Salkantay Trek To Machu Picchu: What To Expect & How To Prepare
Ancient sacred sites simply must be experienced in person to appreciate, and the Inca ruins in Peru are no different. Plus, I’m convinced the best way to live the Peruvian culture is to trek through the mountains and jungle valleys getting intimate with Pachamama and one’s true spirit. I did the 4-day, 3-night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu and it was one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures of my life so far. I hope this detailed day-by-day breakdown is helpful for you to know what to expect on your hike!
Why The Salkantay Trek
There are several different trails you can take to Machu Picchu. The most famous is the Inca trail, as it shows the paved roads that connected the Inca empire throughout the Andes. There are many reasons people choose to take this trail, but it is worth noting that the Inca trail is the most crowded option for trekking to Machu Picchu and needs to be booked several months in advance as only a limited number of people are allowed on it per day. I chose the Salkantay trek because it is the most scenic and physically strenuous.
Preparing For The Trek
It’s recommended to arrive in Cusco or nearby a good 48 hours before beginning your trek to acclimate to the altitude of the mountains. I spent 5 days at the renowned Willka T’ika Essential Wellness, practicing yoga and getting in proper spiritual shape before taking on the Andes
It’s also a good idea to come with Diamox or a similar altitude sickness prevention prescription, as well as over the counter pepto bismol to keep your stomach steady.
Pack layers that are easy to carry. Something breathable, an insulated jacket, gloves, warm socks, proper hiking boots and a rain jacket are all must haves. I also recommend taking a few snack bars, hydration tablets, a headlamp and at least 1 walking pole (which you can hire through your trek company). A 40-liter adjustable pack is plenty big as you’ll want to carry as little as possible. Porters will handle your cooking and camping equipment for all guided treks, but you’re responsible for your own bag, and every pound feels like ten when in altitude so it’s best to only take what you absolutely need.
Day 1 - Humantay Lake & Camping In The Stars
Day 1 will start well before sunrise. Most tour companies pick you up between 4 and 4:30am, and you’ll drive to the town of Mollepata (~9,200 ft) to start the trek. The first leg is from Mollepata to Soraypampa, and it’s a moderate ~8 mile hike that gains more than 2,000 ft in elevation. Expect to stop for a scenic lunch after about 2 hours, before continuing on to the campsites which sit at around 12,000 ft.
Optional on day 1 is a 4-mile round trip hike up to Humantay Lake (14,000 ft). I was nervous to add more hiking on the first day, because I knew it was only the beginning and my body was already starting to feel the weight of my pack in the altitude. I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out, so I took only a camera bag, water and gloves, and hit the trail. It was intense, but so worth it! I was happy to prove to myself that I could do tough shit, and felt more confident for the next day because of it. Plus the lake is insanely beautiful.
We got back down to camp just before sunset and in time for a hot and nourishing meal and herbal tea. Camping at 12,000 ft was an unforgettable experience. The night sky was so clear that I could see what felt like all the stars in the milky way.
Day 2 - Salkantay Pass & The Descent To The Jungle
Day 2 is easily the most challenging day on the Salkantay Trek as it takes you up & over the Salkantay Pass at 15,250 ft, and then down into the deep Amazon jungle to camp at 9,000 ft. As demanding as the ascension is, the steep descent into the jungle was way more difficult for me and took a toll on my knees.
We started day 2 at 5:30am with breakfast and coffee. I took a few things out of my pack and put them in with my sleeping bag, and was happy to feel much lighter.
Soraypampa to the Salkantay Pass is a 2,700 ft ascension over 5 miles. It took us most of the morning, but slow and steady definitely wins the race in extreme altitude so as to not shock the body.
After reaching the highest point of the trek, we started our descent into the jungle, with points so steep that even the mules have to watch their step and go slow. Thank goodness for hiking poles!
Expect 7 intense downhill miles between breakfast and lunch spots. The option is there to hire a horse, but I encourage you to test your physical limits. After lunch, the trail levels out a bit into sprawling green fields with massive rock structures before ending in the jungle.
Experiencing such a variety in climate, geography, and plant life in one day was indescribable. We celebrated with wine and card games at camp, and I was so happy I brought my Moon Body Soul body balm to soothe my aching muscles and joints.
Day 3 - Through The Jungle To Aguas Calientes We Go
Although day 2 is the hardest, day 3 is the longest. You’ll descend from 9,000 feet to just over 5,000 feet over the course of 16 miles, and the entire day is in the lush green jungle. I feel at home in the tropical forest, so day 3 was my favorite.
Aguas Calientes is like the Las Vegas of the Andes, and it honestly felt strange to see buildings and lights at first. We made it just after sunset, and in town it was easy to tell who arrived on a tour bus and who had just hiked through mountains and jungles to be there. I was proud to be in the latter group.
Day 4 - Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
My group opted for a 3:30am wake up call to be at the head of the line to transport to the entrance of Machu Picchu, which opens at 6am. It seemed extreme but it was so worth it to be one of the first 50 people in that day and to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu. The energy of the land is palpable, and the deep silence was unlike anything I’ve ever felt.
We took photos at sunrise and enjoyed a 2-hour guided tour. I’m not usually one for guided tours, but I definitely recommend it at Machu Picchu to learn more about the structures and flow of the ancient city. By 8am, the crowds started to fill in and the silence was gone.
We booked our spot to climb 1,000 very vertical feet up to Huayna Picchu, which is a network of ruins overlooking Machu Picchu. While way less developed than Machu Picchu, it is an important site for archaeological studies of the Inca civilization. Some of the stone steps are tiny and some are huge, and most of the climb has a rope or something to hang on to. You’ll feel right away just how alert you want to be on this trail!
We came back down and explored Machu Picchu for a bit longer, and then took the train back to Aguas Calientes and spent the afternoon cafe hopping and shopping for over-priced souvenirs before taking an evening transport back to Cusco.
The Only Bug I Picked Up In Peru Is The Hiking Bug
After 4 days and 40+ miles of hiking, I can honestly say I came out of the Salkantay Trek a different and more empowered version of myself. I even decided to hike Rainbow Mountain later that week! I think anytime you combine a physical challenge with mental solitude and mother nature, transformation is bound to happen. I really learned on this trek what I am capable of, discovered the power of mindset on a new level, and had my eyes opened to one of the many the diverse human experiences on this planet.