Photo: People walking a trail

The Salcantay Trail runs through the Mollepata Valley, past Mount Salcantay, and down into cloud forest before ending at a small train station.

Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic

By Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu

There’s nothing like the satisfaction of approaching Machu Picchu on one’s own two feet, which is why the classic Inca Trail hike has become so popular in recent years. The time when a traveler could roll into Cusco and set up an Inca Trail trek for the following day—or week, or month—has long since passed, though. To limit damage to the trail, the Peruvian government now limits access to 500 persons per day, porters included. Permits for the peak summer season sell out months in advance.

Fortunately, the Inca were master road builders who blazed trails all throughout the Andes, and many of these are alternate routes to Machu Picchu (or at least you get as close as a quick train ride). Here are six alternatives, most of which require no permits and can be arranged through any reputable outfitter in Cusco. Some of these hikes are available in multiple variations and can be tailored to meet a particular fitness level; those listed here are among the most popular versions.

1. The Salcantay Route

The classic Inca Trail is famed for the diversity of its topography and ecosystems; the Salcantay Route’s smorgasbord is even more impressive. The 20,500-feet-high Mount Salcantay was one of the holiest apus, or sacred peaks, in the Inca religious pantheon. It’s still revered today in traditional Andean religion. This mule-assisted hike cuts through the beautiful Mollepata Valley and traverses past Salcantay at an altitude above 15,000 feet. From those chilly heights, the trail descends into subtropical cloud forest, where it meets up with an ancient Inca highway (part of the original Capac Ñan network that connected the far ends of the empire) that leads to the recently rediscovered ruins of Llactapata. From there, one can gaze a few miles across the valley to take in a rare sidelong view of the full Machu Picchu complex. A downhill walk ends at the small train station, where a frequent shuttle runs along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

Trip Length: 5 to 8 days

Difficulty Level: Medium to difficult

2. The Lares Route

The Sacred Valley, through which hundreds of thousands of train-riding visitors pass each year on their way from Cusco to Machu Picchu, is justifiably famous for its beauty. It’s also a little crowded. Just beyond the massive snowcapped peaks that mark the Sacred Valley’s northern edge, however, sits the Lares Valley. Here, life continues much as it has for centuries. Locals in traditional Andean dress plant potatoes by hand, raise herds of llamas and alpacas, and weave cloth as they have for generations. Those farmers and artisans may be the only other people you see for days. This trek usually starts at the tiny town of Lares, home to a famous hot spring, and passes through several villages. Along the way it provides close-up views of the 18,000-plus feet of Mount Veronica and several high-altitude lakes. It ends near the historic ruins of Ollantaytambo, and from there the train trip to Machu Picchu is only 90 minutes.

Trip Length: 3 to 5 days

Difficulty Level: Medium

3. The One-Day Inca Trail

The standard Inca Trail trip takes four days, though it’s probably better to do it in five. Travelers who want to see two of the greatest hits of the famous hike but who are short on time can opt for this truncated version, which begins at KM 104 of the Machu Picchu train line. A three-hour uphill hike leads to Wiñay Wayna, a spectacular site of stone ruins and curved agricultural terraces that cling to a steep ridge high above the Urubamba River. Hikers can choose between walking ahead the same day to Machu Picchu, or spending one night on the trail, so as to be able to enter the lost city at dawn via the Sun Gate, the dramatic entrance that provides Inca Trail trekkers with their first glimpse of the site. Note: The one-day Inca Trail requires one of the 500 daily Inca Trail permits, and therefore must be booked far in advance.

Trip Length: 1 day (2 if you camp overnight)

Difficulty Level: Medium

4. Vilcabamba Traverse Route

This weeklong walk covering 60 mountainous miles is not for the faint of heart or weak of legs. Starting at the town of Cachora, a two-day hike crosses the mile-deep Apurimac River canyon to the remote ruins of Choquequirao (the name means "Cradle of Gold" in Quechua), which have become famous in recent years for their similarity to Machu Picchu. The route then continues—in some spots along original stone Inca highways—through the sparsely populated Cordillera Vilcabamba, which looks much the same as when Hiram Bingham first explored here a century ago. Trekkers traverse a mountain range, cross rivers and valleys, and cut through several of Peru’s diverse biozones: dry scrub, lush cloud forest, and puna, a high-altitude grassland. The trek ends a short walk or train ride from Machu Picchu.

Trip Length: 7 to 13 days

Difficulty Level: Difficult

5. The Lodge Trek

This new route is for those who want to hike like an old-school Andean explorer by day but sleep between clean sheets each night after cocktails and a gourmet meal. (And who don’t mind paying for the privilege of staying at the four fully serviced private lodges that dot the route.) The journey is similar to the Salcantay Route, offering close-up views of the sacred apu and its glaciers, but places an emphasis on comfort rather than on roughing it. The trail reaches a height of 15,000 feet before descending into a lush valley where coffee and bananas grow. Luxury lodgings near Machu Picchu and a private tour guide at the ruins are usually included in the price of a package tour.

Trip Length: 7 to 11 days

Difficulty Level: Medium

6. The Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail

The outposts of the vast Inca Empire were kept connected by fleet-footed chaski messengers, who ran so fast (according to lore) that the emperor was able to dine 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 might have used, and takes in scarcely visited Inca buildings, water channels, and quarries, where one can see firsthand how the Inca obtained the stone they 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 before hopping the train to Machu Picchu.

Trip Length: 3 to 5 days

Difficulty Level: Medium

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