Deciding on a Peru Trek
Embarking on a trekking pilgrimage through the Andes to the Lost City of the Incas is far more satisfying than arriving there on a rushed train trip. The most popular route is along the ancient Inca Trail, originally part of the Royal Road system connecting the Inca Empire. This classic trek takes you past many Inca sites as you hike through diverse scenery. The Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, is more strenuous and famous for its mountain scenery. Whichever you choose, they both offer unforgettable experiences in different ways. Here is a comparison of the pros and cons to help you decide.
|Inca Trail Trek||Salkantay Trek|
|Scenery||Mountains, cloud forest and Incan ruins||Mountains, abundant wildlife|
|Distance||26 miles over 4 days||46 miles over 5 days|
|Highest Altitude||13,828 feet||15,000 feet|
|Availability||Tourist permits capped at 200 per day, must book far in advance. More customizable than Salkantay.||No permit restrictions, average of 50 hikers per day. More last-minute booking flexibility for group tours than Inca Trail.|
|Facilities||Mid-range camping or luxury glamping. Porters available to carry gear.||Options from rudimentary camping to luxury lodges. Pack mules available to carry gear.|
|Best For||Travelers in good hiking shape who value comfortable camps and don't mind a popular trail, want to walk in the footsteps of the Incas, and prioritize seeing ancient ruins.||Experienced, fit hikers who want to get off the beaten path and value solitude, mountain scenery, opportunities to view wildlife, and a wider range of overnight options.|
You'll traverse dramatic mountain passes through misty cloud forests, passing many ancient Inca sites along this route, such as Llactapata, Sayaqmarka, Phuyupatamarca—all of them culminating in the highlights: the terraces of Winay Wayna and the dawn arrival at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate.
There are relatively few ruins, but you're otherwise rewarded with indelible mountain scenery. You'll trek higher and longer than the Inca Trail, looping around glacial Mount Salkantay (22,000 feet). Unlike the Inca Trail, with its constant foot traffic, this less crowded route offers a good chance to see wildlife such as deer, chinchillas, and spectacled bears. Note that you do not arrive directly at Machu Picchu on the Salkantay Trek, but instead view the site on the final day before arriving at Aguas Calientes. You then visit Machu Picchu the following day.
It's not enough merely to possess the desire to hike through the Andes—you need to be in solid shape to do it. Both treks require a good level of physical fitness, and since both reach over 13,000 feet in places, it’s important to spend a few days acclimatizing to the altitude beforehand.
It's essentially a moderate hike, although you do need to be physically fit. You cover 26 miles in four days, walking 6-9 hours most days, with the toughest being day two when you go up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (13,828 feet). The final day is a pre-dawn hike for two hours to enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. The shortened version of the Inca Trail over two days is the easiest trekking option and allows you to see some of the best sites in relative leisure.
This trek is more strenuous. It goes through rougher, steeper, and sometimes colder terrain. You cover 46 miles over five days, nearly double that of the Inca Trail, and hike up to 15,000 feet. This option is better suited to more experienced trekkers in peak levels of fitness.
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While prices vary according to when and where you book, the Inca Trail is more expensive, often costing nearly double the Salkantay Trek. However, you get better facilities for that price. Camps are set up for you and are more comfortable, while Salkantay camping is more of a budget option. However, if you wish to do the Salkantay Trek and sleep in a bed, it is possible to do a basic lodge trek or lodge-to-lodge trek.
Flexibility and Availability
This popular route has less flexibility and availability because there is a strict limit on the number of permits allowed (200 per day for tourists). This means you need to book several months in advance, preferably in mid-December when passes are released for the following year. Peak periods like summer sell out quickly (note that the Inca Trail is closed in February, the wettest month). There is flexibility in the length of the trail you can book—the four-day option is the most popular but it can be extended over five days to allow more time. Alternatively, you can choose to do only the final two days of the trek, which features some of the most impressive ruins.
Salkantay offers far more flexibility and availability in terms of booking. There are no restrictions so you can arrange your trek even at the last minute (although the best operators tend to get booked up during busy periods). The trek is usually done over five days but can be shortened to four if you are very fit. However, unlike the Inca Trail, there is little flexibility in choosing which sections to trek.
Most camping tours are mid-level in terms of comfort. Campsites are set up for you and include toilets and showers. You only carry what you need that day and porters are used for carrying equipment of up to 15 pounds per hiker. You can upgrade to more expensive "glamping" tours with more comfortable tents, bedding, and gourmet food. The luxury version of the shortened two-day Inca Trail (essentially one day of hiking and one day at Machu Picchu) offers hotel accommodation in Aguas Calientes.
There is a wider variety of accommodations on offer here, ranging from basic camping to luxurious lodges. The most common basic option usually provides no showers or toilets, so you wash in streams and groups set up their own tent latrine. Pack mules are used instead of porters for carrying equipment. Basic lodges offer toilets, showers, and accommodation in wooden cabins, while the upscale lodges are more comfortable with better facilities.
Which is Best for You?
The Inca Trail is one of the most famous hikes in the world and attracts thousands of trekkers every year. That creates as many ups and downs as you'll find on the trail itself. The positive is that choosing this option means you'll be hiking the original trail that the Incas did, and it allows you to see otherwise unreachable ruins. The downside is that it can be busy, with the often narrow path congested in a single-file line of trekkers.
It's tougher, more basic, and there are fewer ruins, but it features more breathtaking scenery for those who are fit enough to embark on it. For some, its appeal is that it is a more authentic trek. It's certainly quieter and affords more time to take in the scenery away from the crowds. This trek averages only about 50 people per day compared to nearly 200 tourists per day on the Inca Trail, and the lack of ruins can be compensated by adding visits to Ollantaytambo or Pisac in the Sacred Valley.