Take alternative routes to the Inca Trail
Let yourself be guided by the mountain spirits and discover how to get to the heart of the Inca Empire through some less explored trails.
The first thing one should know when visiting Machu Picchu is: there is not only one way to reach the lost city of the Incas.
The second is that it was never really lost. It is said when Hiram Bingham III ‘found’ this wonder of the modern world in 1911 there were four families living there.
The last, and perhaps the most important, is that it is not necessary to visit Machu Picchu only once in a lifetime. Each of the roads that lead to Machu Picchu allows rediscovering it again and again. Come with us to (four) Machu Picchu hikes and feel the power of the ancient Inca Empire.
Almost all those who are left without a ticket for the Inca Trail (only 500 daily passes are allowed), choose the Salkantay Trek. It means one more day of ‘trekking’ and a few more kilometers in your boots, but it promises lonely trails, unique landscapes and the possibility to feel closely the power of the apus, the mountain spirits.
The highest point of the road is Abra Salkantay, or Salkantay pass, which is reached on the second day of walking. The one known as “Wild Mountain” is surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Vilcabamba mountain range, and was one of the most important for the Incas. It is one of the 12 sacred apus that surround Cusco and was in charge of protecting the Machu Picchu citadel.
Besides snowy mountains, the Salkantay Trek crosses different natural environments: high altitude jungle, valleys and cloud forests, fields, waterfalls… And even part of the original Qhapaq Ñan, the network of roads that linked all the Empire with Cusco. Unlike the Inca Trail, the admission is free and it is not mandatory to go with a guide (even if it is recommended, because no one knows the secrets of the mountains better than them, maybe only the apus).
The road starts from Mollepata and ends in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From here, you can choose between walking the last nine kilometers to the historic sanctuary or getting on a bus.
The Lares Trek also crosses landscapes of abundant vegetation and potato fields between valleys and glaciers. It begins in the Sacred Valley and is one of the most authentic, as it passes through numerous villages and Andean communities that keep live the traditions of the valley.
Native flowers, glacial lakes and a night under the stars next to the Queuñaqocha lagoon are some of the main attractives of this road. It also includes a dip in the thermal waters of Lares and a mountain pass over 4000 meters. This trail ends in Ollantaytambo, the only Inca town that remains inhabited, from where the train leaves to Aguas Calientes.
Precisely in Ollantaytambo begins the most adventurous part. It includes stretches in “mountain bike” through the jungle, high “trekking” in coca and coffee fields and several options to unload adrenaline with activities such as zip lines, kayaking or “rafting”.
The route continues along the Hydroelectric path, which includes suspension bridges to cross the Vilcanota river and follow the train tracks to the village “at the gates” of Machu Picchu. To get in full shape to the citadel (the excursion leaves before dawn to see the sun rise among the ruins), you can take advantage of the previous afternoon in the thermal baths of the town.
The most appropriate path for you will depend on the time you have and your desire to walk. If you have a few days, the Huchuy Qosqo Route can be completed in three. It is interesting because the visit of several archaeological sites, such as Ollantaytambo and Huchuy Qosqo itself, is concentrated to fully immerse yourself in the Inca culture. If you have more time, you can try your luck with the Vilcabamba crossing.
The tour can last between 7 and 13 days, and link several excursions. For example, you can cross the Apurimac river canyon or visit the ruins of Choquequirao, “the elder sister of Machu Picchu”, with whom it has architectural resemblance. It was also ‘discovered’ by Hiram Bingham III, although it is somewhat lost. The only way to reach its stone buildings camouflaged in the undergrowth is to complete a two-day hiking route and make an offering to the apus.