Can you hike the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu without a guide or tour? Absolutely!
Hiking the Salkantay Trek without a guide was something I didn’t know was possible when I arrived in Cusco. I was aware that the famous Inca Trail without a guide was impossible so I figured that any trails leading to Machu Picchu were going to be restricted from self-guided hikers and cost a lot.
I was happily surprised when a tour office said we could and we didn’t need to file any permits, but they quickly tried to scare us away by saying the trail was dangerous and too remote to hike alone. I am glad I looked past their sales pitch, downloaded a Salkantay trail map and went for it.
After 50+ miles of hiking along one of National Geographic’s top 25 hikes in the world, the Salkantay Trail, to Llactapata and on into Aguas Calientes, I arrived at the base of Machu Picchu. Even carrying all of my own gear, I managed to keep pace with a guided tour that was ahead as I climbed over the 15,000ft Salkantay Pass. This was probably the most challenging hike I have completed but only due to elevation. From the jungles to the snow capped mountains, this section of Peru is a stunning and full of incredibly nice people.
Salkantay Trail Routes, Distance & Elevation:
There is one general route for hiking the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu but there are many places to camp so the itinerary is very flexible. The most common is a 4-5 day hike that starts in Mollepata and ends at Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu. This route will cross the Salkantay Pass, go through a stunning subtropical cloud forest, visit Llactapata Ruins, and finally lead to Machu Picchu.
A 3 day itinerary is possible but requires starting in Soraypampa and skipping a day.
Most agencies that offer the Salkantay Trek have a version of this route. They generally include transportation, accommodations, a donkey to carry your gear, food, and entry to Machu Picchu. The image below shows a fairly typical tour. Note the distances on the first day are shorter, this is because they will take a bus part of the way to save time.
But, by doing the trek on your own, you gain flexibility and will be able to plan an itinerary that will fit your endurance level.
4 Day Route and Distance:
-Day one: Mollepata to Soraypampa (12 miles)
-Day two: Soraypampa to High Camp (7 miles)
-Day three: High Camp to La Playa (15 miles)
-Day four: La Playa to Aguas Calientes (15.5 miles)
Total Distance: approx. 49.5 miles + 6.5mi return to Hidroelectrica
Cusco to Mollepata
Take a colectivo from Cusco to Mollepata either in the early morning to begin hiking that day, or in the afternoon and stay one night in Mollepata. If you chose to stay in Mollepata, the Hostal Inti Killa was a nice place to stay and close to the center.
Starting in Mollepata, head to the start of the Salkantay Trail. From the main square, there are a couple of signs but any local will be able to point you in the right direction if needed. The uphill climb begins here!
When you arrive at the picnic area, make sure you take the trail leading through the picnic area and not the one heading down. The one that looks like the obvious trail leads to the road. The road will get you to the same place, but it adds a little distance.
Follow the trail to Soraypampa and set up camp for the night. The first camping area you see after the Mountain Lodge has basic facilities and a great view of Salkantay Mountain for only 5 soles per person.
Wake up at 7am and have a good breakfast before beginning the hike up to the Salkantay Pass. The 15,000ft pass may only be 3.8 miles (6km) but the elevation poses the challenge. Take your time and drink plenty of water. This section alone took 5-6 hours. (lots of breaks & photos!)
Once you reach the pass, the next camping area is an additional 3.1 miles (5km) but now the trek is downhill. The scenery will change rapidly and we walked in clouds the whole time! Once you reach a relatively flat stretch, there will be a couple of camping areas. Make camp and if there are no clouds, spend so time to check out the spectacular stars!
Get started early and have a quick breakfast as today will be long. The hike is all downhill and after 6.3 miles (10km) you’ll have the opportunity to have a hot lunch in Collpapampa. The first ‘cafe’ had a good meal for 10 soles.
After lunch, your hike follows the Santa Theresa River with a couple of ups and downs before leveling off. There are several small farms along this beautiful stretch and the locals will be happy to see you. There are many landslides along this section of trail so be careful when crossing these sections of the trail as they can be narrow.
Continue hiking into La Playa and make camp for the night. There are also a couple of camping areas at the far end of the village and a few more about a mile up the road from there.
Break camp at a comfortable time and make your way to the start of the Llactapata Trail. You will now be entering a different trail so asking people where the Salkantay Trek is will get you pointed in the wrong direction. Luckily, this trail is nearly impossible to miss or get lost on.
On the Llactapata trail, you’ll notice that the climate and vegetation have changed even more. Prepare for the heat and intense sun if it is not cloudy. The climb is approximately 3.1miles (5km) and near the top, there is a great little stand perched on the edge of the mountainside. Take in the view and hydrate.
Continue up and over the mountain and within a half mile of the pass you will be at Llactapata Incan Ruins. Spend some time exploring and taking in the distant view of Machu Picchu.
Finish up the day by descending into the valley and hiking to Aguas Calientes via the railroad tracks starting in Hidroelectrica.
You could break up the long days and stay at one of the guesthouses/hostels in Chalway.
If you would like to go further than Chalway, there are several local farms and shops that offer camping along the way to La Playa. The locals are extremely nice and in my experience, welcome you with open arms (and giant avocados!)
On day four, after descending from Llactapata, you can catch a colectivo to Santa Teresa for the night and have a cold beer, hot shower, and comfortable bed. Then in the morning, catch a 5 sole colectivo back to Hidroelectrica and continue to Aguas Calientes.
A 3 day itinerary is possible by taking a taxi to Soraypampa from Mollepata which will cost an extra 80-100 soles.
How to Prepare For The Salkantay Trail Without A Guide:
The gear required for hiking the Salkantay without a guide or tour that would normally provide your gear is very similar to what is needed for the Torres del Paine O Circuit Trek in Patagonia that I hiked a month before. Check out that detailed post and my regular packing list to see exactly what gear I had with me.
There is a huge market in Cusco that has several dried fruit and nut vendors that sell products in bulk. A few hundred grams of almond, peanuts, raisin, and assorted fruits provide a lot of light weight energy for trekking.
Next to the market, there is an Orion Supermarket. Here you can stock up on oats for breakfast, granola bars and some chocolate for snacks and pasta, soup mixes, vegetable protein for dinners. They also have meats and canned tuna but keeping you pack light will make the hike more enjoyable.
On the trek, Soraypampa and Collpapampa have small shops where you can buy basic grocery items if you run short. Along the trail each day we found small setups with at least bottles of water (10-15 soles) and snacks.
In total, I brought enough for four days but only cooked three breakfasts and three dinners while the rest of the meals were purchased from local shops.
I always carry a SteriPen when I’m traveling to a place where water is questionable and especially when I’m going to hike. The one I have purifies 1 liter of water in 90 seconds without the use of chemicals.
Water purification tablets are available in Cusco at some of the hiking stores. They cost around 30 soles for a strip of tablets and take about 30 minutes to purify the water. These tablets are chemical based and taste unpleasant.
Boiling water will effectively kill any harmful bacteria but due to the high altitude, longer boiling times are required which will mean carrying more weight in fuel.
- Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag (+15F)
- Camp Stove and Fuel
There are several trekking shops in Cusco to rent or buy gear from and negotiating prices should be easy. I noticed a lot of the gear was knock off quality and still rather expensive so buying gear at home or renting would probably be better.
If you rent, make sure to double check all rental equipment before leaving the store. Set up the tent and make sure all the pieces are there and you understand how to use it. Also, double check your sleeping bag, the weather can easily drop below freezing in the high altitude. A -15C, +15F bag is recommended.
For cooking, make sure that you bring enough fuel. At high elevations, water boils at a lower temperature. What does this mean? Your rice or pasta will take a few extra minutes to cook (water can only be heated to boil before turning to steam). These extra minutes mean you need to plan for 25% more fuel. (very rough guess). I took one small can and that was fine for two people. If you want coffee in the morning, pack a little more.
- Hiking boots
- Long pants
- Short and long sleeve shirts
- Warm fleece
- Down coat
- Rain shell
- Hat & gloves
When hiking in a high elevation area, always have proper all weather clothing. Weather can change quickly so be prepared for rain, wind, and cold. I suggest a pair of clothes for the day and some warmer layers for the night as the temperature drops quickly after sunset. Once you have descended from the Salkantay Pass, the climate changes and the dry mountains become a jungle. Everything is possible!
Salkantay Trail Map:
The Salkantay trail map available in Cusco is nothing short of disappointing. As a map lover, I really wanted a nice topographic map for the hike (more for a souvenir), but don’t worry, you really can’t get lost! Just follow the footprints and donkey droppings.
If you do want a nice topographic map, I suggest buying one online before arriving in Peru.
I do suggest downloading Maps.me (free app) and the maps for Peru. The trail is on the map so following by GPS is simple although it is well marked and traveled by locals and tour groups daily.
Transportation To & From the Trail:
Cusco to Mollepata:
In Cusco, the buses that go to Mollepata depart from the Arcopata Bus area. There should either be a colectivo, shared taxi or private taxi hanging around. Spark up a conversation and negotiate a ride. The ride from Cusco to Mollepata should take about 2 hours by taxi depending on the vehicle and driver. Plan a little extra time for a colectivo.
Hidroelecrica to Cusco:
When you are done at Machu Picchu you can find many colectivos and mini buses waiting at Hidroelectrica and they leave when they are full. They should cost about 30 Soles per person and take approximately 6 hours to get to Cusco.
General Cost of Hiking the Salkantay Without a Guide:
These are what I paid for the items I needed, or the prices for items I was looking at. There are a bunch of gear shops, don’t hesitate to shop around and haggle. Sometimes crossing the street will cut the price significantly!
- Tent S/10 per day
- Sleeping Bag S/6 per day
- Sleeping Mat S/4 per day
- Cooking Supplies S/5 per day
- Gas canister S/25
- Water Purification Tablets S/30
- Topographical map S/25
- Colectivo from Cusco to Mollepata S/20
- Colectivo from Hidroelectrica to Cusco S/30
Food and Water:
- Lunch on the trek S/10
- Water on the trek S/10-S/15
- Hostel in Mollepata: S/17
- Campsite at Soraypampa: S/5
- Hostel in Santa Theresa S/15
- Hostel in Aguas Calientes S/20
- Entry to Mollepata Tourist Tax S/10
- Entry to Machu Picchu S/150 + Machu Picchu Mountain S/50
My total cost for the hike including food transportation and accommodation plus bus to from Aguas Calientes to Macho Picchu and entry into Machu Picchu was only about 600 Soles or $180 USD. The bus to Machu Picchu and entry, with Machu Picchu Mountain, was 278 Soles alone.
Not bad for a few extra days, a free itinerary and one incredible experience!
General Trail Tips:
- If you do not have travel insurance, this is one of those hikes where you will want it. The rocky trail makes it easy to roll and ankle! Check out World Nomads for great travel insurance.
- Bring 300-400 soles in cash so you can pay for transportation, food, and accommodation. You probably won’t need that much, but the only ATM is in Aguas Calientes!
- Bring plenty of sunscreen and a nice hat to protect from the sun.
- Bring plenty of bug spray! The little seemingly harmless flies are brutal! They leave bites that are 100X itchier than mosquitos and couple weeks later, I still have a couple bites! The worst part is that they don’t hurt when they bit, you will just see the blood. Bug spray is available at a pharmacy for about 15 soles, trekking shops will charge about double.
- Coca leaf may help with the elevation and you can find it in many places along the way as the locals use it regularly.
- The locals do not know much English, try to have some phrases ready if you do not already have a good command of Spanish. It’ll save you some confusion!
- Bring proper first aid with blister bandages. Even though I don’t get blisters ever, I managed to rub some small ones in on the grueling day long downhill descents.
- Between Collpapampa and La Playa there are a lot of landslides, use good judgment when walking on a trail that has collapsed.