"We'll hike through 15 different ecosystems," Wilfredo tells our small group at the Salkantay Trail briefing. I'm travelling with Mountain Lodges of Peru who offer the only lodge-to-lodge hike along this route: luxury lodges, gourmet meals and hot tubs sound good to this fairweather hiker.
It's a much longer route than the Inca Trail at 74 kilometres (46 miles) but it's hiked over six days, with day seven at Machu Picchu. Some ascents are certainly testing, for the amateur hiker at least – such as the 4,600-metre-high Salkantay Pass, the trail's highest point – but the pace isn't rushed, there's an emergency horse, and it helps to know there's a delicious meal (and hot tub and log fire) waiting. You can even book a massage. And if you don't want to hike, swap for horse-riding, biking and zip wires.
There's a cultural element too, with Mountain Lodges of Peru's community-run lodges run by local Quechua people, where you can chat to staff, learn to make pisco sours and try cuy (guinea pig) and support micro-businesses – day one visits a women's craft co-operative in the village of Mollepata and an organic farm.
But really, the Salkantay is about the vistas of the Peruvian highlands; the brilliant purple lupin and wild orchids, lodges coming into view at the end of a long ascent, views of brilliant blue Lake Humantay and towering Mount Salkantay, the exhilaration of reaching the Salkantay Pass, heading down into cloud forest and into coffee plantations, and that first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain from the Llactapata Pass on the final day before catching the train to Aguas Calientes. Here, in the town closest to Machu Picchu, an early night beckons before a morning's exploration of the 13th-century citadel that has literally seen jaws drop on first sight, mine included.
There's another trek in these parts that's worth doing: the Lares. With homecooked lunches, beautiful hikes and llama farms, it mixes action and culture in equal doses, with a closer look at Andean life, its weaving heritage and communities of the Sacred Valley between the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. "Wait till you try the pachamanca," our guide Miguel tells us. And this meal of meat and potatoes (Peru has 300 varieties of the latter) slow-cooked under hot stones by a family in the farming community of Viacha is certainly memorable, not least for a special ceremony thanking Pachamama/Mother Earth.
Other highlights include Awanakancha, a weaving centre and camelid exhibition home to adorable alpacas and llamas, the brilliant market in Pisac, and exploring Ollantaytambo, the best-preserved Incan town of all with its maze of streets, ancient ruins and views over terraced hills. And that outdoor jacuzzi at above-the-clouds Huacahuasi Lodge, sitting high at 3,800 metres, is a real treat.
The Lares Trek also has one of the prettiest hikes; descending from the Lares Pass is a barely-touched ancient Inca trail along a canyon and into the village of Totora, passing fairytale-esque glens and verdant valleys. Like the Salkantay, the five or seven-day tour finishes at Machu Picchu. Several years ago, Mountain Lodges of Peru added luxury lodge-to-lodge trekking to this route too, and on any given day, you can do a cultural activity or choose an easy or challenging hike, making it popular with less keen trekkers.
However you see the valley – whether you trek or go on horseback, camp or choose luxury lodges – there are paths less trodden here, where the magic of the Sacred Valley remains very much intact.
Plenty of tour operators offer both the Salkantay and Lares routes. The Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk; 020 7386 4646) offers an 11-night 12-day Salkantay Lodge to Lodge Adventure with www.mountainlodgesofperu.com from £2,320 per person. A 7-day 6-night Lares Adventure costs from £1,885 per person.
Prices are based on two people sharing, full-board basis during trek, 2 nights B&B before/1 night post-trek in Cusco, all transfers, entrance fees, Wi-fi, tips (except the guide), guided visit/permits to Machu Picchu Sanctuary, and bilingual guide (English/Spanish/ Quechua). Add approximately £800 to include return flights with Avianca from Heathrow to Cusco via Bogotá.
Header image: Lake Humantay © Andrew Clifforth / Shutterstock. Images from left-right (top-bottom): Salkantay trek © Evan Austen / Shutterstock; Lares Trek © Lisa Stelzel / Shutterstock; Machu Picchu © Mountain Lodges of Peru.