Your Ultimate Guide to Hiking in Peru: Deciding Between the Inca Trail and Salkantay
If you have Machu Picchu on your mind and are trying to determine which route to go, we’ve done the extra legwork and created a comparison guide that analyzes WWE’s classic 8-day Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu and the 11-day Salkantay Lodge Trek to Machu Picchu.
If you’re seeking a moderate to challenging hike and undeniable spiritual experience, WWE offers two unforgettable ways to get to Machu Picchu. They vary in maximum elevation, distance, duration, dates and luxury. Let’s take a look.
Another deciding factor: You can hike the Inca Trail in April, May, June, September and October while the Salkantay trip is only available in September and October with two departure dates.
What you should expect…
You should be prepared for sub-zero temperatures, especially while camping on the Inca Trail). Expect steep, unpredictable and uneven terrain.You should be extremely fit and comfortable in carrying a 20-40L daypack (weighing 4.5-14kg/10-30lbs) for 8 hours over the course of several days. Both hiking routes are demanding (rated 4 out of 5 on the endurance scale) and involve extreme elevation AND huge elation. Be prepared for cute llamas, too!
How much further?
The Inca Trail is 47km (29 miles) while the Salkantay route is 56.8km (35 miles). Depending on the group’s pace, expect to be walking 5 to 9 hours a day on both adventures.
Inca Trail: The classic Inca Trail Route is 43 km (26 miles) long. Due to the steep nature of this trail, the hike is extended over four days to help adjust to the elevation spike and begins on Day 3. The highest point is 4,215m (13,828 ft).
This hike has been dubbed moderate but the uphill is real! And, as we all know, what goes up must come down and the descents can be just as taxing on your joints.
Here’s the Inca Trail hiking highlight reel:
Day 3: To Huayallabamba campsite 16 km (9.94 miles)
Day 4: To Pacaymayu campsite 10 km (6.21 miles)
Day 5: To Phuyopatamarka campsite 12 km (7.456 miles)
Day 6: To Machu Picchu 9 km (5.59 miles)
Total distance: 47 km (29 miles)
Salkantay: The entire Salkantay trek is 74 km (46 miles) in length with a maximum elevation of 4,636m/15,213ft at the famed Salkantay Pass. This is the second highest mountain in the Cusco area. A support horse will carry snacks and extra drinking water–and if necessary, the horse can give you a lift for one hour along the way.
Here’s a quick reference chart to the daily distances on Salkantay:
Day 3: Sacred Valley to Soraypampa del Cielo 5.9km (3.7 miles)
Day 4: To Salkantay Lodge (optional hike to Humantay Lake) 4.9km (3.1 miles)
Day 5: To Wayra Lodge at Wayraccmachay 11.6km (7.2 miles)
Day 6: To Colpa Lodge 8.4km (5.2 miles)
Day 7: To Lucma Lodge 16 km (10 miles)
Day 8: To Urubamba River 10km (6.2 miles)
Total Distance: 56.8km (35.2 miles)
There is also an optional half-day (4 hour) hike on Day 4 to acclimate to the altitude to the surreal jade-coloured Lake Humantay. On this same day you may also opt for a 5-6 hour horseback/trekking combo (for experienced riders) to Chakana or a shorter 2 hour ride around Soraypampa (that permits you to hike to Lake Humantay in the morning).
Where do I sleep?
Inca Trail: Phuyopatamarka is suitably named. In Quechua, it means the “City above the Clouds.” The views from the campsite toward the sacred peak of Salcantay are sublime. You’ll be truly camping in the clouds at 4,200m (13,779ft) while on the trek. Four nights will be spent in 3 or 4-star hotel accommodations. However, it will be difficult to top sleeping under 200 billion trillion stars for three nights!
Salkantay: The four Mountain Lodges of Peru on this itinerary are the ideal place to be pampered, stretch out and unwind your hamstrings after a day of trekking. You’ll have all the amenities within reach from wifi to a jacuzzi soak. Nurture your weary muscles by booking a massage treatment (*not included in the trip price) or find restoration with a sound sleep cuddling a hot water bottle (you’ll find one tucked into your bed each night).
What will I see?
Inca Trail: You’ll hike through the rare and precious Andean forest of fairy tale-like polylepis trees and shrubs that are only found at high elevation. On this route you’ll see the unique semicircular complex of the Runcuraqay ruins and follow ancient Incan stairs down to the ridgetop ruins of Sayaqmarka. On the Camino Real (the “Royal Highway”) you will slice through a cloud forest seemingly painted with delicate orchids to the Wiñayhuayna ruins. You’ll also cross Dead Woman’s Pass–it’s the highest point of the Inca Trail (in elevation and heart rate at 4,215m/13,828ft) and so-named for the mountain crests and their resemblance to a woman’s supine body.
Salkantay: The peaks of the namesake mountain, mystical cloud forest and in the lower elevations, orchards and coffee plantations. The trail landscape shifts from high tundra and glacial moraines to stands of bamboo forest and the Rio Blanco valley. Follow serpentine mountain roads and the Camino Real and be sure to stop and smell the flowers! Look for elderberry trees, hot pink and fuschia orchids like the Wiñay Wayna which means “Forever Young.” You’ll also see the “back” of the Machu Picchu ruins on the Llactapata Pass. The surprise southeast view is like looking behind the curtain of the main stage!
What will I eat?
Both itineraries include a bean-to-bar workshop at Choco Museo. Make your own designer bars with more than 15 add-in ingredients to choose from.
These two trips also offer the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Pachamanca lunch (a traditional Peruvian meal) cooked in the earth by hot stones that create a natural underground.
Inca Trail: On the first night of the trip, you’ll enjoy dinner at Mamá Seledonia’s, a truly feel-good restaurant that supports young mothers and teens in rural areas. Women who have expressed a passion and talent for cooking but have experienced difficulty in finding employment due to their family obligations are trained in the industry. You’ll also have a traditional lunch in the home of an Awamaki community member.
Salkantay: Pull up a chair to a typical farmhouse lunch at El Pedregal and learn about local agriculture and livestock while enjoying the local bounty. Drinks are included in the Salkantay trip so you can enjoy a pisco sour with the panorama of the Salkantay mountains.
Note: It’s common to not have a big appetite at high elevation. It’s also common to experience diarrhea! You may wish to speak to a travel doctor about travelling to a high altitude destination. Coca leaf tea (mate de coca) or chewing coca leaves are a bitter alternative to help combat headaches and nausea associated with the elevation of the Andes.
What Happens at Machu Picchu?
Inca Trail: On this 9km day (5.59 miles), it’s a steep descent all day through the cloud forest, past several ruins and Inca sites. The final part of the trail (on the east side of Machu Picchu) is a gorgeous traverse across the remarkable Inca stonework leading to the iconic Gate of the Sun overlooking Machu Picchu. From here, you’ll absorb the mesmerizing panorama of The Sanctuary. A bus will transport the group to Aguas Calientes for the night (insert hot showers, real beds and a celebratory pisco sour after three nights of camping here!)
Salkantay: In the transcendent light of dawn, you’ll begin your journey to Machu Picchu with a short and rollicking uphill bus ride. The 15th century Incan Citadel and terraces; imposing architecture of the Watchtower, Temple of the Sun and the royal Inca residences are overwhelming. After being spellbound, the group will return to Aguas Calientes by bus.
Please note: Machu Picchu visiting regulations require all visitors to follow a predetermined route within the site. This route must be followed in one direction only and once the guided visit commences, exiting and re-entering the site is not permitted. Personal exploration of Machu Picchu is not permitted.
HOT PERUVIAN TIPS
Inca Trail: There will be a formal 30-minute tipping ceremony to demonstrate the group’s appreciation for the porters’ kindness, encouragement, enthusiasm and rock solid backs! Remember, they made this trip as smooth as pudding for us and carried the weight of the world (well, our packs) on their shoulders! Tipping is an optional, personal decision but we encourage the following suggested amounts (in US or Soles):
For porters: $5-10US from each Wild Woman (*There are usually 2 porters per Wild Woman)
For cooks: $10-15US (there will be 1 or 2 cooks, depending on the group size), from each Wild Woman.
For lead guides: $25-40US ($20-30 for assistant guides), from each Wild Woman.
Using the lowest suggested tip amount, this equals a total tip (for porters, cooks and guides combined) of $165US per Wild Woman. On each trip, a representative from the Wild Women group voluntarily takes the lead (god bless the math teachers and accountants who naturally step forward!) to help organize anonymous envelopes for the tips the night before. During the ceremony, you are welcome to individually thank each group (porters, chefs and guides) and present them with their tip. Note: This ceremony is unique to the Inca Trail trek and does not occur on Salkantay.
Inca Trail: Before the trek begins you will have the opportunity to repack. You will be provided with a duffel bag and your contents must weigh no more than 7 kilos (15.4 lbs). Keep in mind that this maximum must include the weight of your sleeping bag and Thermarest. This means your personal items should weigh no more than 5 kilos (11 lbs) out of respect for our porters. Your original bags and gear that you don’t need will be safely stored in Ollantaytambo.
Salkantay: Your gear will be transported between lodges—upon arrival at the lodge, your duffle bag will be waiting for you in your room.
IMPORTANT: If your passport is due to expire before the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trip please send in your new passport details as soon as possible before the trip commences. If applicable, please bring both passports on the Inca Trail (the original you used to book your trip and your new passport) as officials may request to see both.
Fun facts: Salkantay means “Savage mountain” in Quecha. It’s the second highest mountain in the Cusco area.
Textiles and Trains in the Peruvian Terrain
Inca Trail: Visit the Awamaki community to learn about traditional Andean life and have lunch in one of the community member’s homes. There will be an introduction to textiles and the historical connection it provides. After a weaving demonstration, you will partner with a local Awamaki woman and try your skill at weaving a small and precious souvenir.
Salkantay: You’ll visit the Huayllarocha community to watch a weaving demonstration and have a lesson on textiles. Weaving is a skill that is an integral part of life for the women in this village. Meet the women who carry on the legacy of weaving on backstrap looms using locally-sourced vegetable dyes.
On the Inca Trail you’ll board the train in Agua Calientes to Ollantaytambo (3-4 hours). On Salkantay, kick back after hiking towards the Aobamba River on the hour-long scenic train ride from the Hidroelectrica train station to the hub town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and then all aboard again after your sacred Sanctuary experience from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo.
These trips are as sweet as the chocolate you’ll make in Cusco and the adrenalin high will surpass Dead Woman’s Pass and Salkantay Pass in elevation!
If you have additional questions about these two itineraries, be sure to contact one of our Adventure Experts for a helping hand: firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 1-888-993-1222.