So… my out of shape self decided that it would be good to impulsively go on the five-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu… and it was amazing. The Salkantay Trek is the top alternative for travelers who couldn’t be bothered to book the Inca Trail several months in advance, but still want to suffer miserably on their way to Machu Picchu. The trek takes you through Peru’s highest mountains and most beautiful valleys, through musky jungles and along roaring rivers, battling the elements and hordes of mosquitoes day in and day out.
In other words, it is one of the most beautiful and painfully rewarding treks you can do in all of South America.
It is an experience that I will never forget. From the breathtaking views you encounter all throughout the trek, to bonding with your trek mates through mutual suffering, every step of the journey is an adventure. If you are currently desperate for an alternative for the Inca Trail and stumbled upon this article through your frantic Google searches, all I have to say to you is do it.
Choosing the Right Trek/Guide/etc.
In Peru, I’ve come to find that most treks are arranged by different tour groups, but then they lump everyone to the same guides. Basically, it doesn’t really matter what group or agency you book with. The Salkantay trek should cost about $250 no matter who you book it with, so make sure you’re not paying an obscene amount more than that. Also, go into the trek with relatively low expectations. If the agency tells you you’re getting warm, fluffy pillows and blankets, just know that it’s probably a lie. We got suckered in by an agency, Rasgos del Peru, who said a number of things would be provided that were just not. Our Salkantay Trek guide looked over the list of things that we were told would be provided and just shook his head at half of the things. There’s really not much you can do about it.
If you are willing to shell out more money, I’m sure it’s possible to get a more personalized tour or a private guide for your group. Going it alone? You’re insane, but I applaud you for it. I can’t help you here. Bring a tent and warm clothes, and enjoy lugging enough food for five days around. My homie Tom managed to do it solo, but he’s Australian and Australians are weird.
How to Prepare
I was as out of shape as I’d ever been in my life when I decided I was going to go through with the trek. I decided to do it about two weeks in advance, spending several hours in the gym each day, and even going to my sister’s house just to walk up and down her stairs with a 50-pound pack on. I’m not sure how much that prepared me, but every little bit helps I guess.
Basically, you should be in relatively good fitness level to do this trek, but training months in advance is absolutely not necessary. I was probably the most out of shape out of my group of twenty people or so, but did not have any problem doing the trek physically. There were a few people that had problems, but most of those were likely due to the altitude.
With that being said, you should definitely take several days to acclimatize to the altitude. I made the mistake of doing Rainbow Mountain with less than two days to acclimatize to the altitude and suffered miserably in the days preceding my trek. Rainbow Mountain reaches over 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level, and to go that high after lounging around at sea-level in Chicago just three days earlier was ridiculously irresponsible of me.
Take the altitude seriously. Altitude sickness is definitely real, and even if it does not affect you too bad, it will still make things much more difficult if you are not accustomed to being that high with air that thin. I spent the day before my trek preparing for my battle with altitude, from medically proven (Sjorochi, Dexijdoasf (spelling?)) to those with less science behind them (coca leaves, coca candy, coca freakin’ everything).
I also caught a cough, cold, and sore throat from my trials and tribulations at Rainbow Mountain, so I bought medication for all of those as well. During the Salkantay Trek, you will be going from freezing cold to uncomfortably humid, and will be sleeping outside for a few nights. A few people on my trek got sick, so it won’t hurt to plan ahead just in case.
What to Bring
If you book the trek with a guide or tour, you’ll definitely have a list of what to bring. Regardless, here’s my thoughts on what I should have done in hindsight. I overpacked in some aspects, and severely under-packed in some other aspects.
My biggest advice would be to pack as lightly as possible. It will get cold, but you will be constantly moving. Packing too much cold-weather clothing can bog you down. I packed my stupidly bulky Patagonia sweater and I literally never wore it. A raincoat is a must, and bring something to cover your day pack in case it rains. There is nothing more miserable than being soggy throughout your trek. Make sure you have a good pair of hiking boots or shoes that you’ve broken in. Also, even if your boots are supposedly waterproof, don’t jump into a lake with them on. They will not dry overnight. There was nothing worse than taking on the grueling second day with frozen feet in my wet boots.
I brought a pack of weird Peruvian trail mix, and hardly ate any of it throughout the trek. You will be well-fed by the trek’s chefs, but everyone eats differently. If you tend to snack a lot, bring a lot of snacks. I over-packed in terms of water also. Maybe I was too busy suffering miserably to eat and drink, but for some reason, my stash of snacks and water were barely touched. Stay hydrated as much as you can. There’s also no need to bring enough water for all five days. You can purchase water from the villages you stop at every night or throughout the day.
Dude, bug spray. Bring a lot of it. Sunscreen is also important for you gringos that get sunburns through your clothing on rainy days. Walking poles also make you feel significantly more official, and help exponentially. Don’t be ashamed to use them. Also, bring your passport because you need it to get into Machu Picchu. It would suck to go through that trek and not even get to see the final destination.
A positive attitude!!!
One of the most underrated things is being energetic and optimistic. The day before the trek was the least confident I’d ever been about doing the trek. I was battling altitude sickness and actual sickness. That severe lack of confidence was a terrible attitude to have, and thankfully I get over funky moods pretty quickly. I was significantly more mentally prepared the next day, and even had a pep in my step after I found myself doing fine with the altitude. Who knows if the mental preparation and positive attitude actually helped. Even if it was some weird placebo effect, I feel like it definitely helped me with the trek. Hey, it could help as much as the legendary, non-scientifically proven, effects of chewing coca leaves to deal with altitude.
The Actual Trek
It is good to be prepared, but the Salkantay Trek itself is something that you should go into with almost no idea what you are going to see. Even though this is a Salkantay Trek guide, I’m not going to tell you anything about what you’ll see on the actual trek. It’s like finding out Darth Vader was Luke’s father before you got to see it yourself. Prepare your sense of wonder for some of the most incredible five days of your life. I know I posted some pictures, but they don’t do justice to what you are going to see. The experience is indescribable.
But honestly, if you’re curious, click here to watch the Youtube video I made of the Salkantay Trek. It’s pretty epic and I just want people to see it. Like and subscribe!
What You Need To Know Before Taking On Rainbow Mountain