WHAT IS THE SALKANTAY TREK?
The Salkantay trek is a 5-day guided hike through the Andes mountains around Cusco that eventually leads you to Machu Picchu on its final day.
National Geographic lists it as one of the 25 “World’s Best Treks”, and it’s one of the most scenic ways to reach the ancient Incan city.
Glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and serene high-altitude lakes are among some of the beautiful sights you’ll see en route as well as witnessing the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Don’t let that suck you in to booking it straight away though – it also has a reputation for being one of the toughest treks in Peru, covering 75km and climbing to 4,630m altitude during the Salkantay Pass.
SALKANTAY TREK - WHICH COMPANY IS BEST TO BOOK WITH?
There are only a handful of companies in Cusco where you can book the Salkantay Trek. We know of two popular ones with the best reputations.
- Salkantay Trekking has 5 stars on Tripadvisor with over 2000+ reviews.
- Machu Picchu Reservations are the same with 5 stars and 2000+ reviews
SALKANTAY TREK COST
The only difference between the two companies mentioned is price and accommodation.
- Salkantay Trekking costs $460 and has better accommodation with beds
- Machu Picchu Reservations (MPR) cost $210, and you will be sleeping in tents and sleeping bags.
We went with MPR and had no complaints. We would recommend them to anyone looking to do the trek. Paying for the extra luxury of beds on this trek isn’t worth it for a couple of reasons:
- You’re so tired by the end of each day that you have no trouble sleeping
- You have to get up early each day, so you hardly spend any time in bed.
Another reason for choosing to do the trek (we think anyway) is for the mental and physical challenge, and roughing it a bit in tents is all part of that. It’s character building! If you are more of a glamper then go with Salkantay Trekking.
What's Included In The Cost?
As we went with Machu Picchu Reservations, we will be basing all the information in this guide off their tour.
For $210, all your transport (to and from the trek), meals and accommodation are included. This means:
- 1 night in the Mountain Sky Hut, 2-nights camping, and 1 night in a hostel
- 5 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 4 dinners, 3 tea times + wake-up teas each day
The price also includes the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu.
The only thing that isn’t included is your sleeping bag which costs $5 for rental. But with some sweet talking and a cheeky smile at the shop in Cusco, you should be able to get them to chuck it in for free for you.
You also have the option to return to Cusco by train from Aguas Calientes. This option is around $60-80 more expensive. Here are the pros and cons:
- The train is scenic, travelling through the Sacred Valley
- It’s much faster, getting back to Cusco will take about 2 hours compared to 5-6 hours by bus
- You depart from Aguas Calientes which means you avoid the gruelling 3 hour final walk back to Hidroelectrica
- It’s more expensive
- You’re likely to fall straight asleep on the train meaning you miss out on the scenic ride
- You’ll leave the friends you made over the last 5 days as most people take the bus
If you decide on a different visit to Machu Picchu; either by train or bus then read our 5 alternative routes here.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON THE SALKANTAY TREK
Everything we are detailing below in the itinerary will be explained to you in a briefing the day before you start the trek. However, we hope some of this information will help you decide whether to book or not.
We also want to let you in on some secrets not shared in the briefing, as well as what we learnt in hindsight from our experiences on the trek to give you the whole picture.
Is The Salkantay Trek Difficult?
Yes, trekking 75km over 5 days is tough.
Your body and mind will feel the strain, but the reward is worth it. You will reach heights of 4,000m+ above sea level and hiking at altitude is much more straining on the body.
Make sure you are prepared for trekking long distances with good hiking boots. And make sure you are happy with high altitude by acclimatising first in Cusco and possibly completing some smaller treks (such as Palccoyo Mountain) to gauge your ability.
If you are a beginner hiker then don’t worry, you can still do the trek. By the time we had got to Cusco, we had spent a good amount of time in the country and acclimatised to the altitude. We also spent a week in Cusco before starting the trek and attempted Rainbow Mountain as well so we felt comfortable.
Before this however, we had only completed two single day treks in Ecuador (Otavalo and Cotopaxi Volcano) and one multi-day hike (The Quilotoa Loop) and we were fine.
Is The Salkantay Trek Dangerous?
No, the only danger is falling on the walk, but this will only lead to nothing more than a few bumps and bruises or twisted ankle. Again, make sure you have functional hiking boots with good ankle support and take trekking poles if you prefer the extra stability
Is The Salkantay Trek Worth It?
If you have the time to spare then yes. The value for money is fantastic, only costing you $42 a day for three meals and a nights accommodation.
Also, the scenery is unbelievable, and your jaw will be on the floor for most of the 5 days. If you still aren’t convinced, then we’ve listed 6 reasons why we loved it so much to convince you.
SALKANTAY TREK 5 DAY ITINERARY
The 5-day itinerary can be found here in more detail. Or if you want to want to see the Salkantay pass and Machu Picchu but can’t spare 5 days, then there are also 3 day and 4 day tour options.
Here’s a shortened version of the 5-day itinerary with some of our thoughts and feelings on each day:
Day 1 - Cusco > Humantay Lake > Camp
You need to be at Machu Picchu Reservations for 5:30 AM, with your duffel bag packed and ready to go.
You should be on the road by 6:00 AM, and after a 2-hour drive, you will stop for breakfast. Breakfast is a buffet and includes eggs, fruit, bread, jam etc., make sure you stuff your face as today is one of the hardest days.
After breakfast, you have another hour drive until you reach the start of the trek up to Humantay Lake. At this stop you pack your daypack with only necessities, a horse carries the rest to the camp. The hike up to Humantay Lake takes roughly 2 hours, and the path eventually becomes steep. The lake is at 4,200m so take it slow as breathing will become difficult at this altitude.
We both found the first day difficult, but this was mainly due to a two-day hangover (from partying in Cusco) and a severe lack of sleep. I think if we had done it on a normal day, we wouldn’t have struggled so much. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before and avoid partying in the run-up to starting the trek!
At the top once you reach the lake, you will spend half an hour taking photos and learning more about the area from your guide.
From here it’s a relatively easy 2-hour trek down to your camp. Dinner is served at around 6 PM, and this will be your first experience of the food on the trek – soup, rice, beans, potatoes, salad, meat all topped off with a sweet dessert. There will be no calorie deficit today.
Day 2 - Camp > Salkantay Pass > Lunch > Camp
The second day is the toughest out of the five, consisting of 20km walking and rising to an altitude of 4,630m.
You’ll be woken up at 5:00 AM for breakfast at 6:00 AM. After breakfast, you have a 2-3-hour trek up to the Salkantay Pass.
The trail starts at a small incline for around 45 minutes before reaching the bottom of the pass; then it’s all up. This will be the hardest part, but you take it slow and have multiple breaks. Once you reach the top, it’s time to relax, take in the beautiful views of the mountains and learn more about the region from your guide. That’s the hardest part over.
With the tough part done, the next section of the trek takes 3 hours and is all downhill. It feels great when you first start, but your knees will eventually tire.
You’ll have an hour rest at the lunch stop, and then, unfortunately, it’s another 2 hours downhill to camp.
This section of the trek was mentally exhausting. I feel asleep at the table waiting for lunch, and we were both completely depleted. But lunch is revitalising and will give you the energy needed to complete day 2.
While 5 hours downhill was hard on the knees, we didn’t find this the toughest part of the trek. Going downhill is quick and relatively easy, and your legs are still fresh as it’s only day two.
Day 3 - Camp > La Playa Sahuayaco > Hot Springs > Camp
This is the most relaxed day. It feels like day 3 has been added in on purpose to give you a break.
You will wake up at the same time for breakfast and will be on the road by 7:00 AM. After 2 hours you stop for a short break where you can buy snacks. There’s also a football field here, and we jumped at the chance to have a kickabout, completely forgetting the pain in our legs.
After the break, it’s another 2 hours to a meeting point where you will get picked up by a bus, and the walking is over for the day!
The bus takes you to La Playa for lunch and finally to camp. Here you have the option to visit the hot springs, and only a fool would pass up this chance. Our entire crew went to the hot springs, and we spent a good hour or so soaking in the baths, releasing all the tension in our bodies. We then had a few beers at the springs before heading back to camp for even more beers.
Our guide told us we could enjoy ourselves for the night, and the camp had speakers, music and a bar stocked with lots of drinks.
But don’t be fooled you’re still up early. We played games, danced and drank until around midnight before curfew kicked in which was good because we probably would have gone on until the early hours. Because the day was so easy on the legs, it felt like we were no longer on a 5-day trek and we may have drunk a little bit more than we needed to.
Day 4 – Camp > Llactapata Mountain > Hidroelectrica > Aguas Calientes
Waking up with a hangover at 5:00 AM wasn’t ideal, but we managed it.
After a couple of coffees and a big breakfast to perk ourselves up, it was a 2-3 hour trek up to Llactapata Mountain. This is the mountain opposite Machu Picchu, and if you get up there on a clear day, you will be able to see the ruins in the distance.
The hangover wore off once we started trekking and the weather was on our side with hardly any clouds blocking the view. After spending some time at the top, it’s a 2-hour trek down the other side of the mountain. Once you reach the bottom, you have another half an hour or so until Hidroelectrica for lunch.
If the day had ended here then I wouldn’t have had any complaints; however, the hangover and the morning trek had caught up with me at this point, and our guide informed us we had another 2-3 hours to get Aguas Calientes.
This final part of the day is what killed me.
Walking along the train tracks is not enjoyable as the pebbles and rocks make the ground uneven and difficult to walk on and your legs are already tired from the morning trek.
By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, my mood was sour, my legs and feet were in agony, and I told myself I am finished with trekking. The only silver lining was that this was the night in a hostel.
However, after the evening meal and a hot shower, I was a new man again and ready to take on the final day. As soon as I got into bed at 9PM, I was fast asleep.
Day 5 – Aguas Calientes > Machu Picchu > Hidroelectrica > Cusco
The final day and a 4:00 AM start to make sure you are at the gates of Machu Picchu for opening.
When the gates open at 6:00 AM, you have 1,600+ steps to the top – a short but intense hike that takes around 45 minutes to an hour.
At the top, you will meet with your tour guide, learn more about the ancient ruins and then be given time to explore yourself. After exploring, that’s it, you’re done, and it’s time to go home, back down the steps which are again tough on the knees.
The final walk is horrible 3 hours back along train the tracks to Hidroelectrica. But your so close to completing one of the best treks in the world that spirits are high.
You and your guide will have parted ways now, and the last leg of the journey is a bus back to Cusco, we were picked up around 3 PM. If you arrive earlier than 3 PM, then you can eat here and pick up your duffel bag. Hop on the bus home for a 6-hour journey back to Cusco, and you’re done.
The Salkantay Trek and seeing Machu Pichu at sunrise is one of our many reasons to visit Peru. For more great reasons, check out the post below:
SALKANTAY TREK PACKING LIST AND ESSENTIAL ITEMS
One of the best parts about the trek is you are given a duffle bag to transport most of your gear. This duffel bag is given to a separate guide with horses who take it to your camp each night.
This is super helpful because you don’t have to worry about carrying everything. You can overpack a bit, especially if you are unsure of what to bring, and it also means that your backpack (that you take with you each day on the trek) is much lighter, making the trek easier.
The duffel bag is big enough to hold the sleeping bag and then 5 days’ worth of clothes and gear.
We would pack all our clothing, toiletries, and equipment in the duffel bag each morning to be transported for us. Then in our backpack, we would keep it as light as possible with just a water bottle, jacket, camera, and phone.
We’ve covered the entire packing list in a separate article along with 5 essential items you need to bring and why.
BEST TIME OF THE YEAR FOR THE SALKANTAY TREK
Peru has two seasons: the dry season and rainy season.
The rainy season in Peru is from November to April. This means that the landscape along the trek will be a lush green colour, but of course, it may rain during your time hiking, especially in the afternoon.
Dry season is from May to September and whilst the temperatures will be a little colder, there will be a much lower chance of rain.
We completed the Salkantay Trek at the start of January and had one day of light rain on the first day, a torrential downpour on the second day and then beautiful weather for the rest of it.
Our views of Humantay Lake and Salkantay Mountain were obscured by cloud, but this is more down to the altitude and not the season. It is a gamble with the weather whichever season you visit so I don’t worry too much. That being said, the probability is in your favour if you visit during the dry season. You could go in the dry season and have clouds blocking your view of Machu Picchu. You could go in the rainy season and have 5 days of perfect weather; it’s a lottery!
However, the choice is yours; both will be memorable. If you can only make it to Peru from November onward, don’t let rainy season put you off doing it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you will enjoy it regardless of the weather.
Where to next after Peru? If you are looking to do an extended South America tour and include more countries then be sure to check out our expertly crafted itineraries below:
That’s everything you need to know for the Salkantay Trek.
Our full Cusco guide has everything you need for your return to the city.
But also make sure you’ve book yourself some nice accommodation for when you return to Cusco, your body will need a few days of rest and relaxation. And you will probably be craving a good feed so go check out some of the towns best places to eat.
If you are moving on from Cusco quickly, then our guides for Lima or Arequipa will help you plan your next stops.
For more on backpacking in Peru and South America, check out our itineraries and travel routes: