Savage Mountain to Machu Picchu: A complete guide to hiking the Salkantay Trek in Peru
An increasingly popular but still far less crowded alternative to the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek traverses high mountain passes and stunning alpine scenery to reach the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu. The trek takes its name from Salkantay Mountain, which rises an impressive 6,271m and absolutely dominates the landscape, but the Quechua translation “Savage Mountain” at times feels more fitting (particularly as you puff towards the route’s high point, 4,650m Salkantay Pass).
This stunning mountain is the highest in the region and held great spiritual significance for the ancient Incas, who believed that mountains and their resident Apu (spirits) were the link between Kay Pacha (the human realm) and Hanan Pacha (the upper realm). Towering Salkantay remains highly revered as a one of the most sacred Apu even today, and it’s impossible to deny its mysticism as you journey along the trail towards Machu Picchu. Here’s absolutely everything you need to know about hiking the Salkantay Trek, including the trekking itinerary, difficulty of the trail, how to deal with the altitude, what to pack & more.
About the Salkantay Trek
The Salkantay Trek navigates 70km of trail from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes and is traditionally completed in 5 days. However, a number of modifications can be made to this trek thanks to nearby roads/trains, which effectively cuts out the penultimate day for a shortened 4-day trek or a challenging 3-day trek. In an attempt to conserve some energy for my independent Huayhuash Circuit hike, I opted to hike Salkantay in 4 days, driving the section between Playa Sahuayacco and Hidroelectrica, and I felt like I saw the best of the trail on the first 2 days anyway. It’s also possible to take a train between Hidroelectrica and Aguas Calientes to cut out further walking on day 3, but it’s an undemanding walk and I’d recommend just saving your money for alpaca jumpers!
The first day of the trek features a slight detour to the beautiful Laguna Humantay, which sits below a 5,950m peak of the same name, and day 2 involves more superb mountain scenery as you approach Apu Salkantay itself. From here, the scenery transitions to lush cloud forest, and then finally the walk culminates at Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that sits below Machu Picchu, where you’ll spend the night in a hotel. For the grand finale, rise early to make the journey up to Machu Picchu on foot (45min up 1,800 stairs) or via bus.
Solo or guided hike?
Unlike the well-known Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek has no daily limit on the number of hikers (and is no where near as popular), so it’s entirely possible to book this trek closer to your travel dates or even solo hike this route without a guide. A number of companies offer 3-, 4-, and 5-day Salkantay Treks, ranging from $300-700USD for a tour with comfortable accommodation, delicious food, and horses that will carry a majority of your belongings.
I went on the 4-day tour with Salkantay Trekking, which was $400USD and absolutely amazing! The price includes all meals, luxury camping, entry to Machu Picchu, and transportation to and from Cusco, plus an incredibly knowledgable guide who peppered us with fascinating information along the trail about everything from native flora to ancient Incan rituals. I found it to be excellent value and would 110% recommend this company (and this trek) to anyone.
Salkantay Trek itinerary
Here’s the exact itinerary I followed on my 4-day Salkantay trek with Salkantay Trekking. Most companies follow an identical schedule, although 3-day and 5-day treks will differ slightly. You can also see heaps more photos and read my trail journal from each day of the trek (links below)!
Day 1: Challacancha to Soraypampa & Humantay Lake
Elevation gain: 670m
Highest elevation: Laguna Humantay (4,200m)
Trail hours: 4.5hrs
Highlights: Stunning views of Humantay and Salkantay glaciers throughout the walk; hike up to beautiful Laguna Humantay; sleeping under the Milky Way in the Sky Domes
Campsite: Sky Camp at Soraypampa (3,920m)
Day 2: Soraypampa to Chaullay via Salkantay Pass
Elevation gain: 810m
Highest elevation: Salkantay Pass (4,650m)
Trail hours: 8hrs
Highlights: Condor sightings as we climb out of the valley; absolutely insane views of Apu Salkantay; the high point at Salkantay Pass; changing scenery as we descend into the cloud forest
Campsite: Andean huts at Chaullay (2,900m)
Day 3: Chaullay to Aguas Calientes
Elevation gain: 250m
Highest elevation: Chaullay (2,900m)
Trail hours: 6hrs
Highlights: Walking through lush, tropical cloud forest; beautiful waterfalls and rivers; our first glimpse of Machu Picchu on the walk to Aguas Calientes
Campsite: Hotel in Aguas Calientes
Day 4: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
Elevation gain: 860m
Highest elevation: Huayna Picchu (2,720m)
Trail hours: 2.5hrs
Highlights: Hiking up to Machu Picchu in the dark; sunrise at Machu Picchu; summiting Huayna Picchu
What to expect on the trail
For those who aren’t used to multi-day treks, the 70km distance might feel a bit long— but it’s really the altitude that adds a layer of difficulty to this trek (more on that below). That being said, I still wouldn’t classify Salkantay as a particularly hard hike.
The trail itself is fairly rugged, mostly dirt/dust with a few rocky sections. There are also a couple of steep ascents, specifically up to Laguna Humantay on day 1 and Salkantay Pass on day 2 (plus a knee-killing descent down from the pass). This makes day 2 the most challenging day in terms of elevation gain and loss, but the other days are still reasonably undemanding, so there’s plenty of time to recover. If you are acclimatised and of a reasonable fitness level, you should find these 4 days totally manageable and actually a fun challenge!
Reaching an elevation of 4,650m over Salkantay Pass and involving 2 full days of trekking above 3,500m, many hikers will notice symptoms associated with the altitude, such as headaches, shortness of breath, lethargy, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. It is therefore vital to acclimatise properly prior to setting out on this trek (read more about acclimatisation in this post).
The single best thing you can do to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and its more severe consequences (HACE or HAPE) is to spend time in Cusco before you do the Salkantay Trek. Try to set aside at least a few days to bum around town or take day trips to higher elevation, since these will help you acclimatise for Salkantay.
If you don’t have time to hang around in Cusco or if you know you’ve reacted poorly to high altitude in the past, it’s also possible to take Acetazolamide (Diamox) to aid your acclimatisation and prevent serious altitude sickness symptoms. My parents arrived in Cusco only 16hrs before our Salkantay trek, so they were very thankful to have the assistance of some medication and took it regularly along the trail. Upon the recommendation of our guide, they also used Agua Florida, which is an Andean herbal remedy for altitude sickness found in basically every shop around Cusco for a few soles (and the guides usually have a bottle for you to use).
Andean natives have also been using coca leaves for more than 3,000 years to alleviate symptoms related to the altitude, and bags of coca leaves, coca tea, and even coca candy are now ubiquitous in Cusco and other high-altitude towns. There’s no concrete scientific evidence to suggest that coca leaves are an effective prevention strategy for altitude sickness, but they can still alleviate many of the symptoms, including headaches and upset stomach. On a guided Salkantay Trek, you will be provided with coca tea throughout the day, but you can also pack along your own leaves or candies for the trail.
Read more about trekking at altitude in this post: HIGH-ALTITUDE TREKKING: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO PREVENTING & TREATING ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN THE MOUNTAINS
Weather in the Peruvian Andes is typically grouped into two seasons: a cool, dry winter (also called the “Andean Summer”) from May to September and a minimally warmer and much wetter summer from October to April. It’s possible to do the Salkantay trek year round, but I’d strongly recommend the Andean Summer, as you’ll be more likely to enjoy clear days and better views of the mountains.
One of the most interesting things about the Salkantay Trek is that you pass through distinct climate zones in just a few days— the first half of the trek is very alpine, which means freezing cold nights and mornings that transition into crisp, sunny days, whereas the second half of the trek crosses through cloud forest with high humidity and much warmer conditions. Definitely keep this in mind when you are packing for your trek, as you will need both hot and cold weather clothing to be comfortable.
Food & water
If you join a guided trek, all food and water will be provided for you along the trail. The standard of trek catering in Peru is extremely high, so expect hot, delicious meals, a variety of juices/teas/coffees, and snacks throughout the day. A typical dinner consists of 8-10 different dishes, including soups, salads and veggies, various meats, and Peruvian classics like lomo saltado or ají de gallina.
Trekking companies also provide boiled water that is safe to drink both at mealtimes and in the mornings to refill your water bottles. Still, I would recommend bringing a water bottle with a filter so you are free to fill up directly from a sink or a stream during the day— I use this LifeStraw bottle on all of my travels and it was perfect for the hike.
Accommodation & facilities
Different companies offer a variety of accommodation, but the standard is generally quite high along the Salkantay trek. Our accommodation with Salkantay Trekking, for example, included a stay in the incredible Sky Domes with clear ceilings and amazing views of Salkantay and the stars (day 1), little Andean huts (day 2), and a nice hotel in Augas Calientes (day 3). The Sky Domes in particular were incredible and we all agreed we would have paid extra money just for the opportunity to sleep there.
The first 2 nights had shared bathrooms with proper toilets and running water (the second night even had hot showers for S/10), comfortable beds, and warm blankets to put on top of your sleeping bag. Compared to the Inca Trail, this was much more luxurious and couldn’t even really be considered camping so much as glamping.
Packing for the Salkantay Trek
This is a general year-round packing list for a guided Salkantay Trek, either 4 or 5 days. Nearly all companies operate the same way— they will give you a duffel that you can pack full of clothes and sleeping stuff (this will be carried by horses and you’ll get access to it each night at camp), and then you will carry water and other personal items you need frequent access to in your own small daypack.
I’ve linked to all the gear I used below, but if you are looking for more specific recommendations on trekking gear, check out this post: BUILDING THE ULTIMATE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE KIT: THE BEST HIKING & BACKPACKING GEAR FOR WOMEN
To wear on the first day
- Sport shirt
- Light fleece jumper
- Wind jacket
- Down jacket, you’ll want this on the drive, but it can go into your daypack after you start trekking and be worn around camp in the evenings/early mornings
- Tights or hiking pants
- Sturdy hiking boots, with thick wool socks and hiking liners
- Trekking poles, possible to purchase in Cusco or hire from your trekking company for about $20USD if you don’t own any poles; 100% essential in my opinion
To keep in your daypack (~25L)
- Water bladder or bottle, enough to carry 1-2L of water
- Small snacks, like nuts or protein bars (although you will also receive snacks from the trekking company)
- Rain jacket
- Bug spray, for days 3-4
- Warm gloves, two pairs if you get really cold
- Warm hat
- Camera, plus spare batteries
- Drybag, to protect your electronics/other valuables in heavy rain
- Rain cover for your daypack, or you can purchase a plastic poncho that will cover you and your pack for a few Soles along the trail
To pack in the duffel (6-7kg, carried by horses)
- 2x spare hiking shirts, short sleeve or singlets
- Mountain jacket, great for hiking in chilly weather (since you really don’t want to sweat in your down jacket)
- Spare hiking shorts or tights
- 2x spare hiking socks and liner pairs
- Spare underwear
- Fleece tights or pants, for sleeping (I wore mine over the top of hiking tights on the coldest nights)
- Camp shoes, such as sandals or runners to wear around camp after each day’s hike
- Machu Picchu clothes, which might not be anything other than what you already packed, but maybe you want a sundress or even just clean clothes for your pictures at the ruins (as you can tell from my photos, I did not pack this)
- Soap/shampoo, you have the opportunity to shower the night before you visit Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes (and also possibly on the 2nd night of the trek)
- Body wipes, for a “mountain shower” on the nights before you get to Aguas Calientes
- Acetazolamide/Agua Florida/coca candies, for altitude sickness
- Sleeping bag, rated to -15C or similar; most companies will hire these out for about $20USD if you don’t have one with you
- Camping pillow, if you are one of those people who needs 2 pillows when you sleep (like me)
- Headlamp, helpful for finding your way around camp in the evening
- Powerbank, for charging your camera/phone
- Passport, essential to enter Machu Picchu
- Soles, for tipping and optional extras like the bus to Machu Picchu and lunch in Aguas Calientes on day 4 (I’d recommend S/300 just to be super safe, but there are also heaps of ATMs in Augas Calientes and most restaurants accept card)
- Credit card