In this post I’ll share my advice and experience from my recent trip to Peru. There are a million and one different tour operators in Cusco, the base of most tourist activities in eastern Peru. They all seem to offer similar packages, but their prices can vary by hundreds, even thousands of dollars. So, how do you find the very best option that will get you to Machu Picchu safely and relatively comfortably, while still going easy on your wallet?
Let me start by saying that this post does not apply to anyone who wants to do the Inka Trail. If you’re interested in the Inka Trail, you usually have to book three or more months in advance and should expect to pay a minimum of $500-700. Average prices often exceed $1000, so it all depends on how much you value the history of that specific trail.
Every trek to Machu Picchu is stunning, so there will be no lack of good views regardless of which trek you choose. Besides the Inka Trail, there are two main trails going from Cusco to Machu Picchu: Salkantay and Lares. These usually range from 3-5 days in length and differ in difficulty. The longest possible trek I saw was 10 days, although 4-5 seems to be standard for Salkantay. Looking online, I was overwhelmed by the plethora of options and prices. Knowing close to nothing about the two treks, I decided to trek Salkantay, purely because it offered a five days/four nights option, while Lares was limited to four days/three nights.
The company I booked through is called Cusco Experience. They had a good website and I managed to negotiate (what I thought was) a good price. The organizers were very welcoming and informative, so I felt safe in their hands. Stay tuned for price discussion at the end of this post.
Growing up on a farm in the English countryside, I considered myself quite close to nature. However, embarking on this adventure was something different. I’m not going to lie, I was extremely nervous beforehand, but it ended up being a cherished life changing experience.
The Salkantay treks depart Cusco at around 5am every day of the week. My boyfriend and I took a taxi to Plaza de Armas with our four backpacks (two for the donkeys, two for us) and waited for our pickup. I’ve never seen a town square so crowded at 5am on a weekday. It was filled with tourists starting their various activities for the day. We began chatting to a French girl who was sitting next to us at our pickup spot, but it turned out she wasn’t part of our group. Funnily enough, she was doing the Salkantay trek with another company alongside us so we bumped into her at various points of the trek several times a day throughout our hike.
Soon enough we were picked up in a mini-bus and two hours later, we arrived at our breakfast spot high up in the mountains. Cusco is at 3600 meters above sea level. At this point we were near 3900m. Another hour in the van and we arrived at our starting point for the 75-kilometer trek. We could tell straight away that our guides would be amazing. The two guys were so genuine and funny, making the group of 20+ people feel comfortable at once.
From the moment we arrived at our starting point, my concerns vanished. The scenery was indescribably beautiful everywhere we looked.
The first day we only had a two hour trek to our camp, where we arrived in time for lunch. I was impressed that our tents had thatch shells to protect from any wind or rain.
The food was consistently great. Each of our three daily warm meals had several courses and more than enough food to go around. Since food quality can be risky business, I’m glad to recommend Cusco Experience. They fed us well and catered to any dietary requests, which I’ve heard can be a challenge with some tour operators. Our chef even stayed with us for our entire trek and was always an hour or so behind us with the donkeys.
We spent the rest of our first day hiking up and down the mountain behind our campsite. Reaching the famous Humantay Lake at the top was the most exhausting part of the entire trek, but was also the only voluntary part since it was more of an excursion from the Salkantay route.
My lungs have never struggled so hard to recover from just a few minutes of exercise. We just walked straight up and while the hill itself wasn’t so steep, the altitude made it feel like we were sprinting straight up. What looked like a 30-minute walk ended up taking well over an hour each way.
Day two was meant to be the hardest. Between our departure time at around 5am when we were surrounded by glaciers, and our arrival at our second camp in the rain forest that day at 4pm, we trekked 22 kilometers horizontally, and two kilometers vertically.
The feeling of starting the day so early and having walked for four hours by 9:00am is mind-blowing. We would rise when the sun rose and go to sleep just after sunset everyday, which made me feel closer to nature than I’ve ever felt before.
On this day we passed the highest point on the trek, Abra Salkantay at 4630m.
From here we gradually descended into warmer and greener climates.
It felt like we were walking forever. The weather kept changing between rainy, hot, and breezy. Soon enough, we were in the rainforest.
Our campsite was located on the edge of a cliff, with a stunning waterfall on one side. While I was freezing the night before, I found the mild temperature perfect for sleep on this night.
Day three brought another entirely new environment. It was crazy going from wearing five layers, gloves and a hat one day to wearing a t-shirt and shorts the next.
Throughout our entire trek we didn’t have access to any internet, phone signal or even electricity, which was a magical experience that every millennial should try. I charged my phone and camera with a single portable USB power bank. We also didn’t have access to a shower until the third evening, when we went to natural hot springs where we could clean off.
On day four, we started entering civilization and eventually arrived in Aguas Calientes. This was the most unspectacular day. Don’t get me wrong, the views were still breathtaking, but they just weren’t as varied. Thankfully, at this point we’d formed a neat group of friends to lean on.
When we arrived at our hostel in the town below Machu Picchu and “finally” had power and wifi, we all realized just how little we had missed the connectivity. Logging onto social media was so foreign after just four days.
On the final day, we conquered the thousands of steep steps up to Machu Picchu and arrived just as it opened.
It was worth the struggle! This is one of those tourist attractions that deserves its excellent reputation. In fact, it exceeded my expectations and was the perfect icing on the cake after the views we’d been enjoying for the past four days.
There a quite a few “domesticated” llamas at the top, which made it all the more enjoyable. 😉
So, what’s the cost of an unforgettable experience like this? We paid $360 per person with Cusco Experience, which seemed like a great deal considering that most prices listed online were several hundred dollars higher. However, you pay a huge premium for pre-booking your tours in Peru. Virtually no tour companies list prices online, which allows them to set different prices for different people. As we painfully found out from our friends on the trek, most had paid between $240-290 per person for the exact same trek.
I conclude that you should expect to pay around $350-500 if you want the added security of planning ahead and having confirmed plans when arriving in Cusco. However, if you want the best price (which can be hundreds of dollars lower), hold out until you arrive. Looking two or even one day before the trek will guarantee the lowest price, especially if you bargain. The locals know that us gringos have no perspective on price unless we’ve visited before, so be tough and good luck! If you’re unsure which tour companies are trustworthy, I’m glad to recommend Cusco Experience again.
Doing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu was a life changing experience. While I thought I’d struggle with the intense physical work, the lack of electricity and connectivity, and the tediousness of walking for hours on end, my worries could not have been more wrong. Not only did I find everything quite manageable, but I was constantly distracted by the stunning views and my good new friends. What can you take away from the post? Book last minute for the best price – you can get away with as low as $250 for a five day trek and don’t be scared of challenging yourself. The views, life-long friendships and physical exercise are all incredibly rewarding.