Peru - The Salkantay Trek - Our experience and tips for hiking to Machu Picchu

The Salkantay Trek is an amazing way to get to Machu Picchu. This trek takes you from the majesty of glacial snow capped mountains to the tropics within a few days and the view of Machu Picchu at sunrise is unforgettable. On this trek we hiked along well established trails through the wilderness. We occasionally passed through a small town, but most of the time we had the trails all to ourselves. The traditional Inca Trail may offer comparable views and a few more ruins along the way, but not the solitude.

We are avid hikers and this was our first ever trek, but definitely won’t be our last. We used Alpaca Expeditions and while there were a few hiccups, this was a great experience and the food was amazing. The tour included porters to carry our bags and took care of all the logistics so we could just focus on the experience. See more about Alpaca Expeditions at the bottom.

Towards the bottom I provided our packing list and some lessons learned for anyone thinking of taking this one on. I also included a little info on a few of the other treks like the Traditional Inca Trail (which must be booked many months in advance for a spot).

For some context on the trails, of how Machu Picchu has faded in and out of the jungle over the centuries, and on how it was discovered and rediscovered I recommend Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. He artfully combines history and his own midlife crisis adventure retracing Bingham’s steps. It is a great narrative with a nice mix of culture and humor.


Topics

Our Group

Our group included a US born couple teaching abroad, two newly minted lawyers from Toronto, two sisters from Switzerland, a doctor from the UK traveling by herself, a couple from Texas, and a couple from Singapore. Everyone had been to at least 6 other countries, about half had lived abroad, most were backpacking around South America for a month or more, and all were in their 20s or 30s. It was a really good mix and everyone had a story to tell.

Our guide called us family and that is what the random group of strangers felt like by the end.


Leaving Cusco

Our departure was a bit delayed by the strike (see my post on strikes) so instead of eating at our campsite, we stopped in a village and our guide made arrangements to commandeer a kitchen. Back on the road, the bus crawled up the mountain in pitch dark for over an hour. At the campsite, we all stayed on the bus to keep warm while the porters set up the tents, then we crawled in our sleeping bags. Never thought we would be in a tent on our anniversary, but we were both excited to start our adventure with this group.


Day 1 - The Magical Lagoon, The Gringo Killer, & Salkantey

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The first night was a bit rough for sleeping, trying to adapt to sleeping in the thin air and the cold in mummy bags that made it hard to move. In the morning we discovered that the cold had caused my husband’s phone clock to go back to January 1, 2009, before that phone could even have existed. On the way to breakfast we passed a house farming guinea pigs. Our group huddled together in the cook tent wearing every layer we had.

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The dog on the right is a stray that started following us the first morning and accompanied us the entire way to Machu Picchu.

Our first day of hiking started right at sunrise so we could make it up to the lagoon before the tour buses came in. It was a crisp morning and the rising sun sparkled on the frost and snowcapped mountains. About 15 minutes into our hike I started to feel nauseous and my husband said that my lips turned blue. I hoped that it was just the eating too much for breakfast, but honestly wasn’t sure. My husband took my daypack and I went nice and slow. The thought that I was having trouble this early on filled me with dread and I just about cried. Fortunately, it subsided and 30 minutes later I was making a pretty good pace again. One other person in our group didn’t fair as well and had to take the horse.

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We climbed over a ridge and Humantay Lagoon sat before us and there was no one there but our group. The glacial lake was magical and photos do not do it justice. We took pictures and marveled at the beauty. When we turned to go back down and continue on to Salkantay Pass the trail was packed with people making their way up. Our timing was perfect, thanks to our guides.

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Salkantay Pass is the highest point of this trek at over 15,000 feet. The guides call the switchback trail that climbs steeply to the top Gringo Killer. It was beautiful but intense. As we all huffed and puffed our way up the trail, we passed a couple who were hiking the trail unassisted, with huge packs. They were also from low elevation countries. We crossed paths with these two several times over the course of our trek and they were incredible. A couple times when we were on really steep sections our guide would turn on a minute or two of a song, like “I will survive,” and taunted us with promises of dessert with lunch for encouragement.

We stopped for a brief break for lunch just shy of the top of the pass. We had corn ceviche, trout, potatoes, corn soup, rice, garlic bread, chicha morada, and celery tea. Not sure which part of that was supposed to be the dessert, but the food was amazing.

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Finally, we were at the top of the pass. The clouds moved really fast, shifting around the glacier topped mountain and it looked really powerful. We could feel the wind and the cold coming down off it and it is easy to see why people considered this mountain a god. It is weird to feel like you are at the top of the world when mountains still tower over you, but after that climb, we sure did. After the morning, I felt elated at managing the hardest part of the hardest day towards the front of the pack. I finally felt like I was going to be ok.

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There was a wide range of speeds in our group, so as the afternoon stretched on the group got farther and farther apart, until other than the person I was walking with I couldn’t see anyone else ahead or behind. The alpine landscape had sparse vegetation, but was dotted with bushes, lupus, and giant daisies. We saw some chinchillas the size of woodchucks playing in the hills and the sun setting over the glaciers. Every time you looked back the clouds had completely changed creating a different scene. We saw the camp just as it was starting to get dark, crossed the icy stream on a bridge that held closer resemblance to logs, and we had done it, the first and hardest day conquered!

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It took a couple hours for the rest of our group to all make it back to camp and many finished in total darkness. After dinner we each received an “Inca Surprise,” a hot water bottle to help us stay warm in our sleeping bags! When we went to our tents we saw a beautiful full moon illuminating the glaciers.

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Day 2 - From Glaciers to The Jungle

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The morning was crisp, but as we started hiking down the temperature and scenery quickly transformed. By noon we were hot and the landscape had changed from bare alpines to lush greenery with flowers everywhere. It was also amazing the difference in the air after just a couple hours of hiking. We finally felt like we could breathe easily.

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For the most part, we were the only ones on the trail, but we did pass a few porters and several mule teams. One of the mules appeared to be carrying an entire bed headboard. Every time the mules would come by huge clouds of dust came with them and we had to rush to the side of the trail to avoid being trampled. I started having trouble with my camera lens the previous day from the dust getting under my filter and today amplified that problem. The dust was so fine it even made it into the battery compartment.

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One of our guides pulled us aside at one point and asked if we noticed anything about one of the porters that had walked with us a little bit, and he explained that the porter was transporting cocaine. The entire pack was full of it and this is one of the routes they use to get it out, since it is unpoliced. Peru is the number two world producer of cocaine. We asked how he knew this, and he said the porter told him. “If you look like me we are all brothers in the mountains and there are no secrets.”

We took a morning break in a small town and our guide taught us how to play the frog game, where you toss metal coins into slots for points. After the game, our guides painted all of our faces with some berries, most of us in the style of warriors. The paint was very light, so once it dried you could barely feel that it was there, so we quickly forgot that we had it on. As we passed other people and small villages we definitely got some strange looks.

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After lunch (where again we were promised a dessert that never materialized) we hiked up ahead with another couple. The path continued on a gently rolling trail gradually down through the jungle, along a glacial river with brilliant blue water. We came across a couple huge landslides with narrow paths cut through them that we crossed very carefully. Later our guide explained that the tour company had hired people to dig the paths to open the trail about a month ago.

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We passed through a couple “markets,” which were collections of a couple homes and farm fields, selling candy and drinks from a stand for a little extra money. The trails cut through the yards of each of these markets and they all had an assortment of animals in these yards.

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Towards the end of the afternoon we found the way blocked by a cow taking a nap in the middle of the trail. We had no way of going around and hadn’t seen anyone else from the group for a long time so we had to handle this on our own. We tried poking it with a hiking pole, but it didn’t take well to this and swung its horns around. A few gentile pokes later it was agitated, but on its feet. Knowing that one kick would ruin our trip, one by one we timidly snuck around its backside.

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It was dusk when we arrived at camp and most of the group arrived in the dark again. After two days of hiking, we finally got showers! They weren’t hot and there wasn’t much water, but they were wonderful. This camp also had a small shop, owned by the people who lived there, complete with glacier cooled beverages.

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We fell to sleep with the sound of the water rushing by in the valley below and the porters splashing around in the pool nearby. We both were dead after two days of serious hiking and slept pretty well; however, we both woke a few times in the night to find ourselves stuck in the sleeping bag halfway down the mat with our legs squished up against the tent wall. Each time we had to inchworm our way back up. The campsite was on a bit of a slope and we were gradually sliding downhill on the slippery air mat.


Day 3 - Coffee, Avocados, and Hot Springs

Waking early, I walked around and explored the site and came back covered in burrs and seedpods from the knees down. This spot was privately owned by the tour company and had a permanent building, a private pool, and some gardens that will someday grow food. Even though the company owned it, there were still no toilet seats. On the entire trek we only saw toilet seats in one bathroom and hovering gets pretty old when your thighs get weak from several days of hiking. I honestly think the Asian squat style toilets would have been easier.

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Today was a very short hike. We were supposed to camp on a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, but this mountain had some narrow sections with steep drops; so after two days of having people arriving to camp in the dark, our guides must have decided it would not be safe. This turned the last day into the longest day, but allowed us time to go to the hot springs. The guides gave us the option for the next day to get up early and hike the mountain (24 km) or pay to take a van part way and only hike the final section of the trail. Five of us opted for hiking the mountain. We came to hike the whole trail and we definitely wanted to see the view from the mountain.

After a morning of hiking, including a little backtracking since one of the bridges was mostly gone, we arrived at the family owned farm that would be our camp for the night. We had a coffee bean picking competition, learned how to peel, dry, and roast the beans. We also got to try our skill at avocado picking using a net on a long pole.

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After lunch, our assistant guide played some traditional music and had us name the tune of movie theme music on his flute, and then the van came to take us to the hot springs. The hot springs were steamy and very relaxing, exactly what our bodies needed. We played word games with the group and soaked in the water for over an hour. There were some nasty biting bugs at the hot springs which didn’t seem to mind the risk of the hot water or bug spray, and most of us had lots of swelling bug bites later.

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Day 4 - Over The Mountain and Along the Tracks

Our sleep was interrupted by the farm’s obnoxious rooster, which crowed all night long. Because of the rooster everyone who was doing the hike was up and ready before any of the porters came to get us, and good thing because no one else stirred until it was almost time to go. They had received some very sad news the previous night about one of their co-worker’s death, so we assume this was the cause. We weren’t sure which guide was going to accompany us on the hike, so we weren’t even sure who to wake up. One of the guides did finally emerge, got us a little water, with the promise of more at Hydroelectrica, and grabbed each of us a snack bag from the kitchen. We each got the standard snack for the day, a juice box, and a piece of bread with cheese. Without breakfast, we put on our headlamps and started hiking in the dark.

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The sky started to lighten up just as we hit the mountain. The clouds and the sunrise were stunning. The trail was dense jungle with glimpses of the mountains now and then.

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We made the final climb to the temple and watched as the clouds cleared over Machu Picchu, giving us our first glimpse. It was a magical spot and as we were standing there, our guide asked my husband and I to hold out our arms. He tied a small bracelet on each of our wrists, then told my husband to kiss me and as he did our guide raised his hands and said “congratulations, you are now married in the Incan way” and congratulated us on our wedding anniversary. We were all laughing. We walked over to the campsite on the mountain and watched the clouds swirl around Machu Picchu with the sun slowly rising. We were all very happy we had decided to forgo a little sleep in exchange for this experience. This moment at Llactapata and the moment at the top of Salkantay Pass were the highlights of the trek for me, more so than Machu Picchu itself.

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We were all in high spirits on the hike down the mountain and zoomed down with the help of our hiking poles. At this point I was very good at using them and going down felt almost like skiing. We passed the backpacking couple again. At the bottom the trail continued across the valley and were greeted with a sign for Machu Picchu. At Hydroelectrica we found out that the group had already left and were hiking up ahead somewhere, so there would be no food or water until we got near town.

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This was the first time we had hiked with other people for most of the trek and the trail followed the train tracks from Hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. Apparently Hydroelectrica is like a back door to Machu Picchu, where you stayed if you were on a tight budget and if you are on a really tight budget you walked the 5 miles to Aguas Calientes instead of taking the train. It was a pretty boring walk and the loose gravel was a bit unpleasant to walk on. We tried walking on the tracks but they were not evenly spaced and it took too much concentration and irregular steps. We kept a fast pace and eventually caught up with the group.

What felt like forever later, around 2:30 we finally got to our lunch spot. After nearly 24 km, lunch seemed like the best ever. At lunch the group told us about their breakfast and showed us pictures of our anniversary cake! Dessert! Apparently, my aunt had called the company and requested a cake for us. They made it, but on the wrong day. They said they had tried to bring us some but were told not to because it would be too hot. After lunch we still hadn’t been given any water so we asked for some and a single 5 liter jug was passed around for our group of 13. Luckily we didn’t have that much further to go. As we were leaving one of the guys in our group came over shaking his head. He had just gotten stuck in a bathroom, and after giving up on anyone hearing him, had to climb out the window.

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Approaching the town, we caught an occasional glimpses of people up on the mountain above at Machu Picchu. The Urubamba River flowed over naturally sculpted rocks that almost appeared soft. As we walked into town a large insect bounced off a vehicle and landed on the path. This bug was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and had big pincers on its head, although they looked fragile and purely a deterrent.

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At the hotel we were dismayed to hear that our bags wouldn’t get here for a couple hours, so no clean clothes, but were happy to get cleaned up regardless. Our room was amazing! We had a beautiful walk-in shower with limitless hot water (the best of the entire trip) and a large soaking tub, as well as a balcony with a view. We took a quick rinse off, collapsed into bed, and were asleep almost instantly.

Later, when our bags arrived, too many people got on the elevator and it went clunk and stopped! A bit scary but it seemed to work again after some people got out. We took a nice bath and shower and joined the group for dinner. At dinner we said good bye to our porters and had a fabulous meal. As we walked back to the hotel we saw the start of the village’s Corpus Christi Festival. Just like in Ollantaytambo, the music and partying went almost all night long. We went to sleep excited for the next day, but sad that this was all coming to an end.

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Day 5 - Machu Picchu

See my Machu Picchu Article.


You can see my Itinerary Post for details on our full trip, a budget, and how many miles/flights of stairs my FitBit said I did each day.


Choices for Trekking to Machu Picchu

There are a couple other longer treks and other options but the main choices are these three:

Inca Trail - There are several variations available from a single day of hiking to a week long trek. This is the classic Inca Trail but only one of many Inca trails that lead to Machu Picchu. You must make reservations for this months to a year in advance. There are only a limited number of hikers allowed on the trail per day and it sells out quickly. This is an awesome choice with classic views, steep passes, and more ruins than any other trail, but you will be there with hundreds of other hikers.

Salkantay Trek - This trek also has many options, also follows Inca trails, and also has amazing views, but without the crowds (at least not yet). Reserving ahead is still advised, but you often can get spots on fairly short notice.

Lares Trek - In most versions of this trek you hike to Ollantaytambo and take the train from there to Machu Picchu or combine it with some of the classic Inca Trail. This trek takes you from village to village to experience the culture. Some friends did this with Alpaca Expeditions and said it was an amazing experience.


Tips & Packing

Hiking Poles:

We rented these from the tour company. We had never used hiking poles before and we both found them very helpful. I don’t have a ton of upper body strength, but my arms still helped. I really felt the power of the hiking poles on the way down, being able to take all the pressure off of my knees and hips. I could also move much faster with them to steady my footing on the loose ground. I think they also made my fingers swell less and get less stiff. My husband lifts and for him these poles were like wings. I’m usually the quick one, but by harnessing his upper body strength he was able to leave me in the dust.

If you are unfamiliar with using them, you will want to put your hands up through the straps, then grip over the strap so it goes between your thumb and first finger. This will take some of the pressure off your fingers and transfer it to your hands. I did like them a bit better with gloves on because they rubbed a little and removed the sunscreen on the back of my hands leaving me a very funny looking sunburn. For walking with them you can use them together more like skiing or like a second set of legs moving one forward every time you lift a foot. You have to figure out what works for you. We each preferred a different way.

We rented basic Black Diamond Poles which were nice despite obviously seeing a lot of use/abuse from being rented out. When we got home we purchased two pairs of Black Diamond Cork Grip Poles, which are supposed to be a bit better for use in hot climates.

Sleeping:

Privacy & Noise - Having the privacy of your own tent is a nice plus over bunk houses or shared hostel rooms, but that privacy only extends so far. The walls are paper thin and everyone can hear everything, be it snoring, farting, giggles, etc; so keep that in mind and be kind to your neighbors. Occasionally animals come around at night too, mostly domestic. If you are a very light sleeper you may want ear plugs.

Batteries - On cold nights it will be cold in your tent so you may want to put electronics with batteries in your sleeping bag if possible.

Hills - The mats we had were quite slippery so we had trouble with sliding around and off our mats, especially if there was any kind of slope. Not all mats are slippery and not much you can do about this, but picking the flattest tent spot possible when you can is a good start.

Altitude - Altitude can effect anyone and while the distances may look moderate for your fitness level, if you live near sea level, this will feel nothing like what you are used to. Time is the key. See more in my Altitude Post.

Packing - If the weight limit is not clearly provided make sure to ask, and if you are renting gear make sure to find out what the weight of that is and take it into account. The weight restrictions are to protect the porters so please be make sure you are within the limits. We were told by mistake that our sleeping bags had their own waterproof bags and would not be in our duffels so we (and many others) packed a couple extra things. When the first morning came making everything fit was a challenge, and even more so a couple days later when the weather grew warmer and we had to shed some layers.

It is cold the first two days so you could probably comfortably wear the same clothes, especially pants. You really don’t need any extra shirts, just one per day.

Packing List
(Not including the clothes you are wearing, but does include jackets and things that will need to fit in your duffle by the end)

  • 1 hiking pants (convertible are a nice option so you have shorts)
  • 3-4 shirts - moisture wicking, not cotton (at least 1 long sleave)
  • underwear and hiking socks (warm ones for the first day)
  • packable down jacket
  • fleece, full zip
  • gloves
  • scarf/hat if your jacket/fleece don’t provide protection
  • rain jacket
  • rain pants
  • bathing suit
  • flip flops
  • toilet paper
  • wet wipes (optional)
  • bug spray
  • tiny bit of soap and toiletries but not much
  • battery pack (to recharge phones/camera)
  • sun screen
  • first aid/medicine
  • head lamp, a red light is a nice option
  • plastic bags
  • mole skin cut to different sizes and/or blister bandages big and small
  • waterproof phone pouch
  • travel towel
  • cash including small coins for bathrooms & tip money
  • hat (optional but the sun can be brutal)
  • small carabiners to clip things to your daypack (optional)
  • trekking poles (can be rented)
  • sleeping bag and mat (can be rented)
  • daypacks or hydration pack (20L or less for entering Machu Picchu) and something to hold 1.5-2L of water. See Tips for more on water
  • good waterproof hiking shoes or boots

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Wish we had packed - A second headlamp. We only brought one and one flashlight, but we ended up hiking in the dark a bit and wished we had another. Some kind of convertible pants would have been nice due to the heat, but the bugs were vicious and pants do provide some protection. We had a change of shoes but no flip flops and they would have been nice to have for showering and the hot springs. The shoes weren’t necessary.

Leave behind - Any extra clothes. We brought small Kindles but never used them. We also brought a change of shoes that didn’t get used. While having a backup is nice, flip flops would have been more useful.


Alpaca Expeditions

The Gear

They provided tents, wash buckets, sleeping pads, and a kitchen tent for meals. The tents were large and nice. We had trouble with the zipper on one, but otherwise were fine. The sleeping pads were better than I expected and might have been enough without the air mattress. The kitchen tent had a table and stools, and kept the weather out. We rented hiking poles, sleeping bags, and air mattresses. The hiking poles were in great shape. The sleeping bags worked well but only had external zippers which made them hard to use and are too short for some very tall people, so check the height ahead of time. The air mattress was nice but slippery and I had trouble staying on it.

The Porters

The porters handled all the gear and had tents setup every night by the time we got to camp. The only thing we had to cary was our daypacks with water and snacks. In the morning we would pack our sleeping backs and duffles and they would take care of the rest. They did some hand carrying, but a lot was assisted by mules or vans on Salkantay. These guys were animals and would take off running with these huge packs.

Safety

The guides had radios, satellite phones, and full first aid kits in case of emergencies. They also had pre-established plans for a wide array of possible situations. There is some degree of risk with narrow trails, rickety bridges, and livestock, but that is what you are signing up for. Our trek was modified a couple times due to situations that came up and we actually used an alternate campsite on our fourth night because they didn’t think we would all make it to the next site before dark and the trail was dangerous in the dark. We also had to take an alternate trail to bypass a washed out bridge on Day 2. An emergency horse was available on the first day and was used for one person who succumbed to the altitude. We were often not within sight of the guides and sometimes as much as an hour ahead of them, but that was a choice. One guide always stayed at the back of the group to make sure everyone was ok.

The Guides

Our guides were not particularly chatty, but did have a few good stories. They had a wealth of knowledge, but usually had to be prompted. One of them was an excellent traditional flute player. There seemed to be a bit of a lack of communication between them and the chef and porters at times, but they were always looking out for us and making sure everyone was doing alright physically.

Customer Service

After the trek they were hard to get ahold of and it was quite frustrating trying to get copies of the group pictures, but before they were great. Before the trek they usually would answer within a day if not within hours. I found an error on the website and they had it fixed a couple days later. At our briefing we were given a number to call or text any time of day or night if we had any last minute questions. Their website is excellent and has great information.

The Food

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The food was flawless! The flavors were bright and fresh, different things at every meal! Most was unlike anything I have had before, but excellent. I have no idea how Raimundo did it in such a primitive kitchen, but he was phenomenal. Every day we were served a full cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and given a snack of some kind of fruit and cookie or cracker for the trail. This was some of the best food we had on the entire trip, including nice restaurants. All of the chefs are culinary school trained and use similar menus with their own flair. I wish I had the recipes.

The Company

This company has many outreach programs and promotes fair treatment of porters. They also have several female guides (rare in this region but we met one).

The Experience

You can see their website or the brochures below, which do an excellent job of laying out the day by day itinerary and expectations, but it can be modified at times due to weather and safety. One note on the brochures is that the amount were were advised to tip the porters by our guide was significantly more than what is says on the brochure (not sure if that is typical). Alpaca has been doing this for some time and seems to have the itineraries carefully planned out for the best experience. We went to several very popular sites and they had the timing just right so that we had them all to ourselves, and I think that makes all the difference.

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More?

Check out our full Peru Trip Itinerary.

Itinerary

Explore the city and food of Historic Cusco

Peru

There are many more spectacular hikes in and around Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo

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