Updated: May 26
Inca trail or Salkantay? All about the organizational maze of Machu Picchu.
You will probably face this dilemma when researching your exploration of Machu Picchu. I will try to convince you to choose the Inca trail and lead you through this maze of route choices and options to get to the beautiful lost and found city of the Incas.
To lighten the text, you will find useful and reliable links at the end of this article, such as prices, how to buy tickets for Machu Picchu (official sites), on which web page to get train tickets, etc.
How to get to Machu Picchu?
Before you even think about choosing a hike, you will probably have questions about how to get there. It should be understood that your choices are limited when it comes to getting to Machu Picchu.
CHOICE #1: Economy
Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes;
Bus/hiking from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu Park.
***There are no buses between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes.
In 2019, for the shooting of my film on South America, AURORA, we opted for this choice of itinerary:
1-Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes by train (around $70 CAD, several options of times and prices).
Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you will realize that you still have some travel left to get to the entrance to Machu Picchu Park.
2-Two choices are available to you:
A) Take a bus from the Aguas Calientes terminal that goes all the way to the entrance to Machu Picchu (park). Several buses make this way several times a day, I advise you to book your ticket as soon as you arrive in Aguas Calientes, price: 17$ CAD one way. Location: ‘Hermanos Ayar’ avenue, a few meters from the train station. Tickets cannot be purchased on the bus. I advise you to take the earliest tickets (5:30 am) and to arrive 1 hour in advance (at 4:30 am). It sounds like overkill, but you'll find there's a long line just to get on the bus. The earlier you arrive, the better your visit will be.
B) Climb on foot from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (the ascent is difficult). I did not do it on the climb, so I cannot give you an approximation of the duration of this climb, but I would say around 2 hours for sure. The path is dotted with wide, high steps that can be slippery. If you decide to go up before sunrise, definitely bring a headlamp (you will probably need your hands).
3-Half day in Machu Picchu (enough for the visit). Price of admission to the park: from $67 to $122 CAD (several options are available to you, see the link to buy your tickets and to see these different options). You must book in advance. View the live availability calendar. In 2019, we arrived for the opening of the park at 6:00 am. The visit was very pleasant, not very busy with tourists. In fact, even with all the video shooting plans I had to make (i.e. taking twice the time needed for an ordinary visit) by 9:00 a.m., we had circled the city.
4-Take the bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (17$ CAD 1 way);
Descent on foot from Machu Picchu Park to Aguas Calientes. The descent is difficult. It takes about 1 hour. My legs were shaking on arrival, so I imagined those who had decided to go up in the wee hours of the morning!
About the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
The train is very pleasant, because the railway goes along the river, from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (town near Machu Picchu). This last city is very cute, remote from everything but no less touristy as you can imagine; meeting place and meeting point to visit Machu Picchu. For many also, it is associated with accomplishment, because several groups meet there after having walked for 4 to 5 days in the mountains. Either, a beautiful energy is found there and nature will certainly call you there for a few days.
So if your plan was to leave Cusco to go directly to Machu Picchu, I advise you to forget this plan immediately, it is unlikely that you will enjoy your experience, and even, unlikely that you will be able to perform this feat without getting a headache (as much from altitude sickness as from your busy day).
If your plan was to leave Ollantaytambo by train and go in the same day to Machu Picchu and come back, it is unlikely that you will like your experience as well. The train journey takes 2 hours one way.
I really recommend taking one night and why not, several nights in this pretty town of Aguas Calientes. The sound of the falls flowing from the mountains directly near the streets will enchant and relax you, despite the ton of tourists.
CHOICE #2: The Adventurer
Inca trail VS Salkantay?
In 2014, we opted for the “Inca Trail” excursion.
Purchase of the ''Inca Trail'' excursion which includes: transport from Cusco to the foot of the start of the excursion, 4 days of all-inclusive treks (food, tent, etc.), entrance to Machu Picchu Park, bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes, train Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, transport from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (approximately $700 CAD).
If this option crosses your mind, this is when you will be faced with making a choice between two treks that agencies offer online. “The Inca Trail and the Salkantay.
There are several differences between these two treks and to be honest with you, I don't understand why the agencies offer the Salkantay in comparison with the Inca Trail. They are two completely different hikes, one is not better than the other, my suggestion is (obviously if you have time and lots of money…) would be to do both!
But if you have to make a choice...
I would definitely choose the Inca Trail. There are mainly two reasons for choosing this experience over the other.
#1: While hiking the Inca Trail, you can visit several temples hidden in the mountains, including the Water Temple, where ancient pipes still work despite its age. What you don't see during the Salkantay. You are in Peru to know all the Inca culture, after all!
#2: The Inca Trail trek ends with the pinnacle of Peruvian adventure: on day 4, you'll get up at dawn, walk in the dark for about 20 minutes to arrive at the Sun Gate ( Sun Gate, Inti Punku) and watch the sun rise over the superb city of Machu Picchu from this observatory. The memory of that show still gives me chills today. On the other hand, the Salkantay trek does not work this way at all, at the end of your 5th day, you are taken to Aguas Calientes by train (town near Machu Picchu) to then take the bus like all tourists to get to Machu Picchu. Much less appealing, right?
For these two points which, in my opinion, are extremely important during your Peruvian adventure, I recommend the Inca Trail a thousand times over the Salkantay.
I now tell you about my experience during my two visits to Peru (in 2014 and 2019) while giving you details of the progress of these two visits.
The Inca Trail
In 2014, I did the Inca Trail with my two best friends.
All organized tours depart from Cusco by bus and drop you off at the foot of the mountain (several mountains in fact, you are in the Andes mountain range…). You have no choice but to go there with a guide, because it is a protected place. Several agencies obviously offer the service from Cusco and therefore you can shop everything… on the Internet. It is recommended to reserve and pay your place online and also well in advance. See link for real time availability. The online price can really vary from one agency to another, services offered during the hike, etc. Shop. In 2014, I paid $700 CAD. In 2019, I had a little more experience and bought my hike for CAD $600. So I believe you can expect around that amount to pay out. I don't know how hard it is to get a reservation in Cusco itself. I never wanted to take the chance. The reason being that there are a limited number of spaces on this path for heritage preservation. It is indeed one of the most popular hikes in the world, with good reason.
Do you need to be in good physical condition to do this expedition?
Definitively. Also, I strongly advise you to acclimatize to the altitude before doing it for at least a good week. During this week, you can explore the Sacred Valley of the Inca (Several archaeological sites of importance between Cusco and Ollantaytambo) for example, which you will not see if you only do the Inca Trail excursion.
Altitude acclimatization really depends on your body so it's hard to put a specific number of days on it. When will you know you are acclimatized to the altitude? Believe me, you will definitely know. Altitude sickness can give you the feeling that your skull is crushing your brain, headaches, nausea. When you have acclimatized, you will feel a feeling of lightness in the brain and relief. Here are my tips to help you get through altitude sickness.
And your experience can be very different from time to time. In 2014 I hardly felt altitude sickness in Cusco, while in 2019 my visit was very painful. In 2014, I had not listened to the advice to acclimatize before doing the Inca Trail excursion, and, feeling almost nothing in Cusco, I did not see the need for it either. Afterwards, when I started the climb on the first day in the Inca Trail, it was then that I felt the effects of altitude sickness. Very bad timing! I found it actually very painful (physically), but the guides are very patient and never push you to climb quickly. In reality, it can be dangerous, and obviously, no company wants to end up with an emergency in the middle of the mountains where there is no hospital for several hours or even days around.
In 2019, we finally couldn't do the excursion, (see here why) but it was after about 5 days that I stopped having headaches and my body finally acclimatized. Here are my tips to help you get through altitude sickness.
My Pilgrimage to Machu Picchu (2014)
In 2014, I learned the power of the mind over the body. Because despite it being the most difficult ordeal I have had to do in my life, I was so motivated to arrive at the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu, that I never thought for a moment of giving up. . In addition, the natural beauty of the place enchanted us at all times. Each valley we climbed revealed the ruins of a new ancient temple dotted with lush plants. The mountains showed us its temperaments and temperatures, they seemed to imitate our state of mind… In the morning, we dressed warmly because the air was fresh, then quickly, we had to remove everything, because the thick clouds had dissipated. The first night, my body hurt so much that I went to bed without supper, completely exhausted. What followed wasn't any easier, day two we climbed and climbed hundreds, if not thousands, of uneven stairs. Sometimes we took very small steps, then after a while we had to stretch our legs to the maximum to reach the next step.
The rewards are plentiful though, don't worry! The first day, you can visit the remains of an ancient village, then, a little higher, the water temple. Specialists named it so because the Incas had made pipes diverting water from the mountains into the city, and these pipes still work. The vistas in the semi-desert valleys are breathtaking (literally!). If you are lucky, you will see some vicuñas and llamas.
What to bring?
My advice… bring almost nothing! For what? Because you are doing an expedition at altitude, and therefore, your bag will be heavy, much heavier than usual. Cut everything in half, three quarters, at least! No spare linens, only what you will wear! Obviously, appropriate clothing for the mountain climate, but also clothing for the heat. Anyway, if you're thinking of going to Peru, you'll need your toque, gloves and scarves as much as you need shorts, t-shirts... We didn't know these details in 2014 during our expedition. Our bag weighed a ton, felt like two! And we had a lot of pride! It took a long time to tell the porters… I can't take it anymore! You got me, take my bag, here's my money (hahaha)!
If you haven't understood, yes, it is possible to pay a Peruvian to transport your things, and he will be happy to do it, but you will have to pay an amount of money per day to do it. In reality, during your expedition, there will be a whole team with you, and there are already porters for tents, food, cooking equipment, etc. Everything is included in your package (usually shop around). The companies are used to it, they hire a few more porters in case, like us, you have made the mistake of bringing too much luggage.
I also highlight the exploits of these men who carry so much equipment on their backs and, it seems, without difficulty, running, frolicking. We even saw one of them doing it in sandals as if nothing had happened! We found it amazing. But how come they have it so easy? Peruvians were born in the mountains, their blood cells have adapted to the altitude! Obviously they are in amazing physical shape and they do this hike every week.
Maybe you are telling yourself right now that you will never pay someone to transport your things like a slave! I tell you: in this case, take my advice, and bring almost nothing! Because you will see that it is much more difficult than you think. Altitude sickness is not a myth. If you don't listen to my advice and realize, like us, that you've brought too many things...I'm telling you...if you don't pay that porter to carry your things, think you just cut him an extra salary. Unfortunately, Peru is a poor country that relies heavily on tourism to have a reasonable standard of living. Think of yourself as part of the economy and helping a family feed itself.
On the second day, our guides told us a funny story. During the time of the Incas, they also had postmen, in a way. He asked us how long the postman could post a letter from the ruins of the village we had visited a few days earlier to Machu Picchu, on foot? We replied… 2 days? Half that it took us, it's still fast. The answer was: half a day!
And we couldn't believe this Olympic feat, we who were suffering just to get to the next camp.
On the third day, there is a place in the mountain that offers electricity to plug in your devices, make some calls, wifi… but honestly, I had felt so disconnected/reconnected with my experience in the mountains, that I didn't feel the need to use electronic devices, far from it. However, you will certainly want to recharge your devices without necessarily wanting to use them because the next day, you will still arrive at Machu Picchu...
The archaeological site of Machu Picchu
We were obviously feverish when our guides came to wake us up that morning. Despite being repeated to us over and over again, despite all the photos and videos we had seen on the web, nothing can prepare you for what you will see and the emotions you will experience during this beginning. of day. Definitely, the sunrise over Machu Picchu on the mythical place of the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) is in my top 3 of the most moving moments I have experienced in my life. It's a mix of joy, pride, accomplishment, wonder, gratitude... We've finally arrived at Machu Picchu! However, the Peruvian adventure has only just begun. Our guides tell us that they are ready to tell us all the details about the ancient city of the Incas. The guided tour was about to start, and all we thought about was… quenching our thirst with a good beer and taking a shower (hahaha)! I obviously found the city of Machu Picchu wonderful, but the ton of tourists swarming in the ruins after this epic through the mountains really spoiled our experience. I surprised myself to have preferred our adventure in the Andes cordillera to the visit of Machu Picchu!
During the guided tour, we learned several interesting facts about their method of observing the constellations, as well as the method of preserving food in this city so remote from everything and admired its many terraces, of course. Mysteries of ingenuity have also revealed themselves once again to us, like a so-called sacred stone, carved like the mountain behind it, or like a gigantic sundial; or this half of Chakana (the sacred cross of the Incas) carved in the rock: its tangible part represents the terrestrial domain, and, its second half represents the domain of the heavens, which appears only with the shadow of the sun or the moon…
As soon as our guide had finished the visit and had given us free time, we looked at each other, my friends and me. And, with a look, we ended this experience with a burst of laughter that turned into little tears of joy and pride. Yes, we did…we did!
It was now time to go back down… by bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes, and we had well deserved it! In the evening, we all got together with our small group of about fifteen people and the guides to taste Cuy (guinea pig)! Your package also includes the return by train and transportation to Cusco (very late arrival).
All those moments are still very intense in my head. I have not forgotten my experience, I tell it with as much enthusiasm. I hope I have convinced you to choose this excursion rather than the Salkantay (but I guess if you have read this far, it is likely). I guarantee that it will be the same for you, I wish you too to walk on this legendary path, to make this pilgrimage that the Incas also made to go to the great city of Machu Picchu.
Note that the Inca Trail is closed in February, and it could be that at the end of January, the path will be closed without notice. The reason is that during these months of the year, it is the rainy season in Peru, the road can be dangerous. In 2019, I wanted to redo the Incas Trail for the shooting of my film on South America and had booked for 4 days at the end of January. We were written to tell us that the roads were in very bad condition (and that someone had died, by the way, due to that!) and that they had to close the road. We were offered to interchange for the Salkantay hike instead… for the same price! Outraged, I categorically refused, and after a long discussion, they ended up refunding us. No regrets after all, because it meant that we explored the Sacred Valley of the Incas from top to bottom, which, in 2014, we had not done.
Useful links :
Official website for purchasing tickets to Machu Picchu: https://reservas.machupicchu.gob.pe/inicio
Peru Rail train tickets:
Real-time availability Machu Picchu (unofficial site, but very well built that can answer many of your questions):