Trekking In Peru

Alternatives To The Inca Trail

Alternatives To The Inca Trail
By Maureen Santucci

For the adventure-minded, there’s nothing quite like traversing a long trail over several days on foot, arriving to a new place by muscle power just like the journeymen of old.

Peru’s treks satisfy this human instinct to travel by foot for days, to earn a destination after a hearty physical challenge.

The classic Inca Trail is so famously popular because its final destination is the most spectacular of all: Machu Picchu. Only on this classic route can you actually arrive at the Lost City of the Incas on foot at the end of the journey. For any of the alternative treks, the route will finish at a different point, and you’ll arrive in Machu Picchu via train to Aguas Calientes.

Machu Picchu Peru

A llama grazing at Machu Picchu

Yet, the advantages of choosing an alternative to the Inca Trail are many. The Inca Trail’s fame gives it a populated feel, even with the strict implementation of a permit system that caps traffic at 500 people per day and sells out months in advance. If you’re willing to give up the Machu-Picchu-on-foot finale, then you can bypass the permit system. You can delve deeper into traditional Andean villages and more extreme mountain wilderness areas. And with enough budget, you can even skip the tent-camping altogether and pamper yourself in the surprisingly refined mountain lodges to be found en route.

This chapter provides a side-by-side comparison of the Inca Trail to its best-known alternatives, followed by a more in-depth description of each trek.

The classic Inca Trail trek

The Inca Trail is easily the most famous of all the Machu Picchu treks. Since it first opened, it’s been included in every roundup of the world’s best trekking routes, and for good reason. There’s something profoundly magical about making this pilgrimage, as the Inca once did from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Meet your porters

Some hikers may be disconcerted to see local porters doing all the heavy lifting. Indeed, porter welfare on the Inca Trail has a thorny past, and there is still room for improvement. Many porters come from rural areas, supplementing agricultural income with tourism work. Here are a few tips for good porter treatment:

  • Book responsibly with an outfitter that respects the weight-carrying limit and pays at least the minimum required wage.
  • Get to know them. Despite language barriers, you can share photos and cocoa leaves, and ask your guide to help communicate.
  • Say thanks. Extend a message of gratitude directly to the porters, and be sure to bring cash for a tip at the end.
What you’ll see

Although you’ll certainly see your share of stunning landscapes as you head from the mountains to the high jungle, this trek is particularly known for its stop-offs at numerous Inca sites along the way. While you’ll be sharing the path with a great number of other tourists, porters, cooks, and guides, you can still snatch some private moments to take in the scenery, not to mention the history, of the trail.

How long is the Inca Trail?

It takes four days to reach Machu Picchu, covering a distance of around 28 miles. The first day starts out fairly gradually. The second morning is the hike’s toughest, as you climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which peaks at an altitude of 4,200m (13,800 ft). On the fourth morning, depending on where you camped on the third night, you’ll have a hike of between two and five hours to reach Machu Picchu, as there are two possible campsites allocated on a first come, first served basis when the permits are purchased. The earlier you book, the more likely you are to get the preferred final campsite which, in addition to being closer to Machu Picchu, has showers and a bar/restaurant.

How difficult is the Inca Trail?

The hike is considered moderately challenging, primarily due to its altitude. Even the fittest hikers struggle with this route if they are sensitive to high elevations. It’s good to find out how your body responds to the altitude before departure and to spend several days acclimatising in Cusco or the Sacred Valley before the trek begins.

Much of the trail is along stone paths which can be slippery during the rainy season. That being said, it’s probably the best of the multi-day treks during that time of year, as the other trails can be too muddy or you may even have snow at the highest points.

Camping on the Inca Trail

There are no lodges available on this trek, so you will be camping for three nights. Camping is in designated camping areas with minimal facilities (think squat toilets and cold showers). The quality of food and camping equipment will depend on your outfitter–at the highest end, a “glamping” option provides spacious tents with cots, pop-up toilets, and even a pop-up hot shower.

How to book Inca Trail permits
  • The Inca Trail must be booked through a travel agency, and permits must be purchased ahead of time.
  • Just 500 people per day are allowed on the trail, including support staff such as cooks, porters, and guides. Therefore, the actual number of permits available for tourists is limited to around 200.

  • Most operators will require a non-refundable deposit to secure your booking and permits. This is usually deducted from your final payment.
  • The Inca Trail trail sells out several months ahead of time, so it’s important to book well in advance–especially if you’ve got limited flexibility in your schedule or want to travel over the peak months of July or August.
  • Note that the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance and cleaning during the entire month of February. If you’re travelling over this period you’ll need to consider one of the many excellent alternatives.
  • Permits are associated with your passport number and cannot be transferred.
  • The typical package includes a return to Cusco on the 4th day. If you want to spend a night in Aguas Calientes, you should let the agency know this at the time of booking.
Support staff

You will be supported on your trek by a licensed guide, porters to carry the equipment, a cook, and at least one assistant cook. You may also hire a personal porter to carry your belongings so that you only need a daypack for essentials such as water. Porters must be booked at the same time as you book your permits.

Key considerations
  • After many years of substandard porter welfare, porter loads are now strictly regulated for their safety. You can typically hire either “half” a porter to carry 7kg (15.4 lb) or a “full” porter to carry 14kg (30.8 lb). Included in this weight will be your sleeping bag.
  • Most operators do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented.
  • Only rubber tipped hiking poles are allowed on the trail to prevent excessive damage and erosion to the ancient stonework.
  • You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping.
Llamas on the trekking route from Lares in the Andes peru

Llamas on the trekking route from Lares in the Andes

The Lares Trek

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

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, travellers can help keep the tradition alive.

What you’ll see

Hiking through the gorgeous Sacred Valley and 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 Andean 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.

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 5-day version and a 7-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).

Camping on the Lares Trek

The traditional route has you camping two nights and spending the third night in a hotel. 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 an 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.

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 horsemen who will care for the mules and horses that carry your gear, and a cook and assistant cook to prepare your meals.

Key considerations
  • Although there will be at least one emergency horse, 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. See Responsible Trekking for more advice.
Approaching Salkantay Mountain peru

Hikers approaching Salkantay Mountain

The Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is the number one 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.”

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."

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.

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 4 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 6 days, covering a bit more distance but with less hiking time per day.

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 acclimatized.

Camping on the Salkantay trek

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.

Salkantay lodge trekking

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 it’s 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 horseman to ensure your safety and enjoyment of the experience.

Key considerations
  • Even for experienced trekkers and the very fit, Salkantay will be a challenge. 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 at 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, small change needed!
Ausungate trail Cusco Peru horsemen

Horsemen in traditional Quechua dress following the Ausungate trail

The Ausangate Trek

Because Ausangate Mountain is in the opposite direction to Machu Picchu, this trek is not typically offered 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.

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!

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 chinchilla-like animal. There are also some high mountain communities in this area who shepherd their animals in the region and offer some of the most beautiful weavings you’ll see in Peru. You’ll also get to sooth your aching feet in hot springs along the way.

How long is the Ausangate trek?

The traditional Ausangate trek spans six days and takes you over about 60 miles or so of terrain and up to a maximum altitude of around 4,800m (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.

Camping on the Ausangate trek

On the classic camping trek, which loops around Mt. Ausangate, you’ll be wild camping in unmarked campsites for five nights.

Ausangate trek lodges

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 credible 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
  • Aim to reach the “rainbow mountain” before 9:30am, when the tour buses of day hikers start to arrive.
  • Even the very fit will find this a challenging route. 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 acclimatized and not suffering from any stomach troubles before you set off.
  • 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.
Ruins at the Inca Site of Choquequirao Andes Mountains Peru

Ruins at the Inca Site of Choquequirao

The Choquequirao Trek

Largely 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 train and bus connections here, just a gruelling three-to-four day trek over challenging, but hugely rewarding, terrain.

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 steep valleys along the way. You’ll spot condors overhead, tarantulas scuttling below and, if you’re very lucky, a spectacled bear (of Paddington fame) in the distance.

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?

There are a variety of routes to Choquequirao, depending on the start and finish point. A typical route (approximately 40 miles) begins at the small village of San Pedro de Cachora, starting with rolling farmland, before entering the Apurimac Valley and following a long descent to the first campsite at Santa Rosa on the banks of the mighty Apurimac River.

The second day is a gruelling climb back up the other side of the valley which eventually culminates at the gates of Choquequirao. Day three is devoted to exploring Choquequirao, and you’ll hike back out on day four–either the way you came or via a different route. Most tours include a connection to either Ollantaytambo 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 there are several long, steep descents and climbs that even the fittest trekkers will find demanding.

Camping on the Choquequirao trek

In an effort to improve the route’s popularity (and profitability) the government has invested in camping grounds, some including toilets and running water, along the route. As with all treks, the quality of your service depends entirely on your outfitter and how much you decide to pay.

How to book
  • It’s possible to hike the Choquequirao trek solo; be sure to arrive with an adequate map, provisions and season-appropriate gear.
  • Otherwise, the route is served by most trekking operators, which will include all transfers, equipment, food, guide and porters.
  • Permits are not required but there is a fee to enter Choquequirao which will usually be included in the trip price.
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 alternatives, this isn’t technically a Machu Picchu trek, as you’ll need to take a connection from the endpoint to Aguas Calientes.
  • There has long been talk of constructing a cable car to improve access to Choquequirao. If this ever happens its days as a secluded backwater will be truly over – get there quick!
Alternatives To The Inca Trail

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.

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