The South American gem of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
Small wonder then that the classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, the best known way to arrive in Machu Picchu, has become so popular that the government has now imposed restrictions on visitor numbers – specifically 500 a day (including tourists, guides, and porters) – and permits sell out months in advance.
There are alternative routes to Machu Picchu, however, that are slightly more off the beaten track, and that don’t require permits, meaning you can still do one of these treks even when Inca Trail permits are sold out. Travelers can take these once they have gauged their own fitness and the length of the journey.
Whatever route you choose, however, be advised that it’s best to arrive to Machu Picchu in the morning before it gets too crowded.
1. Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: Vilcabamba Traverse Route
A walk that covers 60 miles and that usually takes about a week, this is an incredible trek to see off the beaten path sites, as well as Machu Picchu. This is soon to be the new classic trek in Peru. Starting in Cachora, a two-day hike takes you past the mile-deep Apurimac River canyon to the secluded ruins of Choquequirao which bears an uncanny resemblance to Machu Picchu itself. The route then continues through the sparsely populated Cordillera Vilcabamba. HIkers cross a mountain range, rivers and valleys, and cut through some of the country’s varied scrub, grassland and tropical forest scenery. The trek ends a short journey away from Machu Picchu.
This trip would take you between three and five days.
Just beyond the beautiful snow-capped peaks of the Sacred Valley, viewed every year by countless train travelers on their way from Cusco to Machu Picchu, sits the Lares Valley. Here, you could feel as if transported back in time as you watch Andean hillside dwellers tend the fields in their traditional garb.
This trail passes through several villages and affords you spectacular views of Mount Veronica and several high-altitude lakes. It ends near the historic ruins of Ollantaytambo. Machu Picchu is a 90-minute train journey from there.
This new route, which takes between 7 and 11 days, is for climbers who favor an old-fashioned sturdy hike followed by a delicious meal and a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed in lodgings near Machu Picchu. All this, however, comes at a price!
The journey is similar to the Salcantay Route but allows you the privilege of staying in a lodge overnight. A private tour guide and accommodation are usually included in the price of a package tour.
4. The Salcantay Route
The classic Inca Trail is well known for its panoramic vista. But this route is just as impressive. In fact, the 20,500 feet high Mount Salcantay is one of the most venerated peaks and a vital part of Andean religious folklore.
You traverse the beautiful Mollepata Valley before you arrive at Salcantay. From there a subtropical cloud forest converges with an ancient Inca highway that leads to the ruins of Llactapata where you have the most magnificent view of Machu Picchu. Then you walk downhill towards a small train station where a frequent shuttle runs along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu.
5. The One-Day Inca Trail
The standard Inca Trail trip takes four days, though it’s probably better to do it in five.
Time-pressed travelers, on the other hand, can take a shorter version, starting at KM 104 of the Machu Pincchu train line.
A not insubstantial trek leads to Wiñay Wayna, a spectacular site of dilapidated ruins and terraces that cling to a ridge above the Urubamba River. Hikers then continue walking ahead the same day to Machu Picchu, to enter “the lost city” via the Sun Gate, the dramatic entrance that provides Inca Trail trekkers with their first glimpse of the site. This trip requires a permit and must be booked in advance, so it is not something to decide to do at the last minute.