Peru Trekking: An Expert Guide

Inca Trail Alternative Treks

Inca Trail Alternative Treks
By Heather Jasper

The classic Inca Trail trek is deservedly popular, but its fame comes at a cost: this is one of the most sought-after treks on earth, the trail is busy year-round, and you must plan months in advance.

As a result, a number of other treks in the Cusco region have emerged, commonly marketed as Inca Trail or Machu Picchu "alternative treks".

If you’re willing to give up the Machu-Picchu-on-foot grand finale, the advantages of choosing an alternative to the Inca Trail are many: you can bypass the permit system and crowded campgrounds, and delve deeper into traditional Andean culture and more rustic mountain wilderness areas.

And with a higher budget, you can even skip the tent-trekking altogether and pamper yourself in the surprisingly refined mountain lodges to be found en route. There are no lodges on the Inca Trail.

Another important consideration is that porters are required on the Inca Trail, while other trails allow horses, mules and pack llamas. There are ongoing workers’ rights issues for Inca Trail porters, which do not necessarily apply to the muleteers and other support staff on alternative treks.

Ready to go? Here's our essential guide to Peru's main Machu Picchu and Inca Trail alternative treks.

Alternative treks "to" Machu Picchu?

It's important to note that despite the tourism industry's best efforts to rewrite reality and sell these as "alternative Machu Picchu treks", none of the most popular alternatives are technically treks to Machu Picchu. They all finish somewhere near the ruins, followed by a transfer to Aguas Calientes where you'll visit the ruins via train and bus with all the other day-trippers. The classic Inca Trail is the only route that actually arrives at Machu Picchu by foot.

Peru Choquequirao mist

Mist rises over Choquequirao, "the other" Machu Picchu

Best Inca Trail alternative treks

Other treks and hikes in the Cusco region

If you're not sold on the classic Inca Trail, the following Inca Trail alternative treks all pack a powerful punch of Andean wilderness, archeological sites, and cultural interest.

Not all treks include archeological sites, so be sure to consider if your priorities lay with the raw beauty of the Andes or the history of Inca and pre-Inca civilisation.

The Choquequirao Trek

The Choquequirao Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Distance: Approx 64km (40m)

Duration: Four to five days depending on pace

Max elevation: 3,300 metres

Accommodation: Cabins or camping

Start/end point: Capuliyoc

Until recently, relatively unknown and vastly overshadowed by the “sister ruins” of Machu Picchu, the Choquequirao complex is a true hidden gem that receives just a handful of visitors each year.

This splendid isolation is down to the ruins’ absolute lack of access: no luxury train and bus connections here, just a gruelling three-to-four day trek over challenging, but hugely rewarding, terrain. The roundtrip distance is 64 kilometres, not counting how much you walk around the ruins themselves.

The cradle of gold

Although Choquequirao (“Cradle of Gold” in Quechua) is known as Machu Picchu’s “sister ruins,” the only partially excavated site is thought to be significantly larger, more complex and more historically significant than the better-known ruins. Choquequirao’s remoteness and difficulty of access mean that only a few thousand people visit each year–compared to Machu Picchu’s two million annual arrivals!

What you’ll see

The Choquequirao trek is known for its stunning views, utter isolation and sudden changes to the surrounding climate and ecosystem. You’ll depart from the high Andean altiplano and gradually descend into the semitropical forest, winding your way through the steep Apurímac River Valley along the way. You’ll spot condors overhead, tarantulas scuttling below and, if you’re very lucky, a spectacled bear (of Paddington fame) which come out of the forest to drink at the river.

Although the ruins themselves are only partially excavated, numerous discoveries have been made. Choquequirao is famed for its uniquely llama decorated terraces, and impressive stonework reaching down steep valley walls. The site is much larger than Machu Picchu and takes at least a day to fully explore.

How long is the Choquequirao trek?

The most common route Choquequirao, from Capuliyoc is 64km, roundtrip. The route begins at Capuliyoc, near the small village of San Pedro de Cachora. From the trailhead you can see Choquequirao on the opposite canyon rim. The first day includes transportation from Cusco to Capuliyoc and then a hike down into the canyon.

Most groups stay the first night in cabins at Chiquiska on the near side of the river, though some cross the bridge over the Apurímac on the first day and hike up to camp at Santa Rosa. The only place in the canyon that does not yet have cabins is Santa Rosa, so you must bring your own tents if you want to stay there.

The second day is a gruelling climb up to Marampata which is the closest you can stay to the archeological site. A dozen families have built cabins in Marampata and all cook meals for their guests and provide picnic lunches for visiting the ruins. Day three is devoted to exploring Choquequirao, and you’ll need at least one full day to see the areas that have been uncovered so far.

The fourth day, some agencies have you hike from Marampata down to the Apurímac River and up to Capuliyoc on the same day. Others include one more night in a cabin at Chiquiska so you don’t have to repeat the first two days of the trek all together in one day. Most tours include a connection to either Cusco or Aguas Calientes for a visit to Machu Picchu.

How difficult is the Choquequirao trek?

Choquequirao is generally considered to be a challenging trek. Mules and horses are allowed on the trail which makes carrying your equipment easier, but also causes loose stones on the trail that can make hiking more difficult. There are several long, steep descents and climbs that even the fittest trekkers will find demanding. The trail is steep enough that descending on a horse is discouraged. If you rent a horse, expect it to spare you the uphill climbs but that you will hike down on your own. Hiking poles are highly recommended.

Camping on the Choquequirao trek

Families in Chiquiska and Marampata spent the pandemic shutdown in 2020 building new cabins. These are rustic adobe cabins, but very warm and comfortable. Many families also expanded their dining areas and invested in planting more fruits and vegetables to serve hearty and healthy meals to travellers. As previously noted, Santa Rosa does not have cabins and you must bring your own tent if you want to stay there.

How to book

It’s possible to hike the Choquequirao trek solo; be sure to arrive with an adequate map and season-appropriate gear. You can hire a local (but not always official) guide in Marampata to visit the ruins.

The route is served by most trekking operators, which will include all transfers, equipment, food, guide and horses.

Permits are not required but there is a fee to enter Choquequirao which will usually be included in the trip price. If you are hiking solo, you will pay the fee at the trailhead at Capuliyoc.

Key considerations

For some fascinating background reading on this region, try The White Rock by Hugh Thomson, the thrilling story of the area’s discovery and exploration.

Like the other Inca Trail alternative treks, this isn’t technically a Machu Picchu trek, as you’ll need to take a connection from the endpoint to Aguas Calientes. There is an option to combine Choquequirao with the Salkantay trek, making it 11 or 12 days and finishing in Santa Teresa, which is much closer to Machu Picchu.

Since 2011, there has been occasional talk of constructing a cable car to improve access to Choquequirao. As of 2023, building permits had not been approved.

Llamas on the trekking route from Lares in the Andes peru

Llamas on the trekking route from Lares in the Andes

The Lares Trek

The Lares Trek

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: Various routes, classic route approx 33km (20m)

Duration: Three to four days

Max elevation: 4,400 metres

Accommodation: Camping or lodges

Start/end point: Huarán - Lares Hot Springs

This trek is known as the “cultural trek” to Machu Picchu, as it offers opportunities to interact with local communities along the way. It’s one of the shorter treks, which makes it a good option for those who are short on time.

What you’ll see

Hiking from the Sacred Valley up to high mountain passes, you’ll be treated to some stunning vistas on this route. However, the real treat here is meeting the local inhabitants of indigenous villages along the way, learning about ancestral weaving techniques directly from the descendants who are still practising them today. An added (and welcome) bonus is finishing at the hot springs in Lares.

Stories woven in

Traditional weaving is as important a tradition in the high Andes as alpaca herding and the Quechua language. Since Quechua was an oral language long before it was ever a written one, weaving was the main medium for communication, telling stories, and keeping records. By purchasing traditional weavings directly from the artisans, travellers can help keep the tradition alive.

How long is the Lares Trek?

There are several different routes for this hike, but the typical one will have you hiking about three days, covering just over 20 miles. On the third day, you will take a train to Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the following day.

The lodge-to-lodge Lares trek has two versions including the train and tour of Machu Picchu: a five-day version and a seven-day version. Both offer some options in the number of hours you wish to spend hiking each day.

How difficult is the Lares Trek?

The trek is generally rated moderately challenging, although, on the lodge-to-lodge trek, you will be offered opportunities along the way to increase the difficulty of the trek, depending on your preferences and fitness. Either way, the challenging aspect is principally due to the altitude, which on the lodge-to-lodge trek can reach up to 4,420m (14,500 ft).


The traditional route has you camping two nights and spending the third night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. With the lodge-to-lodge versions, you’ll have two to four nights in a luxury lodge, featuring jacuzzi tubs and gourmet food. These lodge stays are usually followed by one night in a hotel in Ollantaytambo and one in Aguas Calientes.

How to book

No permits are necessary for hiking the Lares trail, but you will still want to book with a local operator. They will have the right connections with local horsemen and employ qualified guides who know the area well and speak Quechua. This is key for interacting with the communities along the route, as well as for ensuring your safety in the mountains. There is an extensive web of trails that go through valleys and over several mountain passes and trails are not well marked.

Support staff

With a good trekking operator, you’ll have a guide who is knowledgeable in the history, flora, and fauna of the region, enhancing your experience along the trail and within the communities. You will also have local horsemen to care for the mules and horses that carry your gear, and a cook and assistant cook to prepare your meals.

Key considerations

Although an emergency horse is usually included, if you suspect you may have difficulties, it’s a good idea to request an additional emergency horse for your use (at an extra charge).

Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented.

You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of trekking, as well as to purchase weavings in the communities.

Bring small gifts to pass on to local children in the communities you visit.

Ask trekking agencies if they offer pack llamas rather than mules. Llamas have less impact on trails and the environment.

Approaching Salkantay Mountain peru

Hikers approaching Salkantay Mountain

The Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Distance: Approx. 60km (37m)

Duration: Four to five days

Max elevation: 4,630 metres

Accommodation: Camping or lodges

Start/end point: Challacancha - Santa Teresa

The Salkantay Trek is the most popular alternative to the Inca Trail, described by National Geographic as one of the best treks in the world. While there are no ruins along the way unless you do the lodge-to-lodge version, the opportunity for gorgeous landscapes is even greater than on the Inca Trail, leading it to be known as the “Nature Trek.”

What you’ll see

From snow-capped mountains down to high jungle, this trek is known for its varied ecosystems and landscapes. You’ll pass high mountain glaciers, walk along rolling fields and pastures, and end up in the high jungle that surrounds Machu Picchu.

Savage mountain

Looming large in the background of this trek is the glacier-clad Mt. Salkantay. It forms part of the fierce Cordillera Vilcabamba range, with a peak that reaches a staggering 6,270 m (20,574 ft) of altitude. Worshipped for thousands of years by the local highlanders, Mt. Salkantay takes its name from a Quechua phrase meaning "savage mountain."

How long is the Salkantay trek?

The length of this hike can vary, both in mileage as well as in the number of days. The traditional version is four days of hiking, covering a distance of about 37 miles. If you choose the much more comfort-oriented lodge-to-lodge version of the trek, you will hike for six days, covering a bit more distance but with less hiking time per day.

All trekking agencies include transportation from Cusco to Challacancha. Most include transportation from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes, the shuttle from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu itself and the train from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo with another shuttle to Cusco.

How difficult is the Salkantay trek?

The trek is challenging, primarily because of the altitude. The highest point is the Salkantay Pass, at 4,630 m (15,213 ft) above sea level. Even after crossing the pass, although you will continue descending, there are some ups and downs that will feel very long if you’re not in great shape or not properly acclimatised.


If you do the traditional version, you’ll be camping for three nights and spend the fourth night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. Your tour of Machu Picchu will be on the fifth morning.

A popular alternative to the original camping route is the Salkantay lodge-to-lodge trek. This is a very different experience, which combines the sense of accomplishment with the added bonus of spending each night in a series of luxury mountain lodges, each with its own distinct character. Replete with goose-down bedding, gourmet food, on-site masseuse and the sublime pleasure of an outdoor jacuzzi, these luxury lodges are just the remedy after a hard day’s hike!

How to book

There are no permits necessary to hike the Salkantay Trek, although this is subject to change. Solo trekking is possible but even experienced trekkers are encouraged to use a trekking outfitter for the added benefit of experienced guides and horsemen to ensure your safety and enjoyment of the experience.

Key considerations

Even for experienced trekkers and the very fit, Salkantay will be a challenge due to the altitude. Prepare yourself with plenty of cardio exercise in the weeks and months before travel, and ensure you’re properly acclimatised in Cusco before setting out.

Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented. Quality varies, and temperature drops to very cold, especially on the first night. It’s recommended to bring your own four-season sleeping bag or a silk liner for extra warmth.

Bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping. You’ll also pass huts selling drinks, chips, and chocolate, where small change is needed!

Ausungate trail Cusco Peru horsemen

Horsemen in traditional Quechua dress following the Ausungate trail

The Ausangate Trek

The Ausangate Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Distance: Approx. 96km (60m)

Duration: Four to five days

Max elevation: 5,200 metres

Accommodation: Camping

Start/end point: Tinki - Pacchanta

Because Ausangate Mountain is in the opposite direction to Machu Picchu, this trek is not typically described as an alternative to the Inca Trail. This can be to your benefit, however, as it also gives you the opportunity to explore the Andes on a trail that is far less travelled.

The classic Ausangate route is a beast of a trek, although - as with Salkantay - there is a lodge version that brings some very welcome creature comforts to the overall experience.

What you’ll see

The landscape here is rugged, wild, and pristine. You’ll be surrounded by awe-inspiring glacier mountains, turquoise lagoons of various sizes, and wildlife such as an abundance of waterfowl, raptors, and vizcachas, a cousin of the chinchilla. There are also some high mountain communities in this area who shepherd their alpacas in the region and offer some of the most beautiful weavings you’ll see in Peru. You’ll also get to soothe your aching feet in hot springs along the way.

The colourful mountain

As a climax of this route, trekkers arrive on the fourth day to a sight they’ve seen in all the photos: the “colourful mountain”. This ridge has also been nicknamed the “painted mountain” and the “rainbow mountain” by those trying to express the surreal layers of pastel purples, greens, yellows and reds that stripe it. Describe the scene how you will, and have your cameras ready, but you really do have to see it to believe it!

How long is the Ausangate trek?

The traditional Ausangate trek spans five days and takes you over about 60 miles or so of terrain and up to a maximum altitude of around 5,200m (16,000 ft) above sea level. The lodge-to-lodge hikes are offered in variations from just two days up to seven, so you can find a route that meets your interest and fitness level.

How difficult is the Ausangate trek?

The classic Ausangate trek is extremely challenging, in particular, because of the altitude, not to mention the cold nights. The lodge routes (see below) are a very different experience, although the extra comforts won’t negate the altitude, weather and gruelling ascents.


On the classic camping trek, which loops around Mt. Ausangate, you’ll be camping for four nights in marked campsites that are more or less maintained by local communities.

The lodge route takes you from lodge-to-lodge, each one as beautiful as the last and all constructed from local materials. Part-owned and operated by members of the nearby Chillca community, the lodges are a great example of inclusive tourism. Although there is no electricity, the lodges are comfortable and cosy, especially in the evenings around the fire. The fresh meals prepared each day are delicious and you can even have a hot shower!

How to book

This is another trek that needs no permit and can, theoretically, be done solo. Yet it is highly advisable to book with a local trekking operator. With the higher altitude and more remote conditions, you will need a guide and support staff who are well-versed in the requirements of trekking in this area.

Key considerations

Even the very fit will find this a challenging route due to the altitude. An emergency horse will be available for exhausted trekkers but should not be relied upon for completing the trek. Make sure you’re fit, healthy, fully acclimatised and not suffering from any stomach troubles before you set off.

Local communities graze alpacas in the area, so there are hundreds of animal trails that can easily be confused with the main trekking trail.

Be prepared for long nights at low temperatures (below freezing at night). If you are tent-camping, layers and proper equipment are vital. Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, but they can be rented. It’s advisable to bring an additional sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.

You’ll be able to purchase weavings in the communities you pass through--it’s much welcome support for a traditional (and waning) livelihood. Bring small change if you’d like to stock up on souvenirs. Buying directly from the women who raise the alpaca, shear the wool, spin the yarn and weave the final product is even better than “fair trade.”

Lesser-known Inca Trail alternative treks

Getting further off the beaten path

The following routes are far less mainstream than the above treks. You may find difficulty booking these as organised tours. Trekking solo may be possible but is not recommended.

The Vilcabamba Trek

The Vilcabamba Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Duration: Five days

Distance: 55 km

Maximum elevation: 4500m

Start/end point: Huancacalle - Yanatile

The Vilcabamba Trek takes hikers through the remote and rugged Vilcabamba mountain range, home to the last Inca stronghold during the Spanish conquest. Few trekking agencies run trips here but if you do go, you’ll likely have the place to yourself. Two amazing Inca ruins that you’ll visit are Vitcos and Ñustahispana.

The highlight of the trek is the visit to the remote and well-preserved Inca site of Espiritu Pampa, also known as "The Last City of the Incas." Read “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams for a humorous account of his gruelling trek to Vilcabamba. This is a difficult trek because of the high mountain passes.

The trail ends near Yanatile, from which you can go back to Cusco or to Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu the next day.

The Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Duration: Nine days

Distance: 115 km

Maximum elevation: 4200m

Start and end point: Capuliyoc - Machu Picchu

This trek is a combination of the Choquequirao Trek and the Salkantay Trek, offering a more challenging and remote experience for adventurous hikers. The trek takes hikers through rugged Andean landscapes, traditional Andean villages, and ancient Inca ruins, past the remote Choquequirao to the iconic Machu Picchu. The highlight of the trek is the opportunity to visit two of the most important Inca sites in the region, as long as you want to walk that far.

The Choquequirao to Vilcabamba Trek

Choquequirao to Vilcabamba

Difficulty: Challenging

Duration: 10-12 days

Distance: 184 km

Maximum elevation: 4350m

Start and end point: Capuliyoc - Huancacalle

This is a long trek that is perfect for people with time who want to hike to the two best Inca ruins: Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. The trail is difficult but many agencies offer horses for those who want to ride part of the way. You will camp near small mountain communities each night, so bring small change if you want to buy alpaca weavings or other souvenirs directly from the people who make them.

The trek ends at Huancacalle but agencies include transportation to Santa Teresa, from where you can walk or take the train to Aguas Calientes. Check that the agency also includes the shuttle up to Machu Picchu, then train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and shuttle back to Cusco. Camping on the trail, plus lodging in Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes should be included.

The Vilcabamba-Lares Trek

The Vilcabamba-Lares Trek

Difficulty: Challenging

Duration: Eight days

Distance: 120 km

Maximum elevation: 4,500m

Start and end point: Hidroelectrica - Lares

This trek is a combination of the Vilcabamba Trek and the Lares Trek, offering a more challenging and remote experience for adventurous hikers. The trek takes hikers through the remote and rugged Vilcabamba and Lares mountain ranges, home to the last Inca stronghold during the Spanish conquest and traditional Andean communities. The trek offers a mix of beautiful Andean landscapes, traditional Andean villages, ancient Inca ruins, and hot springs. The highlight of the trek is the visit to Espiritu Pampa, also known as "The Last City of the Incas"

Inca Trail Alternative Treks

Heather Jasper

Based in Cusco, Peru, Heather is an expert on travel to Peru and South America. Heather writes on travel to Peru and beyond for publications including BBC Travel, Fodor’s Travel, Matador Network, Thrifty Nomads, World Nomads, Scott’s Cheap Flights, Flashpack, and more. Heather co-founded the Covid Relief Project with Henry Quintano Loaiza to assist vulnerable families in the Cusco region.

Inca Trail Alternative Treks

Maureen Santucci

Maureen is based in the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco, where she works as a travel advisor and journalist covering Peru for Fodors Travel Guides and a variety of other publications.

Why Horizon Guides?

Impartial guidebooks

Impartial guidebooks

Our travel guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for impartial travel advice.

Expert itineraries

Expert itineraries

Suggested itineraries and routes to help you scratch beneath the surface, avoid the tourist traps, and plan an authentic, responsible and enjoyable journey.

Specialist advice

Specialist advice

Get friendly, expert travel advice and custom itineraries from some of the world’s best tour operators, with no spam, pressure or commitment to book.