We knew for a long time that we wanted to visit the city of Machu Picchu and that we wanted to arrive by trek. We also knew that the famous Inca Trail would be sold out by the time we were ready to book and that we’d need to find an alternative path. Here is where the Salkantay trail came into play.
The 5 day 4 night Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu didn’t need to be reserved six months in advance like the famous Inca Trail did. We booked our reservations with Llama Path (highly recommended) a month or so prior to our arrival in Cusco. The trek itself is considered much more difficult – we covered more than 80km (50 miles) in the five day trek. That is almost double the mileage you cover on the Inca Trail. You also trek at higher altitudes – 4650 meters (15,200 feet) – when you pass near the Salkantay glacier on day 2 of the hike.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 1
The day before we were to leave Cusco (so I suppose technically day 0) we had to meet at a secret location to be briefed by our fearless trek leader, Coco, on what lies ahead for the next 5 days.
After meeting up with the group at 4:30am in downtown Cusco, 2.5hrs by bus and a quick pit stop for breakfast we were anxious to get the show on the road. At this point we had energy, we didn’t smell terrible and had no idea what was in store for us.
We had just started and everyone was taking pictures of the stunning views we had just 30 minutes into the hike. Our starting altitude was more than 9,000 feet so some trekkers were bit by the altitude bug making the hike much more difficult. Luckily Lindsay and I had spent the last few weeks in Bolivia (at higher altitudes) and were completely adjusted.
On day 1 we stopped every 30-40 minutes to catch our breath, drink some water and eat a little snack if necessary. There are a handful a little snack shops like this one set along the trail in case you forgot something. The views from these office windows are insane. You can’t see it in this picture, but above us in the distance condors were patrolling the skies.
just a couple of cool hikers posing for what will most likely be an 8×10 framed picture when we get back. Spoiler Alert: This picture was taken a couple hours into the first of five days of hiking. I am wearing the same outfit every single day besides the last. Why? Cause I pack like a complete idiot.
Ahhhh… we made it. After 6 hours (I think) of hiking we made it to our first campsite for a late lunch – Soraypampa. Almost all of the trekkers on the Salkantay trail spend the night here. There are campsites and a hotel available.
The campsite is prepared when we arrive. This is more like “galloping” than camping – and still, it’s the closest I have ever been to camping since I was 10 years old. And I am very OK with that. Water bowls set out with soap to wash our hands. Everything we can bring with us, including sleeping bags, is either in the backpacks we carry or in those duffel bags on the left in this picture. You can only bring a total of 8kg of stuff. And the sleeping mat and sleeping bag counts for 3kg, so that left us with 5kg each.
The food is no joke. Every single meal we had was out of this world. My guess is that most people on the trek (10 miles a day at altitude) actually gained weight. This was lunch on day 1. Lindsay and I and another couple opted for an additional hike to a lake after lunch. Oops.
After a brutal 1hr, all uphill very cold hike we found ourselves on the shore of a small lake that was fed by the glacier above. The water was a very cool green and reflected the surroundings like a mirror. At this point we were pretty happy we decided to make the journey but were also no looking forward to the wild downhill trek back. Once we returned to the campsite we would cleanup and sit down for dinner before heading to bed. Everyone was exhausted.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 2
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 2 was advertised (somewhat correctly) as the most difficult day of hiking. We would ascend to the highest point of the trek (The Salkantay Pass – over 15,000 feet) and cover the second-most ground (over 18km – 11 miles) in a day. The hikes themselves were what made this a difficult day – both steep uphill and steep downhill. We left our camp just before 7am and arrived at our dinner camp at 6:30pm completely exhausted.
After a quick (probably 90 minutes) hike from our campsite the group arrived at the launching pad for the Salkantay pass – Salkantaypampa. Here we used Inca Toilets (nature’s bathroom) if necessary, shed some of our heavy winter clothes we had on for the morning hike and mentally began preparing for the most difficult section of the entire 5 days – the hike up to Salkantay pass. I was getting jacked up. LET’S GO!!!
BUT….before we head off we must learn how to properly roll and chew coca leaves. The chemicals in the dried leaves battle the symptoms of altitude sickness which can include drowsiness & nausea. They don’t taste good but they do give you a nice little energy boost. We also sprinkled a bit of activated charcoal on our joints as an enhancer. Soon after jamming the leaves into the side of your gums your mouth begins to go numb and you just want to party, and talk, and clean your house, and then re-arrange your cabinets ..haha, jk. It’s not too much different than a strong cup of coffee. 🙂
There are a variety of different ways to get to Machu Picchu depending on how much physical activity you can endure. The senior citizens tend to take the train from Cusco to Aquas Calientes and then a bus to Macchu Picchu. There are other less physically demanding options as well such as this group that ride horses for a few days, hike the pass, and then either take horses or buses on the other side too.
One of the coolest aspects of the entire trek was literally at ANY moment – I kid you not ..ANY moment – you either look up, look back or look to one of your sides and you see a stunning landscape. Coming from Chicago this blew my mind. This is a picture from our launching pad site looking at Salkantay peak where were are headed.
After an intense 90-minute up-hill, switchback hike we arrived at our snacking stop – Suyroqocha. At this point we’re somewhere between 30-minutes and an hour away from the pass – depending on your speed. For one reason or another Lindsay and I found another gear and were hauling ass by this point. We were the first from our group of 13 to arrive at the pass. The next person was 20 minutes behind us.
Like a boss at the Salkantay pass on day 2 of our 5 day 4 night Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
Salkantay closer up while we’re hanging out at the pass.
I’m not entirely sure how to explain this one… The photographer was uncomfortable.
I didn’t get the memo we were taking a “serious” picture here. Or maybe the group was just tired. Or maybe this was the 13th time we took the same picture for everyone’s own camera. Either way – meet the group! We have people from Chicago (us!), a couple from Seattle, a couple from Atlanta, 3 girls from Australia, a couple from NYC/LA and a brother-sister combo from San Diego. This was by far the most Americans we had been in a group with thus far.
The rest of the day wasn’t nearly as exciting. We hiked for another 2.5hrs to our lunch spot – lunch was awesome. We were all pretty tired and trying to figure out how much further we had to hike to make it to our camp site after lunch and whether or not we’d be hiking in the dark. Everyone who asked seemed to get a different answer from our guides (there were two). There was confusion to say the least. After lunch we lost two people due to injuries & sickness that were forced to take horses for the rest of the day. The trail was beginning to pick people off…
Here is a great example of the type of trekking/hiking you do on this trail. The path is well-beated and easy to follow. The terrain itself isn’t that challenging (my personal opinion). The challenge is the length of the trail and not ever really knowing how much longer there is left. We were told so many times that there was an hour or so left in the hike — only to arrive several hours later.
Since we arrived after dark (and when it gets dark it gets pitch-black dark here) I snapped this picture of our campsite in the morning right before we departed. It was cool to arrive under the cover of darkness and not really have any idea of what your surroundings are and then wake up to this.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 3
The third day of the hike was by far the most uneventful. There was a short hike with unimpressive surroundings. This hike served a few purposes, none of which are easily captured in pictures. The first is to give the group a needed break after the trek the day before. The second is to cover some ground and get us a bit closer to our final trekking destination – the town of Aquas Calientes. And the third and final is to give the group time to visit a set of “natural” hot springs about an hour’s car ride from our camp site. I didn’t bring my camera or phone to the hot springs because we were told do not bring anything that you don’t want stolen.
Here the group is getting our morning briefing on the start of day 3. We’re about to trek through the jungle at much lower altitude. Coco is explaining how big the spiders can get down there. jk. He is actually showing us the length and explaining the color of the most dangerous snake in the region. Unfortunately we didn’t see one single animal this day – or really ever – on the trek. If you’re expecting some great wildlife viewing on your way to Machu Picchu you will be disappointed.
We passed a handful of waterfalls during the trek. Nothing quite as spectacular as the waterfalls we experienced in Vilcabamba, Ecuador but they were still nice. The waterfalls and rocks and scenery looked identical to all of the landscape decorations that Kohl’s sells around the holidays.
Our little explorer, Lindsay. In good spirits on day 3 dressed in a very trekking appropriate collared fishing shirt that she had been itching to put to use. I was happy for her.
Our campsite was a local’s home and property. They are also coffee bean farmers. Directly next to our tents was a huge tarp (est. 24ft x 8ft) completely covered with coffee beans that we’re being dried. I have never seen what coffee beans look like before being roasted.
A look at our campsite for night number 3. The open space was nice were we played a little bit of futbol with the trekkers and the staff. You haven’t seen it in any of the pictures but the staff is made up of about 8 guys who cook, clean and transport all of our gear from site to site. They really are the glue that holds everything together. Our group of porters, chefs and helpers were incredible. Big thanks to those guys.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 4
This was, in my opinion, the hardest day. Over 11 hours or hiking and more than 24km covered (15 miles). I was effectively done with trekking by the time this day had ended. Thankfully our destination was a hotel in the town of Aguas Calientes where we would have a great nights rest before heading up to Machu Picchu in the morning. Again, just my opinion, this day held the most difficult portion of the hike. A 2hr non-stop extremely steep downhill hike. I would take an uphill hike any day over a downhill.
The group was served cake for breakfast on Day 4! Props to the kitchen for whipping this up in the middle of nowhere. In the background is Lindsay making a funny face. Sorry for the blurry picture.
A quick pit-stop & photo opportunity on our way up on day 4. Day 4 consisted of a 3 hour uphill hike, break, 2 hour downhill hike, 40 minute flat hike, lunch, 3 hour flat hike to town. Give or take a few minutes here are there.
After a few hours of uphill hiking the group arrived at an Inca food storage site. Nothing too spectacular in terms of the ruins, but it whets your palette for what is to come and gives you a very unique view of the city of Machu Picchu from the west. What else is interesting about this picture? Well, for one I am still wearing the same exact outfit and it’s day 4. You wouldn’t believe how awful my feet smelled at this point. And 2, the group is only 9 people. At this point we had lost 4. One due to knee injury (some type of town ligament) and 3 due to exhaustion. When they say the trek is difficult they are not kidding.
Before we left the ruins our guide, Coco, delivered an animated story of the rise of the Inca empire that left us on the edge of seats. He promised to pick up where he left off the next day at Machu Picchu. He spent an hour telling us this story and we sat around like little kids listening. Tip of the cap for some really good story-telling.
The view looking west towards Machu Picchu. The ancient city is located directly below the round “hill” near the center of this photo. You cannot really see it. I don’t know exactly why but people rave about this view. One of the highlights according to some that have done this trek. I personally am very, very far from “getting it.” To each their own.
After the dreadful down hill hike the group was so thankful to have a 40 minute flat hike to our lunch spot. On the way we passed a gigantic man-made waterfall created by damming water on the other side of this mountain. This was the largest waterfall I have ever seen in my life.
Lindsay and I chilling in the clouds – literally. Same outfits? Check. Stuffing food in your cheeks and being called a chipmunk? Check.
Breaktime in the cloud forest. A couple of happy trekkers here.
One of the cool things that all the treks do is have a presentation from the trekkers to the staff at the end of day 4. The trekkers each get up and say thank you (along with anything else they would like to say) and the group then gives each individual a tip for their job well done. At the end we posed for a group photo. These guys are the unsung heroes of the trip for sure.
EUREKA! We made it to Aguas Calientes at last. The hike started (remember that picture of the cake) under the cover of darkness and ended the same way. We were beat. But my work wasn’t done. I needed to find a clothing store and by a new outfit because the group was going out to dinner and there was no way in hell I could show up wearing the same awful smelling dirty outfit I had been wearing for the past 4 days. I found a swimwear shop, bought a pair of swim shorts and ripped out the lining. Perfect.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Day 5 – Machu Picchu
Ah, at last, the day had come. Honestly, there were many times throughout the hike that I had completely forgotten exactly why were were hiking. You focus so much on the now that it slips your mind that the end is really the prize. But I didn’t completely feel that way. Don’t get me wrong, Machu Picchu was incredible. Even without the aid of a vivid imagination it’s easy to visualize how the city was run. It genuinely takes you back in time. To think we spent 5 days walking to get there and that people spent that much time doing the same, but when they arrived they decided to build an entire city! It is incredible. But still – I’m torn on whether the destination or the journey was the highlight. I suppose the collection of the two make it very special.
Another very early start. Up at 4:30am, out the door by 5:00am and in line for the 5:30am bus by 10 after. And already there were hundreds of people in line. Everyone wanted to get to Machu Picchu in time to see the sunrise.
Don’t hate the players, hate the game! A couple of gringos just got into Machu Picchu and are about the explore the grounds! Can I get a what what??!
The sunrise was incredible! NOT!! The cloud coverage was so thick you couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of you. Absolutely no chance that the clouds would break to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu. Wa wa wa wa…
Ok, glass half full, right? The cloud-covered ancient city was actually pretty cool to take pictures of and the clouds wouldn’t stick around forever. I took this panoramic as the clouds began to break. God I love panoramics.
Eventually the clouds completely broke and you could see the entire city. Coco finished his story with a multi-hour guided tour of the grounds.
Lindsay with Machu Picchu in the background. We’re in the sun. We’ve arrived to our destination. The clouds have cleared. We’re happy.
The famous terraces of Machu Picchu. It’s really an engineering marvel that they built these terraces into the mountain. Each terrace could grow different produce due to their distinct “micro climates” and the underground draining system kept water away from the foundations. Genius.
Machu Picchu was a city that was still a work in progress when the town was ordered to be evacuated. Here is a picture of the working quarry where workers would shape the granite stones for use in building temples and homes.
Lindsay casually mentioned that she had bought us tickets to hike Machu Picchu Mountain that would provide us with incredible views looking down right over the city. Yay!
What she didn’t mention is that this would be the hardest uphill hike that we had ever done in our lives. Over an hour straight of incredibly steep steps in the sun. It felt like we had climbed the Sears Tower a couple of times.
You have to trust me that Machu Picchu is in fact down below us. We were so happy to have made it to the top. Obviously we didn’t want to go back down, because, well — that would be more walking.
After a long day of visiting Machu Picchu we had lunch for the last time as a group and then boarded a train back to Cusco. I stopped at the local convenient store to pick up a few 40oz’rs for the ride. I didn’t last more than 30 minutes before I fell asleep. Here I am just one happy camper with my beer in my lap catching some much needed shut eye. The end.
5 Day 4 Night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu Photos
Here is our entire album of photos from the 5 Day 4 Night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.