When I was hiking in Peru the Salkantay Trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu, I fulfilled a dream of mine. I still remember the day when I was leafing through an encyclopedia to kill some time and then it happened. I saw a photo of Machu Picchu and read some lines about this place. Just at this moment, I swore to myself: "One day I'll be there". At that time I was fifteen years old, and it took me another fifteen years to get to that place. Back home, I passed this trip in review and wrote down my experience. Thus, I'd like to present you a travel guide about the Salkantay Trek.
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Why Salkantay and not the other treks?
Someone might ask, why I have chosen the Salkantay trek and not the classic Inca trail which is more popular? Actually, that was the main reason - the popularity. I had avoided the classic Inca trail because this one seems to be really overcrowded. And although the Salkantay trek is not the classic Inca trail, the ancient Inca walked along this trail too. Especially, the mountain Salkantay along this trail is a sacred mountain for the Inca people, and you will get a bombastic experience walking the Salkantay trek.
Best time to visit Peru for trekking
Peru can be divided into three areas: Andes Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the jungle area. Thus, there are different best times to visit Peru, depending on your destination. If you would like to trek to Machu Picchu, you would find yourself in the Andes Mountains. For that reason, the best time for trekking there is the period between May and November, because this period is the dry season, although in October and November occasional rainfalls are possible in Cusco and the proximity. During our trek which was in October, there were indeed some slight rainfalls on the first day, but it wasn't worth mentioning it.
Personally, I recommend you to trek to Machu Picchu either in May or as late as you can (October - November). BIn the months between June and August, there is a peak of visitors. I walked the Salkantay Trek in October and when we came Machu Picchu, there were many crowds.
How to book the Salkantay Trek?
You can just contact a Peruvian travel agency, and they would tell you, what to do. I did some research on the internet and booked my trip with the agency "Dos Manos Peru Travel". But afterwards, I found out, that this wasn't really necessary because in Cusco there are many agencies offering this service. You can just walk in and book a trip to Machu Picchu. In doing so, you might need to wait 2 or 3 days but generally speaking, you don't need to wait too long to walk any trek in Peru if you decide to book a trek to Machu Picchu spontaneously.
Book a hike to the peak of Huayna Picchu
What you should book in advance is the ascent of the Huayna Picchu. What is Huayna Picchu, you might ask?
In most cases, you will see a mountain just behind Machu Picchu. The name of this mountain is Huayna Picchu and yes, you can also hike up there. And do you know what? I strongly recommend you do so. This place was used by Inca priests as a spiritual place and astronomical observation spot as well. Besides that, you will see Machu Picchu from the birds' view which is really amazing.
There is also a small temple you don't get to see from below. There was even a small garden in use.
But as the path to the peak of Huyana Picchu and back to Machu Picchu is very narrow, there are only 400 people per day allowed to go there. That's why you should book the hike to Huayna Picchu in advance. You can expect about $10 for the hike up to Huyana Picchu.
Why stay in Cusco before the adventure starts?
The gathering point for the Salkantay Trek is in Cusco. I don't recommend you to arrive in Cusco and do the trekkings in the mountains just the next day. The reason for this is that Cusco is located about 3400 m above the sea level and you need to become acclimatized to the altitude.
You should stay at least two full days in Cusco before you do any hikes. Especially, in case of the Salkantay Trek you will reach altitudes of 4600 m above the sea level and in these areas, you could get real problems if you are not acclimatized.
Where to stay in Cusco to acclimatize?
I recommend you to book at least a 4-star hotel in Cusco. Not for the sake of luxury, but because in Peru (or at least in Cusco) the hotel classifications are totally different than what you might be used to. We decided to take a 3-star hotel because we were on a budget. It turned out to be quite a mistake we wouldn't make again.
If you are on a budget, an alternative might be a hostel. I spoke to some people in our group as we were trekking to Machu Picchu and none of them complained about their accommodation. Either way, there are plenty of options to suit your budget. Ideally, we advocate for a hotel for the sake of comfort after a long hike.
Usually, I wouldn't recommend booking a hotel (or hostel) room in touristic areas, as I prefer off the beaten path areas. The crime rate in Cusco is a little high, and for your safety, we would prefer advising you to stay as centrally as possible. Our hotel was not right in the middle and we heard an unfortunate robbery in one night. It might have been our (lack) of luck but safety first, right? We couldn't see the scene, but we heard a person in distress at 2 am.
Which hotel / hostel is the right one for your purpose?
My advice to you is to contact the hotel (or hostel) before you book a room to ask if they can safely store your luggage during the trek. It is enormously important because you should take just a few things with you. The rise in altitude will be quite exhausting and you would feel every extra kilogram. In case you book the Salkantay Trek in advance, you could also ask your agency for a hotel or hostel where you can store your luggage.
If this is not an option for you, you could take all of your luggage with you and use horses provided by the agency for an extra fee. We paid about $30 for each bag (for the whole trek).
What to take to the Salkantay Trek?
For a normal hiking day, you would need just a couple of things to take with you. But for this trek, you will a few extra items to make your journey most comfortable.
Don't go there with normal shoes, folks. I mean, you could, of course. But you would also walk over rocky paths and with normal shoes it would be quite uncomfortable.
Suitable trekking rucksack
As you will hike for around 4 days and you need a proper hiking rucksack to take care of your back.
Windbreaker with lining
For the time when you approach the higher altitudes
For the higher altitudes.
In October, there were some parts of a day with drizzles which can be a bit annoying. Especially, you should take some rain protection for your rucksack
Solid drinking bottles
You don't need to take water with you from Cusco because you would get enough possibilities either to buy water along the way or get boiled water from the crew. But you need to drink a lot in those altitudes. So make sure, you take one, two or three (depending on the size) drinking bottles with you. But please, neither buy water in plastic bottles nor take plastic bottles with you. Please try to prevent creating trash. Plastic is a huge problem nowadays, and every one of us is responsible to prevent or reduce plastic waste
It is not really necessary, but nevertheless - take some lightweight backpacking food as a snack between the meals. But don't take too much of it to avoid overweighting your rucksack. Again, in those altitudes, you would feel every extra kilo. I recommend taking stuff like nuts & seeds, dried fruits, jerky, crackers or some candy bars
In general, don't carry too much money with you in Peru when you are in the city. As a tourist, you are a welcome prey for robbers. But during the Salkantay Trek, you should take some money with you to tip the crew or other people. It will not happen every day and usually, you would tip as a group. About $10-20 per tipping would be enough. But of course, it depends on the situation. We tipped in a group about three times. We gave the money to the crew and at the end of the tour to our great tour guides.
Apart from the tipping the crew and the tour guides, you should bring some small giveaways. As the people in Peru are pretty poor and have a lot of kids, they appreciate stuff for school. So we brought some ballpoints, different pens and pencils, copy books and so on. Along our way, we met a lot of kids who lived in the mountain villages and had to walk about 2 or 3 hours to the school (one way). So we gave them our small presents, and they were happy (but also positively amazed). Also, I took some baseball caps and gave them to the crew and to a man whose horses carried our luggage.
In those altitudes, the sun is much more aggressive than in the valleys. Thus, don't forget your sun blocker and use it every time the sun is shining. I forgot and had suffered! My whole nose was burning and peeling like a snake. So don't make the same mistakes.
You would hike one full day downhill and believe me, hiking sticks would make it much easier. I didn't have any and again, I suffered. The next day my legs felt very sensitive and painful.
I wish, I could have taken my beloved DSLR with me, but because of its weight, I decided against it. Our tour guides told us about a German couple which had photo equipment with them with an additional weight of about 40 kg (appr. 90 lbs). They couldn't let the horses carry their stuff because of insurance issues. Perhaps a mirrorless might be a better option for these options.
You will not get any pillows during the trek, so you should bring your own. I recommend you to bring a small one which is inflatable
Of course, you would need a sleeping bag. Take one which can stand temperatures of minus 18 C°. But don't take one which is designed only for cold temperatures as you would also sleep in a valley where it's warm.
This one is really necessary. Mosquitos here are small, but their stings are much nastier. It also takes 2-3 weeks for the bite to heal. In the mountains, during the ascent, you wouldn't need any mosquito spray. But during the descent, when you enter the forest area, those tiny beasts will be almost everywhere.
It's not a must-have but it makes it easier during the late time because not every sleeping camp has electricity
Medication against nausea
It could happen (especially on the first day) that you get nauseous. The reason for that is the combination of altitude and the exertions from hiking. In this case, you should bring some medicine with you. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for the proper medication.
On the third day, you would get the possibility to swim in hot springs.
What not to bring to Peru for the Salkantay Trek
Water from Cusco
As mentioned, you would have enough possibilities to buy some water in the villages you would make a break. Additionally, every morning the crew will boil normal water you can fill up in your bottles
Too much food
You will get food every day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. So just take some snacks I mentioned above to avoid unnecessary weight.
Trekking in Peru is one of the exciting activities you can do. After my trip, I was sitting in a restaurant in Cusco and listened to an unknown band was playing for the guests. In one of their songs, there was a passage which said it precisely: "America Latina es un Misterio, America Latina es un enigma..."
Although I got to learn a little bit about this incredible area, I believe the song is right: Latin America remains a mystery and a true enigma awaiting for be further discovered.