Inca Trail Vs Salkantay Trek: Which Is Better?

The Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail are two of the most popular hikes to Machu Picchu in Peru. One follows the ancient pathways taken by the Incas, while the other offers a scenic hike with diverse landscapes.

If you can only choose one, which should it be: The Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek?

I had to make the tough choice, and after hours of research, I decided on the Salkantay Trek.

Do I regret my decision? And what’s the key difference that made me wish I had done the Inca Trail?

I’ve shared all the details in this comprehensive guide to help you decide between the Salkantay Trek vs Inca Trail.

carryn sitting at a viewpoint overlooking Machu Picchu
Both the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek end at Machu Picchu

How to choose between the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek

The Inca Trail is one of the most famous hikes in the world. It follows the exact pathways taken by the Incas through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.

But the Salkantay Trek is fast gaining popularity. It’s the leading alternative trek to Machu Picchu and offers a challenging yet rewarding hike through the Andes.

So, which is more scenic? Or more difficult? Do they both finish at Machu Picchu? Here are 12 things you need to consider.

1. Entrance to Machu Picchu

One of the main differences between the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek is how you arrive at Machu Picchu.

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek does not actually end at Machu Picchu. Instead, you’ll finish in Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu.

This means you’ll spend your last night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the next day. You can either take a shuttle bus or hike to the main entrance.

But regardless, you’ll be joined by every other tourist who goes to the famous site.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes after Salkantay Trek
On day 4 of the Salkantay Trek, you follow the train tracks to Aguas Calientes where you spend the night

Inca Trail

With the Inca Trail, you follow the Incas’ route the entire way to Machu Picchu – you don’t spend a night in Aguas Calientes as you would with the Salkantay Trek.

On your last day, you’ll wake up before sunrise to enter through the iconic Sun Gate before hiking down to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

This unique experience of finishing at Machu Picchu (and not at Aguas Calientes) is only available to those hiking the Inca Trail. This sets it apart and is the best way to end your trek!

How you enter Machu Picchu can be a deal breaker for some people.

Here are my thoughts after doing the Salkantay Trek. Walking into the town of Aguas Calientes (not Machu Picchu itself) was a bit of an anti-climax. This is compared to the excitement of those who finished the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu.

I stand by my choice of doing the Salkantay trek vs Inca Trail, but there’s no denying that the ending of the Inca Trail is much better.

2. Altitude of the Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek

Both the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek involve hiking above 4,000 m. This high altitude means there’s less oxygen in the air, which can result in headaches, nausea, and fatigue.

Carryn standing in front of Salkantay mountain with her hands in the air
The Salkantay Trek has a higher altitude than the Inca Trail

Salkantay Trek

The highest point of the Salkantay trek is 4,630 m, which is a higher altitude than the Inca Trail.

On day one, you’ll visit Humantay Lake, which sits 4,200 m above sea level. On day two, you’ll ascend to the highest point of the trek, 4,630 m, at the dreaded Salkantay Pass.

You can read my Salkantay trek itinerary here, which includes what to expect on each day of the trek.

Inca Trail

The highest elevation of the Inca Trail is Dead Women’s Pass, which you’ll reach on day two. At 4,200 m, it’s not as high as the Salkantay Pass, but this altitude should not be underestimated.

3. How many days are needed

Salkantay Trek

The classic Salkantay trek is a 5-day / 4-night hike starting from the beautiful city of Cusco.

You’ll arrive in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town) on the afternoon of day 4 and visit Machu Picchu on day 5. After you’ve explored the lost city, you’ll hop on the train and head back to Cusco the same day.

There is also a 4-day option for the Salkantay Trek. However, this involves taking a bus on day 3, and you’ll miss out on one of the trek’s best (yet most challenging) days.

Humantay Lake Salkantay trek vs Inca Trail
Humantay Lake is one of the best attractions along the Salkantay Trek

Inca Trail

The classic Inca Trail is a 4-day / 3-night hike. Like the Salkantay trek, all tours depart from Cusco.

You’ll arrive at the Sun Gate on the morning of Day 4, where you’ll visit Machu Picchu. Most tours then head back to Cusco after and don’t spend a night in Aguas Calientes.

4. Hiking distance

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is much longer than the Inca Trail. The 5-day trek has a total walking distance of 74 km, while the 4-day alternative is slightly shorter.

Inca Trail

The total walking distance of the Inca Trail is 43 km.

Carryn walking along the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
Both the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek are incredibly scenic (and chellenging)

5. Difficulty for Inca Trail vs Salkantay

Salkantay Trek

Overall, the Salkantay Trek is more difficult than the Inca Trail.

This is due to the higher elevation, challenging mountain terrain, and steep climbs. It also requires more walking as you’re covering 74 km on the Salkantay Trail vs 43 km on the Inca Trail.

You can read all about how difficult the Salkantay Trek is here.

Inca Trail

Despite being slightly easier than the Salkantay Trek, the Inca Trail is a strenuous hike that should not be taken lightly.

There are many stairs and stone pathways throughout the trail, and the distance is far, given that it’s a 4-day hike. And don’t forget about the high altitude at Dead Women’s Pass on day two – it’s a tough day.

6. Scenery and landscapes

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is the most beautiful of the two hikes.

It takes you to the stunning Humantay Lake and over the mountains, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. You’ll cross diverse landscapes, from cloud forests to coffee plantations, walk alongside rivers, and visit hot springs.

I’ve done a number of multi-day hikes, and the Salkantay Trek is by far the most diverse in terms of scenery and natural beauty.

Costs for Salkantay trek and Inca Trail
The Salkantay Trek has a much further walking distance compared to the Inca Trail

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail’s focus is the archaeological sites along the route. This means the terrain and scenery are less varied than the Salkantay Trek.

7. Archaeology

Salkantay Trek

While the Salkantay Trek offers stunning natural beauty, it has fewer ancient ruins and archaeological sites along the way compared to the Inca Trail.

You only see ruins and authentic Inca pathways on day 4 of the Salkantay Trek and at Machu Picchu on day 5.

Ruins on Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail
You only see Inca Ruins on days 4 and 5 of the Salkantay Trek, whereas the Inca Trail passes ancient archaeological sites everyday

Inca Trail

On the other hand, the Inca Trail follows the original trail that the Incas took to reach Machu Picchu. During the trek, you’ll visit ancient ruins, terraces, and stone pathways that offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Inca civilization.

The Inca Trail may be a better option if you want to learn more about the Incas and visit many archaeological sites.

8. Tour or Independent

Salkantay Trek

While most people choose to plan their Salkantay Trek with a tour operator, you can also opt to do it independently.

I booked through a local operator, Inkayni Peru Tours, and they were amazing! Their team took care of all the logistics and shared so much valuable information on Peru’s history, culture, and nature.

Inca Trail

By law, you can only hike the Inca Trail in an organized group with a registered tour guide. You cannot do it independently, and you will need a permit arranged by your tour operator.

Inca Trail vs Salkantay trek tours
You don’t need a guide for the Salkantay trek, but ours from Inkayni Peru Tours was amazing

9. Availability

Salkantay Trek

There are no restrictions on the number of hikers on the Salkantay Trek. Some people book months in advance, while others book the same week as their tour departure.

This makes the Salkantay Trek an excellent option for travelers without fixed dates or who missed out on Inca Trail permits.

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is subject to strict regulations to preserve its cultural and environmental integrity. This includes limitations on group size and camping locations.

Permits are required to hike the Inca Trail, and unfortunately, a limited number are available.

Because of the high demand, you’ll need to book your Inca Trail tour at least six months in advance, or you’re unlikely to get a spot.

Entrance to Machu Picchu after the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek
Arriving at Machu Picchu after the Inca Trail is a better experience than the Salkantay Trek

10. Costs of Inca vs Salkantay Trail

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is the cheaper option of the two.

5-day tours range from $250 to $800 per person, depending on whether you’re on a budget or luxury trek. Be wary of operators on the lower end of the scale as their costs may not include entrance to Machu Picchu or the train back to Cusco.

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is significantly more expensive than the Salkantay Trek. This is due to its exclusivity and the costs of the permits.

The price for the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu ranges from $700 to $1,500 per person.

11. Accommodation and facilities

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek’s accommodation options are much more varied (and comfortable) than on the Inca Trail.

These range from mountain sky huts to shared dormitories and basic campsites, catering to different budgets and preferences. On the last night, you’ll stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes.

Read more about what to pack for the Salkantay Trek. You’re only allowed 7 kgs!

A red tent perched on the side of a mountain during the Salkantay trek and Inca Trail
I camped for 3 nights on my Salkantay Trek

Inca Trail

There are no facilities along the Inca Trail; your only option is to camp every night.

The camps are set up by your tour operator, and the levels of comfort vary from basic to glamping options. Your trekking team will also have portable toilets.

12. The age group of hikers

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is the more popular option for backpackers and budget travelers. Hence, it attracts younger travelers in their 20s and 30s.

This is not to say you can’t do it if you’re older. I did the Salkantay Trek with my mom, who’s in her 60s, and she totally nailed it!

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail has a more varied age group of trekkers. It attracts backpackers, couples, families, luxury travelers, novice hikes, and more!

Salkantay pass
Salkantay Pass

Why I chose the Salkantay Trek over the Inca Trail

The deciding factor in my choosing the Salkantay Trek (instead of the Inca Trail) was the scenery and varied landscapes. I was happy to compromise and only see Inca Ruins on days 4 and 5, so that I could spend the first three days visiting the stunning Humantay Lake and challenging myself to the Salkantay Pass.

I had no regrets until I stood at Machu Picchu and watched the Inca Trail hikers arrive after hiking down from the Sun Gate. Their excitement was next level!

Unlike me (who finished my hike the day before), Machu Picchu marked the official endpoint of their hike. They were exhausted, but their adrenaline was pumping, and their excitement was contagious.

Don’t get me wrong, I stick by my decision. I’d do the Salkantay Trek over again! But I now have an urge to head back to Peru to do the Inca Trail – simply to enter through the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu.

FAQs

Is the Salkantay Trek harder than the Inca Trail?

The Salkantay Trek is harder than the Inca Trail because it covers a longer distance and reaches a higher altitude.

Which is better? Salkantay Trek or Inca Trail

If you’re a nature lover seeking a challenge and are okay with fewer cultural sites, the Salkantay Trek might be the way to go. But if you’re fascinated by history and culture and can secure your booking months in advance, the Inca Trail could be the perfect fit.

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Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu in Peru

Do you have questions about the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek? Drop me a message in the comments section below!

Looking for more Peru travel information? Check out my other posts!

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About Carryn

Hi, I'm Carryn. I’m an adventure travel blogger trying to figure out my way through life by traveling and exploring. Join me as I share my travel guides and tips for life abroad. Find out more about me here.

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