A rewarding way to experience Machu Picchu. Suitable for fit individuals who are new to trekking.
I was volunteering in Lima, Peru in the summer of 2015 with IVHQ. A round-trip flight from Lima to Cusco was 170 USD, which felt like a lot at the time, but I was urged back at home that I had to go to Machu Picchu. Many volunteers booked their trip with Loki Travel by email or at their offices. The 4-day Inca Trail was more expensive and popular than the 5-day Salkantay Trek, and so I chose to do the Salkantay at the student price of 221 USD (International Student Identity Card required) in mid-August. My understanding is that tour companies register hikers, whom are then added to a communal group managed by a trekking operator. You can visit different companies in Cusco and find the best price for the same tour if you are flexible with time. A couple proficient in backpacking said that they joined our group because it was overall less expensive than going independently.
The trek has incredible value in comparison to North American prices. Everything is taken care of, all you need to do is hike! Included is a guide, bus and train transportation, meals prepared by cooks/donkey drivers, tents, foam sleeping pads, transportation of up to 5 kg of personal gear, and entrance fee to Machu Picchu. It is well-organized given that there are daily departures for this trek.
The food is excellent. There is soup as a starter for every dinner. I heard that water bottles get more expensive as you go further into the trek and so I carried two 2.5 L bottles with me on the first day. You can fill your bottles with boiled water in the morning but I do not think there is enough for a few litres per person.
There were 19 people in my group, led by an English-speaking guide and an assistant guide who did not speak much English. A second group of a similar size started at the same time as ours, we saw them occasionally along the trail and shared some accommodations with them. You may run into private groups along the trek and independent hikers.
There was an early bus from Cusco on the first day to Mollepata, followed by a 22 km hike to Soraypampa. Most of us did an optional hike from camp to a glacier lake, Humantay. It was muddy! Be sure to wear shoes or boots with grip, some people were sliding around. The first night was cold, it may have been close to 0 °C. Bring warm layers.
On the second day, we reached 4630 m (15,190 ft) and there was snow! A handful of us did an optional hike to a lake but we could not see anything due to the clouds. After 20 km, we arrived in Chaullay where basic showers were available. I think the cost was 10 soles. One hiker rinsed himself off in the cold river instead. I used wet wipes.
It is a shorter hike of 13 km on the third day. From La Playa, a bus transported us to Santa Teresa, and everyone opted to visit the hot springs (Baños Termales de Cocalmayo) for 20 soles. I enjoyed it, you can admire the mountains while in the water. There are beer and snacks available to purchase. At night, there was a campfire and music.
There is a total trekking distance of 14 km on day four. An optional zip lining excursion is available for 30 USD. I tried zip lining once and did not find it terribly exciting, and wanted to save money, so I opted out. Two hikers and myself walked along roads instead with the assistant guide and joined the group afterwards. It was a flat hike to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. We stayed at a clean hostel with Wi-Fi (included in the trek price).
Day five is Machu Picchu! You leave earlier than sunrise to hike up to the entrance. I believe the gate opened at 6:30, and the sun rose before this. Still, leaving earlier means that you are hiking in cooler temperatures and get to visit the ruins before it gets too crowded. You can get a Machu Picchu stamp for your passport at the entrance gate. Our guide gave us a tour of the ruins but I was rather tired during it! Note that you are not allowed to bring a large backpack but a compressed daypack is acceptable.
When you book the trek, you have the option of buying a pass for Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountains at an additional cost. I did not do either so I cannot comment on them. Our guide suggested Putucusi Mountain, a free unmarked trail that starts in Aguas Calientes and has views of Machu Picchu. The ladder up the first part of the rock cliff no longer existed and there was just a cable. It appears from Tripadvisor that climbing gear is required. We figured it was too dangerous and it started raining anyways.
A celebratory dinner in Aguas Calientes (not included) is warranted before catching the train to Ollantaytambo, where a bus brings you back to Cusco.
Sharing this experience with travelers from around the world was one of the highlights of my trips, as well as walking through different climates. This was my first multi-day hiking trip and I enjoyed it tremendously!