INDEPENDENT HIKING GUIDE
Located northwest of Cusco, the Salkantay trek offers spectacular mountain views, dazzling turquoise lagunas, and a trail taking visitors to one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. Since the famous Machu Picchu is the prize for completing this trek, it also comes with the largest crowds. It will take four to five days to complete this 55-mile hike. It is quite possible to do this trek without a guide. The availability of public transportation, lack of permit requirements, and easy-to-follow trails make this a great hike for moderate to advanced hikers to do independently. Even though this is the most trafficked trail in this guide, do not be fooled into thinking this is without a challenge. With the highest point reaching 15,279 ft, there is a severe amount of uphill and downhill to climb.
5 Days, 4 Nights
Total Distance: 65 Miles
Minimum Elevation: 6,790 ft
Maximum Elevation: 15,279 ft
Hiking independently is the best way to trek. More freedom and flexibility for less money.
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The Salkantay trek starts at a town called Mollepata and ends at Machu Picchu outside of Aguas Calientes. To get to Mollepata, there is a bus from Cusco that takes 2.5 hours and costs 15 soles per person (~$4.50). Unfortunately, there is no marked bus terminal where you will find this bus. No signs will indicate that you are in the right spot. The bus stop looks like a driveway next to a couple of restaurants and the bus is more like a large passenger van than a coach. The bus leaves approximately every hour starting very early but typically waits until it is full before departing.
Mollepata is a tiny village with a few convenience stores and some relatively expensive places to stay (around $50 per room). After stopping at a control point to pay the ten soles entrance fee, the bus drops you off in the main square of the town. You can start the trek there, or you have the option to hire a taxi for about 80-100 soles to take you up to Soryapampa. The reason I recommend hiking this section of the trail is so you gradually gain the 3,600 feet of elevation throughout a day’s hike instead of doing so quickly in a taxi ride. This will help mitigate altitude sickness risk. The trail is pretty challenging with a lot of elevation gain, so it might be better for some to save their energy for the remaining parts of the hike that also offer more impressive views.
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Day 0: Afternoon travel from Cusco to Mollepata. Stay in Mollepata.
There are two options for getting to Mollepata to start the trek. You can travel to Mollepata in the afternoon on Day 0 before you begin the trek and stay overnight, or you can take the first bus in between 04:00 and 05:00 on Day 1 to get you to Mollepata by about 07:30, early enough to start the trek. Waking up that early was not attractive to me, so we took an afternoon bus and stayed in a Mollepata hotel overnight.
Day 1: Mollepata to Soryapampa with Laguna Humantay
Starting from the village center in Mollepata, you will begin the first couple miles along the village road that climbs up to the mountains. Blue trail signs effectively show the way. Of all my hiking days in Peru, the section from Mollepata to the Mirador Chinchikuma was certainly the muddiest. It is clear that you are sharing a path with local horses and cows. By lunch, you will arrive at the Mirador Chinchikuma which reveals the first snowcapped peak of Mt. Tukarway.
Another 3.5 hours of hiking brings you to the village of Soryapampa. Set up camp in one of the paid shelters (10 soles per tent) before grabbing your day pack and heading up the trail to Laguna Humantay. It takes about an hour to climb the exhausting 1,000 feet up to the Laguna Humantay, but it is worth it. This gorgeous turquoise lake is a popular tourist destination since it can be visited as a day hike from Cusco. An advantage of arriving at the lake at the end of the day was avoiding these tourists.
Laguna Humantay: 13,976 feet
The descent back to Soryapampa will be a welcome change after a full day of uphill grinding. Enjoy a good night’s sleep before Day 2 brings another day with serious uphill, with even better views than Day 1.
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Day 2: Soryapampa to Chaullay via Salkantay Pass
This is another challenging day with a lot of time on your feet and climbing up some severe elevation to reach one of the highlights of the trek, the Salkantay Pass. Most of the tour groups start this hike before the sun rises, and in hindsight, I recommend doing the same.
After sixty to ninety minutes of hiking, you will reach the tiny village of Salkantaypampa. After a nice break at the top of these switchbacks, there is still a significant final push up to the summit of the Salkantay Pass that will test your endurance and lower body strength.
Abra Salkantay: 15,279 feet
Make sure to effectively pace out your time because after the pass there is still another six hours to get to Chaullay. The good news is that the trail is all downhill until you reach Chaullay. If you end up like us and only making it as far as Wayramachay on Day 2, you will be just fine. However, in order to make it to the beautiful Llactapacta Lodge by the end of the next day as I recommend, you need to make it to Chaullay on Day 2. Wayramachay is a beautiful place to camp with shelters to cook in and bathrooms you could pay to use. Chaullay offers more luxurious lodging options, a few places to eat, and even had a place where you can get a massage.
Chaullay: 9,508 feet
Day 3: Chaullay to Llactapata Lodge
The scenery on Day 3 is strikingly different than Day 2. At this lower elevation, snowcapped peaks get exchanged for lush forest, and high alpine cold air gets traded for more tropical conditions. There are two choices when you arrive at the river crossing just after Collpapampa. You can continue hiking along the road all the way to Sawayaco, or you can cross the river and hike on the nice forest trail that traces along the river. Depending on the time of year, mudslides can cause this section of the trail to close, forcing you to stay on the road. The road route will certainly be faster, but hiking on real dirt through some lovely forest is what I recommend.
Winaypocco: 8,012 feet
At Sawayaco, there is another fork giving you two different route options. The road heading northeast straight to Santa Teresa is one option, or you can take the more eastern route up to Llactapata Lodge. Going the Llactapata route is certainly tougher with 1,700 feet of elevation gain over 5.1 miles taking about 3-4 hours. The peak at Llactapata Lodge offers beautiful views where you can see the Machu Picchu ruins in the distance while relaxing over a freshly cooked meal. If you only make it to Sawayaco on Day 3, you can still take the Llactapata route on Day 4. It just means not getting to stay at the lodge without adding on another day to the trek.
Llactapata Lodge: 8,478 feet
Day 4: Llactapata Lodge to Aguas Calientes
Day 4 is the last day of hiking before reaching Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. After three strenuous days of hiking, Day 4 is the shortest and easiest of the trek with limited elevation gain. The hike begins with a steep descent through the jungle from Llactapata Lodge to Hidroeléctrica followed by a walk along the railroad that connects Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes. From Hidroeléctrica there is an option to take the thirty-minute train to Aguas Calientes for 80 soles (~$25) each way. Or there is the scenic two to three-hour hike along the train tracks that weave along the Rio Urubamba to Aguas Calientes. Technically, walking along the tracks is not allowed, but everyone ignores this mandate.
Hidroeléctrica: 5,893 feet
Once you arrive at Hidroeléctrica, you will be surrounded by all sorts of tourists traveling to Machu Picchu who clearly didn’t reach the Salkantay Pass. The town of Aguas Calientes is a tourist town cluttered with restaurants, hostels, and overpriced souvenir markets. Save your souvenir shopping for Cusco; you will find the same stuff for lower prices. It is still fun to walk through the endless maze of vendors' stalls offering everything you can think of with a llama on it.
Aguas Calientes: 6,790 feet
Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Mountain, Travel to Cusco via Hidroeléctrica or Stay in Aguas Calientes.
Depending on what time slot you are granted to enter Machu Picchu, plan on leaving Aguas Calientes at least an hour before to reach Machu Picchu. To start the hike up to Machu Picchu, find the control station fifteen minutes outside of Aguas Calientes. From the control station, you’ll hike 45-60 minutes up to the Machu Picchu entrance. We bought tickets both to enter the ruins as well as to climb to the summit of Machu Picchu mountain. It takes an hour to hike up to the summit from the central area of the ruins.
Montaña Machu Picchu: 10,040 feet
Once you’ve sufficiently taken in this wonder of the world, descend back down to Aguas Calientes either by hiking down the same trail or taking the bus. If you have time to extend your trip by a day, stay in Aguas Calientes for another night to avoid rushing your visit to this all-time bucket list destination. But if you need to get to Cusco in a hurry, you certainly would have time to get back either by taking the train out of Cusco or the bus out of Hidroeléctrica the same day.
Optional Day 6: Travel to Santa Teresa’s Hot Springs Before Returning to Cusco.
If you have time to extend the Salkantay Trek by a day, I highly recommend a stop in nearby Santa Teresa for a soak in the natural hot springs. Leave Aguas Calientes for Hidroeléctrica where you can hire a taxi to take you to the Santa Teresa hot springs for 40 soles. These delightful hot springs provide some needed muscle relaxation after completing a demanding hike.
Experience is the best teacher. Learn from someone who completed the Salkantay Trek without any guide or expensive tour company!
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