There’s nothing as satisfying as entering Machu Picchu on foot through the Sun Gate, which is why the classic Inca Trail is South America’s most popular hike. Permits for the peak summer season sell out months in advance. As the original, oldest and best-known trek to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is on the bucket list of many visitors to Peru. However, only 500 permits are issued for the trail each day, this includes guides, porters and trekkers. The only way to guarantee your permits on the Inca Trail is to book months in advance. Fortunately, the Inca built many trails throughout the Andes, many as alternate routes to Machu Picchu. Here are six alternatives, most of which require no permit and can all be arranged and booked through Guiding Peru, www.guidingperu.com
1. The Salkantay Route
Salkantay is the most frequented Inca Trail alternative. This trek is recommended for those who can’t get on the Inca Trail, but want a similar experience. Traditionally five days, it leads trekkers up Salkantay Mountain (one of the highest peaks in the Andes of Peru at over 20,000 feet) and passes through Quechuan communities and lesser-known Inca ruins. The classic Inca Trail is famed for the diversity of its topography and ecosystems; Salkantay’s Route is even more impressive. Mount Salkantay was one of the Inca’s holiest sacred peaks and is still still revered today in traditional Andean religion. This mule-assisted hike travels through the beautiful Mollepata Valley and traverses past Salkantay at an altitude above 15,000 feet before descending into subtropical cloud forest, where it meets up with an ancient Inca highway that leads to the ruins of Llactapata. From there, one can gaze a few miles across the valley to take in a view of Machu Picchu. A downhill trail ends at the train station, where a shuttle runs along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
2. The Lares Route
What draws travelers to the Lares trek is the unique opportunity to visit a few of the native Quechua communities along the route. Unlike the larger highland towns, people in these small villages live as they have for hundreds of years, their livelihood dependent on farming and weaving. Locals in traditional Andean dress plant potatoes by hand, raise herds of llamas and alpacas, and weave as they have for generations. Those farmers and artisans may be the only other people you see for days. This trek starts in the town of Lares, home to a famous hot spring, and passes through several mountain villages. Along the way it provides close-up views of the 18,000 feet of Mount Veronica and several high-altitude lakes offering many regional animals to view, including llamas, vicuñas, alpacas and chinchillas. The trek ends near the historic ruins of Ollantaytambo, a UNESCO heritage site, where you will board the train to Machu Picchu.
3. Choquequirao to Machu Picchu (The Vilcabamba Traverse Route)
For those looking for solitude and serenity, the Vilcabamba trek is ideal. This trek enters the last refuge of the Incas, Vilcabamba, and like the Salkantay Trek, offers spectacular diverse views ranging from tropical jungles to snowy peaks. This hike covering 60 miles takes a week to complete and is an incredible trek to visit off the beaten path Inca sites, including Machu Picchu. Starting at the town of Cachora, a two-day hike crosses the mile-deep Apurimac River canyon to the remote ruins of Choquequirao, which recently have become famous for their similarity to Machu Picchu. The route then continues along original stone Inca highways through the sparsely populated Cordillera Vilcabamba, Hikers will cross a mountain range, rivers and valleys, while trekking through some of the regions varied scrub, grassland and tropical forest scenery. The trek ends a short distance from Machu Picchu, where many will continue to trek, while others may opt for the train to complete their journey.
4. The Lodge Trek
This adventure is similar to the Salkantay Route, offering views of the sacred apus and their glaciers, but allows you the privilege of staying in the comforts of a lodge overnight. This new 7-day route is for those who want to hike like an explorer by day but sleep in the comforts of home each night. The lodges offer gourmet meals and fine Peruvian drinks in the best locations along the trail. The trek reaches a height of 15,000 feet before descending into a lush valley where coffee and bananas plantations offer tours and tastings. Luxury lodgings near Machu Picchu and private English/Spanish speaking Indigenous tour guides are included in the price of Guiding Peru’s exclusive package tours.
5. The Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail
History shows that the fleet-footed Chaski messengers kept the outposts of the vast Inca Empire connected. Reported to run so fast that the emperor was able to dine nightly in Cusco on fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean, a mountainous 300 miles away. This high-altitude route follows some of the same paths those runners used, and takes in seldom-visited remote Inca buildings, water channels, and quarries. Here one can see firsthand how the Inca obtained the stone used in their building projects. Most versions of the Chaski Route include a stop at the spectacular waterfall named Perolniyoc and its nearby ruins. The trail ends at Ollantaytambo, where trekkers can visit one of the most famous sets of Inca ruins, listed by UNESCO as the only living museum in the world, before hopping the train to Machu Picchu. The Cachicata Trail is a medium difficulty trek which gives you somewhere between 3 to 5 days to explore the Cusco region. This exciting trail will take you through some of the region’s most stunning waterfalls and Inca ruins. The most memorable and scenic section of this journey is possibly the Inca Canyon, which is referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Peru”. Compared to the other routes, it’s slightly easier and may be well suited to less experienced hikers.
6. Ancascocha trek
The Ancascocha trek to Machu Picchu is ideal for those who wish to experience non-crowded sites while visiting local Andean villages. This amazing Ancascocha trek is along an ancient and remote footpath located in the same region as the Classic Inca Trail in the Peruvian Andes. It is one of the best alternative treks to the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and was named by National Geographic as one the top 20 hikes worldwide. The trek allows you to enjoy the beautiful scenery surrounded by stunning views of the Vilcanota mountain range, along the Ancascocha Lake, 12,136 ft, which originated the name for this trek. While walking on an ancient stone paved Inca Trail you will experience one of the highest passes on the hikes to Machu Picchu, Huayanay Pass 14,925 ft, from here is possible to see many of the tall mountains in the region including the 20,000ft peaks of Apu Salkantay.