You can’t go to Peru and not see Machu Picchu. As much as it is special to see this urban Incan Empire built at its height of power and achievement, its the journey to get there, the challenge, and triumphant conquering to get there that stays with you forever. It’s no secret that the Inca Trail is the de-facto hike but if you’re wanting a way less crowded experience and interested in experiencing and looking to see a diverse landscape on the way, the second most popular way to hike Machu Picchu is around the imposing peak of Salkantay Mountain.
As you start planning your trip to Peru, know all the facts and learn why you should consider the Salkantay option.
This is probably the biggest question that every traveller asks when trying to figure out how to plan their Peru trip. Sure there’s the Inca Trail, but are other options available to you and if so, why would you pick it over the world famous one?
Dynamic landscape scenery
Most will attest that the Salkantay route surpasses the Inca Trail in a number of ways when it comes to landscapes. The most impressive sight you’ll see along the road is the imposing Salkantay mountain and its glaciers that seem to follow you all the way throughout. This route also has the added benefit of being able to see larger animals such as deer, foxes, and chinchillas. The vegetation and plant life is very diverse in this region alongside the lush valleys and high jungles that you’ll be descending through.
In contrast, the Inca Trail has less of a mountain view and has a clear focus on the ruins which you will not see as much of via Salkantay.
More off the beaten path
If you’re looking for a hike where you’re not constantly sandwiched between hiking groups and blazed past by porters from other companies, Salkantay is significantly better of an option. With tourism rising in Peru and the Inca Trail more popular than ever, the trail is anything but quiet.
When we did the Inca Trail, we seemed to be sharing large campsites with other companies and groups. Anytime we took a break, we were being passed and the only time we didn’t see many people was when we were so slow that we were bringing up the rear of all hikers on the trail that day.
The Salkantay trek on the other hand, has 72% less traffic where the latest statistics have Salkantay at 50 people on the trail vs 180 on the Inca Trail. This means that you can truly get the sense that you’re out in the wilderness on your own. Campsites are less crowded and there are never any traffic jams.
This trek also has the opportunity for side adventures where you’ll be able to visit small jungle farms and coffee co-ops, which provides an immersive experience to get a better understanding of what high Andean culture is like.
There are no more Inca Trail permits
Did you book your trip last minute? Are you the type of traveller that likes to figure things out once you get to a new country? If that’s the case, you’re probably already out of luck in terms of doing the Inca Trail. What most people don’t realize is that you need to book the permits at least 9 months in advance now.
While nobody likes being sloppy seconds, Salkantay becomes the next best option which I personally feel like rivals the third option which is the Lares trek.
So unlike the Inca Trail, you can literally show up to Cusco and book a spot on a trek just like that. Since spots are less competitive, prices are naturally lower and more affordable.
Differences With Inca Trail
You’ve read the above and you’re probably still wondering, “Will, that’s great and all but seriously what are the big differences between the two hikes?” Well, your questions are answered in this nifty table:
|Difficulty||Medium to Difficult||Medium|
|Distance||75 km (46.60 mi)||43 km (26 mi)|
|Maximum Altitude||4,650 m (15,157 ft)||4,200 m (13,779 ft)|
|Number of hikers per day||50||180|
|Price||400 USD||645 USD|
|Availability||Wide availability even during high season||Minimum 9 months to book Inca Trail permit|
|Highlight||Snow-capped and glacier covered Salkantay mountain||Inca Ruins along the way|
|Advantage||Jaw-dropping scenery that is way less crowded.||You hike straight into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, perfectly timed for sunrise.|
|Disadvantage||On your trip to Machu Picchu, you're with everyone else that||You need to plan way in advance for this. It is also quite crowded on the trail so if you're hoping for an experience where you're out there on your own, this may not be for you.|
Who to Trek With?
Once you’ve figured out that you’re going to be the Salkantay trek, you’ll need to pick a tour operator to take you out there.
I’ve done the Inca Trail and I’ll be the first to tell you that having a good trekking company can make or break your trip. It’s about the guides, attention to detail, gear, quality of food, and how well they treat their porters.
Having done a fair bit of research on this topic, the company that continuously came up as the most well ranked is Salkantay Trekking. Taking in feedback from my friends that had gone on the trip and having read through too many reviews to count, here are my top reasons for why you should choose them.
Why Salkantay Trekking
- Well priced – With the classic 5 day trek only costing $400 USD, talk about tremendous value when you consider the fact that means only $80/night which includes the superhero porters, food, gear, guide, and transportation.
- Exclusive Mountain Sky Huts – If you’ve ever wanted to sleep under the stars like we did in the bubble hotel of Iceland, make sure you take advantage of Salkantay Trekking’s exclusive huts. A solid rock structure with a glass dome, you’re almost guaranteed to see the Milky Way from here on the first night of the trek.
- Experience – Having been in business since 2004, these guys have a wealth of experience. Specializing in Salkantay (as the company’s name implies), there’s no situation they haven’t seen yet. Their guides are professional and knowledgeable
- Safety – The well-being and safety of their clients come first and are very careful to make sure that everyone acclimatizes properly. They also have a back up plan should you run into health issues.
- Phenomenal food – Considering that they have the lug the food up and they have limited supplies, it’s impressive how delicious they can make each meal. Every meal includes different dishes and they even have the presentation bit down.
- 100% satisfaction guarantee – If the above wasn’t enough, they’ve been bold enough to promise that if there was any part of the trip that you weren’t happy with, they’ll happily refund your money. Now I’m not sure if anyone’s activated this guarantee but it definitely puts travellers at ease knowing this is there.
A Visual Journey
So what is it like to be with Salkantay Trekking?
Here’s a map of what it looks like starting from the green dot in Cusco and moving clockwise, making it to the peak altitude of 4,630 meters (15,190 feet) at Salkantay Pass before finishing at Aguas Calientes and making it up to Machu Picchu on the last day.
Day 1: Cuzco – Mollepata to Soraypampa
You start off in Cusco in the morning and after 3 hours you get to Mollepata where the real journey begins. This is relatively easy day and a good chance for you to get a feel for how well you’re dealing with altitude. Day 1 is when you get the first glimpse of the Salkantay peak and a sneak peek of the views to come.
To end off the day, you’re treated with the Mountain Sky Hut if you’re with Salkantay Trekking.
Day 2: Soraypampa to Chaullay via Salkantay Pass
The second day is the most challenging of all. Be prepared to climb 710 meters (2,356 feet) in elevation gain. It’ll feel like hell but when you get to the top of Salkantay Pass, you’ll be treated with epic vistas of the Salkantay glaciers.
Day 3 – Chaullay to Lucmabamba
This day is a much welcomed easier day where you’ll be able to truly appreciate how diverse the landscape is here. The trail takes you along a water stream and you will encounter things like waterfalls, tropical plants, fruit, and wildlife. You’ll also pass through a number of farms perched on the hills before landing at base camp Lucmabamba and a nearby organic coffee plantation.
Day 4 – Lucmabamba to Aguas Caliente via Llactapata and Hidroelectrica
The fourth day is exciting because you get an early start to the Llactapata Inca site where you’ll see Machu Picchu in the distance. Yes, you do see a few Inca sites with Salkantay Trekking. In the afternoon, you also get to see the 300 meter high waterfall which generates electricity for Cusco along with the ancient rock, Intiwatana, which was used as a sundial in ancient times.
At the end of the day, you’ll follow a trail beside the train tracks and eventually end up in Aguas Calientes where you will stay at a local hostel overnight.
Day 5 – Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu finally. You’ll want to wake up at 4AM to start your hike up from Aguas Calientes to get to the front entrance to Machu Picchu which doesn’t open until 6AM. Don’t underestimate the stairs on the way up that you’ll need to take here so pace yourself!
Once you’re in, my recommendation would be to hike up to Sun Gate to catch what you can of the sunrise. Your package also includes a 2 hour tour of the grounds so make sure you walk through the ruins.
Huayna Picchu is also a possibility if you book tickets in advance. I’ve done it and it is less daunting than it looks from afar.
If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a ton more I have from my amazing trip to Peru. Don’t miss out on these pieces that will help you plan your awesome trip:
- Full 2 week itinerary
- Original packing list
- Inca Trail guide (including general packing tips)
- Visual journey through Inca Trail
- Inca Trail is harder than it looks