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The TRUTH about the Salkantay Trek, Peru: An Honest Review and Guide

The TRUTH about the Salkantay Trek, Peru: An Honest Review and Guide

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Hiking in South America is at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. With trails like the Torres del Pine W-Trek, the Lost City Trek, or Rainbow Mountain, you could spend months on this continent and just begin to scratch the surface! 

While each country has its own unique charm, we especially fell in love with Peru. So much so that we ended up living here for a few months just to see all that this place had to offer. 

What we found was the Salkantay Trek– possibly one of the best hikes I’ve ever done! The Salkantay Trek is similar to the famous Inca Trail but isn’t quite as popular, despite being listed as one of the top 25 hikes in the world. Taking you to the glorious Machu Picchu, this 4-day trek is not to be taken lightly (but maybe your pack should be!). 

In this blog, I’ll let you in on what to expect on the Salkantay Trek, who I think the hike is best suited for, as well as some other important things to consider like choosing the right tour and more!

Don’t have time to read the full article? The Salkantay Trek is a multi-day hike to Machu Picchu and while it’s certainly difficult, it’s worth it! Our 5-day guided tour made this experience even better, as our local guides showed us a side of Peru we wouldn’t have seen on our own, and made the logistics of hiking much easier.

About the Salkantay Trek

view along the trail of the Salkantay Trek
The trek is stunning!

The Salkantay Trek is one of the most popular ways to get to Machu Picchu. Less famous than the iconic Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is both easier to book and cheaper. And on top of that, many say the Salkantay is just as beautiful! For these reasons, many people looking for a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu choose the Salkantay Trek – as we did!

The Salkantay Trek is around 74 km (46 miles) long and is most commonly done over 4-5 days with the last day being the visit to Machu Picchu.

It also holds historical significance, and like the Inca Trail, was a route the Incas once took to get to Machu Picchu. The main difference is that the Salkantay Trek is through the mountains reaching nearly 5,000 meters (16,404 ft) above sea level, whereas the Inca Trail is walking on ruins much of the way. It is said that the Salkantay Trek was the route that religious leaders took to get to Machu Picchu because of the high elevations that brought them “closer to god.”

The Salkantay Trek is named after the mountain that the trail passes, Salkantay Mountain. It isn’t just this mountain you’ll see on the hike though as the trail offers varying landscapes including glaciers and tropical Andean forest.

But should you hike the Salkantay Trek or opt for a different multi-day hike to Machu Picchu? In this blog, I’ll compare the Salkantay Trek with the two other most popular treks, the Inca Trail and Jungle Trek, as well as tell you about my personal experience in detail. This way, you can learn if the Salkantay Trek is for you or not!

Salkantay Trek vs Jungle Trek vs Inca Trail

Machu Picchu, Peru
All the trails lead to one of the best places to visit in Peru – Machu Picchu!

To me, the first step in reviewing the Salkantay Trek is to compare it to the other options in the area for guided hikes to Machu Picchu.

As you probably already know, there are three main hikes you can do to Machu Picchu: the Salkantay Trek, the Jungle Trek, and the Inca Trail. Each is special in its own way and suited for a different type of traveler.

Here is a comparison of these three hikes to Machu Picchu:

Salkantay Trek:

  • Distance: 74 km (46 miles)
  • Time: 4-5 days
  • Altitude: 4,580 meters (15,026 ft) at the highest point
  • Things to do/see: Humantay Lagoon, Santa Theresa hot springs, Apacheta Pass, views of Salkantay Mountain, ziplining
  • Price: $550+ USD
  • Season: All year round

Jungle Trek:

  • Distance: Approx 60 km (37 miles) biked, 38 km (24 miles) walking
  • Time: 3-4 days
  • Altitude: 4,316 meters (14,160 feet) at the highest point
  • Things to do/see: Abra Malaga Pass, downhill mountain biking, ziplining, whitewater rafting,
  • Price: $400+ USD
  • Season: All year round (if it is foggy the mountain biking will be canceled)

Inca Trail:

  • Distance: 42 km (26 miles)
  • Time: 4 days
  • Altitude: 4,215 meters (13,829 ft) at the highest point
  • Things to do/see: Authentic Inca pathways, Wayllabamba ruins, Phuyupatamarca, Valley of Llulluchapampa
  • Price: $700+ USD
  • Season: Closed for the entire month of February each year.

Why Choose the Salkantay Trek?

After carefully learning about all of the options to hike to Machu Picchu and completing the Salkantay Trek ourselves, there are a few reasons you should consider the Salkantay Trek over the others including:

  • A cheaper option than the Inca trail (and fewer people on the trail)
  • Amazing views including the highest pass and views of Salkantay mountain
  • Humantay Lagoon (bright blue lake with mountains in the backdrop)
  • Option to do the same ziplining tour as the Jungle Trek
  • The authentic trail to Machu Picchu was walked by spiritual leaders as it “brought them closer to god”

Related Read: Before you plan your trip find out everything you should know before visiting Machu Picchu and the best tours from Cusco!

Salkantay Trek Review: Important Information to Know/Consider

Bailey with views of the Salkantay Trek in the background
Day 3 of the Salkantay Trek

For my Salkantay Trek review, I’ve broken it down into a couple of stand-out categories below. These cover the main things to know and think about before booking the Salkantay Trek for yourself.

Difficulty of the Salkantay Trek

Bailey wearing a poncho on the Salkantay Trek
We didn’t have fancy raincoats but we still made it!

To me, the Salkantay Trek was a little challenging. I’ve actually done quite a lot of hiking in Peru, and for comparison’s sake, I thought it was harder than the Colca Canyon but easier than any hikes I did in Huaraz, Peru.

The Salkantay Trek is best suited for someone who likes to hike. I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody who has never done multi-day treks before or doesn’t enjoy full days of hiking.

Day 2 is the most challenging day that takes most people around 9 hours. It climbs 600 meters (1,969 ft) in elevation and then descends 1,780 meters (5,840 ft) over 22 kilometers (13.7 miles). This is a full (challenging day of hiking) but, it is also rewarding and beautiful.

The altitude is also a problem. If you get very bad altitude sickness then the Salkantay Trek might not be for you. To prevent altitude sickness, it is best to spend a couple of days in Cusco before starting the trail and take altitude sickness pills while on the trail.

If you like a challenge, the outdoors, and hiking then you’ll love the Salkantay Trek – as I did! You can go on the same tour as we did by reserving online here.

Food and accommodations on the Salkantay Trek

Bailey and Daniel take a selfie in their tent on the Salkantay Trek
Selfie in our tent at camp number 1!

The food and accommodation you get on the Salkantay Trek completely depend on the tour you book. Some more luxurious (and expensive) tours provide accommodation along the entire way along with meals supplied by the hotels. Other more budget tours, will camp the first three nights and have a cook come along to make your meals nightly.

On my exact tour, although on the budget side, the meals were delicious and filling. I did bring a few of my own snacks but barely needed them as I was fed enough by my tour guide.

Almost all tour companies provide a hotel on the final night in Aguas Caliente. Although basic, our hotel was a comfortable 2-star hotel with a hot shower and a spacious room.

Along the trail, you will find small shops or places to buy things like snacks, pop, or beer. At the camps at night, you can also purchase items like alcohol or chocolate.

Things to do and see (besides hiking)

Cloudy view on the Salkantay Trek, Peru
Cloudy view on the Salkantay Trek, Peru

If you go on the Salkantay Trek you will have to option to add on a couple of different activities that make your overall trekking experience even more memorable!

The first is the hot springs at Santa Teresa, also known as Cocalmayo Hot Springs. Here, you can soak your sore muscles for a couple of hours for only a couple of extra dollars. After a few days of hiking, you’ll be grateful for this- trust me!

You can also zipline, which is an entirely different sort of adventure from your trekking! Also located in Santa Teresa, this 2-hour zipline tour includes six ziplines, two rappels down waterfalls, and crossing a suspension bridge that will make your stomach drop. While we personally didn’t partake in this zipline adventure, we heard great things from others! You can book this zipline tour in advance for $67 USD per person.

Once you’re at Machu Picchu, there are even more hikes to explore. Machu Picchu Mountain (which we hiked) and Huayna Picchu are both very popular and have limited spots. You can purchase your admission tickets in advance, which gives you time to hike either mountain for even more incredible views! Booking your tickets in advance to include either hike is essential if you want to add these to your itinerary.

Related Read: Before you take off on the Salkantay Trek, need a place to stay. Check out our guide to the best hostels in Cusco so you can rest up before your big adventure!

How to Book the Salkantay Trek

Our group of hikers on the Salkantay Trek
Day 4 of the Salkantay Trek

One of the great things about the Salkantay Trek is that, unlike the Inca Trail, it does not need to be booked several months in advance. In fact, there are so many tour companies running this tour that you could literally arrive in Cusco and book the tour for the next day.

However, I don’t overly recommend this.

While you will be able to negotiate the best deal by booking in person last minute, there are no guarantees about what you will get. Tour agencies team up and group people on the same tour charging everyone at different prices. The salespeople will also tell you anything to make the sale even if it is a lie.

If you book in person, there is no guarantee of the quality of the tour you will get, and no repercussions for the tour company afterward if they lie to you (or rip you off).

This is why I recommend booking online! This way, you can read other customers’ reviews ahead of time and have the power to leave your own review afterward. This helps ensure the company stands by what it offers.

We book most of our tours worldwide on Viator. They include detailed descriptions of all inclusions and many tours offer free cancellation up to 24 hours before your tour’s departure date. Not all tours include, this so be sure to double-check your specific tour! And f you have any problems, you can deal with Viator as opposed to having to argue with the tour provider directly.

Of course, many people book directly in Cusco without any problems. It is totally up to you at the end of the day and I am only sharing my opinion.

It’s also important to note that not all Salkantay Trek tours are created equally, and there are a few things you should consider before choosing your tour (more on that below).

You can browse a range of Salkantay Trek tours on Viator. Our Salkantay Trek tour took a special route, which visited the ancient ruins of Llactapata. So if you want a similar experience, book this exact tour where you’ll spend the night at Llactapata and watch the sunset with Machu Picchu in the distance.

The BEST Salkantay Trek Tours and the Different Types of Tours

View from Llactapata – a place you’ll visit on the best Salkantay Trek tour.

Not all Salkantay Trek tours are the same. It’s important that you choose a tour that suits you best so you can have the experience that you’ve always dreamed of. Below, I’ve summarized the main types of tours that you can choose between, as well as the tour we did (and loved)!

Classic 5-day hike

This 5-day Salkantay Hike is known as the “classic” tour because it hits the major highlights of the trail. You’ll spend three nights camping and one night in a hotel, so it’s a good balance of rugged outdoor activities and a bit of comfort!

The highlights of this tour include the gorgeous Humantay Lake, the difficult Salkantay Pass, and the Llactapata archeological site, just to name a few. I also love that this tour is capped at 10 travelers, so you can get to know everyone and work together as a group. There are a lot of details about each specific tour, so I recommend reading each one carefully to pick the best one for you! You can check the details and book this tour online for $589 USD per person.

4-Day hike

This slightly shorter 4-day hike is one of the most popular Salkantay Hikes out there! With over 2,000 positive reviews, I’d say it’s worth the time and money. Because this tour is only 4 days and 3 nights, you are hiking a slightly shorter trail that doesn’t include the Llactapata Ruins. And while I must say this part of the trek is incredible, it is also a difficult portion.

So if you want a slightly shorter/easier option (not saying it’s entirely easy) this is a great choice of tour! This tour also has some incredible stays, such as the Sky Camp Igloos with glass-domed roofs. You will remember the views for a long time after! You can read all the details of the tour and book it in advance here for $569 USD.

6-day luxury hike

If hiking all day then relaxing in a jacuzzi or glass cabana sounds like your cup of tea, this 6-day luxury hiking experience is made for you! You will still be putting in the work hiking the strenuous Salkantay Trek over 6 days, but the views and overall payout at the end make it totally worth it.

Just as with the other tours, your final day will be at Machu Picchu where you will have time to explore on your own, continue your hiking adventures, and gawk at the gorgeous scenery. This tour includes a mix of camping and more upscale accommodations, even the chance to stay in a Hobbit Hole. Check the details and book this tour in advance for $650 USD.

5-day hike Our personal recommendation

This is the tour we took, and I can’t recommend it enough! We had a wonderful experience and loved the balance of difficult hiking days, authentic rugged camping, and also having the tour take care of us in a lot of ways! With a trek as difficult as the Salkantay Trek, having porters help carry luggage, cook food, and lead the way truly makes a difference– I don’t know if I could have made it without them.

This 5-day tour covers similar ground as many other tours, such as Humantay Lake and Llaqtapata, amongst many other beautiful locations! The best part was staying the night at Llaqtapata the final night, waking up to the sunrise was simply incredible. You can book the same tour we took in advance for $695 USD.

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here! Or, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

My Experience on the Salkantay Trek and What to Expect

We wrote this story about our INCREDIBLE experience on the Salkantay Trek hoping to help others decide if the Salkantay Trek is the right choice for them. We thought sharing our true experience would be a fun addition to this Salkantay Trek review.

Here’s the story of our tour hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu:

Day 1: Getting to the start of the Salkantay Trek

The road to the start of the Salkantay Trek
The road to the start of the Salkantay Trek

It was 4 am and we were up and waiting to catch a minibus to start our hike to Machu Picchu. We had booked a slightly different version of the classic Salkantay Trek and were super excited to start.

We drove up a narrow road (similar to the Crazy Road in La Paz, Bolivia in parts) gradually climbing in altitude along the windy road with just enough speed to disrupt any sleep I planned on getting.

We arrived safely with a newfound gratitude for what it meant to be alive and breathing. I’m always thankful for being alive at the end of treacherous drives along sheer drops some hundreds of feet in depth.

After the treacherous drive through the mountains, we were at the beginning of the Salkantay Trek. Our first day involved an easy four-hour hike to our camp.

Camping at “Muddy Town”

Standing at a lake on the Salkantay Trek
We hope you get better weather!

The village we camped at translated from Quechua (the native language of the Incas) to “muddy town.” This was very easy to see why as we had rain that day and the floor was inches thick with mud.

The mud didn’t stop us from exploring the area with a hike to a lake at the base of a snow-capped mountain. The mountain was covered in a thick sheet of ice that hung seemingly weightless. The lake was pale green and reflected the mountain peaks off of the calm water.

At Muddy Town, there was a sheltered area with tables where we ate dinner, tents all pre-setup for us, a small shop selling snacks, as well as a pit toilet.

Carlitos

Our guide Carlos
Our guide Carlos

Our tour guide Carlos (or as we called him Carlitos) was short in stature but big in heart. His round face and giant smile gave him one of the friendliest looks I have seen in a person. He talked with so much passion and energy about everything he knew over the 5 days with us.

On our first day, with a strong look of urgency in his eyes, he spoke of his ancestors and what the highlands of South America meant to his people. From the Condor to his native Quechua language, his expressions were deep and as he talked his voice softened as if to hold back tears.

From that moment I think we all realized he was the best tour guide for our hike to Machu Picchu. And it is true, the guide really makes or breaks the tour!

Day 2: The Toughest Day

Views of Machu Picchu from night 3 on our Salkantay Trek
Views of Machu Picchu from night 3 on our Salkantay Trek

We woke up at the crack of dawn to Coca tea served to us in our tents as promised to us by Carlitos the night before. Coca is the plant used to manufacture cocaine, but in South America, it has been used for centuries for all sorts of natural remedies.

However, in this case, it was a simple way to get out of bed while it was freezing cold.

We set off at 6 am on the 22 km (13.7 mi) journey that would take us up through the Salkantay Pass. At over 4,600 meters (15,092 feet) it would be the highest Bailey and I had hiked to date. This day was promised to be the most difficult day of the entire Salkantay Trek.

The weather was wet with light rain. The fog moved through the valley like a snake would slither through a rocky path only sometimes giving us small glimpses of the mountains around us.

At the Salkantay Pass, the weather was much more brutal. The cold wind splinted through the warm alpaca jumpers we wore and the rain froze our exposed faces. The weather hindered any chance we had at amazing views along the pass.

As we descended down the rocky path, our surroundings quickly changed from the grey, rocky, low grass landscape to the dense rainforest. The humidity became more apparent as the temperature rose and more plants and animals appeared.

Not so long after, we had arrived at our second camp. Surrounded by green vegetation but still plagued by the muddy ground (worse than our previous night) we took refuge on an elevated wooden deck. Here, we were safe from the rain and spent our evening chatting around a table with beers and tea.

We often discussed in a hopeful tone that tomorrow the sun would shine and joked that there would be a need for sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water to combat the harsh sun.

Day 3: The Inca Trail to Llactapata

Hiking up the original trail built by the Incas
Hiking up the original trail built by the Incas

It was still dark when we rose from our tents that morning, but to my surprise, I could see in the distance that the fog was clearing and by the time breakfast was finished the sky showed us its beautiful color in small holes in the clouds.

The hike that day was short but grueling as we headed up a steep path built by the Incas hundreds of years earlier. The Incas were magicians with stonework, they could build all the structures they required without the use of cement or any other kind of bonding.

The path was hard to see in most places as hundreds of years of erosion and growth changed the landscape, but in some areas, the quality of Inca stonework remained resistant to the elements and as strong as the day they built it. This made me think of buildings today, even with our advances in technology could they stand the test of time?

“Thank god” I muttered to Bailey as we conquered the last few steps. We sat down on a fallen tree and caught our breath before heading to Llactapata (Inca ruins that were once the guardhouse overlooking Machu Picchu).

Carlitos showed us around the Llactapata ruins site. It was situated on the side of a steep cliff that was dwarfed by the surrounding landscape of the Andes Mountain Range. Through the valley, only 5 miles away, sat Machu Picchu. It sat on a mountain’s peak, the outline of the rock walls was strong against the vegetation.

We simply stared over at the ancient city in utter awe. This was the first time I had seen Machu Picchu with my own eyes, although from a long distance, I was amazed by its beauty and locality.

We spent the night not far from here with mountain views. This was one of the highlights of our time on the Salkantay Trek.

Please Note: This is NOT the traditional Salkantay Trek route and almost all tours now camp at a place called Playa. Some tours (including the one we did) do still visit Llactapata on day 4 so you can enjoy the same magnificent view of Machu Picchu in the distance and walk this true Inca Trail!

Day 4: The final day of the Salkantay Trek

Hiking along the railway tracks on the Salkantey Trek
Hiking along the railway tracks on the Salkantay Trek

It was our last day before our visit to Machu Picchu and we only had a few kilometers to hike so we decided to take a break at the nearby Santa Teresa Hot Springs. It was a perfect way to soothe our sore feet after the previous days but we still had 8 km (5 mi) to hike so we got moving hoping to arrive in time for an afternoon beer.

The 8 km involved walking along the train tracks that head to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu). The hike was easy apart from dodging an approaching train every now and then.

Aguas Calientes is a small town at the base of the mountain in which Machu Picchu sits. Almost everybody who visits Machu Picchu spends the night before here.

We got a hotel on this night, and it was great to have a hot shower! We went out for dinner and beers at a local restaurant with our group where Carlitos briefed us on what to expect for day 5 where we would go to Machu Picchu!

This officially marked the end of the Salkantay Trek for us and what a journey it was!

Related Read: After your time in the mountains, make a trip to Lima! There is so much to do in Lima, Peru with it’s beautiful coast, vibrant streets, and amazing food scene.

Overall Salkantay Trek Review

a Llama at Machu Picchu
a Llama at Machu Picchu

I loved the Salkantay Trek. To me, it was the perfect combination of a challenging hike mixed with rewarding views as well as having plenty of time to relax.

Sure, the first couple of days and nights are tough camping and walking far distances. But by the time you reach the hot springs, it gets fairly easy, and spending a night in a hotel at Aguas Calientes felt like pure luxury!

I think that after walking for four days Machu Picchu seemed even more amazing.

I would easily recommend the Salkantay Trek to anyone who is up for the challenge! It is so worth it!

You can book the Salkantay Trek online in advance here!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey and Daniel take a photo on the Salkantay Trek in Peru
Thanks for reading!

If you’re looking for an epic way to experience the Machu Picchu area, a multi-day trek will not disappoint! Whether you take the classic Inca Trail or give the Salkantay Trek a go, you will have an unforgettable time, at least we did.

I hope that my Salkantay Trek review has helped you decide whether to tackle this hike or not. If you have any questions, be sure to comment below so I can get back to you! While you’re planning your travels, be sure to check out our other South America blogs, and more specifically our Peru blogs!

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Filiz

Sunday 7th of April 2024

Thank you for all this! Super helpful! My question is which month was your original trek, the one you are describing above in terms of temperature, how colds it was etc. ?

Destinationless Travel

Monday 8th of April 2024

Hey Filiz,

Ours was in June and it was very cold at night once you got higher in altitude. Like ice on the ground etc. Definitely want warm weather gear like hat, gloves and warm clothes.

Thanks Daniel

Jenna B

Saturday 2nd of March 2024

What did you pack for the 5-day trek and what did you wish you pack?

Destinationless Travel

Sunday 10th of March 2024

Hey Jenna,

Warm clothes lol and lots of them. I was unprepared for how cold it was! Also bring sweets as they are expensive along the trail.

I hope this helps.

Thanks Daniel

Lizzy

Friday 26th of January 2024

Hi, thanks for sharing. This was all very helpful. My brother and I are going soon and can't wait! Do you have to book a tour or can hikers go without them? We aren't planning on hiring a tour guide. Thanks.

Destinationless Travel

Saturday 27th of January 2024

Hey Lizzy,

Thanks!

yes you can go on your own if you wish. you'll need to look that up though as we did a tour.

Thanks Daniel

Julia W

Monday 22nd of January 2024

Question: My husband and I are planning to do the Salkantay Trek with "Salkantay Trekking" in May.

The trek starts the morning of May 19th, and we would be flying into Cuzco on May 17th around 11 am.

Do you think this is enough time to acclimate? We live at sea level, but also plan on taking Diamox prior to arrival.

Any thoughts/advice would be appreciated :)

Destinationless Travel

Tuesday 23rd of January 2024

Hey Julia,

48 hours should be enough time to acclimatize although an extra day would be better. My advice would be to take it very easy in Cusco. You want your body to get used to the air without pushing it into altitude sickness. I would take your Diamox as prescribed which often means taking it even after you arrive in Cusco. It's honestly a life saver.

I have lots of experience with altitude sickness as I have pushed myself too hard on some longer and higher treks in Nepal and Peru. At the start of the hike, take it very easy and keep your body under 50% effort. Focus on your breathing and always communicate with your guide if you have issues.

I hope this helps Daniel

Lori Lieberman

Sunday 12th of November 2023

Any precipitous drop offs for someone who doesn't love heights? I am a solid hiker but don't love "ledgy" hiking. Thoughts about Salkantay?

destinationlesstravel

Sunday 12th of November 2023

Hey Lori,

No not on the Salkantay! Only on the drive to the start of the trail.

Thanks Daniel