Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu – The most beautiful path to the Inca ruins

What expects you on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu?

There are for sure more comfortable and easier ways to get to Machu Picchu, for example by train coming from Cusco. The way over the Salkantay pass is steep, the air is thin, the nights can be freezing. But, it is all worth it. I promise you an unforgettable experience on the Salkantay Trek!

So, as a short teaser what awaits you? A stunning glacier lake, wonderful mountain views and diverse landscapes crossing four climate zones. You want more? You get more! How about starting your day in the mountains and going to bed in the jungle? Having the experience of hiking 22km from 3.900 to 4.600 meters and going to sleep after a long way down to the Peruvian rain forest on the same day? Relaxing in natural hot springs, zip lining over deep Andean valleys and walking the tracks of the famous Inca Express railroad? Having a great group experience and going to bed with the feeling you just succeeded with something amazing?

Sounds good to you? Then let’s go on a tour on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu together!

Differences between tour offers

Before starting the Salkantay Trek - How to get the best price?

The starting point of the Salkantay Trek is the city of Cusco. In Cusco you find a huge number of tour agencies offering the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, most of them in a 5-days version. That is the tour length I would choose. You might miss out some beautiful experiences with the shorter versions. Be aware there are huge price differences for doing the Salkantay Trek. You can find high price tours online for up to 700 US Dollars. Or you can be lucky with tours booked at place starting at around 180 US Dollars in the low season.

The tour agencies vary highly in pricing, partly due to differences in the accommodation, partly different agencies will overcharge you for the same service. In my group there were people that booked in several different agencies and paid almost double the price for the same service. Most of the agencies pretend to be tour companies but only but do not have their own guides. They just book you a space at another company and get provisions for your booking. So be aware where you book, compare prices and what is included! It will save you some money!

Take a high-end or a low-price tour?

  • The main difference between cheap and high-end tours is the accommodation. You can either sleep in simple tents or in fancy glass domes or jungle huts.
  • In addition, there are differences regarding the hotel in Aguas Calientes. And from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes you can either walk along the train tracks or take the train.
  • There are differences in group size, whether sleeping bags are included or not and the allowed amount of luggage for the horses.
  • For all tours normally, the entry ticket to Machu Picchu is included in the tour price.

Well, what did I book? I decided for one of the tours with a lower price level. I was pretty happy with the tents, the food was simple but really tasty. And most important our guides were wonderful, and the horsemen took good care of our luggage.

Get used to the height before Salkantay Trek

Before starting the Salkantay Trek again I highly recommend getting used to the height first for some days. I started my tour one day after I arrived in Cusco coming from Huaccachina which is almost at sea level. The result of this was that I felt quite altitude sick. The lower oxygen level can result in headaches, general weakness and a loss of appetite. I experienced this at the Start of the Salkantay Trek which did not make the first two days of the trek easier. So, my personal advice if you arrive from lower regions to Cusco and you have enough time… take your time to get acclimatized! In Cusco there is so much to do and to see that you won’t get bored.

So, enough of good advise, now let’s start our Salkantay adventure! More than 70 kilometer of steep mountain paths and jungle ways passing surging rivers await you.

Day 1 - The Start to a wonderful adventure

The tours start in Cusco early, our tour guides picked us up at 4 in the morning already. We left for a bus ride towards Mollepata where the start of the Salkantay Trek takes place. Before you begin your hike you will have the possibility for a quick breakfast.

After breakfast you hand over your luggage to the horsemen which will make sure it arrives safely at the campsites. For the first three days your luggage will be transported on horsebacks. Keep in mind that the weight of the luggage is limited and you cannot access it while it is transported between the campsites. Depending on the tour provider you are allowed to bring along 5 to 7 kilos. The sleeping bag is also contained in that weight limit, so make sure you pack light. At the end of this blog post you will find a list with useful things to bring to the Salkantay Trek – there are quite some of them.

Make sure your luggage is as waterproof as possible. Although it will be packed in huge plastic bags with intense rain water will find its’ way inside. Bring a smaller rucksack with things you might need on the way.

Day 1 - Hike to Soroycocha base camp

When starting to hike you are already on more than 3.000 meters. The first day is quite a relaxed one. First you will hike for around 3 hours towards the first base camp. This should be an easy walk compared with what awaits you in the next days. You will hike next to a canal the locals built to provide the towns and villages with fresh mountain water. Also, many horses and cows are grazing in huge green areas on your way.

When you reach the base camp of Soroycocha the cooks of the tour company will already await you with warm tea and some wonderful food. The first base camp is located at around 3.900 meters. In case you have problems with the altitude take a sip of coca tea. Also chewing the leaves helps to cope with the low oxygen level. And don’t worry… the coca tea does not have an intoxicating effect.

Day 1 - The beautiful colors of a glacier lake

In the afternoon you have the possibility to hike to the Humantay glacier lake. This place you should not miss. Many tourist groups go for day-tours to this lake to get amazed by the clear water that mirrors the face of the Humantay mountain and the beautiful glacier. 

The way to Humantay lake is already a good test for what comes tomorrow. A hike that starts in vast horse paddocks ends in a steep way up. As there sometimes is quite some fog in that area that turns the grass quite slippery I recommend good shoes and hiking sticks. Of course, there are quite some people who think Salkantay can be done in sneakers. Believe me, having good hiking shoes will give you a much safer feeling.

Once you reach your destination a calm glacier lake awaits you. Enjoy this very special moment and absorb the beauty of this place!

After a 3 hour round trip to the lake and back to the base camp you will sleep well in a warm sleeping bag.

Day 2 - Challenge Salkantay pass

The nights can get quite cold at the Soroycocha base camp. Waking up early in the morning while the Salkantay mountain still waits for the sun to go up it is possible that the nightly rain changed to long icicles and the entire area is covered by a layer of snow. But nothing a good cup of tea can’t solve. So, pack your things… it is time to challenge the Salkantay pass!

The second day is by far the hardest one. Not only climbing from 3.900 to 4.630 meters – 15.000 feet for our friends that do not use the metric system – but also a long way down to the next camp can be really challenging. In case you think that the way up might be too hard you can rent a horse at the base camp. But hey, I am sure you can make it and don’t choose the easy way!

It takes around 4 hours to climb up to the Salkantay pass. A path meanders towards the Salkantay pass in seven turns, called the “Seven Serpents”. The closer you get to the pass itself the steeper the way gets. On the last part of the way there are two options to get to the pass. A less steep way for the horses that has a longer distance or a short distance but really steep small path. We decided to go for the steep path which made some climbing necessary.

Day 2 - Thank Pachamama for a safe passage

When you reach the top of Salkantay pass this is a great moment. You are exhausted by the last hours, but you are happy you made it. You reached 4.630 meters and you can be sure the rest of the way today is downhill.

At the Salkantay pass our guide Veronica performed a Pachamama ceremony with us. Pachamama is the goddess of plants, harvesting and mountains. The Quechua word of Pachamama can be translated to “World Mother”. Veronica taught us a lot about the Inca mythology and the trilogy of earth, sky and the underworld represented by the holy animals of puma, condor and serpent. Although in Peru the Catholic church has a big influence on the everyday life of the people the locals in addition still practice the old traditions of the Inca culture.

In the ceremony we offered coca leaves and beer to the Inca deity and thanked her for a safe passage. During the tour Veronica also taught us some sentences in Quechua. For me this was a unique and beautiful experience.

Day 2 - From the Salkantay Pass to the Tropical Jungle

After you reach the top of Salkantay pass a long way down towards the next camp awaits you. From the mountain area that is full of big round stones that were moved to their positions a long time ago by glaciers you notice that the nature around you changes. It first gets greener, then the first trees show up, you enter huge cloud forests and you finish in a green tropical jungle. Also, temperatures will go up with every meter you descend from the mountain area. What starts with freezing temperatures while climbing Salkantay pass in the morning ends with a warm evening breeze in the Peruvian jungle. So green, so wonderful. Breathe the clean air! 

In the evening you are back at an elevation 2.700 meters. In case you did suffer altitude sickness this should disappear now. When are you going to bed you have been hiking 22 kilometers for more than 9 hours. You can be proud of yourself!

Day 3 Jungle and hot springs

On day 3 the tour companies go to different directions. We headed towards Santa Teresa which is famous for its’ beautiful hot springs. While the hikes on day 2 on the way to Salkantay pass is freezing on the third days temperatures rise quickly. On your way you see beautiful surging rivers and experience a diverse fauna. Wild orchids and beautiful flowers grow next to the path. Veronica taught us a lot about the different plants in this area and which of them can be used to treat sicknesses and injuries. The jungle contains many plants that have a positive effect on the body.

In the evening you reach Santa Teresa and the beautiful hot springs there. This wonderful place waits for you after 3 days of hiking. Relax your sore muscles in the warm and amazingly clear water of the hot springs of Cocalmayo. With temperatures of 38 to 44° C this place is perfect to enjoy some calm moments.

Just jump into the warm water in front of an impressive scenery. Quite a wonderful place to enjoy an evening in Peru. And if you are lucky you will see a big red parrot flying over the pools greeting you with a friendly ¡Hola! I am not kidding, that small guy was really there when we were at the hot springs of Cocalmayo in Santa Teresa.

Day 4 - Zip lining and hiking the trails towards Machu Picchu

Day 4 started for us with an optional activity for thrill seekers. 5 zip lines over deep Andean valleys. I assure you this is are a pure adrenaline experience. Doing zip lining will cost you around 30 US Dollars extra. But this is well invested money. After a quick introduction you will start going to the zip lines and fly over a huge jungle valley. Don’t forget to apply mosquito spray before. Otherwise the flies will eat you up alive. Try to fly heads down, condor style or in partner mode at a double zip line.

After the zip lining activity, you will visit an area where local coffee is produced and you have the possibility to try out fresh Peruvian coffee. From there you will catch a bus to Hidroelectrica, which is the starting point for a hike to Aguas Calientes, the closest town next to Machu Picchu.

Day 4 - Hiking the trails towards Machu Picchu

Taking the train or hiking by the rail tracks are the only options to reach Aguas Calientes. No roads reach this small town also known as Machu Picchu Village. Hiking towards Machu Picchu Village is a special experience. Better watch out for the trains of the famous PeruRail company. On a three hour walk you will cross railroad bridges, walk through a beautiful forest. You are surrounded by steep mountains that are covered in a thick vegetation. This is also the first time you will catch a glimpse on the old Inca ruins that are situated on top of an impressive mountain.

In contrast to the last days where you do not meet other people often on the way from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes you will meet a lot of other hikers. Those last kilometers are the busiest part of Salkantay Trek. As you reach Aguas Calientes you will have the comfort of sleeping in a comfy bed after three days in a sleeping bag. Enjoy a warm shower and get prepared for seeing Machu Picchu the next day.

Day 5 - Highlight of the Salkantay Trek - Seing Machu Picchu

Day 5 is finally seeing Machu Picchu. As Machu Picchu is such a beautiful place I decided it is worth a separate blog post. So, you still have to wait a bit for the highlight of this tour. Follow on one of our social media profiles. Stay tuned and be the first to read this new blog article.

What to bring? Packing list for Salkantay Trek

  • Warm clothes for the first days and light clothes for the days in the jungle
  • A charged camera for beautiful pictures, a power bank is a good idea as there is not always access to electricity 
  • Good shoes, the way is steep and slippery
  • Walking sticks, they help a lot in steep areas
  • Mosquito spray against the flies in the jungle area
  • Swimming pants to enjoy the Santa Teresa hot springs
  • Coca leaves to cope with the height
  • Water bottles, you need to stay hydrated
  • Sleeping bag, in case you do not rent one of your tour company
  • Waterproof bag for you water sensitive belongings
  • Rain poncho, it can rain heavily
  • Money for buying water, tipping the guides, etc.

How to get there?

Salkantay got your heart and you want to go there? Check out the possibilities how to get to Cusco.

By bus

You can reach Cusco by bus coming from Lima, Ica or Arequipa. There are also busses connecting La Paz, Bolivia and Cusco. When you take the bus I highly recommend using Cruz del Sur instead of the more expensive tourist bus companies. Cruz del Sur busses are comfortable, especially when you book a “Cama” bus. The seats in those busses can be best compared to business class in the airplane. They transform into a comfy bed and you have your own entertainment system. During my travels in South America Cruz del Sur was by far the best bus company I traveled with.

Booking is possible online on the Cruz del Sur Homepage . When you book in advance or you are flexible regarding your travel dates you can be lucky and get a discount price for the bus ticket.

By airplane

Cusco can also be reached by plane. Coming from Lima several airlines as LATAM, Peruvian Airlines and Viva Peru fly to Cusco. If your starting point is La Paz you can reach Cusco with Peruvian Airlines. Coming from Arequipa you can fly with Avianca, Peruvian Airlines or LATAM.

By train

If you want to travel in a classy way you can also travel by train coming from Arequipa. You can book online at PeruRail. But the prices are not for a small budget. Traveline with PeruRail is one of the most expensive train experiences in the world.

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