Machu Picchu has been my number one dream destination for as long as I can remember. Last summer, I decided it was finally time! Hiking to Machu Picchu was 10/10 one of the greatest things I believe I will do in my lifetime. And guess what?? I had never even slept in a tent before the first night on the Salkantay Trek.
- Logistically, this was a great trip for a first-time big international adventure because all hikes to Machu Picchu, regardless of trek route, require you go with a guide. Additionally, these are not backpacking treks. Every tour company will send porters with your guide, so you only carry a daypack with water, snacks, and layers. Plus, there was definitely no way I would have been able to carry a 30 pound pack in high altitude given I had no previous experience. The porters also cook your meals, so you do not need to worry about food. This was great because I truly had no idea how much more I would eat after hiking all day. Plus, with local guides and Inca-desendent porters I felt like I was getting a deeper cultural understanding of the region through their personal stories.
- Physically, I was totally fine! Admittedly, I would consider myself in pretty good shape and went on quite a few “practice” hikes in North Carolina before my departure. However, it is super important that you listen to your body. While I could hike a few miles in NC without stopping, the altitude in Peru really affected me. There is no way to predict how you’ll react. For reference, I am a relatively small girl from Miami (sea level!). I was stopping ever twenty minutes or so the first day of the trek to catch my breath. It was super discouraged seeing large men just sprinting up mountains. The second day of the Salkantay involves hiking up a glacier, but I opted for a (terrifying) three-hour donkey ride. I had nothing to prove to anyone, and was more concerned with keeping up my strength for the next three days. The donkey ride was definitely the move for me. I felt like I really conquered those next few days. Pay attention to what your body needs!
- Why Salkantay? I saw a video of an experience hiking the Salkantay while dreaming years ago about the Inca Trail, that my mind made up. From my understanding, the basic difference is that the Inca Trail, three days, goes through ruins more stair-like paths. The Salkantay Trek, five days, is more nature-oriented, going through mountains and the Peruvian Amazon. There are perks to both – you could go through the super historic Sun Gate, or see picturesque Lake Salkantay – so I think it’s a matter of preference. Also, tours for the Inca Trail generally have to be booked many months in advance. By comparison, I booked my spot on a tour for the Salkantay just a month before my departure, and there were plenty of advertisements in Cusco for immediate trips. I understand from other travelers that the Inca Trail is also usually more expensive than the Salktantay Trek, simply for its fame. Whichever you choose, you get to Machu Picchu, and that is really the ultimate experience.
- If you’re really itching to go, there is no reason to wait around for someone to join you. About half of my trek group was solo hikers! You meet great people from all around the world, and I found the journey to Machu Picchu to be very personal. While I went with a group to Peru, I remember the Salkantay Trek as something I did alone. I expect to do it solo next time.
- Check the weather! I just googled “average Peru temperature August” and thought I was done. Consider altitude and what kind of biospheres your chosen trek crosses. I bought gloves and a scarf in Cusco the night before departure.
- Coca leaves really help with adjusting to the altitude. I wasn’t really into the taste or feeling of a wad of leaves in my mouth, but it is amazing how much they offset my symptoms.
- If your tour itinerary does not include your arrival at Machu Picchu at sunrise, fight for it. Seriously, I cried when I saw it. Opt for the 3 AM wake-up call.
- Pack light as donkeys will be throwing your duffel around on their journeys. I had no clue what I needed before my departure, so I’ve created this nifty little packing list for fellow non-hikers.