Slow travel Machu Picchu – hiking 5 days from glacier to jungle to reach Machu Picchu
You hear your heart beating, you are huffing and puffing. Your legs are heavy, just a few more steps … all you were hiking for the last 4 days is just a corner away! But wait, let me take you to the beginning of this very slow trip over glaciers and through mountain rainforest to one of the seven world wonders: Machu Picchu!
4 am, my alarm is ringing. Off I am to Plaza de Armas in Cusco where a bus is waiting to start my adventure of the 5 day Salkantay trek on ancient Inca paths. Usually not a fan of organized tours, I decided to go on this trek as you need a guide to find your way and it is no option doing this on my own without partners. Don’t get me wrong, you can do it with friends, but with the right guide you will get 5 days of lessons about Quechua culture, plants and the environment around you. You will get a great variety of food 3 times a day and only carry your day pack while horses are bringing along food and tents.
Day 1 (13 km)
After a three hour bus ride we stop for breakfast at Mollepata and have time to get to know our companions for the next 5 days. A short ride along narrow, steep and dusty roads later the bus spits you out at your starting point at Challacancha (3.600m). The horse guide is waiting to upload your duffle bags. For the sake of the animals, minimize your packed belongings to 5 kg (see at the end of the article what to bring for the trek!). The rest will have to fit in your day pack.
An easy 2,5 hour hike till the first camp Soraypampa on almost 4.000m will warm up your muscles and prepare your eyes and soul for what is laying ahead. Majestic Salkantay glacier is surrounded by rolling green fields with flowers and blossoms and green mountains. On half way, a fluffy white cloud line nestles around them, separating top from bottom.
The chef is already preparing a delicious lunch, including a variety of local and international dishes, options for vegetarians and all kind of intolerances such as gluten free. After a short break for our full bellies, we start climbing up to Laguna Suyroccocha located at 4.200 meters, surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains. This first uphill part of the trek works as an indicator for the guide if you are fit enough for day 2, also called the Gringo Killer
The crystal clear lagoon reflects the sun, clouds and its surrounding nature perfectly and gives you an opportunity for great shots! Take a few more steps to climb the mountain to get a full view of its turquoise waters! Once on the top of the mountains I can’t stop smiling. What a lucky soul I am being here and experiencing this incredible nature!
Arriving at the camp, it is already „happy hour“, meaning cookies and coca tea waiting for you before dinner.
As soon as the sun gets down it is freezing cold at this altitude. Get on all your layers and enjoy the view on the Inca milky way!!
Depending on the time of the year, temperatures easily drop to -10 degrees, so make sure you have a good sleeping bag! Salkantay Group, our operator was constructing typical andean straw tents last year. Those serve as a shelter for the tents to keep away strong winds and rain and also to ensure the cultural heritage of the location!
It is 9pm, sleep well before the wake up call with hot Coca tea at 5 am on:
DAY 2 (22 km)
There is nothing better than holding a cup of hot coca tea in your hands, while waking up in the still dark mountains! With luck you will be able to watch the sunrise over glacier peaks and clouds lifting from the green cloud forest!
Pack your stuff, breakfast with apple pancakes is waiting!
No worries, it is not an easy climb up to Abra Salkantay on 4.600 meters, but you will walk in your own rhythm, taking between 2,5 and 4 hours till the highest spot of the pass. Not only the climb is breathtaking, also the views on Salkantay glacier and surroundings!
Drink enough water to avoid altitude sickness and headaches. Once on the top, put on warm layers and enjoy the view waiting for the rest of the group! You will find many stone trees build by travelers and locals. Quechua people worship the mountains and build those as offerings. Please do not destroy them or take any of it away!
After building our own group stone tree, the descent begins. And this is one of the most incredible parts of the trip! In this day, you will go from glacier to mountain rain forest. Nature is changing fast from sparse cool mountain landscape to lush green beginning of the cloudy forest! Our lunch spot in the middle of the way is shrouded in mist and also the last 3 hours to the camp are misty, rainy and wet. Make sure you bring a good rain jacket!
Our second camp in Chawllay (2.900m) is also build of those traditional huts. After hanging our wet stuff outside, happy hour is served with tea and coffee and shortens the waiting time for another great dinner! Day 2, the hardest part of the trip with 22km hiked is done! It is warmer, we are on lower altitude and a great night sleep is awaiting me and Paula, the Brazilian girl I share the tent with! Sleep well, till the 5 am wake up call: MATE DE COCA on:
DAY 3 (16 km):
Day 3 is an easy 16 km hike to the campsite in Santa Teresa, giving you the opportunity to absorb the various forms of life, the sounds and smells of the rainforest! Santa Teresa is a small town with the highlight of natural hot springs which is, after 2 days hiking without a shower, a great afternoon pastime! You can go by bus, but we decided to walk the 45 minutes along the dusty road! We are on a trek, right? So get back into your stinky shoes, take your bikini and jump into the hot water! AAAhhh, what a great feeling!
Back in the camp, we enjoy some cold beers on a campfire after dinner and sleep warm and cozy before our last real hiking day to Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Pueblo) starts!
DAY 4 (19 km):
From Santa Teresa you can choose between 2 options: either you decide for an optional Zip lining tour, or you walk 3 hours to Hidroeléctrica! My group decided to walk! Temperatures in the morning already climbed up to 25 degrees, no clouds, no wind! Use sun block of 50 and don’t forget your mosquito repellent!
After a sweaty walk of 2,5 hours, we arrive Hydroeléctrica to have lunch!
On the middle of the way, you have the choice to jump into the freezing cold stream of the Urubamba river to refresh your hot feet! And then, a few kilometers further, you see it for the first time: Machu Picchu Mountain!! My heart takes a jump, I am smiling and looking forward to a real bed, the dinner, a beer and especially day 5, when it means: climbing Machu Picchu!!
Use the afternoon to wander around the small village and get some good snacks and drinks for the next day. You will spend the whole day outside and not reach Cusco before 10pm! It is not allowed to picnic inside the Machu Picchu area. We prepared some Avocado sandwiches, bought cookies and some fruit. With your ticket, you have the right to reenter twice the Machu Picchu site. Also, there are of course no toilets inside, so you will have to go out again to pee!
DAY 5 (stairs, so many stairs!)
4 am again, my alarm is ringing! It takes 30 minutes walking from Aguas Calientes to the entrance. It opens at 5 am and a long line of people is already waiting to climb up 500 meters to Machu Picchu. It takes around 45-90 minutes. You hear your heart beating, you are huffing and puffing. Your legs are heavy, just a few more steps … all you were hiking for the last 4 days is just a corner away! And there it is: the cherry of your slow travel: MACHU PICCHU! There is little to write to describe this cultural heritage of Quechua people.
Go there and explore it on your own! I spend around 7 hours there, also climbing up the Machu Picchu mountain (2.400 more steps!!!!) which gives you are great view on Wayna Picchu and the main village. After that, you can take a nap on the grass, but make sure the Lama is not opening your bag to steel your sandwich 😉
We take the train back from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and there change to a bus that brings us back around 10pm to Cusco. All organized by Salkantay Group!
Now, 2 days later, I am sitting in a small coffee in San Blas, Cusco, overlooking the cloudy hills of this town that brought so much joy and great experiences during my stay! I am grateful and happy and know that this was so far one of the best experiences on my trip!!!
What I took on the Salkantay trek:
- Rain jacket (essentiell, should be 100% wind and water proof, I used the PATAGONIA Refugitive Jacket)
- Warm clothes (I recommend Merino Wool Products, like my shirt from Tripple2)
- Thicker layer such as fleece or jacket
- Clothing to sleep in
- Sleeping bag (should be comfort zone 0- minus 10 degrees! I was equipped perfectly with my TALUS II from Sea to Summit)
- Hiking boots and flip flops
- Towel and toilet paper
- Sun block, repellent
- Water bottle
- Optional: hiking sticks, medication, pillow
You want to go on the trek? There are hundreds of tour agencies in Cusco and offers only vary slightly from each other. But the service you will will range from very good to poor.
I can highly recommend the Salkantay Group! David, the owner, was working many years as a guide and walked the track over 600 times. They know land and people, have incredible good guides (ask for Hipolito!), food and, very important for us from More than Travel: they care about the environment, their workers and the culture! Booking with Salkantay Group will allow you digging deeply into nature, culture and habits. Ask your guide many questions, he will probably have a long story shortening you hiking time listening to ancient habits and customs. Their new website will be out soon and will be integrated in this article!