Craving an epic adventure in the high mountains? Peru should be at the top of your list! There are countless amazing hikes in Peru, but one of the most famous is the Salkantay Trek, which ends at Machu Picchu. The Salkantay Trek is the most popular alternative to the iconic Inca Trail.

I recently had the pleasure of hiking the Salkantay Trek, and I can easily say that it was one of the best travel experiences of my life. In this post, I will go over everything you need to know about the Salkantay Trek, from what you need to do to prepare for it to what to expect along the way, and some tips on booking the best experience.

What Is the Salkantay Trek?

salkantay trek (9)
The view from the top of the Salkantay Pass.

The Salkantay Trek is one of the most popular hikes in Peru. The 5-day, 60 km (37 mi) hike starts in the town of Mollepata and ends in Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu. It is the main alternative to the Inca Trail, which is the most famous route to Machu Picchu.

While you won’t see as many Inca roads or ruins as on the Salkantay Trek, you will pass by several ancient sites as the trail was once used by the Inca to reach Machu Picchu.

The Salkantay Trek circles around Salkantay Mountain, which is one of the tallest mountains in Peru. You’ll start at around 2,900 meters in altitude and climb high into the Andes to 4,630 meters before climbing down to 2,000 meters into the Amazon jungle.

While the Salkantay Trek is certainly a challenge, it is definitely doable if you are in good shape and can physically handle walking for 5 to 7 hours per day.

How Difficult Is the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu?

salkantay trek mule
The mule will carry most of your belongings. If needed, you can hire one to take you over the Salkantay Pass.

The general consensus is that the Salkantay Trek is a moderately difficult hike. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is the most challenging hike I have ever done, but it was nowhere near easy! 

The most challenging part of the trek is the elevation, especially on day two when crossing the Salkantay Pass, which is 4,630 meters above sea level. At any altitude above 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), you can be affected by altitude sickness. So, it is almost inevitable that you will experience some symptoms. This was the main reason I saw people turning back or hiring a mule to take them over the Salkantay Pass. Even marathon runners in tip-top shape can be badly affected by altitude sickness.

Another challenging part of the Salkantay Trek is the distance. Every day of the hike, you’ll be walking at least 10 km (6 miles), which can be pretty unforgiving on your feet and knees. For me, the hardest day was the 4th day, when we walked 25 km (15 miles) to Aguas Calientes.

My advice? Do not skimp on footwear. Having the right hiking shoes can really make a difference. If you are looking for some advice on travel footwear, head to our post on our top travel shoes.

Salkantay Trek vs. Inca Trail

salkantay trek ruins
You’ll see some ruins on the Salkantay Trek.
Inca TrailSalkantay Trek
Distance43 km (27 mi)60 km (37 mi)
Max Altitude4,215 meters (13,828 feet)4,530 meters (15,000 feet)
Days4 days5 days 
Finishing PointSun Gate (Machu Picchu)Aguas Calientes
FacilitiesTent campingLodges or tent camping
AvailabilityLimited to 200 tourists per day. Must book months in advance.Fewer limits, and you can generally book more last minute.


Both the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail are in the same general region of Peru, so on both trails, you’ll see massive mountains, forests, Inca ruins, and quaint villages. That said, there are definitely some differences in what you can expect to see on the trail.

The Salkantay Trek is generally less crowded than the Inca trail. In fact, there were several instances during my experience where I didn’t see any other hikers except for those in my group. This hike is more naturally stunning and goes higher into the Andes. You won’t see as many Inca ruins and will not be walking on original Inca roads as much, but you will cross by some ruins. The final part of the Salkantay Trek follows a train track to Aguas Calientes town, where you can then take a bus to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail is extremely popular, so you shouldn’t expect to get much solitude on the hike. You will also see plenty of mountain views and stunning nature, but the main focus of the hike is on the ruins as you pass many different Inca ruins and spend most of the hike on Inca roads.


Neither the Inca Trail nor the Salkantay Trek are easy hikes. They both take place at high altitudes and involve walking for hours each day on rough terrain. That said, the Salkantay Trek is around 20 km longer and has a higher maximum altitude. While you don’t need to be an experienced hiker for either trek, you will need to be more physically fit to complete the Salkantay Trek than the Inca Trail.


One of the main reasons I initially decided to go with the Salkantay Trek over the Inca Trail is that it is much easier to book closer to the date. In an attempt to protect the Inca sites along the trail, the Peruvian government limits the number of tourists to 200 per day. As this is the most popular route, it books up months in advance, so you’ll need to plan ahead if the Inca Trail is non-negotiable for you.

On the other hand, the Salkantay Trek doesn’t have limits on availability, and you’ll have much more flexibility when booking closer to the date. For example, I booked my Salkantay Trek around a month before the date in the middle of peak season. Others in my group booked just a week or so before the day of the hike.


The Inca Trail costs considerably more than the Salkantay Trek because there are limits to the number of tourists who can hike the trail, the Inca Trail is more sought after, and you must pay for an extra permit to hike it. In general, the 5 day Salkantay Trek costs between $250 to $600 and the 4 day Inca Trail costs $600 to $1,000.

Things to Know Before Heading Off

salkantay trek
Humantay Lake is one of the highlights of the Salkantay Trek.

The Salkantay Trek is definitely not something you want to attempt without proper preparation. Here are some things you should know and tips before you pack your bag and start hiking this once-in-a-lifetime excursion.


As I mentioned above, this trek goes high into the Andes mountains up to an altitude of nearly 4,700 meters (15,400 feet). For reference, that’s higher than every mountain in the mainland US and nearly as high as Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps!

Because of this high altitude, I highly recommend acclimating in Cusco for 2 to 3 days before the start of the trek. I met a few travelers on my hike who had only spent a day in Cusco before setting off on the hike, and they really struggled with the altitude.

Here are a few tips for combatting altitude sickness:

  • Give your body at least 24 hours of rest when you first arrive in Cusco. It can be tempting to go explore right away, but the best thing you can do is relax.
  • Avoid alcohol. At high altitudes, alcohol can have stronger effects and… well, make you drunker! So, avoid drinking before and during your hike, however tempting the pisco sours may be.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water is super important in general when hiking, and even more so in high altitude hikes. I recommend drinking lots of water and purchasing some thirst-quenching electrolytes for the hike.
  • Eat light foods when you first arrive in Cusco. Due to the changes in pressure, digestion works differently at higher altitudes, and you may notice that your body takes longer to digest foods. I mostly ate light foods during my first few days in Cusco, like soup, rice, fruits, and oatmeal.
  • Drink coca tea. Peruvians have been using coca leaves to help with altitude sickness for thousands of years. Each morning, your tour guide will likely make you tea from the coca plant. This is a great natural remedy that actually works!


salkantay trek food
We were fed SO WELL during the Salkantay Trek.

If you book the Salkantay Trek with a tour company (which I highly recommend doing), all of your food will be included in your ticket price. I booked with Salkantay Trekking, and the food was AMAZING. We were fed a feast fit for kings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. The meals were nutritious, and Chef Urbano never repeated a single dish! The company also provided us with extra snacks and fresh water every day, so I really didn’t have to worry about food at all!

While I can’t speak on the quality of the food for other tours, most companies will feed you very well on the hike, as you’ll need the calories. There are also several shops along the village route where you can buy snacks, coffee, fruit, and soft drinks.


salkantay trek accommodation
The Salkantay Trek with Salkantay Trekking had some comfortable accommodation.

The type of accommodation you’ll stay in on your Salkantay Trek depends on the tour company you book with. On lower-cost tours, you’ll likely stay in tents, while on higher-end companies, you’ll stay in cabins and huts. On my trek with Salkantay Trekking, we stayed in pretty nice and comfortable cabins, and on the final night of the tour, we stayed in a hotel in Aguas Calientes.

What You’ll Carry

One of the best things about opting for the Salkantay Trek over the Inca Trail is that, since horses are allowed to go on the trail, you won’t need to carry all of your gear with you.

Your tour company will provide you with a duffle bag for all of your clothes, toiletries, extra shoes, and other items that will be taken by horseback to the campsite. So, you only need to carry a smaller backpack with a few essential items for the day, such as a rain jacket, snacks, and water. 

Points of Interest

The Salkantay Trek is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done and there are too many points of interest to count, but here are a few of the major highlights.

  • Humantay Lake: Mountain lake surrounded by massive glaciated peaks.
  • Salkantay Pass: The highest (and most challenging) part of the trek, in which you’ll pass over Salkantay mountain.
  • Cocalmayo Hot Springs: Beautiful natural hot springs in the jungle.
  • Llactapacta Ruins: Inca ruins you’ll see on the 2nd to last day of the hike with a great view of Machu Picchu.
  • Machu Picchu Ruins: The final stop of the adventure, the massive and well-preserved Inca city needs no introduction.

Is the Salkantay Trek Safe?

Despite being a high-altitude climb, the Salkantay Trek is actually very safe. Chances are, you’ll book a guided tour for the trek, so you’ll have a licensed and professional guide with you the entire time. Even if you decide to hack it alone, you’ll be relatively safe since it is a highly trafficked trail with tons of tour groups and guides.

There are of course some slight dangers to be aware of, such as elevation sickness, hypothermia (especially on the first night in Soyrococha), and other standard hiking-related risks. But if you come prepared and join a reputable tour, you should be completely fine!

Itinerary for Salkantay Trek

salkantay trek to machu picchu

Your exact days may look slightly different depending on the tour you book for your trek, but this is what my itinerary on the Salkantay Trek looked like.

Day 0: Meet with Your Tour Guide and Discuss the Trip

The night before the trek, we all met at the tour office to discuss the plan for the hike and go over what we needed to pack. Our guide walked us through the 5-day itinerary and explained in detail what the next days would look like. This was super helpful as it let me know exactly what to expect from the trek. It was at this meeting that the tour guide also gave us our duffle bags to pack.

Day 1: Start of the Trek to Humantay Lake and Soyrococha

I got picked up at around 4 am. Yes, you read that right! You’ll need to be prepped for some pretty early mornings on the Salkantay Trek. In fact, I don’t think we woke up later than 6 am throughout the entire experience.

We were picked up in a van and driven to a small village near the start of the trek to have a big breakfast. Then, the van dropped us off at the trailhead, where we prepped our day packs and gave our duffle bags to the porters to strap to the mules.

We hiked for around 7 km (4.35mi) up a fairly easy and steady trail until we reached our camp in Soyrococha. After having a quick lunch, we were given the option to hike up to Humantay Lake (which I highly recommend doing!). This option adds an additional 3 km of hiking, which isn’t very far, but as you’ll still be acclimating, it will take at least 3 hours round trip.

Day 2: Salkantay Pass to Collpapampa

After waking up nice and early in Soyrococha, we had a quick breakfast and didn’t waste much time before heading back on the trail. This is one of the more difficult days of the hike as you’ll traverse Salkantay Pass and hike around 24 km (14.5 mi).

Hiking the Salkantay Pass was an amazing experience. There was a light dusting of snow in the morning, and it really felt like another world once we got to the top and saw the glaciated peak up close. 

After a quick rest at the top of the pass, you’ll start hiking down for the rest of the day. Take it slow; you will REALLY be feeling it in your knees by the end of the day. It is pretty amazing how quickly you see the rugged, snowy mountain tops turn into forested hills and rushing rivers as you hike down.

Day 3: Collpapampa to Lucabamba

If there is one word to describe day three of the Salkantay Trek, it would be: jungle! This entire day, you’ll be hiking through forests and along river banks. Completely different than the alpine views of day two!

Day three is also loaded with culture as you’ll explore some coffee fruit plantations and walk through some traditional villages. It is also a much easier day compared to the prior day’s hike, giving your feet a bit of a break. 

You’ll end your day in Lucabamba around lunchtime and will then have the opportunity to head to the Cocalmayo hot springs and earn some well deserved R and R!

Day 4: Llactapata to Aguas Calientes

In my experience, the fourth day was the most difficult day of the trek. It isn’t the most technically challenging portion, and you’ll be far lower in elevation than on day two, but you’ll be pretty beat from the other days of the trek. This day is also the longest portion of the Salkantay Trek at 25 km (15.5 mi).

The first portion of this day is also the most challenging, with a 2-hour uphill climb on a preserved Inca road. Once at the top of Llactapata, you’ll get to explore a small Inca ruin and then hike down for a spectacular view of the valley and even Machu Picchu (on a clear day)! Then, you’ll hike back down the mountain to a massive hydroelectric dam.

The next part of this hike is pretty long and grueling. You’ll essentially be hiking along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes for 13 km, which takes nearly 4 hours. If you are tired of walking, you do have the option to take the train from Hidroelectica to Aguas Calientes. That said, while this certainly isn’t the most beautiful part of the hike, there is something special and rewarding about finishing the hike and walking into Machu Picchu town!

Day 5: Machu Picchu

salkantay trek to machu picchu
With Salkantay Trekking, you get the earliest slot to enter Machu Picchu, meaning you are one of the first people there.

Now it is time for the day you have all been waiting for! After staying the night in Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu town, you’ll wake up early and head straight up to the archeological site. You’ll spend a few hours exploring the site with your guide, and then, if you book in advance, you’ll have the chance to hike up one of the two peaks on either side of the city, Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. Remember that you’ll need to pay extra to hike these peaks, and there are a limited number of tickets, so you will need to book quite far in advance to climb one of these peaks.

How to Get to the Salkantay Trek

Pretty much all tours for the Salkantay Trek are based in Cusco, so before starting the trek, you’ll need to head to the ancient Inca capital. As I mentioned before, I also recommend staying at least 2 to 3 days in Cusco to properly acclimate before starting the hike. Cusco is also a pretty awesome destination to explore, with tons to offer tourists. So you should easily be able to fill out a couple of days’ itinerary here.

Additionally, most Salkantay tours will provide transportation from Cusco to the start of the hike. If you plan to do the Salkantay Trek without a tour, you’ll need to take a colectivo or a private taxi to Molepata, which costs around 20 soles.

Best Tour Companies for Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek has become one of the most popular hikes in Peru in recent years, so there are now a ton of companies that guide tourists along the trail. Here are a few of the most popular options.

Salkantay Trekking

I went with Salkantay Trekking for my hike, which I always recommend to tourists heading to Cusco. The company is super well organized and professional and offers some of the nicest accommodation options along the trek. This company scores highly in terms of ethical and sustainable practices! They employ locals, support local communities, and have different environmental, sustainability, and reforestation initiatives! Salkantay Trekking isn’t the most affordable tour company to book with, but the tour is worth every dollar spent!

Other Tour Companies for Salkantay Trek

Packing List for Salkantay Trek

Wondering what you need to pack for your Salkantay Trek? Here is everything you need to take with you:

  • 15 to 20-liter daypack (I brought the daypack from my Osprey Farpoint 55L)
  • Water bottle or hydration bladder
  • Headlamp
  • Power bank
  • 5 pairs of athletic, moisture-wicking underwear
  • 2 to 3 warm wool or synthetic base layers
  • 4 to 5 hiking shirts (no cotton)
  • 1 to 2 hiking pants
  • Rain jacket or poncho
  • Wool or synthetic fleece
  • Insulated jacket
  • Gloves
  • Wool beanie
  • Sun hat
  • Balaclava
  • Hiking boots or shoes
  • Trekking socks (I always use Merino wool as it is water-resistant and super comfortable)
  • Bathing suit
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray (I got destroyed by midges on day 3 of the hike, I highly recommend bringing a strong repellent)
  • Blister patches or bandaids
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Body wipes
  • Cash (I’d bring at least 400 to 500 Peruvian soles for tips and extra food/drinks)
  • Toilet Paper (most toilets along the trek do not have toilet paper!)
  • Trekking poles (you can rent these from your tour company)
  • Sleeping bag (you can rent this from your tour company)

Can You Hike the Salkantay Trek Without a Guide

salkantay trek guide
My incredibly knowledgeable guide during the Salkantay Trek.

100%! You can totally hike the Salkantay Trek on your own without booking a guided tour. That said, booking with a tour company is your best bet, as all of your accommodation, food, and transportation is sorted out for you. 

If you want to do the Salkantay Trek on your own, you’ll need to take a colectivo to the starting point of the trek and either carry a tent with you or find huts/hotels to stay in along the route. You’ll also likely need to carry all of your food and a means of cooking with you. Additionally, in guided tours, there are mules that carry the bulk of your gear, so you only need to carry a small 15 to 20-liter backpack, but if you go solo, you’ll be responsible for all of your stuff, which may weigh up to 20 kg (45 pounds).

Hiking 60 kilometers with this much weight will definitely make the hike much harder. So, unless you are an experienced hiker and up for the challenge, I highly recommend booking a guided tour.

Is the Salkantay Trek Worth It? My Honest Opinion

The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu was one of the best experiences of my life. If you love nature and want to experience some of the rich indigenous culture in Peru, you simply must go on this 5-day hike!

To be completely transparent, this adventure blew me away and far exceeded my expectations. I had been looking forward to the trek for months, and it definitely lived up to the hype. Is it a difficult hike that requires some preparation and foresight? Absolutely! But the memories I gained from this trek were worth all of the soreness, difficulty, and money spent! 

I hope you enjoy your Salkantay Trek experience as much as I did.

About the Author