Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

In a winter solstice tribute to the Inca sun god Inti, we shared a lifelong travel ambition with thousands of other lucky visitors at the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Unlike most, however, we completed the high-altitude Salkantay hiking trek of 50 miles (80 km) over four days to reach this dream destination. 

Day 1: Salkantay Trekking friends beginning our four-day hike to Machu Picchu
Many an obstacle underfoot on the Salkantay trail

Our adventure began with an early morning shuttle to the trailhead of Challacancha at an altitude of 12,467 feet (3,800 m). Here, with anticipation and understandable trepidation, we met our Peruvian guide Porfirio (“Porfi”) and group of eight other trekkers. Hailing from various European countries, the average age of our hiking colleagues was a vigorous 28 years!

Humantay Lake at 13,780 feet (4,200 m)
Still smiling at Humantay Lake

With fresh legs and high spirits, we all became fast friends, and completed the relatively easy first day hike to our overnight accommodation at Soraypampa. Along the way, we made an uphill detour to Humantay Lagoon, a jewel of a glacial lake of turquoise blue water.

Night 1: Sky Camp glass igloos in the shadow of Salkantay Mountain
Pasta and protein courtesy of Chef Donato

In camp, we got our first taste of chef Donato’s extraordinary cooking. Over the next four days, Donato expertly prepared hot, delicious, and nourishing meals for our ravenous hiking group. With satisfied bellies and a snow-capped mountain backdrop, we quickly drifted off to sleep inside our private glass-domed igloo.

Day 2: Catching my breath on the ascent to Salkantay Pass
Trek highpoint at Salkantay Pass, elevation 15,190 feet (4,630 m)

The next morning, we all woke in fear of Day 2 of the trek, the highest and hardest section of the Salkantay trail. Taking a deep breath with each arduous step, we climbed in the thin air to the highpoint of the trek at Salkantay Pass and an elevation of 15,190 feet (4,630 m).

Long mountain descent to camp
Night 2: Sleeping under the stars at Mountain Sky View Camp

From Salkantay Pass, we descended a whopping 5,512 feet (1,680 m) in elevation over the next six hours. After the steep climb to Salkantay Pass and long downhill hike into camp, we were treated to another of Donato’s substantial meals and a different glass-enclosed bedroom, this time with a private bathroom and hot shower!

Day 3: Descending into the Peruvian Jungle
Guide Porfi keeping us safe and on pace

On Day 3 of the trek, we continued our descent, leaving behind the high alpine terrain and passing through lush jungle vegetation. Here, our guide Porfi, grandson of a Quechua herbal-medicine practitioner, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of jungle plants and their curative properties.

Esther harvesting coffee in the Peruvian jungle
Roasting coffee over a wood fire (don’t burn the beans amigo)

Fortunately, growing in abundance was our favorite medicinal plant, the coffee bean. To revive our fading spirits, we stopped at a small coffee farm to pick the bright red berries, roast the beans over a hot wood fire, and enjoy a rejuvenating shot of fresh espresso.

Day 4: First view of Machu Picchu (center-left of photo) from Llactapata
Snoring siesta at Aobamba

On Day 4, we caught our first distant glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Inca ruins of LLactapata. From there, we had lunch and a brief siesta, and then continued down to the Urubamba River to Aquas Calientes and a comfortable hotel bedroom for the night.

Day 5: The Inca citadel and royal country retreat of Machu Picchu
We wouldn’t have made it without our fearless guide Porfi

The next day, the sun rose on the June solstice as we entered the magical site of Machu Picchu. To us, reaching this mysterious site in the remote Peruvian mountains on the winter solstice, by way of the Salkantay Trail, represented a traveler’s pilgrimage of epic proportion.

Temple of the Sun on the winter solstice (sun illuminating the ceremonial stone)
Temple of the Three Windows and the Chakana-Inca Cross on the winter solstice

The astronomical significance of the solstice was also profound to the Inca. Only on this shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, the sun shines through the window of the Temple of the Sun and illuminates the ceremonial stone within.

Our celebratory lunch and triumphant toast
Inti Raymi Festival in honor of the sun god Inti, Cusco, Perú

After exploring Machu Picchu, our group gathered one last time to celebrate the solstice, our accomplishment, and the realization of our own personal travel dreams. Finally, back in Cusco, even the locals were celebrating, with huge parades in reverence of Inti, the Inca god of the sun.

Feature Photo:  Sadly, this past February, Esther’s mother Leny passed away. During her last days, she confided that one of her regrets in life was never to have seen Machu Picchu. To celebrate her life and help her posthumously realize her dream, Esther carried a photograph of her mother on our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. There, on the winter solstice, we spent a few minutes with her overlooking the sacred site. Given the beam of light captured in our photo, it appears that the sun god Inti has given his blessing.     

16 thoughts on “Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

    • Thanks JaNann! The five-day Salkantay Trek adventure was definitely the highlight of our trip to Perú. It was extra special to celebrate Leny’s life and complete her quest to visit Machu Picchu. Thanks to Gordon as well. A Pisco Sour is the perfect refreshment to quench our massive thirst after hiking 50 miles to get there. Cheers!

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  1. Wow, what an adventure! It looks like you had Machu Picchu to yourself. My mother loved to travel and hike so I’m a bit surprised that she never mentioned MP as a place she wanted to visit… I think she would have loved it. Day 2 on your adventure sounds grueling but were the other days a lot “easier” (I’m putting that in quotes since I know none of it was actually easy)? I’m also curious how did you get back to Cusco.

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    • Trekking to Machu Picchu is on the bucket list of many hikers. We feel very fortunate to have crossed it off our list without too much suffering. Getting there with her mother’s photo on her back was an extra emotional experience for Esther. Day 1 was the easiest so we could acclimatize to the altitude. Day 2 was especially grueling. It was 17 miles over 11 hours with a 2,400-foot elevation gain to Salkantay Pass and a 5,500-foot elevation loss to our camp for the night. The last two days were long and tiring, but not as exhausting. On the fifth day, we woke in the gateway town of Aguas Calientes, and took a bus 15 minutes up the hill to Machu Picchu. The return to Cusco included a two-hour train trip and two-hour van ride. After all that, it took us a few days to sleep and rest our feet.

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    • Thanks, Neil. In response to your great question, Esther and I had a long discussion about this today. The combination of the physical challenge and duration of the hike with the beautiful high-altitude setting and ultimate destination of Machu Picchu on the winter solstice made this our preeminent travel experience to date. I don’t know if we can ever top it.

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  2. I think this is possibly the best blog post we’ve ever read. Such a wonderful thing to do, such an experience, such an achievement, such a moment, such a dream come true. And then right at the end you tell us about Esther’s mum. Just a bit blown away by this story. It’s a good job we read this late at night in private when it’s ok to wipe away a tear.

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  3. Coming from such seasoned travelers and writers as you, I think this is possibly the best compliment this humble blogger has ever received! Thank you so much for your kind words and empathetic feelings for Esther and her mum. Clearly moved, she choked up when I read her your touching comment. As you well know, it is much easier to write about a truly unique and memorable adventure such as a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. This was a story that I had to tell and the words just flowed accordingly. Thanks for your friendship, and I hope you had a great time in San Francisco today!

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  4. That’s Epic with a capital E. Well done for completing the trip, especially with a special passenger. Clearly, the payoff was incredible. (And how did you manage to be there without the usual massive swarm of tourists?)

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    • Thanks with a capital T, Dave. Even two weeks after finishing the trek, we are still smiling about our experience, partly out of relief for not dying along the way. Since you have visited Machu Picchu, you know how crowded it can get. I think we avoided the hordes by arriving early. Toward the end of our two-hour tour of the site, the line to get in was quite long. As you commented before, seeing Machu Picchu was one of those “pinch me” moments, especially given the emotions surrounding Esther and her “special passenger”.

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  5. I only know one other person who has managed to make it to Machu Picchu! That is so impressive! And I’m so sorry to hear about Esther’s mother… it is so touching that she carried her photo on this trip so that she could finally realize her dream through her daughter. Their love for each other came through, loud and clear. This post made me tear up, honestly. All the best to you both….

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    • I am happy and proud to be the second of all the people you know to make it to Machu Picchu, Ann. It is one of those special places that is stunning to see and not very easy to get to. Only a small percentage of the visitors take the time and put forth the effort to complete the four-day trek to the site. As you would expect, seeing Machu Picchu at the end of the long hike made the experience just a little sweeter. It was even more meaningful to help Leny achieve her dream, and doing so on the winter solstice no less. Thanks for your empathetic reaction to the post. It means quite a lot to us.

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  6. What an amazing adventure! I’m incredibly impressed with the endurance and sticktoitiveness you both have (honestly, I’d have waved goodbye to you after the first day). And what a great tribute to Leny. Well done, Joe and Esther. – Marty

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  7. Thank you, Marty! For the entire trip, we had been thinking about the perils of hiking four days at high altitude to reach Machu Picchu. When we met our vigorous and youthful hiking colleagues, we swallowed hard and committed ourselves to trying to keep up with them. It was too late to back out anyway. In the end, we held our own with the kids and enjoyed their camaraderie immensely. I think you would have done the same, old buddy. Esther’s commitment to carry Leny on her back and share the experience with her was a wonderful and moving gesture. I am very proud of both of them for realizing their dream.

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  8. Joe, such an amazing adventure. The long hike there does make the arrival at Machu Pichu even more special, the Salkantay trek is not easy, but so worthwhile, and looks like you had great accommodation for this epic trekking experience. Getting there for the winter solstice was the icing on the cake for sure.
    A wonderful tribute to Esther’s mum. Having lost my father in early March 2022 I can understand how it feels like for Esther to realize this dream in her mother’s name.

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