Cited by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine as one of the 25 best routes in the world, the Salkantay Trek is one of the most incredible high altitude treks that can be done across the South American continent. And most likely throughout a traveler’s life.
If I had really realized what it was, in practical terms, I would never have believed that I would be able to complete this undertaking. The will to conquer Machu Picchu only on the fourth day of a trek in the middle of nowhere, however, had the upper hand on the doubts and fears of the eve.
And so legs and backpackers, heart swollen with joy and comfortable shoes on my feet are off!
But what exactly does the Salkantay Trek consist of? It is one of the most famous treks departing from the city of Cusco, without a doubt the best alternative route to discover the Inca paths. In fact, after the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is the second most popular trek to get to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. It was not easy to choose between the two, in the end after months of evaluations one of the aspects that convinced me is that the Salkantay Trek compared to the Inca quarry trek 4 days is more tiring but less famous and therefore less touristy and crowded.
The second aspect is that the Salkantay Trek is undoubtedly more scenographic: speaking from a landscape point of view, it offers breathtaking panoramas to those who travel it. You are guided without following a precise path, through different landscapes, from the typical Andean one with its snowy peaks, to the tropical forests in the dense jungle. Furthermore, there is no maximum number of places per day, if instead you opt for the Inca Trail, the permits are limited (500 per day), therefore it is necessary to book the route well in advance, at least six weeks in low season and from six months to a year if you intend to face it between late May and early September.
Panoramas during the Salkantay Trek
The classic Salkantay Trek lasts a total of 5 days, includes 4 days of walking and the fifth visit to Machu Picchu. We have opted for the short version of 4 days, in the article I will explain what the difference between the two paths consists of.
Unlike the Inca Trail where it is mandatory to contact an authorized operator to travel it, it is possible to tackle the Salkantay Trek even alone. But unless you’re a very experienced local or trekker, I strongly advise against it.
The choice of the guide with which you decide to face the journey, really makes the difference, so it is essential to choose professionals. So, after browsing the web far and wide, I chose the Salkantay Trekking company: I can’t say it’s the best because I haven’t had the chance to test others but if they aren’t, they go very close. They proved to be serious, precise and professional from the first email exchange, so much so that in certain moments of the trek we wondered how such efficiency could be possible. I would choose them a thousand more times and recommend them. Here they list at least ten reasons why to choose them, I confirm and sign every single point.
My advice? Don’t be intimidated and leave without fear. You will not regret it!
From Cusco to Soraypampa (Humantay Lake – optional)
Walking distance: 12 km
Starting altitude: 3350 meters above sea level
Highest altitude reached: 4200 meters above
Overnight altitude: 3920 meters above sea level Overnight: Salkantay Sky Lodges
The start of the Salkantay Trek in Challancha
A van from the agency picks us up at 4.00 am directly outside our hostel in Cusco (3350 meters above sea level). After recovering the whole group from the respective hotels (we were 13 in all plus the guide) and about 2 hours of driving, we arrive in Mollepata (2900 meters above sea level) where we make the first stop to have breakfast (not included, we spend 10 sol , about 3 euros for two). We get back on the road and after another hour we arrive in Challancha (3600 meters above sea level) where the trekking begins and where we meet our personal support team who will accompany us throughout the journey. After loading the mules with everything needed for the 4 days of trekking, our guide Ramiro, around 09:30, officially begins our Salkantay Trek.
The first part of the path runs along the mountain range along the valley, in some parts of the route there is an old aqueduct that still supplies water to the farmers of the lower valleys. You walk 7 km in about 3 hours towards Soraypampa (3920 m asl) the base camp of the first night. After lunch and a short rest, it is possible to make an excursion that in about 3 hours (5 km round trip) reaches the wonderful Humantay Lake (4200 meters above sea level).
The difference in altitude is significant, the slope but above all the altitude is felt, especially in terms of breath. But I assure you that the effort is amply rewarded once you reach the top. It is one of the most beautiful places in all the Andes: the green water of the lake reflects the glaciers of the Apu Humantay mountain that stand all around.
Once back, you can recover your energy with a rich snack prepared by the cook of our team.
The highlight of this local agency is the lodge for the exclusive use of the first night: the Sky Lodges.
Sky Lodges overlooking the Salkantay mountain
These are glass domes for two people in which there is either a double bed or two single beds, on which to place your sleeping bag. It is by far the coldest night of the whole trek therefore it is necessary to dress with many layers as the domes are not heated. Soraypampa is located in the middle of the glacier valleys, when the night falls the clear sky shows an unprecedented starry sky. The illuminated domes help to make this scenario even more surreal.
The bathrooms are shared, without hot water and there are no showers. There is a common area where there is a kitchen and a room where they serve meals. We dine early and go to sleep just as early: a lot of energy is needed for the second day.
From Soraypampa to Chaullay, reaching the Salkantay pass
Walking distance: 22 km
Starting altitude: 3929 meters above sea level
Highest altitude reached: 4630 meters above
Overnight altitude: 2900 meters above sea level Overnight stay: tent
Beginning of the ascent towards the Salkantay pass
The alarm rings at 4.40, Ramiro (our legendary guide) comes to wake us up knocking on the igloo door and bringing hot mate de coca. Half an hour to prepare and close the backpacks, breakfast is served at 5.10 am. This is by far the most tiring day: 7 km to reach the Salkantay pass, as well as the highest altitude of the whole trek.
Departure at 6.00 and hike uphill aiming for the snowy peak of Salkantay which we reach after several stops, in about 3.5 hours. In addition to the Salkantay mountain, the view extends to the imposing snowy peaks of the Humantay, Tucarhuay and Pumasillo mountains. Salkantay Mountain is the second highest in the Cusco region and considered one of the Inca deities called Apu. Once at the top, after the usual photos, the ritual is celebrated at Pacha Mama: when we left we collected a small stone from the ground that we brought with us on the way to put it right here.
Panoramas during the Salkantay Trek
This is without a doubt the most demanding day of the entire trek, of the whole trip, of my life .. but also the most rewarding! When I touched the sign of the Salkantay pass I was unable to hold back the tears!
From Chaullay to Aguas Caliente
Walking distance: 26 km (of which 12 km optional)
Starting altitude: 2900 meters above sea level
Highest altitude reached: 2900 meters above
Overnight altitude: 2050 meters above sea level Overnight: hotel – Eco Machu Picchu Pueblo
Here are two options:
1) If you are exhausted, you can take the Peru Rail, the train that takes you to Aguas Calientes for $ 31.00 (extra).
2) If like us you want to live an authentic experience to the end, it is possible to walk from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes for about 2 hours (12 km) along the train track. You go along a beautiful path in the dense forest that flanks the track all the time, or rather, to be honest, you walk right over the rails!
Once you arrive at Aguas Calientes station, in another 20 minutes on foot you reach the hotel where you can stay the third night. First, however, we recover the backpacks that had been loaded on the train with the guide and the traveling companions who did not walk the path.
How do I organize my backpack?
It is not possible to bring your own travel backpack therefore you need to have a second small backpack to take with you and where to keep valuable things and everything you think can be useful during the day of walking. All the rest (change of clothes, personal hygiene, etc.) is placed in a bag provided by the organizers with a maximum weight of 7 kg which will be carried by the mules led by the staff. You will only have access to the bag in the evening when you arrive at the base camp.
What should I bring during the Salkantay Trek?
The bare minimum and if possible even less. Everything put in the backpack and in the bag must be reasoned because it means more weight to carry around, for us and for the mules.
In your equipment there must be: passport, torch, personal towels, bottle of water (we had the bags in the backpack) to be filled with boiled water whenever needed, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, sunglasses, extra money, at least a couple of batteries per device (camera, , etc.) even if in reality the first two evenings for a total of hours (enough to recharge the devices) you will find electricity.
How do I dress during the Salkantay Trek?
The morning and evening is cold, very cold! In August, temperatures also drop below freezing. During the walk we warm up and end up staying half-sleeved in the central hours of the day. Therefore onion dressing is the best strategy. Bring with you: a down jacket, a waterproof jacket, a wool hat and gloves, a hat / bandana for the sun, ‘run-in’ trekking shoes, trekking socks, thermal underwear, a fleece shirt, tights and trousers long.
Everything that is not mentioned in the item not included (see below): from meals (breakfast, mid-morning snacks, lunch, snack and dinner) to accommodation, from the English-speaking guide to the entrance to Machu Picchu and from the return train the fourth day from Aguas Caliente to Ollantaytambo up to the minivan that will take you back to your accommodation in Cusco.
Read also: Make Your Trekking Unique and Exhilarating