Hiking to Machu Picchu following Salkantay Trek, that is much less popular comparing to the famous Inca Trail, was one of the best travel decisions I had ever taken. It was also one of the most challenging, inspiring and spiritual experiences of my life.

I’m a big admirer of mountains, their unruly environment and unpredictable character. I’ve done plenty of hikes before in South Africa, New Zealand and the German Alps, but none of them stretched beyond one (very long) day. The length of the trek, however, was not the only thing that set this trip apart from my earlier hiking experiences. The way to Machu Picchu was not just an attempt to tame the wilderness, go beyond what you think is possible and merge with the untouched nature. The route, that was followed by the legendary Incas, is full of mystery that goes hand in hand with their fascinating history.

Why hike to Machu Picchu if you can take a bus?

One thing I can say for certain – if you can find time, if your feet still walk, don’t take buses and trains, but hike to reach Machu Picchu. I believe that the Incas and their affinity to the natural world, as well as the real majesty of the famous Lost City can only be felt and understood if you reach it the way it was reached by its builders. By the end of your trip you might never question the existence of shamanic forces.

Difference between Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek

The most famous way to reach Machu Picchu on foot is Inca Trail, that is also named among the best hikes in the world. It is considered to be the official route that was taken by the Incas, and it follows the remains of the original Inca steps (stairs), with plenty of ruins set with a backdrop of a gorgeous scenery.

Without denying the significance of this route, many region experts will disagree with naming it the one and the only way to reach Machu Pucchu, saying that there are infinite numbers of Inca Trails – they did not need paved roads to literally run across mountains. In his brilliant book Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, that I highly recommend if you are going to travel to Peru, Mark Adams talks about unknown number of undiscovered “lost cities”, that can surpass Machu Picchu in its size and majesty, and even a bigger number of ways to reach them.

There are indeed plenty of alternative routes to Machu Picchu that are accessible to the public, but till today most of them still belong to the roads less traveled.

The popular Inca Trail has however one massive drawback as a result of its popularity, and it was exactly what pushed us to look for alternatives. Daily, 500 tourists pass through it (that is why you need to book 3-4 months in advance), and with crowds and development there is little feeling of wilderness and tranquility left. Salkanty trek is often suggested for those who prefer less crowded spaces (we hiked in low season and we only met two more small groups on the way), and for the lovers of nature.

Peru, as a country, has 30 microclimates out of 32 known in the world. Salkantay trek is a great way to feel it – just in 4 short days we hiked through humid jungles, snowy peaks at 6000 m and dry plains. Comparing to the Inca trail, there were no ruins on the way, but there was plenty of wild and almighty nature.

4 Days on Salkantay Trek

When you arrive at Cusco, a starting point for hikes to Machu Picchu, your life gets into a different dimension. The city lies at the elevation of 3,399 m and the air is thin.

Cusco day before the hike

Not everybody adjusts to the lack of oxygen easily and constant headaches and dizziness are not uncommon. For most of the trips to explore the region you’ll need to wake up between 3 am and 4 am and get moving. Here I am, slightly anxious about what lies ahead of me in the very early morning on the first day, all geared up.

Our group consisted of 15 wonderful people – obviously set in a similar age group and fitness level. The first day hike is considered to be a “warm up”, so that you get a bit of time to get used to the air and the tempo.

There are still some absolutely spectacular views on the way:

Meet our guide – the best one we could wish for. A descendant of the Incas, besides his profound knowledge he also was full of passion and attachment to the region that you could feel in every tale told by him.

Our guide on the 3rd day of the hike

On a hike like this there are a few essentials you need to keep in mind to have the best experience possible. First, it is people. The right set of mind and the mood will be most important when it comes to difficult situations. Second, it is the correct equipment – the Incas, however, were able to run across Andes and reach its snowy peaks in simple sandals. The third is the ability to understand when is the right time to take rest, and when it is not.

First halt point

Just before the deserved rest on the first day the real training for the second (and the toughest) day began – a challenging hike to a mountain lake. It was the first time that many started feeling the lack of oxygen in the air and one couple couldn’t make it to the top and decided to turn around to the base camp.

But once we were there, watching glaciers and admiring turquoise water – all the pain was forgotten immediately:

When we went down, the base camp was already set for us, and the dinner served. On a Salkantay Trek your heaviest load is carried by the horses, and everything is set and prepared by a cook and a horse man, who move with incredible speed and arrive to the base camp much before the rest of the group.

Base camp on Salkantay Trek

Landscape on the second day of the hike started changing dramatically, showing a much tougher environment of the mountains. 

Some hikers find it challenging to continue walking this part of the trek because of altitude sickness and opt for the help from horses:

Horses are also our best helpers in carrying tents, food and other necessities for the group:

Just before the hardest part of the entire trek began we reached the last traces of civilization:

Locals are selling crafts to the tourists. Beautiful wool caps came just on time for many!

What happened after the hut is very badly documented on camera. We were travelling at the very end of the hiking season, and the nature was more unpredictable than ever. Storms and winds could come from nowhere, and they did with every step we were rising up to reach the view of the Salkantay peak. Soon rain became snow and icicles and we couldn’t feel any parts of our bodies anymore – because even what was covered became wet and numb.

Stormy weather at Salkantay

I kept proceeding up without a single thought in my mind, reaching the deepest point of “meditation”. In extreme situations most of the thoughts have zero help and meaning, and you just have to keep moving.

Here we are, at 6,271 m, at the highest point of our trail. Frozen, wet, numb, exhausted, but happy and proud. Taking a single picture was more than a challenge, but as you can guess, we had about 15 of them:

What we didn’t know at the top at that point was that there were still another 3 hours of descend for us, and we had to hurry up, as the water level was only rising.

Starting the descend

This was the honest point of dispair for me that luckily I could only ignore – there was no chance to share it with anyone, as everyone was too busy with the mission to make it to the next base camp as quick as possible. I cursed everything, questioned myself thousands times why on Earth would I do something like this to myself and that this is not the experience that should ever happen in my life again.

Using everything possible to hide from rain

But all the depressing thoughts and exhaustion disappeared in a second, when without noticing, naked wet stones and wild rivers turned into a lush green forest:

The switch of the environment came in an instant, as if we suddenly got teleported from one country to another. We were surrounded by a gorgeous jungle, full of exotic flowers and fruits. Soon, tiny gardens started popping up on the sides of the road.

The last day of the hike was pretty much it – forest, green hills and warm humid weather. The route was slightly altered as the original part of the trek was recently destroyed with land slides.

When preparing for the trip I read from many past travelers the complains about the food – but it was definitely not our case. We had a wonderful cook, who never served the same meals, and started our love affair with Peruvian food. Every day he used to increase the spiciness level of the dishes, of course, to our delight.

Last lunch on Salkantay

The traditional Salkantay Trek takes 5 days, but for the lack of time we opted for the shorter version of 4 days. The main difference of the two options, is that with 5 days you get enough time to rest (2 half-days) and to gather energy to enjoy the majesty of Machu Picchu. Instead of taking rest, on the third day we proceeded straight to Aguas Calientes (a base town located just below Machu Picchu) and ended up walking around 30 km that day.

The last part of the route is less spectacular as it simply follows the train trek – this is the train that is taken by tourists who don’t opt for a hike.

On the 4th day, after waking up at 4.30 am again and dragging our feet out of bed – we did it. We reached Machu Picchu, that greeted us with misty and mysterious shapes. But it is a completely different story.

Machu Picchu in the morning