There are many great hiking treks in Peru. The most famous one is probably the Inca Trail. Due to it’s popularity it is also very crowded with tourists and very expensive. So we decided on a cheaper option, which turned out to be nothing short of breathtaking.
The Salkantay is a holy mountain in the vicinity of Machu Picchu. The trek goes around the mountain and ends in the famous Machu Picchu complex. On the way you’ll encounter the most glorious landscapes earth has to offer and visit a couple of Inca remnants. We hiked the common trail for the most part, but preferred some small changes to the standard route.
How to get there
We started our hike in Challacancha, but it is also common to start the trail in Mollepata. From Cuzco it’s relatively easy to get to either of them. There are many local companies and collectivo taxis that can take you there. We paid 30 Peruvian Soles (PEN) to get to Mollepata and another 50 PEN to get to Challacancha. Before you start hiking you have to know that a large part of the trail is above 3000 meters sea-level. That means you will get altitude sickness if you’re not careful. We stayed a couple of days in Cusco to prepare ourselves, and to get used to the height. Cusco is about 3200 meters up from sea-level.
You can either do a group hike with a professional guide, or do it on your own. We decided on the cheaper option and arrange everything ourselves. This means you bring your own tent and food. Water is available at the camp-sites but has to be purified before you can safely drink from the tap. If you want to visit Machu Picchu ( which you should! ), buy tickets in advance; otherwise you might not be able to climb Picchu mountain or enter Machu Picchu at your preferred time. I would also recommend buying a simple map. We used the app maps.me a lot to make sure we were still on the right track.
What to bring
- Hiking shoes.
- Big Backpack
- Sleeping bag. At least comfortable to -1, because at night the temperatures can drop below freezing
- Sleeping mat
- Food for 4 days, about 2 to 3 liters of water a day (I easily drank up to 3 liters)
- Cooking gear
- Warm Clothes ( the first 2 days it will get quite cold at night )
- Insect Repellent
- Altitude sickness pills
- Water purification pills
Day 1 – Challacancha – Soraypampa
On our first day we decided it would be best to skip some of the first parts so we started at Challacancha. From there it should be about 3 hours to the first camp-site. You can take the road to Soraypampa, but because of the dust from the occasional van we decided on taking the hiking trail upwards over the mountain, and started climbing immediately. From the start you are surrounded by huge yellow-brownish mountains, sparsely populated with bushes and strong sturdy trees. In the distance you can already see the mighty Salkantay Mountain. Although the surroundings are beautiful, the altitude had a more immediate effect on me. I realized that 18 kilo’s in the lowlands are not the same as 18 kilo’s 3000 meter up. Our first hike went from a small goat-path on the slope to a more modern paved road next to a irrigation system that lead us to Soraypampa. In Soraypampa you can do another hike to Humantay Lake, but we didn’t have enough time to get there before sunset, so we decided to turn around half-way and start on making camp for the night.
Day 2 – Soraypampa – Chaullay
This day was probably the toughest of the five. We started our climb to the high point a long with a lot of donkeys and horses. On the way you will meet many fellow travelers and lots of people prefer to let the horses carry their backpacks. Although it’s not necessary at all, it does make climbing at this altitude a little easier. The first part is a nice hike along the slope of the mountain along a little river stream. As you get closer to Salkantay mountain the vegetation will get sparser and the mountains more impressive. They will also get quite a bit steeper. It is a difficult climb to the highest point and you will feel that the closer you get the harder it becomes to breath. The donkeys didn’t have much trouble with it so along the way we frequently had to make way for a donkey-caravan. When we finally reached the top it felt like a major accomplishment. The view is amazing, and the feeling of conquering this mountain is something that will inspire you on a very personal level.
Downwards the view is equally rewarding as you feel like al the mountains are converging at a single point on the horizon. After a long hike down the landscape started to change gradually to more forests and fields with small camp-sites every now and than. The camp-site we decided on was quite a bit further than expected so after about 10 hours of hiking we arrived completely exhausted at our destination; Chaullay.
Day 3 Chaullay – Sahuayaco la Playa
Leaving early in the morning we started our hike on a small track that snakes around the mountain. The view from the valley is absolutely stunning; the slopes of the mountains are covered in a thick rainforest and at the bottom we see a white river-stream that we will be following for the better part of the day. Although the altitude is a lot lower at this level (around 2000 meters) the path remains quite challenging. We would go up and down muddy and rocky paths many times before the terrain would even out. At this moment the river had become a lot stronger and noisier and we crossed it one last time. On the other side we meet a very friendly coffee-farmer who lives close by the town Sahuayaco la Playa. He convinces us to make camp at his place and immediately gets us the most amazing coffee and freshly cooked banana chips. The best I have tasted. A very nice change from 3 days of eating power-bars and drinking purified water.
Day 4. Sahuayaco la Playa – Hidroelectrica
After a nice freshly prepared breakfast we said goodbye to our new friend and headed up the mountain. It is a pretty long climb to the top, but you will be rewarded with a nice viewpoint on the valley. Again the views are absolutely amazing and in the uttermost distance between a couple of blue mountains we get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu. We continue on with a endless descent trough the jungle. It is a difficult way down because of the narrow rocky path. Luckily some locals gave us a couple of nice walking sticks that helped us find our balance on the slippery rocks. When we finally arrive at Hidroelectrica the plan is to take the train to Aqua Calientes and make camp. Unfortunately the lines for tickets are long and the tickets themselves are expensive (30 USD). We decide that if we have to wait 2 hours anyway, we might as well hike along the train tracks which is actually more common than you might expect. After hiking for about 2,5 hours we find a nice camp-site next to the tracks with an excellent restaurant. To my stupidity I decided to take off my shoes and socks to give my feet some rest and this resulted immediately in a million sand fly bites.
Day 5. Hidroelectrica – Machu Picchu – Cuzco
Today we’ll finally see the legendary Machu Picchu. We leave at 5:00 in the morning to be ahead of the tourists. Although it is possible to take the bus to the site we decide on hiking again. It takes us slightly more than an hour to climb to the base of the Machu Picchu Complex. At the entrance it is already getting crowded with tourists. The first thing we want to do is climbing the Picchu mountain. Although there are steps the whole way; it is very steep and a pretty demanding hike to the top. I personally have a strong fear of heights and it took me a lot of effort to reach the summit. But seeing Machu Picchu between those awe-inspiring mountains is something very special indeed. After climbing down we visit the main site and get a good sense of the scale of the complex.
In Machu Picchu there are no signs with additional information so it’s recommended to do some background reading. Although it is clearly a special place I was less impressed than I would have thought I’d be. Maybe it is because of sky-high expectations after reading about it since childhood or maybe it’s because of the thousands of tourists flooding the place. Nonetheless we feel like the overall experience was amazing and it’s time to go back. It is quite a long walk back to our camp-site and another 2,5 hours back to Hidroelectrica. Again I forgot to change pants so my legs are covered in flee bites for the second time. At the train-station are many collectivos waiting to take us back to Cuzco but it will take another 6 hours before we finally arrive at our hostel in Cuzco in the middle of the night. We are so tired that we immediately fall a sleep into the better part of the next day.
Personally I would definitely recommend this hike over the Inca Trail. It is much cheaper; we only paid a small entrance fee, and small fees for the camp-sites and some water. But we also felt it is much more impressive. We asked ourselves why in earth would people build in such a remote uninhabitable place? Well, there are few places that are so rugged and yet so very, very beautiful.