The Salkantay Trek: From Glaciers to Machu Picchu

Oooh, Machu Picchu!
Even my mom caught the hype when I told her we were headed there last week. As excited as she’s been about our travels, I think that was the first “Oooh!” of our trip she ever uttered.

Reaching the Final Destination - Machu Picchu, Peru
Reaching Machu Picchu

We kept our expectations low, however. Maybe it’s our reflex reaction to the prevailing travel wisdom: “Machu Picchu is the granddaddy of South American sights.”

But add to Machu Picchu a hike to the foot of a hulking 20,575 foot (6,271 meter) glacier, a walk through Andean valleys, and a skim of the Peruvian jungle. Throw in a diverse and upbeat group of travel companions to share the slog across switchbacks and up giant staircases, and the march to Machu Picchu becomes an event, a series of accomplishments and a trip well worth taking.

That was our Salkantay Trek.

If prose isn’t your thing, skip to the photos here:

Salkantay Trek

Machu Picchu

The Ascent to Salkantay

After surviving a hail storm and a slippery “short-cut” obstacle course of mountain streams, cows, cowpies, and rocks, we dined with our group at the 3,900 meter (12,800 foot) campsite of Soraypampa. Cold, wet and disoriented from altitude, more than a few of us entertained sneaking off to the five star lodge across the valley. But in the cache of the Humantay and Salkantay glaciers and the star clouds of the Milky Way, we worked ourselves to sleep.

“Buenos dias! Mate de coca!” Our guide Henrique seemed a bit too cheerful for a frosty 4:30 AM wake-up. Through our tent flap, two tin cups of piping coca leaf tea appeared. We huddled around the steam and mustered the courage to leave our warm sleeping bags.

Fortunately, a beautiful, clear day awaited us.

Shortly after 6 AM, we began our walk up. As we carved our way through gravel and rock, the sun began to rise over the peaks above us. The previous day’s fresh snowfall glistened with clean perfection. Photo-worthy views emerged at every turn.

The Last Push to Salkantay - Day 2 of Salkantay Trek, Peru
The Last Push to the Salkantay Pass

Feeling sluggish and facing the most daunting set of switchbacks of the ascent, we reached for our stash of coca leaves. We tucked a wad of leaves in our mouths and chewed. Hoping for the clarity and energy boost that all locals promised, we pushed on with our mantra: “One foot in front of the other.”

After more than three hours of full ascent, we reached the pass at 4,650 meters (15,525 feet). The cairns laid there recalled similar stone piles neatly arranged for prayer and direction in places Nepal and Sikkim.

The Way Down

Our descent witnessed a rapid transformation from the barren and crisp to the lush and balmy. When we stopped for the night, Sebastian, our horseman, arranged our tents on a verdant hillside clearing with an expansive view of the valley below. Exhaustion and relief reigned at the end of a long day. Some celebrated with a cold shower. We opted for a cold beer instead.

Taking a Break - Day 2 of Salkantay Trek, Peru
Taking a break.

Our trekking group – nine people, four nationalities, and a 41-year age span from eldest to youngest – conversed its way from the day’s reflections to life in Peru and the effect of the “War on Drugs” in South America.

Day 3 of our trek was marked by wild orchids, tropical flowers, lush bamboo and waterfalls. In the few small villages we passed along the way, homes often appeared the same shade of mud brown as the recently turned fields that surrounded them.

Across the canyon, a road was being carved out of the mountainside, reminding us again of the never-ending struggle between man and nature. Landslides — likely the result clear-cut logging — marred the landscape. But it was clear that Mother Nature would win this battle by wiping out sections of the road with the next round of heavy rains.

The weather continuously warmed until our arrival in Santa Teresa, where we relaxed our aching muscles in the natural hot springs. We submerged ourselves in an effort to take refuge from swarms of bugs with ferocious appetites for human blood.

We had completed 57 of the 75 kilometers of the trek. We were in the home stretch.

On Day 4, just a few more kilometers, a hydroelectric plant, and railroad tracks stood between us and our fourth and final night in Aguas Calientes.

Machu Picchu – Our Final Destination

Gluttons for punishment, we began the uphill grind from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu on foot at 4:30 AM.

Motivation for such a departure: to arrive early enough to obtain one of the 400 available daily permits to climb Wayna Picchu (the steep mountain seen in the background of every Machu Picchu photo). Between us and our goal lay a maddening series of switchbacks and steep rock stairways, and a 400 meter (1,300 foot) climb that would leave us drained and drenched in sweat.

When we arrived, Machu Picchu and the surrounding peaks remained shrouded in morning fog. The light was soft; the atmosphere was — for lack of a more appropriate cliché — mystical. Terraced fields cascaded from the ancient city, showcasing yet another of man’s battles with nature. When we asked the guide why we don’t see terraced fields in Andean villages today, he responded: “We’re too lazy now to build them.”

Makes you wonder what happened to the culture in the intervening years.

Early Morning at Machu Picchu - Peru
Early Morning at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu strikes us as one of those places best appreciated as a whole, in the context of its surrounding environment. In this way, it’s possible to begin to grasp what the Incas had accomplished: the installation of a complex, functioning city into an uncooperative mountainside.

A walk up to the top of Wayna Picchu (an endeavor not for the faint of heart) affords one of these all-encompassing panoramic views. From there, Machu Picchu appears a hillside birthmark amidst a vast, imposing mountain range.

And as the day drew to a close and the crowds thinned, we took a cue from these folks:

Appreciating Machu Picchu, Peru
Appreciating Machu Picchu

————

Why the Salkantay Trek and not the Traditional Inca Trail?

Slots on the traditional Inca Trail are restricted to 500 people per day and demand is so high that booking 3-5 months in advance is usually required. We almost never book anything in advance since our plans change as projects and opportunities arise.

The traditional Inca trail is littered with Inca ruins. On the surface, this sounds ideal. However, we’ve heard stories of trekkers who begin to suffer ruin saturation and fatigue, so much so that by the time they arrive at Machu Piccchu, they feel some letdown. Not so with Salkantay where the trek is defined by imposing glaciers, lush valleys and high jungle; Machu Picchu is the only set of ruins you will see. If ruins are your focus, the traditional Inca Trail is obviously the route for you.

We also trek to get away. The Salkantay Trek offers a low-traffic alternative to an undoubtedly more crowded traditional Inca Trail. Having said that, reports suggest that people are not falling over one another on the traditional Inca Trail. One final consideration: perhaps due to demand and reputation, treks on the Traditional Inca Trail also tend to be better organized.

Taking all this into account, were both options available to us at the time of booking, we would still have opted for the Salkantay Trek.

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Comments

  1. says

    I couldn’t agree more. I did Salkantay as well, since the permits were sold out for the Incan Trail. The first night’s camp, nestled between Humantay and Salkantay mountains, was one of the more magical moments in 18 mos of travel and there was almost nobody on the trail. I actually found MP a bit of a let down after the splendour of the hike itself. Minus the llamas. The llamas were well worth it.

  2. says

    @Legal: Love the llama comment. We are having a good laugh. As cliche as those llamas were, we found them a nice touch, apropos. I didn’t find them terribly animated though. They just sat lounging in one of the big fields munching away for most of the day. After the crowds departed, I was hoping they might move about, allowing us to get one of those ridiculous prized postcard shots of a llama under the guard house, with the city and Wayna Picchu in the background.

    Regarding the letdown upon arrival an Machu Picchu, a number of people in our group felt the same. The trek — particularly the climb to the pass — was the highlight. Part of that is adrenaline, I’m sure. Also, when it comes to ruins vs. personal accomplishment, accomplishment wins out.

    Happy trails.

  3. says

    I’ve got a bit of a llama…problem. They were my favorite animal growing up and I was like a kid in a candy store in Chile and Peru. I have far too many llama picture from MP, but none are truly picturesque – in most of them, I’m too busy trying to hug a llama!
    Agreed about the accomplishment. Did you climb Putucusi when you were there? I loved that part of the trek – you get high up above the trail and can see the road up, sun gate and the full ruins. It’s all ladders and ropes to climb. Definitely recommended.

    Safe travels to the two of you – I’m glad to have stumbled upon your site as there is a ton of wonderful information here!
    -Jodi

  4. says

    Your panorama shots are just amazing – and your post has successfully made me think that this just might be the better option! I love your step-by-step account of trek and thanks for the mini comparison of the two treks at the end :-)

  5. Pete De Ritter says

    Wow! If you navigate around your panoramas fast enough you don’t even need the coca leaves. Great post. Sounds like you had a fantastic trek.

  6. says

    @Jodi: Still laughing over the llama…problem. We did not climb Putucusi. By the time we descended Wayna Picchu, we were pretty much spent. We headed in the direction of the Inca bridge (a disappointment, in my opinion). Ropes and ladders sound like fun. Thanks for the safe travel sentiment. Glad that you are finding Uncornered Market useful. Any specific questions, don’t hesitate to send us an email.

    @Shannon: We’re glad we could be of help in making the decision between the traditional Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek. Unfortunately, online information about these treks seems plentiful, but much of it is a re-hash and intended to rank tour agency entries high on search engines. We are planning another post about choosing tour agencies for Machu Picchu treks – a humorous and practical reflection on choosing a tour agency and what you should expect (or not expect) regarding how your trek is organized.
    Thanks also for the kudos on the panorama shots. We’re glad they worked out. The one atop Wayna Picchu was particularly difficult – one of those body-bending gymnastic efforts to avoid stepping on people, falling off the rock and capturing the photo properly. No easy feat.

    @Pete: Your comments kill me. I’m still laughing.

  7. says

    The Salkantay Trek sounds amazing ~ I would love to go back and take this path. The minimal number of people alone would be worth it.

    It looks like you had beautiful weather, and your photos are AMAZING! We had mist and fog when we were at Machu Picchu, and we wanted to climb Wayna Picchu but people coming down said you couldn’t see anything from the top so we never went up (plus it’s a little dangerous with mist, or so we were told). Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. says

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for this comparison of the two trail options. The photos are of course, breathtaking. The comrodary seems tight on these treks. Travel seems to evoke the reflective philosopher in all of us. Keep the prose and photos coming!

    Blakesjourney / tBD

  9. says

    Awesome post and photographs. When we went to Machu Picchu, we were on a limited time frame and booked out trip at the last minute. We didn’t get to trek at all and had to take the train. I didn’t feel too bad about missing out on the trek, until I read your post.
    The Salkantay Trek looks like our cup of tea. Maybe we will make it back one day. You never know.

  10. says

    Congrats on finishing the trek – I love that picture at the top because you both look so happy! This is one of those places that is a dream for every traveler. We definitely wanted to do the Inca Trek but were a bit concerned about booking so far in advance; but this trek looks like it may be more our speed. Lovely photos.

  11. says

    @JoAnna: We were blessed with good weather on our day at Machu Picchu and the ascent to the pass. Perhaps it was to make up for the rain and hail on the first day :)

    @Blake: Spending several days together overcoming physical and emotional challenges does tend to bond people. We really couldn’t have asked for a better group.

    @Dave and Deb: There is always next time…the Salkantay Trek isn’t going away any time soon.

    @Akila: You are right – we were really happy to have made it to Machu Picchu after four days of hiking! Combining a trek with a visit to Machu Picchu really makes you feel like you “earn” the visit.

    You can book the Salkantay Trek within a day in Cusco, so if you want to stay flexible, this is definitely the way to go.

    @Jason: Glad we were able to convey the spirit of the trek! If you do this trek in January, you will likely have a more green landscape. Should be quite beautiful.

  12. says

    @Lola: Thanks! The whole trekking + Machu Picchu experience was great.

    @Jason: The Inca Trail has porters (horses are not allowed) and you have to pay extra for that (something like $10/day for 20 kilos). However, the Salkantay Trek allows horses and most tours include 5-6 kilos of weight carried by the horse as part of the price. The horses also carry the camping equipment and food. We carried our camera equipment, rain gear, sunscreen (a must!) and jackets. It’s much nicer to walk without having to carry sleeping bags and such!

  13. says

    I did walk the Inca Trail and have never walked Salkantay. I find it hard to believe that people have ruins fatigue, the settings and ruins along the trail put in some context what an extraordinary and developed culture the Incan had along with some superb scenery (though it sounds like the mountains scenery from the Salkantay may be better). Walking on the same steps and camping next to ruins that formed part of a sophisticated culture some 500 years ago certainly was a highlight of my Peruvian visit. Though seeing MP unveil itself at the Sun Gate from the mist at dawn on the last morning of the trek is a special experience as you describe.

  14. says

    @Mark H: Consider yourself fortunate that you didn’t get ruin fatigue. Based on our conversations with other culturally sensitive and curious travelers young and old, “temple fatigue” is a common phenomenon. Many other travelers from along the Inca Trail reported it to us. We’ve also experienced it…not on the Inca Trail of course, but at Angkor Wat and Hindu temple trails throughout South Asia. As another traveler put it, “you reach a point where you just can’t absorb anymore.” I think it happens with anything — culture, people, or landscape — particularly when you’ve been immersed in it for any extended period of time.
    @Blaz: Thanks. Great to hear from you!

  15. says

    LOVED this post! We enjoyed doing Salkantay so much. The terrain was incredible — we couldn’t believe how many diverse microclimates we passed through; did that all happen on the same trip!? Wayna Picchu was a great challenge right at the end. We really enjoyed seeing another perspective on the same route — your 360’s are INCREDIBLE! Thanks so much for sharing.

  16. says

    @Jeremy and Eva: The diversity of terrain was certainly one of the most satisfying features of the Salkantay trek. I think that’s why if we were faced with the decision again, our choice would remain the same. Glad you enjoyed the 360 panoramas. Both Machu Picchu and the Salkantay glacier seemed to invite us to take them.

  17. Sirje Ehrenpreis says

    Audrey and Dan
    I am sure you don’t regret for a moment that you chose South America. Keep going and GOOD LUCK!

  18. promise a. says

    would the salkantay trek be too hard for a highschool senoir? how about her 54 year old mom? how many miles did you actually walk in the 4 days?we are looking for an experience to do together at the end of her highschool, before she goes off to college.thanks

  19. says

    @Sirje: No regrets about choosing to travel to South America this year. Everything happens for a reason!

    @Promise: I think the Salkantay trek is 40 miles total, but some of those miles at the beginning are tough miles because of the altitude. That said, if you and your high school aged senior are in good shape, you should be OK. There was a trekker in our group who was close to 60 and he did fine.

    The benefit of this hike is that you’re not carrying a lot of gear (the horses carry everything for you). Just acclimatize for 3-4 days in Cusco first and then take is slow on the trek the first couple of days. I’m very slow hiking up hill – my mantra is “slowly, but surely” – but I always make it in the end. Let us know if you have other questions. I think it would be a great experience for you both.

  20. says

    Hi Daniel and Audrey,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post and the gorgeous photos.

    My partner and I are planning a trip to Peru this August. I checked Inca Trail permits back in April and was disappointed to find they were already sold out. Initially, we had abandoned the idea of Peru until another time when permits were available, and we considered going to Italy instead (but my partner has already been there, so we re-considered again). We also considered going to Egypt, since the pyramids are another lifetime must-see goal, but the temperature in August is supposed to be around 40 degrees Celsius.

    So, we came back to the idea of Peru. I was still debating whether it was worth choosing something else just so I could do that famous Inca Trail, but your post lets me feel confident in choosing this as an alternate (and perhaps even better!) trail.

    Thanks again for sharing this wonderful post!

  21. says

    After I posted, I thought of a couple questions I should ask you:

    1) Which travel company did you use? It sounds like you enjoyed your experience with them, so I’d love to book through the same ones, or other good ones if you know of any.

    2) Do you recommend booking online in advance, or waiting until we get to Cuzco? We’ll be there in August, which is the high season for tourists, so while I would love to get a bargain in person I’m more nervous about not getting a trip booked at all!

    Thanks again in advance for the time and effort of sharing your knowledge – it’s greatly appreciated!

  22. says

    @Caralin: Thank you for your comments and compliments.  I can’t imagine you would be disappointed if you hiked Salkantay to end up at Machu Picchu (rather than the traditional Inca trail).  But again it all depends on your objectives.

    We refer to the companies we used in another post.  It wasn’t the best experience, as we allude to here:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/10/fawlty-tours-7-games-tour-companies-play/

    Regarding Machu Picchu tour agencies, we’ve also heard good things about Peru TreksHiking Peru and United Mice, but the quality of your guide will influence your experience more than just about anything. Our advice would be to ask to meet your guide in advance.

    Please let us know how it works out.

    Regarding booking in advance, I would recommend contacting some companies to see what prices you can get.  Because Salkantay is not permit limited, you could probably just show up and book onsite, even in August.

  23. Gillian says

    Thank you for your informative post — it is quite helpful as I am debating between the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trail. Perhaps I missed this information in your post, but when did you hike the Salkantay Trail? Do you think doing the hike in Sept/Oct vs. Apr/May makes a difference in terms of the scenery and chance to see wildflowers in bloom, etc.? Thanks.

  24. says

    @Gillian: Ah, the great Machu Picchu debate. I think you’d be more than pleased with the Salkantay Trail. We hiked Salkatay and Machu Picchu in early October. The late-day rain was an issue on the first day approach to our camp below the glacier, but after that, it was clear. Regarding weather, I’d look at climate charts for the current year since weather patterns have gone crazy as of late. As for wildflowers in bloom, I suspect that Apr/May just after the rainy season is better, but I cannot say for certain. As for the scenery in general (the approach, the glacier and the descent into lowlands/jungle) in late Sept/Oct, we really enjoyed it.

  25. Jessica says

    So a little late in the game on commenting on this article but I just stumbled upon your guys’ blog. I am heading to Peru in July and was getting all bummed out about how crowded the Inca Trail may be (if I could even get a permit) and then I come across this post!! Fantastic; super stoked about exploring some of the alternative trails to MP. Also ridiculously excited about exploring the rest of this site!

  26. says

    @Jessica: Great to see you here. You’re not late at all…no better time than the present.

    I’m glad we could help you consider alternatives to the traditional Inca Trail. The Salkantay Trek is stunning and rewarding. If you have any questions, just let us know.

    “Ridiculously excited.” — You made my day.

  27. says

    Hi Daniel,

    I posted a message on this board back in June asking your advice about this trek. I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful advice, and for sharing your inspiring trip!

    Your post was a large part of what helped us decide on Salkantay, and we’re definitely glad we did – we actually got engaged at the top of Salkantay pass! Your panorama photo of the cairns at the top shows the exact spot (closer to the glacier, away from the path), so this trek will always be extra special for us.

    For Jessica, and others still debating between Salkantay and the Inca Trail, I can tell you that I was at first disappointed that the Inca Trail was sold out, but now I’m so glad that we did Salkantay – the views were amazing, the micro-climates incredibly diverse, and the tiny villages along the way were fascinating too. We trekked with “Apus Peru”, and our guide was Myra. Both the company and guide were wonderful – I would highly recommend them both.

    Thanks again, Daniel – re-reading your post brought back some lovely memories!

  28. says

    @Caralin: Thank you so much for your comment. You made my day. I love stories like this. The Salkantay pass/glacier is certainly an inspired place to pop the magic question and to commit to a life together. I’m especially glad that your experience lived up both to your expectations and to what we tried to describe here.

    Thanks also for your recommendation and your motivation to help others to do the same (Hike Salkantay, that is. Though I imagine Salkantay now has a spot on the “ultimate places to get engaged” list.)

    So all the best and congratulations to you both! I hope you’ll continue to stay in touch.

  29. says

    @Ben: We had an exceptional experience hiking the Salkantay trek. However, it was almost in spite of the agent we used in town.

    Here’s the full story, to give you some background. I also believe there are some recommendations from others (in the comments) regarding guides and companies they used:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/10/fawlty-tours-7-games-tour-companies-play/

    I hope this helps. It really is a great experience starting out with Salkantay and ending at Machu Picchu.

  30. Jonny says

    Great post, like everyone’s said, helps making a decision between the two. Fantastic panorama, going to have to learn how you did that. There’s a lady in an orange hat on her mobile phone looking like she’s just popped to the shops in the Huayna Piccu picture.. classic.

  31. says

    @Jonny: Glad this post was helpful. It’s a difficult decision between the traditional Machu Picchu trail and Salkantay, but you can’t go wrong. As for the panorama of Salkantay and Wayna Picchu, one of these days we are going to write a how-to. It’s on the list. Funny you noticed the detail of the woman and her mobile phone in the panorama. Didn’t notice that ’til now.

  32. Tove says

    Hi, and thank you for a great post and one of my favourite travel websites! I’m not sure anyone will se this, but i thought i’d try! I have a question about the entrance permit in to machu picchu. Did you book that one in advance and got to cuzco with the entrance permit but no tour booked? Because of the daily limit of 2500 people in to machu picchu, maybe that’s a good idea? And then hope to get a good price on a tour in cuzo?

    Thanks again! :)
    Tove

  33. says

    @Tove: Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for bringing up an important question. We arrived in Cusco without any Machu Picchu tickets/permits, but our Salkantay Trek tour included this. And we booked our tour in Cusco just a few days in advance. All the tour companies we talked to in Cusco include tickets/permits to Machu Picchu – it’s as if they reserve them in advance with the expectation that people will book last minute. If you are going in high season, then you may want to talk with a travel agency in advance to book both your Machu Picchu permits/tickets and transportation as buses and trains fill up quickly.

  34. Adam says

    Great post. I am doing the Salkantay Trail next year! I have read a lot of stuff and have to say this is the best written of all of the posts I have read and certainly the most inspiring.

  35. says

    @Adam: Absolutely terrific. Thank you for the feedback and all the best enjoying the great experience that the Salkantay Trek is. Any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

  36. tom jorde says

    Thanks for the great blog post and pictures. My family (ages 67, 63, 27, 25, 25) will be hiking the Sulkantay Trail this coming June (with REI – staying in the mountain lodges along the way). We definitely believe the journey is as important as the destination! Two questions regarding altitude: did you find the coca leaf tea and leaves helpful? Did you or anyone in your group take Diamox?

    • says

      You are welcome.

      Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea generally felt helpful to us. It certainly did not seem to hurt.

      Most importantly of all at altitude is to drink a lot of water, as in several liters of water a day.

      Most mountain guides and sherpas we have spoken to have warned us away from Diamox and suggested that it’s a last resort. (By the way, if you take Diamoxx you must drink even more water because of what it does to your blood.)

      For more on our thoughts on Diamoxx, read item #6 here: http://uncorneredmarket.com/around-the-world-travel-health-tips/

      Good luck and enjoy Salkantay!

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