In this post I'm going to discuss the experiences I had during my Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu while hiking in South America.
Peru is a country of rich cultural history, beautiful landscapes and friendly people. If you're like me then your interest in visiting Peru likely stemmed from wanting to explore the Modern World Wonder of Machu Picchu.
But exploring Machu Picchu is only a one day adventure and there is SO much to do and see in Peru. If you're a believer in the mantra that 'the journey is the destination' then you'll want to consider the Salkantay Trek for reaching Machu Picchu which is one of the best hikes in South America.
Part of what makes visiting Machu Picchu so special is that you're offered a glimpse into what life was like for the ancient Incas.
The trek is a great opportunity to get off the grid and experience what Peru is all about!
Your specific itinerary and experience will be highly dependent on which tour operator you book through. For my trip we went with Alpaca Expeditions. Even if you decide to hike the Inca Trail instead these guys are worth a look.
Read on to get the full scoop on how my trip to Peru with my brother Alex went! If you're more interested in reading about what to pack for the Salkantay Trek I've written a full post on that as well.
Also, once you're done reading this post be sure to check out my Peru Video Travel Guide that will highlight some of my favorite activities to do around the Cusco area.
You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!
We used Alpaca Expeditions as our Salkantay Trek tour operator
Is it fair for me to say Alpaca Expeditions is the best Salkantay Trek tour operator? After all, I've never done the trek with anyone else.
Probably not, but considering they earned an A+ in every category I could possibly grade them on, we're gonna roll with it.
With that said, let's discuss what you can expect from Alpaca Expeditions before jumping into our itinerary.
The 5D/5N Classic Salkantay Trek cost us $650 per head. There were another $55 worth of hiking gear options you could rent: a sleeping bag, hiking mattress and trekking poles. If you don't own these items, rent them. That's what we did.
And if you're wondering, yes, you 100% need trekking poles for this trip. Your knees will be brutalized if you attempt it without them, especially since you'll be carrying some weight on your back.
From day one Alpaca was extremely easy to communicate with and they were quick to respond. This is important since you'll need to reserve your trek months in advance.
Pretty much our ENTIRE vacation to Peru was in the hands of Alpaca and this will be true for the operator you choose.
Another perk of working with these guys was the food. They do an excellent job of training their chefs and it shows in the final product.
This is the only part of your trip where it's not fair to say you really 'roughed' it. You're going to eat extremely well and be very happy about it after a 10 hour day of mountain hiking.
As you research potential operators be sure to consider their social impact as well. Peru is not a wealthy country and many of the guides, cooks and porters come from rural mountain areas.
Alpaca was founded by a former porter and not surprisingly they treat their employees very well.
My favorite thing on this front was that the porters were fed the same food we were. After a long day of working hard to support our trek they certainly deserved a good meal! Not all operators treat their people with this same respect.
A helpful Salkantay Trek packing list
Packing properly for your Salkantay Trek is extremely important. For that reason I have an entire post dedicated to it.
If you're not ready to jump into those specifics yet, there are still a few things you should weigh when considering this trek.
You're going to be carrying some extra weight with you even after utilizing the porters. The actual trails you're hiking aren't too difficult as most are well maintained.
However, the Salkantay Trek is strenuous due to the combination of elevation, terrain steepness, duration and added weight. When purchasing any new gear consider item weight. Don't be surprised if your day pack ends up being 15-25 pounds (about 10 kg).
Do you really need a water proof layer? Yes. Absolutely. We experienced 10+ hours of precipitation on the first day of our trek, more on that in a bit. If you don't have a good waterproof top layer be sure to budget for that.
Salkantay Trek day by day itinerary
Now for the moment you've been waiting for! What does the Salkantay Trek day by day itinerary look like?
Below I'll provide an outline of the trek along with my high level thoughts of each part. Afterwards we'll dive deeper into each day and details of my experience.
Night Before Day 1 - Alpaca Expeditions will arrange transportation for you from Cusco to their glass cabins near Soraypampa. This will officially mark the beginning of your hike to Machu Picchu!
Day 1 - You'll wake up early and start your day by hiking to Humantay Lake. From there you'll work towards your lunch site near Salkantay Pass. After lunch you'll hike the Salkantay trail and work down the mountain towards your campsite. This will be the most difficult day of the trek.
Day 2 - Much easier than Day 1 as you're downhill pretty much the whole way. You'll leave freezing temperatures in the mountains and descend into the hotter jungle climate. You'll end your day at Alpaca's hobbit houses located near the river.
Day 3 - Another day of mostly uphill hiking. You'll visit a local coffee farm and experience the process of making coffee firsthand. Part of this day involves hiking along the traditional Inca Trail path. You'll tent camp under the stars at Llactapata which overlooks Machu Picchu.
Day 4 - The descent from the Llactapata area will lead you to the Hidroelectrica Station which provides power to Cusco. From here you'll hike along railroad tracks part of the day until you reach the city of Aguas Calientes.
Day 5 - You'll wake up early and catch your first view of Machu Picchu before exploring the ruins. To reach the ruins you'll take a 20 minute shuttle up the hill from Aguas Calientes. After exploring the ruins you'll enjoy a scenic train ride back to Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo a van will be waiting to return you back to Cusco.
Aside from Salkantay, if you're looking to fill a day in Cusco, consider reaching out to Alpaca Expeditions. My brother and I were able to arrange a bespoke day tour with them that included a driver, guide and cook.
They took us to Pisac, The Maras Salt Mines and Moray. We were lucky enough to have the same guide (Robinzon) for the day trip and on our Salkantay Trek. If you plan in advance you may be able to make similar arrangements. I'd recommend it - by the end of our week in Peru Robinzon was like a brother to us!
Salkantay Trek Night Before Day 1 - Travel to Soraypampa
When we did our Salkantay Trek, Alpaca was able to pick us up directly from our AirBnb around 3pm. I'm not sure what their radius is for doing this, but we were located fairly close to Plaza De Armas. The ride to Soraypampa where you'll stay nearby in the glass cabins is between 3 and 4 hours long.
How is the drive to Soraypampa from Cusco?
Much of the drive to Soraypampa will be through the beautiful Andean mountains. The first half or so of this is along a well maintained road and very scenic.
The second half.. is a little sketchier. The road up to Soraypampa is fairly narrow and primarily made of dirt. Along the side is a sheer thousand foot drop.
Other parts of this road take you through dense jungle foliage. It was mostly dark out by this time so it was hard to infer much else!
I've gotta say.. when we finally reached the glass houses I was really excited for what was ahead. You'll have dinner with your group and an opportunity to take in the beautiful views.
It was rather cold out that night, but it really didn't bother me given the amazing snow capped mountains that surrounded us.
Sadly, we had partly cloudy skies and a full moon so our stargazing was mediocre. Pro tip.. if possible plan your trek when there is a new moon!
Salkantay Trek Day 1 - Salkantay Pass & Humantay Lake
Initially we came to Peru for Machu Picchu. But by the time we had our trip booked this was the day I was looking forward to most. You'll wake up early to hot coca tea delivered to your door followed by breakfast. Once your group is ready you'll head out towards Humantay Lake.
The trek to Humantay Lake and back will take about 3 hours or so depending on how much time you spend at the lake. I highly recommend acclimating to the elevation in Cusco for at LEAST two days.
Can you rent horses at Humantay Lake?
The path to the lake is up a steep hill located behind a local farm where you can rent horses or pay a small fee to use the restroom. The path is rocky in a few spots but overall it's fairly easy, just steep. On the way back down you'll definitely want trekking poles.
Save your knees, you still have 4 days left!
Humantay Lake was a huge highlight for us. The glacial water was stunning and the backdrop is out of this world. It was a really rainy day for us and the low clouds made the mountain disappear into the sky.
If you're interested in reading more about our time at Humantay Lake be sure to read my dedicated post. If you aren't attempting Salkantay Pass this is still something you can do as a day trip from Cusco!
Once you're done at the lake you'll head back down the same path you came. At the farm you passed on the way up you'll turn left and start towards Salkantay Pass. It's at this point in time I cannot stress enough the importance of having a complete layer of waterproof hiking gear.
We spent a good 10 hours in constantly changing forms of precipitation that day. Dense morning fog turned into light showers.
Those turned into downpours and wind as we approached the pass. At higher elevations the rain turned to snow and eventually ice.
By the end of the day my gloves and boots were mostly soaked. They had held up well until some point after lunch when it was raining the heaviest on the other side of Salkantay Pass.
Mountain weather can be unpredictable, and being at over 15,000 ft (4,635 meters) doesn't help. The weather was so bad I never took my camera out of my hiking bag after we left the lake.
The photo above was all I could really get from our time at Salkantay Pass. A quick selfie with my iPhone with our awesome guide Robinzon. Visibility was maybe 30 feet or so, which meant we missed out on an up close view of Salkantay Mountain.
Despite some brutal weather and my brother suffering from altitude sickness at lunch.. this still ended up being an incredible day. I can now cross 'survive a blizzard at Salkantay Pass' off my bucket list!
Salkantay Trek Day 2 - scenic descent to the Hobbit Houses
My favorite thing about waking up on day 2 was the view from where we camped. The mountain behind us was incredibly prominent and beautiful.
Visibility was so bad the day before we had no idea it was even there!
I'd imagine Salkantay Pass is more pleasant in better weather, but we were happy to be descending into warmer weather on day two. Enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery along the way as you work towards the Hobbit houses located along the river.
Once you reach the Hobbit houses you'll have an opportunity to set your things in your room and take a shower before dinner.
We had enough time to briefly wander down to the nearby river. I really enjoyed the mix of tent camping with cabin accommodations throughout the trek, I felt like it allowed for the best of both experiences.
Be sure to get a good night sleep - today was an easier day as it was mostly downhill. Tomorrow the trip to the Llactapata campsite will be mostly uphill!
Salkantay Trek Day 3 - Coffee Farm & Llactapata
Day 3 is a really cool day. You'll make a pit stop for lunch and coffee at a local family owned farm. Here you'll pick coffee beans, peel them, roast, grind and brew fresh artisan coffee.
It was a highlight from our trip and I even dedicated a full post to our Peruvian coffee experience with a local family that you should check out.
Once you've filled up on the best coffee you've ever had, you'll start your march up the hill towards Llactapata. The views of the river valley below are breathtaking.
The best part is they keep getting better as the day progresses. You continue gaining elevation and a better view until eventually the sun starts to set. Amazing!
This is a great opportunity for me to emphasize the importance of bringing a headlamp (at minimum a flashlight).
Not only will you want it for around the campsite in the very early morning or evenings, but if your group is slow like ours, you might get caught out as the sun is setting and things get dark. Be sure to go through the packing list guide I put together to avoid any unwanted surprises!
Camping at Llactapata which overlooks Machu Picchu was a really cool experience. We had excellent stargazing conditions on this night.
Skies were clear and dark before the full moon rose over the horizon which offered us a brief glimpse of the Milky Way stripe.
We could see plenty of satellites, shooting stars and the Milky Way stripe. The next morning we had a beautiful day and were able to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Salkantay Trek Day 4 - Hidroelectrica & Aguas Calientes
This will be your last day of hiking. From Llactapata you'll work down the mountain towards the Hidroelectrica station.
Once you've passed this area you'll come across a small strip of shops and restaurants setup near railroad tracks where you'll have lunch.
It's a good opportunity to do some souvenir shopping, but there will be other good opportunities at Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu and eventually Ollantaytambo as well.
Enjoy the leisurely stroll along the railroad tracks after lunch. Stray dogs often wander this path, escorting travelers from Hidroelectrica all the way to Aguas Calientes in exchange for treats.
We had one follow us almost the entire way until we took a slight detour down to view the nearby river up close.
That evening you'll arrive in Aguas Calientes with your guide. The town is known for hot springs and as the best jumping off point for visiting Machu Picchu.
Lunch that afternoon will be your last opportunity to say goodbye to your team of porters as they'll head home from there.
The packet of information that Alpaca provides you includes a recommendation on how much to tip. It's suggested that you and any other hikers coordinate tips to ensure your porters are all properly taken care of.
There are tons of restaurants, pubs and vendors to keep you occupied in Aguas Calientes. The town is beautiful with a river cutting through the middle. Going for a walk after four days of hiking may not sound all that appealing, but be sure to explore this walking friendly town.
We didn't have any available time during our trip, but I would've loved to have stayed here a full day to really check it out.
The best part of reaching Aguas Calientes was that we were finally able to enjoy a hot shower after several days hiking in the mountains!
Salkantay Trek Day 5 - Machu Picchu
Today is the day! All of your hard work trekking through the Andes finally pays off as you'll get to be up close and personal with a Modern World Wonder.
What is the best time to visit Machu Picchu?
Be prepared to get up early - we caught the first (maybe the second..) shuttle from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins.
We were on the bus before 6am.
The ride up the mountain is pretty tame compared to the four days you've just had and only lasts about 20 minutes. Arriving this early has a few perks.
The best reason to arrive early at Machu Picchu is to beat the lines at the entrance and crowds within the ruins. A lot of my favorite photographs that I took at Machu Picchu were early on when the sun had barely risen over the Andes.
Arriving early also helps you beat the heat and sun, the high mountain sun can be roasty-toasty in the late afternoon.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when entering the ruins. Namely, there are no restrooms inside the ruin area. Once you're in, you're in.
Be prepared to hold your business for however long you're exploring the ruins. Our small group had a leisurely pace, stopping to learn about the Inca culture from our guide and for plenty of photo ops. You should budget 3 hours or so inside Machu Picchu.
If you're bringing up your hiking bag (there's really no need) be aware that bags over a certain size must be checked at the gate for a small fee. A small backpack would be allowed in.
Can you bring food inside Machu Picchu?
You're also not allowed to bring in any food. We had lunch and a beer back in Aguas Calientes before catching our train back to Ollantaytambo. There's a restaurant at the entrance here but I can't speak to it's quality since we didn't visit.
I could drone on and on about how much I enjoyed exploring Machu Picchu - if you're interested in learning about that experience check out my full post.
Once you've had your fill of the ruins you'll catch a bus back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes with your guide.
If you have time like we did, you might be able to grab lunch, do some shopping or have a beer in town before catching your train.
The train ride to Ollantaytambo is extremely scenic so be sure to have your camera handy. It's a nice relaxing way to round out your Salkantay Trek adventure. The ride will last about 90 minutes.
At Ollantaytambo you'll pass a rather large open air market on your way to the van that will shuttle you back to Cusco. This is another great opportunity to do some souvenir shopping if you haven't yet had your fill.
We spent less than 30 minutes in town moving from the train station to our van, but this little town seemed full of life and hustle bustle. In a perfect world we would've had a chance to spend a night here to explore what else it had to offer.
Is the Salkantay Trek worth it?
After spending five full days adventuring through the Peruvian Andes and exploring Machu Picchu I can say that the Salkantay Trek was one of the most amazing life experiences I've ever had.
My brother and I forged a special bond with our guide Robinzon and (update) we still keep in touch years later.
If you enjoyed this post don't forget to check out my list of the best things to do in Cusco as well. It includes tips for getting around the city, where to see the best views of Cusco and recommendations for how to spend your time before embarking on your trek.
My blog is packed full of useful travel planning guides like how to plan a trip abroad or my list of the best cheap flight hacks for saving money. Don't forget to check those out as well when planning your trip to Peru.
Hopefully this post covering my experience during the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu while hiking in South America proves useful during your trip planning process!