The Salkantay Trek

Small piles of stones called apachetas – left as offerings to the mountain gods – mark your progress up and over the 4,600m eponymous pass on the second day of the Salkantay Trail. Backed by the hulking, snow-capped mass of the Salkantay Mountain, this hike is a foray into Andean high-altitude trekking that leaves you breathless for more than one reason. It may not boast the Incan archaeology of its more famous Inca Trail counterpart, but this four-day Andean adventure is arguably more scenic, offers a tougher challenge and a huge amount of variety. One day you’ll be rubbing noses with glaciers over a lung-busting pass, and another you’ll be spotting tropical orchids amid lush, waterfall-filled forests.
An alternative to the classic Inca Trail but far from second-best, the Salkantay trek is arguably more spectacular and varied, taking you closer to high Andean glaciers and deeper into the steamy, tropical cloud forest.
While Salkantay is quieter than the classic Inca Trail it is still a well-known and popular hike. The overwhelming power of its raw nature aside, it also offers permit-free trekking freedom. There’s no need to join a group – although you can if you prefer; private treks and even lodge-based adventures are all possible here without the need to book months in advance. And by choosing to hike the Salkantay trail over the Inca Trail you’ll be creating one less footprint on an ancient path already creaking at the limits of its trekking tolerance.
If you’re not sure which trail to take, then Kathy Jarvis from our Peru specialists Andean Trails believes that the Salkantay takes you closer to nature than the other main trekking routes to Machu Picchu: “The classic Inca Trail is all about following the Inca path, exploring the Inca ruins and hearing the history you encounter on the way. The Salkantay route is about raw nature – glaciers, the high mountains, cloud forest – while the Lares Trek is much more of an insight into high Andean community and traditional culture. It depends on what interests you. If I had to recommend just one out of the three, I don’t know which I’d choose.”

What does the Salkantay Trek entail?

Probably the most varied of all the Machu Picchu treks, if you want a glimpse into the sheer natural power of Andean Peru then the Salkantay trail delivers it in spades. As Kathy explains, the route allows you to really explore the surrounding landscape: “The Salkantay trail crosses more eco-zones than the other treks, it goes a bit higher, and then you walk lower too, so it’s more varied. You start by climbing, then you descend into the tropical cloud forest of the Urubamba river valley and you see a great variety of vegetation and wildlife, including masses of orchids, and fabulous birds. There’s a real variety of scenery on this trek: high-altitude desert scenery strewn with rocks and later on steep forested valleys. And it’s more extreme – it is really cold up on the high passes, then much warmer down in the steamy tropical valleys.”
Expect to be walking for four days, with a fifth spent exploring the spectacular Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Unlike the classic Inca Trail you won’t be arriving at Machu Picchu on foot – instead the Salkantay Trail ends up at the tourist-laden and unprepossessing town of Aguas Calientes. To get there you have a choice: either finish your trek at the – to be blunt – unsightly hydroelectric plant and hop on the train for the final 12km; or follow the tracks on foot for two to three hours at the base of a steep, densely forested gorge that takes you into town. The advantage is a hot shower and comfy bed for the night before you board a bus up to Machu Picchu early the next morning.
On other nights you’ll be camping in tents set up for you by your team of expedition staff. It’s basic, but full of little luxuries which, at 3,800m for example, make all the difference: being woken up by your friendly guide holding out a steaming cup of coffee, or a hearty hot meal cooked for you at the end of a long day on your feet. If you have the budget then luxury lodges offer alternative accommodation along the way as well.
While the trek is tough, you won’t be carrying all your gear – some of your trek essentials will be carted along by mules, and anything you don’t need for the five days on foot will be left securely in Cusco. All you’ll be left shouldering is a small backpack with your water, waterproofs and camera.

How fit do I need to be?

This is not a trek to attempt if you’ve never been further than the shops on foot. However, if you’re of a reasonably active bent, are happy walking for several hours per day over hilly terrain (feeling comfortable going downhill is as important as having the lungs to go up) and exercise regularly, then the Salkantay trek should be well within your capabilities. The fitter you can get before you leave for Peru the better – add another mile to your usual run, join an extra class at the gym or take the dog out for a few bumper weekend walks and you’ll enjoy your trek in Peru a lot more.

The real issue is the altitude; there’s no way of knowing how it will affect you and even the fittest of athletes can be floored as you head toward 4,000m and higher. Kathy shares her advice: “I can’t stress enough the importance of acclimatisation before you start the trek. There are many options for day walks in the Sacred Valley and around Cusco that can help with this, so ensure you plan in at least three days extra before you start your trek.”

Salkantay Trek day to day

The standard Salkantay route takes five days – four on foot and a grand finale exploring Machu Picchu. However, as you’re not restricted by permits or to travelling in a group, there are variations that can take you a little further off the beaten track. Saying that, a typical trek might look something like this:

Day 1:
The looming snow-tipped Humantay and Salkantay mountains dominate the start of your hike at Soraypampa, around six hours’ drive from Cusco. Here you’ll meet your porters and mules, before a gentle two- to three-hour 8km hike eases you to your first campsite at the foot of Salkantay at 3,800m.
Day 2:
Something the Inca Trail and all of its alternatives have in common is a toughie of a second day, and the Salkantay Trail is no exception. Over seven to eight hours’ walking you’ll tackle the highest pass on the route – the Salkantay Pass (or Apacheta, named after the little piles of stones left as offerings to the mountain gods) at 4,600m and you’ll need to take it slow. The air is thin at this altitude and as you pass the 4,000m mark you’ll likely start to feel a bit rough. Your reward is a day of huge contrasts: Andean influences give way to the Amazon as your descent takes you from high altitude barren scree down through grasslands and into humid, orchid-filled cloud forest.
Day 3
You’ll be full of beans after sleeping at a lower altitude this morning and today is all about continuing that refreshing feeling. The landscape continues to become lusher, with today’s’ hike taking you through parakeet-filled forests and verdant farmland. Soak weary feet in hot springs, brave an icy dip in a glacial river or shower in a waterfall before camping outside another tiny village.
Day 4:
Continue through subtropical valleys to the village of Lucmabamba, where the remains of an original Inca Trail signal that you’re getting close to your Machu Picchu goal. A short ascent takes you to the Incan terraces and ruins of Llactapata, where you’ll get a tantalising glimpse of your final destination, before a two- to three-hour hike (or a 45-minute train ride) takes you to Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu town.
Day 5:
You won’t begrudge an early wake up call to catch the first bus from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu before the crowds descend. Enjoy a two- to three-hour guided tour of the site, and some time to explore at your leisure, before heading back to Aguas Calientes for lunch, and later back to Cusco by train.

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Keeping it responsible

The Salkantay Trail might not boast quite the same crowds as the classic Inca Trail but don’t think you’ll have a mountain wilderness all to yourself. Yes, by choosing this route you’ll be adding one less footprint to the overburdened classic route, but the Salkantay is popular in its own right – second only to the Inca Trail – but without the strict permitting, regulations and annual closures in place that keep the latter in shape. It means the Salkantay route does have some problems with litter along its paths and you’ll need to be careful that your trek doesn’t add to this. Solutions are simple: pack out any rubbish you create, carry a refillable water bottle and pick up litter you encounter along the way.

In this part of Peru, at least, problems for porters are becoming less commonplace, with more protection for porters in place as standard on most treks. Kathy Jarvis explains more: “Porters are actually pretty well regulated on the Inca Trail now. You don’t see porters wearing traditional clothing anymore; instead they have trainers and boots and waterproofs, etc. It’s normal now for them to be insured, to be guaranteed somewhere to sleep and to have adequate food to eat. On the classic Inca Trail – where porters carry quite a lot of gear – there are lots of checks on weight along the trail.

“Porters are only really used to carry loads on the classic Inca Trail where there are too many steps for mules or donkeys. For the Salkantay and Lares treks you will be accompanied by donkeys or mules. Throughout the rest of the Andes, except above the snow line, it is normal to use pack animals rather than porters.”

You’ll want to keep an eye on the beasts of burden accompanying your trip to make sure they are happy and healthy – our friends at British NGO Brooke have provided us with a checklist for travellers to ensure the fair and humane treatment of working mules and donkeys.

Best time to hike the Salkantay Trek

With no permits and no seasonal closures, in essence it is possible to trek the Salkantay Trail all year round. However, the best time to hike for you is going to be dependent on your tolerance of crowds and rain. For the clearest views – including of Machu Picchu, which can be irritatingly shrouded in cloud during the rainy season – you’ll want to trek between May and September, when the weather is driest. This is peak season, however, so expect the trails to be busy and Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes and other sites in the Sacred Valley to be packed out.
For Kathy, the chance of the best weather doesn’t necessarily mean the best time to trek: “I try to go to Peru in March or April as I think the valleys and Andes of Peru are at their best after the rainy season – green and stunning! Plus, it is quieter at that time of year than June, July and August in terms of numbers of tourists being there.”
Between October and March treks are possible – and very quiet – but you’ll need to be prepared for soggy weather and muddy paths. While the classic Inca Trail closes for maintenance in February, Machu Picchu itself remains open, so you’ll still be rewarded with a visit.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Maurizio Nasi] [What does it entail?: Hugo van den Bos] [Day to day: Brian Andrews] [Best time to go: Hugo van den Bos]
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