Salkantay Trek Unguided: How We Did It and What We Would Do Differently

Conquer the Salkantay Trek Solo: How We Did It and What We Would Do Differently
 
Over the past years the Salkantay trek has gained popularity amongst travellers heading to Machu Picchu. If you want to avoid the costs and crowds of joining a tour operator, the option of completing the Salkantay trek independently is easy to achieve. Going it solo allows you to set your own agenda while still being able to make use of the infrastructure that has developed to service the tour groups. Based on our own experience during our travel sabbatical through Peru, we have set out our route and will guide you through useful tips that we picked up along the way and more importantly, what we would do differently. 
Salkantay Trek Route Summary (7 days, ±85km hiked, ±30kg carried)
Cusco – Soraypampa – Chaullay – Llactapata ruins – Aguascalientes – Machu Picchu – Santa Teresa – Cusco  
Day 0: Preparation in Cusco 
Cusco is a large city in which you will find everything that you could possibly need for the Salkantay trek. Two important considerations are equipment and food. Equipment is available for rent if you do not have your own with you and we would advise carrying enough food for 2-3 days in order to keep costs down. 
Equipment 
  • Plateros road near to the Plaza de Armas is home to numerous tour agencies that are willing to rent out equipment to independent trekkers.
  • We rented a tent and two sleeping bags for 7 days at a cost of 150 soles.
  • Make sure that your sleeping bag is suitable for temperatures of -15C.
  • Gas bottles and cookers are also available, however we opted not to carry this extra weight.
  • We had our own sleeping mats, sheets and pillows. 
Food and water
  • There are numerous restaurants and kiosks positioned along the Salkantay trek route, however prices are marked up excessively.
  • We bought our food supply from the central market in Cusco, where fresh produce and ready packaged snacks can be found including cereal bars, nuts and dried corn, kidney beans and fruit.
  • To help cope with the altitude, coca leaves and sweets can also be purchased at the central market.
  • We packed in snacks, fruit, bread, olives, cheese, hard boiled eggs, cooked potatoes and meat for our first night.
  • Bottled water can be purchased along the route but we opted to purchase water purification tablets and fill our bottles from streams. 
Day 1: Cusco – Soraypampa (Alt. 3,850m) & Laguna Humantay (Alt. 4,200m)
  • Local taxis known as “collectivos” transport travellers from the corner of Avenida Arcopata in Cusco up to Mollepata at 15 soles pp.
  • The collectivo will only leave once occupancy is full so heading there too early might result in waiting for a few hours. We got there at 07:00 and only waited about half an hour before departing.
  • The drive to Mollepata takes approximately 3 hrs and once there we had to pay an official the non-negotiable fee of 10 soles pp.
  • From Mollepata trekkers have two options, either to walk the 15km to Soraypampa or to take a second collectivo.
  • The cost of the second collectivo to Soraypampa was 100 soles, which divided by four of us cost 25 soles pp.
  • Once in Soraypampa we would highly recommend taking a detour up to the truly stunning Laguna Humantay.
  • It is no longer possible to camp at the lagoon so we would advise leaving your packs at one of the camps in Soraypampa before embarking on the climb.
  • Determined not to camp with the tour groups in Soraypampa, we decided to continue along the Salkantay trek route and approximately 30 min later found flat ground next to the stream where we decided to set up camp for the night.
  • This informal campsite provided a spectacular view of Salkantay Mountain but unfortunately did not come free as we were charged 5 soles by a passing local. 

Salkantay Trek - Slowbru Campsite and View of the Salkantay Mountain Peak

Day 2: Soraypampa (Alt. 3,850m) – Salkantay Pass Summit (Alt. 4,600m) – Chaullay (Alt. 2800m) 
  • Tour groups embarking on the Salkantay trek leave Soraypampa at various times throughout the morning and as they all hike at different paces, it is difficult to avoid them. As an independent trekker, you would either have to wake up very early and start trekking in the dark or snooze in and only start trekking mid-morning.
  • We woke up at 06:00 and after eating breakfast and packing up camp, we found ourselves right in the middle of the tour group chaos.
  • The climb up to the Salkantay Pass summit can be divided into three stages, the total climb taking approximately 2.5-3 hrs.
  • The first stage of the climb will take you from Soraypampa to Salkantaypampa where a kiosk and toilet are available. 
  • The trail is less strenuous and enjoyable as the donkeys carrying supplies and luggage for the tour groups take a different route along the road as opposed to the trail. 
  • The second stage is a steep stretch from Salkantaypampa to Soyrococha and unfortunately the trail is shared most of the way with the donkeys.
  • A true test in patience is trekking this section with a 17kg pack strapped to your back while having to constantly move off of the trail and make way for donkey’s carrying obese tourists incapable of making the ascent themselves.
  • Soyrococha has a kiosk, toilet and informal campsite available next to a small lake.
  • The third stage of the climb from Soyrococha up to the Salkantay Pass summit is also steep and strenuous but you are driven on by the gorgeous views of the surrounding snow Salkantay and Umantay mountains.
  • Once at the top of the Salkantay Pass summit, the trail forks, heading left down the valley or right to Lago Salkantaycocha which is beautiful, it’s turquoise colour a striking contrast against its surroundings and definitely worth a visit.
  • The trail to Lago Salkantaycocha is short but traverses over rocks and boulders so our advice is to leave your pack near to the fork in the trail and come back for it before trekking down the valley.
  • The descent is gradual and enjoyable as the surroundings change from harsh rocky outcrops covered in snow to rolling green hills and foliage. 
  • After approximately 2 hrs we arrived in the village of Huayracpampa/Huayramachay where numerous kiosks are located but lunch is only catered for the tour groups. 
  • Continuing on along the Salkantay trek route from Huayracpampa/Huayramachay to Chaullay took 2.5 hrs passing through Rayanpata where camping was also available.
  • In Chaullay you will find numerous hostels, camps and restaurants to choose from.
  • We paid 10 soles pp per meal, 10 soles to camp and although we opted for a cold shower, hot water is available at an additional 10 soles pp. 

Lago Salkantaycocha - Salkantay Trek

Day 3: Chaullay (Alt. 2,800m) – Base of Llactapata Climb (Alt. 2,200m) 
  • Leaving Chaullay at about 07:00, we were surprised to find that Collipapampa is only a few minutes down the road where more hostels, camps and restaurants are available and less busy than in Chaullay.
  • After passing through Collipapampa the trail cuts through the road which zigzags down towards the river.
  • Once at the bottom of the valley the Salkantay trek route crosses the river and continues on the opposite side of the valley to the road (missing the trail will result in a day spent trekking along the road).
  • This section of the Salkantay trek will take you down to La Playa and is absolutely beautiful, passing through tree canopies and a stunning array of colourful flowers along the way.
  • You’ll be surrounded by butterflies and the calls of indigenous birds and monkeys, although spotting them is a bit more difficult.
  • Along the route you will pass by two waterfalls and three informal camps and kiosks each positioned about 1 hour trekking apart.
  • 30 minutes before reaching La Playa the trail comes out at the road where collectivos will be waiting to take tour groups down to Santa Teresa.
  • We stopped in La Playa for lunch where a number of hostels, campsites, restaurants and shops can be found.
  • A further hour of trekking along the road through the village of Sahuayaco and we arrived at the base of the Llactapata climb.
  • Our hope had been to complete the climb in the afternoon and camp at Llaqtapata Lodga near to the ruins, however it was already 15:00 and we were advised that the climb could take up to 4.5 hrs.
  • Our tired legs and aching backs influenced our decision to stay at one of the campsites at the base of the climb and tackle the ascent the following morning.
  • Our night here cost us 10 soles to camp and while we ate dinner and breakfast from our own supply of food, there are restaurants available.
  • Most importantly, this is a coffee producing area so be sure to try a cup before moving on.

Salkantay Trek - Valley on the Way Down to La Playa

Day 4: Base of Llactapata Climb (Alt. 2,200m) – Llactapata Ruins (Alt. 2,700m) – Aguascalientes (Alt. 2,050m) 
  • The hike up to the ruins only took us 2.5 hrs, perhaps because we ascended on fresh legs.
  • The trail was again spectacular, initially passing through coffee plantations and then heading up the side of the valley through dense green gullies and opening up on sections from where you are afforded views out over region.
  • The reward awaiting you at the top is the opportunity to spend time wandering though the Llactapata ruins of which Section 1 has been cleared and restored. Surprisingly we weren’t charged any money here.
  • Once the morning fog has cleared, you will experience fantastic views across the valley of the Machu Picchu citadel. 
  • Another 10 min down the trail is the Llaqtapata Lodge, a restaurant and even better viewpoint. This is where we had hoped to camp the previous night.
  • The descent to Hidroeléctrica totals approximately 2hrs and we were charged 2 soles each when crossing the bridge over the river.
  • Once across the river there are a few kilometers of trekking on flat road before arriving in Hidroeléctrica where there are a number of shops and restaurants.
  • Here travellers can either opt to pay 106 soles for the train ride to Aguascalientes or trek 10km along the train tracks which takes approximately 3 hrs.
  • Along the route there are a number of kiosks and restaurants and about 3km out from Aguascalientes a few campsite options become available including Jardin camp and Eco camp.
  • We opted to stay closer to Aguascalientes at the municipal campsite which is located at the T junction.
  • From the T junction, the road to the right goes down to the start of the Machu Picchu trail and the road left goes up to Aguascalientes.
  • We suggest setting up camp before going up to Aguascalientes so that you won’t have to carry your packs there and back.
  • While some might advise booking permits to Machu Picchu in advance, permits for the ruins and the extra climb up to Montaña Machu Picchu were available upon arrival in Aguascalientes and cost us less than booking in Cusco. If you bring along your student ISIC card you will get a further discount.
  • There is a central market in Aguascalientes were you can restock supplies and upstairs from the market are local restaurants preparing inexpensive and delicious meals.
Day 5: Machu Picchu (Alt. 2,400m) & Montaña Machu Picchu (Alt. 3,061m)
  • The day has arrived! Although you are in for an early start as the gate to the Machu Picchu trail opens at 05:00.
  • The steep climb comprises of hundreds of steps and takes approximately 1 hour.
  • Another option is to book a bus ticket from Aguascalientes to the Machu Picchu entrance at US$12 and the first bus departs at 05:30
  • Officials will tell you that food and drinks are not allowed into the Machu Picchu grounds, but our bag was not checked and everyone that we came across had snacks and water with them.
  • Be sure to carry enough water for the day, especially if climbing one of the mountains.
  • There is a shop located at the enterance.
  • The tickets for Montaña Machu Picchu are allocated to a specific time slot and we were allowed to begin our climb from 07:00.
  • Another few hundred steps and approximately 1 hour later we were on top of the mountain and gazing out over the Sacred Valley which was unfortunately covered by rising fog so early in the morning. Unlike our tour group counterparts, we were not on any time constraints and after a few hours the clouds cleared and we were treated to the iconic view of Machu Picchu.
  • At noon we descended the mountain and after a brief snooze on the terraces we headed to the Inca Bridge and then spent our last few hours exploring the main ruins.
  • Most tour groups left around lunchtime to begin their journey back to Cusco and the grounds started to empty out.
  • At 16:30 the officials began blowing on whistles and waving everyone towards the exit.
  • Another hour descending back down to camp and we were more than ready to pass out after five very exciting but physically exhausting days.

Salkantay Trek - View from Montaña Machu Picchu

Day 6: Aguascalientes – Santa Teresa 
  • Needless to say the 10km walk back along the train tracks seemed a lot easier this time round but still took 2.5 hrs.
  • Collectivos waiting at Hidroeléctrica to take tour groups back to Cusco via Santa Teresa only depart at 14:00
  • Fortunately we were able to hitch a ride in a private taxi to Santa Teresa at 5 soles pp and once there we paid 3 soles pp to take a tuk tuk down to the hotsprings which are only about 3km out of town.
  • In the evenings the springs fill up with tour groups, however mornings seem to be quiet.
  • It cost us 10 soles pp to camp and use the springs and facilities.
  • There are a number of shops and restaurants here, meals costing 10 soles pp. 
Day 7: Santa Teresa – Cusco 
  • After another dip in the springs to soothe aching muscles, we packed up camp and got a taxi at 3 soles pp back up to town.
  • Collectivos wait for maximum occupancy before departing and it cost us 10 soles pp to get to Santa María.
  • In Santa María everyone changed over to another collectivo and 25 soles pp got us back to Cusco.
  • The total drive takes between 5-6 hrs, passing through Ollantaytambo were you might want to stop over and explore further ruins. The town is a mini Cusco with numerous hostels, restaurants and gringos milling around. 
Important Points to Keep in Mind 
  • As of 1 July 2017, the regulations governing permits into Machu Picchu have changed and tourists can now only obtain half day permits, either in the morning or afternoon.
  • Permits to Montaña Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu are separate, the permits for Huayna Picchu sell out months in advance.
  • Rumors have begun circulating that permits might soon be required to complete the Salkantay trek.
  • Aside from having to stay with a tour group in Soraypampa where there are currently no hostels, it is possible to continue the Salkantay trek independently, staying in hostels throughout the remaining route to avoid carrying equipment. 
So What Would we do Differently?   
Day 1: Make the drive from Cusco to Mollepata and spend the night here so that you can get an early collectivo to Soraypampa the following morning.
 
Day 2: Catch a collectivo to Soraypampa early, trek up to the Laguna Humantay, back down to Soraypampa and then continue along the Salkantay trail and tackle a portion of the climb up the Salkantay Pass (well after the tour groups). You can camp at Soyrococha next to the lake.
 
Day 3: Ascend the remaining climb (well ahead of the next tour groups departing from Soraypampa), visit the turquoise Lago Salkantaycocha at the top of the pass and then descend down the valley, passing through Huayracpampa/Hauyramachay, Rayanpata, Chaullay and Collpapampa and camp at one of the informal campsites on the trail towards La Playa (unless of course you are able to make it all the way to La Playa before dark).
 
Day 4: Trek along the remaining stretch to the base of Llactapata and make the ascent. You will probably have the ruins to yourself in the afternoon as tour groups from the morning would have already left. Camp at Llaqtapata Lodge located a further 10min down the trail from the ruins.
 
Day 5: Descend to Hidroeléctrica and continue on to Aguascalientes.
 
Day 6: Spend the day at Machu Picchu.
 
Day 7: Walk back to Hidroeléctrica and continue on to Santa Teresa by taxi.
 
Day 8: Depart from Santa Teresa and head back towards Cusco (perhaps stopping off in Ollantaytambo for a night).
 
Overall, this experience was truly fantastic and we would strongly recommend the Salkantay trek to anyone interested in trekking to Machu Picchu. However, upon reflection there were two challenges that we faced. Firstly, if you can bring in your own equipment we would advise doing so as the weight of our rented tent and sleeping bags was excessive totaling 11kg. Secondly, the trail is overrun with tour groups. While we did our best to try and block out their incessant talking and simply enjoy our surroundings and time spent on the the Salkantay trek, the best option would be to avoid the tour groups altogether by following the route above.

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