Ruins in forest as seen from Inca Trail, Peru

The Inca Trail vs Salkantay Trek – which one is right for you?

Jun 30, 2023
Reading time: 13 minutes

The Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail are both multiday treks starting near Cusco and ending by Machu Picchu. While they have lots in common – like incredible mountain scenery! – let's look at their differences to help you choose which one is better for you.

While the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail have plenty in common – including, importantly, ending at or near Machu Picchu – there are some big differences between them.

We're talking here about matters like how how many ruins you see, how varied the scenery is, your total distance and elevation gain, what sort of accommodation is on offer, and total cost.

So please read on to learn the ways in which the classic versions of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek differ from one another. We also show you cross sections of the two trek routes.

We hope the discussion helps you to choose between the two routes so that you can start planning your epic Peru trekking adventure in the beautiful Machu Picchu region!

Clear sky and sunny view of Machu Picchu and surrounding mountains of Andes, Peru

Machu Picchu on a beautiful clear-sky day

The Salkantay Trek is longer and harder

Let's start by looking at some basic stats for each of the two treks. Here you can see a few important ways in which they differ.

Please note that you visit the ruins of Machu Picchu as part of the Inca Trail, but on the traditional Salkantay Trek route you need to factor in an extra day at the end for visiting the ruins.

Inca TrailSalkantay Trek

Start point

Km 82 (train station)

Mollepata (village)

End point

Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes (town)


Usually 4 days

Usually 4 to 6 days

Total distance

40 km / 25 mi

83 km / 52 mi

Highest elevation

Dead Woman's Pass (4,215 m / 13,829 ft)

Salkantay Pass (4,635 m / 15,206 ft)

Lowest elevation

Machu Picchu (2,430 m / 7,972 ft)

Hydroelectric Station (1,900 m / 6,234 ft)

The Salkantay Trek is twice the distance of the Inca Trail, which is one of the main reasons it's the more challenging trek.

La Hidroelétrica railway across river on Salkantay Trek, Peru

The railway bridge by the Hydroelectric Station is the lowest point on the Salkantay Trek

The highest point on the Inca Trail is Dead Woman's Pass (or Abra de Huarmihuanusca). It's sometimes also referred to as First Pass, for the simple reason that it's the first mountain pass you cross on the Inca Trail.

On the Salkantay Trek, your highest elevation (Salkantay Pass) is roughly 400 metres higher. It's unlikely you'll see snow on Dead Woman's Pass, but you could on Salkantay Pass.

Trekkers on approach to Dead Woman's Pass on Inca Trail in Peru

Trekkers on the final approach to Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

Elevation map of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek

Here's a cross-section map showing the elevation gains and losses on the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek.



As you can see, both treks start at elevations that are higher than where they end, so there's more downhill to conquer than uphill on both the Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek. (We discuss this fact in How should I train for trekking to Machu Picchu?)

You climb about 600 m (2,000 ft) higher on the Salkantay Trek than you do on the Inca Trail.

There's more scenic variety on the Salkantay Trek

Both the Inca Trail and Salkantay offer incredible scenery! On both treks you see towering peaks, steep valleys and waterfalls, pretty farmland, rural homesteads, lakes and rivers.

Sunset in Andean mountains, Peru trekking

You can't fault either the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek when it comes to scenery

The table below shows the notable peaks you can look forward to seeing (provided they're not covered by cloud) on each trek route:

Inca TrailSalkantay Trek

Veronica, or Wakay Willka (5,893 m / 19,334 ft)

Humantay (5,917 m / 19,416 ft)

Pumasillo (5,991 m / 19,656 ft)

Pumasillo (5,991 m / 19,656 ft)

Huayanay (5,464 m / 17,927 ft)

Tucarhuay (5,910 m / 19,390 ft)

Salkantay (6,271 m / 20,574 ft)*

Salkantay (6,271 m / 20,574 ft)

* Note that you'll only see Salkantay from the Inca Trail if you spend your last night at the campsite at Phuyupatamarca, the City in the Clouds. If you overnight at the more popular (and much lower) campsite near the Wiñay Wayna ruins, you won't see Salkantay.

Men on horses approaching path to Salkantay Mountain Pass

The glaciated Abra Salkantay is the highest peak in the Vilcabamba range

You climb higher and closer to the snow line on the Salkantay Trek, while also trekking lower and deeper in the rainforest.

Start of Salkantay Trek with clouds and mist and yellow flowering trees in foreground

The Salkantay Trek is an incredibly beautiful and varied trail

On the Salkantay Trek, however, you experience more varied scenery. This is because you climb higher (sometimes up into snow) and descend lower (going deeper down into subtropical forest).

Consequently, you have the chance on the Salkantay Trek to see and experience more varied climate zones and vegetation. This means seeing more flowers as well as more wildlife.

Blue and yellow flowers in front of Humantay Lake nearby Salkantay Trek route, Peru

The beautiful Humantay Lake in spring

If you're all about the scenery and animals, then maybe the Salkantay Trek is the better of the two trails for you!

That said, you will of course also see animals on the Inca Trail. And llamas and alpacas are pretty much a guarantee on both trek routes!

Alpaca on the Inca Trail on the way up Dead Woman's Pass, Peru

Alpaca on the Inca Trail on the way up Dead Woman's Pass

The Inca Trail has more historic ruins

On the Salkantay Trek you don't see any Inca ruins until right near the end of the route. On this last day, you can visit the impressive Inca ruins of Llactapata. We say 'can' because you can also bypass the ruins if you want an easier route to the trail end. But we recommend making the effort to visit Llactapata, since: when will you be back here again??

On the Inca Trail, however, you encounter many Inca ruins, including Llactapata and, of course, Machu Picchu. And the ruins are peppered throughout your trek.

Aerial distant view of Llactapata ruins on Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu archaeological site from the Inca civilisation in Peru

The Llactapata ruins

A few of the significant ruins you see along the Inca Trail are:

  • Runcuracay. This circular-shaped ruin is located at 3,800 m (12,500 ft) above sea level and served as a watchtower for the trail during the time of the Inca Empire.
  • Sayacmarca. This well-preserved Inca site features intricate stonework and is believed to have been a religious or ceremonial complex.
  • Phuyupatamarca. Also known as the "Town above the clouds", this site is perched on a mountainside and offers stunning panoramic views. It contains agricultural terraces, baths and residential areas.
  • Wiñay Wayna (see below). Wiñay Wayna is an impressive complex featuring agricultural terraces, residential areas, and ceremonial structures. It's one of the most impressive ruins on the trail.

Note that because Inca was an unwritten language until the Spanish arrived, many Inca names have variant spellings. Even the name Inca is sometimes spelled Inka.

Wiñay Wayna ruins on Inca Trail, Peru

You pass the incredible Wiñay Wayna ruins on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is therefore one hundred percent the right trek for you if you really want to immerse yourself in the Inca history and culture of this region. Your trek guide will tell you the story of each site that you visit.

You're also likely to witness mountain crew members engage in certain rituals at certain sites along the route. Learning about these beautiful and formidable sites from descendants of the people who built them is a very enriching cultural experience.

Man and woman hugging while looking out over Machu Picchu, Peru

Whether you do the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek, visiting Machu Picchu is par for the course

You don't have to camp on the Salkantay Trek

The Inca Trail has just one accommodation option: camping. On the Salkantay Trek, however, you can camp, glamp, stay in lodges or hotels, and do homestays.

Your accommodation options are much more varied on the Salkantay Trek.

On the Inca Trail you must trek with a tour operator, and they provide you with tents to sleep in. Most operators use two-person sleeping tents.

Camping in the mountains on cloudy day with tents next to old ruins on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru

On the Inca Trail you stay in tented camps

Note that your trekking group's porters will hike on ahead of you each and set up camp for you. Then, the next day, they'll strike camp as well. So while you'll be camping, you won't have to do any of the work yourself. (Your meals are also prepared for you.)

Glamping on Salkantay Trek – rustic-looking A-frame huts in Chaullay (2,900 m : 9,510 ft)

A-frame huts for trekkers in the village of Chaullay on the Salkantay Trek

On the Salkantay Trek you have a handful of options when it comes to accommodation:

  • You can camp with a tour operator just like on the Inca Trail.
  • You can bring your own tent and camp independently.
  • You can stay in hutted campsites (the Sky Domes let you gaze at the stars!).
  • You can stay in hotels.
  • You can do homestays.
Salkantay Trek Sky Domes, Peru

The Salkantay Trek's iconic Sky Camp domes

If you don't like roughing it, or want a cosy room and a shower at the end of each day, then we recommend doing the Salkantay Trek.

If you don't like camping, then you should opt for the Salkantay Trek over the Inca Trail.

You have to join a guided group on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is always a group experience, with lots of team spirit. This can also be the case on the Salkantay Trek, but not necessarily, as you can choose to walk it solo if you like, with or without a guide.

Trekkers on a flat dirt contour path on the Salkantay Trek approaching a small stone bridge

A small stone bridge on the Salkantay Trek

We wouldn't recommend attempting the Salkantay Trek without a guide unless you're a highly experienced high-altitude trekker. A local guide is a huge asset when it comes to keeping you safe on the Salkantay Trek. You also learn much more this way! A guide is also a fount of knowledge and a connection to the local culture, so you'll miss out on so much if you travel on your own.

Porters vs muleteers

On the Inca Trail, your duffel bag containing your sleeping bag and most of your belongings will be shouldered by one of the porters in your mountain crew.

Three porters walking up to Dead Woman-s Pass on Inca Trail

Hardworking porters walking up to Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

On the Salkantay Trek, a porter will use a mule to transport your duffel bag.

This fact doesn't really have any bearing on which trek is the better option for you, we just thought you might be interested in knowing this. 🤓

Mules as porters on snowy and icy trail over Salkantay Mountain in August 2017 en route to Machu Picchu

Mules porter trekkers' belongings on Salkantay Mountain

Also, if you choose to walk the Salkantay Trek on your own, but would still like the help of a muleteer, note that you'll need to pay for their return trek as well, which will take two or three days.

Interacting with locals

The Salkantay Trek leads you through a more populated area than the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail follows a centuries-old Inca highway, so the main reason for following this route is to walk an historic route – one that's littered with incredible ruins, as discussed above.

Lady with traditional clothes walk with her son between the Andean mountains in the Salkantay trek going to Machu Picchu, Peru

Locals using the Salkantay Trek trail

On the Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, you have a more modern route with more amenities and drivable roads.

The Salkantay Trek therefore offers more opportunities than the Inca Trail to engage with various locals and get a feel for ordinary life in this neck of the Andes. Some of the villages you visit along the Salkantay Trek are Mollepata, Soraypampa and Santa Teresa.

Rainbow over Aguas Calientes also known Machu Picchu Pueblo

You finish the Salkantay Trek in the town of Aguas Calientes

That said, there's the chance of long and meaningful conversations with locals on both trek routes – it just depends on you. On the Inca Trail, you have your mountain crew, which is comprised of men and women who have mostly grown up and lived in the region all of their lives.

Campsite on the Last Night of the Inca Trail overlooking the Urubama River Valley

This popular Inca Trail campsite overlooks the Urubamba River valley

On the Salkantay Trek, you also have your mountain crew if you go with a tour operator. Alternatively, homestays are a great way to get to know a local family.

As with most places one visits, knowing a few local phrases tends to foster goodwill and should help you to get conversations started.

Peak seasons and crowds

The Inca Trail and Salkantay Treks naturally experience the same seasons since they start and end at much the same locations.

The best time to trek the Inca Trail is therefore the same as the best time for the Salkantay Trek: between April and October. These are the drier months (though they're not always dry themselves) and so offer the nicest, safest trekking conditions.

Hikers on a trail along the Salkantay trek in Peru, with a view of snow capped peaks and mountains (1)

Both treks are at their busiest between June and August

While the drier season generally offers better trekking conditions, the scenery does, of course, become browner as the months progress. If you want lots of greenery and flowers, then you might want to consider doing your trek right at the start of the dry season so that things are still quite lush.

Flowers and mist: Fuchsia boliviana is a species native to southern Peru

Flowers and mist: fuchsia boliviana on the Inca Trail

Alternatively, you might wish to gamble and go during the off-peak season. This option also has the appeal for some of letting you trek a much quieter trail. Just note that the Inca Trail is closed in February for trail maintenance. Also, both trails can have sections washed out after heavy rainfall. And the Salkantay Pass can become obstructed after heavy snowfall.

Sign to Abra Salkantay, or Salkantay Pass, snowy landscape, trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Sign pointing to Abra (Peak) Salkantay

The Inca Trail must usually be booked earlier

At present, you need a permit to do the Inca Trail, while you don't need a permit to do the Salkantay Trek.

The Inca Trail has a limit of 500 permits per day in order to protect the integrity of the trail and its surroundings. Only about 200 of those permits go to trekkers (the other 300 are for mountain crew members, namely guides, cooks and porters). This means permits for the Inca Trail can sell out quickly for peak seasons.

Trekkers on contour path of Inca Trail with river far below, Peru

Much of the Inca Trail is single-file only!

Consequently, you usually need to book your spot on the Inca Trail a few months in advance if you want to do it in peak season. We say "book your spot" and not "buy your permit" because only registered tour operators can buy permits. You must therefore put down a deposit with your chosen tour operator before a permit can be purchased on your behalf.

Note that Inca Trail permits are non-refundable and non-transferrable.

Please note that your tour operator won't be able to make any changes to your Inca Trail permit once they've booked it for you. So be sure of your travel plans before booking a tour.

Pretty view of green valley and river with flowers in foreground on Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu (1)

A gorgeous valley on the Salkantay Trek

As mentioned, you don't need a permit to do the Salkantay Trek. This means you can usually organise this trek a little more last minute if necessary, especially if you're not using the services of a tour operator.

The Salkantay Trek can be done cheaper

The cost of the Salkantay Trek and the Inca Trail can vary depending on several factors, such as tour operator, how many days you opt to trek, and time of year. That said, in general, the Salkantay Trek tends to be cheaper than the Inca Trail.

For starters, you must pay for a permit to trek the Inca Trail, as discussed. The Inca Trail is also the more well-known and popular of the two treks, which tends to drive up its price tag.

Walking through an open valley along the Salkantay Trail on the way to Macchu Picchu, Peru

Walking towards Salkantay Mountain on the Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is therefore generally considered to be the more budget-friendly option of the two. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that you can do the Salkantay Trek far more cheaply if you wish.

At its cheapest, you could do an unguided expedition where you carry everything yourself and camp and cook independently. We hope it goes without saying that you should be a very seasoned trekker and camper if you go with this option!

Male trekker seated next to tent on Salkantay trek in Andes, Peru

Camping on the Salkantay Trek

Naturally, we'd urge you to not try cut costs without considering what you'd be giving up in doing so. The Salkantay Trek is a tough cookie, and having at least a guide and a cook to accompany you can make the adventure that much safer and nicer.

Time to choose ...

So what do you think? By now we suspect you'll be leaning towards either the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek, and we encourage you to go with your instincts.

Finally, if you have any lingering questions for which you can't find answers on our website, please feel free to drop us a line and we'll happily chat with you to help you plan your epic adventure to Machu Picchu!