, fuel, backpacks… Since Cusco is more than familiar with trekkers at this point, there are plenty of shops selling anything you might need or have forgotten for your trek – fuel (which you can’t fly with), mini locks, cheap backpacks (about 85 soles/30 USD for a small North Face daypack), trekking poles, etc. There are also a fair number of grocery stores or small shops where you can stock up on snacks (dried fruit is always key, and you can get some good one at the San Pedro market in Cusco!) and food. We grabbed some quinoa bars and some pretty tasteless Quaker Oats bags (don’t recommend – check the sugar content, since ours was almost zero).
After packing up our bags (as lightly as possible) and an early bedtime, we were ready to go.
Day 1: Mollepata to Soraypampa
~8 hours of trekking
1,000m elevation gain
Today starts with an early rise (about 4:15AM) to shower (trust me, you’ll want to shower just before you leave since it will likely be a long and smelly 4 days before you do again) and make it to the stop where collectivos (shared vans) leave for Mollepata around 5:30AM. The corner on Calle Arcopata is pretty easy to find, and as soon as people see you with your packs, they’ll pretty much guide you to the right van. The ride costs 15 soles/person and expect to be squished among local Peruvians. We spent the 3 hour trip squeezed into the 12 passenger van with about 15 other people, including an older woman in traditional dress carrying a bouquet of flowers, a young guy, a woman with her teenage son, etc, clutching onto the seat in front of us to avoid falling onto the other passengers during all the rough turns. Don’t expect to get much sleep on this ride, but it’s a great local experience and will save you a lot of money vs. taking a private car.
After a long breakfast right on the square where the van let us out around 8AM, we headed up to the start of the trail, half-excited and half-anxious. It’s easy to find the start – just ask anyone sitting around the plaza and they’ll point you in the right direction. The walk starts with a steep walk through part of the town for a few minutes, and quickly leads onto a big, dirt road with views over Mollepata as you head into more and more greenery. While a lot of other trekkers wrote about being offered rides during this section, we never saw a car pass – maybe because it was January and the off season? Either way, don’t count on being able to skip this section in a car in case. We followed the “Pedestrian” signs and ended up at a very steep, slippery section (January – rainy season) before giving up and deciding to switch over to the road.
At about 11:30, we reached a wide open, grassy field with amazing views down into the valley. Some restrooms (locked) and a small pagoda made for a great picnic spot next to some roaming cows. Just as we were finishing up, we ran into our first set of other trekkers – 2 French solo female trekkers, which made us feel a bit better about our decision to go guide-less.
As soon as we started up again, we were treated to some great alpine views of glaciers in the background, behind bright green hills and a rushing river below. It was so powerful to be able to walk through this scenery virtually alone, and to see such high and green mountains in every direction. The views this first day alone made me so happy we had chosen the Salkantay, with its vast landscapes and overwhelming scenery.
By 5pm, just as our legs had about had it, we rounded a corner towards what looked like a campsite. There were some empty pastures along the path, which all looked pretty tempting, but we continued on til we reached the blue canvas awnings we had read about that form the Soraypampa campsite. We walked right in and the guy there directed us to one of the tents, where the French girls had already set up their tent. We set up, washed up a bit (only outhouses and an outdoor sink, so don’t forget some face/baby wipes – you’ll be thankful!), and crawled into our tent for a break. A break quickly turned into a 12 hour nap. Yep, too tired for dinner and asleep by 6:30pm on our first night – winning. We only woke up to the sounds of the guide from the tour sleeping in the other tent debriefing his group around 7:30 and their ensuing applause.
That first night is when I definitely was coldest, so bundle up and wear your gloves and socks to sleep. At 4,000m/12,750ft, it can get a bit chilly, even in their summertime. Also, if you can, try to wake up in the middle of the night and step out to take in the night sky – with no lights around and up this high in the middle of nowhere, it makes for a pretty amazing view of the stars and moon.
Day 2: Soraypampa to Chaullay
~9 hours of trekking
The second day is definitely one of the longest and hardest (they all could take the “hardest” title for various reasons), but probably one of the most rewarding.
After waking up to an alarm around 6:30 (after a few snoozes), we made it out of the tent, cooked up some oatmeal, and dodged between the quiet chaos of the guided group getting ready for takeoff. After letting them all head out (just far enough ahead to give ourselves some space but still being able to use them for reference), we paid the guy running the campsite (5 soles per person), brushed our teeth, and set out. I definitely recommend watching the tour group head out to see which trail they take, and then following about 30 min behind.
The second day starts out following the trail straight into the mountains (make sure you take the trail heading straight into the mountains, and not off to the left where the horses walk, since this will lead you straight up the hill, and then end up joining the main trail anyway) towards the glaciers. The trail ends up reaching about a 20% grade over the first 3km as you head into the Salkantay Pass towards the 4600m/15,213ft point – pretty significant, especially first thing in the morning as the air thins and you’re probably still overcoming altitude sickness. We consider ourselves pretty fit as backpackers, and we definitely had a pretty silent 1-1.5 hours as we put 1 foot in front of the other and mentally talked ourselves through it. The landscape gets rockier and foggier as you head upwards, a huge change from the 1st day’s lush scenery.
After exhaustedly celebrating a bit when we finally reached the top, we explored all the cairns and sat down in the middle of the fog to cook a warm lunch, hoping for it to clear a bit. Luckily it did, and we enjoyed watching the pack horses and porters walk by through the fog as we ate.
Coming down on the other side of the pass, we faced a downward path of mossy rocks and wide open valley, a relief after the morning climb. We took it slowly, enjoying the change and appreciating all the horses and cows on each side of the trail. You’ll pass through a small town (just a few houses on the side of the trail, all agricultural) called Huayracmachay.
In the afternoon, the landscape becomes pretty thick in tropical jungle, which was really cool and almost mystical, especially with mountains in the background. It was the first time you can almost start to imagine what it would be like to go hunting for treasure or ruins in this part of the world. We ran into a huge number of people with their daypacks, clearly from guided tours, and kept having to take our rain jackets on and off with the intermittent rain and humidity now that we were in a different climate.
Just like we’d read, the trail instantly turns and leads straight into the Chaullay campsite which, because of the trail, you can’t see until you’re essentially there. Some people opt to keep going another 20 minutes to Colcapampa, which is probably a bit quieter, but we stopped here. The tour groups headed to one camp at the far end of the trail, and a woman from a camp next door waved us in and showed us to their “attic” (all open to the air) where we could set up our tent. With a hammock and a table, it felt like we were glamping, though the toilets still left a bit to be desired, especially with the rain which left the outhouse pretty muddy and made for some interesting maneuvering.
Since we got to the camp a bit earlier that night (around 5pm), we had some down time to relax in the hammock, read, watch the antics of the little girl at the campsite and all the wild turkeys and chickens, and cook dinner before turning in around 7-7:30. It wasn’t the quietest night, since we could hear the tour group at the campsite next door laughing and enjoying dinner, but it definitely was nice to have that hammock. This campsite was also 5 soles per person. The campsite also sold sodas and beer in case you wanted to treat yourself too.
Day 3: Chaullay to Llaqtapata
~22km of trekking
The third day was another early but lazy start, around 7:30am, after we paid up and washed up. Just like at the end of the previous day, this day consisted mostly of walking through jungle – this time, along a river. We knew we were heading for La Playa, and kept wondering if tiny houses we came across were it, but you’ll definitely know when you’ve hit it.
About 20 minutes from the start, we did pass through Colcapampa and ran into lots of wild pigs and cows along the road. We also walked by what looks like an old pool overlooking the river – a really cool sight, especially since the water was really gushing in the river below that time of year.
At about 11:30 (after a 1 hour stop at a waterfall to refill water bottles and wash off – I fully soaked my leggings and T-shirt from the past 2 days and changed into new clothes), we entered La Playa, which is basically a bunch of shops and houses all lined up along the road for about a mile. Everything was pretty empty and quiet since it was off season, but I can see where this might be a busy stop during the regular season. At the end of the road, after you bear right a bit, you end up in Sahuayaco, the next town over (but almost like an extension of La Playa). There, we stopped for lunch at a local, but still touristy (which is all relative here since it still seemed almost family-run) little restaurant outside. I tried Inca Cola for the first time, and we had our standard 3 starches (potatoes, rice, and cold pasta salad) and chicken. Two little puppies running around the yard provided some happy entertainment. We watched a bunch of trekkers pass by, loading their stuff into the backs of vans or catching rides to their next stop. We stocked up on treats from the shop, and were ready for the afternoon.
Note: La Playa is where you’ll absolutely (if not before) want to lather on the bug spray, especially if you’re wearing T-shirts or shorts, as I made the mistake of doing. I got eaten alive by tiny little bugs that you only felt when they were already swarming you and it was too late.
Many people veer off left here or catch rides to Santa Teresa, where you can bathe in hot springs and take a bit of a break from the trek. Almost every car that passed by stopped to offer us a ride there, but we kept repeating that we were headed to Llaqtapata instead.
This part of the trail would take us pretty much straight up for 4km. We started off climbing up huge Inca stairs, wondering at each step how big they must have been to have stepped up these tall boulders, and if we’d made a terrible mistake by skipping on Santa Teresa in favor of Llaqtapata, which is almost 1,000m higher than the former. We’d read about walking through coffee groves and trekkers who’d seen coffee demonstrations and gotten coffee tastings at Lucmabamba. Unfortunately, since this was the off-season, nothing was open, but it was still a fun addition to the trek to be able to walk through the coffee groves and see the “famous” little “Andean Starbucks” sign before another steep climb.
Just in time for a break, we stopped at a little “pagoda-like” area with incredible views. This was probably one of my favorite little places on the entire trek, partly for the views and partly just for the sheer emotional state you’ll be in at this point in the 5 days (exhausted, excited, grateful, the whole gamut). After about 15 minutes here, we continued on for definitely the hardest schlep since Day 2’s climb up to the Salkantay Pass. We were counting the steps here and “slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other” was definitely the motto that saved us here.
After about 1-2 hours of this whole section, we finally walked straight down onto the Llaqtapata ruins and a wide open view towards Machu Picchu and all the surrounding mountains. Here we ran into 2 other solo trekkers and commiserated about the little victory we’d all achieved by making it up to this point. The campsite down below (a steep downward trail of about 20 min) has the exact same view as Llaqtapata and has a water source and a big grassy field to set up your tent. For your last night sleeping outside before Machu Picchu, it certainly ain’t bad. This is also definitely the point where you’ll be wishing you had binoculars since Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu, and the rest are straight across from you, but I personally couldn’t see much with my eyesight so can’t rave about it. It’s really the whole panorama of green mountains that blew me away, even in the slightly overcast weather.
That night, we had nothing but thunder and lightning in a huge storm that lasted until about 11pm, so we grabbed everything in our tent as close to us as possible and went for the ride. The main downside to the adventurous night was that we missed out on seeing a wide open, clear sky that night.
Day 4: Llaqtapata to Aguas Calientes
Trekking distance: ~15 km/9 miles
Trekking time: ~5 hours
The final day of the trek (not including the 5th day’s short trek up to Machu Picchu) is definitely the most unpleasant. After waking up and packing up pretty early after the rainy night, we started the rough 1 hour climb down to the river. I have to say, after all the uphill, I thought I’d be excited for some downhill. Wrong. This was probably one of the worst parts of the whole trek (about 1,000m straight down), and I easily could have taken more than just 1 break.
Finally at the bottom of the river, we crossed the long suspension bridge and followed the trail and the signs to Hidroelectrica, sticking to the right of the river until the checkpoint for the overall park where you’ll have to sign in. The man here might tell you it’s a 2 hour walk along the railway to Aguas Calientes, but it’s definitely at least 2.5 hours unless you’re speedwalking. It’s not the most pleasant walk by any means (I have basically no pictures from the entire 2.5 hours because I was just ready for it to be over), but you’ll pass hundreds of other people doing the same walk in both directions, so at least you know you’re not crazy. A few industrious Peruvians have set up shops selling expensive water and Gatorade and snacks along the way, which will seem more than worth it in the hot mid-day sun when you’ve been walking on hard, uneven rocks for 2 hours. Just be prepared!
Finally reaching Aguas Calientes is a bit of an odd ending and experience after 3 full days spent in nature and vast landscapes. Aguas Calientes, which Mark Adams from Turn Right at Machu Picchu describes as “Times Square, if it were more claustrophobic and nearly impossible to leave,” is just about that. Luckily the main street is on a hill, which adds some character, but otherwise the overtourism is pretty overwhelming. We spent most of the evening there dodging massage parlors and restaurants with 15 soles tourist menus and missing the starry skies and quiet of the outdoors.
Most restaurants there have tourist menus and extra perks ranging from 4-for-1 pisco sours to free guacamole and chips, etc. My advice: shop around, and bargain. They all want your business, and offer basically identical things, so just figure out what you want and don’t be afraid to ask for it. That aside, we did enjoy the 4×1 pisco sour deal. We may have also enjoyed 2 dinners (not ashamed), which at 15 soles (about $5USD) each for appetizer, entree, and dessert, seemed like a worthwhile deal after eating oatmeal and pasta for 3 days.
We also explored the thermal baths at the very top of the hill a few minutes walk from our hotel on the main drag. While we’d read about how popular they were with trekkers and “soothing for sore muscles,” we seemed to be the only “gringos” there, which made for a comical experience. Mostly, there were about 7 different baths there, 1 huge central one which seemed to be the party bath, complete with cocktails served “poolside,” 1 for the kids, 1 for the older women – you get the idea. I’m not sure I’d recommend going at night since the baths were lukewarm and probably at their most dirty, but it sure made for an interesting evening. Entrance was 10 soles per person (~$3 USD). After that, it was 1 final early bedtime before our final climb to Machu Picchu the next day.
I’ll end up posting a whole separate blog post about the last day up to Machu Picchu, including tips about getting back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes, so for now I’ll just leave off with some parting recommendations and thoughts about the first 4 days of the Salkantay…
Overall thoughts on the Salkantay Trek
First off, if you’re considering doing the Salkantay and have been questioning if it’s a good option, I can confirm it is absolutely worth it. The views and the vast, changing landscapes alone make it an amazing trek. You’ll pass through small towns, from dusty roads and open grazing pastures to glacier backdrops, up to rocky mountain passes, down into lush, green valleys, straight into humid jungle tropics, through coffee groves and out to Incan ruins overlooking a panoramic view of Machu Picchu – oftentimes all in one day.
My friend had also downloaded the maps.me app, which really helped in guiding us along the way. It’s a pretty straightforward trail and there were still people all along the way, but it never hurts to have a backup to reference.
If you’re hiking in the offseason, do try to bring enough snacks for most of your days, since most of the little shops we’d read about seemed to be closed.
Sunscreen. And bug spray. Don’t forget either. Also: rain jackets and pack covers.
Finally, if you hike anything like we did, bring wet wipes. You (and your travel partner) will thank you later. Showers were few and far between, and if so they were cold water and 10 soles each. Keep a clean set of clothes for your final day hiking up Machu Picchu. We planned to keep one, didn’t, and regretted it later.
Overall, the Salkantay is an unbelievable 4 days (5 if you include Machu Picchu). If you’re somewhat adventurous, have hiked trails solo in the past, and are comfortable in your trekking level, definitely give it a go solo. You may miss out on some of the fun stories you’d get with a guide, but you also may save a lot of money and get to soak in all the views on your own time, in relative quiet, which was pretty amazing. Just my two cents, but I can imagine either method is a worthwhile, gorgeous experience.