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The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu - the true highlight of our time spent in Peru

Just like the majority of other travellers who spend time in Peru, Machu Picchu was number one on our bucket list. But we thought, why just take a one-day tour via bus to this world-wonder, when we can spend four days prior hiking through the mountains, jungle, and making our way there by foot? As most of the popular hostels in Cusco were completely booked out over New Years, we decided to leave for the Salkantay on the 30th of December, returning back on the night of the 3rd of January.

Numerous other backpackers who we had previously met along our travels through South America had recommended this trek to us, many stating that this had been the highlight of their entire trip and a must-do. After completing it ourselves, we couldn’t agree with them more.

We booked our 4 night, 5 day tour through our hostel at Pariwana who go through the agency by the name of Rasgos del Peru. We paid an extremely reasonable price of 780 soles / $231 USD which included:

  • transportation from our hostel to the commencement of the Salkantay trail

  • small groups of no more than 8 people

  • a guide who stayed with us throughout the full first 4 days of our trek (the last day you complete Machu Picchu on your own) and shared his extensive knowledge of the trail and inca history with us all

  • breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks included each day, cooked by incredible chefs that also stay with you throughout the duration of your trek (and they cater amazingly to vegetarians!)

  • option of up to 5kg’s of your clothes/sleeping bag/snacks etc. to be carried by porters on horses

  • 3 nights of camping accomodation in spacious tents, always under shelter

  • 1 night accomodation in a hostel

  • entrance to Machu Picchu

  • a 2 hour guided tour at Machu Picchu

  • train ticket and bus shuttle back to your hostel in Cusco

  • an INCREDIBLE zip-lining experience with a reputable company (Vertikal) on the morning of day 4 of your trek

  • basically the best five days of our time in South America :)

Day 1 - glistening glaciers & turquoise laguna’s (19 km’s)

We were picked up from our hostel at around 4.30am, where we joined our other Salkantay trek group members on a bus and drove for around 3 hours to a small village where we had breakfast. Another 1 hour in the bus and we had arrived at the commencement of the Salkantay trail. Now that we were all awake and had some food in our stomachs, we were formally introduced to our guide, “Coach”, and the other 6 individuals that we would be spending the next 5 days in accompaniment with.

Covering a distance of xxxx km’s, we made our way through the mountains for the first 2 hours, climbing to an altitude of 4,200 metres. The last 2.5 hours of Day 1’’s trek was quite flat, making our way through the valley to our first campsite. With grumbling stomach’s, we were all pretty stoked to sit down to a warm lunch at around 2pm that day - soup, bread, pasta, salads, chicken, vegetables - you name it, we ate it!

We had around an hour to make ourselves at home in our comfy tents (1 spacious tent per 2 x people) before being given the option of completing a side-hike up to a glacier and laguna, around 3 hours return. No matter how sore your legs already may be, how tired you are feeling, or full from your lunch-feast… DO THIS!! After 1.5 hours of exhausting uphill hiking through the mountains and jumping across stones along a strong-flowing river, we reached the laguna above Soraypampa- a turquoise blue glacier fed laguna where we sat, relaxed, took many snaps, and admired for at least an hour before having to return back to camp as nightfall was approaching.

We arrived back to base for “Happy Hour” - popcorn, coffee and tea - where we received a briefing for the following day. Happy hour became a daily ritual, and we always looked forward to what sweet snacks the chefs would cook up for us (the caramel & banana pancakes were our favourite!)

After a delicious hot dinner and cup of tea, we were all completely exhausted from Day 1 and headed to our tents for an early night’s sleep, knowing that we had to be up early in the morning.

Day 2 - a tough morning of incline, but incredible views await (21 km’s)

We were awoken at around 5.30am by the chef’s offering us hot coca-tea at the entrance to our tent. Once we had warmed-up and woken-up, we packed our things and made our way to breakfast.. PANCAKES! It wasn’t long before we had devoured our food and had hit the trail once again. We were warned by Coach that today would be the most physically difficult day, reaching 4,800 metres in elevation and 3 hours of very steep incline in the morning - and he was not wrong. But boy was it worth it! The feeling of accomplishment once reaching that peak was amazing, and the 360 degree mountain views even more so. Here Mish is pictured below, soaking up the view next to the caring. Along the 25,000 miles of the ancient Inca Trail are thousands of cairns. A cairn is a human-made stack of stones. They were often built to commemorate a monumental ascent or descent, and sometimes containing millions of stones, each one an offering for a blessing.

The next two hours ahead of us were downhill, leaving our legs and lungs content :) The terrain however was quite loose & rocky, one wrong foot placement and you can end up with a sprained ankle, the beautiful views making it difficult to concentrate on both of these things at the same time! We arrived at lunch around 12noon in a small village along the trail, as soon as we sat our butt’s down to eat the rain started to come down fast and heavy - lucky we were under shelter.. for now! Given that we did the Salkantay during Peru’s wet-season, we were quite lucky in this regard - it did rain most days, however it would usually only be for an hour or two in the afternoon, and most of the time was a refreshing cool-down when building up a sweat hiking!

After lunch we had only 2 more hours of the trail ahead of us before reaching our campsite for the night - the rain was coming down quite heavy once we left the village, however we would be crossing from the mountain eco-system to the jungle, so Coach warned us that half-way we would more than likely need to stop and lather up in mosquito repellent, and would feel the difference in the temperature and humidity in the air. As always, Coach was 100% right.

We arrived to Day 2’s campsite hot, sweaty, and hungry. It was new years eve this night, and the village had decorated our camping area with lots of yellow balloons and confetti - symbolising luck and prosperity for the new year. We treated ourselves to an icy cold new years eve beer (there are always shops at the camping villages that you stay in each night selling snacks, water, alcohol etc.) and had a relatively tame night, going to sleep to the sound of the local’s lighting off celebration fireworks.

Day 3 - jungle hiking and thermal hot-springs (13 km’s)

One of the lesser strenuous days of trekking, during day 3 we hiked for around 4 hours through the warm jungle climate, along a trail that followed a large river, passing many fruit trees along our way. This was certainly a day to lather up in mosquito repellant as they were out in full force! We stopped mid-way to try some of the tasty local fruits from the passing tree’s before continuing along the river to our lunch-spot. We arrived to a cute little village where we sat and soaked up some sunshine in hammocks before eating and continuing via a 45 minute bus-ride to our camping spot for the night. We arrived in the afternoon and had the option of making a trip to the nearby thermal hot-springs at Aguas Terminales. After three days of not showering, we didn’t think twice about the 25 soles / $10 AUD excursion which included transport to/from, and entrance to the 5 different temperature hot-springs.

There were shower facilities here also, so once we arrived we rinsed off, and then jumped straight into the warmest pool, our over-worked leg muscles from the prior 3 days thanking us! We spent around two and a half hours relaxing here, before heading back to camp just before sunrise. Another tasty and filling feed and we spent the night laughing and tasting marshmallows around the bonfire with other travellers who were also completing the same 5-day trek.

Day 4 - zipline fun and arrival at the beautiful town of Aguas Calientes (11 km’s)

Included in our Salkantay package was a zip-lining experience for the morning of Day 4. We were transported by bus to a company called Vertikal, based in the middle of the jungle. Here their professional staff fitted us in top-of-the-range equipment / harnesses, and provided us with a briefing of what was to come. Neither of us had ever been zip-lining previously, and we couldn’t have had a better first experience! Flying high above the trees and rivers of the jungle, we each were able to complete 5 x different zip line routes and 1 x swing bridge crossing I’m a rage of different positions - seated in the harness, hanging upside-down, lying on our backs, doubled-up with a partner, and the final and our most favourite - superman! It truly felt as though we were flying! Hearts racing and legs shaking, this was an amazing adrenaline-filled way to kick off our day!

After our fun for the morning, we were dropped off by bus at the commencement of train tracks, where we would need to walk along for around 3 hours - all the way to Aguas Calientes - the town that we would be based in for the night where thousands of tourists flock per day to access Machu Picchu. Stopping for lunch at a cafe along the way, it was a wet and muddy walk this afterno

on, and we were all looking forward to the hot shower that awaited us at our hostel accomodation in the town that night - and boy did it not disappoint!

We arrived at Aguas Calientes around 3pm and were given the afternoon to enjoy as we please, all meeting again at 7pm for a dinner at one of the local restaurants nearby. We enjoyed getting out of our soaking wet clothing, showering, and putting on a fresh and dry t-shirt before going for a walk around the town - hundreds of food bars, cafe’s and restaurants set-up for the many tourists that pile into this town each day as the gateway to Machu Picchu.

At dinner, we bid farewell to Coach and thanked him for being so awesome. He gave us instructions on how to make our way up to Machu Picchu the next morning and wished us well and good weather for the day ahead!

Day 5 - finally visiting the world wonder, Machu Picchu (12 km’s)

As we are in raining season, we went to sleep the night prior praying to mother nature for relatively nice weather for our day at Machu Picchu - she must have been listening because she came through with the goods! Our alarm went of at 3.30am, we were out of bed, packed and ready to leave just after 4am. We arrived to the bridge gates at around 4.30am where there was probably around 20 other people waiting also. At 5am the security there began to check everyone’s tickets and by this point there were atleast another 200 people waiting at the gates to commence the ascent up to Machu Picchu by foot also. Together we all climbed the thousands of steps that take you from the valley of Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the Inca ruins. Sitting 2,430 metres above sea level, we were within the first 4 people to make it up to the entrance gates, legs burning from the 40 minute non-stop race up the stone steps below, waiting in anticipation for the 6am check-in process to begin. By 5.50, hundreds of bodies crowd behind us. 6am - we fly through the gates, a few more flights of stairs to climb, and there it is before us, Machu Picchu, a magical kingdom of Inca ruins. Hearts racing, teary eyes, goosebumps galore, the energy that emits from this sacred city really is magic, leaving us tingling from head to toe and overcome with emotion and awe.

We spent our first hour soaking up what was there before us and making the most of photograph opportunities before the crowds of people piled in. We then visited the Inca bridge, and also hiked up to the Sun Gate (around a 40 minute walk one-way) before the rain clouds started to appear. We knew that we had limited time before we were due to get drenched, so we quickly made our way down to the maze of ruins and explored these just in time before we were completely soaked by the trencheral afternoon rain.

Making our way down the stone steps back towards Aguas Calientes was much less painful than up . It had been a long, exhausting, but amazing day - but boy were we hungry (we brought our own snacks but refused to pay for the extremely overpriced food at the cafe up at Machu Picchu) so the first thing that we did when we arrived in town was go straight to a pizza place and ate ourselves silly. After 5 day of hiking, any calories burnt during this trek was certainly instantly put back on after this incredible food feast ;p

Our train back to Cusco via Ollantaytambo (where we then got a shuttle bus which was included in tour package) wasn’t until around 10pm and we were pretty keen to get back to the comfy beds at Pariwana Hostel for a great nights sleep!

A few extra hints and tips:

  • there is the option of completing the Salkantay as a 3 nights/4 days, or 4 nights/5 days - we chose the latter and would strongly recommend this as your walking is spaced out more reasonably, and it gives you the opportunity to also do the zipline and thermal hot springs which otherwise would not be included

  • you have the option of walking from Aguas Calientes to the top of Machu Picchu, or taking a bus (which will cost you around $12 USD). The earliest buses leave the town at 5.30am, reaching the top of Machu Picchu just before the gates open at 6am. If you opt to hike-up instead, you are able to commence the hike from the bridge to Machu Picchu at 5am - meaning that if you are fit and don’t struggle too badly with thousands of stairs and incline, you are able to make it up to the entrance gates just after 5.30am, before the rush of hundreds arriving on the bus appear (we made it up in around 35 minutes, so certainly doable!)

  • there is the option of choosing to return from Machu Picchu via bus, or train. The complete Salkantay tour is around $169 USD if you choose the bus option, however this limits your time at Machu Picchu considerably on Day 5 and you need to leave by 10.30am in order to catch the bus back to Cusco. We went with the option of the train, which is an extra $60 USD (total tour price $231 USD), however it meant that our train did not leave until late the night of Day 5, and that we were able to spend the entire day enjoying at Machu Picchu - highly recommended as it was much larger than we expected with many side treks to do and ruins to see!

  • be sure to bring some extra money for tips for the chefs, porters, and guide - while this is not mandatory, there is the option and expectation of tipping if you were pleased with your experience, even if it is just a small amount

  • shop-around at different agencies for prices, however you shouldn’t be paying more than around $250 USD for the 5 day trek with basic accomodation. If camping is not your thing, you also have the option of paying for a more expensive tour which includes accommodation in hotels each night

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