Salkantay is the ‘savage mountain’,the 20,500-feet-high Mount Salkantay was one of the holiest apus, or sacred peaks, in the Inca religious pantheon. It’s still revered today in traditional Andean religion. This mule-assisted hike cuts through the beautiful Mollepata Valley and traverses past Salcantay at an altitude above 15,000 feet. From those chilly heights, the trail descends into subtropical cloud forest, where it meets up with an ancient Inca highway (part of the original Capac Ñan network that connected the far ends of the empire) that leads to the recently rediscovered ruins of Llactapata. From there, one can gaze a few miles across the valley to take in a rare sidelong view of the full Machu Picchu complex. A downhill walk ends at the small train station, where a frequent shuttle runs along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
The trek that bears its name is the most popular alternative to the classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, accessing Machu Picchu via sparkling glaciers, lush cloudforest and high passes, the trail tops out at 4,650m, as well as the Inca site of Llactapata.
If you came to the Cusco region for visions of snow-capped peaks that look like sleeping giants, the Salkantay Trail is probably the route to Machu Picchu that’s for you. Certainly one for the devoted trekkers, this trail takes at least 5 full days to complete and goes through some of the most jaw-dropping parts of the Sacred Valley. It’s more physically demanding than the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, has a touch less history, but far more in the way of off-the-beaten-path highland terrain on your way to Machu Picchu.
The Traditional Salkantay Trek begins with a ramble out of Soraypampa up to the turquoise waters of Humantay Lake. The Humantay Lake sits in an amphitheatre of Andean summits, with the mighty top of Salkantay itself (20,574 feet / 6,271 meters) keeping watch from the clouds above. The next morning marks the start of the hardest part of the trek, as you gain altitude to traverse the soaring Salkantay Pass at 15,090 feet (4,600 meters). The mountains feel super-close there, the air is thin, but the views are simply spectacular.