It is widely known that the Inca Trail is the well-trodden footpath to Machu Picchu in Peru. But there is a more challenging, less traveled route known as the Salkantay Trail. Both trails will eventually end at the Inca city in the misty clouds, but the ancient Salkantay Trail takes trekkers off the beaten path, goes throughout the Apurimac Valley and offers more of a scenic, isolated and peaceful experience.
Mount Salkantay, which means Savage Mountain in the Inca language of Quechua, has been worshipped by local Indians for thousands of years and is considered a sacred peak. Located less than fifty miles from the city of Cusco, this glacier-capped mountain sits at the eastern end of the Cordillera Vilcabamba mountain range and rises to a height of 20,574 ft., making it the highest peak in the range and the twelfth highest in Peru. The Cordillera Vilcabamba is a rocky massif that towers between the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers. Mt. Salkantay is home to glaciers, extremely high passes, lagoons, Andean chinchillas, magnificent condors and the high Andean plateaus are the breeding ground for alpacas. With so much to offer it is a wonder more people do not utilize this trail versus the crowded classic Inca Trail.
The second most popular trail in Peru, the Salkantay path snakes through a stunning variety of terrain, anywhere from lush green valleys with abundant subtropical forests, coca plants and the Urubamba River, to alpine meadows and glacial moraines sandwiched between 20,000 ft. icy peaks.
After landing in Cusco the challenging trail begins in the small ancient town of Mollepata. This quiet trail passes remote ruins and villages and as it climbs higher in elevation to the plateaus above the scenery gets more breathtaking as Mt. Tucarhuay and Mt. Salkantay dominate the panoramic views near Soraypampa. Soon mother nature is changing her landscape from dry areas to moist tropical areas and snowy peaks.
No mountain trekking is complete without a series of switchbacks and this trek offers some along the side of Salkantay. Apachetas, stone piles left in honor of the mountain gods, mark the high pass summit and from there the descent in the valley begins and leads to the village of Chaullay.
The undulating trail warms up along the eastern slope of the Andes as the subtropical valley approaches. Trekking amongst hummingbirds, orchids, passion fruit trees, cocoa and coffee plantations is all part of the experience on route to La Playa. From La Playa the trek continues its uphill climb at an altitude above 15,000 ft. through diverse flora and fauna and up Inca stairs in some areas until Llactapata, at 8,858 ft., is reached and at this vantage point the breathtaking backside of Machu Picchu can be seen. As the trail descends from these chilly heights it heads down into a subtropical cloud forest and once the Llactapata ruins are reached a side view of Machu Picchu in its entirety can be observed.
It is all down hill from Llactapata. The Salkantay Trail ends at a tiny train station where the train runs along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. This town sprung up out of tourism and is known for its famous hot springs. Arts and crafts are sold here to weigh the trekkers’ backpacks down before heading up to the famous Inca ruins.
The reward at the end of the Salkantay Trail is Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Located in the Andes’ jungle at around 8,000 feet, shrouded in a misty fog forest, and surrounded by majestic mountains this magnetic center of the ancient world was built over 500 years ago. Here you can walk the ruins or hike Huayna Picchu Mountain and visit the Temple of the Moon.
The Salkantay Trek is still pretty much unknown so, unlike the Inca Trail, there is no need to book months in advance. The trek can be done anytime of the year, with the best time being from April to December. This gives you plenty of time and freedom to be more spontaneous with your adventures in Peru.