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.
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.
There are many tour operators in Cusco that offer the Salkantay Trek, generally in 5 days but it can be done in 4 days. There are also different routes that can be hiked, so make sure to compare the options. The cheapest companies will start from Mollepata so that they can save money on transportation. The best tour operators will start from Soraypampa which is the actual start of the hike, since from Mollepata to Soraypampa it is a dirt road for vehicles.
It is also 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 or above and you will need camping equipment good enough for freezing temperatures. It will also be important to have a good map and plenty of water. You will need to carry food for at least two and a half days. It is also a good idea to bring water purification pills or a lifewater straw if you are hiking on your own. There are many streams, but you will need to purify or boil the water first.
To properly prepare for this hike, it is important to be acclimatized. It is recommended to spend at least 2 days in Cusco before starting the hike. You may want to take altitude sickness pills just to be on the safe side. It is also necessary to be in shape since the trail ascends to the Salkantay Pass at 4,600m.
When to Go
The dry season is the best time for this trek. In Cuzco, the dry season lasts from April to November, and the wet season is from December to March. From June to September are the most popular months to do the trek, due to summer vacations in Europe and the US. It is generally thought that May and October offer the best weather conditions.
To get to Mollepata you can take a taxi (60 soles for the whole car) or take a shared minibus from Arcopata in Cuzco for 15-20 soles per person.
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). There are some short cuts you can take to reach to Soraypampa which will probably be the highest and coldest sleeping place on this trek. There is a camp site, you can also freedom camp in the bush.
Take it easy on the pass the next day, especially if you are not acclimatized.
There is an unmanned (free) camp site just after Huaracmachay when you start going down in the lush valley. You hit the first small shops in Chaullay and Collpampa.
A hot pot is being constructed at the hot springs (close to a bridge) after Collpampa so it is not possible to bathe at the moment (July 2013). At the hot springs you can cross the river and hike down on the left side of the valley (more interesting) or you can stay on the road on the right side of the valley. 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.
It is highly recommended (though more difficult) to hike from here to Hidroelectrica rather than to Sta Teresa. The trail to Hidroelectrica is very well marked. You will have to climb for 3 hours then go down for 2 hrs to reach Hidroelectrica. Some 15 minutes after the top of the climb there are some ruins with amazing views to Machu Picchu where you can wild camp. This is highly recommended if you can time it so. 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.
From Hidroelectrica it is 2.5-3 hr along the railway to reach Aguas Calientes.
(update: the list below is added by a travel agency)