5-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

September, 2011

The most incredible experience that will live with you for a lifetime, is the 5-day Salkantay trek to mystical Machu Picchu, in Peru.

The Classic Inca Trail is a well-worn travellers path and although I’ve longed to visit Machu Picchu, I want to experience a less-touristy trek, if possible. The alternative to the Inca Trail is the Salkantay trek, which promises this experience. National Geographic rates this as one of the top 25 best treks in the world’.

Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru, South America, trekkingFrom Cusco

Arriving in Cusco and spending several days acclimatising, before venturing on this trek will help you a lot. It’s not a myth, you can suffer from altitude sickness on this trek.

All guided treks leave from Cusco.

Info on Treks

Cusco is the base for many different types of organised treks and tours and cheaper than booking from your country.

The Inca Trail is the most popular, includes the most archaeological sites, lasts anywhere from one day to several days, and isn’t as difficult as others, such as Salkantay.

You can do treks independently. But remember, you need to be set up with all your own camping gear and be prepared to carry everything, for the duration of your trek.

Salkantay experience

Booking on this 75-kilometre 5-day trek, which starts at 2,700-plus-metres and climbs to over 4,600 metres, the agency advises that the trek is moderate to challenging, and renown as the savage trek’.

No problem, I can do this!

Cusco, Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking
Map: Green Peru Adventure

The route promises spectacular diverse vistas from high mountain passes, deep canyons, descending in to lush jungle, with less tourists and a good guide. Our trek includes an English-speaking guide, assistant, cooks, porters, donkeys, food, water, and camping gear.

Make sure you go through the fine details of exactly what’s included before you commit. Cusco does host unsavoury rip-off agents.

Day 1 – Cusco, Mollepata, Soraypampa – 22 kms

An early start on this cold damp morning with the guide knocking on our hostel door at around 4:30 am. Collecting several others from hostels, we board the bus where even more bleary-eyed trekkers await.

The 100-kilometre trip to Mollepata should take up to 3 hours, if all goes well. But, this is South America and all does not always go well…

Bus journey

After stunning sunrise Apurimac River Valley and majestic Salkantay Mountain panoramas even through the rain, our bus starts to swerve and slide dangerously along the muddy road.

Visions of gliding off the thousand-metre drop in slow motion flash through my mind, before we are finally and firmly bogged in mud.
Cusco, Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Eventually we pile out, the drivers start digging, and we start walking the last few kilometres up the mountain – an early start to the trek.

Cusco, Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Luckily, the bus meets us after a little while and we’re on our way, arriving at Mollepata for breakfast and welcomed hot coffee.

Trekking

Meeting our trekking guide Juan Carlos and our group of 17 from America, Venezuela, Spain, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, Israel, and Australia, we gather for a lifetime experience and head out, after an already eventful morning.

Today’s goal is to trek 22 kilometres, from 2,700-plus-metres to 3,900 metres, and arrive at Soraypampa camp.

Starting out, it’s not long until we pass huge ancient cacti, which the Andeans still use for medicinal purposes, and not too dissimilar to our Colca Canyon trek from Arequipa, just over a week ago.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Passing the occasional small village and following a break for lunch, we head out again. Our group is a fun bunch, which helps to pass the hours away and not think of your sore feet – it’s only day one.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

The rain introduces itself again, but we still walk on donning our wet-weather gear until it clears.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

The bulk of food and gear are transported by donkey and porters, and we carry our personal packs – this will change on day 4, when donkeys cannot travel any further.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Arriving at Soraypampa, it’s not long before night falls and so does the temperature, making it much too cold to stay out in the open.

Tonight, we sleep at the base of the mighty Salkantay Mountain, which is the highest summit in the Vilcabamba mountain range surrounding Cusco. Just a corrugated tin roof over dirt floor enclosed with plastic for walls, our rustic shack is barely warmer than outside’s temperature.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

We are on a budget tour but didn’t expect to be short one tent for the night. Luckily, Alberto (Spaniard) kindly gives up his personal tent he’s been lugging all day, to a couple of females before squeezing into a 2-man tent with a couple of other guys.

The coldest night I’ve ever experienced…

Did I mention that I keep hearing that the first night of this trek is the coldest?

I’m definitely not prepared for just how cold it is…

It’s bitterly icy – even in our tents under a tin roof and not directly exposed to the elements. I wear all my layers of clothing. And, several pairs of socks, jackets, thermal beanie, and in my -15C sleeping bag, but still freezing and shaking with cold all night.

Day 2 – Soraypampa to Chaullay – 21 kms

After a very long iced night and sporadic fits of sleep, dawn awaits with the most difficult and epic part of the trek ahead, following breakfast.

After waiting for some in our group to put on makeup – have no idea why – we head out into what seems the never-never, but Juan knows the way. I’m not sure that I could do the Salkantay without a guide, although we do meet independent trekkers along the way.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Starting together, it’s not long before everyone walks at their own pace and eventually we spread out along the trek – it’s difficult at this altitude.
Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Some feel it worse than others, and some not at all. It doesn’t matter how fit you are or how young, altitude sickness strikes anyone at any time.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

I feel as if I won’t make the last few kilometres.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

But then, the most unimaginable painting unfolds…

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Of course we stop for a photo shoot – the look of pain on my face.
Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking
Hurried along, we continue into the mist.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Blanketed by a veil of clouds, valleys and mountains appear otherworldly.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

The final ascent is a steep 900 metres to the infamous Apacheta/Salkantay Pass, which sits at 4,600 metres – it’s slow and difficult.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

This point offers spectacular vistas of the sacred mountain Salkantay (6,271 metres) and Humantay mountain (5,473 metres).

Stopping at the pass, we have enough time to make small stone towers as an offering to Apu Salkantay (Apaccheta) – a sign of respect to Apus Mountain spirit, or the sacred mountain.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking
Photo credit: Juan

My legs burn and tell me I’ve had enough for the day, but it’s not yet finished. The snow starts to fall on my hot face and the temperature quickly drops again.

We still have over 7 hours to go until we arrive at our next camp for the night. Heavy mist envelopes us and masks the trail, but still we press on…

Descending into the damp Seja de la Selva (Cloud Forest), it feels as if we’re absorbed into its thick heavy mist and transported to another surreal world.

So sick for most of Salkantay from a nasty recurring bug picked up in Argentina, I am the loo-stop lookout for my partner, which never gives up on the trek.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Another 1,800 metres or so and we’re plunged yet again, into another most contrasting environment – a rainforest.

To keep us company, many birds, flora, and fruit-bearing trees surround us along the trail, with alluring waterfalls cascading down cliff faces and into tributaries.

Stopping for lunch at Huayracpunku, in a tiny stone room with a tin roof, the cold seeps into our bones, and the heavy rain starts.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Waiting a little until the rain subsides, we set off once more into the mist and head for Chaullay.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Although everyone needs to rest, I hate stopping as my body feels so stiff once I start walking again.

The long suspension bridge, provides much fun with many wanting to jump on it, of course.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Nestled at the valley between soaring mountains and hills, the cold envelopes us once more and it’s not even nightfall yet, as we happily set up our tents.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Today our trek is through an incredible diverse climate and environment of expansive valleys, dry craggy mountains, and snowy peaks.

Day 3 – Chaullay to Collpapampa, 18kms

Following breakfast, we head out on the third day of this challenging trek – it’s not named the ‘savage trek’ for no reason! Today is supposed to be much easier.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Stopping for another group photo is just an excuse for another rest.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking
Photo credit: Juan

Wonderful and contrasting beauty encircles us as we traverse through nature’s varying landscapes. Another few hours of trekking through sublime scenery and we stop for lunch at Playa Sahuayaco.

Afterwards, we’re ushered into a minivan and taken to the Cocalmayo Hot Springs in Santa Teresa about twenty minutes away. Soaking our weary bones and tender muscles for a few hours, is divine…

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

…before returning to our Collpapampa camp.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

At dinner, someone jokingly makes the mistake of mentioning that it’s Kristi’s (American) birthday today. Neil (Australian) starts singing happy birthday and everyone joins in – our assistant guide seizes this opportunity…

Day 4 – Trek 20 kms from Collpapampa to Aguas Calientes

For breakfast this morning, Kristi is presented with a surprise birthday cake – embarrasing.

The guides kindly organised a freshly-baked cake and we sing happy birthday to Kristi, whilst side-glancing each other – I feel terrible as the guides thought we were genuine.

Today promises not to be so arduous. I think the worse part of the trek is over. Juan doesn’t meet us as he went on a drinking bend last night, so the assistant guide takes his place today.

Onwards we walk joining the steps of the Classic Inca Trail.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

More stunning vistas…

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Ascending once more we reach Llactapata, which is an amazing tiny Inca archaeological site discovered in 1912, nestled into the mountain at around 4,500 metres, and some 5-kilometres from Machu Picchu.

The scoured line you see at the front of the ruins lines up perfectly with the sun during the winter solstice, to illuminate inside that was once a room.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

From this height, we’re afforded more spectacular views across the valley below, towards Machu Picchu, and also Huayna Picchu – simply breath-taking.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

After looking around, a rest, and taking many more photos, it’s time to continue down the mountain as we still have a long way to walk.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Reaching another cable suspension bridge, it’s time for more fun, before continuing on an actual dirt road.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Ambling along the river until we reach Hidroelectrica, we collapse for a hard-earned rest as stragglers arrive.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Usually I lag behind as I take so many photos. But I try not to be last, as I don’t want to keep the rest of the group waiting, although I’m sure everyone appreciates the rest.

Hidroelectrica, Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

Following lunch and our goodbye’s to the cooks, we collect our heavier packs as now we carry everything and follow the train tracks, for the last 10 kilometres of the trek. Tomorrow, this train will whisk us back along this line from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, although the line does continue to Cusco.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

This last leg is flat. I still feel my muscles burning and my feet are aching, after clocking up the kilometres over the past days. Never-ending. Today is also hot.

I just want to lay horizontal on a soft mattress. Luckily, we didn’t book the longer trek of one week as my partner suggested – I’m not sure that I would last that long, but the mind is strong.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

I can’t describe my jubilation on reaching Aguas Calientes and knowing that I finished the trek. I think this photo sums it up nicely…

Aquas Calientes, Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking
Photo credit: Nitzan Zer

What an achievement for a non-trekking and not-trained person – blowing my own trumpet here, because I can. And, the best part is that tonight we are in a hostel, in a real bed – luxury!

Aguas Calientes is very touristy and understandably so, as this is from where everyone leaves to reach Machu Picchu. Still, it’s great to take a leisurely stroll and check out this town.

A basic but ample dinner on our last night then it’s crash and burn for most. Tomorrow is another pre-dawn start to our final destination: Machu Picchu. I still can’t believe I’m actually here and so excited…

Day 5 – Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Cusco

Nothing prepares you for how a visit to mystical Machu Picchu unfolds.

Ready at sparrow fart (Australian term) around 4:30am, you have an option to either hike an hour to the Machu Picchu entrance, or take the official expensive bus, which you need to book the day before.

After walking 75 kilometres over 4 days, we succumb and pay for the bus. Only 6 of our group of 17, hiked to the gates – die-hards.

I’m sorry, but this incredibly mind-blowing Inca site deserves a separate post – Peru: Magnificent Machu Picchu in One Day.

So for now, all I say is that I wish that we could stay just one day longer and visit Machu Picchu for a second day.

Salkantay, Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, trekking

With our train back to Ollantaytambo, bus to Cusco, and also tonight’s accommodation booked, we head out this evening, leaving this ethereal site, which makes you feel as though you’ve just been submersed in a dream.

Returning to Cusco

The train to Ollantaytambo is loads of fun as we learn new card games with Nitzan and Yinon.

Arriving at Ollantaytambo, our connecting bus returns us to Cusco. Exhausted after a tremendous five days of not only demanding trekking and challenging mentally, but also finally laying eyes on Machu Picchu – it’s difficult getting to sleep.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Peru at Image Earth Travel.

Although this great Digitalphat video is from 2016, it’s similar to our 2011 trek, so sit back and enjoy!

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56 thoughts on “5-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

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    1. Thank you, it was amazing though a hard trek.

      No, we were in Cusco for a week acclimatising and booked it then, but I’m not sure how busy it has become.
      I prefer to book in the actual country and not from your home country as all the money (I hope) stays with the locals. It’s the same with volunteering. 🙂

      Like

  1. What a lovely trip. I’d love to walk around there. I can endure the cold and the height as my city is at 3800 meters above sea level (actually to me is harder to live in the coast xP) but what I cannot endure is the lack of proper bathrooms x_x Astonishing landscapes indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, ha, well let’s just say that the communal bathrooms on this trek are ‘rustic’ and not always clean, but it’s a camping trek so I don’t expect luxury. 😉

      The scenery is stunning in this part of the world!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kelly! I have more posts on Peru that may help and more to come yet, so stay tuned.

      If you’re short on time and not doing a trek, then there’s always the train from Cusco then staying in Aguas Calientes. I hear the direct train is expensive though, think you can also take a direct bus, which may be cheaper.

      Are you visiting Peru this year?

      Like

  2. What an awesome trek and great photos! We did the bike and trek to Machu Picchu last year and that was challenging enough to the point when we got to the town the night before going to Machu Picchu I was sick 🤣🤣! So worth it though! I want to go back and do the whole hike at some point too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, it was an awesome trek.
      I’m sure yours was just as difficult. Sick with exhaustion or other sick? I’d love to return also, my partner is making noises about doing the 7-day trek! I need to get fit before we tackle that as I’ve been growing fat in Italy eating pastries and enjoying Aperitivos. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think my body just wasn’t used to the amount of hard work it took and it was a continual hike the last day and the day before was all uphill with tight twists and turns so I got to the hotel and had like chills and was sick and missed out on pizza 😩😩 haha!!! Ooooh that sounds divine!!

      Liked by 1 person

    3. It does take it’s toll on your body, especially at these altitudes. I’ve been lucky so far as I’ve done a few treks at altitude over the years but it’s never hit me…hope it continues that way, but you do need a level of fitness, regardless.
      What a shame you missed pizza after all your hard effort!

      Yes, it is divine I have to say. The Calabrese food is wonderful and before living here, I’d never realised there were sooo many pasta dishes. I always thought I knew how to cook pasta until I landed here – learning every day! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh wow, Nilla. This was simply spectacular. You had so many cliffhanger moments. It’s a very challenging trail I’ve to say. Did I tell you how envious I am of the places you travel to. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rachna, it was quite an incredible trek I have to say and the people in our group made it also as they were a lot of fun. I’m always the oldest on these treks but I’m happy to say, I’m not the last to arrive, so that’s pretty cool.

      No, you didn’t, but now I know – think I’m meant to roam this earth until I can’t any longer. 😉

      Like

  4. Such a great achievement Nilla!! I have a question.. the bus from Olley was part of your tour, or there are regular busses that run between Olley and Cusco? Also, do you need to book it in advance? thank you
    Christie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Christie, thank you – it was a great experience!

      Yes, both the bus and train were included in our trekking package. Times are pre-booked and allocated in Cusco, but you’re told the times and your guide gives you tickets before boarding. The only extra cost on our trek was the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back, which needs to be booked the day before in Aguas Calientes.

      On the more expensive tours, you can take a return train from Cusco right through to Aguas Calientes. The one-day tour does exactly this, but you only spend around 2 hours at Machu Picchu – for me, this is just not enough time.

      Hope that helps – when are you going?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you Nilla! We are going in April, and not doing any trek. I’m looking for options on the way back from Machu Picchu to Cusco. The train is quite expensive, and I was thinking if we can take a bus, instead. I’m sure there are, I will dig more around:)

      Liked by 1 person

    3. No problem and glad to help – you lucky guys, you’ll have a wonderful time!

      Yes, the train is expensive when you take it all the way through and it is a part of the more expensive tours. If you’re staying in Cusco for a few days, then I don’t think you’ll have any problems booking a bus as there are so many agencies in Cusco.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Finished the Colca Canyon trek about 10 days before this one and the last day of that trek was difficult. But, most days of the Salkantay are difficult as it’s the altitude that gets a lot of trekkers. Although I was lucky as this didn’t affect me…the distance each day is what I found difficult, but maybe I was just being a drama queen! 😉

      Like

    1. Thank you Lorelle! I’m sure you could last as it’s mind over matter as they say.

      My partner is talking about returning to do the one week trek. One of the reasons is we were robbed in Peru and he lost around 1,000 photos of this trek, Machu Picchu, and the USA side-trip – he was gutted. But, that’s another story that I’ll post in the new year. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was an amazing trek Valerie, even though it was difficult (for me).
      I took so many photos that it was really hard selecting the ones to go with my post, but then again, I always have trouble with this in my posts. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. How wonderful it is to read about your trek. It brings us such excitement as we reminisce about our journey through Tibet and the 5000km altitude of the basecamp of Mount Everest. You are totally right, altitude sickness is a serious affliction, we took it lightly but it took us four days to recover to half strength. Interestingly enough, we enjoyed the pain, it was just as much an accomplishment as the trek to the basecamp. Thanks for sharing this piece, Nilla.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gabriel, thanks for your great feedback and I’m glad you could reminisce whilst reading my post.

      Would love to travel to Tibet and Mount Everest basecamp, it’s more popular to do the south base camp in Nepal, what made you choose the north base camp? I need to get back into a level of fitness before attempting that trek.

      Like

    2. It was an early birthday gift from a friend that did the Nepal trek. We decided to do the Tibet side and possibley Annapurna circuit in the future.
      Hope you get to the fitness level you desire so we can read about more of your adventures, Nilla.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it was, for me anyway. I always seem to be the oldest on these treks also, so that doesn’t help. 😉
      Ha, ha that’s funny and glad you enjoyed the ‘stroll’ with me…Machu Picchu is out on the 23rd, so keep an eye out for the trek’s finale.

      Liked by 1 person

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