The trail starts in Mollepata, a couple of hours away from Cuzco 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. You can either do the trek with a guided tour, or on your own.
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 take the train 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 Cuzco. Shop around the Plaza de Armas area, no need to book in advance. As of April 2018, prices were around USD $280, which include 4 day's meals, 4 nights accomodation, a mule team which will carry up to 6kg of your gear, entry to Machu Picchu with an English or Spanish-speaking guide, and the return train ticket from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo (1h 30m), with shuttle transfer from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (2h). Another option is sold for around USD $180, the only difference being that you return by a 6-hour van ride instead of by train. Because train tickets can be bought in Aguas Calientes (now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) for $60-80 (depending on the time of departure), you should be able to save some money by buying the train ticket yourself and taking a collectivo from Ollantaytambo train station to Cusco (S/ 10). After having finished the trek, the train ride might seem short and relatively unremarkable, so you might find that the cheaper option to return by van is a better value. You can also choose a 4-day option (for the same price as the 5-day), in which you will skip the night in Santa Teresa.
The tour will provide your food and accommodations, but you will need to bring your own sleeping bag, water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and rain jacket. Sleeping bags and hiking sticks can be rented in Cusco for around $1 USD each per day. Hiking sticks are highly recommended and will save your legs on the stretches of steeper inclines and declines. Be sure to bring warm layers, as the first 2 days (especially the Salkantay pass) are cold (possibly freezing) and often wet. After the Salkantay pass, you enter the warmer jungle and will want to dress much lighter during the day.
In Santa Teresa, you will have the opportunity to visit the hot springs (S/ 10) or take a zipline tour the next day ($25 USD) which will include transportation to Aguas Calientes for your final night. Otherwise, you will hike along the river from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica (2 hours) for lunch, and then another 2 hours to Aguas Calientes. On the 5th and final day, you wake up at 4:30am to hike (2 hours steep uphill) or take the bus ($12 USD each way) to Machu Picchu. After a 2-hour guided tour ending around 9 am, you are free to explore the ruins yourself and get back to Aguas Calientes in time for your train or van back to Cusco.
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. After Collapampa you can find a few cafes along the way, and Santa Teresa is a proper city where you can find lodging and groceries.
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 Cuzco for 15-20 S/. per person.
There is a small fee (S/ 10) for the trek that is normally paid at the car park in Mollepata. If you are going in the off season (rainy season), there may be no one to collect the fee from you). You can wild camp anywhere, but there are also some campsites along the way that charge a nominal camping fee of 5 soles per person (as of April 2017).
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). The distance walked is approximately 20 kilometers with a climb of about 1000 meters. You can either walk on a road (which has very little traffic) or a trail. The trail goes up high through the mountains and has much better views, but it can be quite muddy during the rainy season. It will take between 6 to 8 hours to walk, depending on your speed and fitness. An alternative is to take a taxi from Mollepata to Soraypampa.
At 3900m, Soraypampa 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. Make sure you have a warm sleeping bag as the night can get quite cold.
At Soraypampa, there is also a hike to a nearby lake. Although it is not exactly a short walk as it involves 300-400 meters climb, but it is well worth a visit if you get there early enough.
On day 2, you will cross the Abra Salkantay pass at 4,600 meters and then descend on the other side to the villages of Chaullay or Collapampa. The distance walked is roughly 20 kilometers with 700 meters ascent and 1100 meters descent. Abra Salkantay will be the highest point reached for many walkers and should not be taken lightly. It is important that you are well acclimatized for this section and take your time doing the climb.
After the pass, there is a long 800 meters descent into Huaracmachay, where there is a small shop, bathroom facilities (1 sole fee), and a camping site. Many tour groups stop to have lunch here. There is an unmanned (free) camp site just after Huaracmachay when you start going down in the lush green tropical forest. It's another 2 hours of walk from Huaracmachay before you hit the first small neighbouring villages of Chaullay and Collapampa. This is where you stop for Day 2.
There is a hot spring at Collapampa, but it was damaged due to a landslide and is not currently operational (as of April 2017).
This is a short day from Collapampa to La playa. The distance walked is about 12 kilometers. You can use they day to recharge yourself and give your legs some rest. Alternatively, you can also combine this day with day 4 to make it a very long and exhausting final day. As you descend down on the road from Collapampa, near the hot springs, you can cross the river and hike down on the left side of the valley to join the trek, which is more interesting. However, the trek can be quite dangerous during the rainy season as it suffers from frequent landslides and gets muddy. You can also remain on the right side of the river and walk on the road, which has very little traffic. 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.
Here you have two options. You can either take the collectivo (local public transport) to Santa Teresa and then take another colectivo to Hidroeléctrica.
However, it is highly recommended to do the 12 kilometers hike from La Playa to Hidroeléctrica, passing the Llactapata ruins. The trail to Hidroeléctrica is well marked and easy to follow. It involves a 400 meters climb that takes approximately 3 hours. From the top, it is another 2 hrs of steep descent to reach Hidroeléctrica. Shortly after the top of the climb there are the Llactapata ruins. 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. A further 10 minutes from the ruins, there is a campsite with amazing views to Machu Picchu. This campsite is highly recommended to spend the night if you can manage it.
Hidroeléctrica is named after the hydroelectric station that is located there and is the nearest place to Machu Picchu that can be reached by road. From Hidroeléctrica it is a 2.5 hour long 10 kilometer walk along a railway track to Aguas Calientes. You can also take a 30 minute train from Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes that costs USD 31 for foreigners (1 sole strictly for locals).
Snakes, tarantulas - these avoid people as much as possible.
Use a lot of sun protection.
Bring some good bug repellent to protect against biting sand flies ("no-see-um's"), which are abundant at the lower elevations of the hike.
Make sure you are well acclimatized to the elevation before attempting the trail. It is recommended that you spend at least 2-3 days in Cusco. Make sure you are familiar with the effects and treatment of altitude sickness. Bring along some coca leaves to chew on or make into tea, which locals have used for a long time to treat the effects of altitude.