Everyone’s heard of THE Inca Trail. But there were 30,000km of Inca trails across the empire. If you fancy hiking in Peru’s Inca heartland but aren’t sure where, then read on...
Length: 5 days
For many, the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a Peru must-do. Most complete the route in four days, which means a pre-dawn start to reach the trailhead, queuing with almost 500 others (the maximum daily allowance) to get permits checked, and then jostling with them on the trail and at the same busy campsites. But allow yourself five days and this over-peopled path becomes a potentially quieter prospect as you’re out of sync with the masses.
On the first day you can set off later, after the crowds have raced ahead. You sleep at the lesser-frequented camps most four-dayers have charged past. You hit the trail’s breath-stealing high-point – 4,215m Dead Woman’s Pass – on day three rather than day two, when you’re better acclimatised. You have more time to take in the views, the wildlife and the ruins.
You’ll also enjoy a better arrival at Machu Picchu itself, reckons Paul Cripps of Cusco-based tour operator Amazonas Explorer: “Rather than trekking in the dark to get to the Sun Gate for an overrated sunrise, you can start the last day’s hike at a sociable hour and arrive at Machu Picchu in the afternoon, when the light is softening (better for photos) and the site is at its quietest.”
Need to know: The trailhead is at Piscacucho (KM82 of the railway); this is a three hour/one hour drive from Cusco/Ollantaytambo. Permits are essential.
Length: 5 days
Salkantay is the ‘savage mountain’, a 6,271m monster rising from the Cordillera Vilcabamba. The trek that bears its name is the most popular alternative to the classic Inca Trail, accessing Machu Picchu via sparkling glaciers, lush cloudforest and high passes – the trail tops out at 4,650m – as well as the Inca site of Llactapata. However, with no permits required (although you will still need a ticket for Machu Picchu) and no limit on hiker numbers, the ‘second choice’ Salkantay trek can end up being busier than the Inca Trail itself.
“Campsites can be crowded and dirty, and trails packed with backpackers and donkey trains,” warns Cripps, who reckons the Lares Trail (below) is a better alternative. Those wanting to avoid camping altogether could consider a lodge-to-lodge option (either on foot or horseback) with Mountain Lodges of Peru, which operates four properties along the Salkantay route with proper beds, hot showers and hot tubs. Note, landslides devastated the area around Santa Teresa in 2020, killing local people and damaging infrastructure; this could delay the reopening of the full trail.
Need to know: The trail starts just beyond the village of Mollepata, which is a two-hour drive west of Cusco.
Length: 3-5 days
Lares lies north of Cusco, an offbeat valley where life goes on much as it has for centuries. It is, says Cripps, “the go-to alternative short trek in the Andes – especially for authentic insights into rural life.” Indeed, what Lares lacks in Inca sites it makes up for in topological drama and cultural interaction. Hikes here pass remote communities of old stone houses, alpaca herds, potato patches and bright-shawled ladies. Permits are not required, and there are numerous trails and trailheads.
Some routes start from Lares village itself (home to hot springs); all routes run via alpine lakes, native forest and high passes (expect to reach around 4,500m) and camp at or near small settlements such as Quiswarani and Huacahuasi. For those who dislike canvas, Mountain Lodges of Peru runs a trekkers’ lodge at Huacahuasi. Itineraries usually end – either on foot or by road transfer – at the charming Inca town of Ollantaytambo, on the trainline to Machu Picchu.
Need to know: Lares village is around 100km north of Cusco by car; treks use different trailheads in the area.
Length: 7-9 days
The slope-side Inca citadel of Choquequirao is less well known and less well excavated than Machu Picchu. It’s also far less busy – Choquequirao might see in a year the number of visitors that Machu Picchu gets in a day. It’s possible to do a four-day there-and-back hike to Choquequirao, which barely tops 3,000m but involves strenuous switch-backing up and down a mile-deep canyon. Better is to plan a longer expedition, trekking beyond Choquequirao and accessing Machu Picchu by the backdoor. This is harder work, including a 4,668m pass, but it’s wild and worth it.
“The two days of hiking beyond Choquequirao to Maizal and on to Yanama are possibly two of my favourite days hiking in Peru,” says Cripps. “Tough but spectacular.” Note, the Choquequirao ruins are extensive, so build in a whole day to explore them.
Need to know: Buses run from Cusco to Cachora, taking from around 3.5 hours. The trailhead is a three-hour walk or short bus/taxi ride from Cachora.
Length: 5 days
At 6,372m, Ausangate is one of the most formidable peaks in the Cusco region. This makes its flanks first choice for those who like their hikes properly mountain-y. The terrain here has a different vibe to jungly Machu Picchu: trekking around Ausangate reveals open puna meadows, alpaca-herding communities, condors and rare vicuñas, and close-ups of glaciers. It’s a tough undertaking, largely due to the altitude – you hike and camp above 4,000m for the duration, and there are two passes over 5,000m.
“You need to be well acclimatised,” says Cripps, “but the rewards are the solitude, the huge views, friendly locals, hot springs and the lakes and formations of ridiculous colours.” Indeed, it’s worth noting that while Vinicunca – aka Peru’s ‘Rainbow Mountain’ – has become overcrowded in recent years, this trek includes multiple ‘rainbow mountains’, which display similar crazy-hued geology but see none of the crowds.
Need to know: The trek starts at Tinki, 80km east of Cusco. The drive from Cusco takes around three hours.
Length: 1 day each
You don’t have to do a multi-day trek at all – the Cusco region has plenty of interesting day hikes that offer variety and more gradual altitude acclimatisation, with no need to camp. First should be a hike around the city’s outskirts, where you can link sites such as Sacsayhuaman, Tambo Machay and Salumpunku (the Temple of the Moon) via well-preserved Inca roads.
Other options include the hike from Moray to the salt pans of Maras and the little-walked route from Chinchero to Huayllabamba. If you’re well-acclimatised, try the trail from Lake Qoricocha to Huchuy Qosqo or hike to Palccoyo, one of the other unspoilt ‘rainbow mountains’ (note, this reaches 4,970m). One day is also enough to give a flavour of the classic Inca Trail.
“If you’re reasonably fit, you can do the KM104 Royal Inca Trail in one day from Ollantaytambo, avoiding overnighting in busy Aguas Calientes,” says Cripps. “If you catch the first train to the trailhead you can be in the ruins for early afternoon, explore Machu Picchu when it’s quieter and catch a late train back. This also means you can leave your stuff in your hotel, avoiding any clashes with PeruRail’s strict luggage limits.”
Need to know: Permits are required for the KM104 trail. Ollantaytambo is 2.5 hours by bus from Cusco.
Length: 10 days
The new Black Diamond itinerary (followed by the author of this article) is a testing 120km trekking itinerary from Cusco to Machu Picchu, with a few judicious road transfers thrown in. Using a mix of lodges and camping, it stitches together lesser-used trails around Cusco and in the Lares Valley to inch towards the ‘lost city’ away from the crowds. Starting the trek in Cusco itself is both exhilarating and literally breathtaking – on day one you’re climbing to heights of 4,200m so prior acclimatisation is vital. Also, most days are long and strenuous, with multiple high passes over 4,000m. But it’s a rich and varied challenge.
Need to know: This trek is run by Mountain Lodges of Peru. A high level of fitness is required to walk it.
The trip: The author travelled with Last Frontiers on its Black Diamond Trek with Mountain Lodges of Peru. This 14-night trip includes flights, a nine-night trekking programme (staying in a mix of lodges, characterful hotels and well-catered camps), four nights in Cusco, one night in Lima and most meals.
Accommodation: El Mercado With rooms arranged around a quiet courtyard, this stylish hotel is only a short walk from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) operates a handful of lodges in the Cusco region, including at Lamay and Huacahuasi, providing a comfortable alternative to camping. These can only be used as part of an MLP programme.
When to go: Jan-Feb Rainy season. Trekking not advised. The Inca Trail’s closed in Feb. March Still damp but clearing. Some weather disruption possible but landscapes lush and trails quiet. April-Oct Dry season; clearest skies, coolest temperatures and the trails’ busiest time. Note, Inca trail permits go on sale in October for the following year; permits for May usually sell out within a week, June and July fill quickly after that. Nov-Dec Warmer but wetter; trails quieter.
Getting there & around: Iberia flies from London Heathrow to Lima, via Madrid. Onward flights to Cusco take 75 mins. Central Cusco is compact and walkable, if hilly. Local taxis are cheap. PeruRail operates several classes of train from Poroy (near Cusco) to Aguas Calientes; this journey takes four hours. Most tourists only use the train between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes (around two hours) – it is quicker to travel Ollantaytambo-Cusco by road.
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