How To Find The Perfect Trek To Machu Picchu

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.

Salkantay trek map.

Salkantay trek map.

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.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

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.

The starting point for our trek.

The starting point for our trek.

From the moment we arrived at our starting point, my concerns vanished. The scenery was indescribably beautiful everywhere we looked.

Day 1 started out easy.

Day one started out easy.

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.

Our camp for the first night.

Our camp for the first night.

Our camp for the first night.

Camp at Salkantay

Camp at Salkantay

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.

The food was better than it looks!

The food was better than it looks!

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.

View of our camp site down below.

View of our campsite down below.

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.

The famous Humantay Lake was worth the struggle.

The famous Humantay Lake was worth the struggle.

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.

Morning at our first camp site.

Morning at our first campsite.

Salkantay trek day 2

Salkantay trek day 2

Salkantay trek day 2

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.

Salkantay trek day 2

Happy group when we made it to the highest point in trek.

Happy group when we made it to the highest point in trek.

From here we gradually descended into warmer and greener climates.

Salkantay trek day 2

Salkantay trek day 2

It felt like we were walking forever. The weather kept changing between rainy, hot, and breezy. Soon enough, we were in the rainforest.

Salkantay trek day 2

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 two camp sight.

Day two campsite.

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.

Day three trek.

Day three Salkantay trek

Day three Salkantay trek

Day three Salkantay trek

Day three Salkantay trek

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.

Day three salkantay trek

Our camp sight for day three was much more developed.

Our campsite for day three was much more developed.

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.

Day four Salkantay trek

Day four Salkantay trek

Day four Salkantay trek

Finally - behind us is Wayna Picchu, where Machu Picchu is located.

Finally – behind us is Wayna Picchu, where Machu Picchu is located.

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.

Arriving back into civilization.

Arriving back into civilization.

On the final day, we conquered the thousands of steep steps up to Machu Picchu and arrived just as it opened.

Machu Picchu

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.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

There a quite a few “domesticated” llamas at the top, which made it all the more enjoyable. 😉

Machu Picchu

IMG_3046

Price 

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.

Bottom Line

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.

About Daniel

Daniel, best known as Dantorp Aviation on YouTube has become well known for his aviation video content, which ranges from wing-views to reviews. In 2016, he took a flight, on average, every five days, covering 100,000 miles on 41 airlines.

More articles by Daniel »

Comments

  1. I did the Inca Trail, and was disappointed, it was so much overrated tourist trap. From what you describe it looks like Salkantay Trek is a much more genuine experience. Machu Picchu itself is great. Climb Huayna Picchu as well while you are there.

  2. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we took the Hiram Bingham (formerly known as the Orient Express company) and toured the site with Christopher Lloyed, who happen to be on the same tour.

    In Cusco we stayed at the Palacio Del Inka using SPG cash and points.

    I used United miles to get there. From Lima to Cusco and back we were the only ones in the front cabin. The views of the mountains are spectacular.

    Photos:
    https://goo.gl/photos/QpBt4kpAAGk1GTc59

  3. All of the various treks to Machu Picchu have their pros and (minor) cons. It’s well worth reading about all of them before you head to Cusco — some might tempt you even more than the classic Inca Trail (especially for the prices involved). I recently went to Machu Picchu for the second time and hiked the less well-known Huchuy Qosqo trek to Machu Picchu, and it was beautiful.

  4. I only paid $210 (though this was 3 years ago now).

    These tours never fill up (the only reason the Inca Trail does is the strict quota system), so there’s absolutely no need to worry about not getting one if you just show up in Cusco a few days before – which you definitely should do as a) it’s stunning and b) it greatly helps with the trek if you acclimatise there first.

  5. There are so many other treks in the area that’s worth it and doesn’t have to link with Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu can really be treated as it’s own spot by itself.

    The cheap and simple way in is just to take a shuttle to hydroelectrica and walk the day 4 part into Machu Picchu Pueblo/Aguas Calientes.

    We did it last year. I’ve linked my trip report about it among other parts if you are interested in reading about it.
    http://travel2walk.com/2016/07/01/trip-report-cusco-region-in-peru-june-2016/#machu

  6. When I went 3 years ago we signed up for what they call the Inca jungle trek, which I would highly recommend as an alternative to just trekking for 4 days or so. As well as some hiking, you do other activities such as mountain biking, zip lining and white water rafting, staying in villages along the way rather than camping. After all, it all seems a bit pointless doing one of the other treks than the real Inca trail as you just end up in Aguas Calientes the night before and have to either walk up the steps or get the bus up, the same as if you got the train all the way from Cusco.

    I do think that arriving at macchu picchu after finishing the official Inca trail at the sun gate and seeing it all in front of you would be spectacular compared climbing all those stairs will the feral dogs.

  7. I would say it’s also important to find a company that treats and pays their employees (guides, cooks, porters) well. It’s unfortunate that these people are often paid so little while under back-breaking working conditions. Don’t forget to factor in a generous tip, since they work very hard for you to have an enjoyable experience.

    My wife and I used Valencia Travel Cusco and we highly recommend them. We received a huge discount by going through http://www.theclymb.com. The company was professional, the food was spectacular and the guide was excellent. The chef was even able to accommodate our vegan diet!

    It was such an amazing and unforgettable experience.

  8. What’s the fundamental difference between what you did and the inca trail? The “official” inca trails that I researched seem to be of the same time frame as what you did.

  9. @Eric

    The official Inca trail arrives at macchu picchu from a different direction. You arrive from above and see it below you. All the other treks arrive in the village below where you spend the night before climbing around 1000 steps to arrive at the entrance (or pay $10 or so for a bus to take you up).

    Other than that, it’s just the bragging rights to say you’ve done the “real” Inca trail.

  10. I would rather pay $100 more and have peace of mind than last minute scramble with tour guides or to make sure they have space to accommodate my group.

  11. If you decide to take the train down, make sure you have a reservation. No res = potential multiple day delay.

    One more thing. Buy Deet and use it. Otherwise you’ll have big, multiple welts on exposed skin.

  12. Eric/Lumma – The Inca Trail also has small ruins along the way. Though I’ve heard a few people say that it’s better to see none then suddenly see Machu Picchu like on the Salkantay Trek as, although it’s still incredibly impressive, a bit of “ruin fatigue” sets in!

    Frank – It’s not $100 more, it’s $100 per person more. It’s an incredibly easy trek that doesn’t really require guided assistance, there’s therefore an almost never-ending supply of guides to take you on the route (pretty much anyone who lives there, is mobile and has a rudimentary grasp of English can do it) and I doubt your group could ever not be accommodated. If you have money to throw away though it may still be worth it for peace of mind if you’re a natural worrier!

  13. I did this trek about 15 years ago. That was when you could independently trek the Inca trail so more varied combinations existed. So what we did was the Salcantay trek that merged into day 2 of the Inca trail for a total 7-8 day trek. Other than our group of 4, we never met anyone on the Salcantay portion. You took the pass left of Salcantay – we took the pass east of the peak that links to the Inca trail eventually.

    The Inca trail is definitely worth doing – portions of it are in cloudforest, there are interesting ruins leading up to Machu Pichu (no you don’t get ruin fatigue in 3 days and it’s a great build up), and the trail itself is a marvel.

    The Salcantay portion is higher altitude, more rugged, pure mountain trekking, so it’s a great contrast.

  14. Of course you can get ruin fatigue in three days… Some people aren’t even interested in Machu Picchu at all, believe it or not!

  15. So nice to see an actual travel experience written about on this blog, instead of one that centers around lavishing in five-star luxury in poor countries around the world, and speaking only to locals who are paid to look after you.

  16. @echino I can’t speak for the Inca Trail, but Salkantay definitely felt as rugged and genuine as I’d hoped. By the time I made it up the stairs I was done with climbing, but I definitely hope I’ll do Huayna Picchu next time!

  17. Hi Daniel!

    I’m not very outdoorsy but I really want to do a trek up to Machu Picchu. Aside from the beauty of being in nature, how were your sleeping arrangements? Comfortable, hard to sleep, did they provide all bedding and blankets? And what about the restroom? I always wonder about that lol.

    Thanks!

  18. Nice post that just made me resolve to do a Cusco and Machu Picchu Trek this fall, instead of my 4th trip to Buenos Aires, aka the “Paris of Latin America”, which I was considering…

  19. Kudos to you Daniel, I just dont think I’d willingly pay to not shower and camp for a few days and trek in the jungle haha. Just not my thing. But I admire people who do! Thanks for sharing.

  20. Do all of the treks get the classic selfie picture opportunity that almost everyone has on their profiles? Or is that only for specific treks?

  21. Hey Daniel,
    Thanks for this post. I’ve trekked this area about 10 years ago and wanted to bring my wife out here to do the trek to Machu Picchu but just haven’t had the time. I’d met a couple that simply followed the train tracks that led to Machu Picchu and they were able to do this on their own. It’s cool to see your options as well and Cusco Experience sounds like a winner and the tips on just simply showing up the day or two before to get the best price usually works for tons of the treks like this.
    Cheers,

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