There are several ways to get yourself to Machu Picchu and most of them involve forking over large sums of money and, if you want to hike, planning way in advance. We decided to skip the trains and helicopters as well as the guided hikes and do it on our own, since we had been lugging our camping equipment all over South America without using it since Torres del Paine, Chile. We opted for the lesser known Salkantay Trail, which is an ancient Inca trail, over the Inca Trail that most people associate with hiking to Machu Picchu.
There are several advantages to hiking Salkantay that we found:
- can hike it without a guide
- can book tours in Cusco (unlike the Inca Trail, this does not “sell out” since there are no permits needed)
- cheap (tours were selling for around $250 in Cusco, compare this with $650 for Inca Trail)
- beautiful views – I’m sure the Inca Trail has some as well, but we got to experience some of the most unique views we’d had on our travels
The only downside of doing this trek on our own is that we carried all of our own gear. We only met one other couple that was not trekking with a tour, but they didn’t have any camping gear with them, so it was a pretty good feeling to know that we could do this on our own. Hiking at 3500+ meters with 40 pounds on your back is no easy task, but we could feel pretty good about ourselves knowing that we were doing something that no one else was.
Day 1 Mollepata to Soraypampa
4400 calories burned
7.5 hrs of trekking
1,000m elevation gain
We woke at 3am to make ourselves breakfast and head to the buses to Mollepata, where we would start hiking. We were the first to get on our collectivo (these are minibuses that are common in South America and act as a city or regional bus) and we promptly waited 45 minutes for it to fill up with enough people to leave. Once all the seats were filled, we headed for Mollepata, a journey just under two hours, that afforded us of some pretty amazing views of the fog rising off the valley. At Mollepata, we bought our pick-me-up fuel of choice, gatorade, had a small breakfast of bananas and headed for the trailhead. The trail was easy to find – we just asked people we passed and they kept pointing us up the road until we started seeing the blue trekking signs that would keep us on the trail.
We had read one blog that suggested skipping the first day of trekking and getting a ride to Soraypampa (where we would camp the first night). The reason they gave was that most of the trek is along a flat, dusty road. The last 8km is along the road, but the first 11km is split from the road that cars and buses use and afforded us sweeping views of the valley and lots of interactions with locals, cows and horses. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss this first day!
Leaving Mollepata, we quickly found where the trekking trail split from the road and started what would be lots of hiking UP. Mollepata is at an elevation of 2900m and our first day’s destination, Soraypampa, is at 3850m. To make it even more challenging, most of this elevation gain is in the first 11km. While hard, those first 11km provided us wonderful views of the valley we had come from and mountains we were going to.
The trail flattened out as we joined with an aqueduct that we followed for a while, spending some of our time walking behind a women driving a team of cows and enjoying the coolness coming off the running water – the sun was HOT at this point. After a kilometer or two the trail took us back downhill and merged with the road for cars. We could see Soraypampa off in the distance and spent the next 8km making our way to our campsite. We stopped at the first campsite we found as we entered the town because it was flat and had some of the cleanest bathrooms we’d seen in all of our travels. After setting up our tent in the shadows of two huge glacier-capped mountains, Salkantay and Huamantay, and washing up, we made dinner and settled down for a little bit of reading. The sun sets around 5:30pm in the area, so we were falling asleep just a bit after 6:00, which was good because our alarm was set for 4:45am, so we could get a good jump on the morning hike.
We did wake up once in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and were treated to a clear sky, filled to the brim with stars, and mountains that seemed to glow from the moon reflecting off the snow. It is almost creepy to experience the illumination from the stars and moon in an otherwise pitch-dark and empty area. As we were falling back asleep, we both gasped as the moon came out from behind the hills – it was like someone had shined a bright flashlight right at our tent. Once we realized there wasn’t anyone coming to kill us, we feel back asleep for a couple more hours of rest.
Day 2 Soraypampa to Colpapampa
4180 calories burned
9.25 hrs of trekking
Day 2 started a little earlier than we expected. With the early bedtime, we were both awake around 4am, which was good, because it was COLD and we hadn’t done the morning camping routine for a while, so it took us about 2 hours to get up, get dressed, eat, get packed up and ready to hike. At 6:15, we were heading down the path for our hardest few hours of the trek.
The second day of the Salkantay Trail includes summiting the pass between Salkantay and Huamantay mountains at 4600m. It was a short hike from our campsite to the summit and most of the elevation gain is over 3km, so it came out to an average of about 20% grade. That’s some seriously steep hiking – a lot of it on switchbacks getting passed by trekkers with light packs and mules hauling other people’s bags up. We reached the summit around 10:30 and to avoid staying with the 75-100 other hikers all out on the trail with tour groups, we celebrated with a quick picture and then headed down the other side in to the valley ahead of them.
After a quick stop for some more gatorade, snickers, and salami and cheese on crackers (our most favorite trail snack!) at Huaracmachay, we headed to Chaullay where we expected to camp for the night. As we came down in to the valley, the air warmed up and we walked by many waterfalls, crossing many streams. Arriving at Chaullay, we found the tour companies had already set up most of the tents (even though we were the first hikers to arrive) and there wasn’t much room to camp. We also figured with lots of people in a small area, it would be pretty noisy and we’d have a hard time getting to sleep by 6:30pm (yes, this is how we roll when we trek). There was another town, Collipapampa, just across the river, which meant short but steep downhill and uphill to get to it, but we figured we’d find some quieter places to camp. The campsites are just fields in yards next to houses, often already occupied by chickens, pigs, or horses. We chose the nicest of the campsites (ie. the one that had an actual door on the bathroom) and set up our tent.
Day 3 Colpapampa to Llactapata
4430 calories burned
9hrs of trekking
Another early day, we were heading down the path around 7:00 on our way to La Playa (don’t be fooled by the name, even though this means the beach in Spanish, there was no beach). Arriving in La Playa around 10:30 we walked all the way through this town and on to Sahuayaco, the town right next to Playa that had several places to eat and a store that let us use the bathroom and sold us ice cream. We enjoyed the ice cream along with our crackers and salami before deciding that we would head to Llaqtapata rather than Santa Teresa, where everyone else on the tours go for the last night of camping and to enjoy the hot springs.
To get to Llaqtapata, we would need to power through another steep climb for about 4km. This one started off climbing wide Inca steps that quickly led to a beautiful coffee grove. We saw coffee beans in various stages of the coffee making process (shelling, drying, roasting) and chatted with the woman who ran this this “Andean Starbucks” for a while.
After two and a half days of hard hiking, this last push was painful, as much mentally as physically. We both had to give each other a lot of encouragement to keep climbing in the hot afternoon sun. We didn’t lack for good views, though, and we enjoyed the vast Salkantay valley and the river we had been following for the last day and a half. As the trees became thicker and the path leveled out, I felt a sense of victory and a surge of energy. I’m not sure if Danielle felt the same thing, but we both gained a little bit of a hop to our step as the path turned downhill and we could start to see our first glimpses of the Sacred Valley, where Machu Picchu is located. At this point we knew Llaqtapata was only a minute or two away.
Llaqtapata is a small archeological site on the Salkantay Trail and studies have suggested it was an important rest stop and roadside shrine on the way to Machu Picchu. The remains, two stone huts and some ruins, are located on the edge of the mountain, facing Machu Picchu. We saw the corner of a building and as we entered the clearing where it was located we quickly spotted Huayna Picchu and the city of Machu Picchu, but it was the full panorama of the mountains behind Machu Picchu that took our breath away.
We spent a good 30 minutes exploring the area and taking photos, but we were also exhausted and ready to get to our campsite about 10 minutes down the path. Just as we turned to leave, Danielle gasped. Turning around we could see that a double rainbow had appeared above the ruins and the valley.
The camp grounds we stayed at were just down the path from Llaqtapata and had pretty much the same view as the ruins did.
The family that runs this campground was wonderful and we chatted with the father as we set up our tent overlooking the valley. We took showers (or attempted to – the water was freezing), made dinner, and enjoyed the day’s last beautiful display – a clear night sky filled with stars, the Southern Cross, and the Milky Way.
Day 4 to Llactapata to Aguas Calientes
3100 calories burned
5 hrs of trekking
We slept in on day 4 and by that I mean we got up around 6:15. As we packed up the campsite and our bags we watched the sunrise over Machu Picchu and the mountains behind it.
We had asked for breakfast from our hosts and were treated to a breakfast fit for kings – eggs, pancakes, omelette, tea and coffee. I was excited about the coffee as it came from the valley we had walked through the day before and was served as a cold concentrate that we just added hot water to. Delicious!
The day’s hike started with an hour of steep downhill to get to the river that we would follow all the way to Agua Calientes (the city at the foot of Machu Picchu). At the bottom of the hill we crossed the river and walked another 30 minutes to get to Hidroelectrica. From Hidroelectrica, we followed the train tracks for two hours to Agua Calientes. For me, this was actually the hardest part of the trek, even though it was flat. After three and a half days of carrying a pack that was a little too heavy, I was spent.
Getting to Agua Calientes and finding our hostel was a big relief. After getting ourselves settled, we set out on the town to find some pizza, pasta, and great Peruvian craft beer and rest our very sore legs and feet.
I’m going to leave this for another post dedicated solely to our trip up to and time spent in Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the typical day, but it was a pretty amazing experience after a pretty amazing trek.
Thoughts on Trekking Salkantay Solo
I have seen it suggested that you need a lot of experience trekking to do the Salkantay Trail solo. I wouldn’t say it was too hard and our only experience was the nine days we were in Torres del Paine, Chile. There were lots of tours, so we chatted with guides along the way a few times, but mostly had a fairly easy time following the trail and finding campsites. We hiked completely alone with no groups in sight for most of the time except for our time traveling up the pass. We definitely benefited from a month at 3500+ meters before setting out. There is no way I could have summited the pass with the pack I was carrying if we had only been in the area for a couple of days.
One thing that made our lives much easier was the Maps.me app. A couple we met the night before we left mentioned that it had great offline maps and often had more information than Google maps. Lucky for us, the entire path for the Salkantay Trail was on the map, so we could easily figure out when we were on the wrong path leaving a town. I’ve had pretty good success with Google maps and their offline maps feature, but the ability to download an entire country for use without internet is pretty handy. Wish we had found this earlier in our travels, but I’ll definitely be using it for the rest of them.
The Salkantay Trail, though only four days, was a big challenge for us because the days were long and hot with steep uphills and downhills. But it provided a truly unique and amazing experience for us. We’re glad we took a chance and did it!
If you are a trekker and considering doing this trail yourself, leave us a comment to get in touch! There’s not a lot of updated information to be found on the web, so we are happy to provide some guidance as you plan your own trek.