Salkantay Mountain is the tallest mountain near Cusco. Machu Pichu is really just on a shoulder of Salkantay Mountain. This is a big, important spirit surrounded by beauty. It’s also relatively accessible, so you can do a one-night, two-day hike up to the Salkantay Pass. It’s a quick adventure near Cusco. This Guide opted to do the trek with Salkantay Trekking (because I figured they must know the mountain best if they’re named after it). Here’s a full review of the hike up to the Salkantay Pass and back…
Salkantay is the luxury hiking route to Machu Pichu
I’m using “luxury” loosely here and only in relation to hiking the traditional Inka Trail route. On the route over the Salkantay Pass, companies can purchase land to build things like glass igloos and kitchens for cooking. So depending on the company you travel with, you might not have tents on this route. And you’ll have toilets with toilet seats (which, depending on where you grew up in the world, is either a relief or disgusting).
The other reason for mentioning this is you’ll probably do your one-night hike with a larger group of people on a full trek to Machu Pichu. For the trek I did, there was only one other person doing the one-night trek. I met the other hiker at 5am in Plaza San Blas, where our guide was waiting with a (very comfy) van, then drove to a small town closer to Salkantay, where we had breakfast. After that, we drove for another hour or so, winding up into the mountains, to meet the larger Machu Pichu group at the trailhead a few kilometers outside of Mollepata. Salkantay Trekking gave us cloth bags with snacks, hiking poles, and we got walking.
Day 1: Hike to Humantay Lake
After arriving at Salktantay basecamp, we had lunch, drank some muña tea for digestion, chewed on some coca leaves, and headed for Humantay. It’s around an hour hike up from camp to the lake at the mountain’s base. This is an easy hike in terms of terrain but moderate because of the altitude.
Lake Humantay looks like this special jewel cupped in a giant’s hands as an offering to Humantay looking down from its icy crown.
The lake is sacred. Do NOT fly a drone here. Not only will you annoy everybody with the buzzing, but you could be kicked out of your hike or fined. You’ll also be cursed forever by the mountain spirit. Talk to your group guide about where you can and can’t unleash Skynet.
In previous posts, like the Choquequirao and Machu Pichu trek posts, I’ve shared a bit about Inkan culture cosmology and the use of symmetry and mirrored opposites. Likely one of the reasons Humantay Lake is especially sacred is that vertical and horizontal symmetry you can see some of in the photo above. From many angles, the mountain is reflected perfectly in the lake. And the mountain itself looks like you could fold it in half along that center line to the middle peak.
How are the glass igloos and toilets at Salkantay basecamp?
The glass igloos are pretty darn cool (no pun intended, although it is cold up there). They’re positioned in a prime location so you get views of Humantay and Salkantay during the day. At night, the panes of glass glitter with stars. If you’re from the Northern Hemisphere, it’s a great chance to learn about Southern Hemisphere constellations.
For couples, you can request an igloo with a double-bed instead of two singles. Most of the igloos are single beds. There was plenty of space when I was there, so I had my own igloo to myself.
The igloos are not heated, but Salkantay Trekking supplies a sleeping bag.
You’ll notice that all of the igloos have two happy bulls sitting above the door. Click here to learn about the rooftop bulls around Cusco.
The toilets are plentiful, exceptionally clean, and you can sit on them (if you’re into that).
During the daytime, the glass igloos remain covered with tarps. The sun is so intense at that altitude, and the drop in temperature at night so rapid, that the glass panes would break from the constant expanding and contracting. So bring sunscreen and a sweater.
Will you get altitude sickness on the Salkantay Trek?
While I was in Cusco, I did three group hikes, and my experience was that people didn’t take the altitude seriously enough. Give yourself more than a few days before you start hiking. I understand that can be difficult with tight schedules. Cusco is best done slowly.
The hike to Salkantay was my last hike on this trip, so I handed off the altitude medication I’d been carrying for emergencies to a hiker going to Machu Pichu because he was having a bit of an emergency. The other person doing the one-night trek didn’t make it to Humantay or Salkantay. The hike to basecamp, which is almost flat, was so difficult for them, they just hung around basecamp.
Stay at Antigua Casona for a week, have their chocolate mousse every night with a Cusco sour, and then you’ll be ready for hiking: Hotel Review – Antigua Casona San Blas
Day 2: Hike to the Salkantay Pass
Because some members of the Machu Pichu group were struggling with the altitude, they decided to ride mules up to the Pass. That is an option if you don’t take my advice about spending a week in Cusco eating chocolate mousse before your hike.
Since it was only going to be myself and my guide, Fredy, we decided to head out early in the morning and race up to the Pass and then head back down so we could catch an earlier van back to Cusco.
If you’re given an option about when to start your hike to the Salkantay Pass, start as early as possible. In local folklore, Salkantay is responsible for controlling the weather and you’ll see why as the sun rises. The mountain turns into a cloud factory. Click here to learn more about why Salkantay is so impressive.
The Salkantay Pass is at 4600 meters (15,090 ft). From Soraypampa basecamp, that’s a gain of 900 meters (2953 ft). The trail up is rough. A lot of loose rock, some streams to cross. But every step closer increases the level of awe.
We budgeted six hours to do the hike up to the Pass and back down again and did it in five hours. But that was with only one super fast guide and me, who eats a lot of chocolate mousse.
Something that might not be easy to spot: see the photo there of my trusty Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 boots? The water in the stream had ice on it. So did all of the rocks sticking out of the stream and all of the rocks around it. They were coated in a thin layer of ice. They looked like normal rocks, but were pure slip and slide. Make sure you bring good boots for the trek.
How is the food with Salkantay Trekking?
Having a kitchen with a roof, and multiple groups coming through the same location, did increase the quality and quantity of the food. It’s still the classic style of meals you’ll get on any trek around Cusco: big stainless steel platters of energy-packed food served family style. The dining hall has a glass half-dome for watching Salkantay manufacture the valley’s weather.
Would I hike with Salkantay Trekking again?
I’d happily do a longer hike with Salkantay Trekking. The guide for our one-night hike, Fredy, was a great guy to hike with, knew a lot about the region, and managed multiple moving pieces and tight timelines well. The experience with getting signed up for the hike, paying for it, doing orientation in Cusco, and the equipment they supplied, all went seamlessly. Of the three groups I hiked with, I’d put Salkantay Trekking in the same top tier as Alpaca Expeditions. They’re both Indigenous-run, local companies that you can count on for some very special hiking experiences.
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