Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu: A Complete Guide
If you have decided to go trekking to Machu Picchu, then you are undoubtedly having difficulty picking between the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek. My name is Juan Coronel, and I work as a tour guide in my home country of Peru. This article will provide a concise comparison of Peru's most popular trekking tours to help you choose the most aligned with your interests.
What is Inca Trail?
Let's start with the Inca Trail. This is an iconic trek constantly ranked among the best hikes in the world. However, you will find in many blogs that the Classic Inca Trail is crowded and fully booked throughout the year; let me tell you that they are not entirely accurate. If you plan your trip smart, you can hike the Inca Trail and enjoy this amazing trip with a few other tourists.
What is the Salkantay trek?
The Salkantay Trek is often the less popular trek, with more wildlife, breathtaking mountains, and cloudscape vistas. This trek is a popular alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It is longer and more challenging than the Inca Trail, but it offers stunning scenery and a more authentic experience of the Peruvian Andes.
You will have a wonderful time on either route you selected since both treks offer breathtaking vistas, Inca ruins, and rich history. Now, consider reviewing some of the distinctions to help you determine which route is best for you.
These hikes might have different lengths depending on the itinerary and route. You shouldn't be surprised if some websites have a different number of kilometers than others do.
How long is the Inca Trail?
The Sacred Valley is the starting point for the Classic Inca Trail, which begins at the little village of Piscakucho, often called Km 82. You can choose between a 4-day or 5-day tour, depending on your group size, the pace at which you like to go, and the number of days you have to spend. Both routes will take you along the same path, 43 kilometers (or 26 miles) long.
How long is the Salkantay trek?
The Salkantay trek begins in the Mollepata District. You can choose between several routes, schedules, and departure spots. The traditional route of the Salkantay Hike starts near the Soraypampa base camp. It takes hikers to Humantay Lake, Salkantay Pass, the Cloud Forest, and Machu Picchu. In a tour of 5 days, you can cover a total distance of 60 kilometers or 37 miles.
Altitude on the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
Altitude sickness is a common problem on the Machu Picchu trip. Arrive two days before your trip, drink plenty of water before and throughout the tour, eat light the first few days of arrival, and bring Diamox.
Inca Trail Altitude
During the Inca Trail, you will climb two significant mountains: Dead Woman's Pass (4,215 m / 13,829 ft), which has an ascent that takes around 6 hours, and a descent that takes approximately 2 hours. The second peak is Runkurqay Pass, located at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), and it will take 2 hours to reach the summit.
Although the Inca Trail is at a lower altitude than the Salkantay, you will still spend considerable time at heights of more than 3,000 meters (9,842 ft). Because of this, the probability of experiencing difficulties related to altitude may rise.
Salkantay Trek Altitude
Salkantay trek's highest point is 4,630 m (15,190 ft), almost 200 meters higher than the Inca Trail's highest point. However, there's only one mountain above 3,000 m (9,842ft).
The chances of having altitude problems are higher in Salkantay Trek, but you will be hiking only for two days at high altitudes. Afterward, you will enjoy the cloud forest with an average altitude of 2,600 m (8,530 ft) and nice warm weather for the rest of the days.
History in the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
The Inca Trail is your best choice if you want to see some historical places associated with the Inca civilization. This does not imply that you will not get any historical lectures on the Salkantay Trek; the same tour guides on the Inca Trail will also guide you along the Salkantay trek.
How is the Inca Trail in history?
Before arriving in Machu Picchu, you will stop at several archaeological sites, including Patallaqta, Runkuraqay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Intipata, Winaywayna, Sun Gate, and others. Our knowledgeable tour guides will provide insights into the local history at each stop.
History in Salkantay trek?
There is a possibility that, depending on the path that you choose, you may hike a section of the historic Inca Trail (different from the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu). Llaqtapata is an old Inca site situated on a mountaintop in front of Machu Picchu.
The Scenery of Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
Stunning vistas along the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail provides breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, Inca ruins, and cloud forests, as well as the first glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate on the last day of the trek.
Scenery on the Salkantay Trail
The Salkantay Trek will give more diverse and fantastic scenery than any other trek: from the lakes, glaciers, and cloud forest, and without a moment's hesitation, the view from Llaqtapata to Machu Picchu from a separate mountain is one of the most incredible vistas in the world.
Availability of Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
While there are only a certain number of spots on the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is open for bookings anytime. During the high season, the Salkantay path can accommodate more people in a single group than the Inca Trail.
The number of people traveling along the Inca Trail in a single day is limited to a maximum of 500. This number includes porters, guides, chefs, and travelers. The average daily arrival of tourists is around 200. This particular number is much larger than the typical number of people who do the Salkantay Trek.
The management of the groups at Inca Trail is excellent. One tour guide can lead a maximum of 8 individuals at a time. In addition, each tour group is limited to 16 participants and is led by two tour guides; if there are more than 16 people in the party, they will be divided into two different groups.
Tickets for the Salkantay Trek!
Contrary to the Inca Trail, the Salkantay trek is not subject to the same strict regulations. This implies that you can set up camp anywhere your tour guide and trekking crew choose. The companies may select how many people should be in each group, or they may sell tickets to as many people as possible.
Although fewer hikers are on the Salkantay Trek daily, the number of people in your group or accompanying you on the trail will depend on your chosen itinerary and the company you hire. I bring this up because I've seen parties with as many as 30 or 40 people. It may seem fun in larger groups, but you must consider everyone's physical condition, pace, and tastes.
There will be days when you will see more tourists on the Salkantay Trek than on the Inca Trail. Because only 200 people arrive at Machu Picchu each day by the Inca Trail, an average of 4,000 people arrive at Machu Picchu each day, which means there is a possibility that there will be more people in the Salkantay on some days.
The Inca Trail group tours can cost between US$ 700 and US$ 800. The government strictly regulates daily access to the Inca Trail, so these tours will always cost more than the Salkantay Trek tours. Consider an average of US$ 200 increase due to permits and porters. When booking an Inca Trail trek, you must take into account the following:
- It is essential to know whether or not your trip includes a personal porter since some tour operators offer it as an add-on. Booking a trip with a company that provides personal porters is necessary. Otherwise, hiring one during the hike may be costly.
- Check if the company offers comprehensive transportation services. For example, some companies do not provide bus service from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes. A negative experience at the end of the tour might spoil the whole journey.
There are no specific permissions required for the Salkantay Trekking. However, you will still need tickets to access Machu Picchu and train tickets to return to Cusco. The Salkantay Trek costs between US$ 550 and US$ 650 on average. Consider these before you book a tour.
- Avoid booking the lowest-priced trips for this hike. If you are participating in a hike for many days at a high altitude in possibly terrible weather, you should always book with a reliable organization with expert tour guides and appropriate camping equipment at heights of 3,000 meters or more.
- The lower the price, the bigger the groups will be to compensate for expenditures, underpaid employees, food quality, equipment, and accommodations.
- Any trip advertising the Salkantay Treks for less than US$ 400 will likely have several hidden fees. You will ultimately spend more than you would on an all-inclusive tour (entry fees, emergency horse, duffle bag for personal items, transportation during the trek, extra activities on the route, hotel category, and bus up and down to Machu Picchu are basic things you must check before booking). You will be disappointed to learn that some were not included in your trip.
- Last but not least is the return train schedule to your hotel. Some companies offer cheaper costs because they will book you on the least expensive and latest trains. You will not appreciate this after four days of trekking in the mountains. The latest and cheapest trains will return to Cusco at midnight or 1 a.m. TreXperience is the only company that offers all group tours, exclusive Vistadome Panoramic trains to Ollantaytambo, and private vehicles to Cusco.
Weather on the Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail
Cusco is located deep in the Andes, where the weather is unpredictable. Even though we have only two seasons (rain and dry season), you must always prepare for all kinds of weather (light clothes, warm jackets, rain gear).
September to April is the rainy season; this doesn't mean you will have rain every day; there are weeks you don't see rain. However, the chances are higher than in the dry season. Daytime temperatures and nighttime temperatures might not vary so much.
May to October is the dry season; however, you must always have raingear since we have occasional rains. During the day, the temperatures could be sweltering when it is sunny, and at night, the temperature goes below 0°C.
Both treks start in the Andes, where the air is dry and cold, and they will finish in the cloud forest where Machu Picchu is located with warm weather and humidity. Due to the trails' location, the Salkantay Trek will likely get more rain than the Inca Trail.
Accommodations on the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
TreXperience provides good quality equipment for camping. Even on the most challenging days where the weather can be extreme, you will still have fun and enjoy your vacations. Always prepare for rain and cold weather, and have sunscreen, water, and a camera.
Inside the Inca Trail, we can only go camping; the great porters must carry everything needed during the trek, like food, equipment, and tents. You will have 3-night camping inside the Inca Trail. A toilet can be found at each campsite and specific location during the day, like lunch spots. TreXperience provides portable toilets for all our groups.
Salkantay Trek can be done in 2 ways: camping and lodge to lodge. The route we take is the less crowded, and the campsite we stay at is an unobstructed place to enjoy the stars. We camp for three nights during the Salkantay Trek and spend one night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes.
Food on Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek
In all our hiking tours for three or more days, you will be accompanied by an expert trekking team to prepare fresh meals for you. The food we provide is very similar on each trek. However, there are some additions to specific tours.
During the Inca Trail, your trekking chef will prepare fresh meals from the first breakfast. You will have plenty of options daily since we serve a buffet style, from fish on the first day to chicken, beef, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free. Please advise your preferences or dietary requirements in advance.
We provide the same food as the Inca Trail with an additional Pachamanca, an underground hot stone barbecue traditional to Peru. This dish is impossible to prepare on the Inca Trail because we cannot set any fire. However, in the Salkantay Trek, we visit villages in the cloud forest, explore the organic coffee farms, prepare your coffee cup yourself from scratch, and prepare the traditional Pachamanca with locals.
These are some of the differences between these great treks. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, you will have a wonderful experience on any of these tours, so this is a clear tie. If the Inca Trail is sold out, you can hike the Salkantay Trail, the Lares Trek, and even the Short Inca Trail are great options.
If you still haven't made up your mind, why not do both? You can also combine these two amazing routes in a single trip. Take a look at our 6-Day Salkantay + Inca Trail Expedition.