Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail: a comparison guide to two of Peru’s premier hikes

Navigating the choice between Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail? Our comprehensive comparison helps you decide the perfect fit for your Andean exploration.

The majesty of Peru’s Andean mountains is best experienced on foot, and two trails stand out in offering adventurers the most immersive journey towards the enigmatic Machu Picchu: the Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail.

The Salkantay Trek, named after the snow-capped Salkantay Mountain which it circles, is a pathway marked by its varied landscapes and altitudes, taking you from glacial peaks to tropical forests.

In contrast, the Inca Trail, part of the vast network of ancient pathways developed by the Inca civilization, offers a more direct route to Machu Picchu, punctuated by archaeological ruins and remnants of a bygone era.

The landscapes of Peru are diverse and dynamic, and so too are the experiences awaiting those who tread its trails.

This guide aims to provide you with a comprehensive comparison between the Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail, allowing you to make informed decisions based on your interests, budget, physical capabilities, and logistical needs.

Whether you seek a journey marked by historical encounters, natural splendors, or both, this guide endeavors to equip you with the knowledge to make your Peruvian adventure unforgettable.

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🏺 Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail: Historical Background

The Inca Trail, as its name suggests, is steeped in history. Built by the Incas, it served as a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu, the religious, ceremonial, and agricultural center of the Incan Empire.

The trail’s ruins and constructions reflect the engineering prowess and cultural richness of this ancient civilization.

On the other hand, while the Salkantay Trek may not have the same density of historical sites, its significance lies in its connection to the Apus, or holy mountains, which the Incas revered as deities.

Salkantay, the savage mountain, was believed to be one of the principal protectors of Cusco and its surroundings.

⛰️ Altitude comparison: Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

salkantay trek vs inca trail

The Salkantay Trek is known for reaching higher altitudes, with its most elevated point being the Salkantay Pass at approximately 4,650 meters (15,255 feet) above sea level.

The varying altitudes across the trek can pose a challenge, making it crucial for you to be adequately acclimatized.

The diverse range in altitude allows you to experience a spectrum of landscapes, from snow-capped peaks to subtropical forests.

The Inca Trail, while not reaching the heights of the Salkantay Trek, still touches significant altitudes. The highest point is the ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’, reaching up to 4,215 meters (13,829 feet).

The entire journey is a roller coaster of ascents and descents. Proper acclimatization before starting the trek is essential to avoid altitude sickness.

🏁 Starting point and end point comparisons

The Salkantay Trek usually commences in the town of Mollepata, located a few hours away from Cusco.

This route is distinguished by its scenic diversity, as you pass through jungle terrains, high-altitude zones, and often finish by linking to the Santa Teresa route or directly to Aguas Calientes.

The ultimate endpoint for many on this trail is the breathtaking Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan citadel.

Beginning near the Urubamba River at a location called Km 82 (Piscacucho), the classic Inca Trail winds through an ancient network of paths established by the Incas.

The endpoint, like the Salkantay Trek, is the iconic Machu Picchu. Trekkers on this route experience the thrill of entering Machu Picchu through the Intipunku or “Sun Gate.”

🚞 Main attractions on the Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

The Salkantay Trek is renowned for its varied landscapes. You will encounter the snow-capped Salkantay Mountain, glacial lakes like Humantay, and the lush cloud forests of the lower terrains.

Beyond nature, the trek also offers glimpses of local Peruvian life in remote villages.

While the Inca Trail also offers diverse natural beauty, from cloud forests to alpine tundras, it’s particularly celebrated for its archaeological sites.

Phuyupatamarca, Runkurakay, and Wiñay Wayna are among the ruins that you will visit en route. The integration of cultural and natural attractions makes this trail unique.

Both trails offer a mix of cultural and natural allure, with the promise of Machu Picchu at the end.

Whether you prefer the off-the-beaten-path appeal of Salkantay or the historic richness of the Inca Trail, both promise unforgettable experiences.

🕓 Duration and distance of Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

Covering approximately 60 kilometers, the Salkantay Trek is typically completed in 5 days and 4 nights, though some faster routes can be done in 4 days.

The length and duration can vary based on specific itineraries and your fitness level.

The classic Inca Trail spans around 42 kilometers and is traditionally hiked over 4 days and 3 nights. This includes stops at various archeological sites and campgrounds. Given the limited permits and popularity of the trail, the trek has a regulated pace, ensuring that most groups complete it in the set duration.

😵‍💫 Is Salkantay Trek harder than the Inca Trail?

The Salkantay Trek is generally considered to be of moderate to challenging difficulty. You will face the daunting Salkantay Pass, which reaches an altitude of 4,650 meters (15,255 feet).

Due to this significant elevation, the risk of altitude sickness is real, so acclimatization in Cusco or another high-altitude location beforehand is recommended.

The trail traverses through diverse terrains, from snowy mountain paths to subtropical jungle tracks, demanding good physical stamina.

On the other hand, the classic Inca Trail also ranks as moderate to challenging. With its highest point at the ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), altitude sickness remains a concern here as well.

The trail has multiple ascents and descents, some of which are steep and can be demanding on the knees.

Again, prior acclimatization is key. Regular hiking experience or a good level of fitness will be beneficial to those undertaking both treks.

📅 Best months to do the Salkantay trek vs Inca Trail

The most favorable period for the Salkantay Trek is during the dry season, which runs from April to October.

These months present clearer skies and a lesser chance of rain, although nights can be cold, especially at higher altitudes. The wettest months are November to March, making trails slippery and challenging.

Similar to the Salkantay, the best time to tackle the Inca Trail is during the dry season, from May to September.

It’s worth noting that the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance every February. During peak times, especially June to August, permits can be scarce due to the trail’s immense popularity.

👉🏽 See also: A month-by-month guide on the best time to visit Machu Picchu

Accommodation in Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
Experience dramatic scenery changes: from snow-capped peaks to lush rainforests. | Photo: Bill Damon

While the Salkantay Trek has basic campgrounds for tents, in recent years, more luxurious options like mountain lodges have emerged, offering more comfortable stays with amenities such as beds, hot showers, and meals.

Basic facilities for sanitation are available but can be rudimentary in some campsites.

The Inca Trail is more regulated, and camping is restricted to specific sites. Tents are pitched by porters in designated areas.

Some campgrounds have basic toilet facilities, but they’re often in modest conditions. Given its regulated nature, you won’t find lodges or upgraded accommodations on the classic route.

Trekkers rely on camping equipment, which is typically provided by the tour operators.

💲 Price of Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

Prices for the Salkantay Trek tend to vary, ranging from $200 USD to $600 USD for a standard 5-day package, depending on the level of luxury and amenities included.

Some higher-end packages that offer upscale lodging can cost more. The price typically includes meals, guide services, camping or lodging, and transportation to the starting point.

The Inca Trail is generally pricier, given its popularity and limited availability of permits. Prices can range from $500 USD to over $1,000 USD for the classic 4-day trek.

The cost includes permits, meals, guides, porters, and camping equipment.

🚶 Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail crowds

salkantay trek
The Salkantay Trek crosses diverse ecosystems from tropical forests to glacial peaks. | Photo: Brian Andrews

While gaining popularity in recent years, the Salkantay Trek is still less frequented than the Inca Trail.

It’s favored by those seeking a less crowded experience and more natural landscapes. However, with the increasing recognition of its beauty, it’s gradually seeing more trekkers.

The Inca Trail is arguably the most famous trek in South America and, as such, tends to be heavily crowded, especially during peak season.

Permits are limited, often booked months in advance, and the trail sees a constant stream of trekkers during its open months.

🦙 Cultural and Historical Sites Comparison

The Salkantay Trek primarily focuses on natural landscapes and doesn’t feature as many historical sites.

While it offers glimpses into rural Peruvian life and some smaller ruins, its main appeal lies in its diverse ecosystems and stunning panoramas.

The Inca Trail offers a journey through Incan history, culminating in the iconic Machu Picchu from smaller sites like Llaqtapata and Runkurakay to more extensive ruins like Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna.

The combination of nature and history is what sets this trek apart.

🧭 Can you combine Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail?

Marrying the best of both worlds is a dream for many. While it’s not conventional to combine both treks into one continuous journey due to their distinct routes, it is feasible to undertake them separately in one trip to Peru, time and stamina permitting.

After completing the Salkantay Trek, you can rest and re-acclimatize in Cusco before embarking on the Inca Trail.

Such an ambitious journey would require careful planning, particularly in securing permits for the Inca Trail.

👨🏻‍⚖️ Final Verdict: Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail

When weighing the Salkantay Trek against the Inca Trail, personal preferences play a pivotal role.

For those primarily seeking natural grandeur, diverse ecosystems, and perhaps a less trafficked route, the Salkantay Trek emerges as a top choice.

It offers a more rugged experience and showcases the Andes’ dramatic landscapes, from snow-capped mountains to tropical valleys.

Conversely, if one’s heart beats for history, and the allure lies in treading ancient paths punctuated by Incan ruins, the Inca Trail is unparalleled.

The trail not only provides natural beauty but is also a historical journey leading to the grandeur of Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate.

Both the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail offer doorways to understanding the majesty of Peru, albeit through different lenses.

The choice is not about superiority but about resonance. Does the heart yearn for the raw, untamed beauty of the Andes, or does it seek communion with the ghosts of history on ancient stone paths?

Perhaps, for the truly adventurous, it yearns for both. Whatever the call, the landscapes and stories of Peru promise a transformative journey.

Trisha Velarmino (43)

Trisha Velarmino is the Global Editor-in-Chief of the Insider Media Group operating in Europe, Asia, and North America. She lived in Peru for 1.5 years and has helped thousands of expats, digital nomads, and solo travelers easily visit Peru. Trisha has traveled Peru extensively from North to South.

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