Across the Andes and Through the Jungle: Reaching Machu Picchu By Foot

For most of my life, the number one thing on my bucket list was to see Machu Picchu.

But I didn’t just want to see it – I wanted to reach the ruins by foot. For some reason, I had this idea in my mind that this would make it more magical. It was a lofty dream and, to be fair, the realistic part of me still expected Machu Picchu to be like other famous sites – cool, but slightly disappointing in the end, leaving you thinking “okay, that’s it?” But still, part of me clung onto this idea of making my way across the Andes and through the jungle by foot to watch the sunrise over the ruins of Machu Picchu.

As I wrapped up my bachelor’s degree, I knew there was no better time in life for this adventure. I bought a cheap flight on a whim after an atmospheric dynamics exam that left me hating my life and had absolutely no time to plan anything with graduation just days away. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Lima, alone, with absolutely no plans.

After arriving in Peru, I ended up spending a few days in Lima before heading down south to Arequipa where I volunteered at a hostel for a few weeks and then took a short detour to Lake Titicaca before finally making my way to Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu. Once there, I booked my trek, opting for the alternative (and cheaper!) Salkantay route.

Of course, most people are familiar with the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. But because my trip was so last minute and unplanned, I wasn’t able to do the Inca. These days, you need a special permit to hike the trail, which has to be booked months in advance and can be quite expensive. To save some money, I waited until arriving in Cuzco to book my Salkantay trek (it sounds crazy, I know). But, because I waited, I only paid about $275 for the 5 day/4 night trek, which included all transportation, meals, accommodation (in tents and a hotel the last night in Aguas Calientes), entrance tickets to both Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain and an amazing tour guide.

All in all, it was probably the best $275 I ever spent. That magical vision in my head of reaching Machu Picchu by foot and watching the sunrise over the ruins didn’t do reality justice. It’s hard to put into words just how incredible this experience was, but if you take anything away from this blog post, it’s that you should go to Peru and visit Machu Picchu ASAP (after this pandemic ends of course!).

Disclaimer: my photos suck because my phone was stolen in Lima on my first day in Peru and I had to buy a cheap phone to get me through the trip. So use a bit of imagination and ignore how grainy and blurry they are. I promise these sights are better in person.

Day 1: Cuzco – Challacancha – Soraypampa

  • Distance: 13 km / 8 miles
  • Starting Elevation: 3,600 m / 11,800 ft (Challacancha)
  • Max Elevation: 4,200 m / 13,800 feet (Humantay Lake)
  • Ending Elevation: 3,900 m / 12,800 feet (Soraypampa Campsite)

Day one started off bright and early with a van picking me up at my hostel around 4 am. The starting point for the Salkantay trek is a few hours away from Cuzco. It’s a beautiful drive, but if you get carsick, be warned – the curvy mountain roads aren’t forgiving. We stopped for breakfast along the way and then continued on until we reached Callacancha, a little village in the mountains that marks the start of the trek.

Overall, the first day was really easy. The trail was mostly flat as we snaked our way through the valley, following an ancient Inca aqueduct system with Salkantay Mountain looming in the distance. The easy start gave me a chance to chat with some of the other people in my group who came from all over the world to do this trek.

Day 1 Trail

Easy first day of trekking with Salkantay Mountain in the background

We arrived at Salkantay Mountain base camp, Soraypampa, late afternoon and, after claiming our tents for the night and dropping our bags, set out on an optional hike to Humantay Lake, a stunning glacial lake hidden behind the hills. It was a tough little hike nearly straight up the hill behind the campsite, but it was relatively short and the views were more than worth it!

Day 1 Lake

Humantay Lake

The rest of the evening was spent getting to know each other, bonding around the dinner table and feasting on a simple (but incredibly delicious) dinner. After just one day, I could tell this was going to be the adventure of a lifetime and I was excited to be sharing it with such a great group of people.

Day 2 Soraypampa – Salkantay Pass – Chaullay

  • Distance: 22 km / 14 miles
  • Starting Elevation: 3,900 m / 12,800 feet (Soraypampa Campsite)
  • Max Elevation: 4,630 m / 15,200 ft (Salkantay Pass)
  • Ending Elevation: 2,900 m / 9,500 ft (Chaullay Campsite)

I woke up surprised to find my feet still attached to my body. It was so cold that first night that I honestly thought I was on the verge of hypothermia, despite wearing six pairs of socks and almost every article of clothing I had. But I survived and was excited to hit the trail (and warm up)!

We started the day early because day two is the toughest (and longest!) day of the hike – the day you cross the Salkantay Pass at 15,200 feet! At this elevation you can really feel the lack of oxygen, even after acclimatization. Every step was a challenge as I tried to get enough oxygen to keep going on the steep and rocky trail. One thing I love about hiking, though, is that feeling you get when you find your rhythm – feeling like you can go forever. Although I had to stop a few times for a quick water and snack break, I found my rhythm and it only took a couple of hours to reach the pass.

Salkantay Pass

Crossing the Salkantay Pass!

My group spent some time at the pass soaking in this moment at over 15,000 feet. It was exhilarating and I couldn’t believe the best was still to come in a few days when we would finally reach Machu Picchu. The mountains surrounding us were stunning and our tour guide took us to the “secret” Salkantay Lake that had no other tourists – a nice treat considering we were sharing the trail with a few hundred people.

Day 2 Lake

Salkantay Lake

After taking some time to celebrate crossing the pass, we started our decent. We still had a long distance to cover until we reached our next campsite at Chaullay, but at least this time it was downhill! It was incredible to watch the landscape change from the rocky mountains to the lush upper Amazon cloud forest.

Day 2 Decent

The decent into the upper Amazon cloud forest

We stopped at another campsite for lunch, took a quick dip in the icy cold river running through the valley and enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine a bit before hitting the trail again. It was a very long and exhausting day of hiking, but we finally reached our campsite that evening, which featured tents in traditional Andean huts made of straw. We feasted on another incredible meal (honestly, the food was SO good) before getting some sleep knowing we had another long day of hiking ahead of us.

Day 2 Lunch

Lunch with a view

Day 3: Chaullay – Santa Teresa

  • Distance: 16 km / 10 miles
  • Starting Elevation: 2,900 m / 9,500 ft (Chaullay Campsite)
  • Ending Elevation: 1,550 m / 5,100 ft (Santa Teresa Campsite)

Day three was another long day, but since it was mostly downhill, it wasn’t as challenging as day two. However, by this point, my body was really starting to feel it! I was sore from the steep ascent the day before and my feet were absolutely exhausted. But I was excited to be another day closer to Machu Picchu. Knowing every step I took got me a little bit closer to achieving this dream of mine kept me motivated.

We continued our decent into the jungle, passing waterfalls and dense, lush vegetation along the way. We stopped for a snack at a local farm along the way and met a very friendly donkey who thought he was a dog before continuing on to the restaurant where we would stop for lunch.

Waterfall

A waterfall in the jungle we pass on day three

After lunch, we continued on to our next campsite, Santa Teresa. This campsite was on the outskirts of a small town, so it was totally different than the other campsites we stayed in. We still slept in tents, but because we were closer to a town, there was running water and electricity, meaning I was able to take a (cold) shower and enjoy a cold beer after a long day of trekking!

Day 4: Santa Teresa – Aguas Calientes

  • Distance: 19 km / 12 miles
  • Starting Elevation: 1,550 m / 5,100 ft (Santa Teresa Campsite)
  • Ending Elevation: 1,900 m / 6,200 ft (Aguas Calientes)

The anticipation really started to build on day four! It was our final day of trekking and our destination was Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The only way in and out of Aguas Calientes is by train or by foot. But even by foot, you have to follow the train track into town, so most of the day was spent following the tracks. It was mostly flat, but on a few occasions we had to squeeze to the side to let a train come through.

Day 4 Train Tracks

Following the train tracks into Aguas Calientes on the last stretch of the trek

As we got closer and closer to Aguas Calientes, we could see the mountain Machu Picchu was perched on. Although you couldn’t see the ruins from way down in the valley, it was surreal to know that the end goal was in sight. And not being able to actually see the ruins just added to the suspense.

That afternoon, we reached Aguas Calientes and checked into a local hotel (with real beds and hot water!). We spent some time exploring the town, which I thought was absolutely magical. Yes, the town was super touristy, which I usually hate, but there was an incredible atmosphere with everyone on a high after seeing Machu Picchu or preparing to see it early the next morning. I wandered around the little town and explored a local market before having dinner with my tour group at a restaurant in town. We went to bed pretty early because after four days of trekking we were exhausted and we had to get up at about 3 am the next morning in order to reach Machu Picchu by sunrise. To be honest, I was so excited, I could hardly sleep.

Aguas Calientes

The train track runs right through the heart of Aguas Calientes

Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu – Cuzco

  • Distance: 12 km / 7 miles
  • Starting Elevation: 1,900 m / 6,200 ft (Aguas Calientes)
  • Ending Elevation: 2,400 m / 8,000 ft (Machu Picchu)
  • Max Elevation: 3,000 m / 10,100 ft (Machu Picchu Mountain)

We woke up in the dead of night, packed our day bags, double checked that we had our passports and then made our way through the dark to the entrance of the ancient Inca steps that lead up to Machu Picchu. The entrance didn’t actually open until about 5 am, but you had to line up really early if you wanted to make it to the top for the sunrise. When the gates officially opened, we had to show our passports and then cross a bridge before starting the climb up the hill to the ruins.

Honestly, this final stretch of 1,772 ancient Inca steps leading to the top was harder than I expected! It was pitch black, there were tons of people on the trail, all the steps were different sizes and we were literally racing the sunrise clock. There was no time to stop but I kept pushing until I reached the entrance and made it just in time.

I will never forget watching the sunrise over the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu after four days of trekking over 76 kilometers (47 miles) through the Andes and the upper Amazon rainforest while llamas roamed around me and I ate my favorite granola bar that I specifically saved or this moment. My legs were numb but my heart was so full.

Day 5 Sunrise

Sunrise over Machu Picchu

After a tour of the ruins, I headed up Machu Picchu Mountain. This is optional and it requires a separate entrance ticket. They cap the number of people allowed to do this hike at 400 each day and you have an assigned time to start your hike to avoid overcrowding on the trail. I was really tired, but figured it would be a fun easy hike and it would be cool to see the ruins from above.

Boy, was I wrong.

After days of trekking, this little hike was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Although it was only 2 km (1.2 miles), it was literally straight up with an elevation gain of about 600 meters, or 2,000 feet. My thighs were on fire as I climbed the vertical Inca steps and I almost quit about 12 times. Thankfully, one of the guys from my tour group kept pushing us until we finally reached the top.

Machu Picchu Mountain Steps

The very steep, thigh burning steps leading to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain

And I must say, the views from the top were worth the crippling pain and exhaustion! We could see not only the ruins of Machu Pichhu far below, but also the town of Aguas Calientes and the towering peak of Salkantay Mountain in the distance where we started this journey just days before.

Machu Picchu Mountain

At the summit of Machu Picchu Mountain

After making my way (very slowly) down Machu Picchu Mountain, I stayed as long as I could, wandering around the ruins and chasing the llamas. I wanted to enjoy every second and really soak in this moment, but, eventually, I had to head back down the mountain, back to town to catch the train to Cuzco that night.

Llama Selfie

Did you even go to Peru if you didn’t get a llama selfie?

I took one last glance at the ruins in the golden evening light, on a high from such an incredible experience, feeling exhausted and sore but proud of myself for accomplishing such a big goal of mine. With the number one item on my bucket list officially crossed off, I remember turning to leave thinking what’s next? I had a feeling Asia was calling and it turns out, I was right.

Machu Picchu

Crossed that off my bucket list!

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