Classic Inca Trail 4 days vs Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
Suppose you are planning a hiking trip to Machu Picchu. In that case, you probably have a tough time deciding which trek is best for you – Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek – My name is Juan Coronel, a native Peruvian tour guide. This post will briefly explain the diference between Peru’s two most popular hikes in Peru to help you decide on the tour that best fits your interests.
While Inca Trail is an iconic tour, constantly ranked among the best hikes in the world. You will always find in many blogs a crowded trail and fully booked all year round.
The Salkantay Trek is often known as the lesser crowded trail with more nature and amazing views while hiking along the mountains and the cloud.
If the descriptions above are your ideas about these two beautiful treks, let me tell you that it is not all true.
Both Trails are full of amazing views, Inca sites, history, and you will have a wonderful time on either trail you choose. Now, keep reading some of the differences to help you decide which route is a better option.
Hiking distance to Machu Picchu
The distance in both hikes might vary depending on the itinerary and route you take. Dont be surprised if you find on some websites more o fewer kilometers.
The Classic IncaTrail starts in the Sacred Valley, in the small town of Piscaccucho, also known as Km 82. You can choose between 4 days tour or 5 days tour depending on your preferences, group size, speed, and how much time you want to spend. Both itineraries follow the same route that has a total of 43km or 26 miles.
The Salkantay trek starts in the nearby Mollepata District. There are several routes, itineraries, and starting points for this trek. The Classic Salkantay Trek starts in Soraypampa; visit Humantay lake, reach Salkantay Pass, venture into the cloud forest, and arrive at Machu Picchu through the jungle. The total distance covered is 60 km or 37 miles in a 5-day schedule.
The altitude of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek
Altitude sickness is one of the major difficulties most travelers will face during the trek to Machu Picchu. The best thing you can do to avoid is to arrive at least two days before your tour departure, drink lots of water before and during the tour, eat light, especially during the first days of arrival, and have Diamox with you.
You will conquer 2 big mountains: Dead Woman’s Pass (4215m / 13829ft), which takes around 6 hours up and 2 hours down a total. The second mountain is Runqurakay Pass (4000m / 13123ft), which takes about 2 hours up and 2 hours down.
You will be at a lower altitude during the Inca Trail than Salkantay; however, you will spend a long time above 3000 m (9842ft). This might increase the chances of having problems with altitude.
The altitude of the Salkantay trek
Salkantay trek’s highest point is 4630 m (15190 ft), almost 200 meters higher than the Inca Trail’s highest point. However, there is only one mountain above 3000 m (9842ft).
The chances of having altitude problems are higher in Salkantay Trek, but you will be hiking only for two days at high altitudes. You will enjoy the cloud forest with an average altitude of 2600m (8530ft) and nice warm weather for the rest of the days.
History in the Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek
If you are interested in visiting the ancient Inca sites, Inca Trail is the best option. This doesn’t mean you won’t have history lessons from our expert guides in the Salkantay Trek; in fact, the same tour guides in the Inca Trail will guide you as well in the Salkantay trek.
You will visit several archeological sites before Machu Picchu, such as Patallaqta, Runcuraccay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Intipata, Wiñaywayna, and Sungate. At every location, our passionate tour guides will explain the history of our country.
Depending on the route you follow, you might hike a small portion of an original Inca Trail (different from the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu). This Inca Trail leads to Llaqtapata, an ancient Inca site located on a mountain top right in front of Machu Picchu.
The Scenery of Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek
Inca Trail offers terrific views of mountains, Inca Sites, the cloud forest, and the first view from the Sungate to Machu Picchu early in the morning of the last day.
Salkantay Trek will offer more varied and beautiful views: from the lakes, glaciers, the cloud forest, and without any doubt, the view from Llaqtapata to Machu Picchu from a different mountain is one of the best ones.
Availability of Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek
Inca Trail has limited availability, and Salkantay Trek is free-sell. During the Salkantay trail, you can have larger groups than Inca Trail in the busy season.
A maximum of 500 people are allowed in the Inca Trail per day; this number includes porters, guides, chefs, and guests. The number of guests is around 200 per day. This number is higher in comparison with the average number of travelers in Salkantay Trek.
The groups at Inca Trail are very well organized. There is a maximum of 8 people with one tour guide. And 16 guests per group with two tour guides; this means that if there are more than 16 people, the group must split into two separate groups.
There is the idea that the Inca Trail is fully crowded. However, this is entirely not true. Depending on the itinerary, campsite location, and different departure times of each group, you might see a few travelers with you.
When you are hiking in large groups like ten people, you will go at your own pace and regroup in specific points indicated by the tour guides, especially for history lessons or to visit Inca Sites. This way, you will be mainly hiking with your group.
When you are struggling up to the mountain, it’s nice to stop and chat with somebody and meet people, so this aspect of the Inca Trail is not entirely negative.
Opposite to Inca Trail, Salkantay is not strictly regulated by the government. This means you can camp at any place your tour guide and trekking team decide. The groups also can be as many people as the companies decide or sell.
While the Salkantay trail gets fewer visitors per day on average, it will depend on the itinerary and the company you are hiring, on how many people will be in your group or hiking with you. I mention this because I’ve seen groups with 30 or 4o guests, which might not be as fun as it sounds, considering that everybody has different physical conditions, speeds, and preferences.
Some days you might see more visitors than the Inca Trail. Every day arrives an average of 4000 people to Machu Picchu and only 200 from the Inca Trail, so there are chances to have more people in the Salkantay on specific days. Ultimately, it will depend on the company, how they provide the itinerary, the maximum participants, and tour guides’ experience to offer you a wonderful trip.
From all the above, the number of visitors to each trek should not be a reason to choose which routes are best for you.
Consider your Budget
The goverment strictly controls Inca Trail, and there is limited availability per day. For this reason, Inca Trail tours will always be more expensive than Salkantay trek. Consider an average of 100$ more costly due to the cost of permits.
The average cost of the Inca Trail group tours is between 600.USD to 700.USD, when booking an Inca Trail tour, you must consider:
- If your tour includes a personal porter or not, this is essential because some companies will not include and offer you as optional. It’s essential to book with a company that includes personal porters in your tour. Otherwise, it could be costly to hire one during the trek.
- Check if the company provides all transportation from start to end. Some companies do not provide a bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes, for instance. A bad experience at the end of the tour could ruin the whole trip.
Salkantay Trek does not require special permits. However, you will still need tickets to enter Machu Picchu and trains to go back to Cusco. It’s important to mention that there is a fee to pay to enter Salkantay, but it is significantly lower than Inca Trail.
The average cost of Salkantay Trek is between 500.USD to 600.USD. Before booking a tour, you must consider it.
- Avoid booking the tours with the lowest prices for this tour. It’s good to book the lowest prices to participate in a day tour. However, when hiking for several days, high altitude, possibly lousy weather, you may want to reconsider and book with a reputable company, professional tour guide, and good camping equipment for the 3000 meters+ camping.
- The lower the price you pay, the larger the groups will be to compensate for expenses, underpaid staff, food quality, equipment, hotels. This is something you want to avoid on vacations.
- Any tour that advertises the Salkantay Treks with prices lower than 400.USD usually has a lot of hidden costs. In the end, you will end up paying more than the all-inclusive tours (entry fees, emergency horse, duffle bag for personal items, transportation during the trek, extra activities on the route, hotel category, bus up and down to Machu Picchu are basic things you must check before booking). You won’t be comfortable finding out that your tour didn’t include some of them.
- Last but not least is the Train schedule on the way back to your hotel. Some companies offer lower prices because they will book you on the cheapest and later trains. This is something you will not like at all after 4 or 5 days of hiking in the mountains. The latest trains schedule will be arriving back to Cusco around midnight, or 1. am
TreXperience is the only company that includes all group tours, the exclusive Panoramic trains back to Ollantaytambo, and private vans back to Cusco.
The weather of Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek
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, raingear).
From 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.
From 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 a lot of humidity. Due to the trails’ location, the Salkantay Trek is likely to get more rain than the Inca Trail.
Accommodations of 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, enjoy your vacations. Always prepare for rain, cold weather, 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, tents. You will have 3-night camping inside the Inca Trail. 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 that we take is the less crowded, and the campsite we stay at is unobstructed place to enjoy the stars. We camp for 3 nights during the Salkantay Trek, and we spend 1 night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes.
Food on Inca Trail vs. Salkantay Trek
In all our hiking tours with 3 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 in each trek. However, there are some additionals on specific tours.
During the Inca Trail, your trekking chef will prepare fresh meals from the first breakfast. You will have plenty of options on the table every day since we serve a buffet style, from fish on the first day, 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 not possible to prepare in 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 with locals the traditional Pachamanca.
These are some of the differences between these great treks. As I mentioned at the beginning of this page, you will have a wonderful experience on any of these tours. If Inca Trail is sold out, you can hike the Salkantay Trail, the Lares Trek, even the Shorter Verison of the Inca Trail are great options.