While the Inca Trail is deservedly one of the most famous in South America, the Salkantay Trek offers a wilder and perhaps more authentic approach to the Incas’ most famous monument. No trip to Peru can be considered complete without a visit to the mystical mountaintop ruins of Machu Picchu, but more intrepid travellers are now looking for alternatives to the overcrowded experience of the Inca Trail. The Salkantay trek being of the many alternative treks to Machu Picchu besides the Inca Trail.
The Salkantay Trek is a less crowded alternative to the Inca Trail and is the only trekking route that affords views of Machu Picchu even though the trek doesn’t actually finish at the ruins of Machu Picchu. It includes crossing the Salkantay Pass at 4600 m on the second day while the Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail is 4200 m. So, the altitude on this trek is higher than the Inca Trail. Salkantay trek offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, among which stands Salkantay mountain itself, before descending through cloud forests that are rich in wildlife. On the final day, trekkers are usually taken to Machu Picchu for a tour of the ruins before returning to Cusco.
- Spectacular scenery including views of Salkantay mountain (6271 m)
- Crossing the Salkantay Pass (4600 m) with stunning views
- Views of Machu Picchu nestled in surrounding forests below the trail
- Less crowded than the classic Inca Trail
- Visiting Machu Picchu on the final day
- High altitude trek, proper acclimatisation necessary to avoid altitude sickness
- Temperatures can plummet during the night at high altitudes
- Difficulty: Challenging. 5 days of walking for up to eight hours a day through tough, mountainous terrain.
- Trek Duration: 5 days for the standard itinerary
- Remoteness: Remote. The route passes through remote villages, desolate mountain scenery and 15 distinct ecosystems. While some of the settlements at either end of the trek have road or rail connections, most of the trek is on mountain paths inaccessible except on foot or horseback.
- Maximum Altitude: 4,600 m
- Accommodation Type: Tents on the mountain campsites. Although some hikes include stays in luxury lodges on the trail.
- Best Season: April to October
- The dry season is from around April to October and it is best to attempt the Salkantay trek during these months since the wet season (November to March) sees the trail muddy and wet with an increased risk of slipping.
- The Salkantay trail is busiest from June to September but the weather is at its best during May and October when it is also less busy, meaning these are possibly the two best months to go.
- Salkantay trek can be attempted year-round, the coldest months are during the dry season. For the best trekking experience, plan your trek around May - July which coincides with the best time to visit Machu Picchu.
- Start / End Locations: Mollepata or Soraypampa - Aguas Calientes
- Permits Required: No for the trek. If you plan to visit Machu Picchu, you should reserve your tickets in advance and you will need your passport to enter the site.
- Fitness Level Required: Good
- Day 1: Mollepata (2,900 m) - Soraypampa (3,850 m)
The trek starts at Mollepata and includes a steady climb of around seven or eight hours through verdant, rugged mountains as the peak of Mount Salkantay rears its snow-topped head in the distance. Camp is made at Soraypampa, where temperatures can be very cold, especially at night.
- Day 2: Soraypampa – Collpapampa (2,800 m)
This is the most gruelling part of the trek as the trail leads up to the vertiginous Salkantay Pass at 4600 m, from where there are spectacular views if the weather is clear. Having crossed the pass, the trail descends into the mysterious cloud forest on the way to Collpapampa, where camp is set for the night.
- Day 3: Collpapampa – La Playa (2,200 m)
The trekkers will follow the Lluskamayo River through an area rich in wildlife down to the jungle town of La Playa, at an altitude of 2200 m.
- Day 4: La Playa – Aguas Calientes (2,040 m)
The day starts with the ascent to the Inca ruins of Llactapata (2650 m), affording spectacular views of Machu Picchu nestling on a mountaintop below. From here, it is possible to hike either to Santa Teresa or to the hydroelectric station, the second option being the more demanding but also more rewarding. There is a train connection to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), from where visitors can access Machu Picchu itself.
- Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu (2,430 m)
This is the big day of visiting Machu Picchu! Start your journey on foot or by bus from Aguas Calientes for a visit to the world-famous ruins. From here on, you can either catch a bus or a train back to Cusco.
A seven-day option is also available, with a drive to Soraypampa on day 1, a trek out to Lake Humantay on day 2 and the crossing of the Salkantay Pass on day 3. Trekkers arrive at Llactapata on day 6, before heading to Aguas Calientes by train and making the ascent to Machu Picchu on the final day.
- This trek is not particularly dangerous if participants are fully prepared but it should not be taken lightly. At no point does the trek descend below 2000 m, and at its highest point, it reaches well above 4000 m. At these altitudes, it is easy to become fatigued and trekkers should not push themselves to do more than they can manage.
- The weather in the mountains is unpredictable and at the highest parts of the trek, including the camp at Soraypampa, it is certain to be cold, so trekkers should ensure they have the proper clothing and equipment.
- It is possible to walk the trail without a guide or porters and those who do so are free to choose their own itinerary – it is even possible to finish in four days. Attempting the Salkantay Trek without a guide is only recommended for experienced trekkers and should only be undertaken with the proper equipment and supplies.
Altitude sickness while trekking at altitudes of above 2,000 m - 2,500 m can be a problem. It is highly recommended to spend two days in Cusco to acclimatise before attempting the trail. Early symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headache and dizziness, and anyone displaying these symptoms should immediately descend to a lower altitude to recover.
For those looking to escape the crowds of the Inca Trail – or for those who do not manage to book a place on the more famous walk – the Salkantay Trek offers a challenging and rewarding alternative. The sight of Mount Salkantay looming above as you traverse the Salkantay Pass or the view of the magical ruins of Machu Picchu perched on a ledge far below as you reach Llactapata will be some of the sights that far fewer visitors to Peru are fortunate to experience.