SALKANTAY TREK : EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Tips, packing lists and costs for the magical journey to Machu Picchu
99% of backpackers who have been to, are going to or are in Peru will undoubtedly have a trip to Machu Picchu on their agenda. And why not? It's one of the most magical, mysterious and history-rich sites in the entire country. But, ask them how they'll be getting there. By bus? Train? The world famous and well-worn Inca trail? Or, will they be following in our footsteps on the lesser known Salkantay trek? Below is the story of a journey as trying as it was rewarding. The 80 km, 5 day hike along the Salkantay trek to one of the world's most sacred landmarks.
The city of Cusco is a travellers heaven and the starting point for pretty much all expeditions to Machu Picchu. Our trip there was never in doubt but we were still undecided as to how we would get there. On our travels through South America we had heard whispers and stories of an incredible hike which rivals that of the Inca trail. That hike is the Salkantay trek.
👣 Day 1 - 5.5 hours walking, 14 km covered, 4,220 max altitude
We were picked up from our hostel (the awesome Wild Rover) at 4 a.m and driven 2.5 hours to Mollepata. Here you need to pay a 10 PEN (£2.20) entrance fee to park and this is also the last opportunity to stock up on any supplies you need. This is also where you will meet your guide and the rest of your group for breakfast before being driven a further 45 minutes along a perilous cliff edge to Morqoqasa, the point where we began walking.
The trek kicks off with a bit of an incline until we reached the cliff edge which we followed through the low-lying clouds. In a single file we followed the narrow path for the best part of 3.5 hours. As the morning clouds began to lift we could see the spectacular river running through the valley far below and knew then that we were in for a truly memorable adventure.
Upon reaching Soraypampa we stopped for lunch in what was also to be our camping spot for the night. During lunch our guide, Big Mama (not his real name) told us of a stunning Humantay lagoon found over the top of the horrendously steep hill just behind our camp site. After lunch and a little rest we embarked on one hour climb to the top of the hill. Climbing over loose rocks and navigating a narrow ledge, we were met a spectacular view of some of the bluest water I've ever seen. It looked photoshopped, like what we were seeing wasn't even real. Only the first day and the Salkantay trek had already served up some memories which will last a lifetime.
👣 Day 2 - 10 hours walking, 22 km covered, 4,650 max altitude
The second day is by far the most challenging of the Salkantay trek. Up with the birds at 5 a.m we head out of the campsite and through the trek's namesake valley. With the fresh water river running through the middle, the luscious green grass and trees lining either side and enormous cliffs towering over you each side, you could be forgiven for thinking you're on a movie set.
About an hour in we come to a stop at the bottom of the hill where our guide told us a bit about the history of this sacred valley. He told us that, as a sacrifice, the locals would collect rocks from the valley and carry them up the hill as an offer to Pachamama. The bigger the rock the better and Pachamama would "relieve you of your sins and your sicks." Looking up at the hill, and with no helicopter in sight, I grabbed the biggest rock that would fit in my pocket, knowing full well my knees would be feeling pretty sick after climbing what stood before us.
How long did the climb take? 4 hours! 4 hours of continuous climbing at that altitude is half the reason day 2 is the Salkantay trek's toughest. As unforgiving as it was, it was also remarkably beautiful. The stunning, snow-covered Salkantay mountain getting closer and closer as we went. Once we reached the top Big Mama performed the offering ceremony to Pachamama and we all added our stones to the one of the thousands of piles and we took some time to bask in the wonderment of our surroundings.
Over the course of the next 2 hours we descended from 4,650 to 4,220 meters to Huayrac Pampa where we were all incredibly happy to rest our feet and enjoy lunch.
The descent continued after lunch as we worked our way down through thick jungle. What was a calm river before had now turned into thundering waterfalls, gathering speed as we went. Our surroundings were incredible, almost prehistoric and unspoilt. 3.5 hours after lunch we arrived in Chaullay at a much more breathing-friendly altitude of 2,900 metres. It goes without say that not a single one of us had trouble sleeping that night.
👣 Day 3 - 5 hours walking, 16 km covered, 3,000 meters max altitude.
In a fair bit of pain from the day before, we were still excited to see what wonders the Salktany trek had in store for us. Well, one thing it had in abundance was rain. All 5 hours of walking took place in the morning and involved a lot of up and down through narrow jungle paths and crossing over the river. The rain got so bad towards the last few kilometres that we were taken the final distance by van as there was a high risk of rock slides.
Playa Sahuayaco, a busy little community is the foot of the valley, was the scene for lunch. Shortly after we were taken 45 mins by van to Santa Teresa. This would be our camping ground for the night but here is where you also have the option to visit the hot springs in Cocalmayo. After 3 days of hiking up and down in the rain and sleeping in freezing cold tents, a good soak in hot springs sounded like an amazing idea. Set at the bottom of a large rock face sits 3 natural pools of bubbling, hot heaven. Best 10 PEN (£2.20) we've ever spent.
👣 Day 4 - 5 hours walking, 14 km covered, 2,700 max altitude
Knowing that this was to be our final big hike on the Salkantay trek before arriving at Machu Picchu, we awoke, despite our pains, in a jubilant mood. With the embers of last night's bonfire still lightly smoking, we left our final campsite. A 2.5 hour walk following the river in and out of the beautiful cloud forest vegetation. By this point the mountain upon which the citadel of Machu Picchu sits was in sight, but by no means close. Spurred on by our end goal in sight, we arrived at the train tracks of Hidroelectrica where we stopped for lunch.
The train tracks of Hidroelectrica are almost as famous a sight as Machu Picchu itself and are the final hurdle of the Salkantay trek before arriving in Aguas Calientes. The 7 km walk along the tracks almost feels like a right of passage. Although we encountered almost nobody else throughout the entirety of the trek, suddenly there were hundreds of others. Those walking towards Machu Picchu full of excitement. Those returning looking exhausted and amazed with what they've witnessed. Every now and then the train would pass and we would have to take cover in the foliage. At some narrow points the train comes frighteningly close.
Nearing the final 3 km to Aguas Calientes it began to rain worse and worse until we were engulfed in a storm of almost biblical proportions. This weather had been a trend throughout the later half of the hike and we were beginning to worry that tomorrow's visit to Machu Picchu would be a wet one. At the end of the tracks we came out on the road to Aguas Calientes. Craning our necks up to the right we could see Machu Picchu almost in touching distance.
👣 Day 5 - Machu Picchu
Up at 3:30 a.m we make walk the 1 km to the base of the hill in the dark. The first checkpoint opens at 5 a.m and the lines begin to form about an hour before. Once you've cleared this checkpoint with your passport the only thing that stands between you and the final entry point to Machu Picchu at the top is 1,700 steps. You can take a bus up for 40 PEN (£8.80) but they don't start running until a little later, meaning you'll be quite far back in the line at the top. Besides what would be the point in walking for 4 days to skip out of the final leg of the race?
You know the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan? When they invade the beach and try to make it across to cover but they're getting picked off like flies from enemy fire? That's what the climb reminded me off. People collapsed on the sides, crying, drenched in sweat. Some groups almost carrying their comrades up the stairs. I lost count of how many dejected figures we passed on the way up. But after 45 minutes of straight stair-pounding incline, we made it. Amongst the first 15 - 20 people in the line at the top, we only had a short wait until the gates opened at 6 a.m.
There are many theories as to Machu Picchu's purpose. Some believe it was a holy site. Others that it was a retreat for the rich and royal or built as a stronghold during the Spanish invasion. It's real story will never be known. But what is obvious when you walk around the grounds is that it is that you are stood in one of the most spectacular locations on earth.
After a guided tour for about an hour where Big Mama told us about the different structures and how long it took to build, we had a few hours to explore on our own. Some of the most popular choices are the Sun Gate which is thought of as one of the site's most important features as it is believed to have been a security point for the citadel. The Inca bridge, temple of the sun and the royal are also amazing. Truth is, it is all amazing. however you choose to spend your time here will live on long in your memory.
The return journey to Cusco was a bit of a blur. Descend 1,700 steps, walk 7 km along the tracks back to Hidroelectrica and a 7 hour bus all seemed to go in the blink of an eye. Still in absolute awe of what we had just experienced we were back in Cusco before we knew it. Knees - broken. Feet - torn to pieces. Back - in agony. But, would we do it again tomorrow? Without a moment of hesitation. Machu Picchu was incredible, but the adventure along the Salkantay trek which took us there was the real star of the show.
Next stop for us, Peru's Gringo Trail
Things to note
In Cusco there are literally hundreds of agents trying to sell packages to Machu Picchu. But, there are only a small handful of operators who actually conduct the tour. Make sure you find out who the actual tour operator is and research them. We booked through the agent Marvelous Peru and the tour was conducted by KB tours who are the most highly recommended.
There is no need to book online or too far in advance. Go around the town, talk to a few of the agents and then go and do your research. We only booked ours 2 days beforehand. Even in high season you shouldn't struggle too much to find a space.
Included in the price of 160 USD (£115) per person was transport from and back to Cusco, all meals except for breakfast on the first day and lunch on the last and our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, which cost 47 USD alone (£35). Also we were supplied with a sleeping bag and a backpack. The tents were set up and ready for us every night when we arrived at our campsite. For the first 3 days our backpacks were also transported between sites and the hotel on the final night in Aguas Calientes was included in the price. For what we experienced on the Salkantay trek and at Machu Picchu, that was the an absolute bargain.
💼 Packing list for the Salkantay Trek
- Hiking boots (flip flops, sliders, converse or Air Force ones will not cut it!)
- Clothes for cold and wet weather
- Snacks (chocolate, trail mix, non-salted nuts, energy bars)
- Coca leaves (for altitude)
- Water and/or water purification tablets
- Bug repellant
- Sun cream
- Lip balm
- Toilet paper
- Portable charger
- Swimming gear for hot springs
- Money (tips and extra bits)
- Passport (for Machu Picchu enterance)
- And of course, your camera