I’m doing this because this is something I wish I had had when researching these treks. Here is a day-by-day guide to hiking the 5d/4n Salkantay Trek that ends up in Machu Picchu. Enjoy.
Day 1: Mollepata to Soraypampa (Coldest night)
If booking a trek from nearby Cuzco, all tour companies will transport you to the mountain town of Mollepata where you can gear up on last minute supplies or anything you may have forgotten back in town (water, rain poncho, bug spray, etc). Once the horsemen have taken the large packs and all last-minute supplies have been purchased, it’s time to start the long walk up.
The “trail” on this first day is for the majority of the time simply walking on the dirt road that runs all the way back to Soraypampa. While the views are stunning and the trail occasionally takes a steep shortcut through the cow pastures, there is something deflating about walking for hours on end along a road and having the occasional minivan or truck pass you by. I sort of felt more like I was on a pilgrimage than a trek. Nonetheless, the scent of eucalyptus invades you as you head up out of Mollepata and out into the wide open valleys that dominate this section of the Andes, and it feels incredible to breathe the thin, mountain air and slowly slip further back into the middle of nowhere.
Eventually the trail (road) makes it way all the way to the back of the valley, and the outpost tent settlement of Soraypampa comes into view. Little more than a collection of 4 or 5 ranching families who rent out campsites to passing trekkers, Soraypampa is an utterly surreal location. Nestled at the base of towering 20,000 ft. Andean peaks such as Mt. Salkantay, Soraypampa is what I picture the Mongolian steppe to be like: windswept, barren, freezing, and utterly enchanting. Most tour companies have covered campsites here to protect campers from the harsh elements, and it’s quite easy to fall asleep after a long day of trekking and the sound of the nearby river lapping you into a slumber.
Day 2: Soraypampa to Challway (Hardest day)
The second day is far and away the hardest day of the trek. It’s long, it’s cold, and you have to make your way over the 15,200 ft. Salkantay Pass. Nonetheless, waking up at sunrise amidst the sprawling grasslands of Soraypampa, the sun illuminating the 20,000 ft. Andean peaks springing up from behind you makes for an energizing and mesmerizing start to the day.
The climb to the pass takes anywhere from 3-4 hours, and it is a fairly steep grind of narrow switchbacks and steady uphills until the rock structures of the pass finally come into view. Unless hiking in June or July the trail should most likely be devoid of any snow or ice, although hail, sleet, ice, and rain are possible at any time of the year. I crossed the pass in mid-October and still encountered a steady stream of rain and occasional snow while crossing the rocks over the pass.
Though the air is thin and the trail is steep, anyone who is fairly physically fit and acclimated to the altitude can make it over the pass. A 60-something year old Austrian grandmother was in my group and she made it over the pass just fine. Some tour groups carry extra oxygen, while others opt to just stick the sick or winded on horses and let them catch a free ride over the pass.
Once having crossed the pass it is the start of a interminable downhill where you will eventually drop over 8000 vertical ft. over the next 2 days. Along the way to Challway there are various tent encampments and small villages scattered amongst the plains, and it is unfathomable to think that there are a handful of local people who live permanently so far removed from modern society and amongst such harsh conditions. Interestingly enough, nearly every small village (example: population 4 or 5) that you pass, there is at least 1 or 2 small children who are growing up amongst such a remote environment. The trail weaves its way down the flank of the mountain and parallels a river that grows exponentially as you make your way down the valley, finally making it an hour or so before sunset to the village of Challway. The camping here isn’t covered, and you should be prepared for an exceptionally wet night should the rain decide to move in. While all companies provide tents with rain protection, it can be a challenge trying to keep the water from seeping up through the ground. Prepare accordingly.
Day 3: Challway to La Playa to Santa Teresa
The trail from the village of Challway to lunch at La Playa is when you make the noticeable change from the mountains down into the jungle. Trickling streams amongst the sub-alpine plains give way to raging waterfalls and streams that at some points require fording or rockhopping as they are washing over the trail. There are a number of river crossings across bridges constructed from simple tree logs and branches, and it’s the kind of scenery that you expect a massive python or puma to lurch out at you at any given moment, although allegedly no pythons exist here and pumas are exceptionally rare. The trail itself is somewhat monotonous in its constant downhill, but the vista of the river valley and the occasional stream crossings are enough to occupy your mind for the 5 hour trek down to lunch.
The area known as La Playa is underwhelming at best, and the elevation is low enough here that the mosquitos and gnats start coming out in force. An hour long bus ride brings you to the town of Santa Teresa, which is the first actually town that you’ll encounter along the trek, and is also famous for the Santa Teresa hot spring that bubble up right outside of town.
After a hard 3 days of hiking, the Santa Teresa hot springs are an incredibly welcome respite from the cold and rain. Plus it’s the closest thing to a shower that anyone has taken in 3 days. While not scalding hot, the springs are definitely warm, and it is a large concrete thermal swimming pool set right on the banks of a raging river that winds its way all the way down to the Amazon. Plus, there are local villagers selling surprisingly cheap beer, and being able to relax on the side of a thermal swimming pool with a cold beer in hand and watch a raging river rush through the jungle en route to a date with the Amazon and the Atlantic is a surreal way to spend an afternoon in Peru.
That night in Santa Teresa our tents would be flooded and I would end up sleeping in an abandoned concrete discotec with no windows or doors and awake to find a monkey snuggled inside of my sleeping bag. Earlier that evening, we watched local butchers slaughter a live cow directly in front of our campsite. Even though this is a “guided trip”, this is still Peru, and seemingly anything is possible.
Day 4: Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
Waking up in Santa Teresa is like waking up in the middle of a Costa Rican cloudforest. Gray tufts of clouds linger casually between the green mountain peaks, and the morning sun does its best to turn the town roads from their nightly mud into their daily dirt. The trail from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectica runs directly along the dirt road that parallels the river, and if your group got a horrible night’s sleep and the vibe is low (as ours did), it is possible to hire a car for to drive you from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica and turn the 4 hour hike into a 45 minute drive.
Once at Hidroelectrica all roads strop and it’s a 3 hour walk along the train tracks from here to the town of Aguas Calientes. An enjoyable walk that passes through a shaded river valley, along this section of trail it is first possible to see Machu Picchu rising up above you. Viewing it from literally thousands of feet below is an exhilarating feeling knowing that you are almost there, but also incredibly deflating knowing that you still have to move yourself all the way to the top of that ridgeline in the distance.
Finally, after a few hours of walking, you arrive in the bustling town of Aguas Calientes and are greeted to a bed, a hostal, and a piping hot shower. A town that was literally invented for tourists, Aguas Calientes is a bit of a bittersweet affair. While it’s nice to be back around “civilization”, the overpriced restaurants and fancy hotels make you somewhat bitter towards all of the people who didn’t take 4 days to walk through the snow and the mud to get there. While the amenities of the town are greatly appreciated, everything is just so easy again, which somewhat detracts from the sensation of trekking for days on end to reach the fabled Machu Picchu. Also, this town is expensive. VERY expensive. That same beer that used to be 5 soles ($1.75) is now 15 soles ($5.25), and that same price increase goes for just about everything. So
Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
Ok, so here’s the deal with Machu Picchu. Only the first 400 people who get to the entrance gate for Machu Picchu can get a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu, the famous little mountain that sits inside of Macchu Picchu. The road up to Macchu Picchu opens at 5am and is a 20 minute walk from Aguas Calientes. Anyone who wants to get a ticket for Huayna Picchu needs to be at the gate at exactly 5am to begin the climb up the mountain. The climb from Aguas Calientes to Macchu Picchu takes about an hour, is horrendously steep, and is absolutely exhausting. Especially when you feel like you are racing to the top to beat out the other people for a Huayna Picchu ticket. The views from the trail as the sun begins to rise are breathtaking, but the climb itself is a backbreaking challenge.
Here’s the part that really sucks though. You don’t have to walk up to Macchu Picchu. You can catch a bus from Aguas Calientes, and the buses start running anywhere from 5:30-6am. What does this mean? This means that all the lazy people who took the bus are most likely going to get to Macchu Picchu before you and snag your Huayna Picchu ticket. I actually got a Huayna Picchu ticket but was unable to make the climb because my feet were so intensely swollen from the hundreds of mosquito and gnat bites received from the flood in the jungle, but that’s just me. Chances are that if you started walking at 5am you’ll still be in the first 400, but instead of having the feeling of summiting the final crest and having one of the World’s wonders laid out before you, you instead may get two buses spitting exhaust fumes in your face and a 100 yapping tourists spilling out and starting shoving matches trying to start a line. A little deflating to be sure.
While Macchu Picchu is an incredible spectacle of architecture, culture, and history, it is highly unfortunate that the place has turned into such a circus and there are literally thousands of tourists crawling all over the place. It’s like an archeological ruin turned theme park with all of the lines, the guides, and the tour groups swarming in and out of every Incan alleyway. Don’t get me wrong, Macchu Picchu is still incredible, and watching the sun break the mountains and illuminate the city of stone is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Just be prepared to be sharing the moment with 1500-2000 strangers who are all swarming the gates and racing up the stairs to get the best picture and beat out the rest of the competition.
Nonetheless, the setting for the ancient city is absolutely stunning, and the feeling of reaching it by foot over 5 days of such intense physical exertion and the swath of rugged terrain that you’ve since left behind makes the entire moment of standing atop Macchu Picchu much more rewarding than had you simply taken a train from Cuzco and then a bus to the top.
Overall the journey is highly recommended, just be sure to bring some good rain gear, some really strong bug repellent, and be prepared for an absolute madhouse on the final day of the trek.