So you wanted to hike the Inca Trail but tickets are all sold out? Not to worry. With the Andes running right down its middle, Peru has numerous trekking options to choose from. And unlike the Inca Trail, most don’t require booking months in advance. In fact, alternate treks to Machu Picchu can offer a more secluded, challenging, or cultural experience, depending on which path you follow. Here’s three to choose from.
If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge as you make your way toward Machu Picchu, consider the Salkantay Trek. This 4-day 3-night trek is longer than the standard Inca Trail (34 miles compared to 28) and you’ll pass through higher altitude levels—topping out at 15,100 feet above sea level (the Inca Trail hits 13,830).
The first day is an easy introduction to the trek. You’ll ride from Cuzco to the trailhead and spend the morning and early afternoon walking past villages and Inca sites. On the second day you’ll start the steep ascent to the glacier lake Soyrococha. The stunning view of snow-covered Salkantay peak is reward for making it through the highest pass of trip. On the third day of trekking you’ll descend through tropical cloud forest and have lunch and camp at the same place in order to get some extra rest. The fourth day starts with a difficult climb to the Llactapata pass and a descent to the hydro-electric station on the Urubamba River.
Here your trek technically ends, as you catch the train for a short ride to the town of Aguas Calients (also called Machu Picchu Pueblo), but your tour does not. You’ll spend a night in a hotel (enjoy a nice hot shower and meal indoors) and visit Machu Picchu the following day.
Unlike the standard Inca Trail, you will not hike through the Sun Gate, but rather take the bus to the citadel’s main entrance. This can be a positive or negative, depending on your preference. Some travelers have their heart set on entering Machu Picchu through the famed Sun Gate. However, by spending the night before your visit to Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes, you avoided the weary 3:30 am wakeup call required on the Inca Trail, meaning you’ll have more energy to devote to exploring Machu Picchu.
If you want to follow a similar route but sleeping in tents isn’t really your thing, check out the Machu Picchu lodge trek. This path is similar but you’ll stay in comfortable lodges at night.
Photo - Mike
A lighter trekking option is the Lares trail. This 3-day, 2-night hike is a cultural experience into the everyday life of Andean Peru. Although you’ll still have to battle the altitude (it actually surpasses the Inca Trail in altitude at one point), the Lares trek is best for travelers looking for scenery and culture, rather than a physical challenge.
The first day you’ll ride through the Sacred Valley to the small village Lares, where the 24-mile trek begins. Before setting off, you’ll enjoy lunch in the village and bathe in local hot springs. The afternoon is taken up by a several hour hike to second, more isolated Andean community. You’ll spend the first night here, with ample time to interact with locals and view weaving demonstrations. Unlike on the Inca Trail, you will have horses or mules to carry your belongings, rather than porters.
The second day is the most difficult, ascending to over 14,500 feet above sea level. The views from this high are spectacular, and other than some llamas and alpacas, you’re likely to be the only one around. Leave the thin air behind as you descent to Ipsaycocha Lake for lunch before continuing on to a Quechua community known for its traditional textiles. In the morning, you’ll continue downhill through the valley, making your way toward the town of Ollantaytambo. From here, you’ll take the train to the town of Aguas Calientes.
Like the Salkantay Trek, the hiking portion of your trip ends at the base of Machu Picchu. You’ll have a night to rest and enjoy the comfort of town before heading up to explore Machu Picchu the following day.
This option is for those who have already seen Machu Picchu, or who don’t mind skipping it. Although the Choquequirqo trek does end up at a spectacular Incan site, it is not Machu Picchu. Choquequirao (often called Machu Picchu’s sister city) is about the same size as Machu Picchu, but much less commercialized; only about 30% of the site has been uncovered.
Similar to the Salkantay, this trek includes 4 full days of trekking and 3 nights on the trail. And though demanding, the altitude is lower (you will not surpass 10,000 feet). During the first day of hiking, you’ll get to see the Apurimac Canyon; the Apurimac River comes from glacial meltwater and eventually flows into the Amazon River. By the third day you’ll have reached the ruin site of Choquequirao. You’ll tour the site in relative isolation before hiking on downhill through a tropical environment, as you still have one more day on the trial before finding civilization again.
This trip ends with a transfer back to Cuzco, though travelers with more time (and who want to see more ruins) can add on a trip to Machu Picchu.
Thanks to Mike for the title image of this blog.