The Salkantay trek (sometimes referred to as the Salcantay trail) is the most popular alternative trek to Machu Picchu, and for good reason – it offers hikers an incredibly diverse trekking experience, is relatively easy to access from Cusco and unlike the Classic Inca Trail, there are no permit limitations. In fact, the Salkantay trek can be completed without the use of a guide or tour agency (see DIY treks at the end of this article)
The trail sojourns through incredible landscapes where lowland jungle gives way to highland alpine settings and glaciated mountains, the most impressive of which is Nevada Salkantay (more on this below). National Geographic Adventure Magazine rated the Salkantay trek as one for the 25 Best Treks in the World.
The trek is typically completed on a 5D/4N itinerary; however it is possible to do the trek on a 4D/3N itinerary or to combine the trek with the Classic Inca Trail (see Salkantay / Inca Trail Combo below).
In this article we have worked tirelessly to produce the most comprehensive and up to date information on the Salkantay trek. In particular, you will find detailed information on the classic Salkantay trek itinerary, route map and altitude profile. We have also included guidance on weather conditions, equipment requirements and altitude sickness.
You will also find information on responsible trekking companies that we recommend, or if you are a rugged backcountry trekker you will find lots of useful guidance on how you can complete the Salkantay trek unsupported.
Please use the quicklinks to navigate through the article.
- Nevada Salkantay
- Salkantay Trek Itinerary
- Salkantay / Inca Trail Combo
- Route Map and Altitude Profile
- Best time to do the Salkantay Trek
- Acclimatisation and Altitude Sickness
- Equipment Packing List
- Costs and Recommended Tour Operators
One of the key features of the Salkantay trek is the mountain that gives it’s name to the trail.
Mount Salkantay (or Nevada Salkantay / Salcantay) is one of the most iconic mountains in the Cusco region and the highest mountain on the Willkapampa range. Trekkers on the Salkantay trail spend a day approaching the mountain from the south and then another day in close proximity to the mountain as they scale the Salkantay Pass, which at 4,600m provides amazing vistas into the valley below.
Situated 60km North-west of Cusco city, Salkantay which stands at 6,271m, is the 12th highest mountain in Peru and the 38th highest in the Andes.
For mountaineers, Salkantay has a reputation of being a very tough summit. In fact the Quechua name, Sallqantay, means ‘Savage’ or ‘Wild’. Although it was first successfully climbed in 1952 by a French-American expedition, the mountain is not often conquered. The easiest summit assault passage is around the North-east ridge – which won’t be visible on the Classic Salkantay trail but is visible for trekkers on the Salkantay / Inca Trail combo.
Machu Picchu is directly north of Salkantay. Although the mountain is not visible from Machu Picchu, the Southern Cross star formation, when viewed from Machu Picchu’s sundial appears directly above Salkantay summit during rainy season. It is for this reason that the Incas considered Salkantay to be one of the principal deities controlling weather in the region. Even today, Salkantay features very prominently in the local beliefs of the people who live in the Cusco region.
Salkantay Trek Itinerary
The Salkantay trek set out below is for a typical 5D/4N itinerary using an official tour company and arrieros (horsemen), who will carry gear. You may see variations on this route from tour company to tour company, but this route is by far the most common. Where appropriate we have included information for readers who are interested in doing a unsupported trek
Day 1: Cusco – Mollepata – Soraypampa – Salkantaypampa
Most Salkantay tours depart by bus or private car from Cusco city (3,400m) early on day one (around 05:00 or 06:00) and drive for 2.5-3 hours to the town of Mollepata (2,850m), where you will likely stop and have breakfast. If you are doing a DIY trek you can hire a private car / taxi or public bus to take you to Mollepata from Cusco, or indeed from the Sacred Valley (Urabamba, Ollantaytambo) – costs vary depending on mode of transport and depature town – budget between 200-400 Soles for a private car / taxi and 50-80 soles for a public bus.
It is possible to start the trek from Mollepata but most tour operators don’t as this lengthens day one by a few hours and the beginning of the trail is along a rather unpleasant road. Instead most operators will transfer you using another minibus / truck or 4×4 car, as the road is a little rough here, to the trailhead at Sayllapata / Sayapata (3,200m). This is where you will meet your support team and arrieros (horsemen). The first good views of Salkantay and the Apurimac River valley are visible from here.
From Sayllapata, trekkers follow a gradual trail which climbs upwards to Soraypampa (3,850m) and takes about 3-4 hours to reach. This is where most treks will have lunch. Some trekking companies camp here for the night but it is more common to continue trekking for another 2-3 hours to a campsite at Salkantaypampa (3,900m – 4,100m, the jury’s out).
Total trek distance ~12km, total time walking ~5-7 hours.
Note: Between Sayllapata and Salkantaypampa you will notice that the trail splits East and West, you will taken the Western or left fork (see map). Trekkers on the Salkantay / Inca Combo take the East or right fork.
Day 2: Salkantaypampa – Soyrococha – Abra Salkantay / El Passo – Huaracmachay – Colpapampa
Day two is by the toughest day, so prepare to be challenged.
After waking early you will begin the trek from Salkantaypampa to Soyrococha (4,470m), which takes about 2.5-3 hours and starts gradually and gets steeper. After about an hour trekking the trail begins zig-zagging, which goes on for a while and gets steeper the higher you go. The switchbacks are called the 7 Culebras (7 snakes).
At the top of the Culebras you might notice that the temperature is cooler, but the sun intensity might still be high. The views of Salkantay from here onwards are breath-taking (make sure you have enough film and battery-life).
Continuing upwards you will reach Soyrococha (4,470m) around 10am. You might be exhausted as the air is thin at this altitude, but you still have a big climb ahead of you, so dig deep!
Continuing for another hour upwards, with Salkantay on your right, you will finally reach Salkantay Pass (4,600m). You will have a feeling of immense satisfaction at the top of the pass, and on a clear day will get amazing views of Salkantay (6,271m) to your right and Huamantay (5,917m) mountain to your left.
From the Salkantay Pass you will descend 2-3 hours to Huaracmachay (3,750m) for lunch. It is possible to overnight here, but most tours continuing descending a further 3 hours to Collpapampa (2,850m) – the end of a mammoth day trekking! You will notice that the landscape changes dramatically from high mountain terrain to lush tropical forest.
Total trek distance ~15km, total time walking ~7-10 hours.
Day 3: Collpapampa- La Playa
Early the next morning you will depart from the campsite at Collpapampa. The trail ascends slightly before descending for the rest of the day towards La Playa (2,050m). The route is a little more populated than the earlier trails and sits firmly within the tropical forest zone, so look out for nasty little sand flies that leave terrible bites (definitely wear insect repellent).
If you are trekking unsupported you may get a little confused on the trail out of Collpapampa as there are many little subsidiary trails. It is best to leave the campsite with an organised group to avoid getting lost.
As you approach La Playa the trail splits. If you stay on the left bank of the river, which most tour operators do, you will cross a bridge. From here the trail takes you straight into La Playa. The right river bank is accessed by gondola. From here the trail continues to La Playa, which will be on the opposite side of the river. At the end of the town you can cross the river to access the campsite.
La Playa is a small town but a lot bigger than any of the other campsites you would have stayed at. For this reason some trekking companies like to continue trekking for 30 minutes further to Lucmabamba, or catch a minibus to Santa Theresa.
Total trek distance ~10km, total time walking ~6-7 hours.
Day 4: La Playa – Hidroelectrica – Aguas Calientes
From this point on the wilderness experience is over, and a number of route / activity options are available. These are typically agreed with your company / trekking group before you begin the trek, or if you are a private group can be decided before you get to La Playa.
Option 1: Hot Springs in Colcamayu
The first option is the most relaxing, so if you and your trekking partners are shattered this one is for you. You will be transported to the hot springs in Colcamayu, which is just outside the town of Santa Theresa. The morning can be spent soaking your sore legs and feet whilst enjoying the jungle scenery. After lunch you will be transported to the Hidroelectrica Station, where you will either hike for another 2-3 hours to the town of Aguas Calientes, or if you are super tired you can catch the train (cost US$25 if it is not included in your tour package).
Options 2: Llactapata (Inca Ruin)
The second option is our favourite and is probably the most common amongst trekkers. You will leave La Playa to trek 30-minutes to Lucmabamba. From here you will spend a good two hours ascending to Llactapata, an Inca ruin, which was discovered by Hiram Bingham on the same journey that he discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. The site is still covered by vegetation in areas so it gives a good sense of what Machu Picchu must have look like when Bingham stumbled upon it. From Llactapata you will get your first view of Machu Picchu in the saddle opposite. The route descends steeply for 2 hours from the site to the Hidroelectrica Station, where you either trek 2-3 hours or train for 45-minute to Aguas Calientes. Total trekking time: 7 hours
Options 3: Zip-lining at Cola de Mono
The final option is for adrenaline-seekers. Trekkers are transported to Cola de Mono, the site of South America’s highest zip-line, 150 meters off the ground. The morning is spent zipping before being transported to the Hidroelectrica Station, and onwards to Aguas Calientes by foot or train. Check out this cool video of trekkers zip-lining.
Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu – Cusco
Aguas Calientes is the town that sits below Machu Picchu and where you will overnight in a hotel – ah, a real bed and shower!!
From Aguas Calientes there are buses that run regularly up and down between the town and Machu Picchu. Tickets costs ~US20 return and the first bus departs around 05:30. Queues for buses can start before 05:00 during the peak trekking season (May-September) and the journey one-way takes 30 minutes. It is possible to walk up to Machu Picchu, it takes a good hour and half and involves scaling over 2,000 steps!
If you want to get up to Machu Picchu in time to witness sunrise from the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), you will need to get one of the first buses to the Citadel and then briskly walk up the gradual trail that leads up to the Sun Gate (it is well marked and takes about 45 minutes at a good pace).
Please remember your passport, you will need it to enter Machu Picchu!
After sunrise most trekkers are given a organised 2-3 hour tour of the city ruins. If you don’t have an organised tour you can either acquire the services of a registered guide outside the gate (costs vary, but expect to pay 40-50 Soles per person if you have two or more people in your group, or 80-100 Soles if you are solo), or take a good guidebook (here are some great recommendations). Don’t walk around uninformed, your experience will be immeasurable heightened if you have good information to draw on as you walk through the city.
A popular activity to do, apart from visiting the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge, is to climb Huayna Picchu (the large mountain behind Machu Picchu on the North end of the site) or Machu Picchu Mountain on the opposite South end side. The former is a lot more popular and is restricted to 400 climbing permits a day and two climbing times – 07:00am and 10:00am. Hence, you need to book early if you want to climb Huayna Picchu. Machu Picchu Mountain is less popular but equally challenging, permits are also required so do book in advance (here are full details on both climbing options).
Once you have finished exploring Machu Picchu you can either walk back down to Aguas Calientes, allow at least an hour and a half, or catch a bus. Buses depart regularly but expect queues during and just after lunchtime as most trekkers head back to catch trains to Cusco.
If you are with an organised tour you will likely have afternoon train tickets already booked for Ollantaytambo, where you will catch a mini-bus / private car back to Cusco. For DIY trekkers it is possible to trek back to the Hidroelectrica Station, where you can get a bus that will take you all the way back to Cusco, via Santa Theresa and Ollantaytambo – this is a longer, but cheaper route than getting a train. For details on getting to and from Machu Picchu we recommend your reading our online guide here.
Salkantay / Inca Trail Combo
The Salkantay / Inca Trail Combo combines the best of both worlds – the extraordinary mountain scenery of the Salkantay Trail with the authenticity of the Classic Inca Trail.
Although the route has a similar first day to the Salkantay Trail it soon departs from the Classic route heading east around Salkantay. The route is longer and more challenging than the classic Salkantay trek, typically completed on a 7D/6N itinerary, and requires an Inca Trail permit.
The most common route itinerary is as follows:
Day 1: Cusco – Mollepata – Soraypampa – Ichupata
You will drive from Cusco to Mollepata (approx. 3 hours) where you will stop for breakfast / stock up on final supplies. Continue driving for 1.5-2 hours to Soraypampa (Salkantay trekkers usually hike to Soraypampa). From Soraypampa you will hike for 2.5-3 hours to Ichupata – a high camp that gets nippy at night so be prepared for cold weather. The altitude is also high here, over 4,000m so you should acclimatise for at least 2-3 days in Cusco before departing on this trek.
Day 2: Ichupata –Incachiriasca Pass – Sisaypampa
Like the Classic Salkantay trek, day 2 on the combo trail is tough. The day starts with a steep and tiring trek up to and over Incachiriasca Pass (4,900m) – 3-4 hours trekking. The views of Nevada Salkantay and surrounding peaks are awesome from the Pass. After a short rest you will descend back down to Sisaypampa (4,100m), where most tour operators camp for the night.
Day 3: Sisaypampa – Ayapata
The descent continues on day three towards a small community at Pampacahuana (3,300m). As you approach Pampacahuana, after 3-4 hours trekking, you will see an original Inca Canal. From here you continue down for another 1-2 hours until you reach Paucarcancha, an Inca Fortress. After a further 45 minutes trekking you will reach Wayllabamba, the point at which you join the Classic Inca Trail. The horsemen and mules will leave you at this point as mules are not allowed on the Inca Trail, and you will meet your porters. After lunch you will depart from Wayllabamba and head upwards towards Warmihuañusca Pass (aka Dead Woman’s Pass). You will get halfway up before stopping for the night at Ayapata (3,300m).
Day 4: Ayapata – Chaquicocha
The climb continues on day 4 up to the top of Warmihuañusca Pass (4,200m), before descending back down into the Pacaymayo valley (3,600m). You will have a short rest before continuing back up towards a second smaller pass called Abra Runkurakay (3,970m). Half-way along this route, at 3,800m, you will stop to appreciate an Incan archaeological complex called Runkurakay, which is thought to have been used as a watchtower. Once over the Pass you will descend to Yanacocha Lake (aka the Black Lagoon) and another Incan ruin called Sayacmarca (3,624m). From here you are only 30 minutes from the campsite at Chaquicocha (3,600m).
Day 5: Chaquicocha – Wiñaywayna
Day 5 starts with a gradual climb up the final pass Abra de Phuyupatamarca (3,700m), where you will see the well preserved archaeological complex, Phuyupatamarca (which means “town over the clouds” in Quechua). This is an impressive Inca site, not only because it is so high, but also because it is so complete. The views of the Urabamba valley below are beautuiful. From here you will descend to Wiñaywayna (2,650m), the campsite for the night. Right next to the campsite is Wiñaywayna archelogical complex which is well worth visiting. The campsite has a restaurant, bar and bathrooms with hot showers!!
Day 6: Wiñaywayna – Machu Picchu (Option to stay another night at Aguas Calientes or return to Cusco)
On day 6 you will wake well before sunrise (around 04:00) and begin trekking towards Inti Punku (the Sun Gate). At around 05:30 you will arrive at the Sun Gate in time to witness the sunrise over Machu Picchu. After sunrise it is a 40 minute walk down into the famous city. You will first register with the authorities at the main entrance, and deposit your backpack for safe keeping, before beginning a 2-3 hour tour of Machu Picchu. If you still have the energy and are not too afraid of heights then it is worthwhile climbing Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain – click here for details.
Some trekkers like to add an additional day to this tour so that they can visit Aguas Calientes and return to Machu Picchu the next day. If you wish to do this you will need to get your tour operator to book an additional entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and a hotel in Aguas Calientes.
If you are interested in trekking the Salkantay / Inca Combo, please feel free to use our free tour operator recommendation service.
Route Map and Altitude Profile
The map below shows the route followed on a typical Salkantay trek. You can see just after Soraypampa the trail splits. The Western trail follows the Salkantay trail up and over El Passo and around to La Playa. The Eastern trail shows the Salkantay / Inca Trail Comb trek which climbs over the Incachiriasca Pass and joins up with the Classic Inca Trail at Wayllabamba.
Please note: this map is not to scale and should not be relied on for wayfinding.
Excellent route maps are available in the Trailblazer Inca Trail Guidebook
Best time to do the Salkantay Trek
There are two main seasons in the sub-tropical Peruvian Andes – a dry season that runs from late April through to early October, and a wet season that starts mid to late October and draws to a close in April.
The peak trekking season to Machu Picchu occurs during the dry season and is busiest between May and September. The Classic Inca Trail is very busy during these months and permits sell out months in advance. Those who don’t get permits for the Inca Trail typically overflow onto the Salkantay trail, which means that between May and September the route can be busy. That being said, you will not get a sense of overcrowding that can be the case on the Inca Trail.
The Salkantay trek can technically be completed all year round, although we highly recommend avoiding the months of December, January and February when rainy days are the norm.
The best trekking months run from the shoulder wet months March / April all the way through to the shoulder dry months October / November.
Temperatures throughout the year follow a very consistent pattern. Days are warm, in the high twenties Celsius (70/80 Fahrenheit), and cold at night and in the early mornings (single digits Celsius and sometimes below zero degrees). Temperature fluctuation is further exasperated by the micro-climates that dominate as you ascend and descend in altitude. Key to staying comfortable throughout the trek is layering (see our equipment packing list section below for details on ideal clothing requirements).
For detailed historical Machu Picchu weather charts, click here.
Acclimatisation and Altitude Sickness
The Salkantay trek is a high altitude hike that comes with obvious altitude sickness risks.
The highest altitude that you will reach on this trek is just over 4,600m (4,900m if you do the Salkantay / Inca Trail Combo), which might be the highest altitude you have ever gone to outside of an aeroplane. At this altitude, available oxygen per breath is nearly 45% less than what is available at sea level, and results in a number of physiological impacts.
It is nearly impossible to predict how altitude will effect you as there is very little correlation between altitude sickness symptoms and age, fitness level, gender etc. We do however know that going too high too fast is a key determinant of altitude sickness. Given enough time the body can adapt to higher and higher altitudes – this is called acclimatisation.
The trouble with treks to Machu Picchu is that most, if not all trekkers start their journey from Cusco (3,400m), which is already at high altitude. It is important that you spend a few days (2 at a minimum) acclimatising in Cusco, or ideally in the Sacred Valley, which is nearly 1,000m below Cusco before starting your trek.
We have written a very detailed online guide on acclimatisation and altitude sickness that we recommend you take a moment to read. Click here to read the guide.
Equipment Packing List
There are a number of key equipment items that you will need to take with you on your Salkantay trek.
We have written a very comprehensive packing list for the Inca Trail, which is thankfully identical to what is needed for the Salkantay trek. The only key difference is that mules are used to carry gear on the Salkantay trek, instead porters. The weight distribution between porters and mules is very similar though. We recommend that you review the packing list here.
If you are doing a unsupported DIY trek you will need to carry your own gear, including food and a tent. This means that you will need to pack light, avoid taking too many duplicate items on the packing list (for example, take only one pair of trekking trousers instead of two). Try to keep your pack under 15kg, anymore weight will make the trek very tough. If you are overweight, consider acquiring the services of an arrieros (horseman) in Mollepata. They charge between 30-40 Soles per mule per day and an additional 30/40 Soles per day for themselves, but are a great help. As you will be cooking your own food (go with 3 days worth of light food, like sachets of soup, ramen noodles etc), you will need to have fuel ignition cooking gear. Here are some good examples of camping cookware and camping gas stoves.
Costs and Recommended Tour Operators
Like most treks to Machu Picchu, the costs vary quite dramatically from tour operator to tour operator. Here is a brief overview on the types of operators you will come across and their prices:
The first thing to be aware of is that many ‘tour operators’ that you find online are in fact international tour agents who outsource to local on-the-ground operators. This means that the people you book with are actually not the people responsible for your safety and experience on the trek. It also means that you will be paying a 50-100% premium on local prices, so expect to pay between US$800-US$1,500 for a 5D/4N itinerary with these guys. We recommend you avoid tour agents.
International trekking companies
The second group are international trekking companies that have their own local operator (often created under an exclusive partnership) and therefore have full operational control. These companies tend to provide world-class trekking experiences which validate the premium fee you pay. Service will be slick and professional but expect to pay between US1,200-US$2,000 for an all inclusive Salkantay trek. This price will typically be for an 8D/7N itinerary and include two nights in a hotel in Cusco for acclimatisation and a night back in a Cusco hotel after the trek; airport transfers and all the bells and whistles on the tour. We recommend booking with an international trekking company if you are not on a tight budget, as you are guaranteed to have a fantastic and safe trekking experience, whilst still benefiting the local tourism market.
When it comes to local operators, it is important to note that the quality of treks in terms of service, equipment, guiding, facilities and safety varies widely. There are over 200 local trekking companies in Cusco alone. Generally they split into two types:
Cheap Local Operators
At the bottom of the market are the cheap local operators who often cut corners, pay questionable wages to their staff and deliver services that often don’t stack-up to their promises. There prices are predicated on putting together large groups, up to 16 trekkers, and if they don’t reach this number they will combine treks with another company. Booking with a cheap operator doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have a bad experience, but the probability of poor service is higher. Basically if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Prices for this type of operator range from US$250-US$400 for a 5D/4N Salkantay trek itinerary, and might exclude certain key items like bus tickets in Machu Picchu, return train tickets to Cusco etc. Make sure you check what is included.
Responsible Local Operators
There are a number of great local trekking companies who offer excellent services and run a responsible operation, but finding them can be tough. With these guys you should expect to pay US$500-US$800 for a 5D/4N itinerary, depending on group size, and there shouldn’t be any hidden or additional costs.
We run a free tour operator recommendation service for readers of this website. If you would like us to put you in touch with our vetted international operator who have their own amazing on-the-ground team, then please review this page.
We hope that we have answered many of your questions about the Salkantay trek. If you have any unanswered questions, please contact us directly and we will respond within 24hours. We very much welcome questions or feedback so that we can keep this article up to date. Thanks!
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