With places on the Inca Trail selling out months in advance, only the most organised backpackers and tourists manage to get a place on the much-coveted trek. If you don’t get a place on the Inca Trail don’t worry, there are plenty of alternative treks which end at Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay trek took us off the beaten track and away from the crowds. It spans around 50 miles across the Peruvian mountains, over 5 days and 4 nights. It is undoubtedly more intense than the Inca Trail and takes in much more of the surrounding region, making it, in my opinion, the best alternative route to Machu Picchu.
It is also more affordable
The streets of Cusco are awash with operators selling places on the Salkantay trek. We made our reservation online through a reputable company about a month before we arrived in Cusco and paid US$267 for everything.
There were around 14 people on our trek and it seemed that everyone had booked through different operators and paid different prices. Paying more didn’t actually give you a different experience from people who had paid less, so as long as you book through a reputable operator, there is no sense in paying more for the same trek.
Whoever you book with, you will have to sign a disclaimer
The evening before the trek started, we all huddled in the foyer of a hostel to be briefed on the trek and what we would need for the following day. None of us knew what to expect as our guide for the next 5 days introduced himself. He called himself K.G., and although he looked very young, he would have the lives of 14 tourists in his hands over the next five days.
He handed out a waiver form to sign. It stated that if we were injured or killed on the trek, our travel company wouldn’t be liable for any damages. Not exactly an encouraging start. Although the trek went across the mountainous and potentially dangerous terrain, thanks to K.G. and our inspirational team of 8 porters, I never felt uncomfortable or that the situation could become dangerous.
I would recommend spending a few days in Cusco at altitude before attempting the trek. There were a couple of people in our party who didn’t and the altitude sickness and lightheadedness affected their enjoyment of the first day of walking.
Every single moment of the trek, we were surrounded by staggering views
We set off from Mollepata on the first day at an altitude of 3,360 meters above sea level and within 20 minutes of walking time, we were already surrounded by stunning scenery.
From that moment on, until we arrived at Machu Picchu and the town of Aguas Calientes, every single view we saw were overwhelming and could easily have been on a postcard.
The walking is intense, but the food on offer will keep you going.
I did some internet reading before booking the trek and read about how intense the walking was. I was sceptical. I am in my early twenties regularly go to the gym, I wondered how hard could it be?
Of course, my complacency was totally unfounded. On the third day, we walked for 11 hours and covered around 15 miles. Although I was in good shape, my body was not accustomed to exercising for such a prolonged period and, needless to say, when we arrived at camp I was reduced to a broken heap on the floor. You can go at your own pace and I never felt like I was being rushed, but you really do need a basic level of fitness to undertake the Salkantay trek. Our group lost two tourists to exhaustion and they were taken down to get a bus to Aguas Calientes, our end destination.
Although the walking is hard, the food is nothing short of uplifting. I wrongly assumed, because the food was included in the price of the trek, that this would be where the operators cut corners and spared the expense. But the food was perfect after a long days hiking.
There were plenty of carbohydrates like rice and potatoes and the meat came in rich, flavoursome sauces (although I would have wolfed down anything after 11 hours of hiking). I frequently found myself looking forward to the evening meal while hiking in the day because of how delicious and filling I found them.
What to pack?
One of the hardest things about the trek was deciding what to pack beforehand. At the briefing, we had been told to pack all the obvious, like warm clothes, sunscreen and sleeping bags. But you are limited to 5kg of baggage which can be transported on the mules each day, including your sleeping bag, everything else needed to be packed in your day bag. As a result, there were some hard decisions to be made when choosing what to pack.
Some essentials which nobody mentioned, but I could not have done without:
Bugspray- On the last day, as you approach Aguas Calients, you head down out of the mountains and enter some jungle. The bug spray came in incredibly handy, especially if you are like me and mosquitos love you.
Chapstick & Moisturizer- Because of the altitude, the air is incredibly dry and really dried my lips and face out.
Swimming shorts or costume- On day three you have the opportunity to visit some hot springs and there are also some springs in Aguas Calientes. I found it a great way to unwind and nurse aching limbs after the long hike.
A headtorch- It may not be the best fashion statement, but it made getting around camp at night much more doable.