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The Inca ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru are a sight to behold. Nestled at almost 8,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, the ruins draw 2,000 or more visitors a day from around the world, and they come in through a variety of different paths. The traditional path takes visitors along the Inca Trail, which is ripe with Inca ruins. Most do the trek in about fourdays. Travelers wishing to hike along the Inca Trail, about 60% of which follows historical Inca paths, must plan nearly a year in advance to secure a spot. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail every day, and hikers are required to get a permit. A hassle, yes, but also necessary, as the Inca Trail is getting a little crowded.

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The Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, is a more serene alternative. The five-day trek (you can do it in four, but we recommend five) focuses more on nature and less on ruins, leading you through scenery unmatched by any of the world’s mountain ranges. You’ll see vistas of sweeping valleys, glacier-capped mountains, jungles, glacial lakes and muchmuch more. You will ascend to an altitude of 15,000 feet and hike a total of about 40 miles before all is said and done, and you’ll never have felt better. You will lose yourself in the scenery, and soon forget that there’s even is a destination to reach. And it’s all fairly inexpensive, with treks through some companies costing only about $550 per person, which includes food, lodging (they pitch tents for you), and a guide to help explain everything you are seeing, and teach you the Inca ways. Let us walk you through the five days with this guide to Machu Picchu’s Salkantay Trek.


A view of the Andes on Day 1 of the Salkantay Trek. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

A view of the Andes on Day 1 of the Salkantay Trek. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Day 1

The trek begins with a two-hour bus ride. There are multiple companies offering guided treks, and most are located in Cusco. The bus will pick you up at a meeting point in Cusco (tip: make sure you have a couple of days in Cusco to adjust to the altitude), and drive you and your group up into the mountains. You’ll likely stop for breakfast along the way in a small village called Mollepata, and indulge in some of your first Andean food. The bus ride will provide breathtaking vistas, and moments of awe as the driver seemingly defies the laws of physics while maneuvering the bus around switchbacks. You’re dropped off on the side of a mountain to load your packs onto horses and then,you’re off.

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The first portion of the hike is fairly flat. You’ll watch clouds roll in over sweeping green hills and get your first introduction to some of the flora of the Andes. Today’s hike is in the shadow of Umantay (pronounced Oh-man-tie), one of the two major glacier-capped mountains that will loom over you during the trek. The mountains were sacred to the Incas, and you’ll quickly see why.

Four hours of hiking later you’ll arrive at camp for lunch. It’s the highest camp at about 12,000 feet. Lunch will fuel a three-hour, late afternoon hike up to a glacial lake collecting runoff from Umantay. You’ll be exhausted at the end of the day, but make sure to check out the stars — they’re much more beautiful without all those layers of atmosphere to shine through.


The glacier-capped Salkantay peak shadows most of the ascent on the second day of the trek. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

The glacier-capped Salkantay peak shadows most of the ascent on the second day of the trek. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Day 2

This is your longest and hardest day. You arise before dawn and it’s cold because of the altitude, but your blood will soon be pumping possibly harder than it ever has before. The scenery is reminiscent of Middle Earth as you make your way along a stream and through a valley toward Salkantay, the trek’s namesake mountain. No one has ever summited Salkantay, due to the lightly packed snow at the top, but you are about to come pretty close. The ascent begins slowly and breaks into switchbacks. It’s about six hours to the top, so pace yourself and breathe deeply. Once you ascend to the top, you are at 15,000 feet, the highest point you’ll reach on the trek. Much of the vegetation is gone, replaced with stacks of rocks hikers have carried to the top, imitating an Inca tradition. The weather changes rapidly up there, so make sure to take in views of Salkantay as you ascend, in case the clouds roll in.

It’s about a three-hour descent until lunch, and you’ll pass through an array of biomes. First, large boulders and random pools of water give way to vast, sweeping valleys. Cows populate verdant Ireland-like fields often shrouded in fog. The flowers surrounding the path change constantly with the altitude, and by the end of the day you are in the jungle. It’s called theCloud Forest (although it looks more like a scene from Jurassic Park), since clouds regularly hang above the valley, blocking views of the tops of the mountains. Tonight’s camp is in the jungle, so make sure you’ve got your bug spray. It’s warm and more populated than last night’s camp, as it is a frequent stop for hikers along the trail.

The Cloud Forest. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

The Cloud Forest. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Day 3

Only six hours of hiking today, and it’s mostly downhill. Watch for the many varieties of orchids that grow in the jungle, eat passionfruit plucked freshly from the trees and see dozens of waterfalls spilling through the forested mountainsides. Cross rickety bridges and navigate recently fallen landslides. Lunch is next to a convenient store and will taste oh so sweet washed down with a cold Cusqueña, a Peruvian beer.

No more hiking for the day after lunch. You’ve got an hour bus ride to the third and final campsite. But you aren’t there long. Tonight’s activity will be sweet relief for all your aching muscles and joints: a dip in the hot springs. They are more like a pool, really, divided into three sections of varying heat and requiring a shower before entering to keep things pure. Give your feet a little massage on the stones at the bottom, and watch the sky darken around the surrounding mountains as you relax.


The first views of Aguas Calientes. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

The first views of Aguas Calientes. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Day 4

Your guide will likely give you an option on the fourth morning: you can hike three hours back to where you had lunch yesterday, or bus to Hidro Electrica. If you bus, you can either sleep in or do another activity, such as explore Sahuayaco Playa, the town near the campsite, or go ziplining.

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The bus will drop you at Hidro Electrica, a place where thewater’s power is harnessed for energy, and you will walk less than an hour before stopping at a little cafe to eat your packed lunch. Nap in a nearby hammock before you embark on your afternoon hike, and watch the full and ripe avocados fall from a tree.

The rest of the day consists of a three-hour hike to Aguas Calientes. The hike is easy along the railroad, and you’ll get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, tucked high up in the mountaintops above. You’ll stay in a hostel tonight (you have to pick one when booking your trip. All three options are satisfactory), and have one last dinner with your group in town before going to bed.

A view of Machu Picchu. Courtesy of AllyMarotti.

A view of Machu Picchu. Courtesy of Ally Marotti.

Day 5

Today’s the day you’ve been hiking for. Get up early to catch the first bus that leaves from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. It’s about a half-hour, switch-backing drive up there, and you want to be one of the first ones in when it opens to catch the sunrise and beat the rush. More than 2,000 people a day visit the ruins, so it gets pretty crowded. Make sure to ask your hostel to pack you a lunch the night before, as there is only one place to eat up at Machu Picchu and it’s pretty pricey. Your guide will give you a two-hour tour of the ruins, explaining all the symbolism and meanings behind the once-thriving city. After you say goodbye to your guide, you will be free to roam. There are side hikes you can take, some of which you have to sign up for beforehand, such as Waynapicchu, a mountain next to Machu Picchu that you cansummit for great views of the ruins, and Machu Picchu Mountain. Hikes to the Inca Bridge and the Sun Gate, which also offers fantastic vistas, do not need to be reserved in advance.

When it’s time to descend back to Aguas Calientes, you can walk or take the $12.50 bus ride. Grab a last meal in town — try something with guacamole, Peru has delicious avocados — before taking a two-hour train ride to Ollantaytambo and another hour-long bus ride to Cusco, arriving back where it all began.

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Tagged: Latin America, Peru

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Ally Marotti

Ally Marotti

Ally is a Chicago-based journalist, recently transplanted from Ohio.

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