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If you suddenly want to take a trip to Peru and have left it too late to book the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, don’t worry. You certainly shouldn’t put off your trip to Peru because you didn’t book your Inca Trail spot, because the Salkantay Trail is equally as beautiful, if not more so, and is available to book on the day when you’re in Cusco, and for a fraction of the price of the Inca Trail. You’ll pass by snowy mountains, see a sacred Inca mountain, find a pristine, bright-blue lake, and then descend into the jungle, taking in all of the area’s most beautiful landscapes. You can also add on a ziplining expedition and a visit to some hot springs, so there’s no denying that the Salkantay Trail has loads to offer.
An additional option on the trip is to go ziplining with the company Vertikal. You’ll go soaring over a valley only an hour away from Machu Picchu; when else will you have the opportunity to go flying over the sacred land of the Incas? There are 12 platforms and five cables suspended 820 feet (250 meters) above the valley, and the cables used in the ziplining are stainless steel. The trip to the zipline costs 100 soles (US$31) and they’ll take you and your gear in a private van to and from the ziplines.
These might just be the best thermals in Peru and possibly in all of South America, and they are only accessible to you when doing the Salkantay Trail. Perched on a hillside in the small mountain town of Santa Teresa, these rock-sculpted pools give you an incredible view of the mountains and the valley. The site runs down a slope, with the top pool being the hottest and each pool then descending in temperature as you go down the slope. There are three large pools with loose, exfoliating rock floors and then one cold pool. There’s a restaurant, bathrooms, showers, and beautiful scenery; it’s a must-see and only costs an extra 25 soles (US$8) to see.
Seeing snowy mountains from afar is one thing, but actually trekking though a snowy pass is another. On the Salkantay Trail, during one long day, you’ll trek up and over a snowy mountain pass, which, if you haven’t done this before, is an unbelievable accomplishment.
Because of the sheer number of people clamoring to get spots on the Inca Trail, the trail is beginning to become worn out and overused. In order to preserve the trail for posterity, the Peruvian government has eliminated the use of horses and donkeys along the trail, which means that Peruvians will be carrying all your packs while you trek. These men, called porters, will be carrying all gear throughout the trail. Watching a human suffer under this weight is not for everyone, and on the Salkantay Trail, horses and then cars can comfortably carry your gear.
The trail fee, not including add-ons, is about $180, a fraction of the price of the Inca Trail. The trail has been voted one of the best in the world by National Geographic and costs about $400 less than the Inca Trail; it’s hard to beat that combination. If you’re a budget traveler or just want to save some money while seeing beautiful Peruvian landscapes, this is your trail.
In Inca religion and mythology, they worshipped sacred mountains called apus, and Salkantay is one of them. Salkantay is the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range and played a major role in Inca cosmology. Because of its height, the Incas believed that it could control the weather.
Unlike the Inca Trail, you don’t have to book months or even a year in advance. Show up at an agency in Cusco the day before you want to go (go to one of the many tour operators around the Plaza de Armas) and you’ll be off to see some of the most incredible views ever. Because you don’t need to book with an agency ahead of time while you’re in your own country, this can save you a lot in additional fees.
You’ll be traveling with far, far fewer people, meaning that you’ll get more alone time and the chance to see the landscape without all the distractions. More solitude and less crowds; what’s not to like?
The diversity of the trek is what makes it so spectacular. You’ll pass from Cusco to a pristine lake high in the mountains, through a snowy mountain pass, then descend into the jungle before arriving at the most desirable site in all of South America, Machu Picchu.
On your first day you’ll have the option of hiking to a lagoon high up in the mountains. After eating lunch and setting up camp, you’ll be able to hike for about an hour and a half to a bright-blue lagoon with a snowy mountain peak in the background. It is one of the most beautiful sites along the trek.
It may surprise you, but the food you get on the trail is actually good. The cooks will travel with you, beat you to your location, and then set up for lunch and breakfast. They’ll also wake you up in the morning with coca tea delivered to your tent, which is a nice touch when it’s freezing outside!