There are lots of different ways to get to Machu Picchu, and one of the most popular options is to trek there. We love treks that lead up to a spectacular sight, and Machu Picchu might be one of the best prizes waiting for you at the end of a trek. We’ve outlined all of the treks we researched while in Cusco (you can find that info and more in our Complete Guide to Machu Picchu post) but this post will go into detail about the Salkantay Trek.
The Salkantay Trek is pitched as more of an adventurous trek, especially when compared to the Inca Trail. It focuses more on scenery and views than Incan history. We’d also never done any high altitude hiking, and getting up to 4600m in the Salkantay Pass checked that box! Throw in mountains, turquoise glacier lakes, and cloud forests and we were sold. Another bonus is that we were able to book our trek in Cusco two days before we left, and it was a fraction of the price of the Inca Trail.
We booked through Majos Travel at Sunset House Hostel for 926 soles ($285 USD) each for the four day hike. This included all our food and accommodation, an english speaking guide, a sleeping bag rental, Machu Picchu entry plus Machu Picchu Mountain entry, and the train ride back to Cusco afterwards.
What to Pack
Most trekking companies allow 5KG of luggage per person to be carried by mules along with you on your trek. The rest will be up to you to carry in a personal pack. We both brought small day packs (18 Litres or less) and packed the rest of our stuff into our own dry sacks. If you do not have a dry sack, most companies will provide you with some sort of bag to keep your stuff in. An important thing to note is that you will need a sleeping bag for the duration of the trek. Most companies will provide you with one for an extra fee. This sleeping bag will have to be packed in with your 5KGs of personal luggage. It can get VERY cold up in the mountains, but you can also get overheated quite fast when you start descending again. The key for this balance will be layers so you can adapt to the changing temperatures!
When it comes to water and snacks, you will have to purchase your own water. There are little huts along the trek where you can do so, but these are quite expensive. To save money, bring your snacks from Cusco and only spend money on water up there.
- 2-3 T-shirts – (can use one for sleeping until the last day and use that as your clean one for Machu Picchu)
- 2 long sleeves
- 1 sweater or fleece
- 1 pair thermal leggings – (for layering on colder days and sleeping!)
- 1 pair hiking pants – (LOTS of people had zip offs. They are super convenient for the change in temperatures!)
- 4-5 pairs underwear – (depending on how long your trek is!)
- 3 pairs socks – (we opted for merino wool socks to keep our feet warm!)
- 1 pair hiking shoes – (good, comfortable, broken in already!)
- 1 pair shoes to wear around camp at night – (completely optional – We brought very lightweight flip flops to save space and weight. If you don’t have this option, don’t bring an extra pair.)
- Rain jacket or shell – (a MUST for potential weather)
- Phone charger – (won’t be able to use until your last night of the trek when you are in your hostel)
- Face Wipes – (This was a surprising one, but Devon loved having a package of Neutogrena (or something equivalent) face wipes to clean herself off of sweat, sunscreen and dust from the day!)
- Water bottle
- Sunscreen – (You are closer to the sun at a higher altitude, reapply often and don’t let the cold fool you. You will be sunburned!)
- Hat and gloves – (optional but recommended as it does get super cold! We bought cheap souvenir hats from Cusco!)
- Portable phone charger
- Save room for whatever extra sweaters/layers you want to put in as temperatures can change drastically throughout the day!
- Kleenex or toilet paper – (They do NOT give you toilet paper so bring your own!!!)
- Altitude sickness pills – (If you have never hiked at altitude, odds are you may need to start taking these a few days before the trek, as well as during)
- Ibuprofen or Tylenol – (Can also help with altitude headaches)
- Snacks – (You can buy snacks up there but they will be very expensive)
- Money – you WILL need cash (Soles) for water, bathroom breaks and for tipping your guide at the end of the trip
- PASSPORT – Do NOT forget your passport. You NEED this to enter Machu Picchu. Bring your wallet and keep it somewhere safe in your day pack.
Day 1 – Humantay Lake
We were up very early (4:30am) to meet our guide who walked us from our hostel to the bus pickup point (Plaza San Francisco). We loaded onto two buses and drove for about 2.5 hours to a local village. We had to pay 15 soles for a tourist fee, and as well had to pay for breakfast but this was the only extra charge and meal that wasn’t included during the whole trek. It was also an optional to bring your own breakfast. Here we got set up with our sleeping bags, and divided our gear into day packs, and what the mules would carry for us. The mules could only carry a certain amount per person (check with who you booked to get an exact weight beforehand!) and then you had to carry the rest, so pack light! Also make sure to bring your own bag to pack your carried gear, or you have to pay a few soles to buy one there.
We separated into our groups (4 day hikers and 5 day hikers) for the trek, and hopped back onto the buses with the guide that would be with us for the next 4 days. After another couple hours we arrived at the start of the hike. We started off hiking some switchbacks right up a hill, and luckily our guide understood that we’d struggle off the bat due to the altitude, so we took it slow! Once at the top, we bought some expensive bottles of water for 10 soles (though it only gets more expensive from here) and then hiked along the relatively flat trail to our first campsite. There is a washroom break (though you have to pay for the washroom) along the way, but it’s only 25 minutes from the campsite where there are free bathrooms.
We made it to the campsite just in time for a giant lunch spread (pea soup, rice and beef with carrots and peas, veggie platter with carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and beans, crackers and guacamole and potatoes) which was definitely needed. After lunch we had the option to climb up to Lake Humantay, a beautiful turquoise glacier lake at the foot of the impressive Humantay Mountain. You could do this on your own, or with the guide.
The campsite sits at 3850m and Humantay Lake is up at 4200m, so although the hike looked easy, the altitude definitely took its toll. It took us about an hour to make it to the stunning glacier lake. Make sure to climb up to the ridge to the left for some even more spectacular views and vantage points.
Once we were back down at camp we had “happy hour” with coca tea (helps with altitude sickness), hot chocolate, popcorn and soda crackers and got the next days briefing. An hour or so later we had a big dinner (chicken legs with potatoes, corn, onions and peas, macaroni with peas and carrots and corn quiche), they were definitely keeping us well fed and energized! We called it in early, and headed to our tent. All the tents were under cover in a shed-like structure to shelter them from any rain or cold winds.
Day 2 – Salkantay Pass
We were up at 5am, woken by guides placing coca tea outside our tents. Breakfast of yummy crepes followed closely after and then we headed on our way while it was still dark out! It was also freezing, we were glad we brought layers to stay warm at first, then to stash away as it warmed up once the sun came out. The first official break was at 7am at Salkantay Pampa where we could buy water and snacks, and we reached the “summit” at 9am.
Up at 4600m it was crazy that we were still surrounded by towering mountains! The scenery was incredible! We went a little higher to check out a beautiful glacier lake at the base of Salkantay Mountain, where our guide told us about the meaning of the mountains. We were also treated to two avalanches (far away, don’t worry)! We spent about an hour and a half taking it all in.
We headed down the trail about an hour or so before getting to a campsite for lunch (soup, beef potatoes carrots peas, corn bread, rice and peas). After lunch the hike was about 3 hours to our campsite for the night. About 40 minutes into the hike after lunch we entered the could forest. Amazing that the scenery can change so quickly, from avalanches to green jungle in just 1.5 hours! The hike had one washroom/water break about halfway through.
Our second camp was a little more modernized; you could buy wifi or a hot shower for 10 soles, and they sold beer for 8 soles. We opted to stay smelly and wifi free! The camp was also at 2800m, so a little easier on the lungs altitude wise. We had “happy hour” at 5:30 pm and dinner (fried chicken, potatoes, and pumpkin cheese sauce to spread on rice) an hour later. Again our tents were sheltered.
Day 3 – Train Tracks to Aguas Calientes
We were woken up at 5:30am this time with some coca tea, and then had a breakfast of ham omelettes before heading out at 7am. This hike started along a road, then we cut up into the jungle and passed some waterfalls. We took a break at a pitstop every hour or so, and tried out some local food such as fresh avocados and corn drink along the way. Once we got down to 2020m at noon we hopped on a bus that took us 20 minutes into a small town for a feast aka lunch (Jungle potatoes, quinoa soup, avocado veggie cups, chicken and veggies, beans, cold veggie tray, chow/chi fa (similar to fried rice)).
From there it was an hour long bus ride to Hidroelectrica (one of the entrances into Aguas Calientes) where we checked in with our passports. This is where the train tracks started. We dropped our gear off for the train to take it into Aguas Calientes, and we walked the tracks for 2 hours towards town. The walk was a little buggy (so we recommend keeping your long pants on even though it is hot!), but it did offer some great views of the mountains and you can even see Machu Picchu at one point! Once we got off the tracks we walked 25 minutes up the road to Aguas Calientes arriving at 5 pm.
We checked into Eco Mapi Hostel, and everyone got private double rooms (if you were a solo traveler, you were paired up with whoever else was solo). The hostel was basic and a little noisy, but it did have free wifi in the lobby, and any bed felt comfortable after three days of hiking and sleeping in tents. We also had wonderful hot showers for the first time in a while. Once we were refreshed we met up at Machu Pisco restaurant for dinner. Dinner was included but drinks were not. We opted for no alcohol before Machu Picchu but our friends went for the 2 for 1 Pisco Sours that are known in Peru! This is also a GREAT time to organize a tip for your guide with your group. This is also where our guide gave us our Machu Picchu tickets, our train tickets for the next night and a packed lunch and answered any questions about the next day!
Day 4 – Machu Picchu!
This was definitely an early one, we had to be up at 4 am in order line up at the gate to the hike up to Machu Picchu at 4:40 am. Gates opened at 5 am, make sure to have your passport and ticket! It took us an hour straight up, and it was a rough climb after three days of hiking. It was all big stone stairs crossing the switchback roads that the buses take to the top. For more info on the bus versus the hike up to Machu Picchu, check out our Complete Guide!
Luckily we took it easy after we got through the entrance. Keep in mind that you are technically NOT allowed food in Machu Picchu… but they did not throughly check our bags so we brought in all of our snacks. We sat down to watch the mist lift off the ruins as the sun rose, listening to our guide explain the significance of Machu Picchu, while enjoying our packed breakfast and watching an alpaca annoy our guide as it tried to graze at his feet. It was a pretty surreal experience. Our guide took us around for about two hours before letting us explore the ruins ourselves. We made it to Machu Picchu Mountain at 9 am and started our hike up, but only made it halfway before our legs called it quits. We hiked up to the famous Sun Gate instead and enjoyed our packed lunch there. A surreal experience to say the least! By 1 pm most people had filed out, and we had most of the place to ourselves which made it much more enjoyable. Our best advice is to take your time, this might be the only time you ever visit! For more tips and information check out our Complete Guide to Machu Picchu post.
It only took us about 40 minutes to walk down the stairs and then we headed back to Aguas Calientes for a much needed drink and meal. We chilled in town until our train left at 8:50pm. We travelled for 2 hours to Ollantaytambo where a lady with our names on a board collected us and brought us to the bus which brought us the rest of the way to Cusco. Make sure to use the washroom on the train, there’s no bathroom on the bus or time to stop between the train and the bus. We were dropped in Plaza San Francisco back in Cusco at 12:30am. Make sure your hostel knows when you are returning so that you don’t run into any issues that late at night!
The trek was hard and exhausting, but also very rewarding! Machu Picchu is one of the most amazing places we’ve been, and one of the famous sites that has truly lived up to the hype! Make sure to prepare, acclimatize and pack properly, and you’ll have an amazing experience like us!