Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek: Which Hike to Machu Picchu is Right for You
Planning to hike to Machu Picchu and don't know which trek out of the two most popular to choose? We've done both and here's our personal comparison of the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail. We'll help you sort out what trek is the best for you.
Every year, many people from all around the world are coming to Peru to fulfill their dreams. To see the famous Inca's lost city, Machu Picchu, an amazingly picturesque citadel with lush green hills in the background and white clouds rolling over to please every photographer's heart.
If you are not a hiker by heart, you don't need to worry, as hiking is not the only option how to reach Machu Picchu. You can take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and from here take a bus to the entrance gate. But for us, trekking pilgrimage through Peruvian Andes sounded more adventurous, and it felt like the only right way how to visit the ancient Inca city. Because Machu Picchu is so exceptional, many travelers, very often without a single hiking experience set off every year to reach the Lost City on foot. There are many treks in the Cusco area which will help you to reach your dream destination, but two of them stand out in particular: the classic Inca Trail and the beautiful alternative, the Salkantay Trek.
We noticed many travelers before their journey to Peru try frantically find information what trek to choose, but the problem is that they always find only replies from people who did either the Salkantay Trek or the Inca Trail. Fortunately, we've had an opportunity to experience both, and now we can bring you a genuine comparison so you can make a decision which hike will suit you the best.
Unfortunately, we can't give you the simple answer which trek is more beautiful as both of them are unique in a different way and offer an unforgettable experience, but we can help you answer the most common questions. In case you still cannot find what were you looking for, do not hesitate to write us your questions in the comments under this article. So here we go.
If you want to hike to Machu Picchu but looking for the shortest way to get there, then the Inca trail is a winner here. With 42 kilometers from the starting point (Kilometer 82) to the Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is almost two times shorter than the Salkantay Trek with 74 kilometers to cover.
Although the distance might be a critical factor for some of you, the Salkantay Trek actually didn't feel that long, and of course, the length was spread into more days.
Lots of points of interests in Peru lies at the high altitude and both the Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek, are no exceptions. Here we would point out that in terms of the altitude, the Salkantay Trek is more difficult. We know, from our experience, that some people can tolerate hiking in the altitude better than others but even in the case you don't have any previous experience, do not despair as dealing with the altitude has nothing to do with physical ability or how your body reacted to height previously.
There are a few simple rules you can follow to make your experience better. Drink plenty of water, do not eat heavy meals and hike slowly and steadily. Also, chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea helps.
The highest point you will reach on the Salkantay Trek is 4650 meters above sea level while the highest point on the Inca Trail lies at 4215 meters. What we found the hardest was the sleeping at the altitude than hiking in it, especially on the Salkantay Trek as we spent the first night and the second night pretty high (about 3800 meters both nights) and the combination of the elevation and tiredness prepared pretty rough times for some people in our group.
Overall, as per our experience, hiking the Salkantay Trek felt a little bit more difficult than the Inca Trail. It is not only the distance and the altitude but also the fact that until you reach Machu Picchu you will hike from the harsh, cold and windy mountainous environment to lush, green, warm and humid cloud forest (with many mosquitos) and those changes were pretty hard to deal with.
Both hikes require a moderate level of fitness to finish it. We would rate the Inca Trail as a moderate hike while the Salkantay Trek is a more strenuous trek going through rougher mountainous terrain.
HOW MANY DAYS
The classic Inca Trail takes four days and three nights, while the standard Salkantay Trek with a visit of a nowadays common stop at Humantay Lagoon takes five full days and five nights (or five days and four nights in case you decide to choose the itinerary without the lake). On both treks, the last day is dedicated to the visit of Machu Picchu and return from Aguas Calientes to Cusco by train (so even though you decide on hiking, you won't miss the spectacular train part).
Both treks' itineraries can be amended according to your requirements. For example, your Inca Trail can be done only in two days if you wish (in that case you will see only a fraction though) or on the other hand, you can hike it in a more relaxed pace in five days.
When it comes to the Salkantay Trek, you can finish it in three days or so, but some sections will have to be covered by a car.
Availability of those two treks makes an enormous difference between them. While the Salkantay Trek can be reserved anytime, sometimes even a couple of days before the hike, the Inca Trail belongs among one of the world's most famous treks and must be reserved several months in advance (it is best to secure your spot at least six months in advance as permits run out quickly).
Because the Inca Trail has the aura of a trek which is hard to get on, the Salkantay Trek is sometimes seen as an alternative for those who were not able to make the reservation for the Inca Trail. But as we hiked both treks, we cannot agree with this statement as the Salkantay Trek doesn't have a shortage of natural beauty in comparison with the Inca Trail, rather on the contrary.
HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN WALK THE TREK
The advantage of the Salkantay Trek is that there is no maximum capacity and anyone who decides out of the blue to hike, can do it. On the other hand, there are only 500 permits daily for the Inca Trail including guides and porters.
Although it can be tempting to make a conclusion that because of no strict rules on the Salkantay Trek this hike will be crowded, the opposite is the truth. Every day, about 200 people (tourists) walk the Inca Trail (you really can't think of the Inca Trail as off the beaten path hike), and only about 50 people daily walk the Salkantay Trek. Of course, there might be days when more people decide to hike the Salkantay Trek, but campsites and itineraries can differ more than on the Inca Trail where almost every group must sleep in same areas. Plus do not forget that the Inca Trail is fully booked out almost every day in a year.
There are slightly better facilities on the Salkantay Trek but do not expect anything luxurious: you will still sleep in the tent, there will be no shower (we hiked with Alpaca Expeditions, and in one private campsite we had a hot shower though), and you will share the toilet with other hikers. On this trek, travel agencies very often offer their own private campsites, so at least you will have more privacy and bathroom facilities for only a small number of people. Also, the highlight of the Salkantay Trek is that you can sleep the first night in glass tents to watch stars and you will spend the last night before visiting Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes in a hotel.
On the Inca Trail, campsites are designed by the government, so it means that more groups sleep at one place and bathroom facilities are way insufficient for the number of hikers (that's why we were happy that our group had own private toilet tent: we must say that other hikers seemed a bit jealous). You can take a cold shower in the last campground Winay Wayna, otherwise, there is none.
On both treks, we had all meals in dining tents.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO
Cusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Budget: Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range: Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury: JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
To check other accommodation in Cusco, click here.
CAN I HIKE ON OWN
Here's a big difference between the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail. You can hike the Salkantay Trek independently, and you will have to pay only reasonable fees for the accommodation and carry all your camping gear and food with you. On the other hand, the Inca Trail has strict rules, and you cannot hike it on your own. Instead, you must book a tour and of course, your permit for the Inca Trail well in advance. The advantage is that you don't need to worry about much but hiking as you will have porters and food arranged by the company.
We've never walked anything like the Inca Trail before. The trail on the first day is ordinary, but it changes on the second day when you start descending from the Death Woman's Pass. From this point, the path is very similar to the original man-made trail from the Inca times, and it means one thing: many stairs ahead. The path leads up and down but what doesn't change is that you must overcome an uncountable number of stairs to get to your destination. In case you have knees problems, rent hiking sticks otherwise you will suffer. It will also help you with stability as the stony path can be slippery, especially after rain.
The Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, is a natural, mountainous trek leading on a path you had probably experienced on many hikes before.
The Inca Trail leads through mystical cloud forest with views of snow-capped mountains in the background and crosses one high altitude pass - Death Woman's Pass from where you can enjoy spectacular vistas.
In terms of scenery, we found the landscape along the Salkantay Trek a bit more impressive. The first night, you can admire the night sky from glass huts, wake up early in the morning the next day with views of nearby mountains, hike to the Humantay Lagoon, conquer the Salkantay Pass with its glacier and then descend to the cloud forest, rain forest and finally to the jungle. The absolute highlight on the Salkantay Trek is the view from Llactapata ruin when you can see Machu Picchu across the valley for the first time (when you will book the hike with Alpaca Expeditions, you will be able to enjoy this amazing view from even from the campsite).
When it comes to ruins, nothing can beat the Inca Trail. Honestly, we hadn't looked up the ruins before walking the trek and were surprised how spectacular they are. Ruins along the Inca Trail are attractions on its own, and we believe that normally they would have received more attention if the Machu Picchu wouldn't have been waiting at the end of the hike. When hiking the Inca Trail, consider yourself lucky as you will see several architectonical gems along the way without crowds - only people hiking the Inca Trail have a privilege to see it.
Not without reason, the Salkantay is known as a hike similarly beautiful as the Inca Trail, only without the ruins along the way. If ruins are what you came for (you can also see many of them in the Sacred Valley though), focus on the Inca Trail. The Salkantay Trek has only one small ruin, Llactapata which you will visit the day before descending to Aguas Calientes. The ruins are fairly unimpressive in comparison with those on the Inca Trail.
If you want to enjoy the beautiful nature of Peruvian Andes and arrive in Machu Picchu after several days of trekking, but you're limited by money, choose the Salkantay Trek which is more budget friendly in comparison with the Inca Trail. Generally, the Inca Trail is about 50% more expensive than the Salkantay Trek. The higher cost of the Inca Trail is caused not only by its popularity but also because of the fact that it is necessary to have more staff and porters than on the Salkantay Trek where it is possible to replace men with horses.
The Inca Trail has its rightful place among the most famous treks in the world. Limited capacity and the fact that travelers are walking on the same path the Incas used centuries ago on their way from Cusco to Machu Picchu make from the Inca Trail a must-do thing. Until recently, many people thought that the Salkantay Trek is only an alternative for those who were unsuccessful to make a reservation (or don't have enough money) for the Inca Trail, but this longtime omitted trek is gaining its popularity lately among travelers for many reasons. You have a chance to mee younger people the overall atmosphere is more relaxing, and the trail doesn't feel that crowded.
ARRIVAL TO MACHU PICCHU
There is no denying that the Inca Trail has the most impressive approach to Machu Picchu. On the last day, from 4 AM, hikers impatiently line up in front of the last checkpoint to trek the last section of the Inca Trail which ends at the Sun Gate, one of the most important structures of the Machu Picchu grounds. At Incas times it was the place of the last control before entering Machu Picchu but for all hikers, standing at the Sun Gate means one thing: they successfully finished the Inca Trail, and from this place, if it's not cloudy (as it very often is in the morning), they can see the mythical citadel for the first time.
The Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, ends in Aguas Calientes, where you will spend a night before going to Machu Picchu the next day in the morning via the official entrance gate altogether with other tourists. Although both options have some advantages and disadvantages, seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate on the Inca Trail was probably a bit more spectacular and unique.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO
Both, the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail are located in the same area, very close to each other, so the weather is similar throughout the year. Generally, the best season to hike both is from May to September when you can expect clear skies, almost no rain, reasonable temperatures during the day, but cold temperatures during nights as it is Peruvian winter.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Ultimate camping adventure in Peruvian Amazon jungle; exploring the pre-Colombian mud-brick city of Chan Chan; traveling through north of Peru; flying over mysterious Nazca Lines; what to do during 24 hours in Lima; high altitude hiking around Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley near Cusco; and watching condors in flight at famous Colca Canyon.
From October to April is the rainy season, but you can still have a pretty good chance to have nice weather in October, November, December, and March. Heaviest rains are in February when the Inca Trail is officially closed, and although there are no such restrictions on the Salkantay Trek, no reliable tour operator runs the trek during that time.
As you can see, it is hard to tell which trek is better than the other. Both are amazing and what you only have to do is to consider the pros and cons to make sure you will choose the one which suits you and your needs the best. What you need to do is sit and write down your priorities and answer a few basic questions: can you plan your holidays for a long time ahead, what is your budget, do you want to see more ruins on the trail, do you want to enjoy mountainous scenery firsthand, how fit are you, are you able to walk almost two days on steps, and last but not least, do you want to get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate or you rather spend a night before the long-awaited day in the hotel and arrive fresh to the entrance gate by bus.
The Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek are both among our all-time favorites hikes so do not hesitate and when in the Peruvian Andes, try to manage to trek one of those. You will have an incredible time.
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