Salkantay Trek: How to Get to Machu Picchu by Foot

P1080423Among the most memorable parts of my South American adventure was meeting up with friends to take on the Salkantay Trek: a 5-day hike over glaciers and through rainforests that ultimately leads to (you guessed it) Machu Picchu! It’s hard to imagine a more epic way to reach such a magnificent destination. Here’s my review, and tips for a successful and safe trek.

[If trekking isn’t your jam, skip to my Machu Picchu guide here!]

I can honestly say this hike was among the most incredible experiences in my life, and, if I dare say so, provides some pretty epic bragging rights. After all, a lot of people visit Machu Picchu, but how many can say they got there on their own two feet?? 😉

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I promise I didn’t use any filters on this photo — the lake’s colors really are that stunning.

How to do it: There are many hiking routes that will get you to Machu Picchu, by far the most popular being the Inca Trail. I’m not a fan of hiking with crowds, so opting for the Salkantay Trail was a really easy decision for me. (Plus, as our guide pointed out, a crowded trail leads to a very, ahem, challenging bathroom situation — think hundreds of hikers to a limited number of pit toilets and you get the idea…)

If you’re worried you’ll “miss out” if you don’t do the traditional route, don’t!! The scenery on the Salkantay route is jaw-droppingly beautiful, not to mention varied — you go from snowy alpine peaks to orchid-filled rainforests, and can even visit hot springs and a coffee farm along the way! Trust me, between Machu Picchu and a stop in the Sacred Valley, you’ll get more than your fill of Incan ruins, and the stunning, diverse scenery along this route was more than worth the physical effort.

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From snowy summit to rainforest in the span of one day.

I’d highly recommend using Wayki Trek as a tour operator; it’s a Peruvian-owned company that hires local guides and supports a range of development projects that give back to local communities. Our guide, Edgar, was incredible — he was vastly knowledgeable about the ecosystems we passed, friendly and funny, and left us with a great appreciation of Incan and Peruvian culture and history.

Wayki brings a number of horses to carry your bags, and porters to set up camp and do all the cooking and cleanup, so your only job is to enjoy the hike! (Just make sure to tip them at the end for all their help — some suggestions on budgeting for that here.)

Preparation: The trek isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s absolutely doable if you’re in decent shape and have the will to make it happen! You don’t need to be a super-human athlete or have any technical mountaineering skills, but you should prepare beforehand by doing plenty of day hikes and really breaking in your hiking boots. (Seriously – put some miles on those babies at home, or you’ll be in blister city and that’s nobody’s idea of a good time.)

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Wild orchids

The most important thing to prepare for, though, is dealing with the altitude, as there are extremely high elevations on the trek — we got up to 16,000′ at the summit!! I won’t lie, coming from Denver, Colorado (elevation 5,280′ above sea level) was a HUGE help to me, since my body could more easily acclimatize. Unfortunately, some of the others on the trek experienced altitude sickness, which is really unpleasant at best (think headaches, dizziness and vomiting) and can be extremely dangerous at worst.

Luckily, some planning beforehand can help you out a lot. Try to spend at least two days in Peru before the trek so your body can adjust to the elevation, and consider talking to a doctor about getting medication to help with altitude sickness. Or, do as the locals do and drink some coca tea… they say it helps with the altitude! 😉

Pro tip: don’t spend your first few days in Cusco — believe it or not, the city is at a higher elevation than Machu Picchu itself! Instead, head down into the Sacred Valley to spend your time before the trek, then hit up Cusco on your way back home. Your lungs will thank you.

P1080516Day 1: Our guide Edgar had given us a full briefing the day before, so we set out by van to the trail head bright and early. We had the option of seeing a glacial lake first thing, which added some hiking time to the day but was not to be missed! Within minutes of beginning the hike, my heart was pounding. Even for a Coloradan, the altitude was intense! The thought of giving up briefly crossed my mind, but luckily, I hit my stride and finally found my rhythm: a slow and steady pace (with frequent stops to catch my breath).

The first day is the hardest, so prepare for a long, slow climb uphill. The views are stunning though, so you have plenty to distract yourself with while your legs are aching. One of my favorite parts was crossing a grassy meadow populated by semi-wild horses — would have been a dream come true for 12-year old Krystyna! As the afternoon wore on, a full moon rose over the jagged mountain peaks and we arrived at our unbelievable destination.

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Camping on a glacier on Night 1

Our campsite for the night was — quite literally — at the foot of a glacier(!). The moonlight reflecting off the ice was bright enough that flashlights were almost unnecessary. It was surreal and serene and utterly beautiful. (Also cold. Very, very cold.) Thankfully, the guides brought around hot water at night to fill our water bottles  — tucking a hot Nalgene in my sleeping bag definitely helped with the cold, but I still wore all my layers hat night! Between the altitude and cold, don’t expect a great night of sleep — but have faith, it gets better. 😉

Day 2: The worst part behind us, we only had an hour or so left of climbing uphill to reach the top of the Salkantay pass. At the summit, we were at roughly 16,000′ above sea level, which still boggles my mind. Reaching the peak was elating, and made the previous day’s hard climb completely worth it. Plus, watching — and hearing — small avalanches of ice calving off the glaciers around us was pretty epic in its own right.

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Nearing the peak first thing in the morning on Day 2

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We made it! 16,000′ above sea level is no joke,

From the peak, we began a long downward march that took us from the icy summit into a rainforest within a matter of hours. I wasn’t expecting the scenery to change so rapidly, and was delighted to see the range of ecosystems we could visit in the span of one day. We quickly shed the layers of hats and jackets we were wearing at the top and marvelled at the wild orchids and butterflies all around. Eventually, we passed through a few small villages where we saw locals curing meat on sunny rooftops and a few cuy [guinea pigs], which are kept for food, scampering around.

We camped near one such village, where we had the opportunity to briefly shower off and grab a cold beer. Some people may shun such luxuries when hiking, thinking it makes them more hard core; I, dear readers, am not one of them. I happily sipped my beer and watched the sun set over the forest around us.

P1080690Day 3: Whereas Day 1 was uphill, and Day 2 was downhill, this day was more or less even – a nice change of pace. We crossed through more rainforest, passed waterfalls, and saw more exotic flowers than I can remember.

We stopped for lunch at a locally-owned coffee farm, and got a demonstration of how the farmers cultivate the crops and roast the beans. The coffee was rich and delicious — and a real treat after going caffeine-free for a few days!

The best part, however, was ending our day at a hot springs, where we would camp for the night. Can you say, yes please?? Yes. Please.

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The view from our tents at the natural hot springs.

Day 4: Waking up on a glacier is amazing, but so is waking up at a natural hot springs surrounded by misty mountains. My friends and I woke up with the sunrise, and spent a blissful hour soaking our tired muscles long before anyone else arrived. If there is such a thing as paradise on earth, I doubt it needs much more than a peaceful moment of natural beauty surrounded by good friends. And hot springs, of course.

Finally, we packed up camp and headed towards our final stop before our final destination: the town of Aguas Calientes (“Hot Waters”). Apparently there are hot springs here as well, but let’s just say they may be much less “natural” and more scuzzy than the site we visited on our hike. Aguas Calientes is where most visitors stay the night before visiting Machu Picchu and aside from convenience, there is little to recommend it. Unless you happen to like touristy concrete jungles, I wouldn’t spend more than one night there.

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Arriving in Aguas Calientes

The day’s walk to Aguas Calientes was very pleasant though; we hiked through a gorge along the railroad tracks, getting to soak our feet in the river on our rest stops. Just remember your bug spray as there are mosquitoes on this section! If you’re lucky, though, you might catch a glimpse of Peru’s wacky and charming national bird, the Cock of the Rock.

Day 5: Finally, and with no small amount of pride, we happy trekkers reached our final destination at dawn: Machu Picchu. [See my full post on Machu Picchu here.]

Want more info? Check out my friend and fellow trekker Steph’s great post on Salkantay here.

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Sunrise at Machu Picchu

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