We may be a little crazy, but we decided to self trek Salkantay to Machu Picchu without bringing a tent. No tour, no guide, no reservations. We trekked for five days and were able to find guest houses and cheap local restaurants along the way, and saved hundreds of dollars in the process. We’ve done all the work so now all you need to do is ditch the tour and get out there.
Highly rated 5 day Salkantay group treks cost around $400-450 USD and include at least 2 nights in tents. We were able to do our trek with private room accommodations each night, including all food, Machu Picchu (plus Machu Picchu Mountain) tickets and round trip transfer from Cusco for less than $150 per person. There is a reason why no one wants you to believe this is possible.
We had been minutes away from booking a guided trek. We had the booking form in our inbox, but balked when we learned that the required deposit had to be paid with Visa / Paypal which would include an obligatory 8% payment fee. It proved that there was just too much demand for this tour, and companies were using that to squeeze trekkers out of even more than the already inflated prices. So we decided to find a comfortable way to do it on our own.
Salkantay attracts a huge number of tourists looking to trek their way to Machu Picchu and over 95% of them join a guided trekking group. The few who do manage to self guide their trip do so by bringing tents, sleeping bags and often food. We prefer to trek guesthouse to guesthouse like the Annapurna Circuit, Quilotoa Loop or Colca Canyon so we decided to give it a try on Salkantay. Everyone told us it wasn’t possible without a tent or tour, but we wanted to prove them wrong.
Planning your trip without doing a trek? See how to get to Machu Picchu for only $12.
You will find specific info about food and accommodation options along the Salkantay trail, the cost of trekking without a guide and how decide if doing a self guided trek is right for you at the bottom of this article.
Our Self Guided Salkantay Trek
Day 0: Cusco
Our original plan was to wait until Aguas Calientes to purchase Machu Picchu tickets to remain most flexible with our trek itinerary. We then found out that tickets were selling out around 2 days in advance, so decided to reserve ours online and pick them up in Cusco (and paid cash to avoid the 4% credit card fee).
We also bought a pair of trekking poles for 40 soles (half the price of renting them as part of a guided trek), got 500 soles each in cash, prepared lunches for two days (just in case we couldn’t find any along the way) and packed our bags (packing list is below).
Cusco Elevation: 3,360 meters / 11,021 feet
Day 1: Challancancha to Soraypampa, side hike to Humantay Lake
Since we were getting dropped off near the middle of nowhere with no tent and only a little food, we wanted to make sure there was plenty of time to search for a room. We started at 4:30am from Cusco to start our trek to Soraypampa. We went to the corner of Calle Arcopata and Umanchata where the collectivos heading to Mollepata gather. The 4:00am van had just departed so we had to wait 40 minutes before ours filled up. The 2 hour ride cost just 15 soles.
Once at the square in Mollepata, we found another collectivo heading towards Soraypampa. We decided to start our trek in the closer Challacancha in order to avoid the first few kilometers of less scenic trail. One solo hiker from the 4:00am Cusco collectivo had arrived before us, but he ultimately had to wait with us 50 minutes for additional passengers before we could continue on. The 50 minute ride to Challacancha was another 15 soles, while the full distance to Soraypampa cost 20.
We hopped out along the road where most of the 5 day trekking groups begin and started a short climb to the trekking path. The distance to Soraypampa was only 7 kilometers on an easy trail, but the views were impressive and the short hike made a good warm up for our afternoon hike to Humantay.
Upon arrival in Soraypampa, we walked between all accommodations in search of rooms. As this area is not a town but solely a base for trekkers, it was our most uncertain night. Despite there being essentially no information about availability, we rounded up a few lodges which would rent us a room (explained fully in Accommodations Along Salkantay Trek section below). We ended up at the Soray Lodge / Hospedaje Soraypampa, which is located next to the bus parking lot just south of the main camping area. We negotiated a private room for 50 soles, although there was no shower or electricity and only external shared bathrooms (still better than carrying a tent). Hot meals were 10 soles each.
After eating lunch and dropping off our large backpack, we started the short but painfully steep hike to Humantay Lake located just above the camp. While Salkantay already attracts huge numbers of trekkers, Humantay tends to be a madhouse of both trekkers and the day tourists. We got lucky by starting our hike at lunch time, which put as at the lake right in between the morning day tripper hoard and the afternoon trekker crowd. The climb took 1 hour and 15 minutes and the descent a mere 30. We had the lake practically to ourselves from 1:00 to 2:30, when the trekking groups made it up.
Total distance: 12 kilometers / 7.3 miles
Starting elevation: 3,650 meters / 11,980 feet
Ending elevation: 3,870 meters / 12,690 feet
Peak elevation: 4,221 meters / 13,845 feet (Humantay Lake)
Total hiking time: 4 hours (excluding lake time)
Day 1 cost as a couple: 160 soles
Day 2: Soraypampa to Challuay over Salkantay Pass
We woke to a break in the clouds and our first glimpse of the glacier topped mountains surrounding the camp. Despite being little more than a muddy camp spot in the valley, the scenery is quite impressive.
Knowing that this was the toughest day and wanting to get ahead of the trekking groups, we set out just after 6:00am following a hot breakfast at the lodge. Starting up the valley, the trail splits with the high road to the right and low path by the river on the left. Seeing all groups and mules taking the path on the right, we opted to stay left. The trails eventually converge at the base of Salkantay Mountain for the start of the climb.
The trail up gets painfully steep at times, and the elevation put us right inside a rain cloud. After 2.5 hours which seemed like forever, we eventually reached the pass before rushing on to get out of the freezing rain.
While the climb was painful, the following descent was hellacious. 4.5 hours of steep and muddy decline along the contour of the valley. We had surpassed all other groups and had the remainder of the day to peacefully consider our aching knees.
We found a couple of camp sites and snack shops en route down the mountain, but no lodges or restaurants. We eventually reached Challuay, where we hoped to locate a room for the night. After a brief search, we came across Salkantay Hostel in the center of town, and were able to secure one of their few private rooms for the night. We got to enjoy 3 hours of solitude, WiFi and hot water before the groups arrived to camp on the lawn. We negotiated 50 soles for our room and private bath, with dinners for 10 and breakfast for 7.
Total distance: 21.7 kilometers / 13 miles
Starting elevation: 3,870 meters / 12,690 feet
Ending elevation: 2,870 meters / 9,415 feet
Peak elevation: 4,638 meters / 15,215 feet (Salkantay Pass)
Total hiking time: 7 hours
Day 2 cost as a couple: 85 soles
Day 3: Challuay to Lucmabamba
After another large breakfast, we began our long and easy day through the valley. There are two options, one which takes the dirt road to the right of the river and the other which follows the hiking trail on the left. Needless to say, the higher hiking trail is far more scenic and stays away from cars, but we still watched some groups walking the flatter road.
We had a few short steep ups and downs, but overall the day was easy and gradually down. We passed several beautiful camp sites along the river, with wide views of the surrounding mountains. There were also a handful of shops and small restaurants offering food. We crossed over several fairly fresh landslides, although each had a new path cut into the dirt. With so many paid groups trekking this route, it doesn’t take long for new trails to be built. Be sure to check with your hotel to see if all routes are open.
Once nearing the pueblo of Playa, we began seeing several options for guest houses and larger restaurants. We stopped at the slightly further town of Sahuayaco for a 10 sole lunch overlooking the river. Afterwards, we made the final push towards Lucmabamba in search of a room. This area is known for coffee farms and tours, although they were certainly not the tidy bushes that we were used to. Tall, overgrown coffee trees filled the forest, overflowing with ripe beans.
Once in the Lucmabamba area (nothing more than a few buildings), we went door to door researching accommodation options. It turns out there are a handful of guesthouses, but we ended up staying in a beautiful room at homestay Sonia y Walter. When we knocked on the door, the owner was almost speechless when she realized we were not part of a tour. We were clearly the first people to ever walk up looking for a room. Amazingly hot showers, big comfy beds and meals prepared from the fruits of their farm. We paid 50 soles for the room and 10 soles for meals. As a bonus, fresh roasted coffee was served with the farm eggs, yucca, and avocado breakfast. We ended up buying a 25 gram bag for only 10 soles. Sonia is part of an all female farmer co-op called Florcafe and their coffee is delicious.
Total distance: 18.5 kilometers / 11 miles
Starting elevation: 2,870 meters / 9,415 feet
Ending elevation: 2,135 meters / 7,000 feet
Peak elevation: 2,870 meters / 9,415 feet (Challuay)
Total hiking time: 6 hours
Day 3 cost as a couple: 110 soles
Day 4: Lucmabamba to Aguas Calientes through Llactapata
After overfilling on our farm fresh breakfast, we used the boost from our first coffee in three days to power us up the morning’s big climb. We had chosen the hike across the ridge through Llactapata for its beauty and views over the alternate path to the touristy hot springs of Santa Teresa. This turned out to be the most scenic portion of the trek, and a section we are glad not to have missed.
The trail began by threading through the jungle of coffee and fruit trees before turning a steep angle towards the ridge line. Wide views down the valley rewarded our pain, and an unexpected break at a high mountain swing set made for a fun resting spot. Once at the top, we got the real treat from this route which few visitors to Peru experience. At both the peak and several points along the following descent are epic views Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. The trail also passes through the small ruins of Llactapata before getting really steep. The only guesthouse on this portion, Llactapata Lodge, has some of the best views over the valley and would make an amazing spot to stay the night.
After we had soaked up the scenery, we began the long zig-zag descent back towards the river where we would find Hidroelectrica and a large 7 soles lunch at one of the food stalls. This was the end of the fun and beginning of the worst portion of the entire trek. The remaining 11 kilometers followed the railway tracks between towering cliffs all the way to Aguas Calientes without a real path. This portion might otherwise seem pretty if we weren’t annoyed at being forced to walk this distance without a path on loose railroad gravel. There was certainly the option to take the train for this portion, but it wouldn’t feel right to cheat and not finish the full trek. Plus at $30 for this short distance, the trip is far more expensive per kilometer than any we have encountered worldwide (yes, even bullet trains in Japan). Judging by the hordes of travelers walking in each direction along the tracks, we were not the only ones shunning the transport monopoly to Machu Picchu. With sore legs and bruised feet, we limped our way for the last 2.5 hours in search of the end.
The final stop and base for Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, is everything we despise crammed into one tiny town. A tourist ridden, low quality, tout filled, drunken gringo hot spot. After 70 kilometers of trekking, we wanted nothing more than a huge meal, but managed to find some of the worst food of our life and went to bed hungry.
Total distance: 21.7 kilometers / 13 miles
Starting elevation: 2,135 meters / 7,000 feet
Ending elevation: 1,900 meters / 6,230 feet
Peak elevation: 2,736 meters / 8,975 feet (Machu Picchu viewpoint)
Total hiking time: 8.5 hours
Day 4 cost as a couple: 120 soles
Day 5: Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu Mountain and hike back to Hidroelectrica
We had morning tickets to Machu Picchu, meaning that an awfully early departure was necessary to beat the throngs of revelers to the gate. We had decided that our trek would not be complete without a hike up the mountain (plus paying $12 for a 20 minute bus ride wasn’t happening), so we left the hotel at 4:00am and headed towards the gate. Despite arriving 40 minutes before the 5:00am trail opening, we were the 30th in line but far ahead of the hundreds that showed up afterwards.
When the gate finally opened, we raced our way for 40 minutes up the nearly 2,000 steps to be one of the first in line at the entrance, beating all of the buses to the top. Seeing the city without thousands of other tourists is a special experience worth the exhausting hike.
After 2.5 hours of wandering, we hiked towards the gate to Machu Picchu Mountain to prepare to our 9:00am entrance. Despite our 8:30am arrival, the guard let us start the climb without complaint. Maybe it was the sore legs and our exhaustion, but these additional thousands of uneven and excessively elevated steps were one of the toughest part of our trip. We repeatedly passed people who had started the climb before giving up and turning back. We admit that the thought crossed our minds as well, but we had paid for the tickets so crawled our way to the peak. After the previous several days of trekking, this climb was more than grueling.
If the climb up was a struggle, the 1,300 meter descent down several thousand steps back to the river was a nightmare. Plus it was the only thing standing between us and the final insult, another 11 kilometer walk down the train tracks back from whence we came. Although we first had to walk 2 kilometers in the wrong direction to retrieve our bag from Aguas Calientes. In hindsight, staying past the train station to the west of the entrance (maybe around Mamá Angélica’s) would save a return trip to town and avoid staying in that dump to begin with.
Back in Hidroelectrica, we got another 7 soles lunch and a direct 6.5 hour collectivo back to Cusco for 40 soles (versus 215 soles on the low end for the train). Another 20+ kilometer day and a ton of money saved on Machu Picchu transport. There are easier and more expensive ways to get to and from the ruins using the train and bus, but getting to Machu Picchu the hard way saves a ton of money.
When you visit Machu Picchu, make sure to remember your hiking poles. We heard they weren’t allowed and left ours behind (which we deeply regretted for all of the uneven stairs), but saw everyone using them. The only requirement is to have the rubber cap on the tip. Oh and all that noise about how long you are allowed to stay inside the site? Rubbish. No one checks the ticket at the exit so you can stay there as long as you like.
Total distance: 22.3 kilometers / 13.4 miles
Starting elevation: 1,900 meters / 6,230 feet
Ending elevation: 1,771 meters / 5,810 feet
Peak elevation: 3,082 meters / 10,110 feet (Machu Picchu Mountain)
Total hiking time: 6 hours (excluding time in Machu Picchu)
Day 5 cost as a couple: 94 for lunch and bus to Cusco plus 400 for Machu Picchu tickets
Cost of Our Five Day Salkantay Self Guided Trek (2 People)
- 124 soles – Transport to and from Cusco
- 226 soles – Four nights in private rooms
- 196 soles – Meals along the way
- 400 soles – Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain tickets
946 soles / $282 USD – Total cost for two people to trek Salkantay to Machu Picchu without a tent or a tour
Tour Versus Self Guided Trek
There are many reasons why people would prefer either a packaged or a self guided trek. While we enjoy saving money, our primary motivation is hiking in quiet surroundings on our own time.
People typically prefer a packaged tour if they:
- Don’t want to carry their own things
- Enjoy hiking with a group
- Don’t want to worry about finding meals or accommodations
- Prefer not to think about logistics and like having everything pre-structured
- Don’t mind paying a lot of extra money
People prefer to self guide their trek if they:
- Get a sense of accomplishment from planning and executing it on their own
- Like to be on their own schedule and not eat, sleep or hike when a guide chooses
- Thrive on a sense of adventure
- Don’t feel right having someone or something else carry stuff for them
- Prefer flexibility and going at their own pace
- Don’t want to spend money for someone else to do what they can do on their own
- Like the shocked looks when passing the trekking groups carrying a full backpack
Safety Along the Salkantay Trek
Safety is always an important consideration when hiking alone. When talking to tour agencies in Cusco, you will be inundated with reasons why it isn’t safe to trek in this area without a tour group. Remember, it is the job of these agencies to sell packages so it is in their financial interest to talk anyone out of going at it alone.
We never once felt any type of threat on this trip. It is also important to remember that this is a very popular area, so the trail is impossible to miss and it is rare that you will be far from other trekkers. That said, it is never a bad idea to hike with other people and stay in the towns if you are solo camping.
Accommodation Options Along the Salkantay Trek
For those looking to trek Salkantay without carrying a tent or using a guided service, we have put together the only information available online regarding guesthouses along the route. We did this trek with no reservations, and found private rooms every night which we negotiated in person. We visited in mid-October a little after the peak season. The options are most limited in Soraypampa, and get more diverse each night.
We hiked with a 21 year old Danish girl who was doing this trek alone with a tent and carrying all of her own things (if Kim can do it without a guide and a mule, so can you). She had asked a dozen agencies in Cusco about tent rentals and the cheapest she found was 60 soles for a tent and sleeping bag (no mat because she’s hard core). Most campsites en route cost an additional 5-10 soles per night.
Accommodations in Soraypampa
Soraypampa has a handful of guesthouses and many campsites. We went to every spot and inquired about available options for rent.
We stayed at Soray Lodge, located near the bus stop. Beds were quoted for 30 soles, but they also had a $50 USD room with private hot shower and all meals included.
There is a newer looking lodge, Refugio Salkantay, although they were full when we arrived. They quoted 100 soles for a room.
Bio Andean has a new set of dome style permanent tents for $50 USD a night. They are all private rooms with bath and hot water. During our visit, their restaurant was under construction so food was not an option. The rooms were very nice, but quite pricey for Peru.
There are also a ton of camp spots for rent under thatch roof. These range from 5-10 soles and some have the option for blanket and pillow rental. In a pinch, it would be possible to sleep here without a tent if all other rooms were full.
We saw at least three more properties under construction which looked close to completion, so there may be more options in a couple months. We also encountered a handful of lodges which were exclusively available for private groups.
Accommodations in Challuay
Once you get to Challuay, guesthouses become much more frequent. We stayed at Salkantay Hostel which had a few private rooms. They quoted 50 soles for the only room with attached bath, and the same price for those without a bath.
There were at least two or three other guesthouses nearby which we did not explore. There is also the slightly further Pueblo of Collpapampa which has another couple of places, so it is unlikely to be without options here.
Accommodations in Lucmabamba
There are three guesthouses in Lucmabamba, along with a couple campsites. The first building on the right is musty and the least desirable.
We continued up the hill to the second spot on the right, Sonia y Walter (no sign, looks like a house) and booked a night. This place was amazing and has the most home stay feel of the options. We paid 50 soles for one of the 5 private rooms.
Another 5 minutes further up the hill is the third option. We did not inquire here but it had the most beautiful setting in a fruit and flower garden.
There are also several options in the closer villages of Sahuayaco and Playa as well.
Accommodations in Llactapata
Llactapata has only one lodge, although it is the most scenic spot of the trek. The Llactapata Lodge is not conveniently located for the normal trekking day distances, but would be worth an extra long or added day on the typical route. There is an amazing vista overlooking Machu Picchu which would make for an perfect sunset and sunrise spot. This one is available for online booking, but showed fully reserved during our trip.
Accommodations in Aguas Calientes
There are tons of options here with almost no chance to running out based on the daily cap on Machu Picchu tickets. We easily negotiated a room on the spot.
Food Along the Salkantay Trek
We brought two days of lunches and snacks from Cusco when we started our trek. Since online information was sparse at best, be opted to play it safe with some backup food but decided not to pack meals for the full trip. There wasn’t a day on our trip when there weren’t options for all meals, and we never saw prices outside of the 7-10 sole range until we got to Aguas Calientes. Restaurants became more plentiful with each day of the trek. Also, all hosts were more than willing to provide vegetarian options.
The few tent camp hikers we met brought most of their own food and a stove. This area includes some painfully steep climbs and descents, so adding food weight on top of a tent and sleeping bag can really suck. Plus this is high altitude so even boiling water is tough.
We hiked with a German guy who used most of his fuel trying to make pasta and tea on his first night. The next morning he traded all of his food to a guesthouse for a meal, and then ate at restaurants for the remainder of his hike.
Packing List Essentials for Trekking Salkantay to Machu Picchu
Packing light is key for this type of trekking. We carried a 20 liter and a 36 liter pack and never completely filled them. This is a high altitude and low oxygen environment which amplifies the effort needed to hike.
Being prepared for rapidly changing weather is essential on this trek. We often experienced cold, warm and rain in a day, and even enjoyed some snow near the pass. Dressing in layers is key. We pack with two outfits: one for trekking and the other warmer one for relaxing afterwards. We also carry a small amount of laundry powder so we can rinse our dirty gear when necessary.
The sun is strong in Peru, especially at altitude. Wearing adequate protection is a requirement to keep from serious burns. We also encountered some really vicious biting flies between Playa and Lucmabamba, so it is a good idea to stock some bug spray. And as always, we don’t leave home without our Sawyer water filter, which allows us to drink free water straight from the mountain and not create any plastic trash. There are plenty of water sources throughout the trek so filling up is easy. A Malaysian solo tent trekker we met noted that his biggest expense on this trip was bottled water.
- Machu Picchu Tickets
- Passport – needed to enter Machu Picchu
- Cash – 300-400 soles per person
- Trekking poles
- Warm jacket
- Rain jacket and/or poncho
- Trekking pants
- Thermal shirt
- Sun hat
- Warm hat or buff
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Hiking socks
- Reusable water bottle
- Water filter or purification tabs
- Bug spray
- Hand sanitizer
- Blister care kit
- Laundry powder
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll love these other South American trekking guides:
- Colca Canyon Trekking: Complete How to Without a Guide
- Hiking Guide to Cajas National Park, Ecuador: The Best Cuenca Day Trip
- A Trekkers Guide to the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador
- The Only Complete Guide to Hiking in El Cocuy National Park, Colombia
- Why Laguna 69 is the Most Underrated Hike in South America
Ready to start your own epic trip through South America? We have everything you need to prepare for long term travel with our detailed planning timeline and fine tuned minimalist packing list. These were perfected with all types of trial (and plenty of error).
Get prepared for border crossings by reading our experience between Ecuador and Peru.