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Trek to Machu Picchu Without a Guide

You get the full experience of the Andes when trekking alone throughout Peru. This guide can show you the way to complete one of National Geographic's top twenty treks on your own.

Day One - The Departure | Humantay

Distance: 1.5 miles

Elevation Gain: +1200 ft

Our alarms were set for 5:30 AM. With such beautiful mountain landscapes and, of course, Machu Picchu in the back of our minds, we were excited to get a good and early start. We stored stuff we didn’t need for the trek, ate one last meal at our hostel, and were off!

In Cusco, there are lots of places to catch a collectivo – a compact white van found all over Peru that will take you places for much cheaper than a taxi. In specific areas of town you are able to catch collectivos going to different destinations, if you ask around or do some research, you will be able to find where to catch the one that departs for Mollepata. It is within walking distance from the main Plaza De Armas. The first collectivo departing for Mollepata in the morning usually leaves around 5 AM, sometimes even earlier. Once you arrive at the correct street corner – I recommend an early start because that is when they run most frequently – you’ll have to find your collectivo. Double-check they are headed to Mollepata and agree on a price before you get into the van so you don’t get extorted for being a tourist on your way out. You may have to wait for more passengers once you board because they usually do not leave until the van is full. We were quoted at 15 soles per person for our group of 3.

The combi – another word for collectivo – was full of locals, and my cousin, fluent in Spanish, made quick friends with a friendly old man behind us. Who knew this would have come in handy when exiting the vehicle 3 hours later. The driver of the van tried to charge us more than we had briefly agreed upon and told us 25 soles per person. At this point in Mollepata, you are in the middle of nowhere essentially, so as we tried to argue with him and explain we did not agree upon this price, he knew he had the upper hand. Thankfully our old friend from the beginning made up a story for the man and was able to get us off the hook. A quick lesson to be fully aware of before you enter the collectivos or any form of transportation for that matter.

Once in Mollepata, we had two options. We could either spend the whole day hiking 13 miles up a dirt road to Soraypampa or pay for a taxi to take us there in roughly 45 minutes. We wanted to camp at lake Humantay the first night of the trek to acclimate and be able to enjoy the lake to ourselves, so we decided we would take a taxi. We were immediately greeted by a man who offered us a taxi service to Soraypampa when exiting the combi. It cost 80 soles – don’t pay more than 110 – for all 3 of us to be transported up to Soraypampa. I don’t regret it at all after seeing the hot, dusty stretch of dirt road we would have been hiking all day. I would much rather start my trek on a trail toward a gorgeous lake.

Finally, we arrived in Soraypampa! At the official start of the trek, it felt so good to be dropped off and have this wondrous landscape at our fingertips. We checked our map and started along the 1.5-mile hike to Laguna Humantay. We arrived about an hour later after acclimating to the altitude and steep terrain with our packs on. WOAH. I had already witnessed many blue and turquoise lakes during my stay in Peru but this lake had a green hue leading into its blue depths that was so unique and unreal.

We ate dinner at camp whilst tourists enjoyed the views and horses frolicked about the lake’s surroundings, and finally, as the sun was dissipating, we were beginning to have the area to ourselves. Everyone was gone by dark and the stars came out to greet us around 7:30 PM. As it got darker, the milky way showed itself. I have never seen the milky way or a sky full of stars like this in my life, it was nothing short of amazing, we were in awe as we watched the stars span behind the immense peaks before us. After mother nature’s show, it was a very frigid night of sleep with temperatures reaching below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Not a surprise considering our tent was pitched above 14,000 ft in elevation. It takes a toll on your body sleeping/trekking at this elevation so make sure you’re prepared with at least three liters of water a day. Luckily this trek has places to purchase water roughly every 8 miles or so. My water filter had broken earlier in the trip on another trek, but we had water purification tablets as a backup. Make sure to be prepared with warm/technical, gear if considering this trek without guides.

Day Two - The Pass

Distance: 8.7 miles

Elevation Gain: +2450 ft | -3700 ft

We woke up with the sun around 7:30 AM the next morning, made some oatmeal, and watched as the sun-kissed the lake. It was beautiful to be there with nobody else, I highly recommend camping here for a night during your trek to get this experience. We hiked back down to Soraypampa in roughly 30 minutes and refilled on the water – 2.5L bottles were 10-12 soles and 1L bottles were 7, far more expensive than in town. We had our water and were ready for the Salkantay pass.

This day is the hardest day of the trek, and once you’ve made it to the top of the pass a majority of the trek is downhill so it’s super rewarding. From Soraypampa we hiked through a gorgeous, wide-open valley with a backdrop of Salkantay peak sitting pretty at 20,574 ft. The valley started to get much narrower and the trail steeper as we approached the last mile. There are a couple of times before the summit that the trail levels out in these gorgeous fields surrounded by huge peaks and streams, they make for a good break spot.

Finally, at the top, we stopped to eat a snack, take some photos, and pour a celebratory shot of Pisco! It was all downhill to Machu Picchu now! We started downward and kept going at a steady pace for what seemed like forever until we reached a tiny village known as Huairaspampa.

There was nothing but a few livestock farms and tiny cabins. No more than 20 locals resided here, but fortunately, there was a place to re-up on water. There were also spots they had to camp, but we were prepared, so instead of camping there and spending unnecessary money we hiked past the campsite and camped below it at a perfect place. There was a cliff overhanging a deep canyon with a rushing river below, and on this cliff was a flat, grassy outcrop just calling our name. We set up our tents and made dinner as soon as possible. It got dark quickly after dinner and, once again, we were awe-inspired by the marvels of the night sky deep in the Andes. We were at a lower elevation than Lake Humantay which seemed to result in a better, warmer night of sleep for us.

Day 3 - Mate, Fireflies and Waterfalls

Distance: 10 miles

Elevation Gain: -1500 ft

On day three we woke up excited knowing we were mostly downhill all the way to our destination. We ate breakfast and started heading downward. As we descended you could see the environment around us changing rapidly from an arid, high elevation mountain range to a lush, green one. Banana trees among many other exotic plants laid the land, you could tell we were descending into the Inkan Jungle. The trail became slightly wider and wound down into a rolling green valley, eventually leading us into a little village slightly more substantial than the last.

Here, in Collipampa, you were able to actually opt-out and take a collectivo or taxi to The Playa – the end of the official trek – you were also able to spend the night in a remote hostel with a tiny restaurant. This may have been appealing if we weren’t being absolutely bombarded by sand flies. We ate a quick snack and ran away from the flies until just around the corner when crossing the river we came to a beautiful waterfall. Despite the flies, we tried our luck here for lunch because of its allure. They were everywhere I must’ve gotten forty bites on my calves in 10 minutes before putting pants on. It was a treat to put our feet in the water though and enjoy some food after keeping such a quick pace downhill for so long.

We continued down the dirt road, now wide enough and suitable for cars, as it wound down into the deep, cut canyon where the river resided. There were some little trails that, although steep, cut through the switchbacks and made this part of the hike much shorter. Once we arrived at the river's edge, we were in awe of the massive, dark stone cliffs winding throughout the valley. We then saw a small sign that said ‘Playa’ with an arrow, the arrow pointed toward a steep trail leading to a bridge that crossed the river then lead into the jungle on the other side. We checked our map and decided this was in fact the best way to the Playa. You can choose to walk down the road as well but why would you when you can walk through a jungle above a rushing river?

After hiking over a mile into the jungle we came upon a breathtaking waterfall. It was 3-4 separate 30-50 ft waterfalls stacked on top of each other cascading down from the cliffs on our left into the river far below us on our right. We got to stand on a slightly shaky bridge that was right above the huge drop over the river, so cool, but definitely kind of freaky if you don’t like heights.

We ate some snacks and relaxed beside the waterfalls, then continued down the trail more and more, eventually realizing there was nowhere good to camp. The singletrack trail was cutting through some very dense trees and plant life and on each side was an extremely steep hill. On the right side was essentially a cliff leading into the jungle and river below. We were getting quite exhausted at this point and just wanted anywhere flat to set up our tents.

Finally, an outcropping with two really worn down, tiny cabins and a farm appeared. At first, we couldn’t find anyone, “Hola? Hello?” No answer. We looked around and eventually discovered the farm obscured by trees and worn-down structures. There was an old Quechuan woman tending to her mate plants with her machete. She was wearing a tattered, traditional Andes-style dress and hat and spoke to us in a language that was next to impossible to understand. This was my first time hearing Quechuan and it sounded extremely unique and indigenous to me. Lots of consonant sounds. Eventually, we came to an agreement on where we could stay and she was more than okay with us being there. In fact, after we ate dinner and set up our tents, as we were gazing out at the stars, she came outside of her shack and handed us two cups of the best mate I have ever had in my life using fresh-cut/ground materials from her farm. This was a very magical sensation to be gifted something so amazing, in the middle of the most beautiful landscape, by someone you barely know and are unable to communicate with effectively. As we gazed at the milky way, drinking our mate, fireflies started to appear all over the forest. It was a very special, stimulating moment in time that I will never forget.

Day 4 - The Playa/Hot Springs - Aguas Calientes

Distance: 10 miles

Elevation Gain: -1500 ft

We woke up extremely stoked this morning because we were only a few miles from “The Playa” – a tiny village of no more than 50 people that marks the official end of the trek, as well as where we were getting our first ‘meal out’ in a while.

We heard there was a restaurant in The Playa and when we arrived, there was nothing. We asked some of the locals and finally started to get pointed in the right direction. Eventually, we found it and realized it was a family’s dwelling, so we felt slightly uncomfortable asking. We asked anyway, and the family leaped up to help! Immediately the mother cleared off the table in her front yard for us to sit and relax. Shortly after, the husband brought us homemade popsicles he had made with fresh-picked fruit in their yard. He then offered us a few home-cooked options for food, took our order, and came 5 minutes later with some unexpected soup to start us off! I was in heaven. This was one of the best meals of my life accompanied by fresh-squeezed juice and popsicles, and what made it even better, was being with the locals, alone, in the middle of nowhere!

Once you’ve made it to the Playa you have two options. You can either hike 6 miles uphill to Llactapata, – an infamous viewpoint for Machu Picchu – or you can hike 10 miles to Cocalmayo – some wonderful hot springs just outside of the town of Santa Teresa. Despite your choice, your next move will be to get to the Hidroelectrica – a train station where you can either take the train to Aguas Calientes or hike along the tracks. We decided hot springs would be perfect, so we took a cab for 30 soles from The Playa to Cocalmayo instead of hiking the last 10 miles down another dusty, dirt road full of cars.

The hot springs are amazing and quite clean. They have four different pools ranging in heat so if you want some refreshing, not-so-hot water, then there is a perfect tool for that as well. I felt so refreshed afterward it was the perfect end to a trek.

From the hot springs, you must catch a cab or collectivo back to Santa Teresa in order to get to the Hidroelectrica. We paid 4 soles to get back into town and asked our driver where to catch a combi to Hidroelectrica. One more short drive, another 20 soles, and we were at the Hidroelectrica. The trains are extremely expensive into Aguas Calientes and the only way there is to take the train or walk, so we decided to walk along the tracks the 6.2 miles to town. We were pretty stoked knowing we were going to sleep inside of a bed this evening so what were another 6 miles?

We cruised through a beautiful, jungle landscape, and finally, after a long day, the lights of Aguas Calientes lit up the foggy valley in front of us. We started looking for a place to stay and immediately found a decently priced room for the three of us (75 soles total). We walked around town and found a really yummy place to eat dinner before hitting the hay.

Day 5 - Machu Picchu

Today was the day we finally were going to see Machu Picchu! We woke up and immediately went to go hop in line to buy tickets. From Aguas Calientes, you can either take the bus up to Machu Picchu or walk up the steep trail. To save money and fully experience the cloud forest, we chose to hike. It took just over an hour from town, but the trail was extremely steep and tiring. Even after trekking with our packs on for days, we were all struggling with this ascent. Once we arrived and got through the gate, I was in absolute awe. Lofty, lush green mountains made me really appreciate how different this area was from where we had started the trek. It was such a large place to explore I wished we had had more time, but we covered every nook and cranny of the ruins as possible before being told they were closing at 5:30 PM.

We hiked down the steep, staircase-like trail back to town and relaxed on a huge boulder beside the river together before getting an amazing celebratory dinner. The food in Aguas Calientes although expensive is amazing, tasty cuisine. After dinner, we headed to bed because getting back to Cusco can be quite a long day trip.

Day 6 - Returning to Cusco

Day six we were excited to get back to Cusco and enjoy some time off, but we also knew it was going to be a bit of a long day. You have two options to get back from Aguas Calientes. You can take the train back for a more expensive, comfortable, and less time-consuming experience. Or you can walk the 6.2 miles along the tracks back to the hidroelectrica and take a 6-hour long ride in a combi from there to Cusco.

Short on funds, we hiked back to the hidroelectrica. On the way there, you’ll find some really cool restaurants in the middle of the jungle that serves great food! We stopped by one, and other than the throngs of sand flies, the experience was really cool. Next time I would go into one that has a shelter to avoid the flies.

There are tons of collectivos waiting at the hidroelectrica so you will definitely be able to find a way back. We paid 30 soles each to get to Cusco which wasn’t too bad for the 6-hour ride, but be prepared it can get quite uncomfortable on the rough, windy roads in a van full of people. I would also recommend bringing water and maybe a snack. We got dropped off near our hostel, made a great dinner, got some celebratory drinks and that was that!

Information to Note:

Water purification tablets are very hard to find in both Cusco and Huaraz. There is only one place in each town I found that sold them (maybe more will catch on). In Huaraz, there is an outdoor gear shop very close to a restaurant called Trivio, which is very tasty if you’re hungry or need a beer/cocktail. That shop will sell you small tablets that are specifically for 20L of water, inconvenient I know, but this is the only place in town that is known to sell them. In Cusco go to Speedy Gonzales shop to get information on where to buy water purification tablets, these are better and each tablet is meant for 4L of water.

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