A Miserable 4-Day Trek to Machu Picchu – And I Can’t Wait to Do It Again!

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You don’t normally read 5-star reviews that include phrases like, “hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” “triggered my survival instinct,” and “didn’t think I’d finish.”  A few Yelp comments like that about the local bistro could be catastrophic for business.

But not for the Salkantay Trek through the Peruvian wilderness!  The trek is a ~40 mile walk between the quaint town of Cusco to the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Is at the Finish Line of the Salkantay Trek.  But the Journey Is More Fun Than the Destination!

Peru is inconceivably dazzling.  Even if you don’t visit Machu Picchu, everyone should give Peru a go.  Especially because reaching Peru for cheap is very easy.  You can fly one-way to Lima from the US in coach for 17,500 American Airlines miles or 20,000 United Airlines miles.

Why Hike the Salkantay Trek Over the More Popular Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail is a similar hike that draws exponentially more tourists than the Salkantay Trek.  I’ve not done the Inca trail, but after researching them both (and receiving exclusive guidance from team member Meghan who had already completed the trek), my friends and I signed-up for the Salkantay Trek.

The trails have many differences.  Here are a few big ones:


The Inca trail is a historically relevant journey with many ruins and ancient landmarks along the way.

The Salkantay Trek doesn’t have many of those things.  It’s more nature-oriented.  It takes you through the most beautiful sights on the way to Machu Picchu.  It’s very rugged and “off the beaten path.”


There is far less foot traffic along the Salkantay Trek than the Inca trail.  So it’s easier to absorb the peaks and cliffs and lakes as if you were alone.

Lots of Beautiful Rewards Along the Trek, Like a Stop at Humantay Lake

Because the Inca Trail is so popular, it sells out quickly.  Like months in advance.  But the Salkantay Trek is almost always available.  Our tour guide made it sound as if you can practically show up and jump on a tour the next day.

Level of Difficulty

The Inca trail is MUCH shorter than the Salkantay Trek (almost half the distance, depending on which package you choose).  The Salkantay trek also rises ~1,500 feet higher than the Inca Trail, which means noticeably less oxygen.

My friends and I were more interested in seeing pretty things than following the “Royal Road” blazed by the Inca Empire.  And the increased difficulty sounded like a fun challenge.  So we reserved a 4-day hike with the highly-rated Salkantay Trekking.

We swung by the office the night before the hike and were given a blanket and a duffel bag for our gear.  We were each allowed to pack the duffel bag with 15 pounds to be carried by cargo mules.  Everything else we’d have to carry ourselves.

Fuzzy Salkantay Trekking Blanket

Salkantay Trek Index

Day 1 – Dropped Off at Challacancha

Our journey started at 5:00 am in the lobby of our hotel in Cusco.  Salkantay Trekking picked us up in a van, and we drove all around Cusco picking up the rest of our travel party from their various hotels.

We drove a few hours to a lonely rest area in Mollepata for a quick breakfast and bathroom break.  Then farther north to a location in the middle of nowhere, Challacancha.

We Began Our Hike at Challacancha

The hike began with rain.  Heavy drops that give extra effort to soaking into your clothes.  Our cooks fastened tarps to the cargo mules carrying their equipment and our duffel bags.

I Believe Our Group Had 4 Mules in Total

Our tour guide, Simba, pulled out a plastic bag of coca leaves and told us to stuff them in our cheeks.  Coca leaves help to prevent altitude sickness.

My Friend Wadding Up Her Ration of Coca Leaves

The very first step of our hike was an incline.  And it was a wake-up call to everyone in the group.

We started at ~11,000 feet above sea level, and would climb to above 15,000 feet.  The oxygen was just nonexistent.  Hills that would have otherwise been a breeze felt almost impossible at times.  It was the strangest sensation.  No energy was replenished by sucking in air.

Soon the trail leveled out, and we tight-roped along gigantic mountains and valleys.  The enormity of the nature was a little overwhelming.

The Paths Were Narrow and Dangerous Enough to Keep Our Hearts Racing

I quickly learned my pants were not as waterproof as the merchant told me.  My legs were soaked within the first hour of our hike.

Simba would stop us often along the trail to explain the function and significance of various plants to the ancient Incas.  He was very chatty, which we all liked.

Stopping to Hear Simba’s Floral Knowledge

Hours later we arrived at our campsite for the night, Soraypampa.  It was a little under 13,000 feet.  I was tired, but pretty pleased with my performance, as I hadn’t trained much for this hike.

We Spent the First Night at Salkantay Sky Lodge

We would be sleeping in glass igloos tonight.  A prime opportunity to stargaze.  Unfortunately, the night was shrouded in thick clouds, so we couldn’t see a thing.

There Were 15 Igloos at Our Campsite

The igloos housed 2 hikers each.  They smelled pretty awful, like the many hikers that came before us.

We threw our belongings in the igloos and laid down for a spell.  Then we headed to the dining hall for lunch.

Tiny 3-Foot Doors at the Entrance of the Igloos

One spectacular feature of this tour group was its food.  Never was there a meal I wouldn’t have rated 5 stars.

That said, the hike was demanding and we were always famished.  So the food may have just been okay.

Two Other Groups Were Eating at the Hall When We Arrived

After lunch, Simba announced that the difficult part of the day was next.  We would hike another mile to reach Humantay Lake.  It was optional, but one of the highlights of the trek.

The Lake Is Just Beyond the Mountain Ridge

The lake was another ~1,000 feet above sea level.  The ground was plenty steep in some areas, and slippery from the rain.

Simba Yelling Out Safety Recommendations

Humantay Lake really was stunning.  It was tranquil and clear, and beautifully reflected the mountains guarding it from every direction.

I’d loved to have stayed up there longer, but the sun was preparing to drop, and I didn’t want to navigate back down the mountain with my headlamp.

Humantay Lake in Its Glory

Back at camp, we had a quick dinner, and walked to our igloos.  They’re gorgeous at night!  But I could only think of the suffocating body odor awaiting me inside.

Multi-Colored Glass Igloos

There were 2 twin-sized mattresses with a small walkway in between.

Camping at 13,000 feet comes with some challenges.  The night was UNBELIEVABLY cold.  No sleeping bags or blankets could defeat the chill in our bones.

Blurry From Shivering

Another challenge I blame on the altitude was the sleep apnea I experienced that night.  The entire day I wasn’t quite able to catch my breath, and that night was no different.  I was always conscious of my breathing, and when I fell asleep, I’d be jolted awake because my breathing had stopped.

Nobody else seemed to have this problem, and I only experienced it on this night.

Bottom Line

My friends and I meticulously researched the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.  But we were still surprised by its beauty.  And its difficulty!  And day 2 would be WORLDS more difficult than this first day.  I’m thankful we weren’t fully aware of what was to come.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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