You've finally realized your travel dream in Peru. The centerpiece of your big adventure will be a multi-trek near Cusco and while everyone's heard of the Inca Trail you keep seeing stunning photos of the Salkantay Trek. Now what?
Many adventure seekers to Peru encounter this dilemma each trekking season in Cusco (generally between April - October). The famed classic Inca Trail of 4 Days/3 Nights has long been the aim of trekkers around the globe with a payoff finish through iconic sites of the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu. But especially in the last decade 'alternative' treks in Cusco have become popular.
The Largest Inca Trail Obstacle
Taking on the trail of the Inca Empire starts long before strapping on your pack. One of the largest obstacles for tackling the Inca Trail is simply obtaining the permit. The famed status of the Inca Trail means the Classic Inca Trail option needs to be booked through an approved operator 5 months or more in advance (especially between May - August).
This pushes some trekkers, or those with limited schedules, to 2-Day options for a shortened Inca Trail journey or to alternatives. However, the vistas and sites from the 'alternative' Salkantay Trek means even if you have the option to book the I
nca Trail in advance, the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trail debate should still be relevant to each trekker.
What's so Great about the Inca Trail?
Famed Vistas & Sites- The clear big advantage of the Inca Trail is a finish at Machu Picchu. The trail finishes going through the Sun Gate, and you'll never forget this view. While both Inca Trail the Salkantay Trail puts trekkers in Aguas Calientes for a night before a visit to Machu Picchu, the 2nd to last day on the Inca Trail allows hikers to experience hiking and looking right down on Machu Picchu from above at the Sun Gate (though Machu Picchu visitors can hike the 30 minutes to the Sun Gate if they would like). There's nothing like this feeling.
Apart from Machu Picchu, numerous famed Inca sites are scattered along the trail. . Sites like Patallacta (or Llactapata), Wiñay Wayna, the Runkurakay ruins, and Phuyupatamarca give trekkers not only a sense of outdoor Andean adventure but the culture so deeply rooted in each step.
Easier Difficulty - The Inca Trail is considered a fairly moderate trek and is very approachable even for those who don't have the largest history of multi-day treks (you will still want to train!) At 43km in length and only with one high pass of Dead Woman's Pass, trekkers can hike at a moderate pace and won't have to face many hours trekking at high elevation (Dead Woman's Pass is at 13,828ft.).
Of course, this is a double edged sword. Despite the Inca Trail limits of 500 a day, some areas can bottleneck with trekkers for uphill and downhill sections and overnight areas can be crowded. That's because at almost all days the Inca Trail limit is reached with a mix of all ability and experience level. However, fear not -- most sections of trail offer plenty of solitude as groups spread out.
Better Facilities & Organization - Every February, in prep for another big trekking season ahead, the Inca Trail is maintained. Because of the demand and reputation maintenance of the trail and upkeep of the toilet facilities available along the way can be a huge advantage.
What's so Great about the Salkantay Trek?
Andean Alpine Vistas - The Salkantay Trek is best known for it's stunning natural scenery. This is a trek for those who want to see alpine Andean mountains and trek along and through them. The first two days especially lead trekkers up higher mountain passes (the highest point at the Salkantay Pass is 15,200ft) with vistas of glaciers and opportunities to see varied flora and fauna of Peru. If you're lucky you may even get to see the Andean Spectacled Bear.
While the Inca Trail mostly keeps trekkers along Andean jungle terrain, the variety on the Salkantay Trek is astonishing from the alpine start to a coffee plantations and lush valleys along the Santa Teresa River. Keep in mind as well that the trek finishes with a 2nd to last day in Aguas Calientes instead of at Machu Picchu (though you will get to explore Machu Picchu the following day). With this in mind the largest question then becomes, if you have the option to do both, is if stunning natural scenery or impressive Inca cultural sites are more important. Only you can decide that!
Less Traffic - On an average day, the Inca Trail can have 3 times fewer trekkers versus the Salkantay Trek. What does that mean? More solitude, more chance to see wildlife, and fewer bottlenecks and full camps. The high-mountain Andean solitude many trekkers search for is much easier experienced on the Salkantay Trail.
Of course, because of the lesser worldwide cachet of the Salkantay Trek, bathroom facilities are fewer and far between and in many areas non-existent. With the exception of our friends at Mountain Lodges, who offer a luxury Salktantay lodge-to-lodge option, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by any facilities.
A Trekkers Trek - At 81km, the Salkantay Trek attracts those wanting outdoor adventure. That's not to say beginners can't do it, but days on the trail are longer and a faster pace is needed to complete the trek. Additionally the higher elevation means a bit more difficulty acclimatizing (don't forget your Coca Tea) and colder temperatures.
While some may consider these facts about the Salkantay a disadvantage, the normal 5 days/4 nights on trail mean those ready for an Andean adventure will be in their element. You'll be all the more ready to plunge into your bed upon return to a hotel in Cusco!