Paths less traveled: 5 treks that rival the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail may be as famous as Machu Picchu, but it’s just one of many ways to get to the stone citadel. Read on for five other great treks to the ancient architectural wonder.
Machu Picchu is a wonder, for sure, but it’s really the punctuation at the end of a sentence. The Inca spent days winding up, down, through, and over the craggy Andes to reach the royal retreat. It’s so remote, and the terrain so difficult, even Spanish conquistadors hot on the warpath gave up the hunt.
Today, tens of thousands of travelers visit the site annually and the reasons are many: It’s an architectural masterpiece. Engineering marvel. Sacred place. Time capsule. All in a natural setting that will take your breath away—if the altitude doesn’t get it first.
Most visitors take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then cling to their seats on a bus that hairpins up the mountainside. But the most authentic way to reach Machu Picchu is on foot. And while the Inca Trail may be as famous as its destination, it’s just one of many ways to get there.
Inca Trail: For name recognition
Perhaps the most famous trail in South America, the 4-day, 26-mile-long Inca Trail is the classic way to reach Machu Picchu. Yes, hikers will see snow-capped peaks, pass through a cloud forest, and explore many other ruins along the way, but there’s a price to fame.
Like a Hollywood starlet hounded by paparazzi, the trail is beset with hikers, porters, and guides: 500 people set out each day. Government-issued permits sell out months in advance, and if you don’t have a ticket, you do not pass go.
The good news is the Inca Trail has campsites with toilets and vendors hawking soda and candy when hikers need a hit. Plus, “This route is the only one with the original Inca trail,” says Ernesto Alonso, a travel advisor with Advice Peru. “The alternatives are mixed with Inca trail and civilization."
On the last day, when hikers queue up for the race to the Sun Gate, the anticipation is palpable. Seeing Machu Picchu from this vantage point at sunrise is unparalleled, and it’s an experience that’s exclusive to the Inca Trail.
Book a classic Inca Trail trek through Kaypi Peru Tours.
Vilcabamba Traverse route: For hiking
When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu in 1911, he was looking for Vilcabamba, the so-called lost city of the Inca. Vilcabamba was the Incan Alamo, the last stand against Spanish invaders, and it’s even farther off the beaten path than Machu Picchu.
The Vilcabamba Traverse route from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu is still less travelled than most other routes, perhaps because it’s best suited for hikers who think two’s a crowd and haven’t met a mountain they can’t dominate. It’s a challenging 65-mile hike that takes a week or more to complete.
The trail begins at the Inca ruins of Choquequirao and continues to Espiritu Pampa, what archaeologists believe is the legendary Vilcabamba. Three mountain passes stand between Vilcabamba and Machu Picchu, and, unless fog, mud, snow, and landslides sound like fun, it’s best to avoid this route during the rainy season, December through March.
On the upside, because of the remote location, hikers likely will encounter more donkeys than people. The downside is the path may be sometimes unmarked, overgrown, and extensively used by donkeys.
Lodge trek: For comfort
Tourists who prefer sleeping in a bed instead of a bag should consider a visit to Machu Picchu via EcoQuechua Lodge.
Not only will you see Incan ruins, but the lodge also offers zip line, hot springs, and birdwatching tours. There’s even massage services. Yep.
Itineraries include a daylong hike to the Inca ruins at Llactapata. “You start out visiting a small, family-owned coffee farm, tasting what is said to be some of the best organic coffee in the world,” says EcoQuechua Lodge's Maureen Santucci.
All that caffeine preps hikers for a three-hour uphill climb to the ruins. “From here, if the weather is clear, you can catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu,” says Santucci. A separate day is spent exploring Machu Picchu with a guide.
Book an adventure with EcoQuechua Lodge Peru.
Jungle trek: For multisport adventure
On the Jungle trek, multisport enthusiasts hike and bike their way to the Inca site. Those looking for more thrills can throw in some rafting and zip lining for good measure.
The four-day trip begins with a bus ride from Cusco to a mountain pass 14,000 feet above sea level. What follows is a half-day downhill mountain bike ride that requires more brakes than pedals. Riders will dodge a few cars and, more than likely, stray dogs on the winding path that ends in Santa Maria.
From here, travelers can tackle the class III and IV rapids of the Urubamba River. Next up, it’s a daylong hike through the tropical lowlands to Santa Theresa, where a soak in the hot springs awaits. A side trip to South America’s longest zip line offers a thrill, for sure, but caveat emptor: safety standards vary.
At Machu Picchu, a hike up Huayna Picchu, overlooking the ruins, is the capstone to this adventure-based vacation. Tickets to the iconic backdrop are limited to 400 each day and should be purchased in advance. The way up is steep and exposed, just how adrenaline junkies like it.
Book a Multisport Adventure in Peru through Advice Peru.
Salkantay route: For nature
Hiking the 51-mile-long, five- or seven-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is a reward in itself. Known for its gorgeous scenery, the route dips into lush valleys, braids through the jungle, and crosses an alpine pass at a dizzying 15,200 feet above sea level.
The ecology of the Andes are at the heart of this experience. Trekkers will see rare orchids, chinchillas, fox, and, if they’re lucky, even a spectacled bear.
“The route’s combination of different ecological zones—from high mountains to the jungle—gives it the greatest variety of flora and fauna,” says Renso Serrano of Kaypi Peru Tours & Adventures.
The serious hiking and camping ends in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Here, a dip in the hot spring and a night in a hotel soothes all the aches and provides a chance to recharge the camera before the coup de gras, visiting Machu Picchu.
The next day, a bus delivers tourists to Machu Picchu’s front door. After a week in the mountains, those well-developed calf muscles come in handy: Hikers have an advantage climbing over terraces and navigating the site’s steep steps. Having all day to explore the ruins also means they can simply sit down and take it all in. They’ve earned it.
Book a Salkantay Route trek through OneSeed Expeditions.
Lares route: For culture
On the four-day, 21-mile-long Lares route wildlife and local culture fill the docket. Hikers pass through thatched-roof villages where Quechua is still spoken and farmers raise those oh-so-photogenic llamas and alpacas. The animals' wool is then woven into the region's iconic ponchos and chullos (colorful hats with earflaps).
Hikers who aren’t winded beyond words can see farmers and their families, and many outfitters encourage hikers to bring small gifts for the local children. Some itineraries will detour to a nearby salt mine and hot spring, and all will end with a bus trip to Machu Picchu.
The Lares route does not require a government-issued pass and sees less traffic overall. It’s not for the faint of heart though. The trail tops out near 15,700 feet above sea level, even higher than the Inca Trail’s Dead Woman’s Pass.