The (Unguided) Guide on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu:
Ahhhh, Machu Picchu. One of the (new) 7 wonders of the world. An ancient, Incan civilization built in the 15th century, but only discovered by the modern world in 1911 (kind of). Approximately 200 homes and temples built entirely of stone, resting on the edge of a mountainside, defying the logic of modern carpentry. An entire city resting 450 meters above the Urabamba River at its base, with its only entrances being two neighboring mountains. It is no wonder that this is the most visited location in Peru, and one of the top attractions in all of Latin America. “But Nick – it’s so dang expensive! If only there were a way to get there for free..”
But wait – Could there be!? No way! But maybe? Impossible! So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Yes! There absolutely is, and this is not just “One-in-a-million talk.” Today, I am here to share every last detail with you on how we did just that.
There are two more commonly used trekking routes arriving in Machu Picchu; and every year, thousands of people pay tourism groups and guides to lead them there. Now, don’t get me wrong – going with a group and having a guide certainly has its benefits: learning more of the history (which can always be read about later), having all of your meals cooked for you, having a pre-made tent each night, horses carrying your heaviest equipment, etc. But all of this comes at a price – typically costing you anywhere between $300-$700 per person.
..That’s like my budget per month.
So let’s consider the options:
- The Inca Trail: The Inca Trail is a 4 day/3 night trek, in which you must have a permit upon entry, and you must have a guide. You will not be allowed into the Inca Trail without a permit or guide.
- The Salkantay Trail: The Salkantay Trail is a 5 day/4 night trek, that is most commonly completed with a guide – however, a permit and/or guide are not required. This is where our journey begins!
If you try to do your research through the tourism and guide companies in town, they will scoff at you, and most likely provide little to no information. They will try to scare you into hiring them as a guide, informing you of how difficult it will be with your equipment and the chances of getting lost on the trail – but do not fear! This route is 100% possible to complete sin guia; and if you’re a penny-pinching “semi-homeless” man like me, then you’re gonna like the way this looks:
So, after doing some online research – we took 24 hours of buses from Arica, Chile into Cusco, Peru. From here, we recruited a very diverse group of new friends, and started our planning. The countries covered in our group included people from the U.S., England, Colombia, Canada, Holland, and Germany.
Gear: We carry this already, but any and all of it can be rented in town if necesito.
- Osprey Exos 58L Backpack
- Camping Stove
- Pots, Pans, Sporks
- Camping Fuel
- Inflatable Sleeping Pad
- Northface “Campforter” 0 Degree (Celsius) Down Sleeping Bag
- REI “Half Dome 2”, 3 season, 2-Person Tent
- 1 Pair of Trekking Boots
- 3 Pairs of Wool Socks
- 1 Pair of Exofficio Travel Underwear (Shut Up)
- 1 Pair of Shorts
- 1 Pair of Trekking Pants
- 1 Pair of Long John’s
- 1 Pair of Comfy Pants (For Sleeping)
- 2 T-Shirts
- 1 Merino Wool Long Sleeve Shirt
- 1 Fleece Sweater
- 1 Rain Jacket
- 1 Down Jacket
- 1 Pair of Gloves
- 1 Bandana
- 1 Merino Wool Hat
- 1 Pair of Sunglasses
- The most important thing is to ensure that you have dry clothing to sleep in. If it rains during the day, and your clothing gets wet – you will be much more comfortable having a dry pair of pants, socks, and shirts to wear while you sleep. If not, be prepared for some uncomfortable and cold nights!
Weather: Prepare for everything, and do your research. Mountain Forecast has been generally pretty accurate throughout our trip. We completed this trek in May, which is smack dab in the middle of “Dry season,” but we were fortunate enough to have rain for at least one hour, every day. The days were warm, and nights were chilly – probably around 35-40 degrees fahrenheit (3-4 degrees celsius).
Cost: The cost is what you make it. We spent approximately $50-$60/each on food in the local supermercados, along with a few nights of cheap camping and celebratory cervezas. You can always cut the prices down by eating less or cheaper food, or by wild camping. This is entirely up to you, but it is very reasonable to spend under $70 per person on your 5 day trip.
Water & Food: There is an abundance of little shops along the route, and you will surely pass multiple each day. There are also plenty of running water options, but you must use a filter or iodine tablets. Always be sure to go upstream to avoid the llama and alpaca caca, as this is likely your biggest cause for concern. Asking the locals before doing so will never hurt. Bring your rice, pasta, quinoa, and ramen noodles, but don’t overstock on snacks or water. This will keep your pack lighter. Every ounce counts.
Worth It?: Absolutely.
Can You Do It?: Definitely. Although not an easy trek by any means, it is very doable for moderate to average hikers. Keep in mind that hundreds of people are completing this trek every week. There are also a few easier routes along the way (we will get into that later) that will simplify the hike a bit, if need be. The first two days gain a lot of elevation and altitude – but as long as you take your time, give yourself many breaks and allow your body to acclimatize, you will be just fine!
Where to Begin: The first step in Cusco is to get a collectivo (van) to Mollepata, the initial pueblo. If you have a group, you can schedule your own pickup (5 am-ish), and this should cost about $/.15-$/.20 soles ($6 USD) per person. If they ask for more, talk them down to $/.20 soles. If you do not have a group, you can also simply show up at the station on the morning of your excursion, which can be found on Maps.me by searching “Collectivo to Mollepata“:
Ya know what. Let’s make this even easier. Here is the information for the man we used, and we negotiated down to $/.15 soles per person (Shhhhhhh). He picked us up at 5 am at the Plaza de Armas in the center of town.
- Name: Guillermo
- WhatsApp: +51 942 142 193
- Email: email@example.com
Day One: Cusco -> Mollepata -> Sorayabamba
- Time: 2 hour collectivo ride; 7 hours hiking
- Distance: 20 km (12 miles)
Find your collectivo around 5am, and it is time to hit the road! On this bumpy, early morning ride, you will be welcomed with some beautiful morning views as you enter the clouds, through the windy mountain roads leading into town.
Fare Warning: See what I did there? The collectivo drivers will make a surprise stop upon entering the town, and you will be forced to pay a $/.10 soles ($3 USD) entrance fee. I’m unsure how to avoid this.
Around 7:30 am, we were dropped off in the center of Mollepata, our starting point. Any local will be able to point you in the right direction, but you can start by staying to the right of the church, and walking straight up the hill. Shortly after, you will see blue signs labeled for Salkantay, and your trek will have officially begun! These blue signs are wonderfully helpful, and will be available through the entirety of the trek. The entire trail is also available on Maps.me, so you’re going to have to try pretty hard to get lost.
Day one is mostly uphill, gaining a lot of elevation. Stay on the path (instead of the road) to slightly shorten your trip – but be aware this part of the trail was very, very muddy for us. Keep your rain jackets and pack covers handy, and be prepared for rain to start and stop throughout the day.
Around 3 pm, we strolled into Sorayapampa, our first campsite. We unloaded our bags, and paid $/.10 soles ($3 USD) per tent to stay under the straw huts at the site. There is a bathroom, and a not-so-friendly woman selling snacks, water, gatorade and cervezas. Here we were not allowed to use the common areas, as they were reserved for the tour groups, so be prepared for this discrimination! You will also notice many eco-domes and pre-made tents for these same groups. Ignore these; you have committed to being a cheapskate and can not you can not afford them 🙂
From here, we dropped our bags and walked straight uphill for another 45 minutes to reach Humantay Lake. This is not included in my estimated time or distance, as it is an optional extra hike, but it’s a very nice way to end the day.
Day Two: Sorayapampa -> Chaulley
- Time: 9 hours
- Distance: 20 km (12 miles)
At 5 am, you will be woken by either:
- The loud tour groups preparing for their very early start OR
Day two is the hardest day of the trek. Try your best to ignore these distractions and get a good night sleep.
We left around 8:30 am, following the trail up the mountainside, and along the river. Approximately one hour later, we came across the “town” of Salkantaypampa. This town consists of one snack shack made of rocks and straw – as well as two small houses, also made of rocks and straw. Once again, you have somewhere to buy snacks, water, gatorades, and cervezas.
Immediately after Salkantaypampa, you will have a choice. You can stay to the left of the river (the actual trail), and follow the horrendous switchbacks up the mountainside – or you can stay to the right of the river and bypass this, on a significantly easier trail. I recommend taking the actual trail for that true sense of accomplishment – but safety and health is most important. You will be reaching your highest altitude today, so be sure to take your time.
We continued straight uphill, finally reaching the highest point of the trek a little after noon: Abra Salkantay. It was pretty clear when we arrived, providing us views of the mountain that had been towering over us all morning. However, it was very cold and windy, and the rainclouds rolled in thick within 20 minutes. Time to descend!
The descent is long, and will take you a few more hours, but once the weather cleared up we had some pretty nice views:
Eventually you will pass the tours that left two hours before you, as you make your way to the town of Chaulley. You will also pass some available campsites along the way (if Chaulley seems too far), but of course I recommend making it to town. Once you see the town, stay to the left on the trail to arrive at the same campsites as the tour groups. We strolled in around 6 pm, right as the sun was going down. The first campsite on the right (Camping Chaulley) is owned by Pablo – who will welcome you with a big smile, and offer up everything from: water, gatorade, cervezas, avocados, eggs, bread, and more. Once again, we were able to rent a straw hut for $/.10 soles per tent.
Day Three: Chaulley -> Lukmabamba
- Time: 8 hours
- Distance: 17 km (10 miles)
Around 9 am (notice this keeps getting later), we left Pablo’s house and hit the trail. Although very muddy at first, we eventually hit some terrain and got a nice external view of our campsite. This is also where we were introduced to Chico (as we named him), who barked to us that he was ready for an adventure, and started walking alongside us.
About 45 minutes in, you will have another choice. You have the option here to stay on the road – which is the easier, simpler, safer, shorter option – or you can stick to the trail.
Before making this decision, you should speak to the locals about the mudslides. Pablo had told us that the trail was muddy and unsafe, but we decided to take our chances. We were fortunate that the trail was in good shape, but there are definitely a few areas with huge drop-offs – where one step, mudslide or falling rock could be muy, muy mal. However, this is how this trek is meant to be done!
Four of us took the road, while the other three (and one Chico) took the trail; which allows me to write from both perspectives:
- The Road: The road stays to the right of the river, and remains relatively flat without much incline or decline. It is very straight-forward and impossible to get lost, and you still get the views above the river. The road group arrived in La Playa (our meeting point, not final destination) around 1-1:30 pm, about 4-5 hours after our departure.
- The Trail: The trail stays to the left of the river, and goes slightly into the forest. Although not the most challenging day of the trek, there are a few steep ascents and descents along the way. The trail is much more scenic including several campgrounds, waterfalls, interesting pulley systems across the river, and random new “friends” (see below). You will come across several beautiful little one-house “towns” and campgrounds, where families live peacefully and remotely in the forest with their dogs, chickens, donkeys, roosters and more. If you have the time to stop for a beverage, or camp here, it’s a great area that is not commonly used by the tour groups! All of these places once again sell your snacking and drinking necessities. Anticipate an extra hour or so if you’re taking the trail instead of the road.
The donkeys were scary for Chico, and we were afraid they would hurt him. Not my Chico! We were forced to grab the ropes holding the donkeys to turn them around, and create some free space for Chico to squeeze by. Thank goodness.
We met back up with our group in La Playa. There are campsites and many friendly people in La Playa, so you do have the option to stay here; however, after a swarm of ferocious dogs tried to attack Chico in the middle of the street (and now I’m always nervous around dogs), we decided to push on to Lukmabamba. This would also be my recommendation to you.
From La Playa, you will continue walking on the main road for another 45 minutes (2-3 km) – but be careful to avoid literally the biggest dog in the world, who happens to live on this road. Thankfully, a local man on a scooter saw that we had Chico with us, and told us that this new dog would literally eat him for dinner. Not my Chico! Thankfully, he went up ahead, got some food, and threw it into the woods to distract the dog before scurrying us past safely.
When you arrive at Lukmabamba (the coffee capital of the region), you will be at the beginning of another steep ascent. There is one trail upward, and (if they haven’t already) the locals will start leading you to their campsites. We opted to continue walking upwards on the recommendation of Pablo to a specific campsite: Inca Puruni ($/5 soles ($1.50 USD) per tent). There will be a big yellow sign on the left hand side marking the site. Here there are no tour groups. Here is also where I’d recommend you start using bug repellant (specifically deet). The first two days are spent at very high altitudes where mosquitoes cannot survive, but here they will start bug you. Bah!
We set up our tents on the front lawn staring down the mountain, and under a beautifully starlit sky. We made dinner and chatted with the woman and her children, who warned us that it is not uncommon for dogs to join groups all the way to Aguas Calientes (our next stop) – but without an animal rescue there, they often get poisoned. Not my Chico!
We discussed our options of how to sneak Chico into Machu Picchu, and eventually bring him to the U.S., before heading to sleep without our rain fly – underneath the moon and stars.
Day Four: Lukmabamba -> Aguas Calientes
- Time: 8 hours
- Distance: 20 km (12 miles)
According to the blog we had been following, the fourth day was meant to be about 5 hours, so we lazily got up late again. Chico was gone. Damnit.
Camping in Lukmabamba is slightly cheaper because camping is not how they are actually making their money. The money is made when they can sell you beers, water, bread, breakfast, and the Lukmabamba specialty: coffee. For $/.20 soles ($6 USD), I purchased a local ground coffee mix to send home to my family, and we headed on our way.
The first few hours remain straight uphill, but will give you a few nice lookout and stopping points. Once again, there are multiple spots to stop and purchase anything you may need. After about 3 hours, you will reach the ruins, and get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu from across the mountain range. Incredible. On an unrelated note, the tour guides do not like it if you climb on the ruins.
Continue on the trail for another 20 minutes before hitting another campsite/restaurant. If you somehow have made it to this area late in the day, I would stay here. The view of Machu Picchu is spectacular, and there is a full restaurant/bar as well. I forgot to ask how much it cost to camp here – lo siento, amigos!
From here is a very steep descent, but the weather was great, so we scrambled straight down as fast as we could. It was around here that we realized that the blog was incorrect, and we should have left earlier.
We picked up the pace and headed another few km to Hidroelectrica. Hidroelectrica is where all of the collectivos gather and meet for the groups not willing to pay for the train from Cusco. The train from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes is approximately $30 USD, but if you’re up for a little 10 km walk along the tracks, you can avoid this entirely.
Here you will find a tiny market where you can once again purchase anything you need. Follow along the train tracks, past the small houses and amazingly well-kept soccer fields. Continue until the train tracks (and road) come to an end. Follow the trail straight up into the woods for 5 minutes before reaching another set of train tracks. From here, start your final walk. You’ve got another 10 km until you’re in Aguas Calientes, but at least it’s flat!
If Aguas Calientes is your final destination, simply walk straight. About 8 km in, there will be a train stop on the right hand side with a small sign reading “Machu Picchu Pueblo.” If it’s getting dark, or you are sick of walking on the train tracks, this road will take you right into town. If you like the tracks, feel free to keep walking straight to your destination.
Aguas Calientes is a very small, tourist-driven city. Normally I wouldn’t like this, but I actually enjoyed Aguas. Maybe I was just drained from walking, but any real food and bed sounded amazing. Pizza had been on my mind for days – so naturally, I ate an entire pizza.
However, if you have no interest in visiting Aguas Calientes, then don’t bother going that far. All along the tracks you will find bacan (cool) little campsites and home-restaurants. Pick one close to town (the closer the better for Machu Picchu), and call it a night. If you plan to do this, then it is best to purchase your tickets beforehand in Cusco; otherwise you will need to go to Aguas Calientes to purchase them anyway.
Day Five: Machu Picchu!
Set your alarm for 4 am, and be out the door by 5 am at the latest. There are buses for $8-$15 USD, but as we’ve discussed, we are cheap – so we opted to walk. For approximately 3 km (2 miles), you will ascend towards Machu Picchu. It was very humid this morning, and the most we sweat the entire trip.
There are three options for passes to get into Machu Picchu (see prices below):
- Machupicchu Llaqta: This is simply entrance to the park. You will be able to enter the city, get a guide in Spanish or English (optional – around $10 per person), pet the llamas, see the old Incan Bridge and climb the Sungate Pass. You will also be able to get your famous Machu Picchu pictures, so if that is what you are here for, then this is your best option.
- Machupicchu Llaqta & WaynaPicchu: For $/.50 soles more ($15 USD) – you can enter the city, as well as climb the smaller, neighboring mountain of Waynapicchu. This mountain is far more popular as it is easier and has ruins at the top. Unfortunately, if you’d like to climb Waynapicchu, you need to book this months in advance.
- Machupicchu Llaqta & Montana Machupicchu: For the same $/.50 soles more ($15 USD), you will have access to climb Montana Macchupicchu, as well as entering the city. Montana Macchupicchu is the largest neighboring mountain towering over the city, and provides great views along the way, especially at the top. There are two climbing times to choose between: 7:00-8:00 am & 9:00-10:00 am. You must choose one of these and show up at the appropriate time because the mountain closes at noon. We were able to purchase these tickets the day before entering.
Montana Machupicchu it is! We arrived at the gates at 6:30 am, 30 minutes shy of our 7:00 am start time. We got first in line, and once the doors opened, we took off. The approximate “2 hours up” took our group 45 minutes, as we relaxed at the top by our lonesomes for a peaceful 30 minutes. By the time all of the groups arrived in their jeans and sweaty button-up shirts, the clouds had overtaken the city. If you’re doing this route, I recommend getting there as early as possible.
Day 5 is probably the lightest day of hiking you will have, as you won’t be carrying your casa on your back, but it is still no joke. If you walk to/from the city, and climb some of the mountains, you can still easily end up walking another 12-15 km (8-10 miles). However, it is entirely worth it, and it is a very rewarding feeling when you finally arrive.
I recommend staying in Aguas Calientes another night to relax. Otherwise, you will be rushing your experience in and have a long, 7-hour bus ride back in the afternoon. In order to return to Cusco, you will need to walk the 10 km alongside the train tracks back to Hidroelectrica. From here, you can negotiate with many collectivos to bring you back to Cusco. They will start negotiating at $/.40 soles ($12 USD) per person, but don’t pay anything more than $/.30 soles ($9 USD). Lukas even got down to $/.25 soles, but he is stubborn as shit.
- Acclimatize: Cusco, and more specifically this trek, are both very high in altitude. Stay at least 3-4 days in Cusco to acclimatize before departing on your journey.
- Banco de la Nacion: You will want to have some cash on-hand, especially for your arrival in Aguas Calientes on day 4 (where the ATM fees are much higher). The Banco de la Nacion near Plaza de Armas in Cusco does not charge an ATM fee. There is a maximum limit of $/.400 soles ($121 USD) per transaction, but this is much more than you will need to bring.
- Bring Change: There will be a few random bridge tolls that you have to pay along the way. “You have to pay the troll toll to get in.” Most tolls will be $/.2 or $.3 soles ($1 USD)
- Coca leaves: This trek gets to a very high altitude, with Abra Salkantay being about 15,213 feet (4,638 meters). Stop in the San Pedro market in Cusco and pick up a bag of coca leaves for $/1 sole. This bag will be enough for 2-3 people through the trip. Chew on these a few times per day, or add them to your tea, but do not swallow them. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It is also very beneficial for overcoming altitude sickness.
- (No) Hostelworld: Upon your arrival in Aguas Calientes, do not book a hostel on Hostelworld. When searching beforehand, I couldn’t find anything under $/.50 soles. Simply walk into town and find a hospedajae. They are all over the place, and the going rate is $/.20 soles ($6 USD) per person, per night. Plus you can get a 2 or 3-bed room, as opposed to a dorm.
- Maps.me: Make sure you have Maps.me or a similar application before you go. If you download the Peru map while you are in Wifi, you will be able to follow yourself on the trail through the entirety of the trip. This makes it almost impossible to get lost!
- Waynapicchu: If Waynapicchu is an absolute must for you, then you will need to book this months in advance. We were unaware of this, but we were able to get the tickets for Montana Machupicchu just the day before in Aguas Calientes.
- Entrance Tickets: There are a few ways to book your tickets to Machu Picchu:
- Book online at the website here, but note that the website is extremely slow.
- Purchase them in person in Cusco at the “Ministerio de Cultura” near Plaza de Armas, which can be found on Maps.me. You can pay with a credit card here as well.
- Purchase them in person at the “Machu Picchu Cultural Centre” (Direccion Regional de Cultura Aguas Calientes Office in Aguas Calientes. Only cash is accepted here.
- More detailed information on purchasing tickets can be found on one of my favorite travel blogs, Thrifty Nomads, by clicking here.
- Guides: If you still do not feel comfortable trekking here without a guide, then there is no shame in that. Completing the trek is completing the trek. There is no better or worse way to do this; there are just cheaper or more expensive ways. However, if you decide to trek with a guide, do not book far in advance. If you book with agencies in advance (online), they will charge you upwards of $600-$700 per person. By going into the town and spending a few hours negotiating with local companies, it is possible to get the same treatment for around $200-$300. Be smart with your money!
- Inca Trail: If you have more interest in the Inca Trail, please check out my good friend Kelly’s blog here to see her 4D/3N trip to Machu Picchu!
On an unrelated note – while walking home from dinner in Aguas Calientes two days later, we found Chico wandering the streets with a new dog friend, happy and healthy. To see the most adorable video of Chico playing with another dog along the way, check out the video here! Keep an eye out at :30 seconds, when they hear us talking about them.
I want to say thank you and congratulations to our wonderful, diverse, impromptu group: Serg, Marlies, Lukas, Susa, Jeremie, Rafael, and Jimmy. This trip was an absolute blast, and I can’t imagine having done it without any of you.
If there is anything that I haven’t answered, any parts of this post that are unclear, something you feel could be corrected, or any questions you may have – always feel free to contact me. My goal is to keep this as updated as possible, and if you are interested in completing this trek, I am more than happy to help your planning!