Salkantay Trek Guide: Peru
One of the best (and worst) things about planning a trip to Peru is that it is nearly impossible to ‘do it all’. Peru has so much to offer between it’s various unique cities, outdoor activities, food scenes and famous landmarks. From Lima to Cusco, to the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, to Lake Titicaca to the Amazon; the itinerary options are endless. Of all the hikes, we ended up choosing the Salkantay Trek.
Unfortunately, we only had a limited amount of time to visit (like many others). We knew we wanted to to experience the hiking but were torn between all of the different options. Thanks to a friends recommendation, we went with the slightly less talked about route; the Salkantay Trek.
Salkantay Trek Overview:
The Salkantay Trek is a journey through all types of polar opposite scenery, with a high point of more than 15,000 feet of elevation, and Machu Picchu as it’s final destination.
There are options to do the 3-day, 4-day, 5-day and 6+day trek depending on the time frame available. To make it even more confusing, there are tons of tour companies to choose from. We ended up choosing Machu Picchu Reservations and had an absolutely amazing experience.
Given our 8-day itinerary which you can find here; we decided that the 4-day trek would be just long enough to get a taste of the Peruvian hiking culture. The 4-day route still allowed us time to explore other cities and have some R&R along the way.
Scroll to the bottom of this post for packing list tips. Although not a complete packing list (as it really depends on the season you are visiting), there are a few items that I was extremely thankful I had along the way. Figured I would share with all of you to make your adventures in Peru that much more enjoyable. 🙂
Salkantay Trek – Day 1:
Day one kicked off with a very early alarm before meeting up with the remainder of our hiking group 5:30AM in the downtown Cusco square. After we all piled in a van along with our pre-packed 7 kilo duffle bags; we were off for a 2 hour drive to Mollapata for breakfast. With full stomachs, we were off for another hour long windy mountain drive to Soraypampa where the hiking began.
We handed off our duffle bags to the horsemen and only had to carry what we needed in our day backpacks for the remainder of the hike. Sounds easy, right? The high altitude and non-stop hiking through various terrains kept us very thankful that all we had on our back was the necessities.
The first day is shorter but by no means an easy one. We slowly began our ascent up towards Lake Humanatay for two hours. I thought this part would be a breeze. Only two hours of hiking to our first point? But boy, was I wrong. The high altitude kicked my butt as my heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest and I had to stop multiple times to catch my breath.
Finally we arrived at the base of the turquoise blue waters of Lake Humanatay where we had a nice long break to take it all in. The gorgeous lake backs up into a towering glacier mountain which makes the scene that much more breathtaking.
(You can expect crowds of people at this point as a lot of people do just a one-day trip to this lake and then turn around)
After hiking two hours downhill from Lake Humanatay, we arrived at our Quiswarnioc campground where we enjoyed a long, much-needed lunch. The food that Machu Picchu Reservations made for breakfast, lunch and dinner was amazing every single meal. Our meals consisted of soup, bread, vegetables, and protein.
After the late lunch, we had free time to set up our ‘beds’ for the night, relax, and take mini-hikes to the nearby waterfalls before we gathered yet again for a tasty dinner and early night sleep.
One of the coolest aspects of our hike was our diverse group from all over the world. Each meal we would gather around a large table, speaking 5+ languages and sharing stories from all different backgrounds. Our group came from Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Canada and Australia.
Salkantay Trek – Day #2:
Today was the longest and hardest day.
We were woken up by our guide, Juan at 5:00AM with a warm cup of Coca Tea to combat the looming high altitude ahead. Shortly after breakfast and more coca tea, we were off to ascend to the highest point on the Salkantay Trail; 4630 meters (15,190 feet ). This part of the hike alone took 3 to 4 hours and was almost entirely uphill.
The saving grace once we made it to the top was knowing that the only way to go from here was down. As we sat at the highest point of our Salkantay trek, our guide gave us a full run down of the history and the ‘mountain gods’, as we participated in a small Andean ritual before starting our descent. The views were beautiful but as we found out quickly on our trip; the cloud cover can take over with a weather change at any moment so we had to take mental snapshots of the gorgeous snowcapped mountains while they were still visible.
We continued descending down through changing scenery of blooming flowers and straight into the lush, misty jungle terrain. During this stretch of the hike we had our ONLY rain during the entire four days. If you are familiar with rainy season in Peru, then this is completely shocking and extremely lucky for us. The rain just made it harder to hike down hill as we stepped across slippery mud, trying not to fall.
After approximately five hours of hiking downhill (including a stop for lunch along the way), we arrived at our second campsite in Chaullay (2900m in elevation). Here you can (supposedly) take a hot shower for 10 soles (~$3USD) but we just sucked it up knowing that the following night we’d have a real hot shower and hostel room.
This was our least favorite camping accommodation but it’s hard to complain with the views and company. There were tents set up on a 2nd level deck where we also ate dinner. In order to get up in the night for the restroom; we had to put on our mud covered hiking boots and head lamps to venture out into the muddy, wet campsite. [We probably sound high maintenance but this evening which led to very little sleep was our reminder that 1-2 nights of camping is pretty much our maximum]
Salkantay Trek – Day #3:
We woke up surrounded by the warm jungle air at 6:00AM with coca tea (as always) and breakfast. At this point I could start to feel my body’s exhaustion kicking in. Not only were we not getting the best sleep but my knees were starting to hurt from all of the downhill trekking. On a positive note, our bodies were thankful to be at a much lower altitude than where we began, making it much easier to breathe.
Without too much time to let our soreness truly kick in, we were off for another five-hours of hiking along the Santa Teresa Valley and Salkantay River. Along this portion of the trek, we passed several waterfalls, took a small cable car across the rushing river, and tried bananas from a local families banana plantation.
After five hours of hiking, our bodies got a break as we hopped in a van and drove an hour to Santa Teresa for a delicious lunch and tour of the families coffee plantation. (If you don’t know how coffee is actually made and you’re a coffee fanatic like we are, then it is definitely worthwhile checking out a coffee plantation when visiting!)
Since we prepared ourselves for day two to be the hardest and longest, I wasn’t completely prepared for the amount of walking or hours ahead of us on day three. After lunch in Santa Teresa, we left the rest of our group who would be continuing on their 5-day trek. We hopped in a van for another 45 minutes until we arrived in Hidroelectrica.
Once we checked-in with our passport information; we were off on foot to walk another 3+ hours along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes (the base town of Machu Picchu). Besides the exhaustion, the flat terrain and breathtaking mountain views surrounding our path made it much easier to continue on.
Finally, we made it to riverside Aguas Calientes and to the Salkantay Inn Hostel where we we’d be spending the night. I never thought I could be so happy to be at a hostel; which meant actual beds and a hot shower!
Salkantay Trek – Day #4:
Day four; the day that we had been waiting for as we woke up before the crack of dawn to hike up to one of the world wonders.
Our hostel prepared a bag breakfast for us to grab on-the-go complete with juice, fruit and crackers. The entrance gates at the base of Machu Picchu open at 5:00AM but people begin lining up as early as ~4:30. Luckily the line moves quickly. All you need on you is your passport and entrance ticket along with a light day-pack for anything you might need during the day tour.
Once again, I had mentally prepared myself the most for day two. Little did I know that trekking up to Machu Picchu before sunrise would mean a vertical, straight up ascent on stairways all the way up to the official entrance. [There is an option to take the bus which you can arrange the night before]
Mike and I got very lucky (once again); there was not a single raindrop or cloud in the sky as we made our way up and stood at the top overlooking Machu Picchu. Just as gorgeous, and way more impressive than the pictures that we had seen since we were little kids in history class. This site truly is a world wonder. The views and experience are impossible to put into words.
After our guided tour of the ruins, we had time to wander around on our own to take it all in. We fell even more in love with the panoramic surrounding mountain landscape that we had no idea existed from the photos we’d seen of Machu Picchu online.
At this point of our trek, my right knee was completely done with hiking downhill so we chose the bus route. There is a bus ticket office at the entrance so you can change your mind and take the easy route back to Aguas Calientes station if you choose.
This brought us to the end of our ‘organized’ trek. Mike and I explored the town of Aguas Calientes (although touristy, we absolutely loved this quaint riverside town). With absolutely no more interest in trekking around, we sat ourselves down at what turned out to be one of our very favorite restaurants of the trip, Full House. (* Do yourself a favor and get there a little before the lunch crowd. Ask for the outdoor patio seating and if you are lucky you could get the corner table overlooking the river. )
With bellies full of alpaca steak, fresh trout, and pisco sours; we hopped on our PeruRail train back towards Cusco to finish off our day. A long train ride to Ollantaytambo and a large van ride to Cusco later, we enjoyed our final evening sipping on Pisco Sours by the fire pit at Antigua Casona San Blas (Back where it all began! You can read more about our stay here).
If you are with Machu Picchu Reservations, the included mode of transportation is walking 3 hours back to Hidroelectrica followed by a 6 hour car ride to Cusco. They will also set up a train for you at no additional cost but it doesn’t leave until ~6:00PM which will not get you back to Cusco until nearly 11PM. We chose the earlier train which cost an extra $70 but it departed mid-afternoon and we still didn’t make it back to downtown Cusco until the evening.
BONUS Packing List Suggestions:
- DIAMOX: Worried about altitude sickness? Set up a doctor’s appointment before your trip or go to a local travel clinic. Not only will they make sure you get all the shots you need before visiting the destination but they can prescribe you Diamox to help avoid or prevent altitude sickness.
- CHLOROPHYLL DROPS: Can’t say 100% if these worked or not but we didn’t get altitude sickness so between the Diamox and Chlorophyll drops, something worked!
- EARPLUGS: Between roosters going off at 4:00AM, horses running around at sunrise, or being surrounded by 5+ languages trying to fall asleep; earplugs came in clutch every night.
- SLEEPING BAG INSERT: We purchased ours at REI but you can also find them here on Amazon. Sea-to-Summit has various inserts depending on the climate you will be camping in. For our trek, we would be sleeping at very high altitudes and the temperature drops significantly at night. (This is especially true if you hike during the dry, winter months) I also loved the insert since we rented our sleeping bags from the trek company but the insert helped me feel like it was my own (and clean!)
- BODY WIPES: Shower in a bag? These came in very handy during long days of hiking.
- TOILET PAPER (INDIVIDUAL): These worked great as they are individually wrapped and perfect to throw in your backpack for the trek. Another favorite are these individually wrapped ‘goodwipes‘. Perfect for the hike or even post-workout.
- TRAVEL TISSUE PACKS: These are also great and versatile. Runny nose? Toilet paper substitute?
- LIQUID I.V. PACKETS: This stuff is magic when it comes to staying hydrated during the 4-day trek. I drank ~ a packet pre-day. Liquid I.V. is full of electrolytes and is the equivalent of drinking 2-3 water bottles.
- SNACKS: Although we were fed plenty of huge meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner; it never hurt to have easy snacks on the long hiking days. My go-to’s are RX Bars, Sun & Swell clean cookies, Omega Trail Mix and dried mango slices from Trader Joes.
- RE-FILLABLE WATER BOTTLE: I always bring my refillable water bottle on all of my travels. It’s a great way to avoid all of the single-use plastic bottles and super convenient when you have access to filtered water.
- HEADLAMPS: I wasn’t sure how necessary headlamps would be but it turns out they were very essential. In the middle of the night when you leave your tent, it is pretty much pitch black outside. They also came in handy during our Sacred Valley climbing adventure for the night climb to our capsule.
- HIKING SHOES: The trekking website says “hiking shoes or tennis shoes” but I truly believe that legit, high quality hiking shoes makes all the difference. We walked over small river crossings/creeks, hiked through wet and slippery muddy conditions, and made our way 40+ miles through various terrains. I absolutely LOVE my hiking boots I got from Merrell.
- THERMAL LONG-SLEEVE SHIRT + PANTS (LONG JOHNS): Men’s and women available here. It made a huge difference having this thermal wear beneath our regular hiking outfits especially on the first two days of hiking at high altitudes and in colder, windy conditions.
- HIKING SOCKS (I.E. WOOL/etc): Having the right socks makes all the difference. We bought our hiking socks from Merrell as well. Having the correct socks and shoes for this trek could be the difference between blisters and sore feet (bring moleskin and bandaids just in case!)
- INSECT REPELLANT and SUNSCREEN: Both of these go hand-in-hand. As soon as you cross from the cold and high altitudes into the warmer, humid jungle climate; you will need high quality bug spray or lotion) and sunscreen.
- All other: long-sleeve hiking tops, lightweight and breathable tops, a pair of shorts, rain pants, a beanie, baseball cap, warm sweater or fleece for the evenings,a bathing suit (if you’ll be doing the hot springs), sunglasses, day pack, and ‘just-in-case’ meds (i.e. pepto, ibuprofen, Advil, Tums)