The Inca Trail is iconic thanks to its history as part of the Royal Road system that connected the Inca Empire. This history is shown through various remains (especially Inca paving) along parts of the trail. Thanks to this, combined with the natural setting and the stunning finish at Machu Picchu, it is considered the number one trek in South America. For those who don’t have 4 days free to complete the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there’s also a truncated 2-day version which skips the grueling Dead Women’s Pass but includes the highlights of Wiñay Wayna and the Inti Punku Sun Gate.
Of the routes often referred to as the ‘alternative’ treks to Machu Picchu, the Salkantay Trek is the most popular. Although it’s tougher than the Classic Inca Trail, it famously showcases the best scenery of all the treks to Machu Picchu. Looping around glacial Mt Salkantay en route to Machu Picchu, it takes 5 days including the final day at the ruins, although it can be done in 4 days for those with a tight schedule and good fitness. Unlike the Inca Trail, pack mules are used rather than porters for carrying camping and cooking equipment, and it can be done independently or with a group.
Whichever route you choose, you will spend your final day in Machu Picchu Citadel, exploring and admiring the Lost City of the Incas- the perfect culmination of a rewarding hike.
Salkantay Trek Pros
Landscape: The Salkantay Trek is famous for its scenery, which most guides attest surpasses that of the Inca Trail. You have a better chance of seeing larger mammals such as foxes, deer, chinchilla, and, with luck, even Spectacled Bears. The plant life is varied as well. It’s a hike through the picturesque Andes which takes you up to imposing glaciers and then has you descend through lush valleys with coffee plantations and then back up into the high jungle.
Traffic: No one would think of claiming the Inca Trail as “off the beaten path”, but there’s about 72% less traffic on the Salkantay trek- a 50 person daily average compared to a 180 person daily average on the Inca Trail. This means that you’ll have much of the trek to yourself, and the campsites en route aren’t crowded, letting you immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the wilderness and camp in a truer sense.
Availability & Flexibility: Lower traffic means that there’s no need for the daily limits that causes the Inca Trail to often sell out- you can find trips leaving for Salkantay almost every day, it’s just a matter of finding a group leaving on the same day as you (unless you are going independently or opting for a private tour). There’s also more flexibility than with the Inca Trail, where strict permit rules do not allow for date changes or cancellations.
Salkantay Trek Cons
Cachet: Unlike the Inca Trail, you do not enter Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku Sun Gate. As you spend the night in Aguas Calientes the night before, you can either take the bus up to the ruins, or, if you want to see Machu Picchu in the dawn, hike up to catch the sunrise. During your visit to the Machu Picchu, it’s possible to hike up to the sun gate in about a half hour.
Difficulty:The Salkantay trek is almost twice as long as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (51mi compared to 26mi) and reaches a higher altitude (15,215ft rather than 13,800ft). This does mean it’s more physically challenging than the Inca Trail. It’s generally colder as well.
Facilities:Campsites along the Salkantay Trek do not have many facilities, so most tour groups set up their own tent latrines. There aren’t showers, although you can bathe in the streams if you’re willing to face the cold.
History: Although the Salkantay Trek follows historic routes as well, the only set of ruins you will see is Machu Picchu Citadel. The best ruins along the Inca Trail, found at Wiñay Wayna, are similar to those of Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Incas outside of Cusco. Thus, if you would like to make up for missed ruins, you might think about visiting Pisac.
Inca Trail Pros
Cachet:The Inca Trail is one of the world’s most famous treks, and the only trek which hikes right into Machu Picchu. Hikers emerge from the jungle at the Inti Punku Sun Gate, where Machu Picchu under the sunrise comes into full view. From the gate, hikers descend into the citadel.
Landscape: The Inca Trail boasts beautiful scenery ranging from snowy peaks to cloud forest and high-altitude jungle, and includes a variety of small historic ruins en route. Foremost among them is Wiñay Wayna with its plentiful agricultural terraces. There, you walk atop original Inca stairs and paving and even pass through an Incan stone tunnel. As you reach the high-altitude jungle during the last stretch of the trek, you will see a wide variety of orchids, as well as birds and butterflies.
Difficulty: The Inca Trail is considered a moderate trek, and with some acclimatization time in Cusco to adjust to the area’s altitude, is appropriate for both younger and older trekkers. There is one steep and quite difficult segment on the second day- the climb to the trek’s highpoint, Dead Woman’s Pass. Aside from this, the trek is not difficult. (You are advised to rent walking sticks, however, to reduce the pressure on your knees while climbing or descending the many small stone steps at Wiñay Wayna.)
Facilities:The campsites along the trail include toilets that are cleaned every couple of days. For some, this is an advantage of the trek, although purist campers might prefer the more ‘wilderness’ feel of the Salkantay Trail. Treks on the Inca Trail tend to be better organized in general, as a result of the greater demand and reputation.
Inca Trail Cons
Traffic: The Inca Trail is an extremely popular route. The permit limits do keep the crowds tolerable, but the greater amount of people means that your chances of seeing large mammals such as foxes, deer and chinchilla are reduced. During the difficult climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, at the pass itself, and during the descent from the pass, you are likely to find yourself hiking past and with other groups, and the campsites are also crowded. Throughout the rest of the trek, however, you will find plenty of opportunities for solitude.
Availability/Flexibility: To hike the Inca Trail, you are required to go with an approved operator, who will buy an Inca Trail permit on your behalf. Permits are limited to 500 a day, 300 of which are guides, cooks, and porters. For much of the year, permits are available but should be bought at least a week or two prior to ensure that you will find the desired date. During the May, June, July, and August high season, you should book as far ahead as possible, around 5 months prior. Tickets do sell out months in advance during this time.
If you would like more information regarding these and other excursions in the Peruvian Andes, feel free to contact our travel agency in Cusco for information, assistance, or tours.