The Classic Inca Trail Trek is one of the most popular hikes in the world, leading to the mysterious ancient Inca citadel Machu Picchu. However, since 2001 the Peruvian government has enforced a quota and permit regulation in order to preserve the more than 500 year-old trail leading directly to Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate. As a result of this regulation, visitors planning to trek the Inca Trail are finding this option for exploring Machu Picchu to be sold out up to 7 months in advance during peak travel season (May-September).
If this sounds like the brick wall you are currently facing in your travel plans, rest assured knowing that there are in fact a variety of other alternative treks to Machu Picchu. While they do not enter the citadel through the Sun Gate, they are all part of the ancient transportation network built by the Inca and are guaranteed to make your visit to the Inca Heartland an unforgettable experience.
Alternative Treks to Machu Picchu
At a Glance
Duration: 4 days/3 nights (or 5 days/4 nights)
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Starting altitude: 2,900 m / 9,515 ft
Highest altitude: 4,650 m / 15,200 ft
Total distance: 60.5 km / 37.5 mi
The Salkantay Trek is the second most popular trek for those wanting to visit Machu Picchu. From Cusco, trekkers will take transportation to Mollepata, where the actually trail begins. From there, the trail steadily climbs through the mountains, gradually increasing in elevation. On Day 1, visitors will hike through Rio Blanco Valley, making their way to their first campsite at Soray Pampa. The first day will cover 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) and end with breathtaking views of the snow-capped peaks, Nevado Salkantay and Nevado Humantay.
Day 2 is the longest and most arduous of the Salkantay, covering an overall distance of 18 kilometers (11.2 miles), and literally going from one extreme terrain to another. Trekkers journey from high altitudes through the rugged Salkantay Pass descending via the Salkantay River to the warmer, lush forests at lower altitudes. Most trekkers will say this is the toughest day of the hike, but by far the most beautiful. With stunning views of the Vilcanota range and the unique subtropical microclimate of the valley below, this leg of the trek will surely offer a wealth of opportunities for some magnificent pictures.
Continuing the journey, on the third day, the trail snakes its way along the Santa Teresa River to arrive in a small village by the same name. Trekkers will have an opportunity to rest and interact with the local people of the town, offering a truly remarkable cultural experience unlike any other in the region.
From Santa Teresa, trekkers finish the last leg of the trail, which ends in Hidroelectrica, a small village with a train station. Trekkers then will have the option of hopping on the train to Aguas Calientes or continue trekking along the train tracks. Once in Aguas Calientes, most tour packages will include an overnight stay in the small town, which is nestled at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. After a good night’s rest, trekkers make their way up Machu Picchu Mountain or its more grandiose neighbor, Huayna Picchu, for the best views of the Lost City.
At a Glance
Duration: 5 days/4 nights
Total distance: 51 km / 31.6 mi
Also known as the jungle trek, the Vilcabamba Trek winds through lower altitude cloud forests north of Machu Picchu. It is a trek unlike any other in the region, spanning over the course of 5 days and 4 nights through the scenic Cordillera Vilcabamba. The trail actually starts in the remote village of Huancacalle, where Inca ruins lie relatively unvisited by tourists. One of the most unique is the White Rock, known as Yuraq Rumi, which is an unusually large carved stone probably used for religious purposes. Also in the area is Vitcos, which was a residence of the last Inca Emperor built while he was in exile during the Spanish conquest in the 1500s.
Over the next few days, trekkers will continue along the ancient Inca trail granting them exclusive opportunities to see the many sub tropical vegetation, including naturally grown coffee and coca, which help to sustain the agrarian families living in the remote villages of the Vilcabamba mountain chain.
Winding their way towards Machu Picchu surrounded by snow-capped mountains, trekkers will experience some of the most breathtaking scenery of the cloud forests amid the tall Andean peaks. Arriving in Aguas Calientes on the fourth day of the trek, travelers are able to rest in the comfort of a hostel or hotel, as well as relax in the thermal baths for which the town is famous. On the fifth day, trekkers can hike or take a short bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu in order to explore the ancient citadel. This is truly a rewarding experience after 5 days of high altitude jungle trekking.
At a Glance
Duration: 9 to 10 days/8 to 9 nights (depending on the pace)
Difficulty: Difficult to Challenging
Starting altitude: 2,900 m / 9,515 ft
Highest altitude: 4,700 m / 15,419 ft
Total distance: 100 km / 62 mi
The Choquequirao Trek is considered one of the most challenging Inca trails in the region. Lasting a total of 8 days and 7 nights, the trail guides travelers through the Rio Blanco Valley into the high altitudes of the once sacred mountain passes. Trekkers will have the opportunity to visit ruins rarely seen by travelers and experience the diversity in ecosystems for which the region is known. From high altitude tundras and lush river valleys to sub tropical cloud forests, this trek will show you the dramatic contrasts of the Inca Heartland.
The trek begins in the small village of Cachora, which is about 3.5 hours by bus from Cusco. On the first and second day, trekkers will descend to the river valley, cross the Apurimac River via canoe, and ascend again before arriving at the archaeological sites of Choquequirao. Along the way, visitors will witness the gradual change in microclimates indicated by the variation in vegetation. It is likely that trekkers will see the famous Andean Condor soaring overhead, as this region is their native land.
During the third and fourth day, the trail winds through the lush Rio Blanco Valley, where trekkers can see the ancient terraces constructed and used by the Inca for centuries. The fifth day is when the trail passes through the highest altitude of nearly 4,700 meters (15,419 feet) above sea level. This is definitely the most difficult day of trekking, but travelers are rewarded with picturesque views of surrounding mountain peaks, like Sacsarayoc and Padriyoj with their crests piercing the clouds. Days 6 and 7 trekkers will descend the pass and will be met with subtropical flora and fauna, waterfalls and tranquil natural baths in the small village of Lucmabamba.
From there, trekkers will continue on to Aguas Calientes, where they can relax and rest before hiking to the entrance of Machu Picchu the next morning. While the trek is difficult, the extra effort makes your experience of the ancient Inca citadel that much more rewarding.
Other popular Inca Trails: Lares Trek and Ausangate
The Lares and Ausangate Treks, both Inca trails, do not end in Machu Picchu, but they do offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains as well as a sacred mysticism which is celebrated by locals every year.
The Lares Trek starts in the Sacred Valley and over the course of 4 days and 3 nights, the trail snakes through small valley towns and ruins to ultimately end in Ollantaytambo. From there, trekkers take the train to Aguas Calientes to explore Machu Picchu.
Alternatively, Ausangate circles Nevado Ausangate, which is about 60 miles east of Machu Picchu. It is one of the most beautiful and sacred treks in the Cusco region, but sees significantly less traffic. The 6 day trek is most famous for the pilgrimage Qoryllur Riti, which takes place every year in June to honor the harvest season and Inca heritage.
There are great alternative treks to get to Machu Picchu. If the Classic Inca Trail is sold out, rest assured that you be able visit the ancient citadel and explore the region much in the way the Inca did more than five hundred years ago. Just make sure you are in good physical health and you are ready for a historical and cultural adventure. Click “Go Discover” now.
Refeatured article from November 2014.
Katy is no stranger to the life of an international traveler. After graduate school, Kathleen worked in California in the legal field, but later realized that life was calling her in a different direction. After a short time in Peru, she fell in love with the culture, the people, the food, and the way of life. Now Kathleen calls Lima her “home away from home,” although she frequently visits the warm, sunny northern Peru to see friends and surf.