A visit to Peru’s Machu Picchu is rewarding no matter what, but it’s especially satisfying and carries even more meaning after you’ve hiked four days to get there. The feeling that you’ve earned the view – that you can imagine and even remotely empathize with the challenges the Incas must have faced building this city with their bare hands in this remote mountaintop location – cannot be understated.
The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is not nearly as famous and popular as its traditional cousin, the Inca Trail, but we’d argue that it gives it a run for its money with tough-to-beat views and the environmental diversity that you’ll experience along the route. (Not to mention that you’ll likely avoid the crowds along the Inca Trail and in the early hours at Machu Picchu itself.)
Wondering what you might find along the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu? Here’s our day-by-day visual guide.
Day 1: Cuzco – Mollepata to Soraypampa
After the bus drops you off at Mollepata, the real journey begins. This is a relatively easy day with only a few hours of hiking until the campsite at Soraypampa (3,850m /12,630 ft). But it remains a hike. Towards the end of the day you’ll turn a corner and get your first views of Salkantay Peak ahead. This is just a sneak preview of what awaits the next day.
Day 2: Soraypampa to Salkantay Pass to Andenes
Get an early morning start, as this is the most difficult day of the Salkantay trek. It’s also the most visually rewarding one. No pain, no gain, right? Go slowly, as the high altitude can affect how you feel not only physically, but mentally as well, and it will surely slow your pace. Take advantage of the slow pace by taking breaks and enjoying the views. After almost three hours of full-on uphill climbing you’ll reach the Salkantay Pass at 4,600m (15,100 ft).
Then begins the long ascent down where the environment and landscape changes from alpine to almost rainforest.
Day 3: Andenes to Collpabamba to Lucmabamba
This day is marked by more lush landscapes of waterfalls, rainforest, tropical plants, and streams. You’ll pass through villages and farmlands perched on steep hills. Days like this offer the slightest taste of the diversity for which the Peruvian landscape is so famous.
Day 4: Lucmabamba to Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
Santa Teresa is known for its hot springs, so if you have time, take a dip. This day will take you past a few more villages and waterfalls until you reach the town of Aguas Calientes, the hopping-off spot for Machu Picchu.
Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu to Cuzco
Machu Picchu at last. This is what you’ve been working towards so be sure to get a very early start to avoid the crowds. For the very ambitious, you can hike up from Aguas Calientes (a fulfilling yet steep climb) starting at around 4:30am to be the first ones in line to access the grounds of Machu Picchu. Alternatively, you can take the first bus shortly afterwards (easier and faster), but you’ll have a few more people ahead of you at the entrance. If you are up for an additional climb and more mind-blowing views, be sure to get tickets to Waynu Picchu, as only a limited number of visitors are allowed each day and they run out quickly.
Once you enter, enjoy all that’s in front of you. You’ve earned it.