Travel Cheap: Salkantay Trek

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Travel Cheap: Salkantay Trek

Trying to get to Macchu Picchu like a boss? Or maybe you just want to do an immersive Peruvian nature-hike. Either way, go ahead and skip the Inca Trail. While this tourist trap of boredom does offer great views and minimal exertion (a donkey carries all your gear!), it does so for the cost of hundreds of your hard-earned dollars—plus, you'll have to traverse this wild terrain with a couple dozen picture-snapping strangers.

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Probably the best picture of the mountain we took. You don't want to miss this, do you? Well, you'll be staring at it for a week when you hike the Salkantay Trail. Make sure to bring pants.

It’s impersonal. Rushed. Confined. All that pre-booking ahead (sometimes 6 months in advance?) and pre-set itinerary makes my skin crawl. Hiking and trekking are meant to promote freedom and introspection, aren't they? And having to explore nature someone else's way isn't exactly the pathway to enlightenment the tour companies say it is. On top of that, let's face it: $650 dollars American for four days of trekking isn’t something any budget traveler can afford.

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Awesome view along the trail.

What about hiking the trail without a guide? Strictly forbidden. It’s a major no-no. So what are you left with? The truth is that the Inca Trail isn’t the only way to get to Aguas Calientes and, by extension, Machu Picchu. There’s another, more beautiful, wilder, and way more budget friendly way to get there—the Salkantay Trek.

This 5-7-day trek through the mountains is crazy, savage, beautiful, and offers up a freedom which travelers rarely find in any trek, much less one leading to a destination as popular as the Picchu. So how can you get there? Read on to discover everything about this climb, including how you can do it yourself—for just $20.

Preparing for the Trek

First, you’ll need to get to Cusco. This is generally easy and quite cheap to do via bus. No matter where you are in the country, chances are you’ll be able to catch a bus for less than $30 American—from Lima you can get one as cheap as $16.

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There's tons to see and do in Cusco before you hit the trail, but that's a post for another day.

Cusco is basically the hub for all things Machu Picchu-related. Here you’ll find tons of badassery, including transportation to Mollepata, which is where you’ll find the trailhead. But before you set off on your grand adventure, you’ll definitely want to stock up on supplies like food.

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These mountains definitely made us jump for joy.

Do this in Cusco rather than anywhere else. Their marketplace is huge, welcoming, and cheap as all get out. Stock up on easy, snackable items like jerky, cheese, and nuts. You’ll be hiking all day every day for the next week or so, and you’ll want to be well-prepared with quick and easy bites. Make sure to buy some coca leaves as well. Chewing on these will give you energy and help you acclimate to the thin mountain air. If you buy cheap foodstuffs like rice and pasta for your dinners, the whole cost of food for the week shouldn’t exceed $5-$10. Buying food for Salkantay is cheaper when you're with a group, as is transportation. The more the merrier!

You can buy cooking gas at the more touristic camping stores around here as well, if need be. You can even go whole hog and buy your tent and pack, though that will get pretty expensive. As far as water goes, there is plenty along the way in the form of crisp, cool mountain streams. It’s very advisable to bring a LifeStraw or other filtration device along with you.

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There are plenty of mountain streams to drink from along the trail.

Getting to the Trailhead

From Cusco you can grab transport to Mollepata from Avenida Arcopata. Here you’ll find public transportation in the form of shared minibuses, the cost of which vary depending on the day, driver, and how he feels. I’ve heard of people paying 7 soles per person (that’s around $2.50), up to 15 and even 20 soles per person.

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Keep in mind that on these roads, anything can happen. Even a flat tire.

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Despite the priest helping out, an act of god failed to save us. Those lugnuts were not coming off.

However, you can also hire a private taxi. These hang around the bus station waiting for tourists like yourself to come along. If you are traveling with more than two people or with a group, a private taxi could be even cheaper for you than taking the minibus.

The ride to Mollepata will take over an hour, so try and get comfortable. It’s full of gorgeous scenery, and if you make nice with the driver he’ll stop and let you take some pictures. Eventually you’ll turn off the main highway and onto a winding dirt road which seems to just go straight up and up and up, and you’ll know you’re almost there.

Navigating the Trail

The driver will generally drop you off wherever you ask him too, so ask him to drop you as close to the trail head as possible. It’s likely he knows where it is and if he doesn’t, the locals do. Don’t be afraid to ask. They’ll point you in the right direction, though they will try to sell you their goods and services—politely decline, unless of course you need something.

You’ll see signs pointing to the trail as well, so be on your merry way! This trek will take you through 74 kilometers (around 46 miles) of sweet and isolated mountain terrain. The guided tours take four or five days to get through all of this, but it will take you longer.

That’s because you’ll be carrying all your own stuff. Don’t underestimate how taxing this will be for you. Camping gear, food, and some water will all have to strapped to your back, so get ready for some major exercise. Besides carrying all your own gear, you’ll also have the freedom to stop and smell the roses along the way.

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Actual sign we saw at the end of the trail, where humor and coffee plantations are plentiful.

There are several smaller pathways to explore along the trail. Some are just little off-roads leading to lone houses or mini-villages, and others provide an alternative route for those looking to avoid the mule-trail. These paths can be a bit treacherous, but incredibly diverse and interesting.

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Be careful on the thin parts of the trail if you choose to go an alternative route.

It’s these offshoots which really allow you to learn about the reason for the Salkantay in general. After all, the path wasn’t created to cater to hike-happy tourists. It was the original Andean superhighway, connecting village to village and people to people. By going off the beaten track a little bit, you’ll get to learn just how far people had to go to get anywhere back in the day. And it’s more than worth it.

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It's a good idea to bring a pair of sandals with you to cross streams and waterfalls like this one.

At the end of the trek you'll cross one monster of a bridge. Then you’ll find yourself on the train tracks leading right to Aguas Calientes. You can hop on the train for that final stretch of the journey ($40), or you can choose to walk along the tracks an additional 2 hours (free) to reach the city.

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This is one badass bridge, but don't be afraid. It's well-traversed and very sturdy.

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The train tracks will lead you right to Aguas Calientes, and the view is absolutely incredible.

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The view coming into Aguas.

Camping Out

There are several small villages to explore, as well as numerous micro-climates to bask in—at one point the scenery seems as if you’re passing through a rainforest, at another you’ll be ascending snowy peaks. You can choose to pay to camp in designated areas controlled by locals, or you can camp for free along the trail as you please.

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Awesome view of Lake Humantay. You don't want to miss this!

There is one campsite you may want to pay to stay in, and it's the first one you'll come to. It's called Soraypampa, and the cost varies depending on who's working the gate. We paid 5 soles per person, but you could pay more or less depending on the season. You'll definitely want to take a day's break here to make a mini-trek up to Lake Humantay. This clear and icy glacial lake will leave you breathless, both from its beauty and from the thin mountain air.

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Lake Humantay's clear blue water is one sight you'll never forget.

Try and avoid camping out on the actual summit, as it can get really cold up here. It could even snow on you. Other than that, the trail is pretty much yours. There are places where it’s difficult to find a good spot, and there are flatter areas—be careful and avoid hiking at night. There are no emergency services up here.

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It snowed on me, it could snow on you as well. Bring pants.

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Search around to find a nice, flat campsite along the trail. There are plenty!

When to Start Your Trek

In fact, you’ll find that there are places where you won’t see much of anything or anyone at all—especially if you choose your time of the year wisely. The peak season for trekking is from May through September, when the trail tends to be drier and warmer. However, you might find the trail to be a bit crowded during this time. Especially if you’re planning this trip as a sort of “getaway from society”, you’ll want to skip the crowds.

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If you plan your trip wisely, you can avoid the crowds and have the trail to yourself.

Try to visit in March, April, October, or November to stay dry and avoid the massive influx of people that the summer months tend to draw in. You’ll find that these months are optimal not only weather and people-wise but because prices on food and transport go down in the off-season.

A Word About Machu Picchu

The Salkantay Trek is one of the most beautiful hikes around. In fact, National Geographic recognizes it as one of the world’s top 25 treks. That’s really saying something. And it leads directly to Aguas Calientes, snaking up through the mountain pass and down through some other very interesting ruins.

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Check out these ruins along the Salkantay Trail.

But the whole goal is getting to Machu Picchu, right? Not exactly. Here’s a great little secret for budget travelers hoping to experience the best of Peru: you don’t actually have to visit Machu Picchu. That’s right, you can skip it entirely, or be content with the badass view of it you get directly from the Salkantay Trail.

It isn’t exactly a budget traveler’s dream. It’s crowded, expensive (at least $50), super touristic, and it can be kind of a bitch to make arrangements to get there. The Salkantay Trek doesn’t have to be about getting yourself to Machu Picchu. It can be (as it was for me) a learning experience and a chance to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes for a while, plus a chance to just get out there and hike a great trek in a gorgeous place. That being said, Machu Picchu is awesome. If you can, you should go for it.

MACHHU PICHHU.jpg
See that white line? That's Machu Picchu. That was as close as we could afford to get, but you may have a better bit of luck!

Trip Highlights and Things to Know Before You Go

Keep in mind that the Salkantay Trek is not a beginner-level hike. You need to have a pretty good level of physical fitness to complete this trek, and doing it without a guide will take a lot out of you. Be prepared to be exhausted, dirty, and ravenous when you arrive in Aguas Calientes. Once you do arrive there, you’ll be able to find a room for as little as $8 per person—just ask the locals where to go (hint: you will not see this price advertised anywhere on the internet).

Take Away

What: Hiking, Camping, Ruins, Mountains, Gorgeous Scenery
Where: Near Cusco, Peru
Budget Cost: $20 (Food, Transport)
Bougie Cost: $80 (High-Quality Food, Transport, Lodging)
Bring: Food, Tent, Good Shoes, Extra Sandals, ALL-WEATHER CLOTHES!
Trip Length: 6-7 Nights (Depends How Fast You Are)
Travel Rating: 5 Stars

WHOA.jpg
You definitely won't regret this awesome trip.

Thanks for reading my post, guys. As always, all these pictures were taken by myself or my partner.

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Glad you brought pants right, with the snow :p In such conditions, layers are your friend ;) Trail seems awesome. What's the minimum level of fitness you think someone needs for this trail?

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Hey there! I think you'd have to be pretty physically fit to do it without a guide and donkey. I would consider myself pretty physically fit, going on treks/hikes/hitchhiking/walking for very long periods of time. Sometimes days. And this was beyond a doubt the hardest thing I've ever done, physically. It's a very steep hike in a very high altitude, and I think the altitude really messes with you as well as the incline. I would literally sometimes take 3 steps and have to stop.

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Sounds really heavy indeed. Really cool you did it. Thanks for the feedback.


This post was shared in the Curation Collective Discord community for curators, and upvoted and resteemed by the @c-squared community account after manual review.
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Thanks guys!

Hi wayfare,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

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Thanks!!

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Wow - you are die-hard! I know I would never get through the first mile of this, but I was sure glad to see it today. If you go back that way, check the internet about how to get into Machu Picchu for free. Apparently it can be done by adventurous soles who take some kind of back way.

I think that you did the most budget of budget trips ever, and your photos are stunning. I cannot imagine what those ruins used to be. Do you have any idea?

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Hey fitinfun! Thanks for your support. Honestly I don't know what the ruins are, and had a hard time getting an answer from the people at the nearest pueblo. Apparently they were used for prayer, and at a certain time of day/year/something, they align with Machu Picchu for some purpose. Again, its vague. =)

The photos midway to the last caught my attention the most. I don't think the trip would be worth it without friends traveling along with. No one to communicate your travel adventures along the way. I think the convenience of transport only hindered quality time from enjoying the journey. I wouldn't mind taking a long trek even if I had cash to spare. With a few good friends and necessities packed, that's already enough for me to get set. Glad you had a great adventure, that's something enviable. :D

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Hey! Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you like the pictures! I also have a hard time doing solo treks. It seems I do get lonely on the road. I definitely agree with you about the convenience of transport. That's why I enjoy doing things the more difficult way. It's just more rewarding, at least for me. =)

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Good luck on your future adventures and may you enjoy them with your current friends and meet new ones along the way. congratulations on the curie upvote, this post was worth the vote :D

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Thanks!!

Incredible post wayfare, I am following you now, I love traveling on the cheap and I think your series is for me!

Thank you for sharing this with us on Steem! I am so impressed, have you ever done a travel blog before?

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Hey ecoinstant! Thanks for your support =). I'm s glad you like it. I'll be sure to check out your stuff as well! I have done a travel blog before, but it was quite a few years ago and I haven't posted anything in a while. You can check it out if you like: https://sidetrackedtravellers.wordpress.com/
Are you a traveler as well?

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I love to travel and will definitely keep doing it. I've lived in Colombia for the past 6 years, so I guess I'm really slow at it c;

Currently in Florida and will be doing a bit of travelling around here, we'll see what the future brings. I definitely like your style!

I hope you'll keep posting here on steem, I see you got a visit from curie, they want you to keep sharing with us too!

I used to do a blog, it was a lot of work to learn all about hosting and wordpress and then in the end no one came. I came to steem for the free hosting, the money turned out to be a sweet bonus.

Cheers!

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I had the same experience with the blog...I don't really think I'm going to earn much. What I really want to accomplish is to help break this conception people have that in order to travel you need lots of money. Eventually I want to have some property (in Colombia or Ecuador I think) so I can host travelers and help people who are also traveling cheap. Cheers!

How awesome to read of your wonderful treking adventure from the comfort of my living room! It is something I would have dreamed of doing back in my younger days and now am content to live vicariously through wonderfully written travel blogs like yours. Great photos! Congrats on the @curie vote!

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Thanks! I'm glad I could bring some excitement to some other folks =)

@wayfare Imprecionante the taking of the photo where they jump for joy. Beautiful landscapes. Excellent view in the streams watching the water run. It is incredibly beautiful. The bridge is super expectacular so it is safe and strong. Fantastic view of the lake is wonderful to enjoy.
Machu Picchu is a super nice and fantastic hiking experience. Incredibly beautiful experience. Thank you for sharing this incredible and wonderful trip that is a unique experience. A big greeting.

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Thanks!! I'm really glad you liked it

I dont know what is better....

the fact that you provide us with fantastic infos how to get a low budget trip into this awesome and unique location - or the magical pictures which you bring from there to us here.

I really cant decide :-)

... but i bet it was an incredible and fascinating experience! Good to see your impressions from there.

By the way, yor choice would also be my prefered way to travel. So you can meet and see much more than in a coach first class bus :-)

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I'm really glad you liked it! It was quite an awesome experience for me; I hope other people are inspired to take it as well =)

Thank you for sharing with us on budget trek. Most of the trekking are expensive and definitely cannot afford by some people. Other than that, a budget trek can brought you a satisfaction although it maybe time consuming in term of planning and preparation. Your photos were very good and self explanatory. Can see from the photos that you all were very excited although it tiring. The scenes were so nice and you all so close to nature. and very thoughtful of you that provided a list of Take Away for us. I enjoy your article very much.

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Hey thanks! i'm really glad you enjoyed it =)

Wow Peru is indeed very beautiful and full of good energy and a great source to manifest any wishes you desire

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Thanks! Glad you liked the post

howdy from Texas wayfare! wow, what a trip you guys had! amazing views, amazing tips on costs, supplies,clothing, how to get ready and what to avoid, very good advice wayfare. The photos are stunning!
it looked like it got real cold at night though.
I assume you do trips like this alot? and do you have more planned that will get put on posts?

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Hey, I'm also from Texas =) It did get very cold at night! I try to do things like this a lot, but sometimes it gets put on the back burner for work and stuff. But I'll definitely be posting more stuff!

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howdy again wayfare! oh wow another Texan? but you aren't living here now are you?

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I'm not =) Right now I'm in the Netherlands, but who knows what the future may bring?

I think you nailed it in the first line. Macchu Picchu like a boss....
That looked like an awesome adventure, Lake Humantay looked awesome I think I actually like those shots better than the mountain shot. It would have been even better if the lugnuts just fell off when the priest walked up....
Great post it so totally deserved that curie vote...

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Wow! Thank you =) I'm really glad you liked it, it's really nice to get some encouragement from the community

Probably one of the best travel posts I've read on Steemit so far. I've not been to South America yet but after reading this, when I do go, will be printing off this guide and taking it with me!

Thanks for taking the time to write this and sharing the experience, really nicely done :)

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Thanks for taking the time to read it, man! I'm really glad you liked it. Hit me up when you go to south America, I've got tons of tips for you

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Absolutely will do! Thanks for the offer man, keep those awesome hikes coming on steemit too :D

Such amazing photos @wayfare!! Breathtakingly awesome! And I love the shot of you guys jumping in the air. But sorry to read about the flat tyre. I tried removing a flat tyre once, the nut wouldn't budge even with me standing and jumping on the lug wrench. It was so frustrating. Other than that, I think you guys had loads of fun eventhough tired. It looks quite taxing and challenging at some points. But totally compensated with the superb landcapes :) And thank you so much for the tips. Will surely help much if we plan to go there.

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Thanks so much for reading it! I'm glad you enjoyed. It was super frustrating but in the end, totally worth it.