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Salkantay Trek

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  our tour agency .

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 .

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.

Nevada Salkantay

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

salkantay-trek-mountain

South-west face of Nevada Salkantay, as viewed from the Salkantay trail

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  our 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. 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.

salkantay-pass-cairns

Stone Cairns left by previous trekkers at the Salkantay Pass (4,600m)

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$31 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

llactapata-salkantay-trail

Llactapata, an impressive Inca ruin discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and thought to be nearly as big as Machu Picchu

Options 3: Zip-lining

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!!

aguas-calientes-huchuy-qosco-trek

Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu (often referred to as Machu Picchu town)

From Aguas Calientes there are buses that run regularly up and down between the town and Machu Picchu. Tickets costs ~US24 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).

sun-gate-machu-picchu

The view of Machu Picchu from Inti Punku (the Gate of the Sun)

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.  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.

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.

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.
Here is the altitude profile for the Salkantay Trek. As you can see the first two days are tough, after which the trek gets a lot easier!

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,

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.

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.

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