- This article is an itinerary.
The trail starts in Mollepata, a couple of hours away from Cusco and ends in Santa Teresa or Hidroelectrica giving access to Aguas Calientes for Machu Picchu. The trek is not as popular as the overbooked Inca Trail but many find it just as beautiful.
This trek (also sometimes called the Salcantay Trek), was named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine. The part around Mount Salkantay has some outstanding views and the descent later down to 1,000 m above sea level is quite gorgeous and not too steep.
Salkantay was one of the trade routes for Coca and Potatoes and passes some recently discovered Incan storage facilities. The Salkantay trek is considered less 'touristy' with more cultural highlights, however some critics comment that the very reasons that saw the Inca Trail severely regulated, are now occurring on the Salkantay trail (lack of infrastructure, random camping, large tour groups, maltreatment of guides and porters, etc). Ensure that the company you travel with is aware of sustainable tourism. If you chose to travel with a dirt cheap company, tip your staff extra well!
There are three possible routes starting from Mollepata. All three begin with a day of approach, heading north along a dirt road. Then they diverge:
- The longest route, heads north to the base of the mountain, then turns right, following the east side of the mountain, then heads northeast to eventually join the Inca Trail itself at Wayllabamba. This route takes 4 days to reach the Inca Trail, then another 2 days to reach Machu Picchu.
- The most common route used by trekking companies heads north, then west around the west side of the mountain, over Salcantay Pass at 4600m. It continues as far as the village of La Playa, where buses usually make the connection to Santa Teresa. From here, trekkers walk to the Hydroelectric project then either train or walk to Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. This route takes 4 days in total.
- Another variation on this route turns right before reaching La Playa, over a ridge and arriving directly at Aguas Calientes two days later. This route takes 6 days in total.
You can do this trek by an organized trip through an agency in Cusco. Shop around, no need to book in advance.
It is perfectly possible to do this trek alone if you have experience. You will have to spend at least one night at 3,900 m above sea level (unless you skip first day using Taxi) or above and you will need camping equipment good enough for freezing temperatures.
Bring some water purification pills/equipment. There are many streams, but also many animals around. Some travelers drink from the streams without purification, but it is better to be on the safe side.
You can rent a mule/horse in Mollepata/Soraypampa and other villages along the way. 40 S/. per backpack seems to be the standard price for transportation from Soraypampa to the pass.
You will need to carry food for at least two and a half days.
Normally this trek takes 4-5 days. The super fit ones can do it in 3. It is also possible to hire a taxi for the first part (from Mollepata to Soraypampa) as this is along a road. Then from Collpampa to Santa Teresa there is also a road and technically possible to find transportation and this way do it in less time. However, you will miss slowly soaking in some great views. Transportation to Santa Tereza costs 10 S/. and minivans leaves when full.
To get to Mollepata you can take a taxi (60-80 S/. for the whole car) or take a shared minibus from Arcopata in Cusco for 15-20 S/. per person.
There used to be a fee for this trek, but not anymore. Even camping is free of charge.
The first day of hiking from Mollepata to Soraypampa will be gently uphill and mostly along a road (there are a couple of places selling drinks and snacks). There are some short cuts you can take to reach to Soraypampa which will probably be the highest and coldest sleeping place on this trek. There is a camp site, but you can also freedom camp in the bush.
Take it easy on the pass the next day, especially if you are not acclimatized.
There is an unmanned (free) camp site just after Huaracmachay when you start going down in the lush valley. You hit the first small shops in Chaullay and Collpampa.
A hot pot is being constructed at the hot springs (close to a bridge) after Collpampa so it is not possible to bathe at the moment (July 2013). At the hot springs you can cross the river and hike down on the left side of the valley (more interesting) or you can stay on the road on the right side of the valley. At La Playa (actually slightly further down) there is a pedestrian bridge where you can cross to the right side of the valley if you were hiking on the left side. There is a camp site for organized groups at Lucmabamba (near a school), but if you ask they will let you camp for free at the football field next to it and you can use their facilities. There are also shops around, where you can also buy pasta.
It is highly recommended (though more difficult) to hike from here to Hidroelectrica rather than to Sta Teresa. The trail to Hidroelectrica is very well marked. You will have to climb for 3 hours then go down for 2 hrs to reach Hidroelectrica. Some 15 minutes after the top of the climb there are some ruins with amazing views to Machu Picchu where you can wild camp. This is highly recommended if you can time it so. If you decide to explore the ruins, watch out for rattlesnakes and tarantulas on the overgrown paths around. The same is valid for the whole hike in that area.
From Hidroelectrica it is 2.5-3 hr along the railway to reach Aguas Calientes.
An operator is required. Out of the about 200 companies, many are bad. Check reviews, guidebooks, and the companies’ own websites to decide, or rely on a travel agent to choose for you. Here are some well-respected companies, though there are other good ones.
- Yamputours conducts tours in 4 continents, including several Salkantay treks.
- Cusco Trek
- The Inca Adventure a tour operator specialized in trekking to Machu Picchu through Salkantay.
Snakes, tarantulas - these avoid people as much as possible.
Use a lot of sun protection.
Bring some bug repellent.