If you’re here becasue you want to do a kinda tough, rigorous hike full of some of the most outstanding nature you’ve ever seen, the Salkantay Trek is right up your alley. I’m going to either sell you on the Salkantay Trek, or you’re going to say, ‘not for me’ and you’ll know this isn’t the multi-day trek to Machu Picchu you’re looking for.
We spent hours, nay…DAYS researching all the various multi-day hikes. This included reading many a blog post, looking through the multitude of companies which offer all of them reading hundred of reviews for each from different sources, comparing each company and each trek to decide which company we wanted to go with and how long of a trek we wanted to do.
After we decided on all this, we again read many a blog post, watched YouTube videos and scoured Amazon reviews for all the clothing and gear we may need.
Below is a breakdown of the Salkantay Trek as well as a packing list of all the essentials as well as some things we feel like we could have needed and any tips and tricks we may have!
The Routes to Machu Picchu:
There are three main routes to Machu Picchu. There's the popular Inca Trail, the lesser traveled Lares Trek, and the one we chose, The Salkantay Trek. Each of these has a variation of days and you basically just start further up in the trail, or make a shortcut to trim off one day.
Why we chose the salkantay trek
After doing plenty of research, we found the Salkantay Trek would be a more challenging hike, much less crowded than the Inca Trail, and pass through more diverse and stunning landscape. And that's pretty much exactly what we're looking for in a hike. On the Salkantay Trek, there are also other activities to do such as, going to hot springs, visiting coffee plantations, and going zip-lining, so we felt it was a good mix of hiking and adventure that fit our style.
How to Prepare
I don't think anything you read about the Salkantay Trek will make you think it's a walk in the park and super do-able for anyone. It is tough. It's 8-10 hours every day of hiking over rough terrain. The total miles of hiking is right under 46 miles.
It may be hot and humid, and it may be raining and freezing. You'll pass through valleys, rainforests, jungles, over mountain peaks with snow on them and muddy, rocky trails. And all of this will be at a fairly high altitude which could cause you to feel ill most of the time.
So, take some steps to prepare! If you have the option of going on some hikes to train, we suggest doing that. If you can do a few hikes in higher altitude, that's the best option. The highest point of the Salkantay Trek is 15,090 ft, so if you can do some training hikes close to that altitude, do so! During the time we went, I was working out maybe 3 times a week and felt like I was in pretty okay shape. And I think if it hadn't been for the altitude sickness I experienced, I would have done just fine with the rest of the hike.
I don't think any of this should dissuade you from doing the Salkantay Trek, but knowing what you're in for and how you can prepare yourself is really key.
What’s included in the trek
The whole point of doing one of these treks to Machu Picchu is that the company takes care of most things. This means that meals (and snacks) are prepared for you, they boil water for you to take as drinking water for the day, accommodations will be set up when you get there — so sleeping pads, sleeping bag and tent are all set up for you.
You’ll also be woken up every morning, with coca tea provided and your guide will be with you for the entire day, which of course, is comforting because they make sure you’re doing okay and they are the ones who know the way!
How far in advance to book
Because the Salkantay Trek is less popular than the Classic Inca Trail, you don’t have to book THAT far ahead; I would recommend about 3 months, but if you already know when you’ll be there and have flights, then I would book as soon as you know your dates!
And while there are not trail permits for the Salkantay Trek, you will still be visiting Machu Picchu, which has a maximum entrance of 400 people per day. SO, keep that in mind when thinking about how far ahead to book — take into consideration what time of year you’ll be going (see below) and give yourself MORE time to book if you are going during peak season.
Best time of Year to go
Very Rainy Season: December, January, February (this is when we went and there was pretty much no one out there, we had some rainy weather, and our guide said we got very lucky!)
Wet Season: Mid-October - April
Peak Season: May - September
Shoulder Season: March - May, October - November
Off Season: November - March
Hiking Breakdown (5 Day Trek)
Day 1: CUSCO | MOLLEPATA – CHALLACANCHA – SORAYPAMPA (HUMANTAY LAKE)
Total Hiking Distance: 7.45 miles
Day 2: SORAYPAMPA | SALKANTAY PASS - HUAYRACMACHAY - CHAULLAY
Total Hiking Distance: 13.7 miles
Day 3: CHAULLAY | COLLPAPAMPA - LA PLAYA - LUCMABAMBA
Total Hiking Distance: 11.2 miles
Day 4: LUCMABAMBA | LLACTAPATA – HIDROELECTRICA – AGUAS CALIENTES
Total Hiking Distance: 11.2 miles
Day 5: MACHU PICCHU
Total Hiking Distance: I can’t find an exact amount of miles for this day, but I estimate it’s about 1.5 - 2 miles. And it takes about 1.5 hours to get up to Machu Picchu.
Grand Total of Hiking Distance: 44+ miles
Packing + Must-have's:
This is a huge part of your preparation for the Salkantay Trek. Making sure you bring the right things and only what you need so you are not over-packing.
Waterproof gear, boots, great hiking pants + great socks
Depending on what time of year you'll be going, if it's the beginning or tail end of rainy season (December to March), you may want to bring waterproof hiking boots. I would even recommend bring waterproof ones regardless of what time of year you'll be going. It realllllly sucks to have wet feet and wet socks, and not be able to dry them out over the course of a few days.
We did the Salkantay Trek in January and I got LUCKY because I didn’t bring waterproof boots or pants and only got sprinkled on a few days.
On another note, make sure those boots are broken in sufficiently and are the correct size. The very last thing you want are stiff boots which give you blisters on the very first day. Ensuring they fit correctly will ensure you have toenails at the end of your 4-5 day trek. Take the extra time to find a great pair and break them in. I wish I had splurged and spent more money on a higher quality pair.
Here’s the hiking socks I used: Thorlos Wool Socks
Here are my favorite water-resistant hiking pants: Colombia Women’s Saturday Trail Pant
You'll have to check with whichever company you chose to go with about how many bags you can bring and the weight requirements. We used the company Salkantay Trekking and brought only our 20-30 Liter backpacks (which we left at the Cusco office) and a small, packable day-pack which we wore during each day. In the day pack we carried our essentials like a rain jacket, gloves, money + passport in a waterproof bag, our phones, small digital camera, and water.
With our trek, we were able to have the porters and horses carry our bigger backpacks and meet us at camp each night and then we only had to carry those tiny day packs. MUCH better than having to lug around a bigger bag on a tough hike.
You may also have the option of leaving behind the rest of the stuff you don't need at the trekking company's office back in town while you go on the hike -- be sure to checkout this option and coordinate that with your weight requirement of the bag you can bring on the trek. For example, we left back at the office the rest of our regular clothes and toiletries we would not need for those days hiking so the horses and porter wouldn't have to carry that extra weight.
Here’s a small, packable day pack to bring during the hike: Diamond Head Day Pack
If you’re looking for a great bigger backpack that’s budget friendly to bring to Peru, but leave behind during the trek, here is the one I just bought: MOUNTAINTOP Hiking Backpack
Rain cover for backpack
We went during the tail-end of rainy season and so we had some light rain for some of the days of the hike. Both of us brought rain covers for our day packs just to make sure we kept out the rain on our important items.
Here’s the one I used: OUTAD Waterproof Backpack Cover
Nighttime can be very cold! We wore beanies (and sometimes gloves!) to bed nearly every night and I wore a beanie during most of the days of the hike as well.
Headlamp for night time wees
The Salkantay Trek is like any camping trip you've probably been on in the sense that you'll have to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night or early morning. Bring a headlamp to help you out! You may also need it in the morning, as most days you'll be waking up before the sun and you'll want a headlamp for the first hour or so of the hike.
Butt wipes/tampons/menstruation cups
Here's the thing about toilets in Peru in general, and of course during the trek — there may not always be toilet paper available. So please, bring your own wipes or toilet paper or whatever you want to bring. We opted for wipes so we could also have wipes for our hands. There are also not toilets available during most of the day, and you will usually only have a real toilet at your lunch break spot (maybe!) and there's always one at where you make camp for the night.
Ladies, I would not wish this upon my worst enemy, but if you have your period during the trek, first I would like to say, I'm sorry, and secondly, remember that bit about toilets and toilet paper I said before? Keep that in mind. If you're going to need to change your tampon frequently during the day, you may not have access to a toilet until nighttime. We found a good solution to this problem with a menstruation cup. These you can leave in for 12 hours which will certainly help you out by only having to change it potentially twice a day, and then you can wait until you have access to a toilet. If you are interested in this route, I would buy yours ahead of time so you can get used to it and make sure you're comfortable using it. There are also different sizes, so you may have to try that out and ensure you have the right one!
You can find menstruation cups on Amazon or at stores like Target. They cost about $30, but they can last up to 10 years!
Here’s a great one: Lena Cup
You know when you're in the snow and it's cold, but you don't think to put sunscreen on and then you get sunburned as shit? That's what the Salkantay Trek is like! You may be cold and on a mountain with snow, but please don't forget to put sunscreen on! Most likely you'll be wearing layers and you won't have much skin exposed very often, but just bring a little bottle to get your face and neck. I am nearly translucent and HAVE to wear sunscreen basically everyday. I still got sunburned and I put on sunscreen every day!
Altitude sickness medication
I had a feeling I would get sick, and boy oh boy, was I right. Virtually from the moment I stepped off of the plane in Cusco, I had a headache and felt nauseated. And then we had a 5 day hike ahead of us that was very challenging AND I felt like that the entire time. So, take some precautions, will ya?!
You can buy over the counter medicine in Cusco for altitude sickness, which I found took the edge off of me wanting to constantly puke. There are also coca leaves, which locals and visitors alike use in various ways to combat altitude sickness. You can make tea from the leaves, there is coca candy available, and you can just plain old chew on the leaves as well.
Make sure you stay hydrated and we even put Chlorophyll drops into our water, which essentially lets your cells take in more oxygen, and found we felt better when we drank this. If you’re sick like me, you probably won’t have an appetite and sometimes food will make you want to vomit. But, try and find some food that you can get down, because you’ll be trying to hike 8-10 hours a day, and you will need some food to get you through it!
I wrote a whole guide of how to minimize altitude sickness while in Peru, so you can read that HERE.
Here are the Chlorophyll Drops we used: Chlorophyll Liquid Drops
thin puff jacket/fleece/rain shell/wind buff
Layers are really the key here. The early mornings and nights are pretty cold! You’ll also be on top of Salkantay Mountain at some point, which is a MOUNTAIN, so it’s cold and possibly covered in snow, so bring a warm layer. There are some points during the day where there will be sunshine and you’ll be hot from hiking so you will want a t-shirt with a long-sleeve layer under or over.
Either way, you will pass through a variety of weathers, and you want to have on hand all the things you may need at any given moment. In the photo to the left, I am wearing a thicker Under Armour long-sleeve with a cotton t-shirt over it, and then my thin puffer jacket, with my rain shell tied around my waist. That was pretty standard for everyday. If it was sunny out, the puffer jacket and rain shell pack up to be quite small so it’d just stuff those in my day pack and just wear the long-sleeve and t-shirt with a beanie and a wind buff.
Packable Puff jacket I used: Wantdo Packable Down Jacket
Waterproof Rain Shell: White Sierra Rain Shell
Here’s the wind buff we used: BUFF Merino Wool
Depending on what time of year you’re going, it may be rainy season, so bring a waterproof bag for your important items, like your passport, camera, or money! Even if it’s not rainy season, I would still bring a waterproof bag because you just never know, and there’s nowhere to store your bag away from the elements during the day.
Here’s the small waterproof bag I used: Waterproof Pouch
You can rent hiking poles from your trekking company, so do so if you feel like you’re going to need them. They are compact-able, so if there are points during the trek where you don’t need them, just squish them up and tie them to your daypack. But, there are parts of the trek where they certainly helped out, so spend the extra bit of money and rent them!
There are several versions of the Salkantay Trek, and if you opt for one which includes the Santa Theresa Hot Springs (and you should!), you’ll need a bathing suit. Well, you don’t NEED one, I went in in my sports bra and workout shorts and it was fine, but it would have been nicer in a bathing suit.
Clean clothes for the last day
What’s worse than hiking for 8-10 hours a day in clothes that you hiked 8-10 hours in yesterday? Spending your last day at Machu Picchu in sweaty, dirty clothes! On the last night of your Salkantay Trek, you’ll be spending the night in a hotel before heading up to Machu Picchu at an ungodly hour the next morning. You’ll have the chance to shower (for the first time in 4 days) and the verrrrrrry last thing you’ll want to do is put those sweat-encrusted clothes back on your clean body.
You’ll still be doing a fair amount of hiking that day, so bring appropriate clothes.
Pack yourself a fresh, clean outfit for that last day and you’ll be so, so happy about it.
Refillable water bottle
This is an obvious one, BUT let’s just cover it anyway. Bring a water bottle. There is not water available during the day when you are hiking. Your camp cooks will boil water for you every morning after breakfast for you to fill up your water bottle and they will do the same at your lunch spot each day. So, make sure you have a bottle to fill up. We opted for foldable, packable water bottles to keep our load light.
You can find the water bottles we use here: Collapsable Water Bottle
Here’s An Everyday sample outfit
Thin, fleece lined base layer pants
Lightweight hiking pants
Warm long sleeve base layer
Thin puff jacket
Waterproof rain shell
High quality wool hiking socks
Waterproof Hiking Boots
Warm, but not too bulky, gloves
Day pack with a rain cover
Foldable water bottle
There will NO opportunity to get cash after you leave for the trek, until you get to your last night in the town of Aguas Calientes. You may need cash for optional activities, depending on which version of the Salkantay Trek you choose. There may be the option to go zip-lining, or go to the hot springs, and these will cost you a bit of cash.
Keep in mind there is a daily limit to take out cash at the ATM’s and it’s not very much; it can range from $130 - $225. So you may need cash to pay for the remainder of your trek, and you may need cash for these optional activities. Make sure you give yourself enough days to get out the amount of cash you’ll need.
Remember you’re out in the middle of basically nowhere -- no markets, cell-service, stores, so you HAVE to bring everything you need.
For the most part, you won’t have much access to showers. This goes back to bringing wipes! You can bring just regular old face wipes, or they make wipes that are essentially a shower in a wipe, they’re called the Shower Pill, you can find them here: The Body Wipe
On the second day of the trek, you’ll have an option to pay a couple Peruvian Soles (10 soles, I think which is about $3) to use the shower in a local’s house at the place where you make camp for the night.
On the third day, if you opt for going to the Santa Theresa Hot Springs (another couple Soles), you can shower there, or just put that dirt and sweat-encrusted body right into that wonderful hot water and consider that your shower. I’m kidding, they actually make you rinse off before you go in, so you can get all that filth off then!
And the night before you head up to Machu Picchu, you’ll be spending in the town of Aguas Calientes, where if you are with a trekking company similar to ours, you’ll be staying in a little hotel where you’ll have a real shower!
Quick side-note, just so you can laugh at my misfortune…I opted to not shower until I went in the Hot Springs and for FOUR days, I was excitedly talking and dreaming about a hot shower in Aguas Calientes on the fourth night. We got there, laid out our clean clothes we had saved and then turned that sweet, sweet shower on to find that the water was ICY cold. And it was not like a bearable cold that you can grit your teeth and still make work. Those you can at least get some shampoo and conditioner in your gross hair and quickly rinse it out. This was a type of frigid cold I basically just kind of had to scoop in my hand and lightly pour on myself and then just dip my head into the stream. There was absolutely no way I had the cajones to get shampoo embedded in there! So, I guess just don’t get your hopes too high about that hot shower waiting for you on the fourth night!
push it, but not too hard
You saw earlier where I had to get a horse on the second day…for like several hours. I was on the verge of puking and thought my brains were going to explode from the altitude sickness I was experiencing. I honestly felt like such a freaking wuss and was kind of embarrassed as I was passing other people on the trek on my horse. BUT, I had to make that choice for myself and I would do it again. Because first, you can die from altitude sickness..not that I actually thought I was going to perish, but also because this is YOUR experience. For me, that meant I didn’t want my memory of doing the Salkantay Trek to be of me repeatedly puking and feeling like I was going to pass out for the duration of a 10 hour hike. I already wasn’t feeling great, and even that second day where I opted to go on horseback is honestly kinda fuzzy and I wasn’t able to take in all that beautiful scenery as I was trying to not throw up on a horse.
A last note on taking a horse — you will have to decide on the first day if you want to rent a horse for the second day. I had already tried to postpone our start date for the trek in Cusco because I felt so terrible and was too much of a cheap bastard to pay the extra to delay for another day. On the first day AFTER you’ve hiked all day and gotten to camp, your trek guide will take you on another hike to a lake that is pretty much IN THE SKY. Our guide told us this second hike would be a good determinant for how we would do on the hike on the second day as the elevation was going to be going up the next day.
I struggggggled getting up to the lake, and it look me about twice as long to get up there as the rest of the hikers, because my brains were swirling and I couldn’t catch a breath. I almost turned around about 10 times, but was happy I eventually made it because it was one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen.
Anyway, this hike up to the lake let me know that getting a horse for the next day would be my best bet at getting through that second day.
For reference, the second day the local’s affectionately call, ‘The Gringo Killer’ and that portion of the hike is called, ‘Dead Woman’s Hike.’
Okay, I know I made parts of that sound terrible, but truly, I would do it again anytime. If I could a few things differently, I would spend a few extras days (3-4 total) in Cusco getting used to the high altitude and I would have splurged on very nice, water proof hiking boots, rather than the water-resistant ones I had sitting in my closet.
Have you done the Salkantay Trek? What other tips would you add to this blog post?
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