Hiking in Peru: Across the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu
Hiking in Peru: Across the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu
The Salkantay Trail is a less-traveled alternative to the Inca Trail. The trail leads over the 4,600 m high El Paso pass down into the warm cloud forest regions; the snow-capped Nevado Salkantay (6,271 m) is always in view.
On the often stony, winding Inca paths, which run so numerous through Peru’s Andean high mountains, were already the couriers and warriors of the legendary Inca on the road.
The Salkantay Trail leads in four to six days over the Andes to Machu Picchu and is one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the world.
Vast highlands with mighty peaks, dense jungle, brilliant blue lakes and ancient cultures characterize the South American Republic of Peru, which borders Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile in the west of the continent.
The Nevado Salkantay towers majestically above the Cordillera Vilcabamba in southern Peru. “Wild mountain” means the Quechua name. Salcantay or Salkantay, with an altitude of 6264 meters, is the highest mountain in the Cordillera Vilcabamba region, part of the Peruvian Andes.
It is located in the Cusco region, about 60 km northwest of the city of Cusco. Salkantay ranks 38th among the highest mountains in the Andes and is the twelfth highest mountain in Peru. The first ascent was made by a French expedition in 1952, and the standard route today is via the northeast ridge to the summit.
The name is derived from salka, quechua for ‘wild,’ ‘uncivilized,’ and was first recorded in 1583. Even the Incas are said to have believed that the mountain was a kind of god controlling the fertility of vegetation and wildlife and the weather in the region west of Cusco.
Even today, the Apu of the Mountain is worshipped and asked by the local population for good harvests, multiplication of herds, and health and prosperity. It is considered the brother of Ausangate (6384 m), the highest peak east of Cusco.
Due to global warming, week after week, the once mighty Salkantay glacier can be seen to continue to recede as the glacier continues to melt.
On February 23, 2020, a massive chunk of the glacier broke off, causing an ice and mud avalanche with an estimated volume of 400,000 cubic meters. This affected 15 villages and killed at least five people.
The district of Mollepata is located on the southern flank of the Cordillera Vilcanota in the far west of Anta province. In the extreme northeast of the district rises the 6264 m high Salcantay.
The first day of the adventure usually starts before 4 am in Cusco with a bus ride. From Cusco, the journey takes 3 hours to the Limatambo Valley at the base of the Vilcabamba cordeliere into the small village of Mollepata.
Already on the way there, there is a ceremonial site to visit in Tarawasi.
Above Mollepata is the starting point of the six-day trekking tour – the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu.
Once you arrive in Mollepata, you can have a good breakfast and buy some water and snacks for the hike’s first day.
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The Salkantay Trail is a comfortable alternative to the overrun Inca Trail that leads further northeast through the Andes mountains.
On the Inca Trail, often up to 500 hikers daily crowd the campsites! Here in the valley of the Rio Blanco, there is almost a paradisiacal solitude – instead of sleeping in simple tents, you can even stay in five-star lodges on the Salkantay Trek.
The Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu stretches over about 70 km. The first hike from Mollepata is a fairly easy flat hike that takes only 2.5 hours and leads to the Soraypampa Lodge.
We stay overnight at Salkantay Lodge. This lodge is located in a high valley at 3850 m altitude with a unique view of the ice-covered south face of Salkantay.
Salkantay Lodge combines spectacular natural scenery and exclusive hotel comfort. A special treat for the tired hiker is the bath in the hot whirlpool outdoor whirlpool – This loosens the muscles and makes fit for the day, with a spectacular view!
After the first walk through different climates and vegetation zones, combined with a very biodiverse nature, you have reached your first overnight camp in Soraypampa Base Camp.
In Soraypampa, there is the possibility to stay overnight in one of the Sky Lodges. A unique opportunity to observe the clear starry sky over Peru at night. →
The second tracking day is all about adapting to the altitude, Go High – Sleep Low. According to this old mountaineering rule, this day’s stage leads high up to the Laguna Humantay – to get the body used to the thin air.
We will spend the night once again at the Soraypampa Lodge. What helps the extreme climbers in the Himalayas to acclimatize, indeed also beneficial for us.
The trail leads slowly across alpine meadows up above the tree line to Laguna Humantay at the foot of the same-named summit.
The south face of the glacier giant rises an impressive one and a half thousand meters above the lake. We have an extended lunch break with a relatively modest meal at the foot of the lagoon. — an uplifting moment with a magnificent view.
From Camp Soraypampa, there is the possibility of making an excursion to Laguna Humantay, located 350 meters higher.
After a steep climb to 4200 meters, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Humantay mountain lake. →
The lagoon is known to be visited by tourists from all over the world. So you will most likely not arrive alone at the lagoon. It is an old custom that you place a stone at the lagoon to say thank you for a successful trip and say a short prayer to Pachamama.
Pachamama is the Incan deity who represents Mother Earth.
On the third day, the crossing of the Salkantay Pass is on the program – the crowning day of the trekking tour! Right on the first meters, sure-footedness is required! Several small rivers are crossed on improvised bridges made of tree trunks.
Then the Soraypampa Valley opens up, and the trail slowly but steadily becomes steeper up to the foot of Salkantay. In contrast to the Inca Trail, where people carry heavy loads and luggage, mules or horses take over this task on the Salkantay trail.
The pack animals are indispensable helpers in the difficult accessible Andes valleys; up to 150 kg carry these animals seemingly light-footed over the high mountain passes.
On the steep climb up to the plateau before the Salkantay Pass, the weight of a day’s backpack alone is enough to get you out of breath. The thin air at almost 4500 meters altitude brings even trained hikers out of breath.
We take another short break before we finally climb the Salkantay Pass. Time to take a deep breath and a little refreshment. In an improvised kiosk – a young Indio woman offers snacks and drinks for sale.
Already 100 meters above sea level you can see the top of the pass – it seems to be very close already.
The Abra Salkantay is with 4600 m the highest point on the route to Machu Picchu – when we finally reach the summit after a total of 4 hours of ascent, joy mixes with relief – we have reached the highest point of our tour!
Seems the holy mountain gods Salkantay and Humantay were well-meaning to us, because we reached the summit without major problems.
After thanking the gods, we descend into the cloudy “Huayrac Machay” valley – where they are already waiting for us with lunch. A delicious 3-course meal awaits us in a specially erected tent before we tackle the last two hours of the descent.
Shortly before 17:00, we reach the Wayra Lodge quite exhausted. The Wayra Lodge is located at almost 4000 meters altitude, the more than two-hour-long descent after lunch was very tiring, and we are just happy after the most strenuous stage to finally put our feet up.
Would you like to sleep in a condor nest? Here you have that chance. This fancy hotel has three suites in the form of sleeping capsules hanging on the steep slope of the mountain.
The walls of each capsule are entirely transparent, ensuring a perfect panorama over the majestic Urubamba Valley, still called Valle Sagrado de Los Incas.
The valley is located not far from the Inca capital of Cusco and the ancient settlement of Machu Picchu. →
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The next morning, the two mountain giants Humantay and Salkantay show themselves clearly and unveiled in the first sunlight, once again revealing the impressive glacier scenery around Wayra Lodge.
Thick clouds drift up from the valley, warmed by the first rays of the sun, rising from the humid rainforest of the lower mountain regions and soon shrouding the peaks again. The trail leads back from the barren landscape of the high mountains to the lush greenery on the slopes of the Rio Salkantay. With each of the 1100 meters of altitude that we descend today, the vegetation becomes denser, and the variety of plants increases enormously.
Magnificent orchids set colorful accents along the trail from time to time.
Biologists call this mountain forest “Dwarf Forest” due to the small and gnarled trees that grow at this altitude.
The forest is home to numerous endemic plants, orchids, mosses and a variety of Bromeliads. For almost 4 hours, the narrow mountain trail leads us through diverse flora down to the valley floor of the Collpapampa.
Then, a short but steep ascent leads up to Colpa Lodge, which is located on a plateau above the junction of the Rio Salkantay and the Rio Chillon at an altitude of 2800 meters.
In the Colpa Lodge, haute cuisine in Peruvian style awaits us. Vegetable meat and potatoes are cooked in an earth oven to a typical Peruvian banquet.
Potatoes are the secret of Peru’s native cuisine. More than 3000 species of this nutritious vegetable are common in the Andes. Stones heated by an open fireplace provide the necessary heat inside the hole in the ground. Just about an hour later, the meat is cooked and prepared for us.
In addition to pork and chicken, guinea pig is also on the menu in the Andean cuisine, a specialty that is served on the Peruvian dinner table, especially on holidays.
Salcantay Trek to Machu Picchu
While the previous day was mostly downhill, the profile of this route is more like a roller coaster ride. Again and again, steep descents on slippery terrain have to be mastered, only to cross the river in the few places on the narrow bridges.
Across the river, there are steep uphill sections again, always along the narrow mountain valley. Here we have to share the terrain with nature, and a stream bed becomes almost our hiking path.
The humidity and warmth of this cloudy forest acts on us like an oversized greenhouse. Ideal growing conditions for tropical plants of all kinds the numerous colors and shapes are really admirable.
Through the lush vegetation, an old Inca path leads up to the Lucma Bamba Lodge, located at an altitude of 2100 meters.
The fertile slopes of the Santa Teresa Valley lie to the left and right, where fruit and vegetables were grown on the Inca terraces centuries ago. Today, it is mainly passion fruit, and bananas brought freshly harvested to the market in Cusco.
However, export article number one is Peru’s Highland Coffee, which is organically grown in the Santa Teresa Valley and sold all over the world by small cooperatives via Fairtrade.
You can also taste the strong Arabica Coffee directly on site in the Lucma Lodge!
The 6th and last trekking day requires our full commitment once again – it is no longer the altitude that makes hiking strenuous but the high humidity that accompanies us on the ascent to the Yakhta-Pata Pass.
It is 600 meters of altitude up to the top of the pass, which we reach in the morning. Then, on the opposite side of the Yakhta-Pata pass, the view opens up into the Vilcanota valley and over to the narrow ridge between Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, where the Incas once built the hidden city.
A magical place that has lost none of its enchantment – even centuries after the end of the Incan Empire.
After this foretaste of the major destination follows a long and strenuous descent down into the deeply incised valley of the Rio Urubamba.
Again, one of these swaying suspension bridges is crossed before it goes the last kilometers downstream towards the destination of the Andes trekking. At the end of the Cusco-Quillabamba railroad line, hikers and local farmers from the surrounding valleys await the departure of the train to Aguas Calientes.
Twice a day, the train runs and transforms this sleeping railroad station into a bustling market for a short time.
The train ride to Aguas Calientes leads through the very steep Urubamba Valley along the river of the same name.
There is no road through the narrow valley – you can reach the small village of Aguas Calientes only on foot or by train. The main street of Aguas Calientes is a train station, shopping mile and marketplace at the same time.
Squeezed into the narrow valley of the Urubamba River, the town, which recently called itself Machu Picchu town, bursts at the seams with the flood of tourists.
Many of the visitors stay only for one night – filling the hotels and restaurants of the city and bringing good dollars for the local hoteliers and business people.
In addition to the many hikers, thousands of day-trippers arrive in Aguas Calientes every morning by train from Cusco.
Many of the visitors stay only for one night – filling the hotels and restaurants of the city and bringing good dollars for the local hoteliers and business people.
Also, the traders on the local market live well from the constant stream of visitors. Between all the more or less authentic souvenirs rises on the small Plaza Mayor the statue of the Inca Pachacuti Yupanqui. He is considered the founder of the legendary city in the clouds!
When the American explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the ruins of Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911, he had no idea of the significance of this discovery. In search of a legendary treasure of gold, local farmers had shown him this place.
A century later every day, thousands of visitors from all over the world make a pilgrimage to the continent’s premier archaeological site. A place from which still – despite the many people – the magic of a mystical past emanates.
To this day, very little is known about the historical origins of Machu Picchu. With its mild climate, the fortress – built in moderate altitude served the Inca ruler Pachacuti Yupanqui as a retreat in the cold Andes winters. There is also much evidence that the Inca city of Machu Picchu was of great religious significance.
The last meters of the Inca Trail is leading from the Guardhouse down to the royal sector of Machu Picchu. Experts believe that Pachacuti Yupanqui resided here with his royal court.
Throughout the Upper City, some buildings and plazas were probably used for spiritual purposes. The Sacred Plaza is framed by the Main Temple and the Temple of the Three Windows – built of large stone blocks perfectly interlocked.
A steep staircase leads from the sacred place up to the highest temple of Machu Picchu, to the ritual stone Intihuatana, the place where the sun is caught.
The granite block protruding from a rock pedestal served astronomical purposes – the Incas used it to determine the course of the sun, time of day, constellations and planetary orbits.1
A large green plaza of the Inti Pampa separates the upper from the lower city, the temple districts from the living and working places.
Below the Inti Pampa begins the urban sector of the city; here lived and worked craftsmen and farmers who had to ensure the supply of the Inca king and his court.
The entire fortress is surrounded by terraces that merge on all sides into impregnable, almost vertically sloping rock formations. The fact that the inhabitants of Machu Picchu cultivated corn, sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs and were thus self-sufficient is undoubted.
The Temple of the Sun is also said to have served as an astronomical observatory; through one of the window niches, the light of the rising sun falls exactly on the steps in the center of the tower on June 21. At the highest vantage point, the Guard House, all visitors linger for a while.
Here once again opens the classic view of the legendary city that was hidden in the jungle for so long!
I can recommend everyone who travels to Peru to run this wonderful trail. It offers breathtaking views of the two magnificent mountains Humantay and Salkantay, the gorgeous Laguna Humantay, Machu Picchu as the highlight and many different landscapes between the Andes and the rainforest in only four days.
If you have a good level of fitness, you should have no difficulty completing this trek. The most challenging day is the 22km crossing of the Salkantay Pass. Otherwise, there are no very steep or slippery sections.
The most difficult part of the Salkantay Trek for me was the constant changes in altitude and temperature. Going from about 4600 meters down to 2000 meters above sea level, you go from cold, harsh, windy and possibly rainy weather to the hot and humid areas of the Peruvian jungle.
The Salkantay trek can be done in three to six days, depending on endurance and choice of route. The trail is not marked, but apart from the first day, it is easily recognizable.
The Salkantay Pass is 4,629 meters high, it is technically relative undemanding and accessible via a wide trail. However, the effects of the altitude should not be underestimated. Prior acclimatization is therefore essential if you do not want to be dragged up by a donkey.
It is simply important that you feel well informed!
Tip: All guides of Salkantay Trekking are trained in first aid and rescue measures in the mountain. All guides also speak English.
The best season is the dry period, and this is between May and October. During this time, there is little to no rain in the Andes. In the mountain rainforest, where Machu Picchu is located, it can rain all year round, but the rainfall is less between May and October.
But of course, there is NO here is no guarantee of dry conditions in rainforests.
The nights can get very cold in the dry season in South America. Depending on the altitude, the thermometer can fall below minus 5 degrees. Therefore, it is always important to have warm clothes with you.
Unlike the Inca Trail, which is completely closed in February, the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu can be done all year round. In the summer months between November and April, it rains more often, but the temperatures at night are much milder.
No matter what time of year you do the Salkantay Trek, you should always expect rain and have rain gear in your luggage.
Everything you need on your hike to Machu Picchu can be found on the page Packing List for Successful Hiking. This includes information about the hiking backpack, sleeping bag, trekking poles, sleeping pad, hiking boots ...
Meanwhile, more and more travelers hike the Salkantay Trek on their own. The path is quite easy to find, and on the way, you also will meet other hikers who you can ask for advice.
Locals also offer simple rooms, but in high season these are very quickly full.
The disadvantage, of course, is that you have to carry all the camping equipment yourself, and that can be extremely exhausting at altitudes above 4,000 meters.
I only recommend doing the Salkantay Trek alone if you are in very good physical condition.
Unlike the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek can also be booked spontaneously. This is possible through various travel agencies that one encounters in Cusco.
Since the Salkantay is very popular, enough participants always come together, which is why the hike is actually possible at any time.
If you want to book the Salkantay Trail in advance through an online travel agency, this makes sense, especially if you plan to climb one of the two mountains Huayna Picchu or Montaña, within Machu Picchu.
These tickets are quickly booked up, especially during the high season from May to October. If you want to be on the safe side, book your trekking two to three months in advance and indicate when booking that you want to add the Huayna Picchu or Montaña directly.
Booking tip: We recommend the online platform Get Your Guide for booking the Salkantay Trek. This also mediates to local trekking offices in Peru, but the payment is made safely from your home country via a reputable platform and can be canceled in the worst case.
Especially for the Salkantay Trek, Peru's leading tour operator Salkantay Trekking is also highly recommended!
Prices for Salkantay trekking really vary. I recommend never to book the cheapest tour. With some trekking agencies, the price starts already at 250US$.
Please consider - the cheaper the price, the larger the groups and the more likely inadequate camping equipment will be used. The guides often lack English skills, and the staff is probably not paid adequately.
Of course, a higher price does not say anything about the quality of the tour. Therefore, it is important to find out in advance exactly what is included in the price and what exactly the services are.
On the Salkantay Trek, you will hike between 5 and 8 hours a day. The hike starts very early each day, so each hiker can go at his own pace.
There are some high mountain passes of up to 4,650 meters (Salkantay Pass) to overcome. The descents can be strenuous for the knee joints.
Especially the very thin altitude air brings many participants quickly out of breath. It is up to you to decide if you are up to the hike.
The travel agencies do not take any responsibility for this. You don't have to be a marathon runner or a professional hiker to do the Salkantay Trek, but a certain level of physical fitness is advisable.
Regardless, after arriving in Cusco, you should spend a few days getting used to the altitude and make sure you don't catch a cold or stomach problems from contaminated food.
In contrast to the Inca Trail, horses and mules are allowed on the Salkantay Trek. These carry additional luggage of the hikers besides the camping equipment.
It should be possible to hand over a bag with 5 to 7 kilos to the horsemen. You should check with the trekking agency if this is really the case.
In the extra luggage, you should carry a sleeping bag and the clothes you don't need during the day. The guides are usually at the campsite much earlier to set up the tents.
Each trekker carries a daypack with water, rain jacket, camera, sunscreen and some snacks if needed.
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