In this post I’m going to explain what you should expect on each of the 5 days during the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. If you’re interested in some logistics of the trip, like how much it costs, and what it includes, plus a little juicy gossip about my tour guide, check out this post here. If you want to know what to pack, click here.
If you’re hanging around Cusco, wanting to adjust to the altitude, why not do some smaller hikes around town to get adjusted!?
PRE- DAY 1:
Two days before the start of the journey, the guide came over to our Airbnb around 7pm. He gave us our duffle bags for the trip, and explained some of the logistics, and how everything would work. This is an opportunity to ask questions and have the guide check any gear or clothing you might be worried about.
DAY 1: CUSCO to MOLLEPATA to HUMANTAY LAKE
This day began very early. We woke up at 4:15am. The guide was back at our Airbnb by 4:45am to pick us up. We then drove to the main office of the tour company to pay our remaining balance (you pay a 40% deposit online when booking, and the rest must be paid in cash – usd or soles- once you arrive), get a couple water bottles, get the company’s bright yellow T-shirt, and then we were back on the road.
We drove two hours to Mollepata, where we made a quick pitstop for our guide to get us registered with local authorities and pay some entrance fees. We then drove into the center of town to have breakfast (first breakfast not included in price). The breakfast was s/15 and consisted of juice, coffee, tea, bread, and a choice of a cheese, egg, or ham sandwich. Once breakfast concluded, we then drove on to the town of Soraypampa, where our journey officially began. We met Daniel, our porter/horseman, and Mario, the chef. We were also expected to tip our driver at this point.
The men packed our duffle bags onto the horses, we strapped on our day packs, and started up the hill. The first stop was Humantay Lake, which sits at an altitude of 4200m. It took about 2 hours to hike up to the lake from the parking lot. I fortunately didn’t struggle with the altitude, and found this a rather easy hike, and could have done it much faster. However, my friend, Art, had been struggling with the altitude and definitely needed a few breaks along the way.
The base of the lake was as packed as a summer day along the Amalfi Coast. Some people do just a one-day trip to Humantay Lake, and it shows. Rather than stick around the surface level of the lake, we continued hiking up to the left about 15 minutes, where we were rewarded with postcard photographic views. Sights indescribable. The water so blue, with a snowcapped peak background. It’s impossible to take a bad photo here. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves for about 30 minutes, until others started to join and crowd the space.
We took that as our cue to leave. We headed back down the mountain, the bajada taking only 30 minutes, and made our way to our lunch spot, not far from the original parking lot. A local wedding was taking place in the hills, and the flute music showered us with its echo throughout the valley while we ate.
Mario had prepared us an appetizer of fresh, homemade tortilla chips and guacamole. Then arrived the rice, veggies, and trout. After finishing up lunch, we relaxed for a bit, shoes off, eyes closed, supine position, face to the sky, paired with a cocoa leaf tea. Once the sun disappeared and the first rain drops started falling, we packed up our bags and headed off for the second half of the day.
The second half of the day consisted of light to moderate rain, slight wind, and and an obvious temperature drop. We walked another couple hours through a flowery, green valley, surrounded by massive mountain walls on all sides. We finally arrived to our night 1 campsite after 3 hours. Our tent was set up already, thanks to Daniel and Mario. We quickly got in our tent, added a few layers of clothing and waited for ‘happy hour.’ There was always a light snack of popcorn, crackers and hot chocolate before the official dinner was served.
We shivered in the food tent as we waited for our meal and sipped our hot chocolate. The cold made us nervous for the coming days, though what we didn’t yet know, was this is the coldest it would get on the trip. We just had to get through the night.
It was a long, cold, restless night. We tried to cuddle and get as close to each other as we could to stay warm, but because the sleeping bags didn’t unzip very far, it was an unsuccessful venture. I woke up a dozen times, checking my phone, and hoping for the morning to arrive as possible to get moving again.
DAY 2: THE SALKANTAY PASS
Finally 5:30 am arrived and we were greeted at the tent door with ‘buenos dias,’ and a hot cup of cocoa leaf tea. Thank you, Mario! We then braved the cold morning and went to the bathroom, brushed our tooth, packed up our bags and had breakfast in the food tent. We were ready to get moving!
While cold, the landscape was incredible. We continued walking through a wide valley, and eventually began climbing up the side of the mountain wall which rewarded us more amazing views as we looked at where we had come from. At this point, the sun started to come out and we shed a few layers. Our hats changed from warm winter to sun caps.
Slowly the landscape began to change, and we continued up the side of Salkantay Mountain. We could see the snowy peak of the mountain in front of us all day as we got closer and closer. We reached the Salkantay pass of 4600m around 11am. There we met up with Mario, who of course had cocoa tea ready for us. We enjoyed the incredible scenery, had a small stone stacking ceremony for Pachamama, and then continued on down the other side of the pass.
Just as we began to descend, the weather began to change again. Coats on. Rain covers on. Winter hats on. Down we went. The landscape changed from mountainous boulders to large red rocks rising through fog. We crossed rivers and continued on what felt like a path through Mars.
We reached the lunch spot mid day just as the rain started to pour down, and we were glad for shelter and a temporary respite from the wetness. After another amazing lunch, and a bathroom break, we continued on. Down we went. As the hours passed, the landscape slowly changed again, this time to jungle views, with weather to match. It got hot. It smelled like a rainforest. It looked like a rainforest. It sounded like a rainforest.
Another few hours and we arrived to our campsite for day 2. This time it was not a cold and primitive site in the middle of a valley. It was on the balcony of a private home, with a s/10 hot shower, running water to brush our teeth, a laundry line to hang our sweaty clothes, and a small shop for a well deserved evening beer.
DAY 3: ON THE WAY TO SANTA TERESA
Another early morning that started with cocoa leaf tea at the tent door. We had breakfast and said goodbye to our porter, Daniel, who had to take the horses back. The night’s sleep was definitely better as the temperature was much warmer.
This day passed through valleys, along ridges, along rivers, by waterfalls, everything green green green. And warm warm warm. We were down to just T-shirts on this day. If I had them, I would have worn shorts.
We arrived to our lunch spot around 1pm, which felt like a party. Several other groups sitting in circles in the grass, drinking beer, laughing. The place was full of merriment. After lunch we all decided to take a taxi to Santa Teresa. The other option was to walk there- another 3 hours- after already having walked about 8. It was the most awkward day with our guide (check this post if you don’t know what I mean), and we were ready to be done with the day. Besides, we had thermal baths we wanted to get to.
About thirty taxi minutes later, we arrived to our night 3 campsite, which was more of a motel with a garden and an outdoor cooking space. We were once again grateful for the running water and toilets, even if they didn’t have toilet seats. And once again, like the night before, we set up our tents on the balcony. We found this to be the best option, as it was flat, whereas the earth had more of a tilt, and allowed us to sleep most comfortably.
Once we set up the tents and got changed, we headed to the center of town where we found a moto-taxi and zoomed outside of town to the thermal baths. We arrived just after 4pm, and the baths closed at 5:30, but it was just enough time to get in, get warm and relax. Well, relax as much as possible when a local Peruvian has his nightclub music blaring in the corner. The thermal baths were surrounded by green mountains, and full of other foreigners on the same journey as we were.
After the baths we headed back to the campsite via moto-taxi, had another amazing dinner, and headed to the tents for an early night. Thankfully this night was so warm, we even took off layers as the night went on. Being able to keep our arms outside of the sleeping bag was a real win for us.
DAY 4: SANTA TERESA TO AGUAS CALIENTES (MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO)
This was the most relaxed and slow-moving morning of the trip. The reason being, we were not going to start out the morning by foot, but rather taxi. The first stretch of day 4 had recently been converted into a giant, dusty construction site, and the road to pass through didn’t open until 9am. Therefore, we spent the morning eating breakfast, playing with street dogs, and throwing small rocks into the mouth of a frog on a table (a Peruvian game we’ve seen all over the country).
Once the time arrived, we said goodbye to our chef Mario (who was heading back to Cusco), and caught our taxi to the next point. We made a couple stops along the dusty road to allow for passing trucks, but eventually we arrived at our destination at Hydroelectrica. Now that we had lost both our chef and our porter, we had our duffle bags with us. Hydroelectrica is the last stop on the train path to Aguas Calientes. We passed our duffle bags to another porter who would then safely put them on the train that was to arrive later that afternoon. Then, with 10km until Aguas Calientes, we set off.
We followed the train tracks the entire 10km until we reached Machu Picchu town, making just a few stops to eat lunch and talk about the various types of plants growing around. Entering what felt like a real town with real infrastructure for the first time in 4 days felt good. We had that hotel bed on our minds. Our hotel was located on the edge of town near the market and train station. We had a couple hours to kill before we had to meet up with our tour guide again. He would be staying at a hostel for the night, and we felt relieved to have a bit of space away from him.
At 6:30, he met us back at the hotel after having picked up our duffle bags at the train station. We threw our bags in the room and went to have our last, and definitely most awkward dinner with the guide. That night we took showers in a glorious and hot shower, watched Netflix, and deeply appreciated clean hotel sheets.
DAY 5: MACHU PICCHU
The alarm was set for 5:30. We both showered again, because we could, and went off to the hotel breakfast, which definitely surpassed our expectations. Warm eggs, sausage, cheese, fresh juice and coffee. We met our guide once more in the hotel lobby at 6:30 and headed to the Machu Picchu bus line in the center of town.
Our entrance tickets were for the 7am-8am grouping. We entered Machu Picchu with what felt like hundreds of other tourists coming for the same thing. There isn’t really much I can say about Machu Picchu. It’s exactly what you imagine, only more people. The fog rolls in low adding to the magic of the place. There is the standard photo spot. You know the one- you’ve seen it in several people’s Tinder photos.
The direction of traffic in Machu Picchu goes just one way. You must follow it, and you must not stop too many times to take photos as the security guards will yell at you about blocking the traffic. We spent about 3 hours at this Modern Wonder of the World, strolling through structures of stones that are hundreds of years old.
It’s amazing, and fantastic, that the Spanish colonizers were not able to find Machu Picchu, and therefore it was left untouched for hundreds of years until an American professor finally arrived in the early 1900’s. He was led here by locals when they heard he was researching the history of the area, looking for Incan sites. Now, just over one hundred years later, the site is visited by thousands each day.
Three hours later, we made our way to the exit, and took the bus back down to town. We said goodbye to our guide, gave him a tip, and went our separate ways. Our way led us to a restaurant along the river with craft beer where we hung out until it was time to go back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and head to the train station. You should definitely arrive at least 45 minutes before the train departs as the lines are long. The train to Ollantaytambo took about 1 hour and 45 minutes through beautiful greenery, passing by rivers and through valleys. Once in Ollantaytambo, we were met by a taxi driver holding up a sign with our names on it. We then drove towards Cusco, and arrived about 2 hours later in heavy traffic. We were relieved to be arriving back in Cusco, ready to shower and sleep in ‘our own beds’ (as opposed to tents). The taxi driver gave us each a plastic bag in order to do a clothing swap, so he could take the duffle bags back to the company.
We were grateful for the experience, but also glad to be back ‘home.’