Salkantay Trek: Independent Hiker’s Guide

When most people think of hiking to Machu Picchu, the first name that comes to mind is the Inca Trail. And justifiably so. For decades that classic trek was the sole focal point for anyone looking to arrive at the fabled ‘lost city’ on foot. However, as Machu Picchu’s fame increased, so did the quantity of people wanting to experience the Inca Trail. In the early 2000’s authorities installed a much needed quota on hiking numbers, a decision which led to the emergence of the Salkantay Trek on the world’s backpacking radar.

I hiked the Salkantay Trek in August, 2017. The information contained below is mostly geared towards hikers who choose to do the walk independently rather than with a guided group (Note: Since 2001 it is prohibited to hike the Inca Trail without a guide).

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva descending from Salkantay Pass (4630m/15,190ft).

Distance:  57.2 miles ( 92 km)

Avg. Time:  5 days.

  • That is the standard amount of time taken by guided groups . If you are fit, acclimatised and carrying a light pack, there are no real issues in doing the hike in three or four days if you feel like it.

Start:  Mollepata

  • As of 2017, virtually all organized groups start at Soraypampa, which cuts off some 12 miles/20 km from the overall distance mentioned above. We decided to begin our hike at the traditional trailhead of Mollepata, and hike from there to Soraypampa.  From Mollepata you can either follow the dirt road or take a well marked trail (the signed junction is just a few minutes out of town) all the way to Soraypampa.

Finish: The summit of Machu Picchu mountain.

  • The traditional end of the Salkantay Trek is the Machu Picchu archeological site. We decided to extend it a little by making the summit of Machu Picchu Peak (3061m / 10,042ft) our finishing point.

Yours truly and Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva on top of Machu Picchu Peak – finishing point of our Salkantay Trek.

Highest Point: Salkantay Pass 4630 m (15,190 ft)

Lowest Point: Hydroelectric Plant 1800 m (5906 ft)

Difficulty:  Easy to moderate.

Transport:

    • Mollepata – Three hours by regular buses from Cusco. Cost 15 Peruvian Soles (about US$5). As of 2017, you can catch daily minibuses from near the junction of Arcopata and Avenida Apurimac. They usually leave around 7 to 8 am.
    • Machu Picchu – Returning to Cusco from the finish of the hike is either expensive or time consuming. The priciest, easiest and most comfortable way is to take the train from Aguas Calientes to Cusco (4 hrs). Alternatively you can catch the train to Ollantaytambo, then take a Collectivo minibus or taxi from there to Cusco (between 3 hrs and 4 hrs total). Finally, the cheapest and most time consuming way to return to Cusco from Machu Picchu is as follows: 1. Walk the 11 km back to the Hydroelectric dam along the railroad tracks; 2. From there take a minibus or collective taxi to the village of Santa Teresa; 3. Catch another bus back to Cusco. This three step journey can take the best part of an entire day depending on connections, and you may well find yourself overnighting in Santa Teresa; not such a bad thing as it does sport some soothing hot springs (Note: If you plan on taking the train, you should book well in advance).

The world’s most futile hitching attempt on the way to Aguas Calientes (photo from Ryan Sylva).

SeasonPossible all year, though the dry season between May and October is ideal. During this period nights can be chilly (0°C is common), but days are generally clear.

Guidebook / Maps / Online Information:

Permits & Fees: No permits are needed to hike the Salkantay Trek. However, you will need to purchase an entrance ticket to the Machu Picchu archeological site and Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu peaks. Independent hikers can organise these in advance through the official Peruvian Ministry of Culture website. Alternatively, if you are going with an organised group, the tour company may do it for you. It’s worth noting that as of 2017, you can also pick up entry tickets to Machu Picchu (but not the peaks) once you arrive in Aguas Calientes. 

For a thorough overview of the ins and outs of purchasing Machu Picchu tickets, see Thrifty Nomads.

The view from Machu Picchu Peak overlooking the citadel and Huayna Picchu (Photo courtesy of Ryan Sylva)

FoodYou have a few options: 1. Bring all your supplies from Cusco; 2. Purchase provisions and organise meals along the way at Soraypampa, Colpapampa and La Playa, or; 3. Do a combination of both. We went with the final option, and enjoyed a few wonderful home cooked meals during our journey. For those interested in taking the same approach, I’d recommend starting the trek with no more than two days food.

Water: Plenty of water available throughout the trek (we never carried more than 1.5 lt at a time), however, due the prevalence of livestock and human settlement it is recommended that all water should be treated.

Guided Vs Independent: More than 95% of hikers tackle the Salkantay Trek as part of a guided group. However, if you have the necessary gear (it’s also possible to rent equipment in Cusco) and a reasonable amount of backpacking experience, there are no issues with doing the hike independently. The trail is easy to follow throughout its course and as mentioned above, you can purchase food along the way (i.e. which translates to a lighter load). 

DM descending the Quebrada Humantay.

How does the Salkantay differ from the Inca Trail? The primary differences are as follows: it’s longer, slightly more challenging, less crowded, boasts a greater variation of ecozones, but doesn’t have the multiple archeological sites that you can visit on the Inca Trail. It’s also cheaper, irrespective of whether you go with an organized group or independently; significantly so if you choose the later option. In short, they are different treks that both happen to end at the same spectacular destination.

Overview map of different trails to Machu Picchu (Terraquechuaperu.com)

Trekking Notes:

    • Overall Character: The Salkantay is perhaps most notable for its ecological diversity. It traverses picturesque valleys, alpine meadows, goes up and over a dramatic mountain pass and meanders its way through a lush subtropical rainforest.
    • The Pass: The high point both geographically as well as scenically is the 4630 m (15,190ft) Abra Salkantay. Upon reaching this spectacular pass, hikers are afforded jaw-dropping vistas of Mount Salkantay (6271 m), a peak that has long been considered sacred by the inhabitants of the Peruvian Andes.

Views from Salkantay Pass.

    • Transformation: From the pass, the trail descends more than 2000 meters (6562 ft) into cloud forest. The change in flora, as well as temperature is dramatic. Along the way there are various accommodation/camping options where it is possible to break up the descent (i.e. Huayracmachay, Collpapampa and Challway).

    • Ascend to Llactapata: Not long after leaving the friendly village of La Playa, the pathway ascends again via banana and coffee plantations (be sure to stop for a cup or two) to the recently rediscovered ruins of Llactapata. There is a campsite close to the archeological site with impressive views towards Machu Picchu.
       
    • Along the Tracks: From Llactapata the trail goes steeply downhill to the hydroelectric plant. Soon after you pass the railway station where provisions can be purchased. From this point it is a flat and easy 11 km to the town of Aguas Calientes following the railway tracks.
    • Stairway to Inca Heaven: The final stage of the Salkantay is steep, short and includes hundreds of steps. Give yourself anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to hike from Aguas Calientes up to the entrance to the archeological site. From there it is another 30 minutes to an hour to reach the summit of Machu Picchu mountain.
      • DM walking through a coffee plantation on the way to Llactapata.

      • Stages: The Salkantay Trek is commonly broken down into the following five stages:
        • Day 1Mollepata to Soraypampa: 20 Km (12.4 miles);
        • Day 2:  Soraypampa to Collpapampa: 22 Km (13.7 miles);
        • Day 3Collpapampa to La Playa: 16 Km (9.9 miles);
        • Day 4La Playa to Aguas Calientes: 25 Km (15.5 miles) – via Llactapata;
        • Day 5Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu Peak: 9 Km (5.6 miles).

          Ascending the steps to Machu Picchu Peak (photo courtesy of Ryan Sylva).

Final Thoughts:

    • Route Choices: There are a few different route options for the Salkantay Trek. I would suggest the following: 1. Start at Molletapa, rather than Sorayapampa; 2. Take the trail rather than the dirt road on the section between Colpapampa and La Playa; 3. Opt for the trail to Llactapata, rather than the dirt road to Santa Teresa. Yes, it is harder, but the payoff is a beautiful walk through coffee plantations and great views of Machu Picchu in the distance.
    • Go Independent: By any criteria, the Salkantay is not a difficult trek. If you have the gear, are reasonably fit, well acclimatized and know how to follow a trail, I’d highly recommend going independently. It’s a lot cheaper, a bigger sense of accomplishment, more opportunities to interact with locals, and you gift yourself the element of freedom; the freedom to choose where you camp, what you eat, whom you hike with (if anyone), when you take a break, how fast or slow you walk, etc.  

Yours truly at the end of the Inca Trail in 1996, and 21 years later at the end of the Salkantay Trek.


Comments

Salkantay Trek: Independent Hiker’s Guide — 6 Comments

  1. My husband and I hiked the Salkantay Trek in February of this year. In many years of backpacking, we had never opted to go on a guided hike, but the complexity of transportation logistics and the lack of readily available topo maps led us to book a guided trek last-minute. On our hike we saw a few intrepid, independent hikers — my hats off to you and to them!

    Though I was skeptical about going with a guide, I ultimately enjoyed it tremendously. We had local guides who opened the door for us to interact with other locals beyond what I believe I would have been able to do, even as a Spanish speaker; the food provided was unbelievably good; we got to sleep in a glass igloo the first night; and traveling for five days with others in our group had the benefit of letting us become more connected with fellow hikers than the more casual connections I’m used to making on the trail.

    That said, there are plenty of trekking companies ready to take travelers’ money — and not all are reputable. We did our research and were ultimately happy with Salkantay Trekking Company (http://www.salkantaytrekking.com). We were able to reduce the trek price because we had already bought train tickets and permits for Machu Picchu, which brought the cost for 5 days including all food, transportation and lodging about $180.

    Travelogue, including GPS track, at http://dearantler.com/askantler/hooves-on-the-ground-peru.

    • Hi Edith,

      Thanks for the detailed message. It’s always good to have folks that have enjoyed different experiences chime in. I remember seeing those glass igloos you mentioned!

      Saludos,

      Cam

  2. Great post,

    Did the Inca trail twenty years ago with a guided group. Although I’ve enjoyed the guided tour it was the beginning of many years of independent hikes all over the world. Great to see this alternative track, maybe I will go back one day.

    Greets from Belgium, Bart

  3. Must have been a great feeling getting back to Machu Picchu after all those years, particularly getting there under your own steam.

  4. Thanks for sharing an independent approach to Machu Picchu and opening the door for me. I have put this on the list and look forward to some hiking in Peru.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *