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For decades, Machu Picchu has been on almost every traveler’s bucket list. After visiting a couple of weeks ago, it is no surprise to me why this ancient Incan civilization has sparked travelers’ interest from all over the world and was even voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. However, what many people neglect to notice is the vast array of natural beauty surrounding Machu Picchu. That’s why I would argue that the best way to see Machu Picchu is by taking a multi-day trek there. While most opt for the Inca Trail, this overcrowded trail isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for the best alternative trek to Machu Picchu, opt for the Salkantay Trek with Alpaca Expeditions.
Machu Picchu Treks
There are several different trails you can take to Machu Picchu. The most famous is the Inca Trail, which takes you along the same trail the Incans built and traveled on in the 15th century. While this sounds really cool, the Inca Trail has become overcrowded and is heavily stair-based, which is a nightmare for anyone who has ever had knee problems. If you are looking for a less congested trek with natural sloping paths and some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world (and I’m saying this after having hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro and seen the breathtaking views there), then the Salkantay Trek is the best alternative trek to Machu Picchu for you.
How to Hike Salkantay
The Salkantay Trek does require a decent level of physical fitness, as you’ll be racking up 70 km (43 miles) at altitudes between 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) to 4,630 meters (15,190 feet) and putting your body through extreme temperatures in a matter of days. While it can be done on your own (heck, people hike Mt. Kilimanjaro on their own), I would not recommend it for first timers as it can be easy to underestimate the terrain and weather, and it can be easy to get off trail at certain parts of the hike.
Hike Salkantay With Alpaca Expeditions
Many tour companies in the area offer guided treks of the Salkantay Trail, but my favorite is Alpaca Expeditions. Not only has it been rated the #1 tour company on TripAdvisor for the last six years, but more importantly, it treats its employees ethically and gives back to the local community. All porters with Alpaca Expeditions are hired from local Quechua communities in the area and provided with all the food and equipment they need to do their job, including hiking boots, jackets, tents, blankets, etc. Their transportation to and from the start of the hike are covered, as well as entrance fees to all the sites, and once a year all porters and their families are invited to visit Machu Picchu for free so that they can feel more connected to their own history. Alpaca Expeditions also gives back to local schools and is involved in local environmental efforts, such as planting new trees for villages. You can read more about Alpaca Expedition’s humanitarian efforts here.
6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek
Alpaca Expeditions offers several different options to trek Salkantay, but we went with the 6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek, which is about as close as a multi-day hiking trip gets to glamping. Our guide, porters, horsemen, and chef took care of all our food and accommodation needs, so all we had to do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other and make our way through the trail. We had two nights of camping out in tents, and the rest of the time we slept in glampsites – some specially built by Alpaca Expeditions – along the way. One of my biggest challenges with hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro last year was not being able to sleep well at night because of the cold and altitude, and I certainly did not have that problem with the Salkantay Trek. Here is exactly what you can expect on the 6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek with Alpaca Expeditions.
Day 1: Cusco to Killarumiyoc to Tarawasi to Soraypampa to Humantay Glacier Lagoon
After a short briefing and duffel bag pickup the night before, we started our first day with an early 5am pickup from our hotel in Cusco and drove for a little over an hour to an Incan religious and ceremonial site called Killarumiyoc. The grounds were beautiful and left largely untouched from when the Spaniards arrived hundreds of years ago. Some Incan ruins remain, and our guide, Erick, took some time to explain the significance of the stones and structures and how they related to Incan history. There was a thin layer of fog covering the site when we arrived, and Hope commented that the landscape reminded her of the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
While we were touring the grounds, our chef and porters were quietly setting up a little picnic breakfast for us near the main building, which we were able to enjoy before moving on to our next site, Tarawasi.
Tarawasi is another Incan ceremonial site, but it was also used as a resting place for chasquis, or Incan runners who delivered messages over long distances. Erick shared more about Incan history and culture with us here and gave us some time to take in the beautiful countryside views.
Finally, we were en route to our campsite at Soraypampa for our first night. Our chef cooked us a delicious lunch that fueled us up before our first hike of the trip, a two hour uphill climb to Humantay Glacier Lagoon, also known as the Blue Lagoon (not to be confused with the Blue Lagoon in Iceland… unless you like to bathe in ice cold waters!).
The first part of the hike was relatively flat, but once we reached the base of the mountain, it was a steady steep climb from there. I got a little over ambitious on this hike and went at a faster pace than what my body was comfortable with, which was a sobering reminder to go more slowly the next few days. After a couple of hours, we reached Humantay Lagoon, which was located at almost 14,000 feet. Climbing up the steep mountain would not have been an easy task at sea level let alone at nearly 14,000ft, but in the end we all made it, and the views were very well worth it.
If you’ve still got any fight left in you by the time you reach the lagoon, there are a couple of spots where you can climb even higher up and glimpse even more breathtaking views of the lagoon. The ridge at the top is narrow, and the wind is strong, so make sure you take extra care taking photos up there. Your life is never worth sacrificing for a good photo.
The hike back down felt like a piece of cake compared to the climb up, and we all felt a little better, both physically and mentally, once we reached the bottom of the mountain.
We got back to our campsite at Soraypampa just after sunset and had some time to rest and wash up before dinner. Our cabins looked brand new and made for a comfortable night’s sleep after some stargazing through the glass roofs above our beds. There were also three wild alpacas that hung around our campsite the entire day and night, and we had a blast trying to play with them, although they did not appear to be as amused with us as we were with them.
Day 2: Soraypampa to Salkantay Pass to Wayracmachay
The second day of our trek started with another early wake up call, but this time we were greeted with mugs of coca tea and hot water basins, towels, and soap to wash up before breakfast. This would become a daily ritual for the remaining four days of our trek before we arrived at our hotel in Aguas Calientes on the fifth day.
After filling up with a big breakfast and taking 30 minutes to rest and digest, we headed out on our longest and hardest day of the trek. We started out on the same route we took to get to Humantay Glacier the day before but diverged from the main route and made a gradual uphill trek to our lunch spot. The views we saw along the way were simply stunning, as you can see below.
While filling up on a delicious lunch, it started to rain, so we had to start the last leg of our journey to Salkantay Pass in the rain, which quickly turned to sleet and snow. We donned our handy bright green rain ponchos that we received from Alpaca Expeditions at our pre-hike briefing and set off toward the highest point of our trek. About 45 minutes later, we arrived at Salkantay Pass, which is situated at 4,630 meters (15,190 feet), the highest elevation we would reach on our 6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek. Even though Salkantay Pass was as high as we would go on this trip, it is possible for the truly adventurous and fit to hike up to the top of Salkantay Mountain, which stands at a towering 6,264 meters (20,551 feet).
Typically, this is where we would have the option of hiking about 500 feet down to Salkantay Lagoon. However, with our dreary weather conditions, it would have been a waste of time because we wouldn’t have been able to see anything. As such, we skipped the additional hike and started heading toward to our campsite for the night.
The hike down was pretty easy, but the rain made for some pretty large mudslides that we had to navigate along the way. We were also sharing the trail with a lot of horsemen and their mules, too.
Our second night on the trek was one of only two nights when we would have to camp out in a tent, so it was important that we found some dry ground on which to set up camp. While the month of May is typically considered “dry season” in Peru, and groups typically camp out on night two at Rayanpata, located at 3,350 meters (10,990 feet), we had to set up camp higher up at Wayracmachay, located at 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) because the lower campsites had experienced some flooding. I was sad to learn from Erick, our guide, that global warming has very negatively affected the Andes Mountains (and the entire world, but it seems to have affected the Andes in an even bigger way), and we saw evidence of this throughout our hike. We experienced heavy rains almost every night, and later on in the hike we were forced to take the car road instead of the trail because parts of the trail had been blocked off by flooding and landslides and were no longer safe to hike.
Even though our campsite on our second night was the coldest campsite we would have on the trek, we didn’t even have a chance to worry about the cold before we were given hot water bladders to put inside our sleeping bags. We were also given wool blankets in addition to our already very warm sleeping bags and liners to keep us warm. I slept through the whole night and woke up the next morning sweating!
Day 3: Wayracmachay to Loreta Hobbit Houses
We had finally made it out of the cold, and starting on the third day, we would be hiking in much warmer temperatures as we entered into the Amazon jungle. Day three would be a pretty short and easy day, so we had some extra time in the morning before we left camp to formally meet each member of our wonderful staff, including our chef, porters, and horsemen.
After leaving camp, we quickly entered into the cloud forest, where we began to see many different types of flora and fauna, as well as Andean birds that we had never seen before.
We were rewarded with lush, green views the whole way down, as we wound through the jungle, crossed waterfalls, and gawked at the landscape.
Erick pointed out a few places where global warming had negatively affected the trails, and we got to experience some of these first hand. The increased levels of rain have caused parts of the trail to flood over, forcing trekkers to come up with creative ways to traverse the path, such as by climbing over these rocks on the side of the mountain.
A few hours and over 3,000 feet later, we reached our lunch spot at Colpapampa, where a family lived and operated a small store. Even though I stopped drinking soda over 10 years ago, I had heard rave reviews of Peru’s Inka Cola, so I thought I’d give it a try here while supporting the local family. Surprisingly, the cola tasted like bubblegum, and it was pretty good – although not quite good enough to get me to start drinking soda again.
After lunch, we only had a short downhill hike remaining before reaching our campsite at Loreta for the night. I’ve stayed in quite a variety of campsites and glampsites, from tents on Mt. Kilimanjaro to luxury desert cabanas in the Sahara, but I’ve never stayed in a campsite quite like the Hobbit Houses we stayed in on night three of our hike.
Before we reached our campsite, however, we would have to take a gondola across a waterfall. Whatever image of a gondola you have in your mind right now, erase that and watch the video below.
Once all of us managed to cross the waterfall on the gondola, we were just a few steps away from our Hobbit Houses campsite. Just outside the campsite was a convenience store that sold all the basics, such as toilet paper, beer, and even fresh smoothies. We stocked up on a few beers from the store and rewarded ourselves with a nice, relaxing soak in the jacuzzi (yes, there was a jacuzzi and shower on the property) before dinner.
Each of the Hobbit Houses had a private bathroom inside, and there were two showers outside near the jacuzzi. If you love the outdoors but need a roof over your head at night, the 6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek is perfect for you because you get the best of both worlds: beautiful hiking during the day and comfortable glampsites at night. Adjacent to the property sat a river with a steady flow of water that created a very soothing sound to fall asleep to. Needless to say, we all slept very well that night.
Day 4: Loreta Hobbit Houses to Llactapata
Our chef, Messias, has never ceased to amaze us with his delicious cooking, but the next morning when we arrived at breakfast, we saw that Messias had really outdone himself. We were greeted with this beautiful fruit display that I would’ve had a hard time making with a full kitchen at home, let alone with a makeshift kitchen in the middle of a jungle.
After demolishing our beautiful fruit bird, we set off on our fourth day of hiking. This would be our shortest day but also our most interesting day, as we would get to visit an organic coffee farm and try our hand at making coffee. A short hike through town, over a river, and up a portion of the Inca Trail, and we had arrived at Paulina’s organic coffee farm.
The first step to making coffee was plucking the ripe coffee bean fruits off the tree. We were instructed to be careful not to pull the stem off because then the fruits wouldn’t be able to grow anymore. As hard as we tried, we still ended up with lots of stems in our basket, so I had the unfortunate feeling that we may have been doing more harm than good.
Once the fruits were picked, it was time to put them through the shucking machine to separate the outer shell from the inner bean. The red outer shells were then discarded, while the beans were collected and put into a pot on the stove to start roasting.
The roasting process was delicate and required frequent stirring and maintenance of the temperature to make sure the beans roasted without burning. We let Paulina do most of the work on this step to make sure we didn’t burn the beans.
Once the beans were roasted, it was time to put them through the grinder to make our grounds. This little machine required more strength to operate than you would think. You can see Hope flexing her arms to get the grinder going below.
Finally, it was time to drink our coffee, and boy did it taste fresh! Paulina and her family also served us avocados and cassava with our coffee, as well as coffee liqueur. The avocados in the region were much larger than avocados back home, and locals eat it dipped in salt, which was delicious. The cassava snacks were cubed and lightly fried, and I could’ve sworn they were laced with something because I could not stop eating them! After our snacks, we were given the opportunity to buy packaged bags of the coffee beans or ground coffee to take home to our families. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to give back for all the hospitality Paulina and her family had shown us that day and brought a couple of bags home.
Just as I was starting to feel full from the avocados and cassava, Erick announced that lunch would be ready soon. Despite already feeling pretty full, I could not resist Messias’ cooking and ended up eating way too much at Paulina’s coffee farm. Luckily we had a longer break to digest before setting off on the trail again and getting back to these gorgeous views.
On the way to our campsite for the night, we made a couple of more stops. The first was at a little shop with a swing set that looked out over the mountains. Of course, we had to get a photo (or two or a hundred) here and bought a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice from the shop owner before continuing on our way.
The second stop we made was at an important Incan site facing Machu Picchu. From here, we had our very first glimpse of Machu Picchu from afar, but we were promised much better views from our campsite at Llactapata, about a 20 minute hike away.
The sun was just starting to set as we arrived at our campsite at Llactapata. While not the most glamorous campsite, Llactapata did offer the most beautiful views, as we got to not only see Machu Picchu from afar but also look down into the valley from the edge of the mountain. We also got to fall asleep to the sound of horses galloping right outside our tents, which was a unique and memorable experience.
Day 5: Llactapata to Aguas Calientes
On a clear day, the sunrise over Llactapata is simply gorgeous. Unfortunately, we were not blessed with clear weather, but that didn’t take away from the serenity that the quiet, cool morning offered.
When we arrived at breakfast that morning, we were once again surprised by our chef, Messias, who had spent all night baking us a cake! How one bakes a cake at altitude in the middle of the mountain, I have no idea, but Messias managed it and managed to do an excellent job of it.
After breakfast, we set off toward the Hydroelectric Station, which contains a 300-meter high waterfall that generates electricity for the entire region of Cusco. This would be the last downhill stretch we’d have to hike before crossing a suspension bridge and arriving at the railroad tracks. From there, we would continue along a mostly flat trail until reaching Machu Picchu town, more commonly referred to as Aguas Calientes.
Since the hike to the Hydroelectric Station wasn’t extremely grueling and didn’t take very long, we opted for our chef to prepare boxed lunches for us that we could eat later on along the way. A while into our hike along the railroad tracks, we got hungry and found a nice little garden cabana to sit and eat our boxed lunches.
The railroad tracks were functional, so we had to be careful to not walk on the tracks when the trains were coming in. Luckily, the train didn’t come in very frequently, and when they did, the noise the made was so loud you could hear it from far in the distance.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the early afternoon and had all afternoon to explore the town before dinner. Aguas Calientes was built solely for the purpose of giving tourists visiting Machu Picchu a base to start from or end in so that they didn’t have to travel all the way from Cusco and back in one day. As such, there isn’t much to explore in Aguas Calientes. The town is packed with restaurants, bars, massage parlors, shops, and any other commercial service that tourists might demand, but that’s about it. It is, however, beautiful, as it is set in the mountains.
We walked around the main plaza and the market and saw as much as there was to see before deciding to settle down at Mapacho Craft Beer & Peruvian Cuisine, a craft beer hall on the water. After so many days of hiking, we decided it was only appropriate to reward ourselves with some beers and, of course, pisco. Despite having dinner scheduled in only a few short hours, we couldn’t resist ordering several orders of the fries with their house sauce, which was delicious and highly addicting. That night, we got to sleep in hotel rooms and take warm showers, which felt luxurious after spending the last five days trekking through the wilderness.
Day 6: Machu Picchu
One big difference between the Salkantay Trail and the traditional Inca Trail is that on the Salkantay Trail, we hike into Aguas Calientes, spend the night, and take the bus to Machu Picchu the next morning. On the Inca Trail, trekkers wake up at 3am to start hiking toward the Sun Gate, which leads directly into Machu Picchu. I definitely had no complaints about getting a good night’s sleep in a hotel room and bussing up to Machu Picchu at 7am rather than having to wake up at 3am to continue trekking.
After waiting in line for about 30 minutes, we were on our bus to Machu Picchu. The crowds were no joke, and this is after cutting down entrance tickets and requiring visitors to purchase them far in advance.
One important thing to note is that there are no bathrooms inside Machu Picchu, and because there are so many people, it’s pretty difficult to find a place inside to use the “Incan toilet.” Even if you don’t feel like you have to go, I would recommend paying the two soles to use the bathroom before you go in so that your time inside isn’t cut short by bathroom needs. Near the bathrooms, there is also a place where you can stamp your own passport with a Machu Picchu stamp. I felt pretty strange stamping my own passport, but rest assured it’s perfectly legal and fine!
Once we entered Machu Picchu, Erick first took us to a spot to get our iconic Machu Picchu photos before taking us to a more secluded spot to give us a history lesson on Machu Picchu.
I was really glad Erick stuck with us the entire time in Machu Picchu rather than setting us loose after giving us a brief history of the civilization because there were no signs around Machu Picchu, so we would have had no idea what we were looking at without Erick’s explanations. Erick first brought us through the main entrance into Machu Picchu and then gave us a tour around the ancient civilization, showing us how to identify where the royalty lived, where the lower class lived, and where sacrifices were made and rituals were conducted.
We spent around three hours inside, and I felt like that was a good amount of time. After our tour, we returned to Aguas Calientes for lunch and caught the afternoon train back to Cusco.
Our 6D/5N Ultimate Salkantay Trek with Alpaca Expeditions was a memory of a lifetime, and I could not imagine having done it with anyone other than the team from Alpaca Expeditions. If you’re looking for the best alternative trek to Machu Picchu, look no further than the Salkantay Trek, and book with Alpaca Expeditions through the link below today!
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A big thank you to Alpaca Expeditions for making our trek possible. As always, all opinions are 100% our own.