Salkantay trek: Many people have it on their bucket lists to hike to Machu Picchu. But many tourists to Peru are unaware that there are many other ways to get to this renowned Inca city tucked high in the Andes than just the Inca trail.
All of the climbs to Machu Picchu are famous, but the one that follows the Qhapaq’an, or Royal Road, is the most well-known. To reach the Sun Gate, a portal into Machu Picchu that rises high above the city, this Inca stone route winds through valleys and across mountains.
Yet as someone who enjoys traveling to off-the-beaten-track locations, it is the Salkantay trek that I have been eagerly anticipating.
Since I initially moved to Cusco in 2015, I had been enchanted by the thought of going to Machu Picchu through this alternate route. Life got in the way, though, and I never made it to the route.
But this year, when Sparrow Explorer invited me to hike the Salkantay trail with them, I seized the opportunity. There has probably never been a better moment to visit Machu Picchu than now that the country is fully open to visitors (despite numbers that are only 20% of pre-pandemic levels). This is especially true given that there are significantly less hikers on the trails than you would typically encounter.
Here is all the information you need to know about hiking the Salkantay journey, whether you have been daydreaming about reaching Machu Picchu through this less well-known route or have had to change your plans since the Inca trail is fully booked.
The Salkantay trip covers how many miles?
At the Salkantay Pass on, Jack Miles The Salkantay hike to Machu Picchu’s route
The Salkantay is a about 66 km (41 mi) hike that begins in the peaceful village of Soraypampa and concludes in Aguas Calientes, the settlement below Machu Picchu. Depending on how many days you want to walk and whose group you’re hiking with, there are numerous options for routes.
The most popular route is a five-day, four-night trek that starts and ends in Aguas Calientes, where you spend the last day at Machu Picchu. You leave Cusco at roughly 4 am, set out on the trail at 8 am, and climb the Salkantay Pass on day one.
At Soraypampa, where the trip starts, Sparrow Explorer and a select few other businesses have their own glass-roofed cottages. This means that they take their groups to the trailhead the day before (departing from Cusco at 3 pm), giving you the opportunity to start early and beat the other hikers to the trailhead. They therefore promote their expedition as a five-day, five-night Salkantay hike.
Their hikes also include the ascent and descent of Lago Humantay, which adds an additional 300 meters of ascent and descent to the first day’s hike in addition to the breathtaking views of this blue lake.
What is the Salkantay trek’s elevation?
At a height of 3,900 meters above sea level, Soraypampa serves as the starting point for the Salkantay journey. The remainder of the hike has the following elevation profile:
Day 1: Soraypampa (3,900 metres) 4200-meter Humantay Lake; Soraypampa (3,900 metres) – Wayramachay and Salkantay Pass (4,620 meters) (3,800 metres)
Covered distance: 20 kilometers (12.5 miles)
Gain in elevation overall: 1,020 meters
Loss of elevation overall: 1,120 meters
Day 2: Loreta to Wayramachay (3,800 meters) (2,200 metres)
Covered distance: 20 kilometers (12.5 miles)
200 meters of elevation gain overall
Loss of elevation overall: 1,600 meters
Day 3: Llactapata to Loreta (2,200 meters) (2,700 metres)
Covered distance: 12 kilometers (8.7 miles)
Gain in altitude overall: 600 meters
Loss of elevation overall: 400 meters
Day 4: Llactapata (2,700 metres) – Aguas Calientes (1,820 meters) – Hidroelectrica (2,000 metres)
Covered a distance of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles)
180 meters of elevation gain overall
Loss of elevation overall: 880 meters
Your first night at altitude is spent in a cabin with a sleeping bag—either your own or one you’ve rented and it’s cozy. I slept in my down jacket on the second night, which was also spent at altitude, despite Sparrow Explorer sleeping bag, several blankets, two sleeping mats, and a hot water bottle.
They did provide us with rain ponchos, but I much like to have a breathable, light coat that works well as a windproof layer at high altitudes and as protection against any downpours. Frankly, any type of plastic garment is a recipe for sweaty hiking.
Physically, How fit should i need to be to hike the Salkantay trek?
The Salkantay journey is a strenuous hike. The difficulty arises from the distance and ascent you must complete on day one, as well as the elevation at which you’re trekking.
The first day is by far the hardest. Together with the 300 metres you gain to reach Lago Humantay’s sparkling waters, you also lose those same metres when you descend the mountain and then ascend a further 720 metres to get to the Salkantay Pass.
You’ll quickly become aware of how thin the air seems because you’re trekking at an altitude (and how little of it seems to be going into your lungs). If you’re reasonably fit and can manage to travel 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in a day, you shouldn’t experience any problems.
For those of my group who had flown straight from their homes to Peru and hadn’t had time to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco for a few days, the first day of the walk was particularly challenging.
For acclimatization purposes, I thus urge you to stay at least two days in Cusco before beginning the climb. You should also consult your doctor to obtain a prescription for Diamox, which is a medication that helps your body adapt to high altitudes. On the day before your walk and continuing through day three, when you won’t need the tablets anymore, you should take one of the tablets each day.
While being physically capable of walking at least 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) at lower elevations and being in moderate physical condition are prerequisites, preparation for high-altitude trekking is difficult.
How should you train for the challenging Salkantay trek?
This is due to the fact that you cannot foresee how your body will respond to certain circumstances, especially since it is unaffected by your level of fitness, youth, or health. Even the healthiest individuals might get terrible altitude sickness.
In order to allow your body enough time to adjust, the optimum preparation for hiking the Salkantay journey is to be in Cusco at least two days before the climb begins. Be sure to obtain some Diamox to help your body adjust, get enough of sleep, and drink plenty of water.
Does the Salkantay Trek need months in advance reservations, like the Inca Trail?
There are no restrictions for the Salkantay journey, in contrast to the Inca Trail, where there is a cap of 400 hikers per day and tickets can sell out up to six months in advance. As a result, it offers a great substitute if you had been planning to trek the Inca trail but discovered that there was no room.
The only challenge you’ll have is finding entry tickets to Machu Picchu, so it’s still worthwhile to make reservations at least a few weeks in advance, especially if you’re traveling between June and August. It is therefore a good idea to reserve your trek in advance before you arrive in Peru; in addition, you can look at our list of the top times to visit Machu Picchu before making your travel arrangements.
Salkantay’s five-day journey to Machu Picchu
The Qhapaq Ñan, or Royal Road, was a route used by Inca monarchy as well as pilgrims and other officials to travel between Cusco and Machu Picchu, and the Inca trail is notable for taking you along a section of it.
Yet on day three, the Salkantay really follows a section of the Inca road, giving you a chance to have some of the same experience, albeit alone.
The surrounding area of Cusco is home to a variety of wildlife, including spectacled bears (who served as the model for Paddington Bear!) as well as llamas, alpacas, condors, and vizcachas. The scenery is also breathtaking and includes a small portion of each of these microclimates (chinchilla-like rodents).
In less than a day, you can go from snow-capped mountain passes to a verdant cloud forest, and you’ll always be far enough from cities and settlements to enjoy clear nights filled with stars.
The best part is that you don’t have to share campgrounds with other groups like you do on the Inca Trail. In fact, from the time we started the climb until we reached Hidroelectrica and started the final leg of the journey down the railway line, we only encountered six other hikers. This is the ideal path for you if, like me, you enjoy trekking in remote areas without many other people around.