The Mighty Salkantay Trek, Peru
“Salkantay” translates to “savage mountain” in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru. You would be doing yourself a major disservice if you skipped this adventure on any trip to South America! The Salkantay Trek is a lesser known trail that leads to the foothills pueblo of Aguas Calientes, a tiny town at the base of the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu. The more popular track taken by tourists and travelers who wish to hike to the sky-high ruins is the Inca Trail. However due to concerns by the Peruvian government about the overuse of the Inca Trail leading to erosion a cap was placed on the number of people able to use the trail, limiting the number to 500 people per day. That sounds like a lot, but when you consider that the number usually includes at least one porter per trekker it makes sense that this 4-5 day trail is quickly booked out in the high season. Because of its popularity, it is always crowded, and it’s recommended to book your reservation at least six months in advance.
As an alternative to the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek still ticks all the boxes of a trail that you will never forget: stunning scenery, isolated beauty, hidden valleys… and enough space away from the crowds (or from any people at all) to enjoy it at your leisure. The trek crosses the mighty Peruvian Andes, reaching the highest point over the Salkantay Pass at an astonishing 15,1906 feet or 4,630 meters. Because of the high elevation, extreme precaution must be taken in your preparation for this trail. Some people may experience something called altitude sickness, where your body has difficulty adjusting to the lower amount of oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. Unfortunately, altitude sickness is similar to motion sickness in that the only way to find out if you are susceptible is to try it (carefully). But many people have no issues adjusting to the lower oxygen levels – it just means that slowing your pace for parts of this trail will be unavoidable for anyone, healthy or no.
Before undertaking any kind of high altitude venture, it is strongly recommended to first become acclimatized to a higher elevation. In this case, you’re in luck – the nearby city of Cuzco is nestled high up in the mountains at 11,152 feet or 3,399 meters. For very affordable prices, you can spend a few days in this beautiful, richly vibrant city while you acclimatize, enjoy the Peruvian cuisine and stroll through some of the most colorful markets in the world. Peruvian textiles and handmade goods are world famous for their beauty, fine craftsmanship, and bold colors.
You will pass through many different climates and elevations on this trek, as the trail winds its way from around 9,000 feet elevation down to 3,000 feet, then back up to a staggering 15,000 feet at Salkantay Pass before descending again to 7,000 feet. In the near distance, you will see snowy vistas as you traverse switchbacks and passes along the mountain range, passing waterfalls and tiny villages high on the mountaintop. You will journey through the plains, mountains, jungle, and a cloud forest. It’s encouraged to be well prepared for this trek with the appropriate mountain trekking gear.
The most common way to see this trail is to book a reservation with a guided trekking group or tour company. If you choose this method, you will only be responsible for carrying a daypack – the rest of your gear, food, and water will be carried by porters. The porters will also set up and break down camp every day, and cook all of your meals. This is a wonderful way to enjoy the trail if you would prefer to take photos, take your time, or just toil less. The downside is that you will be at the mercy of the pace of the group, which is usually set to the slowest member.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to run or hike this trail on your own. If you choose to run the trail, you have a couple of options. You can carry your own gear, but this will be heavy, slow going for a runner as you will need a tent suitable for freezing temperatures and at least two days’ worth of food (you can purchase food in several of the tiny mountain villages, and bring water purification tablets to drink from streams and rivers). Or you can make a reservation with a company like Mountain Lodges of Peru, who offer a 7-day trek with overnight stays in one of their luxury lodges every night, meals provided, freeing you up to run to your heart’s content during the day.
Fly into the sunny mountain town of Cuzco, located in the Andes of southeastern Peru. It’s strongly recommended to book a hostel or hotel for a few nights to acclimatize to the high elevation before beginning your trek. While in Cuzco you can buy all the supplies you will need to make a solo journey or book a reservation with one of the local trekking companies if you decide to go the guided route.
- Don’t drink the tap water while in Peru
- Do bring water purification tablets on your trek
- Do bring high altitude sickness medication just in case
- Do bring a hat and sunscreen (the sun is stronger at higher elevations)