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.
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