The Salkantay trek is a 46-mile (74km) hiking route leading to Aguas Calientes, and subsequently on to the legendary Machu Picchu. The route is generally a cheaper and more challenging trek than the traditional Inca Trail, with the main difference being that the Salkantay trek runs roughly 20 miles longer, takes in a wider variety of terrain on the route - and has a substantially lower tourist footfall.
Although it runs through completely different areas, the Salkantay trek is considered by many locals and visitors to be even more scenic than the Inca Trail - weaving through a vast variety of terrain, from snowy mountain valleys, glimmering lakes and jungles to other ancient Inca sites. There’s also considerably less people on the Salkantay trek, so the route feels a lot more remote.
The views and terrain are also more varied on the Salkantay trek than the Inca Trail, taking in a wider range of scenery, from deep mountain valleys to lakes, jungle and rolling hills...
There's an obvious beauty to the Inca Trail, following the Qhapaq Ñan (Royal Road) to the Sun Gate, an exclusive door into Machu Picchu, but the route also has its flaws - namely, it's busy and it's expensive. So it's no surprise that many more intrepid hikers are now turning their heads to the lesser known Salkantay trail.
Starting from the small town of Mollepata, roughly 100 miles from Cusco, the Salkantay trek takes budding hikers past Humantay Lake and through the stunning Humantay mountains. It climbs to the Salkantay Pass, which is the high point of the route at 4,630m (15,190ft), and later reaches coffee plantations and another famous Inca site, Llactapata. The route finishes at Aguas Calientes, from where Machu Picchu is easily accessible - with hikers then heading on to the famous mountain citadel the next day.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, starting with a quick comparison of the basics, then moving on to a route description and why you may prefer the Salkantay trek to the classic Inca Trail.
Salkantay Trek: The Basics
- Distance: 46 miles (74km)
- Days: 4-5 days
- Starting point: Mollepata
- Finishing point: Aguas Calientes
- Highest point: Salkantay Pass, 4,630m (15,190ft)
- Average altitude: 3000m
Inca Trail: The Basics for Comparison
- Distance: 26 miles (43km)
- Days: 4 days
- Starting point: Kilometre 82
- Finishing point: Machu Picchu (followed by bus to Aguas Calientes)
- Highest point: Warmiwañusca Pass (Dead Woman’s Pass), 4,215m (13,828ft)
- Average altitude: 3000m
Salkantay Trek: A Five-Day Route to Machu Picchu
Some walk the Salkantay trek in four days, while others do it in five. Here, we’re going to provide an example of what a five-day itinerary might look like on the Salkantay trek, with the first four days taking you from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes, and the fifth day taking you on to Machu Picchu itself.
Day 1: Mollepata to Soyrococha
Hike time: 6-8 hours
Start your trek at Soraypampa, near Mollepata, at an altitude of 3,800m. The highlight of today is not heading into the mountains, not getting your first glimpse of the Salkantay and Humantay mountains on the way - as beautiful as that may be. Rather, the highlight is arriving at the remarkable Humantay Lake, which reflects back the Humantay Glacier, which sits above it. This night is often spent camping at Soyrococha, around 4,400m up, with the mountains behind.
Day 2: Soyrococha to Colpapampa
Hike time: 8-9 hours
This is typically considered to be the toughest day on the Salkantay trek. It’ll take you up to the high point, the Salkantay Pass, at 4,630m, and there you can make an offering to the Apus, the Gods of the mountain, which, in the native Quechua tongue, means ‘Savage Mountain’. It’s in the Vilcabamba mountain range - and 6,271m (20,574ft) high is one of the most spectacular mountains in the Andes.
Afterwards, you’ll descend to Huayracmachay and then on with views of the Pumasillo and Humantay mountains. The couple of hours down to Wayracmackay will feel long, but from there, it's a gentle walk down to the cloud forests and rainforests which will take you on to Colpapampa and you're camping spot.
Day 3: Colpapampa to Lucmabamba Coffee Plantation
Hike time: 5-6 hours
After a big day on the mountain yesterday, the third day on the Salkantay trek tends to be easier. You’ll walk through the rainforest and along the Santa Teresa River, passing some mighty waterfalls on the way. You'll also briefly nip onto the Inca Trail, climbing an ancient staircase. The camping spot, at Lucmabamba, is particularly interesting. You can pick you own beans to grind and roast, too, meaning that deep in this lush jungle, you may just find yourself drinking the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had.
Day 4: Lucmabamba Coffee Plantation to Aguas Calientes
Hike time: 8-9 hours
Before you complete the circuit of the Salkantay trail, you’ll visit Llactapata, another Inca site of historical significance - and around then, you’ll get your first view of Machu Picchu, across the valley. There are some mighty fine suspension bridges on this route too. From Llactapata, most tend to take a train to Aguas Calientes, where you’ll able to rest up in a hotel and dine in local restaurants. Others walk the 6.2 miles (10km), which takes around three hours, on the train line (though do be careful if you're doing this, as it is an active train line).
Day 5: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
Hike time: 4 hours
Take the bus to Machu Picchu for a guided tour of one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the world. This stunning site is built between two fault lines, and was constructed by the great Inca rulers Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–1471) and Túpac Inca Yupanqui (1472–1493) inhabited from around 1420 to 1530AD. Afterwards, it’s back to Aguas Calientes, and then on to Cusco via expedition train - no doubt with a fair few lifelong memories in the bag.
Salkantay Trek vs. Inca Trail: Key Differences
The Inca Trail is a wildly popular trail, which has led to overcrowding on the route and the subsequent introduction of permits to control crowds. What this means today is that if you want to hike the Inca Trail, you have to book far in advance (generally more than five months), to ensure that you get your spot.
Tourists are capped at 200 per day on the trail, which has also led to a rise in prices, and so you can also expect to pay more for the Inca Trail than you would for the Salkantay trek, owing to the permits required to walk the route. In contrast, there are no permit restrictions on the Salkantay trail, and there’s around 50 hikers per day on the route - a quarter of the traffic on the Inca Trail. This also means there’s a lot more flexibility as to when you book on the Salkantay trek.
There’s around 50 hikers per day on the route - a quarter of the traffic on the Inca Trail...
Generally speaking, hiking the Salkantay trek can be anywhere from 33%-66% cheaper than the Inca Trail, depending on when you travel and what kind of accommodation you're opting for along the way. Owing to this, the demographic on the Salkantay trek tends to be younger than the clientele on the Inca Trail - so the age of those you meet along the way will depend on which route you pick.
The views and terrain are also more varied on the Salkantay trek, taking in a wider range of scenery, from deep mountain valleys to lakes, jungle and rolling hills. You’ll have the chance to see mountain wildlife, like deer, chinchillas and spectacled bears - all of which it’d be highly unlikely to see on the Inca Trail.
On the flip side, the Inca Trail is legendary for a reason. It’s a beautiful route, not least for the opportunity to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate - an entrance exclusive to this trail. There are also more ruins along the route - notably Sayaqmarka and Phuyupatamarca.
For both Machu Picchu hikes, it is recommended to spend time in Cusco to acclimatise, and so, to give yourself the best chance of avoiding altitude sickness during your four-day hike.
Salkantay Trek vs. Inca Trail: Which is the Harder Route to Machu Picchu?
Both the Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek are demanding routes which will require a good level of fitness - not least owing to the elevation change and altitude you’ll experience on the routes.
The Salkantay trail is more challenging than the Inca Trail, though still achievable for any regular hiker. It is around 20 miles longer than the Inca Trail, and so you need more multi-day resilience than the Inca Trail. That said, the Inca Trail is still no walk in the park. You’ll be hiking around six to nine hours each day, with the toughest day being the pass over Warmiwañusca Pass (Dead Woman’s Pass).
The toughest day on the Salkantay trek is the ascent of the Salkantay Pass, followed by the descent to Huayracmachay, though hikers are rewarded with views of turquoise lakes and the Pumasillo and Humantay mountains in the distance.
What to Pack for Hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
It’s likely that your guide will bring oxygen bottles and first aid kits. They may also provide tents and inflatable mattresses, so do seek clarification before leaving. Here, we have provided a comprehensive list of what to pack on the Salkantay trek in Peru:
- Inflatable mattress/camping mat
- Sleeping bag
- Trekking poles
- Day pack (25-35 litre)
- Waterproof jacket
- Warm fleece or down jacket
- Hiking boots
- Wicking base layers
- Light long walking trousers
- Few t-shirts
- Hiking socks
- Winter gloves
- Beanie and sun hat
- Down or synthetic feather sleeping bag
- Warm layers for the first night camping at 4400m
- Ear plugs
- Trekking poles (recommended)
- Head lamp
- Toiletries (toilet paper, wet wipes, personal towel)
- Sunscreen (SPF 35+ recommended)
- Insect repellent
- Water bottle
When is the best time to hike the Salkantay Trek?
The best time to walk the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is between April and November. This is the dry season in Cusco. June and September are the most popular months to hike the Salkantay trek (largely due to European and US holidays), but May and October tend to offer the best of the weather, with warm but not roasting sunshine. The beauty of the Salkantay Trek is that it’s never too busy, so you’re not forced onto the shoulder season for the best timing.
Inspired? Check out the itinerary for our adventure on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu now!