Hiking to Machu Picchu: comparing the classic Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
As mysterious as it is breathtaking, Machu Picchu is quite possibly the best preserved Incan archaeological site in all of South America, but certainly the most beloved, drawing millions of eager travellers from around the world to its remote location in the Peruvian Andes. There are a number of ways to explore Machu Picchu, the most popular of which is via train from nearby Ollantaytambo— for those seeking more adventure, however, there is truly no better way to discover the “Lost” City of the Incas than on your own two feet, approaching the ruins along the classic Inca Trail or the stunning Salkantay Trek.
Wondering how you’ll ever choose between these two incredible treks? Peru enthusiast that I am, I’ve hiked both the Inca Trail (December 2014) and the Salkantay Trek (August 2019) to Machu Picchu and experienced the good, the bad, and the beautiful of each. It’s absolutely impossible for me to pick a favourite (and I suspect you’ll soon see why), but I wanted to compile a comprehensive, in-depth comparison of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek, written by someone who has actually completed BOTH hikes, for those planning an adventurous visit to Machu Picchu.
“Re-discovered” by archaeologist Hiram Bingham on his famous 1911 expedition, the Inca Trail is only a small section of some 20,000km of trails that were created and traversed by the ancient Incas in the 15th century. This particular trail is thought to have been a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu, along which walkers performed religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals to honour the towering Apus (mountain gods). Today, it’s still the most popular trekking route to Machu Picchu.
Distances & difficulty
The 43km Inca Trail is traditionally completed in 4 days, although several companies now offer a slow-paced 5-day option that follows an identical route. Regardless of the trekking company you are with, the Inca Trail starts from the same point (KM 82) and ascends/descends over two brutally steep, high altitude passes to reach Machu Picchu on the morning of the 4th day, where you have several hours to explore before the journey back to Cusco.
The hike itself is incredibly steep at points, but not overly challenging otherwise— coupled with the altitude, however, it can feel extremely difficult if you’re not properly acclimatised. The highest point on the trail, Warmiwañusqa (very aptly referred to as Dead Woman’s Pass), sits at 4,215m and requires a fair bit of huffing and puffing, but you’ll probably only notice the altitude for a day or a day and a half before you descend under 3,000m again. If you have difficulty with a lot of steep downhill hiking, I strongly recommend investing in a good knee brace and a pair of trekking poles, which can be bought for around $20 in Cusco or hired from your trekking company for slightly less (these quite literally saved my life, particularly considering the heavy rain that made all the steps slippery). The descents on this trek are no joke.
Route & scenery
The Inca Trail ascends and descends through lush rainforest, offering views of misty mountaintops and mysterious ruins. In fact, that’s one of the best things about this trek— you visit a number of fascinating ancient Incan sites before you even reach Machu Picchu.
But Machu Picchu, of course, is the absolute best part of the Inca Trail. No trek, not Salkantay or Lares or any other trek, leads directly to Machu Picchu except for the Inca Trail. On the final morning of this trek, you’ll wake up dark and early to reach the Sun Gate and its expansive view of the Incan citadel for sunrise, then descend directly down to the ruins themselves to explore further (read this post for info about Machu Picchu). The views of Machu Picchu that you’ll see on this trail are undoubtedly the best of any trek, which makes up for the rainforest scenery on the earlier days that, although beautiful, isn’t quite as spectacular as the alpine scenery on Salkantay.
It’s also worth commenting that hiking directly to Machu Picchu, while impressive, means you will be dead-tired as you explore the ruins. I hardly felt like I had the energy to walk around after hiking in torrential rain at altitude for the last several days, which was a bit sad considering how much there is to explore at the site. People in our group who had paid for tickets to climb Huayna Picchu even skipped the experience due to exhaustion. Some of this was definitely due to a lack of hiking experience at the time, but this is something that strongly encouraged me to revisit Machu Picchu on the Salkantay Trek— and I’m so glad I did!
Booking & cost
The government only allows 200 hikers to depart on the Inca Trail each day, all of whom must be accompanied by a tour guide, and these passes consistently sell out months in advance. Due to the popularity of the trek, it’s therefore necessary to book a tour at least 6 months before your preferred dates. It’s worth noting that you’ll also need to provide passport details to secure your Machu Picchu tickets at this time, so plan ahead if you need to renew your passport before travelling!
As a result of the high demand, Inca Trail tours run anywhere from $500 to $1,000USD, but typically provide a very high standard of food, equipment, and guiding (all camping equipment supplied and assembled for you each afternoon), as well as porters who will carry the bulk of your gear and clothes. In 2014, I hiked the Inca Trail with Wayki Trek, a local company who also offers a free community immersion experience the night prior to the trek where we visited a school to sing with the children, helped out on a farm, and spent the evening dancing and laughing in our lead porter’s home. Not only was Wayki Trek’s commitment to giving back to this rural community thoroughly inspiring, but the quality of the trek itself was worth every penny of the $780USD I paid. I’d highly recommend this company!
Read more: MODERN ADVENTURES ON THE ANCIENT INCA TRAIL
Meaning “Savage Mountain” in Quechua, the Salkantay Trek takes its name from an imposing 6,271m peak that absolutely dominates the landscape during the first half of the hike. This stunning mountain is the highest in the region (the 12th highest in all of Peru), but also held great spiritual significant for the ancient Incas. According to Incan mythology, mountain spirits (Apu) inhabit sacred peaks in the Andes, providing protection to the people below. Mountains were also seen as a link between Kay Pacha (the human realm) and Hanan Pacha (the upper realm), and therefore towering Salkantay is highly revered as a sacred Apu, often credited with controlling the weather of the region.
Distances & difficulty
The complete Salkantay Trek from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes (the town just below Machu Picchu) is around 70km and typically hiked in 5 days. However, a number of modifications can be made to this trek thanks to nearby roads, which effectively cuts out the penultimate day for a shortened 4-day trek or a challenging 3-day trek.
In addition to being a longer trek, the altitude is also higher on the Salkantay Trek, reaching an elevation of 4,650m over Salkantay Pass and involving 2 full days of trekking above 3,500m (most people begin to notice the altitude above 2500m). It’s absolutely vital to acclimatise properly before setting out on this trek (more tips at the end of this post)! Salkantay is not a challenging trek and is suitable for anyone with a moderate level of fitness, but I would still rate it as slightly more demanding than the Inca Trail just because of the altitude.
Route & scenery
Although its popularity as an alternative to the Inca Trail is undeniably burgeoning, the Salkantay Trek offers an entirely different experience en route to beautiful Machu Picchu, both in terms of crowds (substantially less) and scenery (more mountainous). The first two days of the trek feature insane alpine vistas at Laguna Humantay and Salkantay Pass, which then transition to lush rainforest and river-cut canyons on the third and fourth days. Finally, the walk culminates at Aguas Calientes, the tourist-town that sits below Machu Picchu, where you’ll spend the night in a comfy bed and enjoy a hot shower (!!).
From Aguas Calientes, you’ll rise early to make the final journey up to Machu Picchu on foot (45min up 1,800 stone stairs) or via bus— read more about these options in my guide to Machu Picchu. This means you’ll enter the archaeological site through the main tourist entrance and there’s absolutely no chance of catching the sunrise views from the Sun Gate. That being said, you can still enjoy the sunrise from one of the lower viewpoints over Machu Picchu, which is spectacular on a clear day! It’s also extremely nice to have a good sleep and a shower in Aguas Calientes before going to Machu Picchu so as not to look like a hot mess in all of your priceless travel photos.
Booking & cost
Unlike the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek has no daily limit on the number of hikers (and is no where near as popular), so it’s entirely possible to book this trek closer to your travel dates or even snag a last-minute deal in Cusco. It’s also permitted to solo hike this route without a guide— since this was one of the acclimatisation hikes for my 10-day solo trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash, I didn’t want to carry my heavy pack and tire myself out (thank you, horses), but I could absolutely see that it would’ve been an uncomplicated and fun solo hike for any reasonably-seasoned trekker!
The obvious benefit of Salkantay being a less popular (and less controlled) trek is also cheaper prices, ranging from $300-700USD for a tour with wonderful accommodation, chef-made food, and horses who will carry all the gear to lighten your load. I went on the 4-day tour with Salkantay Trekking, which was $400USD and honestly phenomenal. I can’t say enough good things about the experience, but I’ll let you check out all of the photos and excited ramblings for yourself in my trail journal.
Trekking tips for Inca Trail & Salkantay Trek
Weather & seasons in Peru
Weather in the Peruvian Andes is typically grouped into two seasons: a cool, dry winter (also referred to as the “Andean Summer”) from May to September and a minimally warmer, but much wetter summer from October to April (the Inca Trail is actually closed in Feb due to heavy rain). The Salkantay Trek is also a bit colder, just because of the higher altitude and nearby glaciers.
It’s worth repeating that there really isn’t much fluctuation in terms of temperature throughout the year (nighttime lows of about 0-8C, daytime highs of 18-22C), but FAR OUT is there a difference in terms of rain and cloud-cover. I did the Inca Trail around Christmastime and it rained nearly non-stop— even though it wasn’t raining on the day I arrived at Machu Picchu, low-hanging clouds completely obscured the views from the Sun Gate and didn’t clear until mid-morning. In contrast, my Salkantay Trek in the middle of the Andean summer (August) had clear blue skies every single day with hardly a cloud in sight. We also got a spectacular, unobstructed sunrise at Machu Picchu, which was pure magic.
If at all possible, book your trek during the dry season to avoid foul weather that clouds your views, either of the mountains or Machu Picchu itself. BUT if summer is your only available time to visit, let me just say that I still had an amazing time on the Inca Trail through all the rain. It was definitely part of the adventure!
High-altitude trekking in Peru
Neither of these treks are overly difficult in terms of distance or terrain, but high altitude along the Inca Trail and even higher altitude along the Salkantay Trek greatly complicate matters for those who aren’t properly acclimatised. Common symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, shortness of breath, lethargy, nausea, and difficulty sleeping— basically, no fun on a trek!
Everyone reacts differently to trekking at high elevation and, surprsingly, your physical fitness actually has nothing to do with your susceptibility to altitude sickness, so the single best thing you can do to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and its more severe consequences (HACE or HAPE) is to spend time in Cusco prior to your trek. Try to set aside at least a few days to bum around town and let your body adjust!
If you don’t have many days prior to your trek or if you know you’ve reacted poorly to high altitudes in the past, it’s possible to take medication like Acetazolamide (Diamox) to aid your acclimatisation and prevent serious altitude sickness symptoms. Andean natives have also been using coca for more than 3,000 years to alleviate symptoms related to the altitude, and bags of coca leaves, coca tea, and even coca candy are now ubiquitous in Cusco and other high-altitude towns. On a guided trek, you will be provided with coca tea throughout the day, but you can also pack along your own leaves or candies for the trail.
Packing list for trekking in Peru
This is a general year-round packing list for either the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek. Nearly all companies operate the same way— they will give you a duffel that you can pack full of clothes and sleeping stuff (typically 7kg max) which will be carried by porters (Inca Trail) or horses (Salkantay), and then you will carry water and other items you need frequent access to in your own small daypack.
I’ve linked to all the gear I used below, but if you’re looking for more specific recommendations on trekking gear, check out this post: BUILDING THE ULTIMATE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE KIT: THE BEST HIKING & BACKPACKING GEAR FOR WOMEN
To wear on the first day
- Sport shirt
- Light fleece jumper
- Wind jacket
- Down jacket, you’ll want this on the drive, but it can go into your daypack after you start trekking and be worn around camp in the evenings/early mornings
- Tights or hiking pants
- Sturdy hiking boots, with thick wool socks and hiking liners
- Trekking poles, possible to purchase in Cusco or hire from your trekking company for about $20USD if you don’t own any poles; 100% essential in my opinion
To keep in your daypack (~25L)
- Water bladder or bottle, enough to carry 1-2L of water
- Small snacks, like nuts or protein bars (although you will also receive snacks from the trekking company)
- Rain jacket
- Bug spray
- Warm gloves, two pairs for Salkantay if you get really cold
- Warm hat
- Camera, plus spare batteries
- Drybag, to protect your electronics/other valuables in heavy rain
- Rain cover for your daypack, or you can purchase a plastic poncho that will cover you and your pack for a few Soles along the trail (if you’re hiking in the rainy season, bring BOTH)
To pack in the duffel (6-7kg, carried by porters or horses)
- 2x spare hiking shirts, short sleeve or singlets
- Mountain jacket, great for hiking in chilly weather (since you really don’t want to sweat in your down jacket)
- Spare hiking shorts or tights
- 2x spare hiking socks and liner pairs
- Spare underwear
- Fleece tights or pants, for sleeping (I wore mine over the top of hiking tights on the coldest nights)
- Camp shoes, such as sandals or runners to wear around camp after each day’s hike
- Machu Picchu clothes, which might not be anything other than what you already packed, but maybe you want a sundress or even just clean clothes for your pictures at the ruins (as you can tell from my photos, I did not pack this, but it would have been nice!)
- Soap/shampoo, you have the opportunity to shower the night before you visit Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes (Salkantay Trek only)
- Body wipes, for a “mountain shower”
- Acetazolamide/Agua Florida/coca candies, for altitude sickness
- Sleeping bag, rated to -15C or similar; most companies will hire these out for about $20USD if you don’t have one with you
- Camping pillow, if you are one of those people who needs 2 pillows when you sleep (like me)
- Headlamp, helpful for finding your way around camp in the evening
- Powerbank, for charging your camera/phone
- Passport, essential to enter Machu Picchu
- Soles, for tipping and optional extras like the bus to Machu Picchu (for Salkantay Trek) and lunch in Aguas Calientes on day 4. I’d recommend S/300 just to be super safe, but there are also heaps of ATMs in Augas Calientes and most restaurants accept card.
- Credit card
*So…Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek?
These are both phenomenal treks guaranteed to be a massive trip highlight, but the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek also differ in a few key ways that might help you make your ultimate decision. The Inca Trail is slightly shorter and easier and includes heaps more history, while the Salkantay Trek is better for last-minute planners or those who are most impressed by dramatic alpine scenery. Either way, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll have an amazing time— I know I did!