Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail, Which Way to Machu Picchu?

A month before we left for Peru, Joe and I noticed that we had about five extra days in Peru with no lodging or excursions planned.  Our trip to the lovely town of Huaraz (my favorite town in Peru) and the Alpamayo Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca would take up two weeks of our planned month in Peru. We also had about one week planned to spend recovering in Cusco and checking out the annual Inti Raymi Festival, but after that, we were blank.  After researching options and trying to keep the budget in line, we decided to sign up for a guided hike to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Trek for $250 per person. The trek included five days of meals, camping/lodging, transport, entrance and tour of Machu Picchu, and most importantly, I didn’t have to do anymore planning – like a vacation from my vacation.

In 2012, we had hiked to Machu Picchu via the Classic Inca Trail, so I couldn’t help but compare the Salkantay Trek with the Classic Inca Trail the entire time. Here is our trip report from the Classic Inca Trail. While both are what I would imagine a hiking version of Disney Land would be like, they were two completely different experiences. I knew that with the Salkantay Trek we would be with a larger group and we would have more time in town, but as long as we were fed for five days and had a place to sleep and could see Machu Picchu again, I was okay with it!

After spending two weeks relatively isolated in the Cordillera Blanca, I was honestly looking forward to having a big group of new hiking buddies to walk with.  And the group was big, 20 people, two guides, and a large number of donkeys. If you are looking for peaceful quiet time, going with a guided group hiking is probably not where you are going to find it.  This was more like a walking circus, and I wasn’t looking for peaceful quiet time, so this was perfect for me.

Day One

We woke up at 4 a.m. and walked to the Plaza de Armas in Cusco to meet the rest of our group for the 4 hour bus ride to the start of the trailhead.

The overcast weather made for a pleasant walk the first day.
The overcast weather made for a pleasant walk the first day.

The day was mostly overcast and it was a pleasant stroll as we walked 13 miles and gained 2,200 feet of elevation to the first campsite at Soraypampa. As we arrived to camp, it started raining. Many people in our group didn’t have rain jackets (at the advice of the tour company!), so it was fortunate that there was a stockpile of ponchos at the campground for sale. I brought a nice rain jacket and gloves, both would come in handy the next day.

Day Two

The second day of hiking was supposed to be the most beautiful day of the entire trek since we were going over Salkantay Pass at over 15,000 feet. However, the rain from the previous day continued throughout the night and as we made our way up the pass, the rain turned to snow.

Members of our group as they reached the top of the pass.
Members of our group as they reached the top of the pass. Judging by their facial expressions, I think they were having TYPE 2 fun.

Our guide said that in his five years of leading this trek, he’d only encountered snow one other time. Well, he didn’t know that he was hiking with us, the Mayans, who have a penchant for bringing bad weather wherever we go. In good weather, you normally stop at the top of the pass and take pictures, eat a snack

As the weather started clearing and we descended, we were rewarded with beautiful views.
As the weather started clearing and we descended, we were rewarded with beautiful views.

and talk about the history of the mountain. This was not one of those days. Shivering, ponchos blowing in the wind, others hastily stopped to take a quick pic and descend down the mountain to better weather. Joe and I took a quick sip of rum offered by the guide, gave a few high fives, and carefully made our way down. As we continued walking downhill, the landscape changed from barren mountains to cloud forest and the weather mellowed out significantly. We walked a total of about 12 miles and ascended about 2000 feet to the top of the pass and descended about 6000 feet (ouch) to the campsite of Chaullay.

Day 3

On the third day, we hiked along a road for a few hours and were picked up by a bus to go to our camp in the town of Santa Theresa. In contrast to hiking over the mountain pass in the snow the day before, we were now riding in a bona fide party bus.

Our last views of Salkantay for the hike.
Our last views of Salkantay until Machu Picchu.

The bus was literally thumping with pop/dance music all the way to town.  There is something about riding on a bus barely clinging to the side of a cliff and everyone on the bus singing the latest Rhianna song as loud as possible that felt oddly comforting.  That same night, we went to the nearby hot springs and returned to the campground to have a club-like dance party including a stereo system, laser lights, a bonfire, and copious amounts of alcohol.

Day Four

The morning came quickly and the 8 mile road walk in the sun quickly sobered everyone up.  Some decided to go zip-lining instead – probably a good choice on their part. We finished the day in the town of Aguas Calientes and stayed in a basic hostel organized by the trekking company.  We had the afternoon to explore around town and buy a packed lunch to take to Machu Picchu the next day.

Approaching the back side of Machu Picchu on the final day of hiking. Can you spot Machu Picchu?
Approaching the back side of Machu Picchu on the final day of hiking. Can you spot Machu Picchu?

Day Five

We woke up at 3:30 a.m. to reach the gate to Machu Picchu and race to the main entrance gate. Why race, you ask? I honestly don’t know. Our guide told us to try to hustle, and somehow it became some sort of mad dash/race.  Racing was fun, and I enjoyed passing un-acclimatized people on the way up. There is a bus you could take, but why pay $10 when you can race like crazy person up 1300 feet of stairs?

The benefit of winning the race up the mountain - a picture free of other tourists!
The benefit of winning the race up the mountain – a picture free of other tourists!

Once we were at the main entrance, our guide was waiting for us. Since we were some of the first people in, we were able to snap a few people-free pictures of Machu Picchu. Our guide took us on a quick tour of Machu Picchu and then released us to explore on our own.  There are two mountains you can walk up on either side of Machu Picchu. One is Huayna Picchu and the other is Machu Picchu Mountain.  Since we did the shorter, more exposed, more exciting Huayna Picchu in 2012, we decided to hike up the taller, less thrilling Machu Picchu Mountain. The views from the top were amazing and well worth the 2,100 foot climb. A word of advice: do not go passed the roped section at the summit, you will see other people doing it and think that it is safe, but it’s not. The day before we went up, a tourist died on Machu Picchu Mountain posing for a picture outside of the roped area.

The views from Machu Picchu Mountain. See the rope a thettom of the pic? Don
The views from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain.

Salkantay or Inca Trail, which is the best option?

If you have the extra money and are able to secure a spot with a tour company, choose the Classic Inca Trail. While the Salkantay trek is cool and really neat and all, here is why I like the Classic Inca Trail better:

  • There is no road walking on the Inca Trail. I hate walking on roads or near train tracks, so will you. On the Inca Trail, you are only walking on a footpath, much of which is incredibly maintained and beautiful on its own. I love a well-constructed trail!
  • There is less civilization. We slept two nights in villages/towns on the Salkantay Trek, plus two of our campsites had road access, and it kind of ruined the vibe for me. I loved waking up in the cloud forest on the Inca Trail and walking to the Sun Gate in the morning. On the Salkantay Trek, I woke up in a hostel in Aguas Calientes and raced hundreds of people up to the main entrance point, which was fun, but not AS fun as the Inca Trail.
  • There are more archaeological sites on the Inca Trail. I can remember at least four high quality sites we visited on the Inca Trail besides Machu Picchu, and those are just the ones I can remember. The main draw of the Salkantay Trek is walking over Salkantay Pass and being close to Salkantay Mountain. If you want snow-capped mountains and adventure – you are better off in the Cordillera Blanca or Huayhuash.
  • They don’t allow horses on the Inca Trail.  Having spent a good deal of my life around horses, I am not adverse to horse poop, in fact I actually don’t mind the smell, but on the Salkantay, even I, the horse enthusiast,  got tired of slipping on horse sludge.
  • The group size is generally smaller on the Inca Trail. This can be good or bad, depending on what kind of experience you are looking for.
  • Our guiding service provided water for us on the Inca Trail (this is a difference in tour operators, not in the trek itself).  Along the Salkantay Trek, we had to treat our own water, and others in our group had to purchase water, sometimes at exorbitant prices. The guide said in our Salkantay Trek briefing, “Don’t bring water or treatment for water, just bring money!” – This was not good advice and we did not listen.

If you wait too long and there are no permits available for the Inca Trail or don’t have the extra $300 to do it, there is a bright side to the Salkantay Trek:

  • The bathrooms were better on the Salkantay. I didn’t have to go in a single pit toilet and there was no poop on the walls (unlike one unfortunate bathroom I visited on the Inca Trail). The bathrooms on the Inca Trail were decidedly worse when I went in 2012, maybe they’ve improved since then, but maybe they haven’t . . .
  • The food and tents were basically exactly the same even though the Inca Trail will cost you about $300 more than the Salkantay.
  • As stated before, you get up close and personal with Salkantay mountain. You also get up over a 15,000 foot pass (higher than any mountain in the continental U.S.).
  • The hot springs and party on night three was fun . . . if you like parties and hot springs . . . who doesn’t?
  • You have more chances to shower on the Salkantay. I like smelling nice sometimes.
  • You also have the option to go zip-lining on the Salkantay. I don’t know if Peru is the safest place to go zip-lining, but I can’t speak from personal experience since I opted out of the zip-line option.
  • You still get to see Machu Picchu. The tours around Machu Picchu are the same either way.

Here is a link to our photo album for the Salkantay Trek. I apologize in advance for the number of pictures. I haven’t had a chance to edit them yet. Salkantay Trek Photo Album

Chelsea likes mountains, adventures, good weather, laughing, and drinking fancy beer. Preferably all at the same time.

2 Replies to “Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail, Which Way to Machu Picchu?”

  1. What a trip. Sounds like a fun time. Enjoy your blog!

  2. Love looking at all your wonderful pictures and hearing of your wonderful adventures! You have definitely done your homework! Appreciate all the tips!

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