From Cusco, there are many ways to reach the mythical Machu Picchu. Among the best known are the Inca Trail and the Inca Jungle Trail. But there is a wonderful alternative: the Salkantay trail. After a brief review of the first two options, we’ll go through the Salkantay hike in detail.

INCA TRAIL (CAMINO DEL INCA)

World famous, the Inca Trail will take you to the walled city by taking the legendary path that the Incas followed themselves. You will cross stunning landscapes and will end your journey entering the Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate, which is an Inca Trail exclusivity.

For the whole trek that lasts 4 days/3 nights, count a minimum of 500$ – but prices can be much higher depending on the level of comfort desired (porters, cooks, etc.). And there’s no possibilities to do it by yourself, you need to hire the services of a guide. Also, the number of people allowed on the itinerary is strictly limited to 500 per day, including the guides, the porters and the cooks. Imagine 500 people leaving almost simultaneously from the base camp: it is more than enough to saturate the path. Combine this with an ever increasing demand for comfort, which necessarily requires more carriers, more cooks and you will have a route where entree tickets are extremely rare. Add to this the 2000 people a day limit on the Machu Picchu site, and finding the golden ticket on high season can be months-long waiting lists.

INCA JUNGLE TOUR

The agencies offering this option take an alternative route but whose landscapes are not less impressive than those of the Inca Trail. In addition, this trek will allow you to combine several sports activities. In general, you’ll start with mountain biking on the first day then continue with two days of walking through the jungle, which optionally include a downhill zip line and sometimes, the tour is also passing by the Santa Teresa hot springs.

For the 4 days / 3 nights, it will cost you a minimum of 179$.

Departures are daily, which is handy for the busy traveler or who has not booked the Inca Trail on time.

SALKANTAY TRAIL

Less known, considered as more difficult than the Inca Trail but above all as one of the 25 most beautiful hikes in the world by the National Geographic Travel Adventure Magazine, the Salkantay Trail will take you through landscapes more sumptuous than the others. From the luxurious green valleys of Mollepata, to the tropical rainforests of Chaulley, you will cross the Salkantay pass at 4,600 meters high, witness the Salkantay lake splendid turquoise waters and face the Machu Picchu from the Llactapata viewpoint. This is also one of the few hikes to Machu Picchu that can be done without a guide but it could change very soon.

WHEN TO GO?

The best period is from March to October during the dry season. It is also the peak season, especially from June to August. I did the hike in December. Overall it was very nice, although it rained during the mountain pass but especially apart from a few locals, I did not meet any tourist before Chaulley.

EQUIPMENT

If you leave without a guide, you will need to gear up yourself for a 4 to 5 days hike. Camping gear can be rented in Cusco.

Among the things to bring with you:

▪️ camping tent, as light as possible
▪️ stove and camping refillable gas cylinder (they can be brought back to the shop afterwards)
▪️ saucepan, cutlery
▪️ lighter or matches (more sensitive to moisture)
▪️ sleeping bag (ideally a mummy one with “Everest” down insulation and a lower comfort temperature limit of 25°F)
▪️ (Inflating) Sleeping pad
▪️ good walking shoes
▪️ Rain poncho (+ rain covers for your backpacks)
▪️ flashlight
▪️ food for 5 days

Hiking equipment rental:

You will find specialized hiking equipment shops in the Procuradores street starting from the Plaza de Armas’s north corner. Among them, my favorite was located near the Sungate hostel.

A FEW TIPS FOR HIKING:

▪️ To prevent your clothes, food, etc. from getting wet, put them in a large bin bag inside your backpack.
▪️ Prepare food that you can easily eat without having to stop. This is particularly useful in bad weather when you do not really want to take pauses. The tortillas rolled and stuffed with what you like, packaged individually, offer a convenient, easily accessible and one-hand meal solution.
Spinach, but especially lentils, are excellent iron sources —essential for the oxygen fixation by red blood cells— and therefore are excellent allies to face the high-altitude low oxygen effects.
▪️ For the munchies, keep some snacks in easily accessible places: for example in the pockets of your trekking pants or in your small backpack.
▪️ To keep you warm, there’s nothing like the layer-cake which consists of superposing clothing layers. The air trapped between the different layers will act as insulation.
▪️ When you start a walking day, especially at altitude or in bad weather, you often get cold during the first 15 minutes. So we tend to accumulate many clothing layers. But after the first mile, you’ll probably get already too warm. As for better comfort, do not hesitate to stop and remove superfluous layers.
▪️ And if you are still cold, it means you’re not walking fast enough. 😉

DAY 1: MOLLEPATA – SORAYPAMPA

Duration: 7 hours
Distance: 19 km
Elevation gain: ↗️ 1100 meters

From Cusco, take a public bus early enough at the intersection of Umanchata and Ayahuayco streets. Buses leave regularly, especially early in the morning, when they are full. The journey costs 15 pesos, lasts approximately 2 hours. The route starts in the small village of Mollepata. The bus will drop you off on the main square. On this one, a small grocery store will allow you to make the last few small purchases you forgot to do in Cusco. From the square, take the road that goes up the hill on the right side of the church for about 1.5 km (1 hour) until you reach the small road that leaves the main road on the left. Continue on this small road for about 3.4 km (2 hours) until you reach a path along an aqueduct. The path will finally leave the aqueduct to enter the canyon that leads to Soraypampa. Below, you can see the road with which you initially left Mollepata. During this day, you will cross hilly landscapes and then continue on the side of a canyon that will take you to the foot of Salkantay which sits majestically. Admire on the opposite side of the canyon the magnificent waterfalls which tumble down towards the valley. The path is also crossed several times by streams, mostly passing under the path but sometimes overhead. So be prepared for big jumps, to improvise passages made of big stones or to cross these streams barefoot. In Soraypampa, you can pitch your tent just about anywhere. There is nevertheless a campsite at the end of the village. Just at the entrance of the village, on the road, there is also a small grocery store (which rather looks like an old hostel) open only early in the morning (during my visit) where you can find very limited product range. The weather can change very quickly, the rains can be torrential and the storms very violent. Better then to put your tent under shelter (barn, garage, bus stop, etc.).

OPTIONAL: SORAYPAMPA – LAGUNA HUMANTAY – SORAYPAMPA

Distance: 5 kilometers (loop)
Duration: 2 hours
Elevation gain: ↗️ 400 meters, ↘️ 400 meters

To be done on day 1 or 2, depending on your schedule, this lagoon with emerald and turquoise waters, lodged at the foot of a magnificent snow-covered summit is probably one of the most beautiful places of the hike. A loop-shaped trail leaves from Soraypampa, about 150 meters after camping, and will take you to the sumptuous – if the weather gods are clement – Humantay Lagoon.

Tip: Go light, leave your big backpack at Soraypampa but you absolutely should take your camera!

DAY 2: SORAYPAMPA – CHAULLEY

Duration: 7 hours
Distance: 20 kilometers
Elevation gain: ↗️ 770 meters, ↘️ 1.8 kilometers

After camping, take the path that runs along the river/valley on the left flank. The trail will quickly begin to gain height (about 400 meters elevation, with some steep parts). Admire behind you the canyon you crossed the day before. Later, the path will be flatter and you will cross small altitude plains dotted with huge rocks between which the road meanders to finally lead you to the second ascent. This is the hardest part of the trek, especially if you’re all by yourself, without a mule to carry your backpack. The trail climbs zigzagging along the slope until the Salkantay pass (4629 meters). As always in the mountains, weather conditions can change very quickly: it can rain, hail and snow. But do not worry, the way is easy to follow; it’s still a trek, not mountaineering. After the pass, continue on the path that slowly descends to the valley. As you descend, you will leave the mountain climate and vegetation to gradually but surprisingly quickly end up in a lush tropical jungle. In the valley, you can pitch your tent at Chaullez or Collpapampa (1.7 km further away). Both villages have private grounds where you can pitch your tent under shelter and take a hot shower (which usually costs an extra fee).

DAY 3: CHAULLAY – LLACTAPATA

Duration: 10 hours (6 hours to Sahuayaco)
Distance: 24 kilometers (16 kilometers to Sahuayaco)
Elevation gain: ↘️ 860 meters (to Sahuayaco), ↗️ 830 meters (to Llactapata)

From Chaullay, continue on the road from which you arrived. The hairpin turn will span a river, pass through Collpapampa and then descend to a two rivers junction. Be careful here, the path branches off to the left before the bridge to take you to the left bank of the Santa Teresa River. Many people miss this change of direction and continue on the road. The trail, which is sometimes very narrow, will take some elevation, pass along beautiful waterfalls and lead you to the Playa hamlet.

Pass the village and continue to Sahuayco. You will find several hostels, especially after crossing the bridge. Most people stop in Playa or Sahuayaco but if you still have the courage and if it does not rain, I really suggest you to continue until Llactapata. After you’ve crossed the bridge, take to the left, on the Santa Teresa. At about 2.5 km, on your right side, take the wide old Inca paved road —yes yes, it is one of the Inca trails— that will continue as a regular path. It will go up (830m positive elevation) along the hillside (admire the view on the valley) and then you’ll cross a short plateau and its mystical forest. At the end, lies the Llactapata archeological site which offers a magnificent view of Machu Picchu mountain. Try to get there before sunset.

You are not supposed to put your tent there but I have to say it was difficult to resist to the temptation. The Llactapata camping/lodge (empty when I went there) is about 700m after the archeological site on the trail down to the next valley. It has a beautiful campground with a beautiful view of the Huayana Picchu.

DAY 4: LLACTAPATA – AGUAS CALIENTES (MACHU PICCHU VILLAGE)

Duration: 5 hours
Distance: 15 kilometers
Elevation gain: ↘️ 950 meters, ↗️ 350 meters

From here, you’re just a little walking day away from your destination. And it’s even going pretty much all the way down.

Continue on the path, which for 5 first kilometers will dive into the adjacent valley to the one where you were the day before, then go along the Rio Ahobamba to the northeast. After crossing a second river, at the junction, take the path on the right to the CU-108 road. Continue east along Rio Urubamba to Hidroeléctrica.

Here, the carriage road stops and only the train or your feet will take you to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu village).

From Hidroeléctrica, count another 2 hours of walking (10 km) along the only railway line. After about 8.5km, you will pass a small train station at the foot of Machu Picchu. From here you can continue along the road that connects the lower entrance of the Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (also called the Machu Picchu village). This road is also served by buses commuting between the village and the Inca site ($ 12.00/trip) in 30 minutes. They leave when they are full, ie very frequently. If you continue walking along the tracks and you encounter tunnels, you have missed the fork to the road. Above all, do not cross the tunnels! Some are long and without shoulders to fall back on and trains —it’s very difficult to determine if they arrive in front or behind you—, run at high speed. And you don’t want to run on rail crossing with your backpack. Please, join the road.

Although the ride along the railway line from Hidroeléctrica is part of the journey to Machu Picchu village, you can obviously enjoy the same view from the train benches that leave the terminal train station at 15:00 and 16:00. Tourists have their own mandatory wagon with panoramic roof and their own fare also: it will cost you $18.00/ride, which will take about 45 minutes.

Now, you have arrived at Aguas Calientes where you will probably have the feeling of being a little at the end of the world or at least in the middle of nowhere! Congratulations!