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Inca Trails to Machu Picchu: The Alternative Treks

by Globetrooper Lauren | 37 Responses
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

If Peru is in your bucket list of places to see before you cark it, it’s likely to be a bit more specific: Trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. But what many people don’t realise is that there are a number of Inca trails to choose from. It depends on what you want to experience and how hard you want to push yourself physically.

If all you want to be able to say is that you’ve trekked The Inca Trail, then the Classic Inca Trail is for you. If you’d rather not be staring at someone else’s derrière for days, then I beg of you to explore all the options before committing.

Classic Inca Trail

The 3 or 4 day Classic Inca Trail trek stretches 42 kms up, down and around mountains to arrive at Machu Picchu for the big finale. Passing through Inca ruins, a cloud forest and the highest point of Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200m, the storybook scenery will make up for the calf and knee pain endured on the monster stairs.

Be sure to book ahead so you don’t miss out, as there are only 500 permits issued for each day and they can book out months in advance. These permits are not just for paying customers either, they include your porters and cooks too (which will double your party, at a minimum).

Lares Trek

The Lares Trek is quite similar to the Classic Inca Trail in terms of duration, altitude and difficulty. A few big bonuses on the Lares: it lacks the crowds, includes a dip in some natural hot springs, and doesn’t have the never-ending killer stairs of the Classic trail. You’ll also see more llamas than humans, and share the trail with local villagers who still use the track for their daily needs. It’s a bit shorter, only 33kms long and ascends to a slightly higher altitude of 4,500m than the Inca Trail.

On the Lares Trek however, you do miss out on reaching the Sun Gate on the last day and catching that first sunlight falling onto Machu Picchu. Instead you stay in the village of Aguas Calientes (or Ollantaytambo) and catch a bus up to Machu Picchu, where you can still trek to the Sun Gate but not for the photogenic sunrise. The advantage of not arriving at the Sun Gate for sunrise is that you are refreshed from a hot shower and a good night’s sleep in a proper bed, giving you the energy to Make the Most of a Visit to Machu Picchu. Check out the full itinerary of the Lares Trek that we just completed with Intrepid Travel.

Salkantay Trek (Mollepata Inca Trail)

I think the Salkantay Trek combines the best of both worlds of the Classic Inca and the Lares trails. It’s a tad longer at 7 days but it includes 4 days trekking more ‘off the beaten path’ and then joins up to the Inca trail for the final 3 days. You get to experience a quieter trail for the first part of the trek, immersing yourself into the mountains and valleys without hundreds of people passing by you. And you also trace the Classic trail to finish at the Sun Gate for sunrise snapshots and that accomplished feeling.

There is more chance of seeing the world’s largest bird on this trek, as you trek to the Incachiriaska pass at 4,900m which is the home of the Andean Condor. You also need to book in advance for this trek, as you need one of those 500 permits. This trek can also be shortened to just 5 days if you don’t want to join the Classic Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, if so you don’t need a permit and can book when you arrive in Cusco.

Choquequirao Trek

This 5 day trek is for those wanting a more remote, cultural and scenic experience. Choquequirao is another lost city of the Incas (like Machu Picchu) that has been rarely visited by tourists because of it’s remoteness and inaccessibility. Along the trail you will come across many birds, wild flowers and even a Condor flying by if you’re lucky.

A whole day is dedicated to exploring the ruins at Choquequirao, and if you’re not ‘ruined out’ by then, you could also add on a day at Machu Picchu before or after the trek.

Ausangate Trek

Definitely a more strenuous trek, the Ausungate is a 7 day circular trek at high altitude. The small Andean village of Tinqui is the start and end point of the trek, as well as the lowest point at 3,800m. There are a number of high passes that are trekked over, two of them over 5,000m, so you really need to spend some time in Cusco acclimatising beforehand.

No Machu Picchu visit with this one, but you can easily add on an extra day and catch the bus up from Aguas Calientes like the Lares Trek. But you can expect everything else spectacular: glaciers, hot springs, picturesque villages, snow-capped mountains, and an abundance of llamas and alpacas. Most operators provide a horse for each person to ride, but the trek is very steep in parts so you can’t ride the horse for the entire time.

Lares Trek

The scenery throughout the Lares Trek

You don’t need permits for the Lares, Choquequirao or Ausangate treks, and you can easily book these in Cusco when you arrive. If you have the time, consider the Salkantay Trek for a more unique experience as well as the bragging rights that comes with the overlapping of the Classic Inca Trail.

Posted in Adventure Travel, Peru | October 19th, 2010

37 Responses to Inca Trails to Machu Picchu: The Alternative Treks

  1. A visit to Machu Picchu is definitely on my bucket list!
    The Choquequirao Trek seems really cool, I might choose that one instead of the Classic trail.

    • Yeah I think Machu Picchu is on everyone’s bucket list! Lol. If you’re into history/Inca culture more than hiking, I’d definitely look into the Choquequirao.

  2. This is absolutely the best article I have ever read on the various options for Macchu Pichu. I’ve bookmarked it and Stumbled it, because I’m headed there next spring and I will definitely refer back to your advice when it comes time to select my trek. Lately, I’ve been struggling with a knee that I injured last February and am having trouble with strenuous hikes that involve high steps or lots of loose or wet rocks, since my knee does not have enough stability right now to handle these uneven or slippery surfaces. Given this limitation, which of these treks do you recommend for me. Any help much appreciated.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback on the article Barbara, it really means a lot to me.
      As for a recommendation to you, I’d probably suggest one of the treks where horses are allowed (just in case). One of group members on our Lares trek had bad knees and she just took it easy, sometimes going a bit slower than the rest of us. She had difficulties on Day 2 (which is usually the hardest day for all the treks) and in particular when we were going downhill, so just be careful.
      Horses can’t go on the Classic Inca trail or the last half of the Salkantay Trek, so if you have a major problem the porters have to carry you down. So I’d think about the shorter alternative treks like the Lares or Choquequirao.
      Hope that helps :)

  3. I’m also considering the Lares Trek. I just couldn’t commit to the traditional trail not knowing when I’d be there and I heard you can get good deals if you just show up and are flexible when you want to go.

    • I can highly recommend the Lares Trek, we saw so many animals and were greeted every few hours by local villagers wanting to get their photo taken or sell some handmade bracelets or Coca Colas. And we didn’t see any other trekkers.
      I’d wait until you get to Cusco, there are so many touts on every street wanting your business so you can pick and choose. Or if you’re hostelling it, you can try and get a group together and ask for a discount.

  4. I met a fellow backpacker in Ecuador who was recommending the Salkantay Trek, but he told me it was 5 days and didn’t require the Inca trail permit, thus he was able to just sign up a day or two in advance (and probably why it is much cheaper). Any knowledge about this and the discrepancy with what you wrote?

    • Hey Jeff, thanks for pulling me up. The length and permit for the Salkantay trek depend on whether you want to join up with the Classic Inca Trail, you don’t have to. For a 5 day Salkantay, you’re right, you don’t need a permit because instead of joining up with a 4 day Classic on their 2nd day, you actually retrace their 1st day steps and finish your trek. You would then most likely stay a night in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu by bus the next day.
      There are tons of tour operators in Cusco and you would have no trouble booking a 5 day Salkantay trek when you arrive. I have also heard that it is much cheaper to do it this way instead of booking with a foreign agent prior to your trip.
      Hope that helps!

      • Definitely helped, thanks. Now I just have to decide between that and Lares as I now have very positive first-person accounts for each.

      • Well good luck. My experience on the Lares trek was great, but I sort of wish I knew about the Salkantay beforehand so I could’ve reached the Sun Gate… but wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway cause we’re last minute planners :)

  5. I’m really getting ants in my pants about setting off on one of these hikes now. Thanks for a very useful article.

    • Hey Andrew, no problem. When we first decided to come to Peru I didn’t understand the differences between all the treks, so thought others would be the same.

  6. Thanks for the detailed post on alternative to the classic (some say overrated) Inca Trek.Any of those can be done without going with an organized trekking tour? Would you recommend it?

    • Hey Jill,
      I’m pretty sure you only need a guide for the Classic Inca Trail. The rest of the treks I think you can do on your own, if you want. It depends if you’re an experienced hiker and know the particular route you want to take. If so, there are some forums discussing routes/equipment etc where you can get more info about the surroundings & prep if you’re not familiar.

  7. Fabulous round-up, Lauren, thanks! Didn’t know much about the Salkantay trek before and now I’m dying to try it out.

    • Cheers Camden. You’ve reminded me that I need to add another one on here actually – the Inca Jungle Trek where you get to bike, hike and raft your way to Machu Picchu! It was a lot of fun – especially the rafting and surprise zip-lining! If I were ever back in Cusco, I’d do the Salkantay too ;)

  8. Hey Lauren, of all the websites i’ve had a look at yours has definitely been the most helpful! I’m planning on doing a Machu Pichu altenative like Lares in February and was going to book it now with SAS travel but read about the floods last year in Cusco and Machu Pichu so i’ve decided to play it by ear . . . (fingers crossed). Do you think it’ll still be possible to book the trek when I arrive in Cusco and if so, how many days should I arrive in advance? Thanks a million!!!!

    Ps also interested in Salkantay . . . but do you have to be superfit? I’m just about average eeeeeep!

    • Glad we could help you out Stephen. I didn’t even know all of these options existed before we arrived in Peru, so thought a lot of people would be in the same boat.
      I don’t think you’ll have any troubles arriving in Cusco one or two days before you would like to start an alternative trek like the Lares. There are tour companies EVERYWHERE.
      If I were to do it over again, I’d probably choose to do Salkantay. I don’t think you need to be superfit to do any of them, you go up and down, up and down, and there are heaps of stairs (on Classic & Salkantay) but it’s not constant pain. You have lots of rest & snack breaks etc.
      Good luck!

  9. This is great to know. Inca Trail is a little bit outside our budget and not to mention hard to get the permit. We’re definitely open to the alternatives.

    • Glad we can help. If the Inca Trail is out of your budget, then my recommendation would be to go to Cusco a few days before you want to go on an alternative trek and shop around. If you stay in a hostel too, you could get a group together which would also make it a bit cheaper for everyone.

  10. Just an FYI, most places with advice on the Inca Trail will say that it is impossible to do if you don’t book ahead. I was in Cuzco in late November/early December and there were extra Inca Trail spots available. I don’t know if that is typical each year or this year was unusual but just something to keep in mind. I was offered an Inca Trail tour for about $320.

    • Hey Jeff,

      We were also in Cusco in November and that’s actually the low season, so the Inca trail permits aren’t sold out months in advance like the rest of the year. Good time to go though, tours & accommodation are cheaper, it’s also a bit colder, but nothing compared to the winter in Canada (where we are now!).

  11. Great info here! Lauren, can I ask you a few questions? I’m heading to Cuzco around Feb 22nd. Even spending 2 days to acclimate, I don’t have the time to wait til March 1 when the Inca Trail reopens. I’m looking into Salkantay and based on the advice here, I think I’ll wait to book until I get to Cuzco. But… I have heard it is miserable and dangerous to hike Salkantay in February, the rainy season. Any thoughts on this? Do you think Lares would be safer? I have never camped anywhere before.
    Also I’m a solo female. I hope there are enough people doing these alternative treks in this off-season to make it a worthwhile communal experience — and safe. Thoughts?

    Also, I am fit, can handle the pain and exhaustion, but climbing up and down steep rocks scares the sh*t out of me. Do you know if there is a lot of that on Salkantay or Lares? Like, am I going to have to sit on my butt and crawl down in fear? I prefer “earthen ground”.

    I am looking to challenge myself. Just trying to find the balance between divinity and stupidity :)

    Thank you SO much!

    • Hi Sonia. I would recommend doing the Lares, only because I know it from personal experience. It’s a great trek, no steep rocks to scramble across and fret about falling off a cliff or anything. It’s a worn track (by locals not tourists) that goes over mountains, through villages and valleys, really nice. There are some shady spots that I didn’t like much where there are a lot of small rocks on an incline, so you could potentially lose your footing if not careful, but nothing too steep.

      As for doing it in Feb… I think it’s a good idea to wait until you get to Cusco. Just in case the weather is really crappy, it’s rainy season. Not sure if you saw what happened last year: there was a massive landslide that wiped out many homes, some of the railway to Aguas Calientes, and stranded lots of trekkers & locals. But this can happen anywhere, it could happen on Salkantay or Lares, you just need to keep checking the weather and make sure you’re with a sensible tour company who will cancel the trip if the weather is too dangerous.

      Also, stay in a hostel if you can. You’ll easily be able to meet others who are planning a trek. Or ask to see the list of people booked on a trek if you find a nice tour company – just to check the number of people etc. sometimes they will say anything to get you to cough up the $$.

      Good luck!

  12. Hi Lauren

    Thank you so much for your informations at this site! Befor reading the infos here I have had allredy made my decision… nearly… .-)
    I love to do the Lares-Trek, but I will be in the fist days of september, so I’m affraid the Lares-Trek will have plenty people as well! What do you think?

    Have a good time!

    Hann

    • Hi Hann,

      The Lares trail is not busy at all, you will hardly see other people who not locals. I say go for it!

  13. :-) Thanks a lot, so it is decided!

  14. Good day! Thanks for the info!

    I will probably go Lares solo starting about Jan-18 (when exactly, depends on the supernatural hehe =))

    If someone stumbles upon, wants to hook up for the trip – I’m open.

    I imagine that there are safe places along/near the trail to pitch a tent, yes?

    Thanks again! All the peace,

    Dmitri

  15. Hi,

    Thank you for this very helpful article.

    my question is this: one thing that really appeals to me about the Lares Trek despite the lack of tourists is that it goes through remote villages and there are opportunities to interact with local communities. Is this true of the the first part of the Salkantay trek as well?

    Thanks so much!

    Jenny

  16. Thanks for the good summary of the alternative trails.

    One point though to make for readers: none of these alternative trails actually hike into Machu Picchu itself. In reality they are hikes (excellent ones mind you) in the region where after the trek you can take the tourist train-bus route up to Machu Picchu with all the people who have just come in from Cusco. The treks don’t get you any closer or any special ways in that anyone booking a 1-day train-bus trip from Cusco doesn’t also travel.

    Just to point that out. Disappointingly, the only way to hike through the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu and walk in without going through the town of Aguas Calientes is by getting a far-in-advance permit and hiking the Classic Inca Trail.

    Personally I’d rather we all called these Cusco Region treks or “Alternative Incan Treks” as they really have nothing to do with Machu Picchu except as an add-on. But definitely do them as they’re beautiful in their own right.

  17. I’m heading to the choquequiro trek, but probably will take 6-7 days to get to Aguas Caliente instead of trying to do this trek too quickly. I want to spend a whole day in the choquequirao site.

  18. Heading there around beginning of august if anyone else is around.

  19. Amazing post! Machu Picchu is on my list of places to go this year after I finish up with Southeast Asia and Europe so this will definitely come in handy. Cheers!

  20. Peru & Machu Picchu
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    from the most budget packages to the most luxury .
    Trek to Machu Picchu – Inca Trail
    the Lares Valley Trek and now Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu .. Cusco is full of adventure.

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  21. There are different alternatives to do Choquequirao Trek. Here http://incatrailmachupicchu.org/ you can find programs of 8 and 9 days.
    Another interesting alternative could be Ausangate Trek of 6 days. All these routes are amazing where you can take many pictures of nature and beautiful landscapes.
    Good Trip!

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