I recently completed the 5 day/4 night Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu that I booked through Journey Machu Picchu. The trek was the week of May 23rd, and I was excited and terrified to go, but it was a beautiful adventure. I learned a lot about the way that I want to hike in the future, and doing something like this in a foreign country only adds to the cultural experience, so I highly recommend it.
This is long, but I broke it up into sections, so you should be able to skim through and find your areas of concern/curiosity. There is a “takeaway” at the end of each. Also, I’m going to go to the realistic side of the experience I had. I’ve read a lot of blogs and reviews about this trek and many of them focus on what you’ll see on the trail. I want to make sure anyone planning this trek, and comes across this post is well informed.
(Click here for the most straight, to the point, and accurate blog about the trail that I found during my readings. She also covers some things I didn’t want to duplicate in this post.)
Ok, so let’s get into the nitty gritty details…
Booking the trip
1. Book in advance if you don’t like the idea of “winging it”
Booking in advance with an online tour group will guarantee your spot on the trail. I booked several months in advance because the Incan Trail was already sold out, and I didn’t want to take any chances of not getting to go. Spots do fill up quickly due to popularity and limited permits given to tour groups. I paid $695 for the tour, which was competitive with other online groups.
2. Being flexible and booking in country can save a lot of money
If you don’t mind playing it by ear, and you’re flexible with travel dates, you can book in country and save several hundred dollars. I paid at least $450 more than most of my companions that booked with a local tour company. There are benefits to both, but once on the trail, amenities are the same for everyone (in your group) regardless of who you booked with. Just be mindful of what they include so that you don’t get out on the trail without a sleeping bag or **insert other can’t live without item here**.
3. Booking any tour in country can be overwhelming
There are people offering tours every 3 feet once you get to Cusco. It can be a mind boggling experience to determine who to choose. The best advice I can give is to ask some of the locals and get a few recommendations. My housemates booked the Rainbow Mountain tour through American Inca Trail, which came highly recommended. The tour agents speak great English and some are American. Everyone that used them had great things to say. The one thing I would caution is that you want a guide that is knowledgeable and cares about your experience and well-being. (One group I spoke to on the trail hated their guide because they didn’t feel like he wanted to be there or cared about their experience.) You also want a group that offers good equipment. I would urge that you talk to locals before booking with a tour group on the street and/or do some online research.
4. Most, if not all, tour guides are free lancing
If you expect to get a tour guide that works specifically for the company you booked with then you will probably be disappointed. Due to the number of bookings and the need to shift headcount around based on group size, you may not end up with the guide you expected, and they probably work for themselves or with a small group of other guides. The group I was in all had booked through multiple different tour companies; and again…once you get on the trail, you are all the same. The only specificity based on the tour company was where we were booked the last night in Aguas Calientes. We were in 3 different hotels/hostels based on how the tour company we worked with had booked us.
**Takeaway**: If you don’t like the idea of being spontaneous or are a novice hiker/camper, do your research before you go. In my opinion, it’s better to pay a little bit more to be safe and happy. I promise that you won’t care that you saved a couple dollars if you’re miserable once you get on the trail.
1. It’s hard, but…
I’m not trying to scare anyone or deter you from doing it, but parts of it are really hard. Even if you are in great shape, workout regularly, and don’t have issues with the altitude change, you are probably still going to be somewhere between uncomfortable and miserable at some point. I’m not in what I would call great shape, but I can run a mile without stopping, and I workout a few times a week. I was completely miserable on day 1 and wanted to quit so many times I lost count.
I actually even asked the guide if I could turn around and go back to the bus, at which point he gave me an awesome pep talk and I continued on. (I cursed both him and myself for the rest of the day.)
On day 2, I took a horse up the pass because day 1 had been so miserable. I was really frustrated by this the night before, as I’m very competitive, but on day 2, as I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, while everyone else drug their asses up that mountain, I was totally at peace!
2. Fitness Level: You’ll need one…
Don’t go into this trek if you don’t have a minimal fitness level thinking that you’ll just “make it work”. The advice I got was that I should be able to run 3, 10 minute miles consecutively, and to do leg workouts to strengthen those muscles. I only took that advice about 60% to heart, which is one of the reasons day 1 was so tough for me.
BUT I also have faith in the human spirit and mind over matter. If you really want to do this, you probably will. And there is a “bail out” on the hardest day (i.e., the horses) if you need it.
3. It’s ok to be slow
As I said, I’m extremely competitive with myself (and others). I hated that I had to stop and rest so often. It was embarrassing to be the last person in line, and to have the tour guides (who were amazing, by the way) constantly hanging back with me, but by the midpoint on day 2, I decided I didn’t care. I was almost always last to camp and usually one of the first to bed, but I wasn’t there to win a race. I was there to experience the trail, and I honestly just wanted to get to Machu Picchu. It became about the scenery and the journey; not the finish line.
And, by being a little more laid back, I got to spend time with a couple of other people who really enjoyed taking it slow too. I made 2 new friends and laughed a whole lot more than I would have trying to keep up with my own silly timeline or competing with other hikers.
4. You may feel rushed
This is not a relaxing, slow paced hike. I realize that we have destinations and dinner times, etc., but I wanted to enjoy the scenery. I was a little frustrated with this, which is probably another reason I was usually among the last ones to camp. I had to stop and take pictures for heaven’s sake!!
5. Long walks, diverse terrain, altitude, and temps
You should plan to walk for a minimum of 5 hours at a time. There were days that we walked less in one stint, and there are breaks (short breaks) thrown in, but for the most part, if you can walk for 4 to 6 hours comfortably at a reasonable pace, you will be fine.
The terrain on day 1 and 2 is mainly up, up, up. (I hate up!) These are the hardest days. Not only are you going up, but you’re in a high elevation. I was already acclimated to the elevation, but it really surprised me as to how little it took for me to get winded, and how many times I had to stop for a break. I came across several people who had altitude sickness, and it looked like the most miserable thing in the world! Altitude sickness doesn’t care what shape you’re in so be prepared for that and if you can, give yourself about 3 days in country at a minimum.
At the mid point on day 2, you start going down to lower altitude. This helps with the sickness, and there isn’t much more uphill climbing until you get to Machu Picchu. I did not mind the downhill parts at all, but some people hate the toll it takes on the knees. My knees were ok through the end of day 2, and only a little sore on day 3. The biggest challenge with downhill was sliding rocks, dirt, and slick stones during the last part of the trek.
On day 1 and 2, you have to prepare for cold weather. The wind off the glacier is very cold, but once inside the tent, we were totally comfortable. By the mid part of day 2 and through the rest of the trek, it was very comfortable and sometimes hot.
I’ll talk a bit about clothing and gear below.
6. Getting to Machu Picchu
You have 2 options for getting to the ruins on the last day from Aguas Calientes. You can take a bus, which takes about 20 to 30 mins. Or you can climb the steps which takes between 45 and 90 mins depending on how quick you (or the person in front of you) can go. I recommend reading up on the stairs to Machu Picchu. I took the bus, as I’m sure you are not surprised to hear at this point. I heard that the steps are very steep, uneven, and, most likely, you are doing all of this in the dark with your headlamp since the group likes to get there as soon as the park opens.
We lined up for the bus at 4:45 am and the “climbers” started about 5:30. If you decide to take the bus you will want to buy your tickets the night before. You will also want to get in line for the bus early as the lines can get very long and the park gets quite crowded. It was amazing to be able to take some photos before the view was spotted with tourists.
**Takeaway**: It’s hard, but it’s doable. Try to up your fitness level before you go, and prepare for the altitude by arriving in country 3 days ahead of time. Prepare for diverse temps in your clothing, and bring good hiking boots.
1. Your idea of clean will change…or it won’t, and you’ll be miserable
I had already been in country for 2 weeks and had gotten used to avoiding the cold showers and cleaning myself twice a day with baby wipes. I’ve also never been extremely skiddish about public toilets, peeing outside or having to wait a few days to shower. However…
Keep in mind that not only are you camping, but you are camping in a foreign country that already has a different plumbing system and a different idea of clean. The camps all had working, indoor toilets, and 2 of them had shower facilities. These WILL NOT resemble your home bathroom, and will probably be a bit worse than what you would call “the nastiest bathroom I’ve ever been in!”
I won’t lie…at one camp where I took a shower, the shower itself was not bad, but it was extremely unclear as to whether the stuff floating around on the floor outside the shower near the toilet was mud or poop, but when you’ve been camping for 2 days, you just walked for 10 hours, and you’re sweating like a pig, you do what you gotta do.
With that said, if you’re squeamish about being dirty, these situations probably aren’t for you. If you aren’t sure if you can handle it, I suggest that you visit the dirtiest gas station/restaurant/relative you can find. Go stand in the bathroom for 10 minutes and imagine undressing, showering, and putting on clean clothes there. If you run away screaming, you may need some more mental conditioning. Or a therapist if I’ve really traumatized you. Sorry…
2. The food was way better than I expected
I was quite impressed with not only the the quantity, but the quality of the food we ate. There were things that I just had to pass on as the platters were going around; I was so full! It really is amazing to see the facilities that they had to work in and then see the meals that came out of them. The people that work at these camps are very skilled and deserve a big tip at the end of the trek! They were also very considerate of allergies and food preferences. They made sure that our vegetarians had a special plate at each meal and it wasn’t just a salad. It was a hearty, filling meal made with just as much care as the meals for everyone else, and most importantly, no one got sick.
3. The tents and bedding were good quality
I expected average equipment to be provided, but the tents were in great shape and they even provided 2 inch camping pads for sleeping. 2 of the 4 nights, our tents were set up under straw covers that helped keep the warmth in while we were in the cooler climates. The guides were also very concerned about everyone’s comfort and switched out sleeping bags and pads if needed. Also, you will mostly likely have a tent mate. If you are traveling solo, you’ll get paired up with a same-sex group mate.
4. It’s fun to hang with a diverse group of people
At camp, there are usually other groups of hikers staying in the same location. It allows for meeting a lot of other people from a lot of different places. I met folks from the U.S., Brazil, Bolivia, U.K., Australia, Austria, and France. It was a great time to sit around and learn about others and their culture. We also played drinking games a couple of nights. Yes, alcohol is available at camp, but sometimes in limited quantities and beer is often at room temperature.
**Takeaway**: If you are squeamish about dirt then mentally prepare for “extreme camping” in that respect; however, the memories made with the people you will meet and the experiences you will have can make conquering a dirty toilet a small feat in the big scheme of things.
Gear & Supplies
First of all, I over packed. The guide took pity on me and let me put a few extra things on the horses.To be honest, I’m still baffled as to what I took that I shouldn’t have. Either way, my pack was bigger and heavier than everyone else’s.
1. Clothes and shoes
I took a North Face jacket (that I bought in country, similar to this ), a rain jacket and pants, 2 pairs of North Face convertible pants (that I bought in country, similar to these), 2 long sleeve shirts, 1 tshirt, 2 Smart Wool thermals (top / bottom), 4 pairs of ExOfficio underwear, 2 sports bras, a bathing suit, a warm cap, gloves, 4 pairs of Smart Wool socks (1 was for sleeping only), 2 sock liners, a Buff, and my hiking boots. I recommend boots with ankle support, because the trail is very rocky. If you have weak knees, bring your soft braces along.
p.s…I was not unhappy with any of my clothing.
p.s.s…You can buy North Face really cheap in country. May be knock-off, but it works!
2. The backpack
I purchased a Dueter Act Lite 60+10. I’m still on the fence about it. It was comfortable and held everything easily, but it isn’t convenient to access your water bottle, which I hated. It also give you almost 4lbs of weight right off the bat.
Most people had day packs only and carried clothes, water, cameras and put other things on the horse. I ended up with only my camera, rain gear, bug spray, and sleeping bag by day 3 and it still felt heavy to me.
3. Sleeping bag
I LOVE my sleeping bag!! I tried to save some money and went with a lower quality down bag, but ended up returning it. I went back to REI and bought their Joule for women. It is perfect! It is definitely a snug bag so you probably want to buy it in store. If you are over 5’8″ or larger around the middle it might be too small or make you feel claustrophobic. Try it (and all your gear) before you take it on the trail.
My tent mate used one of the bags provided and she really liked it. You just have to consider potential age, previous users, etc, and what you are comfortable with there.
4. Trekking poles can be your best friend and worst enemy
I had never used trekking poles before, but everything I read said they were a must have. There were times that I couldn’t imagine trying to do the hike without them. And there were times that they nearly killed me…
I personally didn’t like using them on the uphill climb. I think that I was wearing myself out and putting too much energy into my arms trying to use them to pull me along versus keeping me balanced. On the downhill, there were areas where they totally saved me. When my feet would slide, it was like having a third and fourth leg to give me that extra second or two for friction to kick back in. They also tripped me up a couple of times, especially when I was getting more tired. At one point, my left one collapsed, and so did I… I recommend getting them if you have any doubts. If you don’t like them, just hook them to your pack and forget about them.
5. What I forgot and what I didn’t need
I don’t think I forgot anything except for a razor. (It would have been nice to shave before the hot springs.) I do still need to figure out how to pair down in the future, because my pack was way too heavy. Other than clothes, good shoes, and deciding if you want to bring your own sleeping bag, I recommend:
- Bring (must haves in pink)
- Camping pillow (loved mine)
- A few snacks or protein bars to nibble on during breaks
- Bug spray
- Sunscreen (for skin and lips)
- Anti-diarrhea/gas/nausea (just in case)
- Band-aids or blister pads for sore feet or if you take a tumble
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Shower shoes or flip flops
- Baby wipes (this is a definite must have!!!)
- Toilet paper (definitely!!!)
- Bathing suit cover-up
- Solar battery charger for camera/phone
- Camera of some kind
- Razor, if you care about that kind of thing, most people were without as well
- Leave behind
- Big first aid kit
- Oxyshot (Oxygen canister you can buy in the drug store)
- Coca leaves (they will have some and coca tea)
- Camping pad unless they are not provided
- Any type of “survival” type items. There are tons of people on the trail. You will not be alone for long.
- A/C Adapter (you will not find an outlet until day 4)
**Takeaway**: Do some research on your gear, don’t go out on the trail without trying all of your gear out at home so you can change it if needed, and most likely you will not have left home without anything too important, so don’t fret about leaving something behind.
Last but not least, enjoy the journey and the reward of having completed something very few people on this earth will ever do!!