The 5 day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is one of the most rewarding experiences we've ever had, but it's no easy feat. You reach altitudes of 4600m and hike long days with some strenuous downhill sections. The Salkantay trek was named the Top Alternative Trek to Machu Picchu by National Geographic and is less crowded than the Inca Trail.
The views along the way are stunning and the landscape changes as you go so you always have something to look at. We saw snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, wildlife, a cloud forest and Inca ruins!
In our comprehensive Salkantay trek 5 days guide, we include the best time to visit, a daily itinerary breakdown with altitudes and hiking distances, hiking difficulty, tour company info and a Salkantay trek packing list.
Guide: Salkantay Trek 5 Days
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Best time to hike to Machu Picchu
The driest months in Peru are from May-September and will give you the best probability of having sunny days with no rain. However, June - August is the peak season at Machu Picchu, so you will see tons of tourists. We recommend hiking to Machu Picchu in May or September.
The rainy season is from November - April. We were there in the rainy season in December, but luckily didn't have any rain when we were hiking!
Salkantay Trek DistanceThe total distance of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is 74km. There are two days that you hike over 20 km, which feel quite long. You can see the daily breakdown of kilometers under the 5 Day Salkantay Itinerary section below.
Salkantay Trek Altitude
Since you're hiking up and down mountain passes, the altitude you hike varies quite a bit each day.
The Salkantay Pass elevation is 4,600m. This is the highest point of the Salkantay trek, which is done on the second day of your hike. What makes the second day so difficult is that right after your 850m ascent to 4,600m elevation, you make a 1900m descent into the jungle. It's tough on the knees!You can see the daily breakdown of altitudes under the 5 Day Salkantay Itinerary section below.
Since the Salkantay hike takes you above 2,500m elevation, you will need to take steps to prevent altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can happen to anyone, so come prepared. We went to our travel doctor back home and purchased altitude pills (Diamox), which are cheap to buy and can prevent or reduce symptoms of altitude sickness.Make sure you give yourself time to acclimatize. We spent 3 nights beforehand in Cusco and are very glad we did. During the first two days in Cusco, we felt fatigued from the altitude. The city is a beautiful stop to rest and shop for Andean products, like cozy llama sweaters and blankets. We stayed at El Balcon, which is great value and has a zen garden to hang out in and enjoy the free fresh herbal teas.
Salkantay Trek Difficulty
How hard is the Salkantay trek? We have done multi-day treks in Patagonia and Nepal and have to say that the Salkantay Trek is one of the hardest hikes we've ever done. This is because some of the the hiking days are very long at over 20km. This combined with the daily change in ascent and descent can be rough. We don't recommend this hike for people with bad knees, since there are steep descents up to 1900 meters.
There are ways to make the Salkantay hike less difficult:
- By taking the train on your fourth day of hiking to Aguas Calientes. This will save you the last 12km of hiking.
- By taking the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back down rather than hiking. This will save you 8km and a 400m ascent/descent.
- Take out Day 4 all together and arrange for your tour company to drive you to Aguas Calientes from Lucmabamba. This will take out 22 km of hiking and a 850m ascent/1000m descent. Your trek will now be 4 days instead of 5.
The tour company we chose
We chose to do our tour with Salkantay Trekking as they are one of the leading tour operators (5 stars on TripAdvisor) and their focus is on treks to Machu Picchu. Everything was well organized and our meals were outstanding and rich. We were expecting plain food on our trek and couldn't believe our eyes when we saw the variety of plates that came from our cook.
When you get to camp, they feed you and do the dishes. The only work you have to do is unroll your sleeping bag, brush your teeth and change clothes before bed. In the mornings you are woken up with coca tea. You then eat breakfast, fill your water bottle, pack your things and off you go!
We loved our accommodation with Salkantay Trekking. We stayed in glass domes our first night, small wooden Andean huts the second night and in jungle domes the third night. The last night you stay in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, but can upgrade to a hotel if you like.
5 Day Salkantay Trek Itinerary
- Day 1: Humantay Glacier (4km distance, 300m ascent, 300m descent)
- Day 2: Hike up to Salkantay pass and down to Chaullay (22km distance, 850m ascent, 1900m descent),
- Day 3: Through the jungle to Lucmabamba (12km-18km distance depending on if bridge is out from flooding, minimal ascending and descending).
- Day 4: Hiking with views of Machu Picchu across the mountain range to Aguas Calientes (22km distance, 850m ascent, 1000m descent).
- Day 5: Machu Picchu! Either by Bus or by hiking (8km roundtrip, 400m ascent, 400 descent).
Day 1: Humantay Glacier (4km distance, 300m ascent, 300m descent)
Our first day was the easiest with a 2-hour car ride and 4km round trip hike up to the Humantay glacier. The climb was 300 meters and a good starting point to prepare yourself for the the next days challenge. The glacial lake was stunning and some people take a day trip just to visit this sight.
We stayed overnight in the Salkantay Sky Camp which felt luxurious! We couldn't believe this place was included in the price. The glass domes had electricity and sit in front of Salkantay Mountain. The glass makes for great star gazing.
Day 2: Hike up to Salkantay pass and down to Chaullay (22km distance, 850m ascent, 1900m descent)
The next day was one of the most challenging. We ascended 850m to Salkantay Pass up to an altitude of 4600m. It was tough, but we both felt the last 12km descent of the hike was harder as it was a 1900m descent.
At the top of the pass we had some extra time and were taken to a glacial lake off the main trail. While admiring the view our guide showed us the Andean tradition of making an offering to the Pachamama or Mother Earth. We had each carried a rock from the bottom of the pass to the top and placed three coca leaves on it with our thumbs. We then took a moment to give thanks for our beautiful surroundings and placed the offering under a large rock. We loved learning about Andean culture and traditions.
During the descent, the vegetation started to change and we could see the jungle ahead. Our legs felt broken by the end of the 22km day and I was so happy to have the numbing cream for my knee. I think it saved me for the next day. We stayed in wooden Andean huts which were cozy and fell asleep fast. They have showers and wifi at the camp for a fee. You can also find a place to charge your camera batteries.
Day 3: Through the Jungle to Lucmabamba (12km-18km distance depending on if bridge is out from flooding, minimal ascending and descending)
Day 3 was an easier day (phew!) walking through the jungle with minimal ascending and descending. There were also some fun activities along the way. We played with puppies and kittens at one of the rest stops and visited a coffee plantation. The bridge was out due to flooding when we were there, so our 18km day turned into a 12km day. A van took us to the coffee plantation. From there we drove to the Jungle Domes, which are similar to the Sky Camp domes except they are made of vinyl plastic.
We had a choice that evening to visit some hot springs which are an hour drive away. We were reluctant, but decided to go anyway and were so happy we did! The site was well managed with three large hot spring pools next to a mountain in the jungle. It felt so good on our sore muscles. We highly recommend it!
Day 4: Hiking with views of Machu Picchu across the mountain range to Aguas Calientes (22km distance, 850m ascent, 1000m descent)
Back on the grind! Although Day 2 was at a higher altitude, Day 4 felt the hardest since it was later on in our trek.
We first started our climb up 850 meters and took a break at a rest stop with a wooden swing over the mountain. It was 2 Peruvian Pesos ($0.60 USD) per person to use it and was so much fun! There are two swings there so you can swing at the same time.
We finished the climb up the mountain to see gorgeous views and our first sneak peak of Machu Picchu across the mountain range. At the top of the mountain there were also a small amount of Inca ruins to discover.
Next was a steep 1000 descent down the mountain to our lunch spot where we had a satisfying meal made by a local family.
We continued to walk for another hour until we arrived at the train station. We had the option of either taking the train (which would cost us each an extra $30 USD each) or walk along the tracks the rest of the way. For some reason I thought there were only 6-8km left and we decided to save our money. Turns out we had 12km left and our legs were on fire!! Save yourself, take the train! The trail was flat and there wasn't much to see along the way making it feel very long.
We made it to our hotel in Aguas Calientes, the main hub for taking tours to Machu Picchu. It was filled with restaurants, hotels, and spas. Our guide gave us the option to hike up to Machu Picchu the next day which is a 400m ascent or take the bus for $12 USD each way. After our mistake with the train, we gladly said, "yes, we will take the bus!" We bought our bus tickets that night to avoid lineups the next morning.
Day 5: Machu Picchu! Either by bus or by hiking (8km roundtrip, 400m ascent, 400 descent)
We woke up at 4:30 AM to avoid the massive lineup for the bus and to be the first in line for Machu Picchu's 6:00 AM opening time. When we arrived through the gates at Machu Picchu, it was complete covered by fog. When the first cloud cleared we were astonished by the mysterious Incan treasure that appeared in front of us.
The site is well preserved since it was hidden at 2430m altitude between two peaks. We loved learning about the strong influence astronomy had over the civilization and scratched our heads thinking about how they constructed it out of huge mountain boulders.
There are three hikes you can take once at Machu Picchu. The first is a free hike to Sun Gate that offers classic picturesque views of Machu Picchu. The other two, Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna mountain, are not free and you have to reserve in advance since there's limited spots per day.
Warning: There are no bathrooms inside Machu Picchu so go before you enter! your ticket offers no re-entry.
It felt great to cross off our third New 7 Wonders of the World especially after that challenging hike!
We said bye to our guide and took our sore muscles straight to the spa in Aguas Calientes before our train too us back to Cusco. We chose Otto's Salon Spa and Boutique, which is good value and has nice views of the river. The massage felt oh so good after 71 km of hiking!
Salkantay trek packing list
Here is our list of what to pack for the Salkantay trek.
What tour companies typically bring for you: Salkantay Trekking provided all food, snacks, one toilet paper roll per person, sleeping bags, tents/accommodation. We rented hiking poles from them and would say that they were necessary especially for all of the downhill sections. Confirm with your tour company what's included.
Tip: Bring some 1 Peso coins to use the bathrooms that are scattered along the route.
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