It’s not easy to summarize an epic 5 day trip into one blog post, so I’ll try to break it down into in a few posts with the necessary info, hopefully making it simpler for you to plan your trip! This post will include: Why we chose the Salkantay, our tour guide gossip, what is and is not included in the price, and what we would have done differently.
THE TRAILS: There are several treks that can take you to Machu Picchu, with the Inca Trail being the most famous, but also the most overrated and the hardest to make plans for. You need to book the Inca Trail 4-6 months in advance, at least. So what do the rest of us do who only decided to go to Peru 6 weeks prior? Fortunately, we have options: Salkantay, Lares, Jungle Trail, etc. Trip lengths can be from one day, all the way up to 15 days.
Ultimately, we settled on the Salkantay Trail, which is 5 days/4 nights, and through some pretty incredible scenery, including the additional Humantay Lake.
When I was much younger, my aunt and uncle did the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Since then, I’ve always had it in my head that doing a formal, organized tour to Machu Picchu was not only necessary and required, but also the only way to do it. I was wrong, but found that out too late. If you think you might want to hike to Machu Picchu on your own, without a guide, I suggest watching this great video which I found too late.
THE GOSSIP: Because I thought a guide was required, I did a lot of research into different companies, and finally found one I thought would be perfect; they seemed to care about their porters, they had a great website, a great FAQ section, and they were recommended on a YouTube channel I trusted. But here’s the thing. I messed up. I don’t want to recommend them to anyone because we did not have a great experience. Not because of the services provided by the company, which were actually great, but because the guide made me incredibly uncomfortable. Early on day 2, he started making comments about my body, calling me ‘very sexy’ because of the pants I chose to wore, and later in the evening asking us to look at other women on the trail to compare them and decide who was ‘the sexiest.’
Our guide constantly asked my good friend (who is a man) and me probing questions regarding our relationship, trying to sort out if we were just friends, or more. If I tripped, he would feign help just so he could touch me in inappropriate ways, he called me ‘babe’ and ‘baby,’ and I felt I was constantly being monitored. If I walked through the campsite with a roll of toilet paper, he would ask if I went to the bathroom. If I ate an orange at breakfast, he would make a comment about it. If I coughed in the tent at night, I could hear his voice through our thin tent walls “Nicki, you cough?” I felt I could not move or do anything without some comment from our guide, since his eyes were always on me. In stark contrast, he completely ignored my male friend, dismissing things he said and never giving him any kind of attention, though he was also a paying member of the group. This kind of behavior is totally unprofessional, and I would never wish for this kind of experience for anyone else, particularly when doing a life long bucket list item. So in conclusion, the company will not get any recommendation from me.
THE ADVICE: However, there are several companies out there to choose from. If you do want to do a guided tour, these are my recommendations:
1. Ask if they have women led groups (female group leader)
2. Ask if they have a sexual harassment policy for their guides (set expectations early)
3. Don’t book online unless you’re planning to do the Inca Trail. Any of the other treks are easily organized with short notice, right in Cusco. I noticed that one really popular company seemed to be “Salkantay Trekking,” which has an office right near the Plaza de Armas.
THE TOUR: So of course you probably want to know what is and is not included, right? The price per person of our 5 day/4 night Salkantay Trek was $550 usd.
This is what was included:
1. A knowledgeable, but annoying ‘professional’ guide who didn’t speak English very well at all (though he thinks he does), and was difficult to understand most of the time (can you tell I really don’t like him?), meaning we only received about 30% of the information he was trying to tell us. Even when I spoke to him in Spanish, he usually responded in English (his first language is Quechua).
2. A duffle bag. The company gives you a duffle bag to put your overnight gear in (toothbrush, extra clothes, shoes, etc.). You can put up to 7kg in this duffle bag, and it gets carried by a horse and a porter the first few days. It allows you to travel light during the day.
3. Water. Each morning the chef will boil water that you can then use to fill your bottles and Camel Baks for the day.
4. Food. We had a fantastic chef, Mario, on our trip. He was a man of few words, but amazing meals. He prepared for us three meals a day, all of which were delicious. In the mornings he woke us up early with a mug of hot cocoa leaf tea at our tent door. We absolutely adored our silent chef. Dinner in a restaurant once we arrived in Aguas Calientes was also included (except drinks).
5. Tent and set up. Everyday we arrived to our campsite, and the tents were already set up and ready for us, thanks to our porter, Daniel, and our chef, Mario!
6. Transportation and logistics. This was the best part of having gone through a tour. They organized everything and we didn’t have to worry about it. Two days before the trip began, the guide came to our Airbnb to explain details about the trip and drop off our duffle bags. The morning of the trip, they picked us up at the Airbnb bright and early. They drove us hours away to Mollepata and then Soraypampa where we began to walk. They organized all permits and fees. They had all sleeping arrangements pre-booked, including the hotel on the last night. Bus tickets to Machu Picchu and back. Machu Picchu entrance tickets. Then to conclude the trip, the train from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) to Ollantaytambo, and the taxi driver who was waiting for us with our names on a sign in Ollantaytambo who drove us back to Cusco. Having all of this organized for us, definitely made things easy. We could have done it, but it was nice we didn’t have to.
Hotel: This was a real treat. When we arrived to Aguas Calientes, we stayed in a 4-star hotel, with the most comfortable bed, and the best shower I had experienced in all of Peru. I even took two showers within the span of 12 hours just because I could. It was glorious. Delicious breakfast was also included at the hotel in the morning.
This is what was NOT included:
1. A day bag. You’ll need to bring a personal backpack that you carry with you during the days while walking. I kept water, snacks, and extra clothes in mine. The weather changes fast so you should be prepared.
2. Walking sticks. The company provided these for a cost of $15/pair. I had my own but my friend rented them. They are absolutely essential.
3. Sleeping bags. The company provided these for a cost of $25/each. Personally this feels like something that should be included in the total cost considering how expensive it was, but c’est la vie. We obviously needed them.
4. Snacks. The company fed us really well, and most of the time we didn’t need a lot of extra snacks. Though we did bring a few cereal bars and some trail mix, and we were glad to have it. I also suggest bringing some hard candies as they can give you some quick energy at high altitudes.
5. Water on the first day. As previously mentioned, the chef boils water every morning, but we needed to bring our own that very first day to drink until we reached the campsite.
6. Some meals. The very first morning, we stopped in Mollepata for breakfast. The cost of this was on us, s/15 each. The lunch on the last day (after visiting Machu Picchu) in Aguas Calientes was also not included. Every meal in between was definitely included.
7. Thermal baths. On day 3, we slept in Santa Teresa, where just outside of town, you can find beautiful thermal baths. The entrance fee was s/10 each.
8. Bathrooms along the way. Of course when you are hiking, you have a nature toilet everywhere you look. But if you’re desiring something more private, they do have a few structures along the route where you can stop to do your business for s/1.
9. Taxis. There were some stretches of the route where we needed to take a taxi due to construction and dust. We split these costs 50/50 with the company. We also split the cost of a moto-taxi between Santa Teresa and the thermal baths, both ways.
10. Extra drinks and snacks. There are several shops along the way where you can get a popsicle, a beer, a banana, a bag of chips, a Gatorade, etc. all of which will of course be paid from your own account.
11. Showers. We had imagined that the only shower we would take for 5 days was the one at the hotel on the last night, and with wet wipes all the days in between. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that on night 2, we could pay s/10 each for a low-pressure, yet very hot shower.
12. Tipping. As in most tours around the world, tipping is generally the rule, and this is no exception. Before the trip, the guide gave us an information pamphlet about the trip which included a section about tipping. It recommended that the chef receive s/65, the cook receive double that, and the guide can receive whatever you wish to give. The recommendation was the total for an entire group. Because we were just a small group of 2, we gave s/50 to the porter, s/100 to the chef, and another s/100 to the guide. The tips were given on the last day each person was present. Our porter left on the morning of day 3 because he couldn’t take the horses any further than that point. The chef left on the morning of day 4, after having prepared lunch packs for the day. We tipped our guide on day 5, once we returned to Aguas Calientes from Machu Picchu.
THE CONCLUSION: Am I happy I did it? Absolutely! Would I do it differently if I did it again? Definitely! Having the company made so many things much easier, like not having to deal with train tickets, bus tickets, entrance tickets, organizing sleeping arrangements, thinking about food, etc. But after having done the trip, and having seen others doing it on their own, I know I would have preferred to do it that way. There are A-frame cabins along the entire route at each camping spot (bring your own sleeping bag though). There are small shops and restaurants and every rest point. Yes, you will need to bring a lot more cash with you on the trip as you’ll be pulling out your wallet every day, but in the end, it will be cheaper. It also seemed easier to make friends.
We had been hoping for a group experience, meet people, play games, make lifelong friendships. That didn’t happen for us. Our tour ended up being private. But we saw the way all the individual people slowly found their way to one another, formed groups, and friendships, hung out at night, and we felt slightly jealous. We of course enjoyed our own company, but did feel that we missed out on the social aspect of the trip.
I had envisioned a primitive 5 day camping trip. It was not that at all. The first day, yes, was the most primitive, the night was freezing, and we were right in the center of a beautiful valley. We poo’d in a giant hole. All the other nights, however, we slept in tents on balconies of private homes or campsites. There was running water. Showers even. Regular toilets (but with no lids). There was definitely more infrastructure than expected. Seeing all this, I knew I could have done it on my own. Especially after having walked on the Camino de Santiago for 25 days. Doing the Salkantay trail for five days with all this infrastructure did not seem so complicated as I had originally imagined.
Mainly though, doing the trail without a guide would mean, exactly that, doing it without the guide- the worst part of the trip. I would gladly take on all the extra responsibility of dealing with the logistics if it meant that I could do a sexual harassment free trip. I would be free to exist in nature without his disgusting gaze, constantly telling me to walk in front of him. I would be free to enjoy myself on a bucket-list trip of a lifetime without spending hours walking alone, fuming about what I should have said when caught totally off-guard by the first comment about my ‘sexy body.’ I would also have the freedom to look back at my trip experience and reflect on the beautiful nature, the challenge of climbing in high altitudes, and the companionship with my friend. Instead, I look back and feel resentment for having paid to be sexually harassed in nature.