Visiting the sacred site of Machu Picchu, which was never discovered by Spaniards, tops the list of must-see places for many globetrotters. The authentic Inca Trail, following the historic footsteps of the Incas, has been the most popular route to reach this mystic heritage site. However, due to a high tourism craze, access has been restricted to only 500 people daily and is allowed only with a guide. As a result, it has become necessary to book the trail at least 3 to 4 months in advance – not ideal when travelling around spontaneously as most backpackers! In the past few years, equally scenic and historic alternative routes to reach Machu Picchu have emerged, such as the popular Salkantay Trek.
What can you expect?
Duration: 5 days / 4 nights
Length: 80+ kms in total
Landscapes: blue lagoon, glacier and tropical jungle (with related climate)
Food: cooks following the trail and preparing yummy breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner
Equipment: tents, sleeping bags and mattresses are usually provided, as well as a 5kg bag carried along the route
During our trip to Peru last January, my friends and I opted for this trek with the agency Peru Travel Machu Picchu. It now remains in our memory as the highlight of our trip at least for the following reasons:
- The human experience: the two amazing guides, Marco and Henry, managed to create a great group dynamic between less and less young people from different parts of the world. This diversity provided grounds for a balanced atmosphere and an enriching experience. Not only have we discovered even more about each other as friends, but also about ourselves individually.
- The harmony with the nature: it was such a relief to have no phone network along the trail! Without starring at the screen, we could fully enjoy and sense the beauties of the nature. We only had to get up in the morning and walk – nothing else to worry about as the meals, campsite, and transportation were already organised. This break from real life was reinvigorating.
- The sense of achievement: after 5 days waking up at dawn, hiking up and down, going though various landscapes and climates, finally reaching Machu Picchu was emotional. Looking back on our adventure and all the efforts put in, we felt very proud and grateful for what we could explore.
If you consider hiking the Salkantay Trek, this day-to-day summary might just convince you!
Day 1: Cusco – Umantay Lagoon – Soraypampa (3,900m)
04:30: Departure from Cusco by bus
Breakfast: Arrival in Mollepata, official starting point of the Salkantay Trek
Lunch: arrival at the campsite in Soraypampa
Afternoon: Ascension to the Umantay Lagoon
Night: campsite in Soraypampa
Number of km: around 16
Before heading off on the trail, we made a quick shopping stop to buy typical Peruvian alpaca warm clothes such as jumpers, socks and hats. Well equipped and ready to face the cold temperatures, we started the trek at an easy pace in order to get acclimatised and feel the group dynamic. The guides provided us with useful and interesting facts about the various plants found on our way.
In the afternoon, we hiked to Umantay Lagoon, the most stunning landscape that I have seen in those 5 days – yes I dare writing above Machu Picchu!! The climb was steep and hard, but well worth it: a breathtaking view of a glacier reflected on the lagoon’s azure and tranquil water. From a bit further up, we could admire the peaceful surrounding mountains populated with cows. It truly was like paradise on earth.
After all these efforts, we enjoyed a delicious dinner and experienced our first night in the tent. As Soraypampa is located at a high altitude, this night was particularly cold…
Day 2: Soraypampa – Salktantay Pass – Chaullay (2,800m)
05:00: breakfast & departure from Soraypampa
Morning: Ascension to the Salkantay Pass
Afternoon: Hike down through tropical jungle
Night: campsite of Chaullay
Number of km: around 19
The second day of the trek was the most intense physically, but also emotionally. The cook knocked on our tent at 5am handing us a burning coca leave tea. After breakfast, we ascended steeply uphill for around 3 hours until reaching the Salkantay Pass, the highest point of the trek (4,630m). At this height, it is common to feel some effects of the altitude sickness, even for the fittest out there. Luckily, none of us was badly hit but very quickly out of breath.
Reaching the top, with its spectacular view over the Salkantay glacier and surrounding landscape, was the most memorable and moving moment for me. And this was particularly thanks to our guide, Marco, who held a special Andean ritual for us: the coca leaf ceremony. Incas had a profound respect for the Pachamama (Mother Earth), being the bond between the human and the sacred. As a gift of the gods, the spiritual significance of coca leaves still remains. We started the ceremony by saying our words of thank to the Pachamama and the gods. We then buried coca leaves under big stones, keeping only 3 leaves out. One by one, we held the 3 leaves, made a wish, and blew over them. To end, we all hugged each other. I had never sensed such a deep feeling of togetherness, solidarity, and harmony with nature before this very moment.
Recovering from these emotions, we started descending towards the second campsite on the other mountainside. Surprisingly, the landscape and climate completely changed, with warmer temperatures and more humidity. Coming from a glacier, we were all of a sudden in the jungle with palm, banana and avocado trees around!
We finally reached Chaulley, the location of our campsite, after hiking for more than 9 hours that day.
Day 3: Chaulley – Santa Teresa (1,800m)
06:00: breakfast & departure from Chaulley
Morning: Hike down to Santa Teresa
Afternoon: Cocalmayo Hot Springs
Night: Campfire party at campsite in Santa Teresa
Number of km: around 16
After effort comes comfort! We reached our third campsite in Santa Teresa after descending for about 6 hours through the tropical jungle, the sun illuminating our faces.
Once arrived, we were rewarded with a visit to the hot springs in Cocalmayo! The 3 pristine water hot pools are located in a stunning environment, surrounded by impressive vegetation. It is said that this water, with a temperature varying between 38-40 °C, is rich in minerals and has healing properties for tired bodies. This seemed to be exactly what we needed after all the hard climbs!
As several groups of hikers were staying at our campsite in Santa Teresa, a campfire party was organised by the guides. Needless to say, it was hard to wake up the next morning…
Day 4: Santa Teresa – Hidro Electrica – Aguas Calientes (2,040m)
07:00: breakfast & departure from Santa Teresa
Morning: hike to Hidro Electrica
Afternoon: hike along the railways to Aguas Calientes
Night: hostel in Aguas Calientes
Number of km: around 16
The 4thday offered us a first glimpse of the Machu Picchu as we were hiking a part of the Inca Trail between Santa Teresa and Hidro Electrica. After lunch – and a nap in the hammocks – we headed to Aguas Calientes walking along the famous train railways in a pouring rain! We can consider ourselves very lucky to have had only this short rain episode as treks have all been cancelled the following days due to heavy rains.
Walking along the rails was just as enchanting as monotonous. While admiring the scenic landscape, we came across many people from all horizons on their way back from Machu Picchu and could hear some of their impressions. But after those days hiking up and down on changing paths, we were simply following a straight and flat route towards Aguas Calientes and our hostel – where we could sleep in a confortable bed and enjoy a (hot) shower!
The evening dinner in a typical restaurant was full of suspense… we would discover at what time we were expected to visit Machu Picchu the next morning. Since January 2019, groups are allocated a specific time slot in order to monitor the number of visitors to this heritage site and better ensure its safeguard. As with every World Wonder, the earlier the visit starts, the more rewarding the experience is. Fortunately, we could be the very firsts to enter the site at 6:00. Now a good night of sleep was awaiting us.
Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu – Hidro Electrica – Cusco (3,400m)
04:30: departure from hostel & hike to Machu Picchu entrance
Morning: visit of Machu Picchu
Afternoon: hike back to Hidro Electrica
Evening: bus back to Cusco
Number of km: around 16
The hike from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu takes about 1,5 hour, which means that we had to leave the hostel at 04:30. After the ticket control, we followed the 1,7km-hiking trail climbing up Inca steep steps (45-60 minutes). At least, the advantage of an early morning hike was the cooler temperature and lower humidity level.
The visit started in dense fog, and while our guide was telling us the fascinating story of Machu Picchu, the magic happened… Suddenly the mist cleared to reveal this sacred Inca citadel. The remains of Inca homes, temples, terraces, and relaxed lamas unveiled before our eyes. It was WOW. We were spoiled to have this moment just for us. From 07:00, the other tourist groups arrived and the site got crowded really quick.
After checking the Inca Bridge, we went down and wandered around the village. It is advised to take your time and make the most of your visit, as guards won’t allow going backwards.
We had to cut our visit short in order to hike back to Hidro Electrica and catch our bus to Cusco… Back to reality!