Hiking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is arguably the most exotic and amazing destination on the planet. If you are like me, it holds the number one slot on your bucket list and has done so for as long as you care to remember.
Today there are more options than ever to visit the iconic Inca citadel. Possibilities range all the way from taking a comfortable bus ride from Aguas Calientes to enduring a five-day epic journey across the Andes Mountains. I advocate pushing the limits of your physical and mental capacity by choosing to do a multi-day trek for your Machu Picchu experience.
There are few things that can really test you quite like a multi-day trek across the Andes immersed in ancient Inca culture every step of the way. From chewing coca leaves to wearing hand woven garments and feasting on Alpaca, the entire experience makes you feel authentically Incan to the very core.
The two most popular multi-day hikes are the classic Inca Trail hike and the Salkantay Trail. The Inca Trail is four days long and tends to focus more on cultural awareness and gaining a better understanding of what purpose Machu Picchu served during pre-Columbian times. On the other hand, the Salkantay Trail is five days long and focuses on the rugged beauty of the Andes along with demonstrating the importance of the sacred Salkantay glacier.
The Salkantay Trail
The Salkantay Trail is quickly becoming the Inca Trail alternative of choice for travelers interested in a more rugged, physically demanding Andean trek. The Inca Trail is shorter overall and avoids some of the more intense glacial stretches that present the greatest challenges to hikers who are sensitive to serious spikes in altitude or camping in freezing cold temperatures. Personally, I believe these grueling experiences are the ones that you remember and silently congratulate yourself on over and over long after the trip has ended.
When hiking the Salkantay trail, it is incredibly important it is to allow yourself at least two days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley for acclimatizing before starting a multi-day trek of any kind. This is absolutely crucial unless you want to spend half of your hike riding a donkey with a piercing altitude headache. One great way to avoid altitude sickness is to begin hydrating at least a week in advance.
Below is a day-by-day breakdown of what you can anticipate during the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu:
Early morning pick up in Cusco. The shuttle ride is relatively quiet because it is crazy early, pitch black outside, and freezing! However once the sun starts peaking over the mountains your fellow passengers begin to stir and the meet and greets organically commence. The shuttle drops you off at a tiny village on the fringes of the Andes for a big sit down breakfast in order to wave goodbye to civilization. After breakfast it is time to gear up. Day packs are assembled and the heavy backpacks are loaded onto donkeys.
Most guides will give you the opportunity to purchase some dried coca leaves and a walking stick inside the village. I strongly recommend doing this! Chewing coca leaves helps with altitude sickness, curbs your appetite and gives you a small boost of energy to keep hiking! The walking sticks, or two walking sticks if you are feeling up to it, also helps move things along and create stability on the rocky downhill sections of the Salkantay trek.
On the first day, you will witness spectacular views of the Andean foothills as you push towards the glaciers. There are several unbelievable viewpoints and rest stops along the way as well. Don’t expect a light easy day of hiking on day one. It is challenging and the altitude change can really get to you after several hours. At the end of a long day you will finally come to camp. Camp 1 is set up just before the rather daunting group of towering glaciers that are in store for Day 2. Dress warm because you are in for a frigid night inside your tent.
Wake up around 4:30 or 5 AM to a hot cup of coca leaf tea inside the tent. You will be sore and creaky from hiking the day before but this is what it’s all about! Breakfast will be quick but will taste better than you could ever imagine despite being rather simple. Before you know it you will be laced up and pacing heavily along the frozen glacier trail. Day 2 brings you high up into the glaciers of the Andes Mountains over steep switchbacks and radical terrain. It is by far the most difficult day of the trek carrying you just shy of 14 miles in total distance, and remaining anywhere between 12,000 to 14,000 feet of total altitude.
The first half of your day will be spent reaching the sacrificial summit of the Salkantay Glacier. This is a small area perfectly situated to pay homage to the glacier. Your guide will take you through a ceremony involving stacking stones in a small tower with coca leaves wedged in between.
The Salkantay Glacier was believed to play a pivotal part in the Incan weather cycle along with being a powerful presence in general. When you see the sheer size of the natural wonder it will be painfully obvious why the Incas worshipped the glacier so vehemently.
After your ceremony the Salkantay Trail starts to slowly descend. Ice turns into rock and rock slowly turns into soil. Before you know it the mountains start to become tree-covered hills and the ice becomes flowing streams.
Surprisingly by the end of Day 2 you will be in jungle terrain as you approach the fringe of the Peruvian Amazon. Camp 2 is much warmer for this reason but your feet and legs will still feel completely destroyed. You will be begging for sleep, and the floor of your tiny tent will feel softer than a pillow.
Wake up to the sounds of gushing waterfalls and jungle birds. Trade your heavy jacket for mosquito repellant and sunscreen because today will be nothing but heat. Luckily most of the trail on Day 3 is either level or slightly down hill as you descend deeper into the jungle. It’s a great day to catch up with the members of the group and compare blisters. Our guide had lots of fun facts about the jungle plant life and its importance in the Inca culture as well.
After a long day in the sun it will finally be time to partake in some sorely needed rest and relaxation in the hot springs! That’s right I said hot springs.
The hot springs have recently been converted into a first class spa of sorts. Also this is the first time that you get to see and chat with other groups sharing the Salkantay Trail and Inca Trail. Words fail to explain how rejuvenating these hot springs truly are. For most people the springs are the closest thing to a shower since day 1, and they release your muscles with penetrating heat.
Similar to the hot springs spa, Camp 3 is a cooperative ground. Several other groups sharing the Salkantay Trail are put together to enjoy a large bonfire and drinks after dinner. Party time!
Are you ready to fly across gigantic canyons, hang upside-down, and even fly like superman? I hope so because day 4 is all about zip-lining! Don’t worry the zip line company is safe and professional. This is one of the most exhilarating experiences of the trek and another great way to bond with your group.
Wake up at 4 am to be the first group on Machu Picchu Mountain. This final leg of the Salkantay Trail is extremely difficult. Countless stairs and aches will bitterly remind you of what your body has been through over the past four days. Try and hang in there one last time! It’s worth it to beat the hordes of tourists to Machu Picchu and snap photos without a single stranger ruining your Kodak moment.
The Lost City itself will take your breath away. Witnessing the sun rise over the ruins and beam through the surrounding mountains will simply change your life.
After spending a spellbinding few hours exploring the ruins it’s finally time to conclude the journey. A well-deserved bus ride back down the mountain into Aguas Calientes and The Salkantay Trail is finally all over.
Before you go
The Salkantay Trail is by no means a light endeavor. It is physically, mentally, and even spiritually challenging beyond compare. If you are up for the challenge and a willing to rough it for a few days, give it a shot. I can honestly say that is was the single most rewarding experience of my life thus far.